A Baptist Minister Becomes Catholic

This is my appearance on “The Journey Home,” an EWTN program hosted by Marcus Grodi, a marvelous fellow, by the way.  The description of my appearance on the network website was as follows:

As a child, Deal attended a Presbyterian Church at his mother’s promptings. In high school, after being witnessed to by a Southern Baptist friend, he accepted Jesus and joined the Baptist Church. After attending the University of Texas, where he was president of the Baptist student union, he enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary and later received his Ph.D. from Emory. While studying at Emory, he met a Catholic friend, who led him deeper into the Catholic tradition. He started meeting with a priest every week for two years and was finally confirmed a Catholic at the Dominican House in Atlanta, where Flannery O’Connor convalesced.

The Exorcist Author Learns Death Is a Lie

Published April 29, 2015 at The Christian Review

A Book Review:
William Peter Blatty, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death
Regnery Publishing, March 30, 2015
256 pages, $27.99

Honesty is rare, and when it’s found in a book such as this the effect is quite arresting and compelling. I rarely read a book at one sitting, as I did Blatty’s Finding Peter. The author amazes me for several reasons, the foremost being his ability to engage the most religiously skeptical reader to reflect on the possibility of the supernatural.
Blatty accomplishes that, in part, by not talking directly about the supernatural or the theology it belongs to. Rather, his book is a memoir of a distinct kind — a recounting of the providential moments in his life and the tragic death of his teenage son, Peter, who continued to communicate with his parents from beyond the grave.

Thus, it’s not an accident that the narrative begins with a hilarious and touching homage to his Lebanese mother, Mary, or that he casually mentions the copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions he carried in his “battered old G.I. footlocker” on the train from NYC to Georgetown University for his freshman year.

The book’s subtitle, A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death, tells the reader what Blatty intends to convey, but how he conveys it is never didactic or sentimental. In fact, Finding Peter can aptly be called humorous because every story Blatty tells he tells with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as if thinking, “How can this be happening to me?”

His memoir begins with his impoverished childhood in New York City, where he helped his indomitable mother sell quince jelly on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. From there we follow Blatty as he adjusts to the upscale surroundings of Georgetown; heading the Policy Branch of the U.S. Air Force Psychological Warfare Division; his years working in Beirut, Lebanon, for the United States Information Agency; and the chance beginning of a writing career, which led him to Hollywood and the life of a successful screenwriter, novelist, and, eventually, film producer.

Blatty talks about his Hollywood years, and especially The Exorcist (novel 1971/ film 1973), with some reluctance. His stories about friends Shirley McLaine, Danny Kaye, Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Blake Edwards, J. Lee Thompson, Darryl Zanuck, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, among many others, are told by a master of comic writing but with the purpose of revealing “only so much of it as I think may be needed to convince you of my truthfulness and credibility.”

In other words, the reader learns William Peter Blatty was a successful man of the world, succeeding in one of the deepest shark pools of contemporary existence, Hollywood’s film business. Blatty, the reader is assured, is not “some gullible New Age wacko who wasn’t born on this planet but, in point of fact, landed here with the manuscript of The Exorcist tucked under his arm.”

The heart of this book is Blatty’s account of the life, death, and afterlife of his Peter, who in 2006 was found dead sitting in front of a television with a remote still in his hand — a victim of viral myocarditis, an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.

Peter was the first child of Bill and Julie Blatty, born on May 17, 1987, in Stamford, CT. He was a child who seemed infused with the love of God. At age three he said to his mother, “Mommy, do you know why I came here . . . I came here to help people.” Other comments followed, such as the question, “How do you learn? I learn from the sky, God teaches me.” But the most touching of all is what he said to Julie Blatty at age 5:

“You know, Mom, when God was making me I was a little bit sad and a little bit scared. But then I saw you.”

In the year before he died, Peter was diagnosed with Type One bipolar disorder, which led to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. But things were looking up for Peter when he was found lifeless in front of the TV. Blatty doesn’t shy away from describing the agonizing pain visited upon him and his wife. However, in the midst of that suffering, very quickly things began to happen that could not be explained, until enough of them happened that they realized Peter was communicating to his parents that he was alive, happy, and loved them.

Among the many “paranormal” events Bill and Julie experienced was the lost, and then found, miraculous medal that once belonged to Peter. Bill had taken the medal and worn it around his neck after Peter’s death, only taking it off to get through airport security. One morning he woke up to find the medal was missing, and only the chain lay around his neck. He and Julie scoured the house, paying special attention to the shower, going over and over the small space several times.

A few days later, Bill got in the shower very nervous about a speech he had to give to a large audience. He saw something shiny on the floor and reached down to find Peter’s miraculous medal.

“Let’s go over it again: the glassed-in, brightly-lit shower stall measured a little less than four feet by four feet. Julie and I had separately entered the shower and meticulously searched it in broad daylight at least three times, in my case at least five.”

Here’s another: Julie went to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Bethesda. Seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk across from the restaurant, she told her friend that Peter, with his bipolar disorder, could have ended up like that. At that very moment, the homeless man shouted, “My birthday is May 17!” Julie froze, that was Peter’s birthday. Bill later went to talk to the man, got to know him a bit, and learned that his name was Pee Wee. Pee Wee’s birthday was May 17, but he didn’t remember shouting it out to anyone.

Then there were other surprising experiences involving cats, stuffed dolls, dreams, light bulbs, a lost rosary, a dried-out sunflower, and a recently planted tree. These went on for eight years after Peter’s death. Some of them were experienced by friends of Peter.

William Peter Blatty is by nature a skeptical man, and it was his own skepticism he had to overcome before accepting the meaning of these unusual events. At a certain point he could no longer hold out against the insistence of the son who was determined to touch him from the afterlife. He knows now that all the unexplainable happenings were, in fact, explainable because they were caused by Peter. As Blatty told me in our radio interview, when these things happen so regularly over such a long time “it’s not rational to conclude otherwise.”

In recounting these stories in Finding Peter, Blatty hopes to provide comfort to parents who have lost children or other loved ones. He is telling those who grieve, “They are not dead, talk to them, they will hear you.”

Writer’s note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to a special fund at the high school Peter attended — The Heights School in Bethesda, MD.

Et in Jesum Christum: A Memoir by Julian Green

Editor’s note: In 1995 I wrote to Julian Green in Paris.  Green was 95 years old and was considered, and still is, one the greatest French writers of the modern age.  His many novels, memoirs, dairies, and books of reflection on saints and cities kept him in the public eye from his first novel at age 26, Mont-Cinère (Avarice House) to his death in 1998. Green is the only American, having been born in Paris to American parents, to have been elected to the Académie française,succeeding the Catholic writer François Mauriac in 1971. Green himself was a Catholic convert in spite of a fiercely Calvinist mother who inhabits much of his fiction.  I was thrilled when I received this manuscript, in French, in only a few weeks.  I was even more thrilled to find that Green had sent something so personal and revealing. To publish Julian Green in Crisis Magazine was one of the most satisfying moments of my 12 years as publisher and editor. (Green used both English and French spellings of his given name.)

Julien Green
Published 1, 1995

I was born into the American Protestant religion of the Episcopal Church. My mother who strongly adhered to her faith brought me up in the daily reading of the Bible, and I have kept this habit until the present. Broadly speaking, nearly all the information that I received from her was situated in the human person of Jesus. It seems to me that even in the rhythms of the Our Father that she made me recite from memory with my head on her shoulder, I felt the supernatural tenderness of her own faith.

In my childish imagination, it was possible to touch the hand of the Lord himself, even though for me He remained invisible, but as well as I remember, I said nothing. Constantly, she stressed the continuous protection and love that He had for me. This love, which she bequeathed to me as an inheritance, was the equal of a more scholarly theology. My leaning toward the Catholic faith occurred without my being aware of the reason for it.

My mother died on December 27, 1914. According to the custom of many Protestants, her body was left unattended in her bedroom. All of us stayed in the house, which was thrown into a silence so terrible that I locked myself alone in a room on the third floor. But presently the urge came over me to slip softly outside and quietly go down the stairs to the death chamber. I stared at the door, which sent me into feelings of terrible dread alternating with curiosity. Finally, I walked right toward the bed.

My surprise was enormous. I expected to find a face deformed by suffering. Instead, my mother’s face gave the impression of a person buried in a deep meditation. Never had I seen her so mysteriously pensive. Her beauty surprised me even more. All the lines of age had disappeared and left a smooth surface resembling youth. With a heavy heart I told her that I loved her, and I repeated it to be certain that I had heard the sound of my own voice. But I could not bear to stay any longer, and left.

The minutes that followed escape my memory. I only remember the horrors of a country burial, in particular, the ceremony at the Protestant church of Vesinet, with the flowery, redundant language of the minister falling around the catafalque under which I was supposed to believe that my mother lay. All of a sudden, I felt her real presence; not the one who had been able to touch the hand of the Lord, not the statue-like sleeping beauty with smooth cheeks, but Mama with all her wrinkles, Mama with all her age, the one now under a black pall… and my heart broke, but I did not cry.

On returning to the house, a sadness bordering on despair began to weigh on all of us like a silent storm. My father composed himself with difficulty. I tried to continue reading my Bible and reciting my prayers as always but there was an emptiness in my loneliness which was unbearable. On my days off I occupied myself with writing in my room, which had been my mother’s, my bed being the same one where she had died. Everyone left me alone.

One afternoon in the autumn of 1915 a curious incident occurred. I was writing when I suddenly felt that I was not alone: someone, at the same instant, seated herself next to me. I felt no fear. It was not an illusion, simply the supernatural presence of my mother. I recognized her immediately as one would recognize a voice, a look, and I waited because I understood that she wanted to draw my attention to something.

Without a word she drew me toward a small antechamber near where my father always dressed himself in the morning. There on the open shelves where his shirts were arranged I discovered a book, The Faith of Our Fathers by Cardinal Gibbons.

The book was an explanation of the Catholic faith and I started reading it with a passionate eagerness. It taught me, in fact, an enormous number of things that my mother had never mentioned, but which I was willing to accept without doubt. Page after page I believed everything I read as unvarnished truth. I spent the whole day there reading the book, but I said not a thing of my secret reading. When I came to the sacraments and to the real presence in the Eucharist, I thought about my mother and my emotions were very strong.

The following day I completed my reading. And then, what? How could I deal with this that had changed everything? I wanted to become a Catholic. To whom could I confide such a secret, and toward whom to turn except to my father who I knew to be forbearing. He listened to me, nodded his head and said simply, “I became a Catholic myself, several months ago, in England.” What astounding news! This conversion of my father deserves a separate recounting by itself because it led him so far that when he died in 1927 he was buried in the frock of a third degree Franciscan. But we return to my mother who died faithful to her Protestantism.

The Gospel painstakingly read and reread made her weep over and over with love. At times she had to admit to herself that she was in love with the Savior. Day after day the book repeated the same thing, but each time in a different way. She believed that at each rereading, the book was transformed: an enlightenment beyond human language shone behind each familiar page. In fact, the book did not change; it was my mother who became a different person. Death revealed everything to the eyes of those who saw her in her eternal sleep. Her radiant face told the truth of her secret conversion. If she had been able to see her own face, she would have agreed.

She had only one wish: to pass on the knowledge of her conversion to her beloved son. Here begins the mystery, the meaning clearly appearing if one analyzes the events. My father, while in England, must have read the book that I now hold in my hands. On his return to France, The Faith of Our Fathers was slipped under his shirts where no one would look and where my mother made me discover it. Those who have died have resources about which we are unaware.

What then did this book tell me? It revealed to me that even if I were alone in the world, Christ would come to save me. And it was the same for each of us. Why? For what reason? For love. God is love. When one has said that, one has said everything.

Reading Myself Into the Church

Deal W. Hudson

Reading, said Saint Josemaría Escrivá, has made many a saint. In my own case it has merely made a convert, but has led me more deeply into the mystery that is the Church. Thomas Merton, we recall from his autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain, was started on his road to the Church by the accidental discovery of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in the Columbia University Library. We are foolish to forget the power of the written word.

It’s said that people don’t read much anymore, that we live in a multimedia age, and that the act of reading is on the wane. These prognostications have already been proven false. Nothing can replace reading a book as the most intimate medium of enjoyment and self-examination — certainly not the Kindle or the Internet. When we want to change a person’s life, we still give him a book, and wait, hoping.

Years ago a friend, now a Trappist priest, sent me a box of about twenty-five books with “Catholic bomb” written across the side. As I read them one by one, explosions went off in my mind, leaving me both disoriented and filled with an unfamiliar joy. I was experiencing the confusion of my life drastically changing and the joy of discovering an unknown and welcoming country called the Catholic faith. (I didn’t know enough then to call it a strange country, which when you enter the Church as an adult it’s an apt description.)

I had been raised in a Protestant home, and had become an ardent Southern Baptist in college before attending Princeton Theological Seminary. There I read the greats of the Reformed tradition – Luther, Calvin, Barth, Kierkegaard, Tillich, and the Niebuhrs. I began to realize that the first principle of Protestantism – ridding the faith of idolatry — had been pushed so far it had subverted the exercise of Christian intelligence. My Catholic bomb was packed with spiritual dynamite, such as books by the great Dominican theologian, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, along with works by Louis Bouyer, Matthias Scheeben, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Adrienne von Speer, G. K. Chesterton, and the simple verse of St. Francis of Assisi.

With every book, I recalled being overwhelmed by my reading St. Augustine’s On the Trinity at seminary years earlier. Catholic Christianity, I began to see, embodied the fullness of God’s revelation, without the narrowing refractions of other Christian communions. The first principle of Catholicism was indeed the Incarnation, and that centrality shone through all my reading.

Reading myself into the Church doesn’t mean that I possessed crystalline clarity at every step — bomb fragments scatter unpredictably. At this stage in my conversion, I was blessed by the good advice of my mentors; they saved me from the fate of a convert friend of mine who was led to read Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us, A Modern Presentation of the Catholic Faith for Adults — underscore modern — and lived to tell the tale.

As I moved toward the Church, my reading prodded me onward with a series of vaguely related insights. Although I understood only a little of the content of the Catholic faith, I knew that it explained my growing dissatisfaction with the other Christian traditions, both liberal Protestant and Southern Baptist, in which I was raised. It would take me years to pass through my own period of protest and grasp the inner coherence of the Church herself.

Then, as a young college professor, still reeling from the effect of the bomb, I began reading the Catholic novels recommended by my now Trappist friend. By the time I finished this assignment, I would not have dreamed of turning back.

There are, in fact, novels that can be called “Catholic,” though certain learned people dispute the fact. I have no comprehensive definition of the Catholic novel, neither would I ever attempt one. However, I happily name a novel as Catholic when it presents to the reader a narrative that embodies some substantial aspect of the Catholic faith. A Catholic novel is one that ably suggests to its reader our faith’s great mysteries. It is those moments of insight, where we catch a glimpse of God’s ineluctable providence — as in, for example, Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos – that readers can become pilgrims.

Thus, if there is a litmus test for the Catholic novel, it must be whether the novel is capable of conspiring in spiritual conversion. Even if one bears in mind that conversion is ongoing, not at all confined to an experience on the Damascus Road, this test is the most reliable. It goes without saying that authors who consciously intend to convert their readers probably will end up writing a bad book. That’s the danger of a reader like myself, readers, hungry for fiction to tackle ideas: we risk encouraging writers to preach, lecture, and moralize, a very bad habit.

The six novels listed below helped to convert me and continue to do so, since I go back to them regularly. I have never received any protest from a friend and acquaintance who have sought one of them out on my advice.

The Other One by Julian Green

The still-active French-American writer, Julian Green, born of a Protestant mother from Savannah, Georgia and a French Catholic father, has riveted my attention for years. Although his novels like Moira and Each in His Own Darkness are better known, it was the obscure The Other One that left its deepest mark on me.

This novel, more than any other I know, depicts the hunger for God as the source of all human appetites. I would later recognize this unquenchable desire, with its rich moral implications, in Aquinas’s anthropology – I first met it in Green. Set in Copenhagen, the story follows a recently converted man who returns to a woman he had mistreated some years earlier only to find the results of his immorality much worse than expected. His penitential witness brings about a disturbing but absolutely convincing redemption. Few books have captured the painful death of spiritual rebirth, in both characters, as powerfully as The Other One.

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

I’m not sure if there is a greater Catholic novel than Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. If there is, it’s probably her other medieval epic, The Master of Hestviken, but I still prefer the more accessible and personally involving Kristin.

I was blessed with a very bad case of the flu the first time I read Undset’s trilogy, which kept me in bed for the entire read. My bouts with fever only intensified my connection with the unforgettable characters of this story. Just as movie buffs will argue the comparative merits of Scarlet, Rhett, Melanie, and Ashley in Gone With the Wind, so Undset fans delight in assigning degrees of responsibility to the impetuous Kristin, her loyal father Lavrans, her warrior husband Erlend, and her jilted fiancé, the foursquare Simon. No other novel that I know explores the biblical themes of “the wages of sin” and “the sins of the father” as accurately and charitably as Kristin Lavransdatter. Its impact on the reader, as witnessed in the novel’s pivotal role in the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, can demonstrate a moral reorientation reminiscent of Dante’s Purgatorio.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

Don’t let it be thought that my reading into the Church was without laughter. This novel by Walker Percy provided the perfect bridge from the existentialism of my graduate school days to the treasure of Catholic humanism. I thought it uncanny that Percy had placed his main character, Dr. Thomas More, in a Dantean landscape faced with a Kierkegaardian choice that could only be mediated by the comic, sacramental resolution of a Catholic vision. It was as if Percy – and his other novels confirm this — had already experienced my philosophical and spiritual trials — he understood that demons inhabit the suburbs of my childhood, and not just the cities and the country.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

If you are familiar with the South, there is also plenty to laugh about in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. John Huston’s underrated film of the novel catches many of those moments perfectly, such as when Hazel Motes tells his landlady he is a preacher of the “Church without Christ.” She asks suspiciously if that was “Protestant… or something foreign?” Indeed, O’Connor’s novel is nothing less than a meditation on the loss of belief in Christ’s active presence in the world through the Church and its sacraments. Wise Blood made it clear to me why I was no longer content with the typical Protestant quarterly communion of grape juice done “in memory of me.” It’s been providential, I think, that I have been invited to collaborate on an effort to translate O’Connor’s work for film and television.

Under the Star of Satan by George Bernanos

If O’Connor is one of those authors who puts you in the uncomfortable presence of the supernatural, George Bernanos is another. It’s too bad that Diary of a Country Priest is his only novel remaining in print, because the others are just as powerful. His Under the Star of Satan is primarily about the special vocation of the priesthood, and its sacramental blessing on all of us. We follow the protagonist Abbé Donissan, modeled on Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars, as he struggles for the souls of his parishioners, spending hour after hour in the confessional.

We see his gift of unlocking the heaviest heart and the price he must pay for it. In the midst of Donissan’s battle, we are also reminded not to take the metaphysical notion of evil as privation so literally as to discount its active presence in the world. A film has also been made of this novel, but not as successfully as Wise Blood.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

If there is another novel that wears its moral seriousness as lightly as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, I don’t know it. Perhaps that is why it works so well. Like Charles Ryder himself, the reader is slowly and slyly seduced into the Catholic undercurrents of the aristocratic Marchmain family. The long, final coda of Lord Marchmain’s death, his sign of the cross, and the repentant confession of Julia on the staircase distill the choice we all must finally make for or against God.

As Julia puts it, in refusing to leave her husband for Charles, “But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable… the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.”

Here are six of the novels that made me Catholic. There are many others from our rich cultural past I could recommend. And, in fact, good Catholic fiction is still being written — Ron Hansen, Torgny Lindgren, Piers Paul Read, Michael O’Brien, and the late Alice Thomas Ellis — are among the best.

In case the reader is interested is some of the non-fiction books that led me into the Church, here is a list of the other books that made me Catholic.

The Catholic Vision

Augustine, On the Trinity, 
William F. Lynch, S.J., Christ and Apollo, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 1–13
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ
, John Henry Newman, Plain and Parochial Sermons
, Jacques Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas: Angel of the Schools

Beauty & Culture

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, 
Eric Gill, Beauty Speaks for Herself
, Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 
Julian Green, Journals
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

Sin & Redemption

Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evi, l
Correspondence of Andre Gide and Paul Claude, l
Jorgen Jorgensen, Autobiography, 
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Dante, Purgatorio, 
Morley Callahan, Our Lady of the Snows, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Treatise on Sin, 1a2ae, q. 71–9

Agape & Eros

Martin D’Arcy, The Mind and Heart of Love
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone
Joseph Pieper, About Love
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 
Etienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Treatise on Love, 2a2ae, q. 23-46

Reason & Revelation

Aristotle, Ethics, 
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Treatise on Law, 1a2ae, q. 90–7, 
G. K. Chesterton, The Dumb Ox
Mortimer Adler, The Angels and Us
Joseph Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture
, C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 
Cornelio Fabro, God in Exile

Church & Sacrament
Documents of Vatican II, 
Henri de Lubac, Catholicism
, Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne
Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine, 
Matthias Scheeben, Mysteries of Christianity

Saints & Sanctity

Léon Bloy, Pilgrim of the Absolute
Julian Green, God’s Fool, 
Raissa Maritain, We Have Been Friends Together
Jacques Maritain, Notebooks, 
Jean Leclerq, Love of Learning and the Desire for God, 
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life the Church.

Why I Rejected “Spirituality”

Deal W. Hudson

I was newly graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, a licensed Southern Baptist ministry now at Emory University studying for a Ph.D in Theology and Literature. Prof. Author Evans, one of my teachers, an expert at French and European literature, had invited me to take tea with him in the back yard of his beautiful Druid Hills home in Atlanta.

Arthur Evans was a very special man, one whom I thought of over and over in the nearly 40 years since I sat there with him, trying to remember the tea manners taught to me by my great Aunt Lucile when I was an undergraduate in Austin, TX. Catholic, deep cultured, humble, soft-spoken, with iridescent blue eyes, Dr. Evans began to ask me about the literature I loved and about my nascent interest in the Catholic faith.

Were we discussing the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the Australian novelist Patrick White, or the French writer Julian Green? I can’t remember now. But at some point in the conversation, he referred to the “spirituality” of a specific piece of literature. Inwardly, I glowered but hoped it did not show on my face. Spirituality, to me at the time, was one of those words people used to talk about the Christian faith without committing to orthodoxy. Spirituality was a loosey-goosey terms that could not be challenged because of its vagueness.

Yet, I hearing it from a man who I trusted and respected deeply, whose own Catholic faith was could not be doubted, whose love of tradition in all things was reflected in his manner, his words, his teaching, his marriage, his fatherhood, and his home. If there was ever a Renaissance Man in the deepest sense it was Prof. Arthur Evans. Hearing the term spirituality from his lips puzzled me for a very long time, because if he was using it then I must be missing something, something important.

During seminary I had more or less defined myself as an Evangelical who defended Christian orthodoxy against the Vietnam era liberals and radicals who were common on campuses in those days, in part because they were avoiding military service. This was the era of Rudolf Bultmann whose program of “demythologizing” had placed all the historicity of Scriptures under a looming question mark. Thus words like spirituality and hermeneutics had become objects of suspicion in my self-appointed role as the defender of the faith.

For me, in the 70s and 80s, defending the faith meant underscoring differences, highlighting what was not Christian, in reaction to what I perceived as the refraction of Christianity through the lens of modernism. My movement away from this attitudinal posture happened slowly, there was no lightning flash of insight to correspond to that moment in Dr. Evan’s garden when I suddenly questioned a deeply held truism.

After I became a Catholic in the early 80s, while teaching philosophy at a Southern Baptist college in Atlanta, my attitude towards “defending the faith” slowly, and unconsciously, changed. When I started using the word spirituality in my writing and teaching, a smile would come to my lips as I remember that day in Dr. Evan’s garden. What had happened to me? What had changed in my mind and heart allowing me to talk about spirituality without cringing? Quite a bit, as it turns out, and that period of change has not yet finished as I look towards my 65th birthday and over 30 years as a Catholic.

The change can be described simply, though its ramifications were not, as a disposition to recognize similarity where I once noticed only difference. Where I had once only praised what was specifically, and recognizably, Christian, I became eager to notice any place, and in any person, evidence of spiritual expression of our common journey. It no longer mattered to me, as least as much, whether that journey was expressed in specifically Christian terms, what mattered was that the dimension of ourselves always looking for God, through our pursuit of happiness, was being expressed and explored.

Spirituality itself, as a concept, has many meanings but all of them are drawn from the reality of our immaterial powers of loving and knowing. In others words, the human person is gifted with the ability, unique among all creatures, of bringing into our minds, as object of our will’s love, complete abstractions, such as beauty, truth, and goodness. But if we look long enough — as seen in Plato’s Symposium, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Bonaventure’s The Mind’s Road to God, to name a few — the natural desire to know ultimate causes will lead us to God, Who is no abstraction but the measure of all abstractions.

Thus, as a Catholic, I have come to appreciate all spiritual journeys, whether they are marked with the Christian label or not. My role as defender of the faith is no longer to mark the differences but to affirm the similarities, as did C.S. Lewis in his classic, The Abolition of Man. Affirm the similarities as a way of encouraging the journey in others, of finding a common reference point for discussion, for evangelization, but also for mutual guidance.

It was very painful to watch Dr. Evans slowly die of Parkinson’s Disease, but even those visits to his bedroom were as luminous as that day in his garden. I recall him once gesturing to me to play a CD of the Bach cello sonatas so we could listen together, or the day he excitingly held up a copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter to signify he had finally read it after years of my hounding him to. His way of telling me that he was glad to have read it was in his smile and his handling of the book as he showed it to me, as if the book itself had become an object of love.

As I watched his slow decline towards death, there was never a moment of fear, doubt, or anger in his face — Dr. Evans evinced only a cheerful resignation to the unavoidable outcome of his illness. Here was the man who had opened my eyes to the inherent spirituality of every persons journey towards God, and I was a witness to the approaching end of his. And through this, Dr. Evans taught me even more about spirituality by the perseverance of his joy in all things beautiful and true, but most of all, by the perseverance of his friendship.

Why God Became Man

Deal W. Hudson

It began with a simple fact: When God created man and woman He did not give them the mind of an angel. If humans were angels, God could have delivered His Word directly into their minds by illumination. Though created in His image and likeness, men and women derive all that they know through the senses.

Nothing is known to the human mind that does not have its beginning in the person’s sensible encounter with the world. What is seen, heard, smelled, and touched is the beginning of all knowledge, from the color of a flower to the meaning of pi. The first principles governing our grasping the truth about things are themselves intuited, downloaded as it were, from our encounter with the world. If we look inside our minds we will see nothing that did not pass through our senses on its way.

God desired from His eternity that the men and women He created find their way back to Him after the Fall. God is love, after all. But sin lacerated human nature, obscuring but not destroying the mind’s capacity to know, whether through science or faith. The damage to the mind is this: Knowing becomes the grist for our idolatry, making our desire to know itself a source of temptation.

Thus God spoke His Word by sending that Word into the human world, His Son, the Word, incarnated in a human body. The Word lived as a sensible being among those who learn and know by their senses, for whom sensation had become the occasion of sin.

With the Incarnation, the good news of deliverance and redemption entered the human field of vision, made available to even the most depraved of minds. The Word becoming present to the senses and through the senses to the mind transfigured human existence. The way of knowing called Faith could “see through the glass darkly” the gift of God’s presence in the world, all that need be known and loved to receive eternal life.

That our Christmas revels are bedecked with bright colors, the sound of voices singing, the aroma of candles burning, the touch of a package given or received is celebration that “God came down” to find us, so we might find Him.

Published December 4, 2013

Why the Wise Men Followed the Star

Deal W. Hudson

Wise men have always looked at the heavens with wonder. For them, the night sky filled with stars represents the luminous, the utterly ineffable, the holy. With this sense of overwhelming awe, comes a question: “What lies behind it all?”

Wise men don’t ignore this question by burying themselves in practical matters, to ignore their own inner prompting – they search. With the first step another question is evoked; it comes as an unexpected whisper — “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Wise men are thus called because they seek what the ancients called knowledge of “first things,” the foundation of all knowledge, and the source of all. When the Three Wise Men were amazed by the one star outshining all the others in the Eastern sky they saw it as their destination, the goal of their search, a place where all they sought would be revealed.

Thus, from the East the Wise Men came, from the crucible of civilization, the most ancient of learned cultures, to the court of Herod in Jerusalem. Whether they were deceived by Herod’s flattery we do not know, nor do we know if they sensed his murderous intent in asking them to return and report on the child’s whereabouts. Though wise men, we do not know if these kings were worldly-wise. We do know, however, they believed in the message of their dreams.

They found who they were looking for, the babe with the title “The King of the Jews,” but would come to realize they had found much more, perhaps something else altogether. After all, they must have thought, “Would a king be born like this and to a peasant family?” But this was the place where the star’s light had led them. The Three Kings did not turn back; they knelt in the stable, worshipped the babe, and offered him their royal gifts.

The Wise Men slept deeply that night because they had journeyed far. During their sleep, a dream arose containing a warning not to return to Herod, as they had promised. They did not know why; they did not know then that the birth of this child born to peasants had provoked a Roman king to raging jealousy.

As they rode away, without returning to Jerusalem, the Three Wise Men must have asked each other why a child born in a manger to a carpenter and his young wife would pose any threat to Herod, or the Empire itself. But then, the night had been extraordinary in other ways. They had not been the only ones to pay tribute – they had knelt as kings next to shepherds who reported being summoned by angels.

What they had experienced at the end of their journey was not expected. A poor child in a stable, with some sort of divine protection was something they had never even imagined. Did this newborn child explain their wonder at the existence of things? Not at all.

But they didn’t accuse the star for leading them to the wrong place, or consider their long journey a mistake. For they had received a glimmer of something to come: Their experience with the babe in a manger seemed to announce the beginning of a life that would overturn the order of things and challenge the supremacy of all earthly powers.

“But for what purpose came this child?” they might have asked themselves. Whatever it was, they may have reasoned, it must be universal, a mission to all men. What else could bring kings and shepherds to kneel together, cause the most powerful man in the land to rage, for some divinity to send a dream of warning, and set the night sky itself aglow with the brightest star the world had ever seen.

Published December 7,  2013