10 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. 4 For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.
5 Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; 6 in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. 7 Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,’ as it is written of me in the roll of the book.”
8 When he said above, “Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9 then he added, “Lo, I have come to do thy will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,
16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,”
17 then he adds,
“I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”
18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
When attacking Catholicism, Protestants will often rush to this passage of Hebrews to assert that Christ’s sacrifice occurred exactly once, and that the repeated sacrifice of the mass is therefore redundant and blasphemous. I personally have found it hard to respond to this attack. For the longest time I have had an intuitive understanding of the Catholic doctrine surrounding the sacrifice of the mass, but I have always struggled to articulate it in an apologetic context. When I try to explain how the mass is equivalent to the sacrifice of the cross, and yet not a repetition of that sacrifice I simply get tongue tied. I will set down some reflections in this post that may help shed some light on the issue.
The Heavenly Liturgy
A relevant question to ask: what exactly is Jesus doing up there in heaven? What does it mean that he is our great high priest? Hebrews 8 is informative:
Hebrews 8:1-7 RSV-CE
8 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. 3 For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. 4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” 6 But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second.
So Jesus is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, he is a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent. What is he doing? He is perpetually, eternally and timelessly offering to the father his “once for all” sacrifice of Calvary. Basically, Jesus is currently up in heaven, eternally saying the sacrifice of the mass. But it is not a sacrifice of the mass like anything you’ve ever seen before: our masses and divine liturgies here on earth take many different forms and expressions, and none of them perfectly reflect the divine liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. The liturgy up in heaven is performed in a liturgical language that we do not understand, the movements and rituals involved are beyond our comprehension. Angels are serving and ministering at the heavenly altar. The entire church is the congregation, surrounding the altar and perfectly united to the sacrifice being eternally offered upon it.
Our sacrifices of the mass and divine liturgies here on earth manifest this one, single heavenly liturgy such that we here on earth are able to spiritually unite ourself to the hidden, heavenly reality.
The book of Hebrews is pretty insistent that there is now no longer any need for priests and sacrifices, because Christ performs all the necessary duties as our great high priest up in heaven. So how are we to understand the existence of Catholic and Orthodox priests? The answer: Catholic and Orthodox priests have the honour of sharing or “participating” in Christ’s Melchizedek priesthood. The Catholic priest is an “Alter Christus” – another Christ.
So when a priest says the sacrifice of the mass here on earth, what is actually happening is that he is manifesting the one, divine, heavenly liturgy in a certain way here on earth. This manifestation may take many different forms: the Byzantine liturgy, the Coptic liturgy, the Latin mass, etc. All these manifestations are different and unique, and yet they are intimately connected by the fact that all of them are manifesting the one, eternal, heavenly liturgy that is currently taking place up in heaven. Within this earthly manifestation of the heavenly liturgy, the priest represents Christ – he is an “Alter Christus”. In reality the only priest is Christ, but our ordained ministers have the honour of being his earthly hands in the offering of the Eucharist.
When the heavenly liturgy manifests on earth, the priest takes the place of Christ. A sacrifice of the mass or Divine Liturgy is like a sacramental, liturgical window into the heavenly liturgy: we are able to perceive hidden, heavenly realities with our senses. The liturgical language used during the sacrifice of the mass represents the divine, ineffable, incomprehensible liturgical language employed by Christ up in heaven (Which is one reason why it is appropriate to use Latin, or some other language which not many people understand during the liturgy – this more faithfully reflects the ineffable essence of the heavenly liturgy). The incense, bells, chant, movements, bread and wine engage all the senses and draw us into the hidden realities of the heavenly liturgy where Christ presides as our one high priest.
The Once For All Sacrifice
The earthly liturgy manifests the heavenly liturgy in such a perfect way, that the earthly liturgy can truly be said to be a sacrifice. It is important to keep in mind that the sacrifice itself happens only once: it was performed around 2000 years ago by Christ on the cross. However a Catholic sacrifice of the mass manifests this single sacrifice such that we are able to be liturgically drawn into it and unite ourselves to it more closely. Similarly, the earthly liturgy manifests the offering of the sacrifice which is eternally happening up in heaven, with Christ as both victim and high priest. This offering happens only once, as per the book of Hebrews, however it is manifested many times throughout history.
So how should we deal with the Protestant objection that the sacrifice of the mass is “re-sacrificing Christ”? This is a misunderstanding. Christ is sacrificed only once, and he is offered up only once; however this sacrifice and offering is manifested here on earth many times. The sacrifice occurred on the cross, and the offering up of that sacrifice occurs up in heaven during the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the priest. However during the sacrifice of the mass, this heavenly liturgy is made manifest in a sacramental, liturgical, tangible way, so that we who are still alive here on earth are able to be drawn into the action. During the sacrifice of the mass, we truly witness both the sacrifice, and the offering of the sacrifice, however in reality it is an eternal event and it is inaccurate to say that it is happening “again”.
An imperfect analogy is prudent: If you record a soccer game, and then replay it later, the game is manifested for you in a much more real and tangible way than if you had depended merely on your memory to recall the events of the game. When you record a soccer game, you can “replay” the game and witness the exact events all over again with perfect accuracy. However you would have to be out of your mind to say that the game is literally “happening again” when you press play on your recording. Similarly with the sacrifice of the mass: the sacrifice of the mass is like the ultimate “recording” of the heavenly liturgy: it manifests the original event so perfectly that it is as if we are actually present. However it is inaccurate to say that the sacrifice is “happening again”. It is instead a “memorial”, but it is a memorial which is so completely perfect that it is as if we are literally present at the original event. In the sacrifice of the mass we are liturgically remembering Christ’s sacrifice, and the offering of that sacrifice, however this memorial is so perfect that we may as well be witnessing the sacrifice itself.
Christ is not sacrificed many times – he was sacrificed only once. And this sacrifice is not offered many times – it is offered only once. This offering of the sacrifice occurs eternally up in heaven in the form of the heavenly liturgy, with Christ as the high priest and the entire church as the congregation. However our earthly liturgies manifest this heavenly liturgy. Our earthly liturgies serve as a perfect memorial of the single act of sacrifice and offering, and they so perfectly manifest the sacrifice and the offering that it is as if we are truly present and witnessing the event first hand.
So the sacrifice of Christ happened once and the offering happens once in the heavenly liturgy, and the manifestation of this heavenly liturgy occurs many times in the form of our many and varied divine liturgies.
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.
It is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.
So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.
Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?
Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment
So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.
I would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.
This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.
So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.
So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen
7 Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’
8 You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”
9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.”
There is not much that Protestants, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals agree on, but if ever there was an ecumenical dogma which they could rally behind, it would be this condemnation of tradition by our Lord. Everything else is disputable, but this much is clear: Any tradition whatsoever is automatically suspect and heretical; all traditions must be renounced and discarded. The “word of God” must be the sole focus of our Christian reflection and piety.
So of course, when the faithful and thoughtful Catholic points out that tradition is unavoidable and it would therefore be a wise move to seek out the one, true, divine tradition that Jesus imparted to the apostles before his ascension; the venomous evangelicals spit and froth at the mouth, screaming “heresy” and obnoxiously accusing the polite and reserved Catholic of following “traditions of men”. Nowhere is Protestant ignorance and bigotry more manifest.
What these Protestants utterly fail to realise is that the traditions Jesus condemned were of an entirely different nature to the Apostolic, Catholic Tradition that Catholics proclaim. Unfortunately when Catholics are confronted by bloodthirsty Protestants on this point, and are put on the spot with a demand that they explain how the Catholic tradition is different; the Catholic often is unable to articulate clearly what exactly “Catholic Tradition” actually is. Catholics have an intuitive understanding of “Catholic Tradition”, however we seem to find it hard to articulate and convey in clear terms how it is that it should be understood.
The Apophatic Definition of Catholic Tradition
The basic definition of what Catholics mean by “Catholic Tradition”, is that it is the continuing life of Christ in the church. Apostolic, Catholic Tradition is what you encounter when you immerse yourself in the Spirit. It is a direct encounter with Christ. The Catholic Tradition is invisible and ineffable, it cannot be directly perceived, it must be experienced.
What Catholics tend to do when confronted about “Apostolic Tradition”, is to offer this “apophatic” definition. This definition is not actually wrong, but it is incredibly vague and intangible. The Protestant listens to this definition – and not fully understanding it – they reject it and hold up their bible, waving it around for emphasis while saying “I can touch and hold this. I can read it. Why do I need your mystical, invisible, immaterial, ill-defined catholic traditions?”
At this point, the Catholic might introduce a touch of psychology: Everyone has bias, bias is inescapable. Baptists have bias; Presbyterians have bias; Anglicans have bias; Lutherans have bias; Catholics have bias etc. When these people approach scripture, they bring their bias and preconceived notions with them, and this shapes how they read the bible. “Catholic Tradition” in this context is merely the correct bias – By hanging out with Catholics, you naturally soak up the biases of the group and bring these biases to scripture, reading it in a certain way. The Catholic claim is that we are biased, but our bias is inspired by the Holy Spirit. In this way a Catholic who reads the bible is better off, because they are immersed in an inspired apostolic tradition which guides them to a correct reading of scripture.
Again, this is not completely wrong, but in my experience it tends to fly directly over the Evangelicals heads. They will start rambling on about the “clarity” of scripture in a pathetic attempt to deny the fact that bias has anything to do with scriptural interpretation. Supposedly the bible is so “clear” that it can cut through our bias and present the unadulterated truth directly to us. This is obviously utter nonsense, and this is easily demonstrable by observing the violent doctrinal disagreements that Sola Scriptura Fundamentalists get tangled up in while trying to decide with each other what the bible oh so clearly says.
The Catechism’s Definition of Apostolic Tradition
It is helpful to examine what the Church officially teaches concerning apostolic tradition. The current official stance of the church has been distilled into the paragraphs of the Catechism. While these definitions and reflections are not infallible, they are a helpful starting point for someone investigating these issues surrounding Catholic tradition.
II. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN TRADITION AND SACRED SCRIPTURE
One common source. . .
80 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.
. . . two distinct modes of transmission
81 “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”
“And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”
82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
The Magisterium of the Church
85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.
86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.”
87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.
The dogmas of the faith
88 The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.
89 There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.
90 The mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence, can be found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ. “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”
The full page of the Catechism containing these extracts can be found here.
These extracts offer a decent, though incomplete picture of the relationship between Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium. Often the situation is presented as a metaphorical “three legged stool”. Scripture, Catholic Tradition and Magisterium are described as the three legs of a stool which the church sits on. Take any of them away and the whole thing topples over.
I personally think this usual explanation is a little misleading. It seems to set up scripture against Apostolic tradition as if they are two rival sources of revelation and Catholics just so happen to embrace them both, whereas Protestants only receive one of them as authoritative. This only gives ammunition to the Protestants who then quote these official church documents and go “See! These Catholics believe in scripture plus tradition. They are just like the Pharisees who Jesus condemned!” The same problem arises with the definition of Magisterium: The magisterium seems to be being presented as some sort of alternative authority over and above scripture and the apostolic tradition, and of course the cheeky Protestants cry fowl and accuse us of usurping the authority of God in favour of the authority of men. In reality Catholics believe no such thing. The most accurate way to describe the situation is that Catholics believe in asingle authoritative deposit of faith, the entirety of which is referred to as Apostolic Tradition. However this is a deposit of faith which grows as history marches on, and scripture is only one component of this Catholic Tradition.
Visible Manifestations of the Invisible Catholic Tradition
Recall the Apophatic definition of catholic tradition. Catholic Tradition is inspired, ineffable, invisible, intangible. This is a good starting point. We spiritually live within this invisible apostolic tradition. However the ineffable catholic tradition manifests in three concrete ways, which roughly correspond to the three legs of the aforementioned “three legged stool”. The three manifestations are thus: The scriptural apostolic tradition, the liturgical apostolic tradition, and the dogmatic apostolic tradition. These three apostolic traditions reflect the intangible and invisible Catholic tradition in a way that people can directly perceive and interact with.
Scriptural Apostolic Tradition
The Scriptural Apostolic Tradition is larger and more multifaceted than most people would realise, Catholics and Protestants alike. It consists of all translations and editions of scripture that have been implicitly received by all the apostolic communities around the world, as well as any translations or editions which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. As such, the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition contains the Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Peshitta, the Greek New Testament, the Douay-Rheims, the RSV-CE and so on. When a Catholic theologian is doing theology, he has to respect all of these translations and editions. Priority is not given to any particular edition or translation, not even the original languages. All of the translations within the scriptural apostolic tradition are considered equally inspired and authoritative.
Liturgical Apostolic Tradition
Similar to the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition, the Liturgical Apostolic Tradition consists of all liturgies which have been implicitly received by apostolic communities around the world, as well as all liturgies which have been explicitly approved by the Magisterium. Liturgies which have been implicitly received would include the Coptic, Armenian and Ethiopian liturgies, whereas liturgies which have been explicitly approved would include those of the Anglican Ordinariate, the Novus Ordo, the Neo-Catechumenal Use and the Tridentine Liturgy. A Catholic theologian must draw on the prayers, movements and symbolisms of all these different liturgies whilst formulating his theology. The maxim “lex orandi lex credendi” applies here: the Church believes as she prays. As such it is important to pay close attention to the many and varied liturgical rituals of the Church.
Dogmatic Apostolic Tradition
This is the “Divine Clarification” aspect of the Catholic tradition. When the bishops of the church meet together in an ecumenical council approved by the Pope and come up with a list of canons or anathemas, these statements are considered divinely inspired and a crucial component of the Holy Apostolic Tradition. The Pope can also define canons and anathemas outside of council. This list of infallible, inspired dogmatic statements grows as time marches on. New Dogmas can be established, but old ones can never be repealed. Once a dogma is defined it is set in stone for all time. Old dogmas can be “annulled” only if there is conclusive proof that they were never actually officially promulgated.
Dogmas are intended to clarify the Catholic tradition, making it’s boundaries more clear and defined. For example the biblical canon is a dogma which establishes the boundaries and limits of scripture.
All three of these components of the Catholic tradition may grow with time. New translations may be introduced to the Scriptural Apostolic Tradition. New Liturgies may be approved, or existing liturgies may evolve, thus adding to the Liturgical Apostolic Tradition. The list of dogmas grows as time goes by, thus expanding the Dogmatic Apostolic tradition. Catholic Tradition is dynamic, not static. As language evolves, so does the scripture. As heresies rise and fall, the dogmas grow. As the spirit moves the church, new liturgies are introduced and old liturgies are altered.
Remember, Catholic tradition is fundamentally invisible, and ineffable. It is something which you experience, something which you must live and breath, something that you must pray through. It is not primarily something which you “study”. It is only by praying your way into the Catholic tradition that you will truly encounter Christ. As such, merely studying the bible will not draw you into this sacred apostolic tradition or introduce you to Jesus: you must pray your way through the sacred words of holy writ. Incidentally this is why Catholics do not have “bible studies”, we instead have lectio divina – prayerful reading. Similarly, merely being present during a liturgy is not enough, you must unite yourself to the divine drama unfolding before you through deep, fervent and meditative prayer. Similarly with the dogmas, it is not enough to know them as some sort of check list of propositions to be believed, instead they are to be prayerfully received and trusted as lights along the path that leads to the fullness of the truth – Christ himself. They should be prayerfully wrestled with just as you would wrestle with scripture.
The magisterium has the task of defining the boundaries of these three things. The magisterium sets the canon of scripture, and approves new editions/translations. It also recognises certain liturgies as inspired, and has the authority to make additions and alterations to existing liturgies or introduce entirely new ones. And of course it is the task of the magisterium to receive divine clarification in the form of dogmas via Pope or council.
An important final note: it is not the task of the magisterium to provide an infallible interpretation of scripture, or the deposit of faith more broadly. The magisterium does indeed provide an interpretation for the sake of the common man who wants to be a faithful catholic and does not have the time to formulate his own unique position, but this interpretation is entirely fallible and disputable, merely representing the distilled sensus fidelium at the current point in history. Theologians are free to dispute almost anything the magisterium says. Theologians are only forced to respect the infallibility and inspiration of the three components of the Apostolic Tradition defined in the post. Beyond that they are free to speculate until the cows come home.
Next time you’re in a discussion with a Protestant about Catholic Tradition, try to keep in mind the three-fold definition presented in this post. Catholic Tradition is indeed invisible, ineffable and intangible, however it manifests in exactly three ways: Liturgy, Scripture and Dogma. These three ways are visible, effable and tangible manifestations of the Apostolic Tradition, similarly to how Christ visibly manifests the invisible, ineffable, intangible God. All three of these manifestations are inspired and authoritative, and Protestants are doing themselves a disservice by only receiving the scriptural apostolic tradition while rejecting the liturgical and dogmatic catholic traditions. Scripture is not separate to apostolic tradition, scripture IS apostolic tradition.
I often hear Protestants talk about the cross as if it were a gift which God could just as easily have withheld from us. They talk about Grace and Salvation as if it is all some supererogatory gift on Gods part which he could have just as easily chosen not to bestow upon us. I completely deny this. God is first and foremost the perfect, loving father: it is in God’s nature to save his wayward children, just as it is in the nature of any parent to save their children from irreparable harm. What parent, when confronted with their drowning child, would refuse to dive into the water and rescue the helpless infant? If we broken and imperfect humans are able to act with such decision, then how much more will the God of infinite love and mercy dive into the strangling depths of Hell to rescue us! If God didn’t save us, he would be going against his nature and this is something which he can never do. He is not only a God of Justice, content to punish sin: Before all else he is a God of love, who must save us from that sin.
To say that God will refuse or fail to save someone is a great and abominable blasphemy. Those who speak such horrible words understand neither Grace nor Love, neither Mercy nor Justice. Such people are entirely ignorant of the things of God and are completely unacquainted with the glorious gospel of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, Hell and The demonic powers.
Pray for the salvation of all and eagerly await the advent of the eschaton, wherein all without exception will dance a dance of love around the throne of God, singing praises and hymns to the sovereign, kind and merciful lord of the universe, to the ages of ages, amen.
Thought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?
Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.
Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?
Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism (Latter Day Saints) respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
As I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.
Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.
Now, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.
Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?
Honestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons (Latter Day Saints), because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the Latter Day Saints church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) get it right.
Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.
Apart from my joyful realisation that I now believed in the one true gospel of Universal Salvation, my final month in Hong Kong was the worst and most painful of all. There was copious amounts of stress with Mindy and we were having insane amounts of sex. I didn’t even care any more, I was so depressed and despondent, and I felt as if my life was entirely out of my control. I ended up not even trying to resist, and for the first time I found myself actually actively seducing Mindy myself, rather than her seducing me as would usually happen. I was pounding back 3 fat cans of Tsing Tao Draft every night as a form of self-medication and I was constantly going to bed in a drunken haze.
Towards the end of our Sydney holiday – when my Psychologist had admonished me to return to Sydney permanently – I had informed Mindy of my decision to return to Australia. Mindy did not take it well at all, and immediately set about trying to control, coerce and manipulate me into changing my mind. By this point of the relationship, she had proven to be incredibly effective at getting me to agree with her (except on matters of faith) and she basically had me under her thumb, like a trained dog. She went through the usual routine and I pretended to relent and change my mind about going back to Sydney. Truth be told, she managed to exert enough influence over me to get me to seriously contemplate staying in Hong Kong. However one morning I received a facetime call from Mum and she was able to snap me out of it and recommit to the original plan. We agreed that it would be a good idea for my step father to actually come to Hong Kong and pick me up in person, so as to force me to board the plane back home and prevent Mindy from manipulating me into staying. We also agreed that I should keep these plans secret from Mindy, so that she couldn’t wear me down and change my mind.
Nevertheless, as April was drawing to a close and the date of my departure was approaching, Mindy discovered my plans to leave and went into crisis mode. She started organising emergency meetings with absolutely everyone: We met with Alan – her pastor from Living Grace church, Alex McCoy, and she even tried to organise a skype talk with Andrew Judd, the youth minister who was serving at my old church St Barnabas in Sydney, and who had agreed to perform the marriage ceremony for us back in Australia.
All three of these ministers sided with me and my doctors: they figured that the wisest course of action was to trust the professional advice and return to Sydney. Suicide and depression are serious business and not to be taken lightly.
During our final session with Alex McCoy, it came out that not only was I planning to leave Hong Kong, but my flight was scheduled to be 2 days later. It was at this point that Mindy completely freaked out, broke down and lost control of herself.
An Apocalyptic Tantrum
As we left Alex McCoys office, Mindy completely lost control. She started crying, screaming, saying that she wanted to kill herself and trying to run into the heavy traffic on Nathan Road. As she made motions to step in front of all the massive trucks and buses flying along the road at top speed, I would try to intercept her and grab her and prevent her from killing herself. As I did this, she would spin around and aim a solid kick at my groin. Passers by started to turn their heads in concern and check what was happening. I felt like I appeared to onlookers as some sort of rapist or predator, as I was grabbing her and trying to hold her and wrest her away from the oncoming traffic, while she was swearing at me and kicking my balls. It was incredibly awkward and embarrassing.
Eventually Mindy just ran away from me in tears and I trekked back to my flat at Yuen Long alone. I was worried and concerned about her, because she was behaving off the scale crazy and threatening suicide. My psychologist Alex Goymour had warned me that this might happen and prepared me with some strategies to deal with it. The first principle she told me was that you must always treat a threat of suicide seriously: never ever laugh it off or treat it as an empty threat, otherwise the person making the threat might just go ahead with it in order to prove their sincerity. With this in mind, I took Mindy’s threats of suicide seriously.
As I travelled home I received a constant stream of emotionally strung messages from Mindy. Once I was back in my flat I decided that I needed to contact the police because this was getting way out of hand. I did not know how to contact the police, so I went down to the lobby of my building and spoke to the security guard on duty. Unfortunately he didn’t know how to speak English and I struggled to communicate with him, but thankfully another resident of the building appeared and I was able to use her as an interpreter. The security guard contacted the police and filed a report concerning Mindy’s threats of suicide. He wrote down the number of the police and conveyed to me that they would get in contact with me.
I went back up to my flat and waited, all the while receiving crazy suicide threats from Mindy. I tried to stay calm and collected, and establish where exactly Minday was, so that I could tell the police if they ask. The most that I could gather was that she was in a high place. I didn’t know what that meant, but it made me imagine her jumping off a rooftop and falling to her death on the side walk. Eventually the police called me and we talked through the situation. The police had also got in direct contact with Mindy, which just made her even more crazy: she sent me a message “Why did you bring other people into this??? Why did you have to call the police??? This is between you and me!!!” I was refusing to play her game and submit to her manipulative tactics, and yet I still had to treat her suicide threats as genuine. I figured that introducing the police into the situation would serve as negative reinforcement and perhaps dissuade Mindy from ever trying this crap on again.
Eventually Mindy materialised at Yuen Long station and informed me via whatsapp that she was on the way to my flat. I was extremely concerned about her and so went down and started walking towards the station so as to meet her. I ran into her on the long, blue bridge between Yoho Mall 1 and Yoho Mall 2. She was in a terrible state. She broke down crying and fell to the floor, holding my hand and refusing to let go. She started pleading with me like a spoilt toddler who wants her mum to buy her some expensive toy. “Pleeeeeease don’t go!!! Pleeeeeease stay!!! Don’t leave meeeeee!!!” She was sobbing and shaking and crying and screaming. There were tears streaming down her face and she was completely distraught. Naturally I was crying too: it was incredibly hard for me to hold it together under such emotional stress and while confronted with such a wreck of a fiancée. All I could say to her imploring and begging was “I can’t, I’m sorry.” I was emotionally exhausted and torn: A large part of me wanted to give in to this tantrum so that I don’t have to hurt her like this, but I knew that my step father was arriving the next day, and I knew that I had to go home, so I did not give in.
Mindy got herself somewhat together and we started moving back towards my flat. Suddenly she changed tactic. She started to get all aggressive and physical, hitting me and poking me forcefully while verbally attacking me and accusing me, trying to make me feel guilty. I just pushed her off me and refused to put up with her crap. We just stood there as a cloud of mosquitoes ate my legs.
Suddenly her phone was ringing: It was the police. They wanted to know if she had arrived at my flat. She calmly and collectedly informed them that she was with me and she was alright. The police considered her to be safe and that the case was closed. I thought to myself “Fuck“: She was definitely not safe and the case was definitely not closed. Now I was going to have to endure a whole night of stressful whining and complaining and suicide threats. This was Hell.
Around about 4am we eventually moved up to my flat and things settled down a bit. I don’t actually remember, but I suspect we ended up having some good make up sex to close the conflict, as we usually would after a big fight.
Arrival of a Saviour
The date that my stepfather arrived in Hong Kong happened to be his own birthday. My stepdad has been very good to me throughout my life, and this was a prime example of how much he cared for me. I had informed my Mum via text message of what had happened, how Mindy was completely distraught and falling apart, threatening suicide. With this in mind, my stepfather was expecting to meet a totally crazy Mindy when he got off the plane. But instead, Mindy managed to pull herself totally together and act as if everything was normal and nothing out of the ordinary had happened recently.
That evening all of us went to an awkward dinner with Mindy’s family. Her Mum and Dad who usually live in China were present, as well as her Grandmother. Mindy’s Dad quizzed me on whether I really do love Mindy and want to marry her. I honestly didn’t know, but what I did know is that I still wanted to be an honourable man who keeps his promises, and so I insisted that I still loved her and still wanted to marry her. I made yet another feeble promise to return to Hong Kong in a years time after I had recovered. I thought that love was an attitude, and if I couldn’t handle this relationship turmoil, then there’s no way I could ever handle a marriage. I thought that I had to push through.
On the day of the flight, I had already wrapped up all my business with Aaron from butterfly milk and I had a whole day to kill. Me, Mindy and my Stepfather ended up trying to kill time by visiting “The Peak” – an expensive shopping centre and lookout built on top of a mountain. Unfortunately on this day the Peak was shrouded by a thick cloud and we were unable to see the great view of Hong Kong that would usually be enjoyed from that point.
Rather than catch the bus or tram down the mountainside, we decided to walk the whole way down. My step father was not as young and fit as he used to be, and found the experience to be excruciating and painful. He has since said that he was completely baffled as to why we decided to do that: it was an intense physical strain which he really didn’t want to deal with.
At the end of the day, me and my step father boarded the flight back to Sydney, and I was finally escaping Hong Kong for good.
Return to Sydney
After returning to Sydney I ended up staying with Mum and my immediate family for a few weeks. I was still incredibly down and depressed at this point. I was very shaky and not myself. I remember feeling incredibly sad and distressed: when my younger brother Nicholas would talk to me non-stop about his cool new video games and awesome plans to build a mini metal foundry (and other such stuff that imaginative young boys get up to), I remember I would be completely zapped and lack the energy to engage with him and his excitement. I remember wishing he would shut up and piss off, which distressed me to no end because I really love my brother and I was distraught that in my depressed state I was unable to enjoy talking to him properly.
During my time at Mum’s house I would just binge on multiplayer Minecraft with my brothers. This was not exactly the healthiest way to spend my time and did absolutely nothing to help me emerge from my depression. I lacked joy, happiness and energy.
Eventually my Grandfather returned from holidays and said that I could come and live with him again. I thought it would be nice to live at the beaches again and to hang out with Gamps. Unfortunately it was not “just like old times”: I was no longer a 17 year old high school student, and the dynamic with Gamps was different. I felt like I had to be doing something productive at all hours of the day, otherwise I felt guilty and stressed. As such I had to force myself to look for jobs and do menial tasks around the house, but when you’re unemployed there’s only so much that you can actually do, so most of my time was spent sitting in my room, trying and failing not to read theology articles, while feeling incredibly stressed and guilty. Unemployment was Hell. The time ticked by incredibly slowly. I was still depressed and couldn’t imagine any job which I would actually be effective at.
I had a routine: Hang around at Gamps’ place not doing much during the week, then on Friday night travel to Mum’s house with my laptop and play video games with my brothers. On Sunday night I would travel into the city and attend mass at St Benedict’s. After mass I would catch the bus to the northern beaches and walk up the hill to Gamps’ house.
Return to WiseTech Global
Unemployment was not doing anything to help my mental state, so I decided to apply for a job at one of my previous employers – WiseTech Global. Alex Eagles was working there, and I remembered some of the people who I was friendly with back in 2011/12: Matty B, Patty McP, Maciej Maciejewski, Brett Shearer, Baabar Khan. Even though I didn’t have much hope that this job would help me in any way, I figured anything was better than sitting around at home all day not doing anything. I smashed the interview and the programming test. Thankfully they were happy to have me back and I was able to slide right into a desk right next to Alex Eagles.
Unfortunately this also was not “just like old times”. Eagles was super focused on his career and didn’t have any time to hang out with me or have lunch with me: he was always having lunch with key figures in the company to talk about business strategies and whatever else. He was in networking mode.
I ended up reaching out and making contact with Patty McP and Maciej Maciejewski, both of whom I was friendly with back when I first worked at this company. Both of them remembered me and were happy to catch up. I ended up regularly having lunch with Pat and his friend Daniel, and we would talk about incredibly nerdy and geeky topics. I wasn’t particularly keen to talk about this stuff, but I was just happy to have someone to eat my lunch with so I endured it. I really wanted to talk about faith and theology with someone, as that was my passion and what I cared about, but no one in the office seemed to be interested in this topic. The only person who actually had even a slight interest in theology was an apostate homosexual guy who had studied at a Hillsong theological college. He was only interested in biblical matters if he was able to shoot them down.
Ever since my conversion to Catholicism, I had been starved for Catholic companionship. “Please God, give me some Catholic friends”: This had been my constant prayer for the past two years. I was so incredibly lonely. My prayer finally was answered in the form of Maciej Maciejewski. I was aware that Maciej was a Christian, but it wasn’t until I saw him wearing a world youth day T-shirt that I realised he was also Catholic. I reached out on the office skype network and let him know that I was Catholic too. After talking for a while, I remember him saying “Wait, you really are Catholic!”: Maciej was very much aware of the problem of nominalism within the church. A lot of people who claim to be Catholic aren’t really devout or faithful; for these people religion is an entirely cultural affair, not to be engaged in unless it is someone’s birthday, wedding or funeral. Me and Maciej were happy to connect over a shared faith and devotion in the office.
The Liturgy of All Ages
During my time at WiseTech, I became curious about Latin Mass. I had heard that the Latin Mass still happened sometimes and in certain places, so I wondered if there was anywhere in Sydney that I could go to witness one. I googled it and found out that there was a parish nearby in Lewisham called “Maternal Heart of Mary Catholic Parish” which offered the Latin Mass. It just so happened that that night was the feast of the Assumption, which is a holy day of obligation in Sydney (meaning that Catholics are required to attend church on that day).
It was winter and I was wearing black jeans and a trenchcoat. I figured that this was formal enough to attend mass and after work prepared to trek to Lewisham. As I arrived in the parish courtyard, I noticed a mother with some children preparing to enter the church. From her accent I could tell that she was Irish. Her children were all incredibly well groomed and wearing suits. She was dressed incredibly modestly. I heard her whisper to her kids “Be respectful now; remember that this is Jesus’ house”. I was immediately impressed and struck by the reverential attitude that she was cultivating in her children.
As I entered the church, I looked around and was amazed at what I was seeing: all of the women were veiling their hair and were dressed in supremely modest attire. All of the men were wearing suits. Even the children were dressed as if they were going to a wedding. I was also shocked at the wide range of ages on display: I was expecting Latin Mass to be packed full of old codgers and withering hags, but instead I was seeing a church full of young, vibrant faces and many many children and infants. There were indeed a few elderly people in the pews, but the majority of the people in attendance seemed to be in their 20s and 30s.
And then the mass actually started. I was blown away. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, heard, smelt and tasted. The Gregorian chant was sublime, the incense was intoxicating, the movements of the priest, deacon and subdeacon were hypnotic and mesmerising. The elevation of the Host and the Chalice was accompanied by a beautiful chorus of bells, both big and small. The reverence amongst the congregation was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The presence of God was tangible: When the priest held up the Host and the bells were ringing while the incense flooded the room, there was not a doubt in my mind that I was staring at the transubstantiated body and blood of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ. I was instantly hooked.
This Latin mass was such a pleasant surprise and unexpected joy for me, that I ended up attending again the following Sunday at 10:30am. As I approached the church, an older man standing outside immediately walked up to me and said hello. I was stunned: this had never happened to me before outside of a Protestant context. He introduced himself as Tony Pead. We got talking and he was incredibly friendly and jovial. We went in and found a seat for mass, and it was just as beautiful and wonderful as the last time. After it was over I exited the church and found the courtyard full with all of the parishioners: chatting and socialising and catching up with each other. Again, I was blown away: in two years of being Catholic I had never seen this before. I ended up meeting lots of people of a variety of ages and backgrounds. After hanging around in the courtyard for a little while, people packed into their cars and drove to the Empire Hotel just down the road for a feed and a drink. I was impressed at the fellowship. I was also impressed at the knowledge of these people: these were not lukewarm Catholics; they actually knew the faith and were zealous to defend it and propagate it!
It seemed like my long suffering prayer had finally been answered: I had finally found a strong Catholic community! I started attending this mass every Sunday, rather than going to St Benedict’s. I even begun to attend evening Latin mass at Lewisham on Thursdays. I was still depressed, but spiritually I had finally found a home. It quickly became apparent to me that the Latin Mass is what Catholicism is all about; the limitations and drawbacks of the new vernacular mass suddenly became incredibly obvious. Suddenly I realised why I had felt so disillusioned for the past few years of my Catholic journey. This was what I was missing. The eternal liturgy and the faithful Catholics who congregate around it. I had always wondered to myself why I seemed to be the only devout Catholic that I knew; everyone else seemed entirely nominal and apathetic. I finally knew why: all of the faithful Catholics congregate around the Latin mass. If only I had known that at the beginning of my Catholic journey!
Depression And Incompetence
Unfortunately I was still completely depressed. Due to this depression, I was utterly failing to complete the tasks that had been assigned to me at work. I was still in a state of despair as I considered my prospects: I felt like a fake and a failure in this job, lying to everyone about the work that I was doing. I reflected upon all my past jobs and realised that it was just the same pattern repeating itself: I never ever got anything done. I was always taking months on end to complete the simplest tasks. I felt completely incompetent. Other people didn’t seem to have any problem completing their work, but I simply could not do it. I felt absolutely no passion for this job, and it wasn’t long before I found myself gravitating towards theological articles rather than doing the work that had been assigned to me. I really was not cut out for this sort of work. I had always been interested and skilled in computer science, but software engineering is a totally different thing and it didn’t seem that I was very good at it at all.
This line of thinking only served to reinforce my depression: the future looked bleak. I felt like I was locked into a pattern of failure and dishonesty and that I could not escape this. I felt like work was just something that I had to do, even if I couldn’t actually do it; otherwise how would I make money? How would I survive? I could not imagine any other possibilities in life. My passion was theology, faith and philosophy, but I felt like I was locked into this boring software developer lifestyle forever. I felt completely trapped and helpless. I had resigned myself to a depressing future as an incompetent, dishonest programmer.
After my first performance review – which was entirely negative – I started having suicidal thoughts again. I was tempted to throw myself in front of the oncoming traffic on O’Riordan Street.
During this entire time, I had been in regular contact with the team at EIPS. I came in for a face-to-face session with Alex Goymour. I talked through my depression with her, and she was able to shine a light in the gloomy darkness. For my entire life, my Mother had scared me into believing that the only way to be happy was to earn lots of money in some shit-house “good” job and then try to enjoy life on the weekend. Alex Goymour was able to dismantle this idea easily. How could I possibly be happy in life if I’m spending 8 hours a day doing something which I dread and hate, and another 4 hours a day travelling to and from work? Why do I have to keep doing this job? Why do I have to be a software developer? Answer: I don’t have to. I enjoy studying and have always wanted to study computer science. Why don’t I just do that? I can get a part time job and spend the rest of my time doing something that I actually enjoy: studying. Furthermore in Australia the government is willing to give financial assistance to those who are studying in tertiary institutions. Really, I have nothing to worry about: I could leave my job and still survive. I could actually do something that interests me.
All of a sudden there was a crack in the door. I threw my foot in it and refused to let the door close. Finally, for the first time in two years, life was starting to look up again. I actually had some opportunities which I could pursue. I actually had something to look forward to; something to be optimistic about. I wasn’t committed to any particular course of action, but finally I felt as if I had options and a future to look forward to and hope for.
Don’t forget Mindy
During this entire time, I had remained in contact with Mindy. We still contacted each other on whatsapp throughout the day. Sometimes we would have cyber sex via text or video. Technically, we were still engaged and intending to get married, so Mindy was looking into options for moving back to Australia. However I was no longer putting up with her crap any more: I had set a strict bedtime of 10pm. Therefore we were not allowed to talk to each other past this time. This was tricky because of the time gap between Hong Kong and Sydney. It basically meant that there were no times when we could talk to each other face to face. I thought to myself “Too bad” and refused to stay online past 10pm, for the sake of my mental health. One time Mindy threw another tantrum over facetime because of this. I remember witnessing her slitting her wrists with scissors because I was refusing to cooperate with her and she wanted to show just how emotionally high strung she was feeling. I did not understand why she was slitting her wrists and ended up having a long chat with Alex Goymour about it.
In December of 2016, Mindy organised a trip to Sydney to visit me and her Sydney friends. Seeing as it was impractical to see her if we weren’t staying together, I ended up packing a suitcase and moving to an airbnb in Carlton for a few weeks to be with her.
Naturally we had no restraint and ended up fucking non-stop. And of course at the same time we continued to have incredibly painful fights and yelling matches. My mental health was not quite tip top and I was regularly feeling infuriated and enraged at her. I also had lots of accumulated bitterness towards her due to my time in Hong Kong. At one point as we were walking home she was in full crazy bitch mode and all standoffish. I cracked and smacked her and threw the contents of her bag on the road, smashing whatever I could. I hated her so much. This relationship really was toxic for both of us.
I was willing to give her one last chance. Many people had told me that they were converted to Catholicism by the Latin mass. Many others had told me that they had taken their non-Catholic partners to Latin mass and they too ended up converting. Maciej and some of the parishioners at Lewisham had encouraged me to bring Mindy along. I thought to myself: “This is my last hope: I will bring Mindy to Latin mass and see what happens. If she doesn’t show any signs of conversion we’re through.”
So one Thursday night we both suited up and trekked to Lewisham to attend the solemn sung Latin mass. The whole time Mindy just stared at her feet and prayed, clearly trying to block out the experience as much as she could. Afterwards we had dinner at Darling Harbour and she revealed her impressions. She did not enjoy it. She hated it. We ended up in a fight again: “I don’t want my children being exposed to that!” “Well I don’t want my children growing up with your bullshit protestant heresies!” It was clear to me that there was no hope for this relationship. It was also clear to me that Mindy was not even a real Christian. She was a totally depraved heretic who was certainly going to burn and rot in Hell and I wanted nothing more to do with her.
Mindy flew back to Hong Kong, and it wasn’t long before we had agreed to officially call off the engagement and end the relationship. We still maintained contact, but it was different now. We were just friends, not lovers. One of the blessings of God is that it has actually remained that way to this day: every now and then I message her or she messages me, and we are now on friendly terms. But there is no longer any romance. I am entirely satisfied with this turn of events and wish her all the best with her future.
Discerning a Vocation
Around about this time – December 2016 – as I was considering alternative life paths and options, the idea came to me that perhaps I would enjoy being a priest. I had always been attracted to the priesthood, but I had always ruled out the idea on the basis of my engagement to Mindy. Now that I was released from my engagement promise, I began to think seriously about the priesthood: Perhaps this was my way out of depression. As I contemplated being a priest, it was the first time that I actually felt attracted to a job and thought that I might actually be good at it.
I decided to get in contact with Father Epeli Qimaqima, the vocations director for the archdiocese of Sydney. One day after work we met at the Archbishops palace, where Father Epeli was living. We discussed my background and plans and desires, and Father Epeli was very encouraging. It wasn’t long after this meeting that I became entirely committed to the idea of joining the priesthood. The only thing holding me back was the fact that it was so late in the year and so it would be hard to acquire the appropriate references in time to apply, and also that I was a committed Universalist. At a later meeting with Father Epeli I asked him if my Universalism ruled me out from being a priest. Father Epeli responded that no, it doesn’t, but he was concerned and could not personally subscribe to this sort of theology.
Seeing as it was too late to enter seminary, I decided to apply to UNSW and study computer science in the meantime. Thankfully UNSW accepted my application and I was enrolled to start studying again in 2017.
Move to Gladesville
It was becoming increasingly stressful living with Gamps. He had started to charge board and wanting me to move out. If I had not found a place by mid-February he was going to double the rent.
I got in contact with my old flatmate, little Alex. He was approaching the end of his degree and would soon have to move out. I asked him if he would be keen to live together again and he was right on board with the idea. We started house hunting and applying for places to live around the inner west. Unfortunately I didn’t anticipate just how much competition there was going to be. The odds of us actually scoring a house or flat were obviously minuscule, especially considering I was about to quit my job.
Thankfully little Alex managed to find a place: his mate from UTS, Henry Jacobs, was renting a house in Gladesville with his girlfriend. They had recently broken up and Henry was looking for someone else to move in and help pay the rent. Me and little Alex signed up immediately and made the move.
For the first 10 weeks of living in Gladesville I was living in a store room and sleeping on a couch. I bought lots of furniture but was unable to set it up because all of Henry’s stuff was already filling the space. It felt kind of third world, but I was happier and less stressed than when I was living with Gamps, so it was a step up.
Return to UNSW
Over the preceding two years, after the traumatic interactions with Mindy and Alex McCoy, I had developed a slow burning hatred of Protestants. They all seemed entirely ignorant and stupid. I wanted them all to die and be cleansed from the earth in some great calamity. Their core theological convictions all seemed like utter crap to me. Sola Fide was clearly and specifically contradicted by James 2:24. Sola Scriptura was obviously self-contradictory, incoherent nonsense. Protestants seemed entirely blind and idiotic.
I realised that this hatred of Protestants was not healthy. I was constantly praying for God to heal me and take the hatred away. I hated Protestants so much and wanted them all to die in a fire, and I knew that such hatred was damaging my soul and dragging me down to Hell.
I turned up at UNSW on my first day, and was incredibly excited to attend my first class: “Introduction to New Testament Greek”. I was incredibly tense: I knew that this sort of subject would attract armies of hyperventilating evangelicals and was preparing myself for arguments and hostilities. Thankfully the class came and went without issue.
I wandered around campus waiting for my next class, and noticed hordes of CBS evangelicals walking around campus evangelising people. They had also taken over the quad and there were thousands of them sitting in circles doing bible studies. I tensed up, experienced flashbacks to my arguments with Mindy and Alex McCoy, and became full of hatred and disgust. “Fuck these heretics” I thought to myself, and left the area swiftly.
The next day at Uni, I noticed a poster which advertised a Catholic society event: ice cream and pancakes to welcome students to the new year and new semester. I eagerly awaited this event, avoiding the brainwashed CBS hordes as best as I could.
As I walked up the stairs of the squarehouse to the Catholic chaplaincy, I was incredibly nervous. I had only just emerged from my depression and was still feeling a bit shaky. I didn’t know if I would be able to maintain conversation with people.
But the event turned out to be awesome. I spent most of my time talking to a Singaporean girl called Kamilla, and a Chinese girl called Scarlett. We talked about language, religion, the bible, translations, China and so on. It was great fun and I was in high social gear. I stayed for the entire event, even after people had left. Eventually I ended up standing in a circle with the only other people in the room, one of whom was Jess Gereis and another Tamara Neil. Both these girls seemed like super evangelical, mega devout Catholics. This was incredibly exciting.
As the weeks went by I made many friends in the campus Catholic society. The people in the society seemed devout and faithful, even if many of them had been poorly catechised. I felt happy and content for the first time in a long time: I finally had a decent Catholic community I could hang out with on a regular basis. My prayers had been answered again!
Unfortunately during this time my antagonism towards the protestants deepened. I would walk past the CBS bible studies and be filled with disgust, cursing them and wishing damnation upon them. My hatred was starting to spill over onto facebook, where I was writing horrible things about evangelicals and blaming them for all of society’s ills. I was a pot that was slowly boiling over. This was not healthy; my hatred was eating me from within, and my constant prayer was “God, please take the hate away.”
My first semester came and went, and I enjoyed a Catholic retreat with the Chaplaincy and various other events with the Catholic society during the mid year break.
During this time I continued to read the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog. I stumbled across an article series which I had read before and it had resonated with me, but I didn’t fully understand. It was titled “Sola Fide and why Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants need the reformation”. I gave it a read again. As I read it, it started to make more and more sense. Suddenly I was struck by lightening: I finally understood what “Sola Fide” was all about. I realised that the Catholic church really had fallen off track in a very important sense. I realised that Sola Fide – when correctly understood – does not contradict James 2:24.
In the blink of an eye, I understood the core convictions that drive Protestantism, and I realised that these people were not so stupid, evil and depraved after all. Suddenly I had the same gospel joy that they had, and I was no longer jealous of their happiness.
Most importantly, I no longer hated them. I actually began to love them once again.
Ever since I came to this understanding of Sola Fide, I have been able to attend Protestant services again, and enjoy fellowship with Protestants. I even began to attend my local Anglican church on Sunday evenings.
The Archbishops Palace
During 2017 I went on a couple of “Discernment retreats”. This is where a whole bunch of guys come together and camp out while talking about spiritual matters and attempting to work out whether or not to commit to the life of a priest. This was great fun and intensely enjoyable for me.
During the second such retreat, I met a certain young Lebanese guy who seemed entirely puffed up with pride and hatred towards all non-Catholics. I saw myself reflected in him and decided to have a chat with him. I told him with a twinkle in my eye that I thought he would be a fun one to debate. We ended up sitting down and passionately arguing about a variety of topics. I was basically trolling him, and he was getting all hot and steamy. He was incredibly rigid. He treated the catechism as infallible. Whenever I attempted to propose an idea which was contradictory to established church teaching, he would call foul and flick to the relevant part of the catechism, attempting to shut me up by ecclesiastical fiat.
Talking to this guy made me realise that I might face some opposition in my priestly journey. I did not want to be a liberal, but neither did I want to be a conservative. I wanted to remain faithful to the dogmatic, liturgical and scriptural traditions of the Church, but I am not going to pretend that all church teaching is infallible when in actual fact the vast majority of it is not. If I feel the need to dispute some established teaching, I am well within my rights to do so.
Due to my being on the radar of the Archdiocese as a “discerner”, I was invited to the Archbishops palace for a formal dinner along with many of the other discerners in the diocese. The night was incredibly enjoyable: The Archbishop gave a kickass speech, the food was great, the conversation was wonderful. I was expecting the Archbishop to be a total politician, but in actual fact the man managed to present himself as nothing more than a faithful Christian. I was completely impressed.
As 2017 came to a close, I reflected on my goals and plans. I was pretty committed to the idea of being a priest, so why on earth was I wasting my time with a computer science degree? I figured I should either enter seminary, or study something more relevant to my goals.
I researched the University of Sydney biblical languages department. I discovered that it is possible to learn Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Syriac in a tight double degree structure. I was immediately sold. I applied for transfer from UNSW to USYD and after a painful wait, was accepted.
During the Christmas of 2017 Mindy visited again. This time it was a nice and pleasant visit. We were just good friends by this point. We didn’t end up having sex, which relieved and overjoyed me tremendously. I accompanied her to one of her FOCUS friend’s wedding, and she accompanied me to my local Anglican church. It was wonderful to see her again and just hang out as friends.
To Be Continued…
2018 has begun. I am no longer depressed. Life is entirely bright and wonderful. I am having the time of my life. I am looking forward to my language studies tremendously. I finally have lots of Catholic friends and feel completely content in my faith. I am a passionate evangelist for the one true Gospel of Universal Salvation, and am having some success spreading the word among my fellow Catholics.
I have been occupying my time by hanging out with Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s great fun to get to know what these other groups believe and build relationships with those who are different to me. I’m particularly impressed with the Mormon doctrine of “Afterlife ministry”: They believe that the people in Heaven will travel to Hell and minister to the people who are trapped there, hopefully saving them and enabling them to escape to Heaven. This resonates with me strongly, and seems like an entirely more Christian and loving view of afterlife relations.
I am intending to visit America some time this year, because there is a Universalist conference happening and it would be a dream come true to attend and meet some other Universalists. I would also like to visit my Father in California, and also the writer of the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog, Father Kimel. Father Kimel has been a massive influence on me through his writings and I eagerly desire to meet him in person and shake his hand, thanking him for the joy that he has managed to spread to my life. I contacted him and he was happy to hear from me, offering to let me stay at his house with him and his wife for a short time.
Hopefully I succeed in my journey to priesthood, and am able to keep up with the work during my biblical languages studies. Life is good. Please pray for me and my future. God’s blessings be with you.
It was mid-2014. After my realisation that I was already a Catholic, I begun to do a total practical transition from Protestantism to Catholicism: I stopped attending church at St Barnabas, convinced that it was all false teaching. I slowly stopped attending Credo events and disentangled myself from Credo people. I was still friendly with many of the wonderful people I had met in Credo, for example Poya, Luke Simpson and Timothy Ho, but I did not go out of my way to hang out with them.
During this time I was still on the leadership team of the FOCUS ministry. I began to second guess myself. Should I really be on this team if I am a Catholic? If I believe that the FOCUS team is spreading false teaching and teaching a counterfeit gospel, am I really comfortable contributing to that?
One day I brought some rosary beads along to a FOCUS event, and was showing them to people and talking about how they help you to pray. I did not actually know how to pray the rosary at the time, but I was just looking for some way to affirm my identity as a Catholic. This caught the attention of Helen Yim, who recognised the rosary beads as a typically Catholic accessory, even though she didn’t understand their significance or what they are used for. She was completely unimpressed.
She sent me a text message saying “Alex, you can’t bring those ‘rose beads’ to FOCUS again. If you do, I will have to take you off the leadership team. Salvation is found IN CHRIST ALONE” I responded with “Of course salvation is found in Christ alone. What has that got to do with Catholicism or rosary beads? Catholics are in complete agreement. Besides, I’m resigning from my position anyway; I don’t feel comfortable serving alongside people who believe in heresy any more.” Helen clearly was a victim of the anti-Catholic indoctrination and propaganda that is so rampant among Evangelicals. She was probably convinced that I was flirting with heresy and my salvation was in question.
Early Catholic Days
I signed up to the UTS Catholic society and integrated myself into one of their small groups. I found the Catholic small groups to be an intriguing contrast to the Credo bible studies. The Catholic society really was much smaller and more incognito than Credo, with almost no noticeable presence on Campus. During the small groups, we would discuss saints and church documents, rather than reading the bible. This was in direct contrast to Credo, which had a singular focus on the scriptural text in both small groups and public talks. At first I found this very jarring, as my evangelical formation had indoctrinated me into the erroneous idea that Christianity is primarily about studying the bible. I later found out that Catholics place much more emphasis on Liturgical participation and the multi-faceted life of prayer.
I started going to Sunday mass at St Benedict’s, Broadway; a Catholic church only a few steps away from St Barnabas. I was introduced to what seemed at the time to be an intriguing quirk of the Catholic religion: daily mass. Every now and then I attended daily mass and confession. I quickly wrangled with the idea that there is a “Sunday Obligation” and that the acceptable times to fulfil this obligation are any time on a Sunday or the Saturday night vigil.
For about the first two years of being a Catholic, mass was entirely cryptic and impenetrable to me. I had not memorised the structure or the responses, and the language employed in the prayers was so high and lofty that it may as well have been Latin, even though it was English. Some times it actually was Latin.
The Sunday service really didn’t appeal to me as much as the old protestant services did. The homilies were cryptic and not at all evangelical. The Priest never actually explained the bible readings, and would instead focus on moral exhortation. The sense of community in the parish was practically non-existent. At St Benedict’s there was a super evangelical Singaporean girl called Priscilla Liem who managed to hold together a basic sense of fellowship among some of the students and young workers, but it really was nothing compared to the spontaneous and naturally loving community that I had experienced in my time hanging out with Protestants. The parish really seemed dead: most people would just stay for the liturgy, receive communion and go straight home. Some people would even leave before the final blessing or during the communion hymn.
This was not something that I had anticipated during my internet research into Catholicism. I began to feel isolated and disillusioned, and started to have doubts about whether I had made the right decision to return to Catholicism and renounce Protestantism. However I decided to stick it out and keep going to mass and confession because Catholicism simply made so much sense on paper.
During this time I still had the thought hovering over my head that perhaps the Orthodox church is the true church rather than the Catholic church. However as time went by I began to ponder the role of the Papacy. It became clear to me that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the apostles and the church, and therefore whoever succeeds Peter inherits that position as leader. I realised that the way to identify the one true church was first to look for the Pope, and then to look for the bishops who are in communion with that Pope. Once I understood this principle, I begin to intellectually feel much more comfortable in my choice of Catholicism over Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I retained a great respect for Eastern theology and it had a large influence over my thinking in the subsequent months.
Unfortunately it was around about this time that I had a minor falling out with Alex Macdonald, and we fell out of regular contact for some time. I had massive respect for Alex Macdonald, and he had somewhat mentored me through my post-cult early Christian days. He had lent me books and been extremely generous with his time, reading the bible with me and having deep and meaningful chats. Naturally I wanted to share my Catholic journey with him. When I met up with him, we ended up getting into violent debates. Alex was obviously very concerned at my movement towards Catholicism. I suspect he felt as though he had invested a lot in me and was a tad distraught that I was drifting away towards something he didn’t really understand or agree with. Our arguments were passionate, as we both shared our core convictions with each other. Alex was convinced that the Catholic church had gone astray in the middle ages and that the reformation had got the church “Back on track”. I was convinced that sacred tradition and an infallible magisterium were essential components of the one true church and it would be inappropriate and catastrophic to dispense with them.
Me and Alex went our separate ways, and I haven’t been in regular contact with him ever since. I catch up with him sporadically and he has since mellowed out and accepts me as the Catholic that I am. I of course still have tremendous respect for him and wish him nothing but the best.
During this time, I had also been maintaining a long distance relationship with Mindy. We had incredibly long chats on facebook messenger, and sent very long emails to each other. We were incredibly open and honest with each other. Perhaps a little too honest. Mindy revealed some truly shocking things about her past and I was totally open about my virginity and insecurities surrounding sex. She didn’t realise I was a virgin. I had been pulling the Chinese girls off their boyfriends left right and centre during China mission so she obviously just assumed I had a lot of sexual experience in my pre-Christian days. Admittedly I had tried to cultivate this misconception in a spirit of “fake it till you make it” – a remnant of my pick up artist days. But I figured honesty was the best policy. I thought to myself, “If she thinks I’m going to be a God in the sack and we end up getting married, how disappointed is she going to be when she finds out that I’m an inexperienced virgin?” With this thought in mind, I decided to drop the “Virgin” bombshell on her. She took it extremely well, although admitted that she was surprised and that I had successfully fooled her into thinking otherwise. She reassured me that it was nothing to worry about.
Eventually, Mindy managed to get me to swap out my old Nokia 3315 for a slightly better model which had the capacity to run Whatsapp. This was a crazy learning experience for me. My relationship failures from my high school days had taught me to distrust internet chat software, so I had some psychological barriers to overcome in order to engage with Mindy in this way. Whatsapp was on 24/7 from then on out, and I was receiving a constant stream of messages from Mindy. This was unknown territory for me: as an introvert who generally shunned technology, being connected in this way was a somewhat scary prospect which would take some time to adjust to. I was used to spending most of my waking hours alone, in the company of myself, enjoying being with my own thoughts. But all of a sudden I was having to put up with this constant barrage of messages from Hong Kong. But of course, I was in love, so I was willing to give it a go in order to keep some fire in a long distance relationship.
During our many facebook and email sessions, I dropped the “Catholic” bombshell on her as well. I informed her that I was thinking of converting to Catholicism and attempted to explain some of the reasons why. I assured her that the prospect of converting does not appeal to me because I am quite happy as an Evangelical, nevertheless I feel compelled to investigate the Catholic claims. I was secretly hoping that she would come along for the ride and investigate Catholicism with me, by my side. I was hoping that she would have an open mind, like me, and be able to overcome her prejudices and entrenched bias against Catholicism. Unfortunately this was not the case, and this fundamental difference in personality and outlook led to relationship disaster further down the line.
Mindy had some reservations about my becoming Catholic. She didn’t actually understand what Catholicism was all about: It was a scary and foreign concept to her. The only things she knew about Catholicism were what she had learned at CBS and what her Evangelical ministers had told her, and this was obviously not going to be a friendly assessment of the faith. I ended up hiding just how Catholic I had become since she had last seen me. It was an easy thing to hide in the context of a long distance relationship: I just simply had to avoid talking about my conversion.
Mindy Returns to Sydney
Eventually December rolled around again. Mindy was scheduled to return to Sydney for her graduation ceremony at UNSW. She brought her whole family, complete with Godparents. I had not seen her since China Mission six months ago, and was incredibly excited to meet her face to face again. We organised to meet up at the AFES headquarters near UNSW just prior to her graduation ceremony. When I finally got to see her in person again, I had forgotten how much shorter than me she was and it sort of threw me off. Nevertheless she looked gorgeous and I was so happy to finally see her in person.
I sat with Mindy’s family and watched her graduation ceremony, and then afterwards her family left us alone and we went to dinner with some of Mindy’s friends from UNSW. The following few days I spent hanging out with Mindy and her family. We went to the fish markets, I visited the flat they were staying in at Zetland and brought an entire lobster in my backpack for dinner, we visited the opera house. I invited Mindy to an evening art exhibition put on by some friends from UTS housing. It was great to finally see her and be in each other’s presence.
Mindy’s family went back to China, but Mindy remained in Sydney on holiday. NTE 2014 was rapidly approaching and both me and Mindy had signed up and were looking forward to it. I recall when it finally arrived. All of Mindy’s friends were advising her not to get into a relationship with me seeing as I was flirting with Catholicism so much. Mindy had a catch up with Helen Yim, and I can’t help but speculate that Helen told her in extremely strong words to break up and stay away from me. There was a moment during free time when we were sitting outside on some grass. It was a great opportunity to kick back and relax in each other’s presence, but Mindy had other plans.
She started interrogating me about my Catholicism, asking me why I’m not satisfied with the Bible and why I need to become Catholic. Why couldn’t I just stay as an evangelical? The discussion slowly heated up and eventually both of us were feeling high strung and emotional. It finally got to a point where Mindy strongly implied that Catholics are not Christians and it was the final straw and ultimate insult for me. I stomped off in exasperation and sorrow. The next session was starting, but I didn’t go. I just sat at the edge of the oval, praying. It was at this time that I prayed my first Hail Mary as an act of spiritual defiance against the bigoted and ignorant Protestants who surrounded me. This was a crucial turning point in my Catholic journey.: I had finally opened my heart to beloved Mary, even if in a spirit of defiance and martyrdom rather than love and devotion.
Following NTE there was a short mission trip. I went to Sadlier in western Sydney with some of the Credo UTS crew, while Mindy went up to Port Macquarie with all the people from the Cantonese FOCUS church at UNSW. We stayed in communication during our respective missions, and Mindy invited me to come and visit Port Macquarie once my mission was complete. I caught the train up the coast and arrived at Port Macquarie, where Mindy’s lovely host family picked me up in their big car and drove me to their big house. This turned into a nice little holiday spent with Mindy and her host family, who were incredibly hospitable.
The Holy Grail
We returned to Sydney, and it turned out that Mindy had nowhere concrete lined up where she could stay. She got in contact with Ai, a Japanese girl from UTS FOCUS who lived in one of the other UTS Housing complexes – Bulga Ngurra. Ai was happy to welcome her into her flat, providing a mattress and bedroom in which she could sleep.
However that’s not exactly how things played out. Mindy would spend every second night in my flat staying up late chatting with me and my flatmates. As the clock ticked away, she would propose that it’s far too late to disturb Ai and can’t she just stay with me? It seemed like the easiest thing to do, so I agreed. And of course I still suffered from a desire to be intimate with a girl and was secretly hoping that she would stay.
Naturally, we started to indulge in some serious fornicating. At first I just let her sleep in my bed while I slept on the floor. But one night while we were chatting in the dim light of my red lava lamp, she suddenly rolled off the bed, landed on my chest and started making out with me. This was a pretty exciting and new experience for me and I let myself enjoy it. Things quickly turned extremely sensual, sexual and erotic, without us technically having sex.
Things carried on this way as the days rolled by, and I would sometimes spend all day in my bed with Mindy, just rolling around with her; we were tickling each other, kissing each other all over and physically playing with each other. It was all very fun, but of course there was this terrible guilt gnawing away at me. I intuitively knew I shouldn’t be doing this.
One day I finally arrived at the destination I had been craving prior to my experimentation with psychedelics: I had sexual intercourse. This was a very strange experience. It was over incredibly quickly and I felt somewhat confused about it afterwards. I had a chat to my psychologist at EIPS the next day in order to attempt to integrate the experience. It really all felt somewhat anticlimactic, and it was honestly nothing like what I had been expecting all these years (Of course, I had a totally warped view of sex thanks to my prior porn addiction; this probably contributed to the emotions I was feeling). I also had a whole bunch of religious guilt getting in the way. It seemed clear to me that I had seriously sinned and I really should have saved this experience for marriage, when I could have properly appreciated it.
The Arguments Begin
During this time spent in my bedroom, we got talking about matters of faith. She still was concerned about my Catholicism, and I was unimpressed with her Protestantism. It was at this time that we had our second serious fight. She was trying to convince me that the bible is the word of God, but the way she was going about it was entirely irrational. She was completely unable to account for the canon, the source of the bible’s authority and so on. I accused her of having blind faith. She accused me of being a “young Christian” and belittled my serious reservations by calling them “young Christian questions”. Her pride was manifest: she thought she was a better Christian than me just because she had grown up in a Christian family and therefore had technically been one longer than I had. This fight was a total yelling match and I’m sure the rest of the people in my flat could hear every detail.
But we were in love, so we were able to push past this fight and continue fornicating, and hanging out during the day. At one stage, when I was dropping her off at Ai’s house in a futile attempt to regain some moral cleanliness in my life, she stopped me and started talking to me in an extremely emotional yet serious tone.
“Promise that you will move to Hong Kong after you graduate” she pouted. “Promise me that you will never leave me”: She was threatening to call off the relationship if I don’t move to Hong Kong to be with her ASAP. I was willing, but I didn’t want to commit to such a drastic life change without thinking about it first. But Mindy was relentless: She pulled every string she could think of in order to try and get me to make this crazy promise. She put on as much pressure as she could. Eventually I caved and made the promise. She was satisfied.
Long Distance Again
Mindy’s holiday came to an end and she flew back to Hong Kong. 2015 had arrived.
I had spoken to Helen Yim about my plans for the future and she advised me to enrol in TESOL and learn to teach English. My degree up to that point had been in Information Technology and I absolutely hated it, so I was looking for some sort of exit strategy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.
I begun to talk to Mindy every night on facetime. As well as talking to her non-stop throughout the day on whatsapp. We would call and catch up for hours, which severely interfered with my sleep and had a fatal effect on my mood stability. At the same time, somehow during this semester our flat had been designated as the party flat. Every night until midnight – and sometimes longer – there would be crazy Europeans partying like animals right outside my bedroom door. Half of the flat was keen on the situation, and half of the flat absolutely hated it. It was keeping me up well past a healthy bed time and I had to invest in some uncomfortable ear plugs just to sleep through the night.
During the mid semester break I made a trip to Hong Kong to visit Mindy. Her Grandma was kind enough to let me stay with them in their already overcrowded flat. Naturally, we continued our fornication and intercourse at every opportunity. I was slowly gaining more experience with sex, which made me feel good. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with a crushing guilt, knowing that I really shouldn’t be doing this. I was also terrified at the prospect that Mindy might get pregnant: We never used contraception.
We continued to argue and fight over theological matters during this trip. On the day before I was to return to Sydney, Mindy looked at me with an overcast face and said “I’m not happy with this relationship”, clearly implying that she wanted to break up. I wasn’t having it, and managed to convince her that it’s not all bad and things will work out: A Catholic and a Protestant getting married is totally possible and feasible.
At the airport on the day of my departure, I got down on one knee and proposed to her. This wasn’t really as big a deal as it sounds. We were practically already engaged, seeing as we had started the relationship under the proviso that we would be married within two years.
I returned to Sydney and continued studying my diploma in TESOL. News of our “Official” engagement leaked to facebook and all sorts of people who I didn’t even know came up to me and congratulated me.
As the semester came to an end and the mid year break approached, Mindy brought up the promise I had made to her when I was in Sydney. She started putting pressure on me to move to Hong Kong. My doctors, family and psychologist were doing everything they could to convince me that this was a bad idea: In Hong Kong I would be completely cut off from every single support network that I have; no more doctors; no more friends; no more family; no more medicare; no more cheap drugs.
But I wanted to remain a virtuous person who keeps his promises, and so against my better judgement, I gave in to Mindy’s nagging and got ready to depart for Hong Kong. In retrospect, it was incredibly manipulative of Mindy to have made me make this promise in the first place. I was not prepared at all to start a new life in Hong Kong.
The Big Move
My bags were packed. I had a suitcase full of drugs that would last me for months, and another bag loaded with clothes and some books. When I arrived in Hong Kong I had no job and nowhere to live. Mindy’s minister kindly let me stay at his house for a few days while I found my feet.
I found myself living in a “Tong Fong” at Tin Shui Wai run by an incredibly dodgy landlord. A Tong Fong is basically a house that has been artificially subdivided into a series of smaller rooms, which are then rented out to poor suckers like me. In my particular Tong Fong, I was living in the kitchen of the flat. My flatmates had to step over me while I was sleeping in order to get their breakfast out of the fridge.
You might be surprised to learn that Tong Fongs are not even the lowest rung on the ladder of Hong Kong housing options. I was spared the fate of living in a “Cage house”: this is basically just a bed in a cage, with a box for you to throw your wallet and passport in while you sleep.
This could not go on for long: my mental state was already pretty shaky, and living in a Tong Fong was not doing anything to help the situation.
I begun to look for a job. I went to an online Hong Kong jobs database and began browsing. I typed “English Teacher” into the search bar and set the category to “Information Technology”. I was incredibly surprised when this actually resulted in a hit: Some English school called “Butterfly milk” was looking for a programmer to come and help them start up a course aimed at teaching technological concepts to children. I thought to myself “This sounds good” and applied for an interview.
The next day I trekked the two stations down the line to Yuen Long, and made my way to this school. In 20 minutes I had conquered the interview and the owner of the school – the half South African, half Cantonese Aaron Mo – was willing to hire me on the spot. I had obviously managed to muster up enough passion for Technology to convince Aaron that I was the real deal.
One of the perks of the job was that it came with relatively comfortable accommodation if I needed it. Aaron’s beautiful girlfriend and assistant, Samantha, took me up for a tour of the flat. The complex was called “YOHO Town”. It was incredibly cramped by Sydney standards, but I could instantly tell that by Hong Kong standards it was luxury living. I asked for the rental price and found out that I would get a great deal: The English school would subsidise over half of the rent because Aaron was planning to use the living room of the flat as a combination office and workshop. I signed up immediately.
When I returned to Tin Shui Wai and attempted to cancel my lease with the owner of the Tong Fong, he wasn’t willing to budge. He wanted to hold onto my bond and two weeks rent and didn’t want to cancel the contract. Mindy got on the phone with him and went into full crazy bitch mode, which freaked him out and forced him to relent and hand over the money.
Life in Hong Kong
I fell into a daily grind: every now and then I would teach English in the school. Most days I would spend programming and building robots up in the flat with another foreign employee – the gorgeous Annika Neumeister from Germany. At the end of the day I would travel on the MTR through the mountains between the New Territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon, so as to meet up with Mindy and go on dates. This happened literally every day, week in and week out. I felt as if I had no time to myself.
During this time I attended Sunday mass at the local Catholic Church: St Peter and Paul’s, Yuen Long. The congregation consisted almost entirely of Filipino maids and Nigerian workers. It was during my time at this church that I first began to fall in love with Catholic liturgy. The music and singing were heavenly and sublime. The prayers of the mass began to come alive for me and resonate deep within my heart. The prayer of the centurion filled me with zeal and conviction as I repeated it every Sunday: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. I could relate to this prayer on the deepest level: I knew I was a sinner in need of healing, and as I repeated the formula I was always shaking with a strange combination of hope and despair: I thought to myself “I know you can heal me Lord; please, do it!”
Despite the fact that I was friendly with the priests at this church, I didn’t form any relationships with the congregation. We simply couldn’t relate to each other. I was a supposedly “rich” gwai lo, whereas they were all “lower class”.
In contrast to this, each Sunday evening me and Mindy were coming together to visit an English Anglican church on Nathan Road – St Andrews Kowloon. The people at this church were typical Protestant Evangelicals: incredibly warm, friendly and loving. The leadership had all studied in Sydney at Moore College, so the services they delivered felt very familiar and reminded me of my Evangelical days. Despite this warm welcome, I felt a bit unnerved: I was starved for Catholic companionship. I did not want to hang out with heretics. You become the company you keep, and I deeply desired to form some Catholic friendships. These happy Protestants were not what I needed. I became incredibly resistant to attend this church and did not feel happy going to the bible studies that they organised.
As time went by, I really struggled to be productive in my work. I enjoyed teaching English most, and got a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement from this aspect of the job. Whereas when I was stuck behind a computer screen trying to code, my ADHD kicked in and I was simply unable to progress. My personality is also not conducive to “real life” sort of work: I am a very theoretical and academic person; I like to play with ideas and deep concepts; I do not enjoy getting my hands dirty. I reflected upon my work history up to this date and saw the same pattern repeating itself: Even during my time at Cargowise and Macquarie bank, I had struggled to complete the tasks put before me. I simply lacked the interest, passion and competency required to perform in these jobs.
Descent Into Hatred
Now that I was living in Hong Kong, there was not much stopping Mindy from staying at my flat and getting frisky with me on a regular basis. Mindy would often sleep over at my house and we would almost always have sex. At the time I felt guilty and as if it were my fault, but in retrospect I feel comfortable placing the blame entirely on her: I really was trying to stop this sinful behaviour; I was doing my best to prevent Mindy from staying at my flat too late. However whenever I would try to put pressure on her to leave and go home, she would go into pout mode and I would feel guilty and relent, letting her stay and hoping to God that we wouldn’t slip up again. She would basically rape me: She would wait until I had taken my sleeping pills and collapsed on the bed, and then snuggle up close to me and start the kissing. I would just reflexively kiss her back, half asleep. Before you know it our clothes were off and I was pounding her into the headboard while she moaned in ecstasy.
I don’t understand what the appeal was for her: I was practically a zombie while under the influence of these antipsychotic pills. Every time, all I really wanted was for it to be over so that I could go back to sleep. It was painful to stay awake, and yet my carnal sex drive kept me awake enough to perform.
Sometimes she would seduce me before I took my pills, and we would engage in wild, extended lovemaking sessions, with lots of sweating, screaming, moaning, spanking and whatever else. It finally got to the point where I was having “Good sex”. Compared to my first time – which was over in seconds and very anticlimactic – this sex was amazing. We would go at it for up to an hour at a time.
I finally had my old wish fulfilled: I had sex on tap. But ironically, I no longer wanted it. I honestly wanted to remain chaste and celibate until marriage. Every time after we slipped up, my trust for Mindy died a little more, and my love started to dissipate. I began to hate her and resent her. I wished she would just piss off and leave me be, rather than constantly engineering situations in which we were going to slip up and fuck.
Every time we slipped up, I would be filled with overwhelming guilt, despair and fear of Hell. Premarital sex has been clearly defined as a mortal sin by the Catholic church: I knew my faith well enough to realise what I was doing. I had to awkwardly drag myself to face to face confession Sunday after Sunday to confess this relentless sin. My relief at being back in the state of grace was only temporary, as it would not be long before me and Mindy were rooting again.
I suspect that our sexual sins directly lead to a disintegration of the relationship, as I no longer trusted her and found it nearly impossible to love her. Every now and then I would skype Jaison back in Sydney: When he asked how I was going with my porn addiction and other sexual sins, I straight up confessed to him what was happening. He was very concerned and advised me to break up with Mindy. I was extremely resistant to the idea, fooling myself into thinking that we could work things out and it would all be better once we were married. In retrospect, I really should have followed his advice. Perhaps if I had threatened to leave Mindy earlier, she would have made more of an effort to stop screwing me and things would have turned out alright.
A Defiant Gesture
Some time during my Hong Kong stay, we had got in contact with the lead pastor of St Andrew’s – Alex McCoy – and asked if he could help us do some pre-marriage counselling. He readily agreed and we set a date for our first appointment.
Prior to our appointment, we had been visiting the St Andrew’s Sunday evening service regularly for quite some time. At one of these services, Alex McCoy was performing the Anglican communion rite. He invited everyone to come up and receive the bread and wine with the usual Protestant disclaimer: “If you do not trust Jesus to forgive your sins and save you then please remain in your seat”. As a Catholic I understood that it is inappropriate to receive communion outside of a Catholic liturgy, so I remained in my seat. This action caught the eye of Alex McCoy. After the service had officially concluded, he made a beeline straight to where me and Mindy were sitting and said hi.
With a concerned look on his face, Alex immediately asked me why I hadn’t gone up to receive communion. For the first time I revealed my Catholicism to him. He gave me a puzzled and bemused look and said “But you’re not a real Catholic are you? I thought you went to Barneys back in Sydney?” Mindy had been trying to hide my Catholicism from friends and new acquaintances, as it was an awkward thing for her to explain why she was dating someone from another religion. As such, when I had first met Alex McCoy and he had asked what church I went to back home in Sydney, Mindy immediately jumped in and said “St Barnabas Broadway” before I could say anything. Alex quickly responded to this with “Ah, such a great church; I know lots of the guys who go there” and the conversation flowed on.
It felt good to finally own my faith publicly, so I insisted “No I’m a legit Catholic: I go to mass every Sunday, regular confession; the lot!” Alex McCoy looked a tad concerned, and the conversation moved on to other topics.
The Anti-Catholic Challenge
After one Sunday evening service, when everyone goes and has dinner together, I found myself in a food court dedicated to ramen noodles and sitting next to Alex McCoy. “So tell me about this Catholicism of yours” he said with a big grin, and a friendly and inquisitive look on his face. Rather than doing that, I just told him the story of how I became a Christian (Part 1 of this series). He listened politely, and at the end of the story asked “But what about that Catholic stuff? What do you think about Papal infallibility?” I responded that I don’t see how the church can possibly function without it and he leaned back in his chair and scoffed.
Alex revealed that he himself had grown up in the Catholic church and came to reject it when he started reading the bible for himself. I internally rolled my eyes: this was such a typical ex-Catholic testimony. I had heard it a million times before during my time in Credo. When he says “I started reading the bible for myself”, what he really is saying is “Some friendly evangelicals sat down and indoctrinated me into their heresy by quoting the bible at me apart from it’s Catholic context.” I was unimpressed. Alex started to talk about how Catholicism teaches that you have to merit your salvation by works (which is total bullshit) and how he had to reject such a clearly heretical theological system after reading Ephesians 2:8-9, which claims that we are saved by grace through faith.
He continued to rattle off his objections to Catholicism, all of which were entirely inaccurate misconceptions. I tried to remain polite and composed, but I felt helpless in the face of this baffling display of ignorance and bigotry. How is it that someone could grow up in the Catholic church and come away with such erroneous notions as this? Did he not bother to investigate what the church actually teaches? It seemed clear to me that he had simply been taken in by the friendly demeanour of the Evangelicals who had approached him during his university days and soaked up whatever lies and nonsense they fed to him about Catholicism. I had seen it happen many times already and I was totally confident that it was exactly the same story with Alex.
Eventually the date for our “Marriage counselling” rolled around and me and Mindy made the trek to the St Andrews administrative office next to the church. “Marriage counselling” basically ended up being Alex McCoy trying to convince Mindy not to marry me, whilst trying to get me to apostatise from Catholicism and return to the Protestant heresy. He had somehow got it into his head that the best and most pastoral way to approach me was to launch an all out assault on my faith. He seemed to have made it his mission to convert me back to Protestantism.
The only reason I tolerated this attack is because I really enjoy talking about theology, and in Hong Kong I was incredibly lonely and starved for someone to talk to about this topic, which I love and is dear to my heart. A theological argument like this was better than the banal crap that I had been talking about with everyone else I met in Hong Kong, even if it was a high stakes, stressful conversation.
I remember at one point Alex McCoy was saying “If you say works contribute to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross”. I tried to respond but he just kept saying that same thing over and over again like a mantra. Eventually something clicked within me and I totally lost it. I responded firmly with “If you say faith contributes to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross.” He sneered at me and accused me of being facetious. I was unnerved and said that maybe I was, just a little. He backed down and moved onto other topics. But I wasn’t being facetious, I was dead serious: This was a light bulb moment that has stuck with me to this day. It suddenly became clear to me that “Faith alone” is nonsense if you believe that faith has the power to objectively justify you: The cross is objectively sufficient. I realised then and there that salvation does not depend on me in any way whatsoever, and this includes faith. I had encountered my first inkling of the Lutheran theology of salvation as unconditional promise. Later on this theology would fully take form in my mind and capture my imagination, developing into a robust doctrine of universal salvation. I had Alex McCoy to thank for it, at least in part.
He began to bash me over the head with “assurance”. He was leaning in and imploring me “but don’t you want assurance of salvation?” trying to entice me over to his tribe with baseless promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. What he utterly failed to realise is that an assurance of salvation is completely meaningless without first having an assurance of truth. If your church is fallible then whatever assurance you have with regards to your salvation is also entirely fallible and untrustworthy. I tried to convey this to him but he just refused to hear it and moved on to his next perceived pet peeve with Catholicism.
He pulled out some anti-catholic books which he recommended that I read, giving particular attention to “Nothing in my hand I bring” by Ray Galea. I responded that Mindy had already given them to me and I had already read them and found them entirely unconvincing for a variety of reasons. He was obviously frustrated at this point and stuck for what to say next.
Our first “Marriage counselling” session ended on a dissonant note, with Alex McCoy closing with a prayer that went something along the lines of “I don’t know how we can pray to you tonight Lord, considering not all of us here actually worship you…” Classic. Pastoral and ecumenical brownie points to you Mr McCoy.
I found the entire experience to be completely traumatic, as his relentless assault against Catholicism had put me in a hyper-defensive state of mind. Unfortunately the trauma didn’t end with his closing prayer, because Mindy continued to argue with me after we left his office and headed home. She was just as bigoted and anti-catholic as he was, and ten times as ignorant! I really began to hate and despise her for her pigheadedness and theological stupidity. Was I really going to marry this utter idiot?
Our second “marriage counselling” session went down in much the same way as the first. Alex pulled out all stops and fired all canons in an attempt to take me down. We argued about the sacrificial nature of the mass, transubstantiation, indulgences, Mary and everything else. Whenever I made an attempt to respond to his objections he would immediately cut in with “Where is that in the bible?” Every time he did this I would just roll my eyes. “Why does it have to be in the bible? I don’t care if it’s in the bible or not: The tradition of the church is sufficient to prove the doctrine’s validity.” After a couple of these exchanges Alex caught on to the fact that I was a died in the wool papist and was not going to fall for his Fundamentalist sophistries.
Alex leaned back in his chair and exhaled a loud sigh of exasperation. He didn’t know where to go from here: I was obviously committed to my Catholic faith and would not budge from my position solely based on his bullshit misconceptions and lies about Catholicism, which I had encountered a million times before during my days amongst the apostate ex-Catholics in Credo.
Descent to Depression
When I wasn’t fucking her, I was constantly fighting with Mindy. Here was the woman I was intending to marry and share my life and journey with, and yet I couldn’t even talk about my passions without it turning into a massive theological debate and then blowing up into a massive conflict. Mindy was constantly accusing me of being a Pharisee. Ironically I later realised that the label fits her far better, because she believes that “faith” is a condition of salvation and she is convinced that she has met this condition, thus puffing herself up with pride and elitism as she considers the poor plebs who don’t happen to share her faith and will therefore “rightly” burn in Hell for all eternity. It eventually got to the point where we simply avoided talking about theological topics completely.
I started to have serious doubts about whether a marriage between us was going to work out: We would be going to separate churches, and refusing to talk about that which was most dear to us – our relationship with God. We would be fighting over how to raise our children. No one should be going into a marriage expecting this level of turmoil. A couple of arguments here and there are to be expected, but this was next level.
I felt surrounded by enemies in Hong Kong. The only friends I had were the Protestants from St Andrew’s, and even though they were incredibly friendly, the fact was they were not Catholic, and this fact bubbled to the surface during bible studies. Whenever I went to bible studies with these people I always had to bite my tongue and not say anything, because I regularly found myself disagreeing on points that the entire group agreed on. This made me feel like a failed witness to my faith, and was incredibly discouraging and disheartening.
I remember one bible study I worked up the courage to actually openly question the consensus of the group concerning this idea of total depravity/total inability. It seemed clear to me that God does not give commandments unless he knows we are able to meet them. The group disagreed, they were convinced that we were doomed to be sinners until Jesus comes back. Whereas Catholic doctrine teaches that it is within our power to be perfect, provided that we depend upon the grace of God. The group naturally jumped on me and we ended up going in circles based on different assumptions between Catholics and Protestants. This was stressful, as it was me on my own trying to stand up to 10 other people. Naturally after the bible study I ended up in a fight with Mindy. She said “I’m happy you finally contributed something, but you really are way too optimistic”. So much for Protestant joy.
As a response to the onslaught of Alex McCoy, the arguments with Mindy, and the heresy that I was being bombarded with in the heathen bible studies; I ended up reading theology and apologetics 24/7. When I was supposed to be working; I would be reading theology. When I was supposed to be sleeping; I would be reading theology. When I was travelling home on the train; I would be reading theology on my phone. It was during this time that I became more and more familiar with the eclectic orthodoxy blog, as well as universalist theology in general. I also got entirely hung up on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: It seemed like such nonsense to me, but I was determined to understand it. I ended up going in mental circles on this issue for over a year.
I really wanted to reclaim some time for myself. I felt entirely overwhelmed after hanging out with Mindy so often. I began staying up all night and watching star trek until the wee hours of the morning. I would set my alarm for 10am and end up going to bed at 4am every night. This was not psychologically healthy at all.
I felt like I had no time to myself and was sacrificing everything for Mindy and getting nothing in return. I felt like I had given up so much for this relationship but she hadn’t given up anything at all. I felt like I was putting in all the effort on the religious front; attending those cursed bible studies and Sunday services in an ecumenical spirit, whereas she wanted nothing to do with my Catholic faith at all. I felt ripped off.
I was constantly fighting with Mindy, and not just about theological matters. I was always the one saying sorry, and she would never admit that she was wrong or had any part to play in the conflict. She was constantly threatening to break up with me.
I began to feel incredibly depressed as I considered the prospect of having to endure this for my entire life after I had locking myself into this relationship via marriage. I felt as if I was locked into an entirely depressing path: I was stuck working a job for which I was totally incompetent, and engaged to a fiancée who was utterly unable to see eye to eye with me on important issues.
I was completely terrified at the prospect of having children with Mindy: How were we supposed to bring them up? Which church would we go to? I insisted that we were going to attend both Catholic and Protestant church every Sunday, but Mindy didn’t want to play ball and complained about this to no end.
Furthermore, actually getting to the point of marriage felt nigh impossible: there were so many hoops to jump through. Mindy was refusing to have a Catholic ceremony, which meant that I had to get a special dispensation from the Sydney Archbishop to both have a Protestant service as well as marry a Protestant at all. We also had to do some compulsory catholic marriage prep course. Mindy was obsessing over finding the perfect wedding dress while I was trying to organise a logistical nightmare and track down an appropriate church and minister to perform the wedding in Sydney.
I felt an incredible sense of injustice, as I had spent so much time and energy investigating Protestantism and trying to make sense of it, but Mindy had not reciprocated. She had invested exactly zero effort in trying to understand my faith. I felt completely ripped off, and the trust in our relationship continued to break down.
I was coming home every night incredibly late. I would take my sedatives and board the MTR from Mei Foo to Yuen Long nearly every night. I had to endure the hellish tunnel that runs beneath the mountains between Mei Foo and Yuen Long, falling asleep on my feet. As I disembarked the train and begun walking back to my flat, I was full to exploding point with anger, frustration, resentment, rage and hatred for myself, Mindy, my situation, God, and life in general.
I was feeling utterly terrified of hell for most of my waking hours. I felt incredibly awkward asking for confession (my church at Yuen Long did not have regular confession times and you had to make a special request) and confessing the same old sin every bloody time.
In between my confessions I was struggling to muster up perfect contrition and utterly failing to do so. At the time I was unaware of the unconditional promises of God, and I was therefore unable to place my faith in them. I was spiritually walking in darkness, despite my deep, profound and prayerful relationship with God.
I was incredibly stressed and depressed, and I began to think about suicide all the time. I didn’t actually have any intentions of going ahead with it, but I was just constantly pondering it. I remember always glancing out at my balcony and thinking to myself “Gee that’s high, I could so easily jump off there and kill myself if I wanted to”
A Holiday to Sydney
During Christmas of 2015, while me and Mindy were walking through Mei Foo to Mindy’s house, I totally broke down crying. I missed my family so much. Pretty soon after this incident, Mindy organised a trip to Sydney for my 2016 birthday.
Once we had arrived in Sydney, I just wanted to be with my family, but Mindy had other plans: She wanted to travel to the blue mountains and attend the LIFT (Looking Into Full Time Ministry) conference that was organised by the UNSW Evangelical society. I felt obliged to accompany her, and so for four precious days that I could have spent with my family, I left and trekked to the blue mountains with Mindy.
The LIFT conference was hell. The preacher was Joshua Ng, another Hongkie. Josh launched into a vitriolic rant against the “evil and depraved catholic church who teach a false gospel of salvation by works”. My blood was boiling over and I want to get up out of my seat and walk out of the room, but I ended up sitting still and fuming. Mindy realised how awkward the situation was and started fumbling in her bag for something to distract me with.
Later on during LIFT conference, we were walking from one session to another, and Mindy was chatting to yet another ex-Catholic. This guy was saying the most offensive things about Catholicism: Claiming that his Catholic parents were not Christian and are most certainly going to burn in Hell. He shared a brief testimony of his conversion out of Catholicism, and as usual it was the same old predictable nonsense that every other ex-Catholic says: “I read the bible and realised that it contradicts Catholicism so I left”. I was holding hands with Mindy as we walked with this guy and I suddenly just wanted to get away. I wanted to toss her hand away and just escape this depressing existence.
When we returned to Sydney, Mum totally refused to cooperate with my wedding plans. She kept complaining that she “hates weddings” and “wouldn’t even go to her own wedding if she had the choice”. This frustrated me and depressed me even more. Marriage was supposed to be one of the most important events in my life and I wanted my family to be there, which was the entire reason we were going to have the ceremony in Sydney. Mum kept saying “Just invite your father” and I was like “are you freaking kidding? I want my immediate family to be there!”
Mindy managed to cut my time with my family short by another two days. She dragged me down to Melbourne to have “dinner” with her extended family. She was expecting me to have a perfect understanding of all the nuances of Chinese culture and behave like a Chinese gentleman, even though I don’t understand the language. During the actual dinner her family were incredibly rude and inhospitable to me and generally tried to ignore me. I was not accepted by these people at all. After the utter failure of a dinner I immediately headed to Melbourne’s “The Croft” bar and started pounding back shots while chatting with the bar staff. I spent 100 dollars on “Syringe shots”, and had my first hot alcoholic beverage.
I knew that I was incredibly depressed at this point, but I was unable to discern just how bad and dangerous the situation was. Luckily, I had scheduled a check up with the team at EIPS. I reported that I was thinking about killing myself a lot, and my psychologist – Alexandra Goymour – was incredibly concerned. She asked me a series of questions in order to work out exactly how bad a place I was in. At the conclusion of her questions, it was completely obvious to her that the situation was balancing on a knifes edge. She exhorted me to return to Sydney ASAP. I figured, “Doctors orders” and so agreed to do it. However Mindy was a big concern: she was very manipulative and had managed to thoroughly get me under her thumb. Obviously she was going to be very resistant to the idea of my returning to Sydney.
We concluded the holiday and returned to Hong Kong. I was only intending to come back for a month, so that I could tie up loose ends, pack up my possessions and then fly back to Sydney. Mindy had been alerted to the recommendation of my psychologist that I return to Sydney, and she was already doing her best to stamp the idea out of my mind. I just went along with it and pretended to relent, but secretly I had every intention of escaping Hong Kong for good by the end of April.
Finally Seeing the Light
One night during my final month in Hong Kong, I was going about my usual business: binge on star trek; pound back a couple of Tsing Taos; read theology articles at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Around about 4am I finally slammed my laptop shut and attempted to fall asleep. As I was rolling around in bed, many theological ideas and concepts that I had encountered over the past 24 months were floating around in my mind.
Alex McCoy’s words came back to me: The Sufficiency of the Cross. The beautiful eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov was flooding my mind’s eye: A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The visionary words of St Isaac hovered in my consciousness: Those in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. I was seriously pondering the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who I claimed to worship: If God wants to save me, is it really possible that he could fail in the attempt?
And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all made sense. I realised that I believed in the greater hope. I realised that I believed in universal salvation.
I sat up straight in bed, gasped and covered my mouth with my hand in shock. I begun laughing to myself and was full of wonder – I actually understand all this stuff, it really does make sense, and I actually believe it! There is no need to fear damnation, for either myself or my friends and family. I can rest assured in the confident hope that all of us will arrive safely in Heaven. Salvation does not depend on us in any way, it depends entirely on God. There is nothing that can stop him or stand in his way. Not even death, sin, unrepentance or Hell can thwart his salvific will. God can and will conquer everyone and everything. What can we do but rejoice?
I had finally discovered the good news of Christianity. After 4 years of being an active Christian, I had finally understood the Gospel.
I woke up the day after my conversion and was full of zeal to read the bible. The Valium that my stepfather had given me the previous night was obviously only a quick fix and not a long term solution to my mania. As I woke up I was incredibly edgy; I was dead set on trying to track down Alex Macdonald again to continue our discussion. My family tried to discourage me and get me to stay at home but I was adamant: I felt like I absolutely had to keep talking to Alex. I had so many questions: I believed in Jesus now, but I didn’t even know what that meant or implied! My head was swimming with religious concepts and ideas: I wanted nothing more than to put them all together and integrate them into my understanding of reality.
I left Mum’s house and began jogging back to Alex’s house, shooting him text messages as I went. My phone was incredibly low on battery and the text messages were not particularly sober. As I jogged, I was praying constantly in the only way that I knew how, and for the most minutely detailed things, for example that my phone would stay turned on for just long enough to send the next message. I behaved quite irrationally, taking shortcuts that I was unfamiliar with and getting lost on the way.
Eventually I arrived at Alex’s house and violently knocked on the door. I could tell someone was home because I could hear movement within the house, but no one answered the door. After some frustrating waiting, I went down the front steps and lay on the grass, reading a Gideon s pocket new testament that I had brought with me.
Hermeneutics was a concept that I had never been introduced to at this point, so as I read the New Testament I was filled with all sorts of wacky and wonderful eisegetical ideas and concepts. I turned back to the story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the Devil and read it closely. I read the following passage:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”
I looked down at my hands: I was holding some bread that I had brought with me from Mum’s house. I looked around Alex’s garden: there were many stones lying alongside the garden path. “Aha!” I thought to myself: “This is exactly what God is trying to tell me!” – I had made some psychotic link between the rocks in the garden, the bread in my hand, and this passage of scripture. Obviously the pattern recognition part of my brain was going into overdrive.
I continued lying on the grass, leafing through the little New Testament, until Alex arrived in the family car. He and his Dad had been driving around looking for me. Obviously Mum had got into a bit of a panic and so had Alex’s family. I was causing a lot of trouble.
Alex agreed to walk with me again, and we spoke about Christian, biblical and religious concepts as we walked around Pennant Hills. This walk was nowhere near as long as our walk the previous night, and Alex was clearly exhausted and out of his depth. I was buzzing and overflowing with all sorts of ideas and I was struggling to slow down enough to articulate them clearly.
In the Emergency Room
Soon enough our walk ended and my stepfather drove over and picked me up. My mania was in full swing again and I was feeling incredibly excited, bubbling and overflowing with amazing ideas. The connections between all sorts of things I’d learned in the past became super obvious and I was lost for words. My stepfather drove me to Hornsby hospital and we sat in the emergency ward, waiting for our turn.
I remember being highly aware of the power of empathy at the time. I was convinced that happiness and joy were infectious things, and that if I could only keep smiling and feeling good in myself, I might be able to “heal” some of the people who were in pain in the emergency department waiting room. To this day I believe that I was right, however in retrospect I recognise that I did not have quite the power to make any significant difference to these peoples mental states. I remember at one point my step dad got up to buy some water from a vending machine. It was the brand “Thank you water”. When he showed me the bottle I was very impressed, because thankfulness was a mindset that I could suddenly relate to incredibly well and it seemed like the ideal emotion to experience.
Eventually it was our turn to enter what can only be described as an interview room. I was talking non-stop, and incredibly excited, experiencing a constant state of awe as I pondered all sorts of deep and amazing ideas and concepts at top speed. My step dad just sat and listened to what I was saying. At the time it seemed like he was actually sincerely trying to make sense of what I was saying, and he had an incredibly humble and understanding demeanour.
Some female doctors entered the room and started talking to me, asking me questions. I was somewhat back in “manipulation mode” and was trying to anticipate what they would say and read the motivations and intentions behind their words. It all seemed like a game to me, and I decided that I would just play along.
There was a fear at the back of my head that I had suffered some sort of brain damage, and I managed to convey this to everyone in the room. Eventually they drugged me up with some sort of extreme sedative, took a blood test and sat me in a wheel chair. At this point I recall all the mania dissipating completely, being replaced with an intense sluggishness and my being barely aware of my surroundings. My memory of what follows is incredibly vague. I do however have vague recollections of being jammed into an MRI or CAT scan tube and having my brain x-rayed.
As they wheeled me around in the wheelchair, I could barely keep my head up. I remember raising my head for long enough to say something like “THIS is what drugs do”: I was a classic “not even once” poster boy.
Into the Insane Asylum
I was wheeled to the hospital mental ward, and the following few days were a total blur. They put me in the acute psychosis ward, which was the most serious and highly monitored ward in the hospital. This was the ward where they had a locked and padded room for the really crazy and aggressive sorts (thankfully I never had to go in there).
At this time, all I can remember is a constant, bright light, and the overwhelming sensation that I myself was Jesus Christ. I suspect that I was enjoying some perverted and unsustainable form of theosis. I was so closely united to God that I was unable to distinguish between myself and Jesus. Obviously this all sounded like total crazy talk to the wardens, doctors and my family. To this day, my Mum likes to joke about the ordeal by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy!”
I don’t know how long I spent in the acute ward. I have many memories of being in there, but I remember that I was not myself: I had lost track of my identity and was feeling generally blissful and protected within some sort of divine embrace. I recall feeling edgy: there was a scary guy in the ward called Warwick who wore Satanistic T-Shirts and had long punk rock hair. I didn’t trust him and he gave off evil vibes. I recall one time he was talking theories about the bible. He wrote up the letters that spell “bible” on the whiteboard and wrote next to each letter: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. This guy was weird. There was one point where I swear I saw him smuggling drugs into the ward with the assistance of one of his visitors. I reported him, and I don’t recall what happened next but I feared for my life.
Eventually I was moved out of the acute ward into the “low maintenance” ward. I was held here for three weeks, but the three weeks felt like an eternity. Being in this part of the mental hospital was an extremely unique experience and felt like quite an ordeal. Everyone in this ward is trying as hard as they can to seem sane so that they can be discharged back to the real world, however this feels like an impossible task. The maxim “you become the company you keep” is incredibly profound and totally true. So of course, when you are surrounded by crazy and unstable people, you yourself soak up some of the craziness and instability. This makes actually getting out of the hospital almost impossible: you are trying to regain your sanity enough that the doctors feel safe discharging you, and yet you are constantly being dragged down by the other insane people in the Asylum. Just as you think you are doing alright, a totally bonkers lady from the ward next door gets introduced and brings you back down to where you started.
Eventually it got to the point where the doctors felt comfortable letting me out of the hospital for a few hours during the day. I immediately used the opportunity to collect some stuff to entertain myself while I was stuck in the hospital. I picked up my juggling balls and I collected my full bible. I spent the remainder of my time in hospital trying to learn how to juggle five balls at once and reading through the bible.
I read all of Genesis, all of Revelation, half of Exodus, and all of Matthew. Genesis was easy to read and made lots of sense. Revelation was incredibly difficult and made absolutely no sense.
There were a surprising amount of Christians in the mental hospital. We banded together and hung out with each other. I remember sitting outside in the sun, on a stretch chair, with an older Christian called Matthew and a younger lady sitting next to me. Matthew encouraged me to keep reading the bible and assured me that the Christian life is the good life. The younger lady was happy to see that I was reading the bible and gifted me a Christian bookmark which I still have to this day. I vaguely remember someone coming up to us and trying to attack the faith, but we just laughed it off and continued to enjoy the sunshine.
During my time in hospital I was incredibly resistant to taking the drugs that they were using to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless I consistently took them (they threatened to force me to swallow if I didn’t comply, and I figured I’d rather not go through that embarrassing ordeal). I recall at one point sending a text to Alex Macdonald telling him how I don’t trust the doctors and don’t want to take the drugs. He responded saying that I should probably trust the doctors advice and assuring me that he and his family were praying for me. Who was I to argue with Alex Macdonald? I took the drugs.
A Quiet Six Months
Eventually, I managed to escape the hospital. They decided I had regained enough of my sanity to discharge me and I became an outpatient. I returned to UTS housing right as the next semester was starting and attempted to get back into the flow of life.
My zeal for reading the bible and other religious enterprises slowly receded and died away. I just tried to focus on my coursework. Unfortunately this semester was the semester during which my cohort was supposed to do “SDP” – a massive, double credit points software development project. I ended up in a team full of other scholarship students like myself, including my good friends Alex Eagles and Ryan Lansdowne. Unfortunately during this semester I was not quite “back to normal”; I was oversleeping due to the super sedating effects of the mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics that I had to take, and this was interfering with my coursework. By the end of semester I had contributed absolutely nothing to my SDP team, and was barely staying afloat in my other subjects. Amazingly, Alex Eagles stood up for me against the rest of the team, who wanted to fail me. Even though I really hadn’t contributed anything he still valued our friendship enough to defend me. In the end I failed SDP and just barely passed my other subjects that semester.
During that semester, I had regular, weekly checkups with the EIPS team at Camperdown. They would write me prescriptions for the drugs that I was taking and just generally see how I’m doing. Getting from Ultimo to Camperdown involved a nice long walk up Broadway and through the University of Sydney. As I would go on this walk, it was a good time to philosophise and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Obviously one of the biggest things on my mind was my mania and psychosis: How was I supposed to interpret it? How should I integrate what happened into my understanding of life? I identified as a Christian now, but I really had absolutely no idea what that even meant: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what I was supposed to believe.
One day, while I was strolling through USyd and following this usual train of thought, two random people walked up to me and nervously asked if I wanted to join their bible study. I was amazed: I had literally at that very moment been thinking about how I want to learn more and understand Christianity, and then these two fellas rock up instantly and offer to answer my questions. I was so happy: this was almost like an answer to prayer. The older guy gave me a business card and we exchanged phone numbers. I was incredibly happy and excited.
I quickly shot a message to Alex Macdonald, who I hadn’t spoken to regularly since mental hospital six months before. I excitedly told him about what had happened: I was walking through USyd, wondering about the bible and Christianity, and then these two guys came up to me and offered to read the bible with me! “How great is that!”
Alex Macdonald’s response surprised me: Rather than saying “That’s awesome man, let me know how it goes”, he immediately asked the question “Which church are they from?” I was about to be introduced to denominationalism and the existence of Christian cults. Up to this point, Christianity seemed like a monolithic religion to me. I knew of words like “Anglican”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian” and “Catholic”, but I didn’t discern any difference between them: they all seemed synonymous to “Christian” for me.
I checked the business card that the older guy had given me. “Sydney Church of Christ” I responded. Alex Macdonald immediately shot back a message saying “Watch out man, I’ve heard about those guys, they’re a borderline cult. Be careful.” I was a little taken aback, but I thought that I was onto too much of a good thing to simply ignore what had happened. The offer to join a bible study did seem like an answer to prayer, didn’t it? Besides, I had already made an appointment with the two guys. I figured I would attend the study and see what happens, and if it ever got too weird I would eject myself and not look back.
The study came and went, and then we organised another session, and another, and another. It was all very exciting. I was totally open to whatever they were saying and I really enjoyed it as they took me on a tour of the bible and gave me the Jesus 101. I asked questions, they answered, and I felt really excited as for the first time I was actually growing in faith. I was getting a typically protestant theological grounding, mixed with some of the Church of Christ denomination theological distinctives: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Baptismal Regeneration, the necessity of evangelism, the place of good works, and so on.
I went to some of their church events and met some of the other people in their church. At the time I didn’t notice anything weird, but in retrospect I should have realised that pretty much the entire congregation of the church consisted of university students. Everyone seemed incredibly happy and friendly, but there was a subtle undercurrent of falseness to it all, like they were really trying to be full of love, but it wasn’t coming to them naturally. Some of the guys who I spoke to seemed thoroughly indoctrinated and inebriated with Christian ideas: they were incredibly happy that they were going to be going to heaven.
It was at this church that I first had an introduction to the textual history of the bible. There was a talk about the history of scripture that was incredibly comprehensive. They spoke about the Vulgate, the Septuagint, some of the early heresies such as Gnosticism which drove the church to codify the canon of scripture and so on. I was utterly fascinated by this stuff and full of questions.
This entire time, I had kept in mind Alex Macdonald’s warning that this church was a borderline cult. It wasn’t long before I started to see why. I remember the first few services of theirs that I went to. The music was all incredibly numbing and repetitive. The lyrics were banal. There was lots of clapping and “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” – It all seemed a bit crazy to me. This was the first time I got cult vibes. The second time was during one of their sermons: The preacher was talking about the Greek word “okefelou”, commonly translated as “follow me”. This preacher claimed that “follow me” is not really a strong enough translation, and that the Greek word carries connotations of terrorism. He finished his sermon by saying “Christ wants you to be a terrorist! Be a terrorist for Christ!” I know he was trying to make an evangelical point, but his choice of words was kinda weird.
Things started to get even more weird. They started quoting scriptures which talk about “Hating your family” in order to try and convince me to cease communications with my non-Christian friends and family. I had always spoken highly of Alex Macdonald to them, but as it turns out they didn’t consider him to be a Christian. This shocked and appalled me: How could Alex Macdonald possibly not be a Christian? He’s the most Christian guy I know; He’s the entire reason I was there talking to these Church of Christ guys in the first place!
They were classic “Sola Scriptura” Christians, who rejected all the ancient creeds and only believed in the bible. As such, they felt the need to “prove everything from scripture”. One of the claims they were making was that their denomination was the one true church and all people who are part of other denominations are not really Christian at all. I was dubious but open minded, and humoured them as they attempted to prove this from the bible. They were completely unable to do so. They would quote obscure, ambiguous prophecies, make strange appeals to emotion, and totally misinterpret the letters of Paul. I really don’t know how you can pull “The Church of Christ is the one true church” out of Galatians 2:10, but believe me; they tried.
I was about ready to leave at this point. However they had convinced me of one thing: believers baptism. I was now a new believer, and even though I had already been baptised as a Catholic, these guys had successfully convinced me that my prior baptism was invalid and I needed to do it again. I was torn: These guys were seeming more and more cult-like by the day, and yet I really wanted to get re-baptised as a statement of my new-found “living and active” faith in Christ. It was a very stressful time, as I was tossing up between getting baptised, and leaving their community for good.
Escaping The Cult
Eventually the pot boiled over, and I decided it was time to eject myself from this weird cult. It was actually quite hard to do this, even though I was not deeply integrated into the group, because they had been so nice, loving and friendly towards me. I felt like I was betraying them to a degree. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to second guess my decision to leave, thinking “What if they were right? What if they really were the one true church?” But of course, it later became clear that I had made the right decision.
It was around about this time – mid 2013 – that Alex Macdonald reached out, sending me a slick evangelical video and asking me what I thought of it. I responded saying “Yeah man, there’s nothing in that video which I don’t believe. I have no idea what it all means though”. Alex responded saying “Really? That’s awesome man. Hey how about we meet up and chat about it?” I was super keen.
That weekend I met up with Alex and we drove around Pennant Hills in his car, discussing life and the big questions. He parked at Pennant Hills oval so that he could focus more on the chatting and less on the driving. It was raining so we didn’t get out of the car. Eventually, after he asked a whole bunch of questions and we had spoken for a while, he whipped out a book of common prayer and flicked to the apostles creed. We went through clause by clause, and I told him that I affirm all of it, even though I don’t fully comprehend it. He slammed the book shut excitedly as he realised that I really was a Christian, and said “You have no idea how long I’ve been praying for this day to arrive”. It was an incredibly happy moment for both of us.
After leaving the cult, I was stuck for a church to attend, so I started going to Alex Macdonald’s church at West Pennant Hills, St Matthews. I was familiar with this church, as I had visited the youth group on and off throughout highschool, and I knew many of the people in the congregation already. I ended up experiencing my first Easter Vigil at this church, and it was incredibly exciting.
I still wanted to get baptised, so I spoke to the church leadership and inquired about it. However when they heard that I had been baptised as a child they backed away and refused to baptise me. They were familiar with the theological tradition which states that there is only one baptism, and they realised that it would be inappropriate to baptise me again.
During this first half of 2013, I was working an internship at Macquarie Bank. It was an incredibly lonely experience. All of my co-workers were middle aged women who were getting married and having kids. I had no one who I could talk to or relate to. Every now and then I would walk down to Darling Harbour and have lunch with Alex Eagles, who was interning at American Express. Sometimes I would have lunch with Paul Nichols, the older brother of a friend of mine from St Matthews. In general I just sat alone at lunch time and read my bible. I was not comfortable being open with my Christianity at this point and generally kept it to myself, hiding my bible so people couldn’t see it, and waffling when people asked me what I got up to on the weekend.
In December 2013 Alex Macdonald sent me a message saying “Hey, sign up for this thing, it’ll be great”. He linked me to some conference called NTE – “National Training Event”. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but my operating principle at this stage of life was “If Alex Macdonald says to do something, trust him and do it”. So I deposited my $400 bucks and signed up. Not knowing what it was I was getting into.
Later that month, we drove to Canberra and I had a rude shock as I realised where I had found myself: A massive conference with what felt like every single Christian university student in all of Australia in a single place. The vibe was incredibly exciting. There were amazing songs and sermons, all very inspiring. There were workshops and small groups. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be 5 days of amazing, edifying fun.
In the small groups, my mind was utterly blown when my leader informed me that I was already a new creation. I thought that that was something which was going to happen when Jesus came back, but apparently I am already in heaven right now. This was mind-boggling.
Also in the small groups, we learned about “Exegesis” and the Historical-Critical method of biblical hermeneutics. I felt like I had just discovered the holy grail: this was what I had been searching for. For the past year and a half I had been trying to learn how to read the bible correctly, and this was supposed to be the answer. The conference leadership were utterly convinced that Historical-Critical exegesis is the key to understanding what God is saying through the pages of holy writ. Later on in my Christian journey I came to reassess this perspective, however at the time it was like the most amazing gift of all time.
I attended a workshop focused on Islam and was half horrified, half impressed with what I heard. The speaker was making every effort to insult, smear, attack and tear apart Islam and the Qu’ran. He was using dirty, underhand tactics. I was shocked. When Atheists did this sort of stuff to us Christians, we would get outraged. Stuff like taking a verse out of context and setting up straw man arguments. I thought that it was incredibly hypocritical. Nevertheless the seminar was informative, and I approached the speaker afterwards to ask if he could help me buy a copy of the critical edition Qu’ran which he had displayed during his talk. Due largely to this talk, I was later driven to visit a Mosque to learn from the source about Islam and Muslims. I was convinced that these people could not all be bloodthirsty bandits, rapists and terrorists. I wanted to talk to them directly.
One of the other key events that happened during NTE was that I was finally introduced to Credo – the campus evangelical club for my University, UTS. I remember a plump, extremely excited Indian girl called Maree coming up to me and saying hi. She was the evangelical extraordinaire on campus. During free time, she led me over to the UTS corner of the conference site and introduced me to all of the other Christians from UTS.
It was here that I finally got to meet one of my good friends, Poya Heidarishahi. At the time he was just emerging from a rough spot, much like myself, and had finally found some loving and accepting community in Credo. He was mega extroverted, talkative and sociable, but he was unfortunately lacking self confidence. We became friends instantly.
Credo Days and the Move to St Barnabas
It was early 2014. Alex Macdonald had informed me that he was planning to move churches, due to some theological disagreements with the leadership of St Matthews. However he was delaying his departure because he was so integrated into the St Matt’s community. For one thing, I was getting a lift to Church with him every Sunday, and he would drive me to Epping station after the service so that I could trek home to UTS Housing.
At some point – probably due to this announcement from Alex that he was going to change church – I decided to find a church closer to home too. There was a good Evangelical church just down the road on Broadway called St Barnabas. I got in contact with them and asked if they could hook me up with a bible study. I started attending this church rather than St Matthews, and eventually Alex Macdonald made the move to Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he has been serving ever since.
I also became more involved in Credo at UTS, getting involved in campus bible studies, and serving in the FOCUS ministry, which focuses on evangelising international and exchange students (who in practice all turned out to be from Asian countries. But we did get the odd European or middle eastern visitor).
Around about Easter time, I went on the Credo conference, ETC – “Easter Time Convention”. This was another spiritual high, as I felt like I was hanging out in a temporary monastery, surrounded by other excited, faithful Christians. The “You become the company you keep” principle was in effect here too, as all of us were getting high on God’s word and smashed on God’s love (and drunk on God’s blood). It was at ETC that I met Jaison Jacob. Jaison is a super devout Evangelical Calvinist, familiar with the bible and the Westminster Confession. We instantly clicked and became friends, based on our mutual admiration for theology and deep concepts.
It was round about this time that I started to think about getting married. The Evangelical culture has an unhealthy obsession with marriage that I had begun to soak up. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I was enjoying lots of success flirting with girls and had established many relationships that could easily have escalated to something more serious. I even had my eye on a certain girl from FOCUS, Clara, who I had a mind to pursue more seriously. I thought to myself “I’ll probably be married within the next two years”. I remember sharing this prediction with many of my friends, some of whom were amused while others were sceptical. I remember when I told my Catholic friend from High School, Dennis McCarthy that I thought I would be married within two years, he looked at me with a bemused smile and said “That’s a very bold prediction Herlihy!”
Theological Concerns Begin to Mount
It was around this time, when I was more familiar with core Christian ideas and concepts, that I began to be able to formulate some actual doctrinal questions. These questions began to seem more and more serious as time went by. I had many questions surrounding the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:
Why should I base my entire life on the bible when I have no guarantee that God is actually speaking through it?
What about the problem of interpretation? Christians insist that the bible is “clear” but no one seems to be able to agree on what it actually says or means.
What about the canon? Why should I trust these 66 books? Why not the Catholic bible, which has more books in it? Or the Orthodox bible – which has more books still? Or the Ethiopian bible – which seemingly has hundreds of books in it?
What about other religions and religious texts? Muslims make the same claims for the Qu’ran that Christians make for the Bible; it seems entirely arbitrary to believe the Christians and reject the Muslims.
I also became convinced that some sort of doctrine of purgatory was essential in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Why should it be that sanctification is a long, arduous life-long process while we are alive, but then when you die God just clicks his fingers and completes the process instantaneously? It didn’t make sense to me. I figured that if Sanctification is a process now, during life; it’s probably a process after we die too. Some sort of purification is necessary to bring us to perfection before we enter Heaven. I remember having passionate debates with Jaison about this. He would seemingly blindly quote the bible as if that settles the matter, but I was completely unimpressed with this line of argument. Purgatory simply seemed to make so much sense and Jaison’s attempts to dissuade my convictions were weak and ineffective.
Another point of contention that began to creep up on me was the reformed doctrine of “double imputation”. It honestly sounded like a fat steaming pile of nonsense. These guys were expecting me to believe that God simply ignores my sins, and when he looks at me he sees Jesus instead, and when God looks at Jesus he sees me and my sins. This smelt entirely fishy. It is what Catholics refer to as a “legal fiction”: I’m still a totally depraved sinner, but God just pretends that I’m not. I was completely unsatisfied with this sort of theology. It seemed clear to me that I have to be inherently righteous in order for God to accept me. “Being clothed in Jesus’ righteousness” was not going to do the trick if beneath the cloak, I’m still dirty to the core.
There were also still lingering concerns from my cult days: I believed that there was indeed a “One True Church”, but I didn’t know where to look to find it. I surveyed the protestant scene that I had found myself in and was unable to detect the sort of doctrinal consistency that you would expect from a “One True Church”.
Ironically, one of the things that the cult had drilled into me during my bible studies with them, was all of the passages which talk about being on the look out for false teachers. I was incredibly paranoid and would not trust anyone. The question was always lingering at the back of my mind “What if this guy is a false teacher?” I was willing to trust anyone, but only provisionally. In the end I had no clear reason to believe that they were not a false teacher. My Christian walk was wracked with severe doubt and uncertainty due to this.
I remember around about this time having big unanswered questions. I remember going to Google and searching there. As I did so, one of the hits was the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio – “Faith and Reason”. I read it and soaked it up. It just made so much sense and resonated with me to the core. And yet the whole time I was freaking out thinking “God help me, this is written by a Catholic, and Catholics are evil.” – I had been indoctrinated by my Christian community into believing that Catholicism was an evil religion of works righteousness and that Catholics are not to be trusted. Oh how wrong I was.
I was able to put all of these theological concerns at the back of my mind for a time and just enjoy my life in the Evangelical community. I enjoyed serving in FOCUS, attending the campus bible studies, going to church, meeting new people, socialising and visiting other peoples churches. I was church hopping, and hadn’t really committed myself to any particular church. I didn’t attend the Sunday service consistently (Evangelicals do not have any convincing theological reason as to why it is necessary to go to church on Sunday).
During these months I was experiencing hypomania, and life felt amazing. I was flirting with all the girls, I was enjoying success at the gym and actually had some decent muscles for the first time in my life, I was having fun socialising and swimming. I was an attractive guy by any account. I caught the eye of Helen Yim, the Credo staffworker who oversaw the FOCUS ministry. She invited me to come on a mission trip to China during the mid year break. I was still operating under a “If a Christian asks me to do something: do it” attitude, so I agreed to come. It was during the preparation for this trip, and the weekly mission team meetings that I met my fiancée-to-be; Mindy Leng (name changed for anonymity)
Mindy had signed up for the mission as her ticket to get back to Hong Kong after the conclusion of her degree. She was to be the team interpreter, as she understood Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However during her time in Sydney she had basically just hung out with other Cantonese people and so her English was not quite up to scratch. When I first met her I put on all the charm and tried to be friendly, but she just laughed at me and ignored me. I later found out that she could not understand what I was saying because I talk so fast, and she didn’t want to be seen in that position because it would throw questions upon her competency as an interpreter. I also later found out that she had a bit of a racist streak and was not interested in white guys, and she was nonetheless unimpressed with me because it had come out during one of our meetings that I had been at uni for 7 years. “Why has this guy been studying so long?” she thought, and dismissed me as either lazy or stupid and entirely unworthy of being her friend or boyfriend.
However, during the China trip Mindy and I grew closer and closer together. Due to my hypomania, I was attracted to almost everyone and almost everyone was attracted to me. All the Chinese girls were all over me during the trip and I was loving it. Mindy fell under the spell of my charm and our hormones kicked in. At the conclusion of the trip I wrote her a love letter and then disappeared back to Australia. Mindy tracked down my email address and wrote back to me. The long distance relationship had begun.
I decided to take the plunge and actually commit to this relationship, even though it was long distance. I asked Mindy if she would be my girlfriend, and after a bit of wrangling she pretty much agreed, but on the condition that we get married within two years. I was knocked out of my seat at this, because I had been telling all my friends that I was going to get married within two years: this seemed to be a perfectly happy coincidence!
Driven Back to Catholicism
Helen Yim had become a bit of a “spiritual mum” to me in this time. When I told her that I was starting up a relationship with Mindy, she rebuked me, saying “Alex! You gotta commit to a church first! You can’t just keep bouncing around different congregations every week! You have to settle down!”
I thought to myself “Ok, sure. So I’ve gotta find the right church.” And finally all those theological considerations which had been gnawing at me came to the surface and confronted me. It was time to deal with this: I couldn’t put it off any longer.
I began to voraciously read articles online. I wanted to work out which church was the true church; which church has the true teachers; which church was founded by Jesus; which church had the inspired tradition. During these investigations I ended up learning more and more about Catholicism. The Catholic religion didn’t seem so evil after all once you actually gave it a fair go. It was consistent, coherent, tight and appealing.
It was also at this time that I had a date with another BIT scholar, the beautiful Sarah Markowskei. During our conversation it came up that she was Catholic. I was intrigued and begun to ask her questions about her faith. She had great answers for everything! Catholicism started to make even more sense. I thought it was amazing how when you actually talk to a real Catholic, things seem so much more clear and reasonable than when you just soak up anti-catholic propaganda from the Evangelicals.
During my internet adventures, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article for “Apostolic Succession” and it immediately resonated with me. Finally: here was a solution to the problems I was wrestling with. How do you identify the true church? Look for the church which can trace a straight line from it’s leadership back to the Apostles and Jesus. There were only a couple of churches out there which could do this. The only two that I was aware of at the time were the Catholic church and the Orthodox church, and (I thought to myself) potentially the Anglican church.
I encountered the concept of the magisterium. This also resonated with me deeply, as it was an answer to pretty much all of my questions about why I should trust the bible and the biblical canon. Jesus founded a church, he did not write a book. The church which he founded is led by a Pope and bishops, all of whom can trace themselves back to Christ and the apostles via apostolic succession. This church has authority; In fact, it has the divine authority of Christ himself, and therefore must be submitted to. This church had identified certain books as inspired, and this is why I can trust the bible and the Catholic biblical canon. Meanwhile the Protestant canon seemed to me to remain completely baseless and unfounded.
I remember talking to Jaison about my concerns regularly, and he vehemently and irrationally attacked the Catholic position and attempted to dissuade me from going down that path. The more he attacked Catholicism, the more convinced I became of the Catholic position.
One day, while I was on a train with Jaison heading to his sub-continental bible study, I suddenly realised that I was Catholic. Jaison was mid-sentence and I remember cutting him off going “Dude, I’m a Catholic”. I remember he just stopped talking and had a concerned look on his face, as I moved away slightly and stood near the window in the train door.
At the time, I still didn’t know whether I should become Orthodox or Catholic. They both seemed like viable options and I found Orthodox theology (as I understood it) to be incredibly beautiful. However I decided to return to Catholicism out of convenience. It was pretty easy for me considering I had already been baptised and confirmed when I was a child. All I had to do was go to confession and then I would be allowed to start taking communion again. I did exactly this, and thus cemented my return to the nominal faith of my late primary school years.
I approached the altar and received communion for the first time in 10 years. I had finally swum the Tiber; I had finally returned home; I was finally a Catholic.
The law of Christ written on our hearts judges any given course of action according to the following categories:
Failure to perform an action in the “Must” category, and the performance of an action in the “Must not” category are both mortal sins. Failure to perform an action in the “Should” category, and the performance of an action in the “Should not” category are both venial sins.
An action in the “Omittable” category is good to do but not obligatory, similarly an action in the “Permissible” category is good to avoid but not forbidden. As such, neither performing “Permissible” actions nor refraining from “Omittable” actions are sinful. Performing “Omittable” actions and avoiding “Permissible” actions is referred to as “Doing penance”. An action in the “May” category is morally neutral.
Performing actions in the “Must” and “Should” categories merits an increase in eschatological rewards, while failing to perform such actions merits a decrease. Similarly avoiding actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories merits a decrease in eschatological punishment, while indulging in such actions merits an increase.
Performing an “Omittable” action merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment, while failure to perform the action is neutral. Similarly, performing a “Permissible” action is neutral, but avoiding such actions merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment.
It is never permissible to do evil, even though good will come as a result. Which is to say, one must never perform an action in the “Must not” category, and one must never fail to perform an action in the “Must” category. This also implies that it is good to avoid actions in the “Should not” category, and good to perform actions in the “Should” category, however failure to do these things is not necessarily evil.
The absolute moral categories of “Must” and “Must not” only arise in actual, concrete, present tense and real-life situations, and only from the first-person perspective. It is not possible to determine with certainty what an agent’s moral responsibilities are if the situation being examined is hypothetical, is distant in space and time, or if it is being analysed from the second or third person perspective; in this case it is only possible to make a probabilistic judgement and assign an action a value between “Should” and “Should not”, while the absolute categories of “Must” and “Must not” are excluded.
No action is 100% good or evil when considered in the abstract. Actions only become totally good or totally evil in an actual, concrete, first person, present tense, real-life context. Apart from such a context, we can only make probabilistic judgements about the rightness or wrongness of an action.
Killing is in the “should not” category. But if it is in self-defence then killing moves to the “should” category. However, if you also have other means of defending yourself available then it swings back to the “should not” category. But if those other means of defending yourself would lead to the death of multiple innocent bystanders then the killing returns once again to the “should” category. But if you somehow can see into the future and know that those innocent bystanders are going to be the catalyst for a future nuclear Armageddon in which all humanity is exterminated, then the straightforward act of killing becomes “should not” again. However, if, all of this considered, it would turn out that allowing the person to live would somehow lead to metaphysical oblivion for the entire universe, then the killing swings right back to “should” once more, etc etc etc
You can see in this example how it is always possible to add more information to a hypothetical situation, thus swinging the action in question back and forth between “should” and “should not”. Therefore, it is imperative to avoid being entrapped in schemas of rigid law and abstract absolute morality. When one is required to follow an abstract absolutist commandment such as “You must never kill”, then, despite the fact that it is “lawful”, the observance of such a commandment will be wrong and immoral in very many situations.
Absolute morality is important, but only in concrete, real situations, not in abstract hypothetical ones. Furthermore, the true absolute moral code cannot be captured within the schemas and broad strokes of religious or secular laws, or the sacred frameworks produced by the many and varied schools of religious and secular jurisprudence that exist in the world. In the end, it is up to the individual to always be prayerfully aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to their conscience, and in thus doing so, intimately come to know the law of Christ that is written on their heart, and so always do the right thing in every situation.
The Mystery of Sin: Who is Culpable?
So why do we sin? Why is it that we often perform actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories, whilst failing to live up to our obligations in the “Must” and “Should” categories?
There are questions of culpability in play here: If a woman’s conscience informs her that seeking an abortion is in the “Should not” category, but out of fear and terror she goes ahead and does it anyway, is it really her fault? She did indeed sin, by disobeying her conscience, but the fear and terror mitigates her culpability. But why did this fear and terror arise in the first place? Who is responsible for the fear and terror? In this case, the culpability for the fear and terror falls entirely on the community surrounding the woman, and by extension the culpability for the sin itself also falls onto the community. The community failed to offer and to provide the necessary support and care and love that would enable the woman to do the right thing. If we consider the community as a single moral agent, then providing such care, love and support would fall into the “Should” category. As such, the failure of the community to live up to its obligations is the direct cause of the woman failing to live up to hers.
In this way responsibility for sin and good works is a communal affair, not a personal one. The fear and terror of this woman proceed from a lack of trust that God would provide and take care of her and her child, but the way God does this providing is through the wider community, so if the wider community is not forthcoming with this divine love, then the woman is unlikely to be overflowing with the faith necessary to obey her conscience. The general moral principle here is that when one person either sins or does a good work, the entire community is ultimately responsible and culpable for the act.
While one is damned, all are damned
But this applies to soteriology. Universalist leaning philosophers and theologians love to speculate about how it is impossible to “freely” choose Hell and the eternal, everlasting damnation of the age, because such a choice is utterly irrational and insane, and therefore hardly qualifies as “free”. But this is a similar situation to the abortion hypothetical proposed above. Someone’s conscience may clearly reveal to them that “Choosing God” is in the “Must” category, which implies that they have full knowledge of what is right and wrong in this case, and failure to follow their conscience here would indeed be a mortal sin which leads to Hell and damnation. But due to terror, fear, scepticism, insanity, or whatever else, they may decide to disobey this clear, unambiguous command written on their heart. In this way, they truly did “choose” Hell, with the full consent of their will and a fully informed knowledge in their conscience. However, the factors motivating this choice were terror, fear, scepticism, misinformation, wrong impressions and so on. So, what caused those factors? If we dig a little bit deeper into the story of this person’s life, we discover that they had been taught lies about God, had been indoctrinated into a faulty theology, had been abused and betrayed by all their Christian friends etc. In this way, we discover that it’s ultimately not the individual who is at fault for choosing Hell, it’s instead the wider community’s fault.
This all has important implications for evangelism. If the people you are evangelising are not responding favourably then you shouldn’t judge and condemn them as if it is their fault, because if anything it is YOUR fault for not proclaiming the gospel correctly. Furthermore, when someone dies in unbelief and rebellion against God, it simply will not do to wash your hands of their blood and claim that it’s their own fault and they are merely getting what they deserve. Because if they really did reject God and end up in Hell, then it’s not their fault, it’s YOUR fault, and if you don’t do something about it fast you will be heading for the same fate.
The blood of the unevangelised stains all of our hands, especially if we aren’t praying regularly for them or actively trying to announce the gospel to them and assist them in coming to faith and repentance. Do not expect to escape punishment yourself, while the vast majority of the world languishes in Hell. Salvation doesn’t work like that. Some like to say, “Once saved, always saved”, but I prefer to say “One saved, all saved”: or, we’re all in this together. The promise of Christ to the world is “I will not be saved without you”, and we should be sincerely speaking this same promise to each other every single day, because so long as we don’t, the entire creation remains chained in darkness, unrepentance, unbelief and ignorance, and it remains devoid of love.
Most Christians these days seem to think “As long as I’m saved, it doesn’t ultimately make a difference to me whether or not you go to Hell”: this is the essence of false assurance and ignorance. So long as Christians maintain this attitude, the damned will remain in Hell. But as soon as we realise that our eschatological happiness depends on the salvation of the damned, we will all storm the gates of Hell with our prayers and armies of angels, liberating the captives and loving them all up into salvation. For a person doesn’t end up in Hell due to lacking love in their own soul; a person ends up in Hell due to everyone else lacking love towards that person.
When people die in unbelief, we should be asking forgiveness for both our souls and their soul: our souls because we are ultimately responsible for that person’s damnation, and their soul because no one is ever completely beyond redemption.
All of this is felt clearly whenever we are confronted with a suicide victim. The sense is always that we failed to help the person who died, not that they themselves are at fault. This intuition is correct, and if it applies to the sin of suicide, how much more does it apply to the mortal sin of totally rejecting God! But in reality, it applies to every sin. Every sin without exception committed by an individual is in fact the collective fault of the entire community.
The Final Word
But God is in the process of liberating us all from the chains that prevent us from fulfilling the requirements of the law written on our hearts. By slowly pouring out his love – which is to say, himself – upon us all, he is wiping away the darkness and filling us all up with light. As we love each other more and more, we lift each other up out of Hell and we all collectively rise up to Heaven. And in the end, not one person will remain separate from God, and all will always do good, and never do evil, and the requirements of the law will be fulfilled in us all, and God will be all in all, and there will be no more Hell, no more damnation, only joy, bliss, faith, hope and love.
“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”
Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.
It is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Catholics simply do not have assurance. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with assurance and gospel joy at the promise that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.
Catholics have been taught that they can have no assurance that they are “saved”; they can have no assurance that they will persevere to the end; they can have no assurance that they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.
What exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.
The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.
Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.
We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.
Assurance: Are You Saved?
This principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.
It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.
In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.
Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty
And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:
Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.
But here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.
I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.
To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.
When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.
This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.
Anathema: What is actually being condemned?
The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?
It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.
Furthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective,epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.
In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.
Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption
An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?
Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.
This is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.
I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.
Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation
So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.
Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:
1 John 4:18RSV-CE
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.
In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!
1 John 5:13RSV-CE
I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.
If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!
One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:
1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
Now we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.
So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.