For many, the path to Christ is not straightforward or simple. Even those who grow up knowing an experience of Christ often experience doubt or confusion in regards to their beliefs at one time or another. For those who convert or become Catholics later in life, the process of discerning faith can be a deep and complex process, much like it was for C.S. Lewis, whose relationship with Catholicism was as critical to him as it was confusing.
Lewis, the author of the wildly-popular book series, The Chronicles of Narnia, was born and raised as a member of the Anglican Church of Ireland. Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis saw firsthand the divisiveness that religion could cause and became an atheist at age 15, though he described himself as “paradoxically angry at God for not existing.” He could not understand how such a perfect God as was purported to exist could allow the creation of a world with as much pain and suffering as he saw.
In his thirties, however, he struck up a deep friendship with another notable (and very Catholic) author, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose influence together with the writings of G.K. Chesterton re-opened the door to faith for Lewis.
In Surprised by Joy, a semi-autobiographical account of his journey to faith, Lewis writes that he was the most unwilling convert to ever exist —“picture me alone . . . night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet . . . in 1929, I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”
Lewis became a member of the Church of England, much to the disappointment of his good friend Tolkien, who had hoped that he might become a Catholic. Interestingly, though, many scholars qualify Lewis as semi-Catholic due to his largely unorthodox Anglican beliefs, including the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (which he referred to as the “Blessed Sacrament”) his belief in (and attendance of) auricular confession (confessing one’s sins to a priest, who has the power to absolve in the name of God), and his certainty that he was destined for purgatory.
He advocated especially for an ecumenical approach to faith, writing a book called Mere Christianity, where he described the core beliefs tying all Christian denominations together as filling a large hall, and that the specific denominations were like doors one entered through from the main hall. He disliked the official worship of the Anglican Church, initially only attending in order to receive Communion and repelled by the music and the low quality of the sermons; instead, he found companionship with the working men who came in work boots and sang all the verses of the songs.
Lewis never became a Catholic, which many see as an extension of the deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice he grew up with in Belfast. But his conflicted, complicated relationship with God and the Church can teach us so much about the coexistence of God and suffering, and serve as a beautiful reminder of the reality of faith as a work in progress for each one of us.
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
We’ve spent the last six weeks reflecting on the scientific evidence, or “proof” for God, and trying to show that religious and scientific beliefs can be held in conjunction with one another. We’ve looked at Nobel Prize-winning scientists, researchers whose discoveries shaped the thinking of modern science, and even people who’ve dedicated their lives to teaching others about the intrinsic connections between science and religion. They all have one thing in common: their Catholic faith and belief in Christ.
In our new series, we’re going to explore the rational basis for our faith in Jesus (and why we believe what we believe about him). It’s going to give us the tools to talk about faith in different settings, and help us to share our beliefs with people around us who might not have the same religious background.
For these articles, we’ll explore the lives of people who converted to Christianity later in life, just like the man we’re going to talk about today. Born in France in 1915, Thomas Merton had a rather rambunctious youth. Reports from his peers note his love of being out at the club all night long and his less than enthusiastic engagement with schoolwork. He had to be bailed out of jail several times and even fathered a child outside of marriage.
But while studying at Columbia University in New York, where he had moved to study languages, he attended a Catholic Action meeting and began to feel inspired. He stumbled across the story of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ conversion to Catholicism (an English poet turned Jesuit priest), and could not shake the feeling that he was being called to do likewise.
Although he initially wanted to be a poet himself, Merton grew increasingly interested in Eastern religions. He eventually met and developed a great admiration for a Hindu monk named Mahanambrata Brahmachari. To his surprise, the monk told Merton that he should read more in the Christian tradition. He especially recommended Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and insisted that he read them both.
Merton plunged into Catholicism and was baptized in 1938. In October of that same year, Merton told his closest friends of his desire to become a priest. In 1941, he arrived at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a community of Trappist monks, the most ascetic order of monks in Roman Catholicism.
Merton spent 27 years at the Abbey, where he wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, his critically-acclaimed, world-famous autobiography. He became especially interested in issues of religious tolerance, interfaith cooperation, and racial justice. The Dalai Lama said that Merton had the most profound understanding of Buddhism of any Christian he’d ever met. Active in his support of the Civil Rights movement, Merton was called “the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” At the time of his death in 1968, Merton was one of the most prominent Catholic social teachers of all time.
Like many, Merton’s spiritual journey ultimately led him to Christ, where he rendered a true verdict in the “The Case for Christ.”
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
We’ve spent the last several weeks talking about lots of incredible contributions to science made by Catholic thinkers, clergy and lay people alike. All of this is great, but some people might still be unsure of the Church’s position on science and religion. They might say that the fact that there were some Catholic scientists who made some incredible discoveries doesn’t necessarily back up the fact that the Church is supportive of scientific exploration. That’s a really valid concern, so the story of the person we’re talking about today will hopefully help to address it.
Father George Coyne is a mathematician and astronomer who was the director of the Vatican Observatory for almost thirty years. The Observatory, which was first established in 1582 after Pope Gregory XIII helped to reform the world’s calendar, traces its “modern” roots to 1891 — needless to say, it’s been around for a long time! In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII declared that a papally-supported scientific research lab was needed, “so that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible devotion.”
Made up of a headquarters near Rome and a dependent research arm in Tucson, Arizona, the Observatory leads studies focused on everything from stellar astronomy and planetary sciences to cosmology and the exploration of exoplanets. For his doctoral work, Fr. Coyne led a spectrophotometric study of the lunar surface; since then, he’s done research on cosmic dust and high-energy interactions between stars — he even has an asteroid named after him.
The Observatory helps to educate the public on issues of science and religion not specifically related to astronomy. Their website has an entire section dedicated to “science and religion frequently asked questions,” and their explanations for the intersection of faith and religion are some of the most informative and most delicate out there. It’s an excellent resource for explaining the Catholic church’s very pro-science position to naysaying family and friends.
For example, they explain what the Church teaches about creation. As Catholics, we reject a literal interpretation of the Bible; we instead acknowledge the Bible as a timeless document whose messages mean different things over time. Certainly, we take the Bible seriously, as it teaches that the universe was made by God, “in an orderly fashion, who found that his creation was good, and indeed so loved the world that he sent his only Son.” By studying the physical universe, we become closer to God, who did the creating. The Bible teaches us who made the universe; the science explains how.
Questions ranging from why the Church cares about astronomy and planetary research to suspicions that the Church is using the Observatory to look for extraterrestrial life (spoiler alert: they’re not) are answered by their work — an incredibly concrete example of the Church’s intense commitment to scientific advancement.
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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