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Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: A Medieval Parable for the Modern Age

The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: A Medieval Parable for the Modern Age
© 2009, Randall A. Beeler

On the face of it, that’s what The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly (GBU), the ultimate “spaghetti western,” by writer/director Sergio Leone seems—face, all surface, all shoot-em up: tight facial shots of sweaty Italians, garish gunfight scenes, and a stark tableau of forbidding desert. However, since its premiere in 1966, the epic has won grudging approval as the ultimate “anti-western” and “post-modernist” send-up of the classic western’s black-and-white portrayals of good guys versus bad guys.

Indeed, GBU seems to relativize objective categories of good and evil. After all, the protagonist is a ne’er-do-well desperado bandit who prays only when he stands the chance of deceiving a companion to gain a fortune in gold. Truly, Setenza, or “Angel-Eyes,” (played by the shorn-fingered Lee Van Cleef) is indeed a Satanic, fallen-angel, psychopathic murderer. But the only thing that seems to differentiate the laconic Blondie (played by Clint Eastwood) from the Luciferian bad guy is that Blondie is quicker on the draw.

But why does Leone take pains early in the film to literally label each of the three leads as “The Ugly,” “the Bad,” and “the Good” (in that order)? Is he being sardonically facetious? Is he lampooning the seemingly vain attempt to discern illusive categories of absolute truth in a meaningless world?

Or, is he actually reviving an ancient means of storytelling that has more in common with our Medieval ancestors than it does with a modern deconstructionist despair?

As the protagonist, Tuco (masterfully and comically rendered by Eli Wallach) deserves close examination as the key to understanding GBU. The movie starts with his glass-smashing murderous escape from three demonic-visaged bounty hunters and ends with him suspended by a hang rope with a grave-head cross as his only support against death. Despite his outlaw ways, Tuco is our hero—in fact, he is us: using his wits to scrape out whatever pleasures and hopes he can from a forbidding landscape of marauders, frontier justice, and warring Yankee and Rebel armies. He embodies our daily struggle to live amidst the conflicts that swamp us with their very pervasiveness.

Tuco chooses “the harder way” (as he notes to his brother, a self-righteous friar who only too late laments his Phariseeism) of scraping whatever he can from cunning, vengeance, lying, and sheer desperate effort—except that this is Tuco’s only way. He attempts to do so across a harsh landscape of forbidding desert, clashing armies, merciless bounty hunters, and the ever-present threat of death by rope. In short, he is us—as we are without Grace or even a wit of its existence. The real contest in this Wasteland tableau is not a war between North and South, nor even a race for $200,000 in gold, but a contest for Tuco’s soul—and our soul—between the ravenous Angel-Eyes and the enigmatic Blondie.

So why the blatant, almost pernicious, labeling of the lead characters? Perhaps the wasteland setting provides the key: Leone filmed his masterpiece on the Spanish high desert not because of budget constraints (indeed, his profits from his previous two westerns enabled GBU’s multi-million-dollar budget) but because Leone was making a cinematic homage to the wasteland setting of T. S. Eliot’s eponymous poem and Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Not only is Tuco a hollow man roaming a waste, searching for water and a king’s ransom, but so are we the viewers. Just as Tuco cannot fathom the evil Angel-Eyes and the good Blondie, so we in the modern age have blinded ourselves to the cosmic battle between good and evil. We no more have the capacity to discern between good and evil than does the scurrilous Tuco—thus, we the viewers need the labels, just as much as Tuco needs Blondie to dish out some hard lessons in the nature of good and evil.

If Blondie seems superior to Angel-Eyes only because he is better skilled with a gun, that is no indication of relativism but rather a commentary on just how little of true goodness that Tuco—and we—choose to appreciate. Tuco’s admiration of guns and cunning is akin to our present attempts to reject objective truth: given the predatory, wasted moral landscape we have blundered ourselves into, the only good we grope for is a weapon-like utilitarianism. Long before Mad Max roamed a post-nuclear-holocaust moonscape, Tuco seeks his El Dorado by dodging bullets and siding with whomever can help him reach his goal.

Blondie’s grimy appearance and cold-bloodedness (seemingly not all that different from Angel-Eye’s self-satisfaction at doing his assassin’s job to ruthless completion) is thrown into relief by Tuco’s—and our—obliviousness to the true nature of good and evil. Blondie’s skill is all we choose to appreciate. And just as Christ condescends to our frail human nature, so the force for good in GBU meets Tuco and us on our own terms, providing an persona and a role with which we can interact.

What does differentiate Blondie from Angel-Eyes (even if Tuco cannot appreciate it because he is blinded by the ecstasy of gold) is the stark (if implicit) difference between the two gunmen’s interactions with the hapless Tuco.

Portrayed as a killer who does not merely do so for money but for pleasure (he repeatedly notes his determination to “see the job” through right before he needlessly murders his victims), Angel-Eyes views Tuco as quarry or fodder, a thing to be consumed and used as fuel towards Angel-Eyes’ ultimate goals. He takes pleasure watching Tuco nearly beaten to death (at the hands of Angel-Eyes’ henchman, Wallace); then, having extracted the information he wants from the torture, profits by selling Tuco for a bounty. For Angel-Eyes, men like us are things to be used and sold, grist to be ground for gain.

Although Blondie seems to use Tuco for a bounty-hunting scam in which he “captures” the outlaw (“saving” him from three bounty hunters by gunning them down) and turns him in for the bounty, only to shoot away his hang rope at the last instant, Blondie shares the bounty with Tuco. When Blondie severs the relationship, letting Tuco loose in the desert, he notes that “A man of your strength could manage” the journey back to town. Blondie’s seemingly cruel valedictory ends up being prophecy; albeit, Tuco nearly dies from the ordeal, but his experience represents what we all endure at the hands of what we perceive to be a capricious God. In other words, Blondie’s loosing of Tuco in the desert is akin to our experience of God’s allowing suffering.

Whether we can discern whether God commands such suffering or merely permits it as an exigency of a world in which free-willing agents can create all sorts of wastelands and deserts that we then must toil through is moot to the Tucos who wander the wasteland. What is pertinent is what such suffering ultimately effects in us. At the point of his release into the desert, Tuco is capable only of a viciously cyclic relationship with his hang-rope-shooting partner, as Blondie himself notes: “I don’t ever think you’ll be worth more than $3,000.” Before we categorize Blondie with Angel-Eyes, remember—we are seeing the situation from Tuco’s point of view; to him, the world is filled with nothing but Angel-Eyed, demonic marauders and bounty hunters who want to buy and sell his life. But the amazing fact is that, true to Blondie’s word, Tuco does manage to survive and his being shang-haied in the desert motivates him to hunt down Blondie, to, with a Job-like tenacity, track the perceived author of our woes and make him pay—

—Which Tuco does, first failing to hang Blondie from a roof beam of a hotel that is struck by an errant Union cannonball, thus assuring Blondie’s escape; then forcibly marching Blondie through the desert, only to see Blondie rescued by what Leone (and composer Morricone) labeled the “Carriage of the Spirits.” In the carriage is the man whom Angel-Eyes has been hunting, the man who knows the cemetery and grave name where $200,000 in gold is buried. Tuco manages to wrest the location of the cemetery from the wounded and dying man, but while he is getting a canteen to help loose the parched man’s tongue, Blondie secures the name of the grave with the man’s last breath. Tuco now finds himself charged with saving the life of the man who formerly rescued him and whom he just plotted to kill, and Tuco does so by taking him to the Franciscan mission/hospital where Tuco’s brother is the superior.

Note how Blondie’s rugged participation with Tuco in Tuco’s own suffering (Blondie undergoes the same desert ordeal as Tuco) and his enabling Tuco to save his (Blondie’s) life (as Blondie once saved Tuco from the hang rope) leads Tuco towards the gold. Blondie’s interventions are marked by Leone’s deus ex machina plot technique: misfired cannon balls, runaway carriages, parched secret sharers—as if to say that, at least from the modern age’s and Tuco’s limited perspective, these are as close as we are going to get to miracles in this war-torn wasteland.

The ostensibly crooked lines that Blondie draws for Tuco’s path actually keep Tuco one step ahead of the demonic Angel-Eyes. In contrast to Angel Eyes’ preying on Tuco, Blondie comforts him. After eavesdropping on Tuco’s heartbreaking encounter with his Prior brother (who informs Tuco that both their parents are dead and accuses Tuco of being on a road to damnation), Blondie willingly goes along with Tuco’s lie about his brother (“He’s crazy about me! No matter what happens to a rat like me, I always know there’s a brother who’ll give me a bowl of soup”). Blondie then notes that “After a good meal, there’s nothing like a good smoke” and shares his cigar with Tuco, symbolically giving Tuco the fellowship that Tuco’s own brother did not—an embrace that is astounding, given that a few days earlier, Tuco had sought to kill him. The meaning is clear—Blondie has made himself a brother to Tuco’s quest.

Despite Blondie’s guidance, Tuco inevitably blunders into encounters with the evils of this landscape. Tuco’s mistaking Union troops for Confederates lands the pair in Angel-Eyes’ POW camp (where Tuco is beaten). Later, Tuco’s sure-fire sense of direction leads the two into the midst of a Sisyphean battle between Union and Confederate forces for a mere bridge over a river.

Blondie’s compassion again pulls them out of these fixes. Plotting to use Union dynamite to blow up the bridge during a lull in the battle, Blondie gives a bottle of whiskey to the wounded and dying Union commander (who has drunk himself into alcoholic anguish over the waste of lives caused by the bridge)—the third time in the movie that Blondie administers “last rites” to a character.

Next, Blondie exchanges secrets with Tuco—who provides Blondie with the name of the cemetery in return for the name of the grave (unbeknownst to Tuco, it is the name of the grave next to the one with the gold). Blondie also surreptitiously unloads Tuco’s gun as the two sleep during the evacuation of the armies after the obliteration of the bridge. Again, Blondie seems to be just as cunning with Tuco as Angel-Eyes is, but Tuco himself grudgingly agrees with Blondie when, the deception revealed, Blondie notes, “You think I’d trust you?”

Leone and Blondie know that we and Tuco cannot trust ourselves, let alone be trusted. Leone’s treatment of the viewer and Blondie’s treatment of Tuco represent what C. S. Lewis once described as a “severe mercy”: from our perspective, severe; from the higher view of God, an absolutely necessary mercy to guide us through the traps planted by demons and our own delusions of godhead.

Tuco and Blondie emerge from the bloodstained river (itself an implicit baptismal and Eucharistic image), with Tuco racing ahead to find the grave before Blondie, who pauses in shelled-out church to put his coat on a dying soldier and give him a last smoke of his own cigar—hauntingly recalling his earlier sharing of the cigar with Tuco. The contrast is startling enough to shake us awake at this point: while Tuco feverishly races through the thousands of graves, Blondie quietly goes about what Blondie has done the whole story—being in this cruel world as much of an angelic, ministering presence as this world allows. At every one of Blondie’s Good-Samaritan turns, Tuco is oblivious to the Grace that Blondie represents. Earlier in the movie, even the demonic Angel-Eyes declares that Blondie is Tuco’s angel, which alludes to how even devils witnessed to the Christ, even while Jesus’ very disciples were unconscious of the fact.

The movie ends where it began—on a round stone-paved court in the center of the cemetery (recalling the stone paved circle of the home where Angel-Eyes murders a family at the beginning of the movie). Tuco impotently grasps at his empty pistol, while Blondie dispatches Angel-Eyes into an open grave. Then, after splitting the riches with Tuco, Blondie delivers one final severe mercy. Standing Tuco on the cross over the “Unknown” grave where the gold coins were buried, Blondie returns Tuco to where the bandit started the movie—with his neck in a noose.

But this time, Tuco’s life depends on the rickety cross on which he stands; it must provide him what little life he can hope for until Blondie returns on camera, from a distance, to shoot away the rope. Tuco lands on his share of the gold, a wiser and richer man—because of his Blondie-induced sufferings. The lesson is clear: as Tuco will never have the skill or charmed life of Blondie, so we do not, as part-and-parcel of our fallen condition, get to dictate the terms of our existence. Our suffering is lamentable, and we of course look for the time when weeping and death will be no more. But, as of now, our lives are balanced on a humble cross that keeps us alive until our final deliverance.

This wasteland of war and demonic marauders was never God’s intent. Yet God will not violate our freedom to perilously create and navigate this mine field of peril. Ultimately, through the grim setting and the ragtag nature of the protagonist, GBU reveals a comic vision of the universe. Even amidst the carnage and desolation wrought by the demons and by our demonic capacity for revolt, our very rebellion and our ineptitude pave the way for Grace—but not an oppressive, manipulative Grace. Rather, as Blondie works the bounty con with Tuco, walks the desert under Tuco’s gun, shares his cigar with Tuco, and unloads Tuco’s gun and deceives him about the grave, Blondie redirects Tuco’s free blunders into Tuco’s final reward.

The gold is Tuco’s; although the severity of this world ties his hands—and his own capacity for sin ties him into the occasional hang rope—he again has a new start and a patrimony, an inheritance, a future of hope—and maybe the wisdom that the Blondies of the world—even more so than the Angel-Eyes—are too much for him to dare to compete with. Better to stumble along and realize that, ugly as our lives can seem, we are too good, too precious, to be abandoned to the bad.

This parabolic lesson has more in common with Medieval morality plays and a Shakespearian sense of the role of buffoons and comic relief than it does with a post-modern or deconstructionist angst about the abolition of moral categories. Sergio Leone’s unlikely spaghetti-western shoot-em-up actually sends up the wasteland of modern attempts at storytelling and returns us to the foundations of our condition. Grace abounds in our most rickety-cross moments in the most parched of deserts.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

God Draws Straight With Crooked Lines: Our Journey Home to the Catholic Faith

©2008, Randall Beeler

“I have to put my livelihood where my beliefs are.” I knew what I had to do. I just had no way to see how it could happen.

My wife, Pam, and I were both ordained United Methodist pastors, serving three congregations between us. We had three children, ages 16, 15, and 12. Their college educations would soon be upon us. We had only recently paid off our school loans.

It was the Tuesday after Easter Sunday 2005, the week when I took my annual post-Easter retreat. This year we didn’t have the funds for me to go to the retreat house I normally went to. So, I stayed at home, shut off my cell phone, prayed, and read a book I had promised Pam I’d read—two years ago—Mark Shea’s By What Authority: An Evangelical Encounters Catholic Tradition.

Shea’s book was an invigorating of all I had already known—and had turned my back on. After all, I’d been Catholic for 11 good years, after having embraced the Faith at the University of Dallas (UD), as a 19-year-old sophomore.

During my upbringing in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I’d been baptized as an infant in the Lutheran Church and later confirmed in the Presbyterian Church at age 14. In high school, I was a me-and-my-Bible Christian who looked askance at “organized religion.” I went to the very-Catholic UD in Fall 1981 with a mission to show all those Texas Catholics how wrong they were.

Instead of battling Texas Inquisitors, I met loving people who invited me to join their morning Liturgy of the Hours group. This sola scriptura boy was amazed at the Scripture-laden Divine Office and the faith of my new Catholic friends.

By the Fall of my Sophomore year, when I attended UD’s Rome Semester, I fell in love with the Church, even as I read Augustine’s Confessions in a weekend inside Santa Maria Maggiore Cathedral and St. Peter’s. As I left the Basilica on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, I was amazed at the crowd waiting outside for me. I turned around to find that I was looking up at Pope John Paul II preaching. And I was in the front row! It felt like he was speaking to me.

That next Spring, I completed (at Main Campus) the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) training I’d begun in Rome and was received into the Church on Holy Saturday Vigil 1983. I stayed up all night in the Eucharistic Chapel, praying before the Presence, then greeted the dawn by sitting in a tree on Seminary Hill as I said a Rosary. I felt like my previous faith life had been a meandering path that was now on a Glory road.

If I’d felt that my journey had been special, I was to be outdone by the beautiful young woman I met that Fall—Pam Rose, who was even more exuberant about “all things Catholic” than me! We started a spiritual friendship (that continues to blossom to this day). We’d say the Rosary together, then spend hours talking about the Faith. Because I worked for the Campus Chaplain, it was easy to enlist Pam to be a Sacristan and Lector at Daily Mass. When not in Mass, we’d share meals in the cafeteria, meet after classes, and compare notes on how all that we were learning in the classroom added to our faith.

We were falling in love with each other in the presence of the Presence. It’s no wonder that I soon after asked her to marry me. After her initial excitement, though, Pam confessed to me that she wasn’t Catholic at all!

Pam had been brought up in a loving and supportive home in Las Vegas, NV. Never wanting to compromise Pam’s freedom to make her own faith choices, her mother and father, although not church-goers, allowed a friend to take then six-year-old Pam to a Southern Baptist Church Sunday School so that she could learn about the Christian faith. She soon was singing songs before the congregation and coming home asking to be baptized. Because they felt she was not able to make an informed decision at such a young age, they stopped that means of instruction.

By age 15, Pam did a high-school report on the various world faiths and came to the conclusion that religion was a crutch. But never underestimate how the Holy Spirit uses our daily witness as Catholics. Pam’s mom’s dearest friend, Marita Abramowitz, was a lifelong faithful Catholic, whom Pam watched, loved, and respected through the years. When Pam was 17, Marita was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. After saying goodbye to Marita at Marita’s bedside, Pam tearfully admitted to her mom, “It [faith] may still be a crutch, but if it makes Marita that peaceful, then I guess it’s a good crutch.”

Soon after receiving a scholarship to UD, Pam met with Sister Mary Margaret at Holy Family Parish to inquire about the Catholic faith. Pam’s challenging questions soon became deeper inquiries into the nature of the Faith itself. By the end of the summer before attending UD, Pam knew she wanted to be Catholic, but she didn’t know how to be a non-Catholic inquirer at a Catholic school. Then she met Mr. Gung-Ho Catholic who’d so swiftly enlisted her into the ranks that she hadn’t had the chance to admit that she really was no such thing.

The situation was so strange to me, yet Pam was so sincere that the only thing I knew to do was for her to meet with Father Don Fischer, the campus chaplain. She was understandably not at ease with doing this:
“Father, um, I’m going to tell you something, and you have to promise you won’t get mad at me.” 
“Of course I won’t get mad at you, Pam.” 
“Um, you also have to promise that you won’t hit me.”
“Pam, I certainly won’t hit you. Please tell me.” 
“[Long, deep breath] I’m not Catholic I’ve never been Catholic I’m not anything ‘cuz I was never brought up Christian and I was afraid to tell anyone here so I’ve been acting like a Catholic and I want to become Catholic and please don’t hit me!”
Father Don didn’t hit her. He wasn’t mad at her. He was surprised. Better yet, he was heartened by her journey, for, in his words, it showed the amazing power of the Holy Spirit to call a person to the Church from outside the framework of the Church.

Holy Saturday Vigil 1984 Pam was baptized, confirmed, and took her first communion as a Catholic. It was the most beautiful Mass I’d ever seen. I didn’t think I could be more ecstatic than I’d been at my own reception into Mother Church, but Pam did that for me and continues to do that for so many other persons.

We continued together in the Faith. I graduated UD in 1985 and went to Penn State for my M.A. in English, while Pam finished her B.A. in English in 1987 (then continued in graduate work in Medieval Philosophy at UD). We married on June 27, 1987 at St. Viator Parish in Las Vegas, NV, settling in the Dallas, TX area, where we had our first son, Paul in 1988, then our daughter Cesara in 1990.

In September 1991, we moved to Krum, TX, a small town 40 miles outside of Dallas/Fort Worth, where we had our second son (and third child), Killian, in December 1992. We now found ourselves at a 40-mile physical distance from the parish at UD. Immersing ourselves in our community, we worked hard to change the world in our own neck of the woods. People around us noticed our activity and asked me to run for Mayor of Krum. Via a whirlwind of work, we were able to steer a campaign that won the office of Mayor.

Consumed by our community responsibilities, raising three children, and having no Catholic Church in Krum, we gravitated to the faith opportunities in our home town. Paul and Cesara took part in the week-long Vacation Bible School at Krum First United Methodist Church (UMC). Soon after, we attended church there and were delighted by their female pastor, who was a gifted preacher and musician.

I don't regret the decision to become Methodist. The UMC was, is, and will continue to be a means of blessing to many faithful Christians. Our reasons for choosing the UMC had to do with our own journey.

One day I came home from work and saw Pam poring over UM materials with a glow in her eyes. I joked, “Hey, now that we’re UMs, you could become a minister!” This beautiful woman, who never ceases to surprise me, this woman who had once aloud questioned whether women should be lectors (!), smiled eagerly and said, “Yeah, I know!” Suddenly, a vista opened to me—I too could become a minister! After all, my father was now a local pastor in the UMC.

A year later, in Fall 1995, we attended Brite Divinity School at TCU, with full fellowships and stipends. I
n January 1996, Pam was appointed a student local pastor at Kosse First UMC and Reagan First UMC in the far north of the Brazos Valley of Texas. I became student local pastor of Evans Chapel & Leona UMCs in June 1996. We raised our three growing children in the Kosse parsonage and later in the Cooks Point UMC parsonage. With the churches we served, we inherited multiple sets of surrogate grandparents. (One day, Pam was asked to involve the “young people” in worship in one of her congregations, only to find out that, by “young people,” the asker meant the 50-year-olds!)

Somehow, through it all, we never lost sight of the Catholic Faith. Again and again in seminary, as we were challenged by historical-critical methods of Scriptural exegesis, we fell back on the teachings of the Church Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and the inspiring philosophy and theology of John Paul II.

Although we were blessed by Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley’s emphasis on grace and their melding of pietism with the Anglo-Catholic sacraments, the UMC continued to pose difficulties for us that we couldn’t solve without referring to a Catholic understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ. Increasingly, we suspected that Methodism would have done better to remain a movement rather than becoming a denomination. We were especially uncomfortable with John Wesley’s departure from Apostolic Succession by his “ordaining” bishops to shepherd the Methodist denomination in the newly-born United States (as his own brother, Charles Wesley, had been!).

What’s more, we wrestled in our hearts with the UM understanding of communion as “real presence.” In UM theology, the bread and grape juice (not wine—the UMC has a temperance heritage) does not become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ; rather, UMs believe that, in the consecrating and taking of the bread and cup, Christ is present but not locatable in the substance or any one thing.

Most of the UMs we served saw little more significance in Holy Communion than they did in moments of private meditation or in any other worship service without communion. A member of a Worship Committee of one congregation that Pam served asked, “Can’t you just say a prayer over it and hand it out?”

These instances alone should have shown us that not only were we deceiving ourselves but also the people of the UMC. Like us, many UMs were refugees from other belief systems—Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Church of Christ, pagan. That both of us were feeling a hunger for the Presence of the Eucharist should have shown us that, although the UMC’s flexibility attracts some, it was, for deep and solid reasons, not a home for us.

Apparently, Pam caught onto this more quickly than I did. I was too consumed with my meanderings to see that I was longing for Mary and the Saints—the Communion of those who had gone before us, people whom we could know by name, history, and direct prayer, who were God’s blessed means of guiding and directing me in my journey.

Still, God never walked away from us; the Holy Spirit made straight with our crooked paths. Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning to find my UM minister wife watching the Catholic Television Network, EWTN, following along with the televised Mass in the Daily Roman Missal I’d bought her “on a lark.” On another “lark,” I bought Michael O’Brien’s brilliant novel, Father Elijah, devoured it in a week, then read it aloud with Pam, crying and rejoicing in the heartbreaking beauty of the Catholic Faith that it portrayed. On her own “lark,” Pam bought Mark Shea’s By What Authority, and urged me to read it (though it took me quite some time). We continued, throughout our Protestant sojourn, to pray the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours). On various occasions, we’d find ourselves haunting Catholic book stores and meeting cradle Catholics who’d become disaffected with the Church. What a lark it must’ve been for them to discover that these UMC clergy were closet apologists for Catholicism!

All these “larks” were actually dove-like promptings of the Holy Spirit. But still I couldn’t get the message. I couldn’t see a way out of the fact that our livelihood and our dwelling were provided by the UMC. The prospect of leaving raised huge “unknowns” for me, that I did not have the faith to trust God through.

Bright spirit that she is, Pam stopped worrying about the unknowns. Ministry was taking a toll on her, physically and emotionally. She continued in it because, despite the hunger we were feeling, she nonetheless saw the blessings it provided our children, who were growing into a beautiful young adulthood.

And she remained because I did a skillful job of burying the promptings of the Holy Spirit in a flurry of ministerial activity—as if by sheer dint of effort, I could make the Truth become something other than what the Holy Spirit, Mary, and the Saints had been trying to tell me: “Come back to the Eucharist. Come back to the Beloved.”

Ironically, I failed to convince the UMC of principles that I myself wasn't embracing in my own life. As the UM General Conference had endorsed, I tried to get the congregations I served to move to weekly communion and to more frequently avail themselves of the means of grace that the UMC recognized. But not only would they partake of the barest minimum offered to them, they began to fight me vigorously.

Could I blame them? I myself had fought the Holy Spirit’s call to return to the Eucharist. I began to feel in my body the wounds that my own rebellion worked on Christ. Diagnosed with depression, I sought (to no avail) secular jobs so I could leave the ministry. Church became an ashen taste in my mouth. It had been years since I’d truly worshipped. But I could see no exit to my self-made prison.

Thanks to medication and counseling, which were God’s blessed means of healing, I finally began to see ministry again in a positive light. I began to think that I could persist as a UM clergy and that, upon retirement, I would return to the Catholic Church. I told myself that I was “on loan” to the Methodists. I had opened the door to the Eucharist in the smallest way possible.

Then one day, God pushed it open. After sitting in on a class about Dante’s Divine Comedy that I taught to homeschool high school students and after visiting a Christmas Eve Mass at which a friend of ours was cantoring, my youngest son, Killian, said to Pam, “I’ll come to your confirmation class, Mom, but I don’t want to be confirmed a UM at Easter.”

“Oh, really?” she said.

“Yeah, I think the Catholics have it right. I want to become Catholic.”

Apparently, Killian had inherited his mom’s tendency to surprise!

We responded by taking him to Saturday Vigil Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in College Station, TX, 25 miles away. (We couldn’t go to the local Catholic Church near where we lived in Caldwell because of the local turbulence that doing so could create.) Not only was he further drawn to Catholicism, but Pam and I began truly to worship again. Even though we couldn’t take Communion, it was such a blessing to simply go forward, with our arms crossed, to spiritually take part. We felt like Catechumens again.

My older son, Paul, then set his heart on going to UD to study philosophy. I took him and my daughter, Cesara, to an exploratory weekend at UD. There, I renewed old acquaintances and a seemingly ancient longing for the Faith renewed itself in me.

So, a few weeks later, I found myself assenting to all that Mark Shea said in By What Authority. I searched out the Coming Home Network web site and found comfort and counsel there. I told Pam, and found out that she, too, had long had the same thoughts—and had already been at the Coming Home site.

The death of Pope John Paul II deeply moved us. In his purported final words, Pam heard a personal call back to Mother Church: “I’ve been waiting for you, and you’ve come.” Not knowing what to do, we simply let go and let God take care of what was to happen next. It was a blessed relief to lay down my self-will and to let God’s will be done according to His Word.

The results were exhilarating. I don’t remember fearing any of it. I was anxious—but not a paralyzing anxiety as I’d experienced during my depression. No, this was the anxiety of a rollercoaster ride, in which I was so enjoying the last stomach-drop that I had no time to anticipate the next twist, turn, rise, and drop.

Daily Mass became the fixed point of our lives. The Eucharist (though we still couldn’t partake physically) drew us to Christ and His Body the Church, ending our long, long self-imposed famine.

On Friday, April 15, 2005, we were back in the office of a priest, wondering if he was going to hit us. But Father Dean Wilhelm (who had been wondering who these glowing, non-Communion-taking-Daily-Mass-goers were) didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow at our story. He was truly a priest mediating the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to us. I’m proud of the Church that ordained him, and I’m so proud of the priest he is and of his tutelage of us and Killian.

We told him we had no idea how we were going to live. We had no idea how long the transition would take, but we wanted to commit ourselves to the path back to the Church. This was to be a penance. More importantly, we didn’t want our wandering journey in the Faith to prevent Killian from being able to make his First Communion in whatever time frame Father Dean and the Church thought best.

A mere 13 days after this talk, Pam and I had secured two teaching jobs at St. Joseph Catholic School in neighboring Bryan, gotten two more needed “second jobs” at a local place of business owned by friends of ours, leased a beautiful home in Bryan, and handed in our ministerial credentials (effective June 5, 2005) to our UM District Superintendent.

On the morning of June 5, 2005, we held our last Sunday services as UM ministers. That afternoon, Pam, Killian, and I professed faith in the Catholic Church and received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The next morning, at Daily Mass, the three of us received Communion—Killian’s first. (Ironically, it was the last Mass that Father Dean said as Pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas; he was assigned by the Bishop to a position at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston).

Our beliefs are now definitely where our livelihoods are. We try to teach simply by our witness. We’ve not ceased being ministers but instead, because of the Catholic Faith, the intercession of Mary and the Saints, and the Eucharist, we are more truly ministering—serving, in the original sense of the word—than we’ve ever done in our lives.

God draws straight with crooked lines. Dare we think that we are now on a straight course? I don’t worry. God paves the road. So long as God leads us, I don’t worry where the next turn will take us because I know that I am Home.