So why was I so disturbed when I came home from the synagogue? As I thought about it, I slowly realized that I'd never actually met someone who not only didn't believe in Jesus, but had based their whole life on a system of belief that didn't include him. Growing up in a Christian family and attending a Catholic school day-in and day-out didn't give me much opportunity for contact with other belief systems. My classmate's question really wasn't so stupid after all. Yes, I'd known the answer with my head; but the implications had clearly never made it to my heart: the majority of the world did not recognize the person that I'd always been taught was its center. Why not, and even more, why exactly did I? If Jewish people didn't recognize Jesus as the Messiah, then why did this Irish-German kid in the suburbs of St. Louis recognize him?
My parents were hit with a barrage of questions: Why do you believe in Jesus? How do you know he was the Messiah? If he was the Messiah, then why do we believe he's God too? How can you be sure? Imagine yourself in their position – not easy questions for your thirteen year old to fire at you! They gave it their best shot, "It's a matter of faith Shane. It's not something you can prove absolutely; it's what you know in your heart." Beautiful, heartfelt...but of absolutely no help to me.
In the weeks that followed my field trip to the synagogue I started doing my own research. I read articles on Judaism and Christianity in our family's World Book Encyclopedia, slowly branching out to read about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. At the local library I discovered the philosophy and religion section. I was searching for something "authoritative." There was no shortage of books by authors claiming to have communicated with God or lesser spiritual entities, many written by adherents to the so-called "New Age" movement. It didn't take long to realize that these authors were contradicting each other: reincarnation vs. resurrection; karma vs.grace; Jesus the guru vs. Jesus the Lord; God the creator vs. extraterrestrial experimentation, etc., etc. The more I read, the more bizarre the claims became; and yet, what qualifications did I have to dispute them? The more I searched for answers, the more I realized how important it was to find them.
Religion was something I had taken for granted up until that point. When my friends and I weren't at Mass or saying our prayers before bed, it didn't seem to have much effect on our lives. We had heard stories about the miracles in the Bible and the mystical experiences of the saints, but none of us felt "holy enough" to encounter anything like that. Besides, from what we heard, religious people seemed to have replaced a lot of fun with a lot of suffering - not much there to attract a middle school student. That was changing in my case though.
I was coming to see that religion was a matter of truth - objective truth. It meant seeing reality as it truly is. Either God has given us rules to live by or He hasn't. Either the choices we make have eternal consequences or they don't. Either Christianity was true, or millions of people were wasting their Sunday mornings. If God was the creator, and ultimately judge of all, then I wanted to know what He desired of me. If He had become a human being, or sent a human being to speak to us, then I wanted to hear the message.
Needless to say, the more I read and thought, the more questions I had for mom and dad. I think they finally saw that, "you just have to have faith" wasn't going to cut it. My dad had grown up Catholic and, although he hadn't been to Mass in awhile, had developed a love for studying Scripture. When he first started reading the Bible, I feared he'd become a "religious fanatic," but reading Scripture didn't seem so crazy anymore. In answer to my question of whether or not Jesus actually claimed to be God, dad was able to show me verses in the New Testament, in John's Gospel, where Jesus referred to himself as "I Am" - God's personal name in the Jewish Scriptures (Exodus 3:14). All the conflicting views I'd encountered had made me suspicious though; how did he know the New Testament gave us the words of Jesus and not just the mistaken conclusions of his disciples?
I moved from questioning which religion was true to asking how I could be sure there even was a God. With so much confusion on the issue, wasn't it possible that everyone had gotten it wrong? That possibility, much to my surprise, took a tremendous toll on me. It was because I could see what a life apart from even the idea of God meant: in the end, our lives could only be loneliness and emptiness. As good as my parents and my brother and sister were to me, deaths in the families of classmates taught me that it could all be snatched away in the time it took for two cars to collide. In middle school my circle of friends could change from month to month, so there weren't really outside relationships to count on. And if there had been, death still would have loomed in the distance.
The gravity of it all caught up with me one night while sitting and talking with my mom. I blurted out, "I need to know if there is a God out there who loves me. I just want to know if I'm loved, and if I can count on being loved. If I had that, then I would be willing to do anything He asked of me. I wouldn't care if people thought I was a religious fanatic; I just have to know. I need to know." I didn't recognize it at the time, but God the Father can't resist that kind of desire; it is His Holy Spirit Who brings it about!
A few days later I passed by the kitchen and spied my dad sitting at the table working on a project. I decided to put him on the hot-seat one more time, "Dad, tell me again why you believe in Jesus." He didn't tell me to have faith, and he didn't reach for the Bible; instead he looked into my eyes and said, "Shane, Jesus loves you so much that He weeps for you. He wants you, but you won't come to Him." And then...
I saw Him.
In my mind's eye I saw Jesus sitting, His head pressed into His hands and His shoulders convulsing as He wept for me.
It happened in an instant, a "flash" in my mind's eye. It wasn't the kind of evidence I had been searching for – objective, verifiable, free from emotion(1) – and yet it was personally undeniable. Over twenty years have passed since that day, and I'm still feeling the reverberations. I didn't know quite how to explain it to others until I came across this description years later from Caryll Houselander, a Catholic mystic:
What do I mean by saying that I "saw"? Frankly, in the ordinary way I did not see anything at all; at least I did not see...with my eyes. I saw...with my mind...in a way that is unforgettable, though in fact it was something suddenly known, rather than seen. But it was known not as one knows something through learning about it, but simply by seeing it..."alive" and "unforgettable."(2)
And what did I know in that moment? I knew that Jesus of Nazareth was alive, bodily and spiritually alive, and that He loved me with everything in Him. I knew that He was God the Father's outstretched hand to me, the Truth I had been seeking. I burst into tears right there at the kitchen table – tears of remorse for doubting, tears of gratitude for what I'd been shown. I can't tell you how my dad reacted to my tears or anything else he said to me that afternoon. I know that I really talked to Jesus though - for the first time in a long time.
In the years since, I've come to feel a kinship with the "doubting" Apostle, Thomas. Appearing to him after the resurrection, Jesus said: "[Thomas] put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:27-28). In the end, I've realized that it wasn't so much me seeking Jesus, as it was His seeking me. I will eternally thank Him for allowing me my "crisis of faith" because it brought me to my senses, woke me to the reality of being loved by the Living God. How about you, are you awake yet?
Two Steps Forward, One Back
After that experience I was hungry for authoritative information about Jesus. At some point I had heard my grandmother speak highly of Billy Graham, so I went to the library and grabbed one of his books. He in turn pointed me toward the New Testament and regular prayer, a combination allowing a seeker to hear from Jesus Himself. The Christianity section at the bookstore had several Hal Lindsey (famous for his The Late, Great Planet Earth) books, so I began reading them too. Hal helped opened my eyes to the dangers of the New Age Movement and steer clear of its influence, but he also convinced me that the Catholic Church had seriously misunderstood how Jesus saves us – that the Church had bought into a "works righteousness," and trying to earn our way into heaven instead of accepting salvation as a gift. Honestly, that was the way my classmates and I had conceived of it up until that point: at the final judgment God would look at our lives and if we had done more good than bad, we would get into heaven. I absorbed the belief that we Catholics had mistakenly got hung up on ritual and meaningless, outward practices instead of a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus.
Within only a few short months I also experienced what Pentecostal and charismatic Christians call the "baptism," or "release of the Holy Spirit." While praying at home one day, this palpable joy began welling up inside of me. The largest smile began growing on my face; I couldn't help but laugh. God was so close to me in that moment; I felt ecstatic. Words of love erupting from my heart and pouring from my lips. A few days later, in my bedroom, I received the gift of tongues (1 Cor.14:1-18; Mk.16:17-18). Although many Catholics may be unfamiliar with such manifestations of the Holy Spirit's presence, the Catholic Church recognizes their enduring value: "Whatever their character - sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues - charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church" (CCC 2003). "Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well" (CCC 800).
My mom shared my experience with a good friend, Nancy, who invited us to visit her non-denominational, Pentecostal church. The sanctuary reminded me of a large theater: in the front was an altar/stage, with a pulpit in the middle and a band (guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard) off to the left side. Song lyrics were projected onto the walls at both sides of the stage. Seven to eight hundred people were in the sanctuary, singing their hearts out. Many of them had their hands raised as they sang, and between songs spontaneously spoke out praise, sometimes speaking or singing in tongues. The energy present in the sanctuary that day and the lack of inhibition people felt to rejoice before God was so different from my experience of Catholic Mass up to that point. And the preaching was incredible! My mom and I also started visiting Nancy's church regularly.
For the believers there, the Bible was a Christian's everything. Preaching focused on learning to "stand on" passages – to claim them as God's promises for my personal healing of illnesses, financial prosperity, etc. The assumption was that the words we read were completely literal by twentieth century standards; no consideration was given to Scripture containing different literary genres. Adopting this way of reading the Bible, and absorbing that church's preaching on different subjects, I found myself taking exception to many Catholic beliefs. Instead of living in the freedom and intimacy of the Spirit, I saw my Catholic brothers and sisters caught up in unnecessary, and unbiblical, "externals." Confession, Mary, and the Pope seemed like blockages to the direct relationship a Christian was supposed to have with God. No one at Nancy's church felt obligated to confess their sins to the minister; it was a matter between them and God. Nor did they propose rules and obligations like fasting during Lent and attending Mass every Sunday. Attending Sunday worship was definitely encouraged, but missing was not considered a sin.
The one Catholic doctrine I never really doubted was Jesus' presence in the Eucharist. I was surprised that this non-denominational church, so literal in their interpretation of other passages, became inconsistent here. Jesus had said, "This is My Body...this is My Blood." We also had the Apostle Paul's testimony as to what Jesus meant:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord...For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Corinthians 11:27, 29-30).
I believed in the reality of the Eucharist as an article of faith, but had not experienced it as being "life-giving" in the way my personal prayer and Scripture study had become. I can only say, "Thanks be to God," because He was willing to stoop down and meet me where I was at:
On a Friday morning like any other, my class and I went to Mass. Everything was proceeding as usual...until I received Jesus in Communion. In the moments of prayer that followed He unleashed that same ecstatic joy I experienced when the Spirit was released in a new way. I was shocked! Like I said, I knew intellectually that Jesus came to me in Communion, but I had never experienced Him coming. He made use of the highly-structured, "ritualized" Mass to communicate His living presence to me!
This coming of Jesus is part of the reality of Eucharist. While at Mass a few months later, the priest invited the youth present to come up around the altar for the Eucharistic prayer. As we prayed something became very, very real to me: extending upward from the bowl containing Jesus' Body was the vertical beam of the cross. My physical eyes were registering the altar and the golden bowl, but my mind was overlaying it with the dimensions of this square beam. I was there at Calvary. Standing there at the altar, I was standing at the foot of the cross. That is what the Eucharist is – the making present of Jesus' offering to the Father; and not just the cross, but the full offering of His cross, resurrection and ascension! Jesus' words, "For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (John 6:55-56; NIV) had never held so much awe for me.
The Sacrament of Confirmation?
Most students in my Archdiocese received the Sacrament of Confirmation toward the end of eighth grade. It was viewed as the completion of Christian initiation begun in Baptism and Eucharist, our personal "yes" to the Catholic Faith and the Holy Spirit's bestowal of the gifts to help us live it. Given my disagreement with a number of Catholic beliefs however, I didn't think I could receive the sacrament in good conscience. I talked to my teacher about my predicament.
I was frank, "I don't think I can be confirmed; I don't believe I can do so honestly. I've been reading the Bible and doing a lot of thinking. There are a lot of Catholic beliefs that I don't agree with . . ." and then I launched into my litany of objections. By the time I finished my teacher had a faint smile.
"Shane, I'm going to be honest with you – like you, I myself don't feel drawn to praying to Mary. I need to know two things - do you believe in Jesus as your Lord and do you believe in the Eucharist?"
"Yes. I believe in both completely."
"Then I don't see any reason why you can't be confirmed. The Catholic Church is a big place Shane, big enough for those with a devotion to Mary and big enough for those without. Jesus, Jesus in the Eucharist, is the center. If you believe this then you can find a home in the Catholic Church." She paused to let her words sink in, "I want you to think about that. I respect your coming to talk to me, and I'll respect your decision. I'll be praying for you."
Afterward, any anxiety that I had felt was gone. I knew the reality of the Eucharist as taught by the Catholic Church. I knew good priests such as my parish's associate pastor. I doubted whether I would find a church where I agreed with everything that was taught. Whatever "baggage" the Catholic Church was carrying around, I felt sure that God would not forsake such a large body of believers. Slowly a thought began to form, one that appealed to my inner evangelist: "If everyone who experiences the 'release of the Spirit' leaves the Catholic Church, then how can it ever be renewed?" I cringe now - my arrogance at fourteen! What I could not see at the time was how the Church would be the one doing all the giving – and through the very channels I had rejected!
Confirmation was surprising. I reasoned that since I had already prayed for the Holy Spirit to be released, and had experienced His activity in my life, the sacrament probably did not hold as much for me as for my classmates. Oh, was I in for surprise! A new "strength" entered me - there was even a quasi-physical sensation in my chest for a week afterward. A sin I had struggled with for months was finally overcome. God taught me that my earlier prayer for the release of the Spirit was a beginning, not a culmination. In Confirmation the Holy Spirit came upon me in a unique way - to strengthen me even further against sin, to mature me, and cause me to take on more of Jesus' character by participating in the gifts the Spirit poured out on His humanity (Is.11:1-3).
Ever Greater Clarity
Throughout high school and the first years of college, the Lord addressed each difficulty I had with the Catholic Faith. You see, the more I read the Bible, the more I saw it there; and the Holy Spirit was relentless in arranging experiences that brought these truths home. First, He showed me the beautiful sister and mother in faith I had in Mary, who has been my faithful prayer partner for over twenty years now. Then it was exposing the falsehoods of salvation being by "faith alone" and that once a person was "saved," he was always saved. He hit me between the eyes with my ongoing need for Confession (Jn.20:21-23; James 5:13-16). He introduced me to a Catholic, charismatic, youth prayer group and challenged me through a high school religion teacher to read the Bible as the library of books, of various genres and forms of expression that it truly is. I came to understand that if Jesus was the incredible teacher that all Christians claimed He was, then He would have known that misinterpretations of His message would arise and have put a mechanism in place to counteract them – the papacy. The Spirit shocked me with the value that the Bible put on the Church, that it is the Mystical Body of Christ, "the fullness of Him Who fills the universe in all its parts" (Eph.1:23). All the gifts that the Lord had poured out on me came through His Church – the New Testament was written by her members, even my conversion experience was given in connection with words from my dad. My final domino of resistance to fall was my resistance to Church authority in disciplinary matters – fasting and holy days. What finally brought me around was a simple thought: If Jesus appointed shepherds for me (and I had become convinced from Scripture that He had), then didn't I have an obligation to follow their shepherding (Mt.16:15-18; Heb.13:17)?
What my own experience has taught me is that there really isn't a conflict between creedal faith, or dogma, and a living, breathing relationship with God. Nor does there have to be a sharp distinction between a "personal" relationship with God and a "communal" one. All of these facets flow together and coalesce in the God Who is Love. As St. Irenaeus wrote so long ago, "Where the Church is there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God, there the Church and every grace." If you the reader are not yet a Christian, then my sincere hope is that, like me, you will find the Spirit of God praying within you, praying with Christ's Bride the Church, "Come, Lord Jesus!" (Rev. 22:20).
Shane Kapler is a father of two, a speech-language pathologist working with elementary school children. He is also the author of The God Who is Love: Explaining Christianity From Its Center and co-author (along with Kevin Vost and Peggy Bowes) of Tending the Temple: 365 Days of Spiritual and Physical Devotions. Information about his books as well as links to his articles and blog can be found at www.explainingchristianity.com
(1) In time, I encountered fantastic, objective reasons to believe in God's existence. I refer you to The God Who is Love: Explaining Christianity From Its Center, Appendix I. Reasons for giving Jesus' claims a fair hearing are explored in Appendix II.
(2) Found in Patricia Treece's Apparitions of Modern Saints (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 2001), p.35.
(3) Jurgens, William A., The Faith of the Early Fathers, Volume 1 (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970), p.94.