14 Reasons I Returned to the Church

What keeps us in this fractious, frustrating, glorious, impossible Church?

Durer's "Adoration of the Trinity" captures some of the grandeur of Catholic faith
Durer's "Adoration of the Trinity" captures some of the grandeur of Catholic faith (photo: Register Files)

1. Jesus is Lord

The incarnation is the pivot point of history. God became man so that man could become God. Once you understand and accept this it's like a thunderclap.

I spent a long time not believing it. When I found myself no longer able to deny it, it was like door being opened to a new understanding of reality. I now had to measure everything in my life and my mind and my world against the certainty that the immaterial and transcendent Origin of all that is had chosen to bridge the gap between Himself and His creation in order to heal the broken bond with man and give us a very simple message: Love one another as I have loved you. God showed us his face.

And then he left us a Church, and Himself in the Eucharist.

2. Catholicism is true

It's that simple. It's not a matter of "belief." Belief presumes that reality is optional and truth is a choice.

No such choice exists. (I would have chosen ... something else.) As I tell my students: this is Truth. You either accept Truth, or you reject Truth. What you want to "believe" is wholly beside the point.

My whole life I looked for truth. I shed this faith as soon as I was able, along with what I saw to be its silliness, emptiness, and illogic. I thought I found a better model for reality in the god of the philosophers, but it did not suffice. Fifteen years after I lapsed, I was given a profound experience of the living God.

I doubted it. I resisted it. I applied reason and logic to understanding it, and reason and logic are what allowed me to come back. I was given the gift of a conversion experience through Christ, and the church gave me the tools to test it. And in testing it, I found my way home again.

The absolute last thing I wanted was to return to the Church of my childhood. I was out! I was free! I had no nostalgia for the church of my youth. The 1970s Church is utterly nostalgia proof, and if you encounter people pining wistfully for the good ole days of felt and guitars, give them a kick for me. 

I didn't want to go back. I had to go back. Other belief systems I'd studied had offered pieces of the truth, and I am wiser for having encountered them. Only one offers the fullness of the Truth.

3. It's hard

The dumbest thing anti-religious people say is that religion is a crutch for the weak and feeble-minded. If I had to create a system of belief, this wouldn't be it. I'd find something where I could sleep in on Sundays, ignore the needs of others, stick my genitals where-ever I want, lie a whole lot, treat my enemies without mercy, avoid contact with a lot of strangers I don't like, and ignore this silly relationship with God thing.

Religion is hard.

Anything worth doing is hard.

4. I tried inventing my own reality. It doesn't work

The idea that, in the short span of a human life, you can invent yourself and your entire model of the universe is not merely hubris or vanity: it's flat-out impossible. Even the most militant materialist borrows his system of belief from another, often buffet-style, taking those things that flatter his ego and speak to his desires. It's certainly what I did.

We don't invent knowledge. We find it and test it.

I did not create a belief system: I discovered it. It's a system that allows me to see the world as it is, not as I wish it was.

5. Mystery is at the heart of human experience

Man is born to love the mysterious: the unanswered question, the unexplored frontier, the unknown. Modern man, however, is conditioned to hate the unknown. All questions, he is told, can be answered: indeed, they must be answered. Catholicism is a system that raises as many questions as it answers, and this keeps me on my toes. It embraces the mystery of life with a passion.

The priest holds aloft the thin wafer and says "This is my body."

The skeptic says, "How? Why? No."

I say, "God would not come to us in material form only to leave us hungry for His presence. 'How' does not matter. Yes."

6. Sanctifying time

The Church provides a shape and rhythm to life. It sanctifies time. The minutes, the hours, the days, the years, the life. From birth to death, the life of the believer is an hourglass, and each grain of sand that falls is blessed.

Time is the great mystery that's vexed my mind since I was a child: its passing, its brutality, its inexorable quality. The pulse of the individual, the ebb and flow of life through all its majestic and tragic and ordinary moments, are all measured out, considered, and sacralized by the Church.

7. The communion of saints

We travel on an endless stream of time that has carried other travelers before us. Saints and sinner, kings and peasants, the extraordinary and the ordinary: they've all left markers along the way. Others have passed beyond the cataract that separates the material world from the spiritual, and now they stand by the shore offering us guidance, and aiding in our way. We are on a strange and challenging journey, but we do not travel it alone.

8. The practice of faith is glorious

The Church makes sense of our lives through its rich traditions and disciplines, created and time-tested by millennia of the faithful, and handed back to each new generation as a gift from the Church. We are free to take these practices as our own and fold them into our lives, or create new forms of prayer and feast and devotion. There are new saints born every year, old devotions rediscovered, new devotions created by the people of God. The wealth of the faith is astonishing: lore and legend, food and drink, prayers and devotions, Holy Days, name days, saint days, art, song, festival.

The sacraments sanctify life. Ritual gives shape to life, making concrete that which is abstract, and elevating the great mysteries of existence into grand acts of worship that encompass all the senses. The mass itself opens to a door to eternity. Heaven and earth kiss, and we worship as one with saints and angels.

9. Tradition allows the Church to guide us

Beyond the simple tradition is the Tradition: the teaching of the Church itself. Christianity breathes with two lungs: Scripture and Tradition. Scripture is the written word of God compiled for use by the Church. Tradition is the wisdom embedded in the Church itself, and handed down by word of mouth and the teaching offices directly from the apostles and their successors. Churches that dispense with Tradition and keep only the Scripture are not merely ripping Scripture out of the context in which it was created: they are depriving themselves of fully half of what it means to be Christian.

10. Catholicism has a deep well of wisdom to offer

The person who is his own counselor has a fool for a teacher. There is no question you have that the Church has not already considered. For thousands of years the greatest minds mankind has ever known have pondered life and all its meaning and messiness, and they have left this vast deposit of wisdom for us like a treasure hoard. I could read the rest of my life and never exhaust its riches.

11. The Church transcends the age

"Get with the times" is the worst advice anyone can ever offer. The "times" are almost invariably stupid and cruel and wrong, the new "wisdom" they offer nothing more than raw emotion, passing trends, and sentimentality. No one can see a thing while they're standing on top of it. It is only from a distance that it becomes clear. Our current age is a vicious one: anti-human, selfish, and devouring itself with mindless consumption.

The child of his age is adrift on a stormy sea, buffered by winds of change.

The Catholic is on bark that sails steady and shall never capsize.

As the Prophet said: 'The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age."

12. Beauty

Our Truth is beautiful. That beauty is an emanation of the mind of God. I don't mean merely the art and music and literature that we have produced, but the beauty of communion itself. There is beauty in the people of God gathering, in all our failings and fallen nature, gathering in communion to lift our hearts to the Lord.

There is beauty in a child held over the baptismal font.

There was beauty in the withered body of my father as the priest said the prayers and anointed him with holy order to sanctify his brokenness and prepare him for his journey to God.

We are fallen, but we are redeemed, and thus we are beautiful.

13. Sacramentality

Redemption did something remarkable: it gave us back the material world. Matter is not evil as some would have it. Matter is God-created, and can thus be made sacred. To the Catholic, the world is charged with meaning and capable of being a channel of grace. It is a wonderful and glorious creation, and even at its ugliest in disease and pain and tragedy, it can provide remarkable opportunities to encounter the living God.

14. Joy

A lot of people don't realize it, but Catholics recognize one reason for existence: happiness, which is the attainment of the perfect Good. We are called to be a people of joy, in perfect beatitude. Of course, we're not, and won't be until, God willing, we see Him face to face. But we recognize that we are called to be so, and in recognizing it, we are given clear goal for all our yearnings. Unlike the world, the Church does not mistake pleasure for happiness, because pleasure is transient.

Pleasure is not an end in itself. The modern world does not understand this, which is why we feed our appetites rather than our souls. Man is drawn to God, Who is that perfect Happiness.

We resist, because we are fallen. We have forgotten our purpose, and lost our sense of meaning. We have forgotten that our bodies matter, and that they carry us forward to an end that will be a new beginning. We forget that the "world is our ship and not our home." We should find joy in our journey, but keep our eyes on the horizon towards which we sail.

And, like John, I write these things for one reason: so that your joy may be complete.