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Thomas Ross Valentine

Crossing Bridges:
The Story of a Spiritual Journey

Originally written whilst a Roman Catholic in response to requests from others, it has been updated a few times, and (God willing) will never be complete.

Part One

Spiritual journeys are life-long processes of growing into that which God intends us to be. I’ve gone through quite a few stages on my journey, marked by definite conversions. Already, the path I’ve travelled seems long, but I believe I’ve found my earthly home: the place where I can receive the necessary aid and sustenance for the journey.

Like most people, my spiritual journey has its origin in my parents’ background. My mother’s parents were Scots. Because they were Scots, they were Presbyterians, though only nominally. Because they were Presbyterian Scots, they were anti-Roman Catholic. I remember my mother telling me a story that illustrates their attitude. When she was a young girl, since her family didn’t go to church, she was invited by a neighbour to attend their church. My mom went for some time, but one Sunday, when my grandmother told her to stay home, my mother replied that the man at church would be upset because it’s a sin to miss church on Sunday. My mother had been going to Mass. My grandmother was so upset at hearing this Roman Catholic teaching from her daughter that she never allowed her to return.

My father was raised in the Episcopal Church. His family attended church regularly. Whilst in school he served as an acolyte once or twice every Sunday. However, he usually simply identified himself as a Protestant.

My parents met in college and were involved with the Presbyterian youth group. They married in the Presbyterian chapel on campus where I was later baptised, and eventually began attending a local Presbyterian church. I have only vague memories of it because while I was still quite young, my parents stopped attending. I don’t know why.

Some time later, my family moved. For two years, we didn’t attend church, but then my parents decided to resume churchgoing. I’m not sure why, but they chose an Episcopalian parish — a decision profoundly affecting my spiritual journey. In this parish, I learnt that the Episcopal Church was a bridge between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. I found this attractive as it seemed to mean I could have the best of both. I stepped onto the bridge and was Confirmed. A few months later, my family moved again.

In the new town, we went to the only Episcopalian parish in the county. I became what I thought was a pretty good Episcopalian: I went to church most Sundays, was a decent enough person, respected my elders, and certainly — like many Episcopalians — didn’t get emotionally carried away. In truth, it would have been more accurate to describe my faith as lifeless.

This changed one weekend in February 1973 when the parish sponsored a Faith Alive weekend. The purpose of the weekend was to enliven faith, stress its importance, and encourage a serious commitment to the Lord. It began Friday night with a potluck supper and concluded Sunday morning with an altar call at each service. Most of the weekend consisted of discussion groups, divided by ages, with a leader sharing his/her faith. I was in the high school group. The team leader assigned to our group shared her faith and answered questions — no fire and brimstone, no dramatics, just a quiet sharing that clearly demonstrated how much she loved the Lord — and it made a profound impression on me.

At one point, someone asked this girl her age. When she replied that she was fourteen, many of us (including me) were stunned. She didn’t act like a fourteen year-old. She seemed so mature, so confident and comfortable in her faith. I’d guessed she was sixteen or seventeen. There was something she had (was it what made her so mature and confident?), something very appealing. In only a few hours, I felt a change in my heart.

I didn’t respond to the altar call on Sunday. I was too dignified and reserved to get off my knees and go forward. But mostly — and I think deep in my heart I knew it at the time — it was the sin of pride that kept me from going. Nevertheless, a profound change had occurred. The next day at school, I wondered how to interact with my classmates: I felt so different, so changed. I truly felt like a new person.

Several of us high schoolers from the weekend began meeting weekly for fellowship. We shared and helped each other grow in our faith. I began studying books to feed my incredible hunger to comprehend what my heart felt. I began Anglicanism by Stephen Neil (an Anglican bishop) and examined the fine print pages in the Book of Common Prayer (the official prayer book of the Episcopal Church). I found fasting, abstinence from meat on all Fridays and during Lent, and other things that seemed Roman Catholic. Being the kind of person who doesn’t care for half-heartedness, I felt that if this was what my church taught, I was going to follow the directives all the way.

In Bishop Neil’s book, I learnt that Henry VIII had effected only a minor change, transforming the Catholic Church in England to the Catholic Church of England. I liked Neil’s explanation because it emphasised a continuous tie to ancient Christianity through Apostolic Succession and tradition. It seemed essential to belong to a church with a continuous connection to the Church of the first century that was established by our Lord Jesus Christ rather than to a body formed by men. I recall a classmate, seeing me reading Neil’s book, asking, Are you thinking of converting? and proudly answering, No, I already am! I was thrilled to be a part of this continuity.

I was the only one in the fellowship group who seemed intent on studying non-Biblical books. I recall one person admitting that at first I’d struck her as strange because of my interest in things like fasting, but had eventually decided I was O.K. I’m sure some members of the group were involved with Christians from other area churches, but I don’t recall ever hearing specifically Protestant doctrines, despite living in a Bible Belt community dominated by Baptists and Methodists.

In August, I went to college with a still enthusiastic faith. I looked forward to meeting new people, believing that, because I was going to a church school (Methodist), I’d meet many new Christians and have greater fellowship. Instead, I found many people who weren’t Christian and of those who were, I met — for the first time in my life — hard-core Protestantism. I didn’t care for it.

There were three main aspects to this hard-core Protestantism which I found troubling. The first aspect was its egocentricism, its self-centredness. This may seem incongruous with Protestantism’s stress on putting the Lord Jesus at the centre of your life, but I believe it is an accurate description. This egocentrism is exemplified by an expression I often heard that always bothered me: If I were the only person in the entire world, Jesus Christ would still have died on the cross for me. Whenever I heard this (or a variant), I recalled the words Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world . . . — not just my sins, but the sins of the world. I thought of St Paul’s statement: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and St John’s passage so frequently quoted by Protestants: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. These passages make clear that our Lord Jesus Christ saved the world — all of us — not just me. I found the emphasis on me too self-centred. I knew the I-Thou relationship with our Lord was first, but also realised horizontal relationships were important. (The first great commandment, love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength, doesn’t displace the second: love your neighbour as yourself.) These horizontal relationships seemed to be ignored; the only emphasis was on the personal relationship. This emphasis seemed not only imbalanced, but arrogant. How could I know how God, in His infinite wisdom, might have effected my salvation if I were the only one? How could I know the mind of God so well as to know He would have done things exactly the same way?

The second troubling aspect was the evangelisation technique used by some hard-core Protestants: what I called cramming Jesus down someone’s throat. Their techniques were offensive and uncharitable. I used to remonstrate with them saying, You’re doing more harm than good. They didn’t agree. They were sure they were right. One group, sponsored by a local Baptist Church, had a quota of people to whom they had to witness. I don’t recall the exact number, but it was high, something like three per day. As a result, they would buttonhole people and witness to them, irrespective of interest.

The third troubling aspect was the tendency to separate and segregate the sacred from the secular. A personal experience illustrates this attitude. One evening, starting across campus, I was approached by a fellow asking for directions to the library. From there, directions weren’t easy, so I said, Come with me. When we get close, I’ll point the way. As we walked, he asked me Do you know the Lord Jesus? I replied I did. He asked about my plans after college. When he realised I didn’t plan to enter the ministry, he said, If you’re really going to be a Christian, if you really want to serve God, you’ve got to go into the ministry. I told him I believed I could be a Christian and serve God without being an ordained minister. He insisted I was wrong. I tried explaining my viewpoint, but it was useless. (Fortunately, we soon reached a place from where I could point out the library and I made a hasty getaway.) I found this sharp division between sacred and secular to be the norm in hard-core Protestantism. It contradicted what I believed. (Quite a few years passed before I came to realise that this division is based in Protestantism’s inherent anti-materialism.)

From my Anglican bridge, the more I looked at Protestantism, the less I cared for it. As my study of Anglicanism continued, I was led towards the High-Church position, the more catholic emphasis in Anglicanism. I moved towards the catholic side of the bridge. I decided I was an Anglo-Catholic, and therefore, a small c catholic. One day, I told a Protestant acquaintance, I’m a catholic. I meant it in the Anglo-Catholic sense that saw three branches of catholicism (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Anglicanism). I wasn’t Roman Catholic, but was a part of catholic tradition and therefore a catholic. He replied, No, you’re not. You’re Protestant! I clearly remember thinking Oh no! I don’t want to be a Protestant! Yuck! (I admit that this was an uncharitable attitude, but it was my mental reaction at the time.) Although feeling some attraction towards Roman Catholicism, I wasn’t considering conversion.

There was a period about this time when I tried to emulate the Star Trek character Mr. Spock, trying to suppress my emotions and follow a strictly logical course. It didn’t work. In decision after decision, I could see (in hindsight) that if I had followed that small, still voice (which I was treating as an emotion and therefore suppressing), the results would have been better. Today I know it is through that small, still voice in the heart that the Lord speaks to us, but I had not yet learnt that lesson. It took numerous mistakes before realising that making a sharp distinction between my mind and other God-created aspects of my being wasn’t better. I resolved to pay more attention to that small, still voice. This proved to be an important decision.

During this time, the Episcopal Church was undergoing significant changes, including a revision of the Book of Common Prayer and an easing of the restrictions on divorce and remarriage. Though not fully aware of the latter’s details, they disturbed me because I believed our Lord’s teaching was clear: divorce and remarriage was wrong. I saw no way around it, no way to rationalise it away. Even more disturbing was something I discovered in one of the proposed revisions of the Book of Common Prayer: the filioque clause had been omitted from the Creed.

Though unfamiliar with the history or theology of the filioque, I was disturbed by this unexplained change in the Creed. This was my statement of belief that I had been reciting for years. My belief hadn’t changed — had my church’s teaching? One Sunday, I asked a priest why the change had been made. His answer was classic Anglicanism. (Bishop Neil, in his book, rejoices in Anglicanism’s ability to be all things to all people by employing broad interpretations of doctrine and being open to differences.) The priest answered, We’re not saying that the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father and not from the Son. We’re saying that historically the filioque doesn’t belong in the Creed. We’re returning to the Creed’s original form. To me, this was an evasion. If we believed the Holy Spirit proceeded from Father and Son, we should say so; if we were going to change our belief, we should be candid about it. We shouldn’t decline to take a stand. I was discovering fuzziness in doctrine to be typical of Anglicanism, and didn’t care for it. I still didn’t consider going elsewhere; I was determined to stay and hold fast to the traditional faith.

To summarise my feelings to this point: hard-core Protestantism was pushing me away from Protestantism. I was still on the Anglican bridge, but definitely closer to catholicism. I had problems with the direction of the Episcopal Church and was becoming unsure about the solidity of the bridge. I had decided to listen to that small, still voice within me. God was using all these things to prepare me for an incredible experience.

 

 

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