An Atheist’s Search for a Church: Interlude – Dinner with Father John
[Note: Names of church and priest have been changed to protect his privacy]
On Thursday night I accepted Father John from St. Mary Catholic Church’s invitation to have dinner. We met at Austin Grill, across the street from his home and about 60 seconds from my front door.
I didn’t know what to expect – from the dinner, from him – I didn’t even know if he would be wearing the clerical black shirt and white collar get-up. I wasn’t sure where the conversation would go, how much I would tell him about myself.
He showed up in casual clothes (no collar) and was relaxed and friendly. If you recall, we met last Sunday after Mass and I had introduced myself as having been raised Baptist and (he later told me at dinner) he felt an immediate connection to me, having also been Baptist before becoming Catholic and then an ordained priest. So, much of our conversation compared and contrasted Catholicism with Baptist beliefs, practices, and style.
When I first met Father John last Sunday after Mass, he immediately disarmed me by telling me about his terminal cancer. He continued to disarm me throughout the dinner by openly and honestly talking about his shortcomings, failures, and even current dissatisfaction with his station (and hope for the future). I was surprised to learn that as an undeployed Air Force Chaplain, he currently had no congregation to lead or Mass to conduct, and that he had to essentially beg the main Priest of St. Mary Church to allow him to lead one Mass per week- as a temporary guest. He said that, as a Chaplain, he was currently nothing more than a glorified, secular therapist and that he spent most of his days giving tours of the White House to tourists. With notes of disappointment and weariness he told me, “Giving tours of the White House gets old fast…that’s not what God intended for me when he called me to the Priesthood…”
He also explained that he served as an Air Force intelligence officer for decades (as a practicing Baptist) before being called to Catholicism and the priesthood at the age of 37, after flunking out of Medical School.
His honest descriptions of his failures and shortcomings, his cancer and chemo, his unfulfilled hopes for the future were deliberately laid before me and he made repeated references that he shared my struggles and doubts, that he sins like I do, that he needs forgiveness and grace like I do, that ‘we are both two beggars searching together.’
I found this theme surprising, disarming, and endearing. I told him that I was hoping that I can offer something to him and not only take from him and he said that god put me in his path for a reason, that I might serve to sharpen his faith, and give him purpose. This made me feel better.
The conversation was a bit rambling, both of us excited by the topics – his story, my story, and contrasting faiths and theologies – and we often couldn’t finish a thought or story before being sidelined by another topic or anecdote of interest. We spoke for about two and a half hours and felt a mutual enthusiasm and friendship.
I was interested to learn more about him and ‘figure him out’ – I had never spoken to a priest before and was curious what they were really like. I have long regarded the Catholic Church as tyrannical, dogmatic, and thieving – and her priests don’t have a great reputation either…And yet, I expected that priests as individuals might really not all be the villains that the secular world portrays them as. Father John seems rebellious – he openly criticized Catholicism, saying that many Priests, churches, and congregations are complacent and boring, that some bishops are corrupt, and that the ritualism and legalistic redemption characteristic of Catholicism, so oft-criticized by protestants, can indeed be abused and lead to misunderstandings about god’s expectations for a person’s life. He described being punished for “Insolence” by his bishop(?) in seminary, and getting complaints from congregants for preaching for too long. He likes to think that he has retained the ‘best’ parts of Baptist style while conforming to the ritual and tradition of Catholicism.
As for me, I told him about youthful zealousness, the overwhelming guilt and burden of shame I experienced because of my persistent doubts and emerging sexuality, my judgment of others and attempted self-righteousness, and my obsession with the book of revelations and the “end times” – a deeply distressing and malformed faith which culminating in my bitter and utter rejection of religion at the age of 14 and subsequent 15 years as an evangelical atheist…He never once asked me if I believed in god today. I didn’t say it either, and I wonder what he thinks…Why he didn’t ask. Does the fact that I went to church and told him that I’m searching for a church imply that I believe again? I didn’t want to deceive him, but I also didn’t want an awkward confrontation where I had to describe all the problems I have with religion, so early in our relationship…that discussion can easily provoke defensiveness in a believer, and close him off to accepting me. I wanted to stay on common-ground as much as possible and establish good-will before broaching areas of contention in our beliefs.
I felt uneasy the entire time as he spoke to me as a brother in christ, seeming to take for granted that we shared the same beliefs…Was this manner of speech out of habit? When’s the last time (if ever) he has had this (or any) conversation with an atheist? Did he actually believe that we share all the same beliefs? Not just in jesus, but he seemed to assume that I disapproved of abortion and homosexuality in the same way that he did, suggesting that I avoid the Arlington Parish, despite its preponderance of young(ish) adults my age when I told him I was seeking to make new friends in the church.
He told me the young adults in the Arlington parish were “too liberal” and that I should avoid it, unless, perhaps, after he and I spend more time together, I can go there as a missionary, with him to guide me. I was flattered by this, but also bemused – is he really so out-of-touch with who I am and what I may or may not believe that he can make so many assumptions? I think it might be because I told him I identified as a “Southern” Baptist – having gone to baptist churches during my formative years in Tennessee, Florida, and North Carolina. And I suppose that the implication is that I share the same (social) values as Southern Baptists – a notoriously conservative group…
Despite my curiosity about him and my intellectual evaluation of his particular sect, my true agenda is to seek counsel for my fucked up life, guidance for my stagnation in growing to be a decent human being, and most importantly serenity. He offered many words of wisdom, hopelessly wrapped in theistic language. I experienced acute cognitive dissonance throughout the dinner as I yearned to take to heart his blessings, prayers, and advice, but I struggled to maintain my atheistic frame of mind.
I felt meaning and value underlying his words, but I couldn’t process out the “God” parts quickly-enough…How silly this sounds. But, I still believe that christian prayer and belief hold value that can be secularized…I’m just not good at doing it on-the-fly yet 🙂
Near the end of the dinner, he said, “You’re going to have to tell me about all these tattoos some time-”
<he pauses expectantly as I hope that he will move on from this topic. I have a t-shirt on (and a polo last sunday) which show only the bottom-halves of my arm tattoos.>
<reluctantly I roll up my shirt sleeve and unveil my gigantic Lucifer tattoo>
“Sorry, I can’t see well. Morning…Star…”
“…” <I wait for the reaction, wait for my new friend and confidant to turn on me, whip out a handy crucifix to banish me with, etc.>
“That’s a very christian tattoo.”
“That must have taken a long time”
<I turn the bicep around and show him the writing on the other side>
“Reason…but where is ‘Faith’?”
“It’s like I told you, Father, since I was 14, I have turned away completely from Faith and lived entirely by Reason.” I say, with a pleading, apologetic voice.
“Baptists often teach Faith to the exclusion of Reason, but I believe that within Catholicism, there is a place for both. Consider St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas – both champions of Reason…” He speaks quickly
“St. Thomas Aquinas is my favorite saint by far” I interject, eager to be back on common ground
“For good reason, he in many ways revolutionized the church…” He continues on…
…And we continue on with our lively discussions. How could he have not reacted? His demeanor and friendliness didn’t change at all after seeing the tattoo and he kept a poker face the entire time. Did he not recognize the fallen angel? Even common christians know the “Morning Star”, so surely this priest does. I found his lack of reaction puzzling…I certainly didn’t get a chance to explain it…maybe next time?
We meet again next week. He says he will be my spiritual counselor and that we will help each other find and fulfill god’s purpose.