On Convert Sickness

14 07 2008

I re-post here an interesting quote I found on this website. I thought it worth reproducing in full:

There’s a great essay (not available online, sadly) in the current issue of the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on G.K. Chesterton entitled “The Back of the World: The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton.” It has a fabulous paragraph on conversion that I felt the need to reproduce in toto:

“In these books [his later Catholic non-fiction works] Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis’s intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas’s pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII’s divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you’re new to mail.”

I will add that my own lack of enthusiasm about the goings on in the Roman Catholic Church is from what I have deemed a healthy form of anticlericalism. While I have always felt that in the end one must always go along with what the Church says because it is, well, the Church, I have not in a long time put all of my hopes and dreams in the external acts of the Church. As my former abbot once said, put your trust in Christ and in Christ alone.

There is another dimension that I think goes along with it, and it has to do with culture. Northern Europeans tend to view their world with a seamless consistency; people of a Latin disposition do not. While it is true that I was raised in this country and consider myself fully American, I do not underestimate the influence that the cultural ghetto I grew up in has on me. One can be loyal to the Church and critical at the same time. That is because in the Latin psyche the Church has always been taken for granted. In the end, it is just like the post office mentioned above.

When I was a teenager, I became a bit disillusioned with the Church since where I lived it was very liberal and inconsistent in terms of its doctrine and praxis. I would usually walk to Mass early Sunday mornings, and often I would go to the 8:00 a.m. Spanish Mass. At this Mass, there was a group of about twenty guys, most of them probably field workers straight from Mexico, who stood in the back of the church. Some received Communion, but a lot didn’t. Some after or before Mass would walk up to the sanctuary area on their knees, go up and kiss the crucifix, and some didn’t. And they were there every Sunday. I got into the habit of standing with them. I was in the church, but always standing by the door. I think that I have remained there ever since.