Tuesday, 4 April 2017

There and Back Again: My Journey from Cradle Catholic to New Age Wiccan and Back to Mother Church

This was originally going to be a talk on my reversion to the faith. I have been inspired by Roger Buck, whose book on the New Age can be found here:


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. This talk is not meant to be a complete rejection of any beliefs outside of Catholicism - after all the Church says we should reject 'nothing of what is true and good in other faiths'. One way of looking at this story is through the experience of someone like St Augustine. He tells of being brought up a Catholic by his mother Monica, his rejection of that faith and his embrace of dualist philosophies such as Manicheanism, and his final return to the Church in his book the Confessions. I might dare to say that my story is similar, but without the saintliness on my part! My reasons for embracing the Catholic faith are also like Augustine's.

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. I'll say more about that in a minute. 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. There are many reasons for this. 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. It also seemed to me that if those who were meant to be teaching the faith had little more to say about it than what you would find in a humanitarian or humanist mission statement, I couldn't see why they bothered. Secular enthusiasm for humanity is not core Christianity, contrary to what some Church leaders would have you believe.

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. We have:

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. The most dangerous thing you can do here is to dismiss this as nonsense. I am convinced of the reality of the spiritual world, partly because I and people I know have come into contact with the reality of the spiritual forces of evil. It is a very dangerous thing to mess about with occult realities, and as C S Lewis said, the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing people he didn't exist.

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 was, to paraphrase G K Chesterton, 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. It was seduced from its natural goal which is to be an aid to contemplation and moral virtue, and it went searching for forbidden fruit. The analogy which springs to mind is if you were to have a balanced, nutritious meal, say a roast dinner with lots of vegetables put in front of you, and instead you ignore it and go to the chicken shop for some spicy wings and fries. You know the other meal is bad for you, but that is part of the thrill of eating it!

So as I said before, the erosion of what is called the sacramental in the Church, that is those things which body forth the invisible divine gift of God's grace, such as adoration of the blessed sacrament and so on, the erosion of these opportunities for time with God both within the church and in the wider culture, leave the imagination seeking sustenance elsewhere. The imagination is like a stomach, it has to be fed. Take away the healthy balanced meal, and it will have to go and get the chicken wings.

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:
  • 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
  • As Catholics we can see that if Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, then he is in some sense present in some of these beliefs in a similar way that belief in the one true God is present in Plato's Form of the Good.

Take for instance the New Age fascination with Angels. The Church has a highly developed angelology in which there are nine different hierarchies of angels and a long tradition of belief in and prayer to them. Angels are depicted throughout Christian art, and it is unusual indeed for medieval churches to be without statues of them. Catholics even believe in a personal guardian angel unique to each human. New-agers love all this. It appeals to the desire for direct experience unmediated by institutions which is at the heart of so much of their worldview.

In fact, I think this one fact is the key to those who follow the New Age - they are not happy with second-hand experience - they want to see and feel the divine reality for themselves. This is understandable. But it also makes them like doubting Thomas - unable to believe until he puts his hands in Christ's wounds. Christ said happy are those who are unable to do this and yet still believe and this is the reality of faith - assent to the reality of things unseen. For that you need a Church.

Unfortunately, the New Age Thomases can fall into serious error regarding the spiritual world. By their insistence on personal experience they actually attempt to substitute the reality of grace with human effort of the will. They acknowledge spiritual realities but instead of placing themselves in right relation to these realities through prayer and works of charity, they attempt to get those realities to work for them. Attempting to manipulate the spiritual world for your own benefit is called magic. It the oldest evil, given to us by the serpent in the garden of Eden.

Such evil takes place when the sin of pride works on us. It can happen to New Agers and it can happen to those in the Church. You can tell the prideful nothing they do not already know. They are so concerned with their own personal quest for truth, that they forget about everyone else. What is great about the Church is that no-one can go on for very long being a Catholic before they see the wrongness of this position. We have two great antidotes to the sin of pride - Jesus and Mary.

Mary's humility was the very thing which enabled her to be the 'handmaiden of the Lord', Jesus 'humbled himself, even unto death'. At the heart of the Catholic faith is the cross, the Way of all believers, dying to self. Even our sacraments are there to promote this humility. Think of the self-discernment and humility you need to have to go and confess your sins to another human being. You would have to be a master of self-deception to go on sincerely studying and trying to follow the Catholic faith and at the same time being full of pride.

The New Age does not have this protection. In fact, the New Age studiously avoids these parts of the faith, even though it talks a lot about Jesus. Jesus, lover of Mary Magdalene; Jesus speaker of wisdom from the East (Gnostic Gospels); Jesus, founder of a royal bloodline; even Jesus the Buddhist, or Jesus the Zen Master, or Jesus the mythical Corn-God, but never Jesus the Messiah, True God and True Man, Jesus who died a criminal's death and rose again for our salvation.

Why not? Pride. The promise of the New Age is essentially the promise of the serpent ; "ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil". It is salvation without the cross, what Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace.

The serpent, then, that ancient and cunning creature, does much of his work through glamour. We mistake apparent goods for real goods, apparent goods are much more 'right here and now' whereas real goods require patience, sacrifice and effort to accomplish and attain. Why bother going to church and praying and doing everyday tasks humbly and charitably when we can gain 'enlightenment' by being 'who we really are' contemplating ourselves. So the serpent tends to affirm us in our own laziness and short-sightedness. Much easier to be a Goddess-worshipper and criticise organised religion or patriarchy for the hang-ups and problems of the modern world, than it is try and love the dejected and degraded products of the modern world.

The promise of the serpent contrasts with the promise of the Blessed Virgin. This is sometimes known as the Proto-Evangelion, or the Good News before the Gospel, in Genesis 3:15 God speaks to Satan:
“I will put enmities between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. She shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for her heel.”
The woman is the New Eve, Mary who is often depicted with the serpent under her feet, for in Revelation 12 it describes the ‘Woman clothed with the sun’ and the great red dragon at her feet waiting to devour her son when she gives birth to him. The triumph of Mary – she shall crush the serpent’s head – was repeated by Our Lady herself when she appeared to the children at Fatima in Portugal 100 years ago next month.

Have no doubt, the modern world is doing everything it can to forestall this triumph, the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pray the rosary. Our Lady specifically asked at Fatima that we pray the rosary. It has great power against evil.

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.

First, 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. I believe that in spite of the rather large amount of dubious material I read, and my overall lack of formation in the faith, alongside a depleted sacramental life, and a larger culture that tended to value only the rational and the material, that God used these books to help bring me back to the faith eventually.

For instance, one of the key elements of LotR is the humility of the hobbits, esp Sam, Frodo's companion. Tolkien uses Sam's humility and Frodo's compassion to ultimately bring about the destruction of the Ring, but they do not accomplish this by their own efforts, in fact, the moment of destruction of the ring is actually the moment in which it seems the greatest darkness has come to the world of Middle Earth, when Frodo gives up his quest and Gollum seizes the Ring. By a fateful turn, this leads to its destruction, but it doesn't happen by Frodo's hand. This illustrates the saving reality of grace, working above human effort.

This episode at the heart of LotR is also an example of what Tolkien called 'eucatastrophe' the sudden turn to joy at the darkest of hours. It is no accident that Tolkien, in his calendar of Middle Earth, had this event occur on March 25th - a date in our world which used to be known as Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation. Here is Mary's Yes to God upon which our salvation depends.

But it would take me a long time to realise that there was any effect on me from these books, and they could not have worked all alone. Other things happened, in which I more consciously formulated an intellectual position on Catholicism. At first I held it at arm's length because I believed that the Church was outdated and had misrepresented who the real Jesus was. In other words, I absorbed all those ancient prejudices that have been doing the rounds since the Reformation. It took me a while to educate myself out of them. If you are one of those people who has seen a few YouTube videos on atheism or watched Stephen Fry or Richard Dawkins talking about religion and now think you know that the Church and all organised religion is a load of nonsense, I beg you to seek out other things. Look up the Magis Centre on YouTube for instance - Robert Spitzer - I can guarantee it will give you some serious things to think about.

Anyway, 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. I had got a certain way down the road of Christianity but stayed outside the Church, my main inspiration was Carl Jung, who seemed to do justice to spiritual realities, but who himself was never an orthodox believer in God.

Then I read this book and 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.

I want to talk now about the main 'reasons' why I believe. By reasons, I don't really mean dry rational arguments for God. I am talking about how Catholicism seems to me the only coherent option for a person as combination of body, soul and spirit to hold. Intellectual coherence is one important part of that, the end goal of desire is another.

The first reason I have already touched on, and that is the unsatisfactory or partial nature of truth in all other belief systems. As we have looked at this partial truth of the New Age, I want to look at the other major modern worldview which has perhaps an even slimmer slice of the truth, that of secular humanism or atheism.

At a very basic level, one of the key things which helped me go back across more easily to the faith was when I realised the superior coherence of the theistic worldview (belief in a personal God) compared with the atheistic worldview.

Modern atheistic or secular humanism is built on two major tenets or assumptions; materialism and atomism/individualism.

The first belief - materialism is impossible to hold without self-contradiction. Materialists believe humans and indeed everything else are just more or less complex arrangements of matter. It is agreed upon by almost every materialist that free will is essentially an illusion, and consciousness is just a 'neat bunch of tricks' (Daniel Dennett's phrase). This means that although I feel myself to be a thinking, choosing being, with an inner life, this is just the result of being on the receiving end of the complex set of neural activities in my brain. I am a meat machine. But if that is the case, why should I believe you when you tell me this? After all, you are also a meat machine, no freer to hold the belief in materialism than I am to hold a belief in God. Your belief in materialism is just the by-product of the neural activity in your brain. Materialism is self-defeating because it cannot account for this intentionality and purposiveness of human beings.

Therefore, one of the key assumptions of secular humanists can be dispensed with. What they normally claim in defence is the unfeasibly powerful predictive ability of the natural sciences, which function by eliminating any non-material element from the equation, and the undoubted advances in medicine and technology which have arisen from this predictive ability of science. These should, they say, offset any purely philosophical problems with materialism, and anyway, philosophy is just word play really, science is the real deal. This belief that science can justify itself is called scientism. It is also indefensible on the very simple grounds that even the most basic version of the scientific method is founded on certain philosophical assumptions or principles which are not themselves capable of scientific proof or testing.

The other principle behind secular humanism is the principle behind liberalism - that of individualism. The individual should be free to decide for themselves to do whatever they want, there are no bonds of tradition or duty or family and freedom is simply the absence of obstacles in the path of this individual self-expression. In more classical versions of liberal humanism reason would play a large role in providing constraints on this, but in modern times it seems even reason gets pushed to one side.

It seems to me if you combine people's general tendency to weakness of will and blindness to their own faults with these principles you get a system of atomistic particles in which the masses of humanity are absolutely vulnerable to manipulation by powerful and amoral corporations and governments.

I have tried to show that no-one can do without a belief system, and that no belief system is neutral in value. The only thing we can do is to differentiate superior or inferior belief systems. Why is the theistic worldview superior to the atheistic one? For the reasons I have just shown, which are negative, but also for two positive reasons.
Firstly, the arguments which are often called natural theology are intellectually defensible. Things such as the design argument or the argument from beauty. I have no time to go into these here. Richard Swinburne has a 'cumulative case' argument in which theism becomes statistically higher than chance and is argued as an inference to the best explanation to the current state of the universe. Keith Ward and John Lennox, Oxford professors of philosophy and mathematics are worth seeking out - you can find them proposing such arguments on YouTube. So theism for me is rational. But no-one ever just believes in God on purely rational grounds. For me, my faith is something in which I am called to give and go beyond my own comfort zone certainly, but it is also something which nourishes the soul life within me. And for this you need more than a rational argument.

I spoke before about the importance of feeding one's imagination on good things. It is interesting to note S T Coleridge's definition of imagination at this point:

Imagination - 'a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM'

By the infinite I Am he means something like the 'mind of God'. Coleridge also said 'never could the eye have beheld the sun, had not its own essence been sunlike'. We can see here that our imagination's true task is to enable us to conform ourselves to the divine reality. We can become 'sub-creators' in everything we do. There is thus an inbuilt capacity within human nature to relate to God. But, and this is really where I want to come back to Augustine, because of fallen human nature, that potential is frustrated. Now there is a tendency in us to try and make other things fulfill this need. Created things become a substitute for God, but do not satisfy. And the more we pursue them, the deeper in sin we mire ourselves, but Augustine tells us this sin is the loss of God - it is not guilt but grief, it is a yearning for home. He says:

"You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

Humanity is destined to remain incomplete in its present existence. Its hopes and longings will remain just that. Augustine talks of this sense of longing and how it should lead us to God throughout the Confessions:

"[I am] groaning with inexpressible groanings on my wanderer's path, and remembering Jerusalem with my heart lifted up toward it - Jerusalem my home land, Jerusalem my mother."

The thing that keeps me in the Church is its acknowledgment 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.