I am not a convert to the faith, I was baptised and brought up a Catholic, but I did spend a long time away from the Church, searching for things I thought Christianity did not have.
So I stopped going to church shortly after my confirmation, at around the age of 15. This was inevitable for many reasons. The key one, one which I don’t like to admit, was probably apathy.
People may tell you they have left the Church because of dissent, because they disagree on principle with some of its teachings. This is usually a convenient cover story for the more basic truth – they can’t be bothered to carry on going to Mass on Sunday.
All around, people are getting on with their lives and enjoying themselves without ever thinking about church or God or any of that stuff. This is especially true for teenage boys and especially if their own dads don’t go to church. Mine didn’t go.
I saw old women mainly at church, and unconsciously absorbed the message that church is, like flower-arranging and coffee mornings, something genteel old ladies do.
The outside pressures are strong as well, the ‘anglosphere’ we live and breathe through media and upbringing strongly rejects the mystery, rejects the supernatural. Perhaps for me as well, friends were key – most of them had not been brought up as church-going Catholics, and they had non-religious parents. Through them I also started taking drugs at about the same age that I stopped going to church. Later on we would go to raves and places like Glastonbury, where I would whole-heartedly embrace a ‘hippie’ ideology, hedonistic and relativistic.
But at that stage I was still educating myself outside of my school education. I loved books and loved reading. I read anything I could get my hands on. Unfortunately, some of the things I read were very dangerous for someone of that age to read before their conscience and intellectual formation has properly happened. I was intellectually pretentious, and often had a sense that my school education was leaving important things out. I tried to substitute this lack with these morally dubious books.
For me what seemed lacking in my Catholic education was twofold.
First, the faith seemed as purged as it could be of any non-rational elements. Some people, especially some leaders in the Church, think that if young people are going to embrace the faith, they must be ‘approached on their own level’. Most of the teenagers I teach are put off by this patronising attitude. If something is difficult and mysterious, let it be presented like that – I know that as a young person I liked the challenge of difficult and mysterious things, and part of the reason I left the Church was because it had none of this challenge.
Secondly, what remained of the mystery of the faith was presented to me as a goal, but without any real presentation of the way you could reach that goal. So, we would find out about beliefs in heaven, hell and purgatory, and learn that heaven consists in the beatific vision of God which the saints enjoy, but there would be no discussion of types of prayer or meditation, things which no saint can do without; no practical instruction in what you might call the technology of the faith.
The Catholic Church has developed some amazing tools but they are very little heard of. Even the most famous ones such as the rosary are more talked about than used. No one ever taught me to pray the rosary growing up in the faith. And yet this spiritual weapon is one that I could not be without now.
So here we are – an intellectually curious, slightly rebellious 15-year-old who is searching for meaningful world views, preferably ones different from those dull ones he was brought up with. I got my hands on some books, in fact I had been reading books like these for a few years by the time I was 15.
- Magick by Aleister Crowley
- The White Goddess by Robert Graves
- Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
- Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud
- The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins
- Psychology and Alchemy by Carl Jung
- V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
- Allen Ginsberg poetry
- William Blake poetry
- Eastern Religious works: Tao Te Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Diamond Sutra
You can see here a selection of things my teenage self had found to read. Apart from the Nietzsche and the Freud, it is all grounded in some sense of the divine or supernatural, but even those two are about different ways of looking at religion. I clearly was searching around for a coherent religious worldview, just as long as it wasn’t the Catholic one of my upbringing.
So what is wrong with these books? Well, the most clearly purely evil one is the Crowley one. If you know anything about him, he was an occultist and magician who describes in the book ways of summoning demons and spirits as well as describing in detail the paraphernalia required to cast a magic circle, do invocations, create spells and so on.
So that book comes with a special warning, but the other books are all dubious mainly because without rigorous Catholic intellectual formation, they could lead you into error regarding key truths such as the nature of grace, the personal reality of the Holy Trinity, the Catholic understanding of virtue and many other things. What had really happened – to paraphrase G K Chesterton – was that, when I stopped believing in something, I didn’t believe in nothing, I believed in anything. My philosophy was a mish-mash of eastern religious thought, magical and divinatory techniques, and relativism. In other words, I very much subscribed to a philosophy known as the New Age.
I can see looking back on this that the main causes underlying this ‘straying from home, being lost in a far country’ were down to a faculty that many of us feel is rather mysterious, yet which plays a major role in everything we do: the imagination.
I am sure that the main reason I turned elsewhere for truth is that my imagination was not fed in my childhood faith. Cardinal Newman said that where belief falters it is above all because ‘the imagination is against us’. I will say that in the New Age I found things to feed my imagination.
So what is the New Age? It would be easier to characterise it in terms of some beliefs it involves. Here is a by no means exhaustive list:
- Nature worship/pantheism, Wicca, Paganism
- Earth mysteries/ley lines
- Divination – astrology/tarot/ouija boards
- Grail mysteries – Arthurian romance/Celtic mythology
- Occult groups – Masonry/Rosicrucians/Theosophy
- Dualist beliefs – Gnosticism/Eastern religions/Taoism
- ‘Alternative’ stories of Christ – Gnostic Gospels/Mary Magdalene theories (Dan Brown territory)
- Pre-Christian Britain – Stonehenge/Avebury/Glastonbury as centres of learning
- Goddess worship – as a religion more in balance with nature and thus superior to patriarchal dominator religions which do violence to nature
So what’s wrong with all this stuff? Well, it’s by no means all entirely devoid of merit. If it had no truth or value at all in it, people would not seek out and believe it. It is actually the mixture of truth and falsity that is so dangerous in it. Some positives are that it is about questions of truth and meaning – these systems do give meaning to people’s lives. People like myself who sincerely search for truth in these areas should not be mocked, but asked to examine in more depth the assumptions of their beliefs
I could have floundered around in the New Age a lot longer – who knows I might still be there now. A few things happened though which you might call providential. I like to see it as evidence of God’s grace, gently calling me away from error.
Those books I mentioned I had read as a teenager weren’t the only ones I read. I loved fantasy books, and at about 8 or 9 I read the Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis, starting with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Famously, those books presented a world absolutely steeped in the Christian vision, with Aslan the lion representing Christ, sacrificed by the white witch.
These were quickly followed by the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien, a friend of Lewis. The Christianity in these books was less evident but in some ways far more powerful. They are not straightforward allegories but through their narrative they convey themes of death and afterlife, virtue, humility and sacrifice, all central Christian themes.
These works as it were, ‘baptised my imagination’, they were doing their work at a level beyond my normal awareness, acting like spiritual enzymes on my imagination to stimulate certain connections and reactions.
One of the things which happened is I read a book called Meditations on the Tarot when I was at university studying theology. The book seemed to be another New Age book on divination, but instead it turned out to be the single most powerful defence of Catholic tradition and orthodoxy that I have ever found outside of the magisterium of the Church itself.
When I read this book I knew I had to confront some of the most uncomfortable things about the Catholic faith. Christ had really died and really risen again in a physical body? Christ was really present in the Blessed Sacrament? Mary had been immaculately conceived? We were going to be judged at the end of time and given resurrection bodies? There was no salvation outside the Church? These were very uncomfortable questions. Modern liberal churches avoid them, and secular humanists openly mock them. The book presents all these teachings amongst a vast variety of wisdom from different traditions and does the amazing task of baptising all that is good in the ‘New Age’, bringing it into the Church and at the same time not compromising one iota of scripture or tradition.
Some other reasons, far more pragmatic for my return to the faith were getting married and having children. Although I returned to the church about 11-12 years ago, it was only when my daughter was born three years ago that I really understood the beauty of God’s gift of life to us – everything is gift – we can earn none of it, and it is all the result of God’s overflowing generosity and love.
The thing that keeps me in the Church is its acknowledgement of our brokenness as human beings, our incompleteness and vulnerability, and it is this interpretation that it puts on longing that for me provides absolute confirmation of its truth. I know that whenever I begin to place created things in the place where God should be, I distance myself from my true home. It is only when I can practice ‘poverty of spirit’ through prayer and worship, that I can begin to get a glimpse of that far country that is my home land, and then that longing begins again, both sweet and painful.
One final thing – the glimpses of that other country that I am offered in the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church are there not just to remind me of my own fallen state. They are there to make me part of Christ’s body. My salvation can never be an individual thing – it has to be part of a corporate action. This was never possible whilst I dabbled in the New Age. It lacks this corporal element, this use of the physical – bread, wine, oil, water. But these things are not arbitrary signs – they embody in a special way the saving action of Christ. If I were to be cut off from them I would diminish as a human being, and I would fall back into error.
This is an extract from a longer piece by Matt, There and Back Again: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to New Age Wiccan and Back to Mother Church, published here: https://golgonooza.blogspot.com/2017/04/there-and-back-again-my-journey-from.html