A Wink of Heaven
MY STORMY ROAD…TO ROME
“I have had a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper,
And I would no longer be denied; all things
Proceed to a joyful consummation.”
— T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral
On a Thursday morning in mid-September of 1975 I knocked at the door of the rectory of St. Bede’s parish in Williamsburg, Virginia. When a priest appeared I said, “Father, I want to become a Catholic.” If the choirs of angels burst into rejoicing at that moment I did not notice, for I felt more apprehensive than joyful. I knew what this decision would cost: shock from kinfolk, incomprehension from friends, alienation from the culture that had nurtured me, and clucks of pity from my faculty colleagues at the College of William and Mary. I knew something else as well: there was no turning back — I must become a Roman Catholic.
Three weeks short of my 31st birthday I had reached a decision that did not square with my upbringing. No wonder some of my relatives viewed my sudden penchant for papistry as an indication of incipient derangement. After all, I had been born into the thoroughly Protestant and energetically anti-Catholic culture of rural Maryland. That I had been raised in the Seventh-Day Adventist denomination made my choice of church all the more perplexing to others; former Adventists may stray into atheism or take up sheep molesting, but they rarely head for Rome.
Unlike Saul of Tarsus I had no Damascus Road to explain my conversion — no voice from Heaven, no flash of celestial light. Nor could I claim that I had followed the example of John Henry Newman and Ronald Knox, who “poped” only after arduous and systematic study eventuated in intellectual certitude. Yet I was ready to enter the Roman Catholic Church (ready at that very moment had the priest been willing); if that struck my family and friends as preposterous I could only reply that it was the most sensible step I had ever taken.
Before answering the question, “Why Rome?” I must respond to another: “Why not Takoma Park?” (Takoma Park, Maryland, has been the world headquarters of Seventh-Day Adventism.) Almost a decade earlier I had repudiated Adventism, thereby abandoning my appointed role in the cosmic drama that culminates in the triumph of the fundamentalist saints. That I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia when my “apostasy” occurred explained everything to the Adventists back home in Takoma Park; they sorrowed over the loss of yet another “young man of promise” who had succumbed to the beguilements of secular learning.
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