Shortly after I was received into the Catholic Church, a dear friend presented me with a copy of G.K. Chesterton’s The Catholic Church and Conversion. While reading this magnificent little book on a retreat a few months after my confirmation, I thanked God for His guidance to the Catholic Church from the earliest years of my childhood. I’ve often told my friends that although I lived for a long time on the outside of the sacramental life, my conversion to the Catholic Church began when I was about seven years old. I was raised in an old Presbyterian establishment. I was blessed in this upbringing, and I learned many things that have stood me in good stead. But as Chesterton puts it, all children everywhere are born wanting to be Catholics; their natural tactile and imaginative impulses, which ought to be molded into the fruition of integrated worship in the Mass, have to be trained out of them by means of deliberate restraint in Protestant households. I think it’s true; thuribles and light streaming through stained glass, and kindly images like family photographs, and the solemn genuflection before the Presence are just the sorts of things that children think are terribly important. And, as is often the case with children, natural impulses for liturgical worship and the material means of grace reflect the kind of profound truth that Aquinas carefully explains in his Summa Theologiae: the human person’s faith is united to his body; thus, Christ’s provision of the material sacraments is the greatest sort of gift for our faith. Humanity acquires intellectual knowledge through the senses; therefore, sensible signs are aptly used to signify spiritual things. A sacrament is a sign that the senses can grasp; and only then can the human mind adequately apprehend what the sensible sign conveys. The child’s grasping little fingers, eager for something real to hold onto, also bears profound witness to the opening words of 1 John 1: “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched- this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” As the Gospel writer puts it, the Word became flesh, to dwell among us; and, contrary to what I was taught while growing up, the Incarnate God was not thereafter reduced to a mere text or confession.
I remember suffering from two real needs in my childhood formation as a Presbyterian. First, I had no way of making sense of a very real, childlike yearning to be near to Jesus — materially and really. I had a vivid imagination as a child, and I thought of Jesus, of His Passion and suffering, of His promised return in glory, of His tenderness for little children. If someone had only explained to me when I was about four that Jesus really entered the presence of His people at their invocation, as He always promised, such that you could touch Him, I’d have bought it in a second. It’s what I was always waiting for.
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