This Advent is an especially poignant one for me: It is my first as a candidate for entrance into the Roman Catholic Church. As I participate in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I join the Magi on their journey, and the star of the Church points the way across the winter desert to Christ, whom I will receive next Easter.
Earlier this year, the dozen members of my RCIA class and I were asked by our priest to make a map of our spiritual journeys. I spent an evening cataloging my experiences and trying, on paper, to give them shape. Born the son of an evangelical Protestant pastor, I prayed the Sinner's Prayer at age 9 and was baptized by my father that same year in warm, summer waters off Newport, R.I., where we lived. The next year, my father left pastoral work; he died three years later.
Between the ages of 10 and 18, I had ties to six different Protestant churches: Presbyterian, Baptist, Assemblies of God, the Salvation Army, the Church of the Nazarene and the Friends. During high school, I dabbled in Zen Buddhism and in a West Coast gnostic cult. Afterward, I was accepted into the theology program at the Jesuit-run Boston College. Needless to say, I suffered from a kind of theological whiplash as I ricocheted from one religious milieu to another and, at 19, I said “so long” to them all. For the next dozen years, I faithfully avoided all churches and instead immersed myself in the ritual excitement of New York City living.
When I shared this vita with the RCIA class, I was reminded of a map in the back of my father's old Scofield Reference Bible documenting the 40 years of desert wandering by the children of Israel. Like the Magi, the Israelites followed a bright star (in the person of Moses) across the desert. When their faith gave out, their journey turned to mere wandering. The Scofield map shows their path: decades of futile curlicues in the sand. My own life's map charted a similar course of spiritual meandering. To call it a journey would be generous — and inaccurate. A journey, says Webster's, is “the act of traveling from one place to another.” It implies destination and route. I had no destination, no route.
The spiritual memoir has by now turned into a baby-boomer book genre all its own, and a predictable one at that. Turning 50, our author and guide — let's call him K. — packs the last of his 2.4 kids off to college, gawks at his skyrocketing stock portfolio and tumbles headlong into spiritual ennui. He tries various methods to shake his midlife funk. He trades his sport utility vehicle for a newer model with the latest amenities. He breaks off a stale relationship with a “partner” of one kind or another. Then, having exhausted all attempts to find ultimate sensory satisfaction, K. embarks on a “spiritual journey.” He seeks interior, salvific sensations in an exotic religion or in a rediscovery of his own religious heritage — on his terms, of course, since he reserves the right to exercise a line-item veto before signing on to orthodoxy. Then K. writes a self-congratulatory book about the experience. The journey is complete.
In one recent such memoir, Working on God by the science journalist Winifred Gallagher, the author describes herself as neo-agnostic and informs us that there are millions of other “well-educated skeptics who have inexplicable metaphysical feelings” like her. “Rather than being a complete worldview or infallible arbiter of right and wrong, each tradition has become a ‘tool-box,’” she writes. “A person roots through a chest labeled ‘Christianity’ or ‘Judaism,’ or even ‘Catholic’ or ‘Orthodox,’ ignores the elements that don't seem significant or ‘right’ — perhaps second-class status for outsiders — and uses the ones that do — sacraments, say, or keeping kosher.”
The author caroms from Zen monasteries to Catholic cloisters to African-American mosques to Conservative synagogues to the cathedrals of liberal Episcopal fellowships. She is comfortable in all of them. This, we are told, is a “thinking-person's” spirituality. One gets to decide for oneself what is truth; one eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and becomes as God. (The original Garden temptation is still the most seductive of all.) What kind of religion is this?
I have always disdained fashion, even shrunk from it — fully aware, of course, that in reacting against whatever was in vogue, my actions have been reflexive rather than original. Only now that suspenders are out do I feel comfortable buttoning my braces again. Only now that the cigar craze has subsided do I dare light a Partegas No. 2.
When I began to rediscover my own Christian heritage three years ago, after a quiet but precipitous tumble into despair, I worried that I had somehow become accidentally fashionable. Perhaps my “journey,” too, was best discussed over a cappuccino in Soho. Perhaps God was just another item in my neurotic “toolbox.”
No danger in that, I realized sometime during my RCIA experience, because the star which appeared brightest in the sky — the one pointing most clearly to the child in the distant créche, the one I had long ago left — was Roman Catholicism. And there is little danger that the Church will ever be fashionable. She is, after all, “an infallible arbiter of right and wrong,” with elements that may not “seem significant or ‘right.’” How gauche is that? Do “thinking” folks follow a star to find a child?
Yet that is the difference between wandering and journeying. The Christian journey leads, always, to a particular child: Christ. It has a route, a destination.
Like wanderings, journeys can be marked by doubt. As the narrator of T.S. Eliot's “Journey of the Magi” says, “At the end we preferred to travel all night,/ Sleeping in snatches,/ With the voices singing in our ears, saying/ That this was all folly.” As I follow the star of the Church this Advent, similar voices sing in my ears, the worried whispers of a “well-educated skeptic": Will the city be razed, the child slain by Herod when I arrive?
Yet I also hear, more loudly than the others, the voices of all those converts who have journeyed this way before. The Church's 2,000-year history — a history I only now, peaking behind the Reformation curtain, can experience firsthand — is a great star that promises: “I will lead you to him.”
And I believe.
David Gordon, a former Newsweek editor, writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts. This column is his first in an occasional series en route to Easter 2000.