My love of Catholicism arose and flourished in my childhood, became dormant in my late adolescence, underwent a fitful revival during my university years, and died once and (seemingly) for all soon thereafter. It has a faint afterlife in the admiration I feel for some Catholic converts, and perhaps in my willingness to consider the possibility that there might be something like a purposive intelligence behind our existence and that of the universe.
I grew up in a devoted Catholic family, but it was influences outside the home that were decisive in shaping my early love for the church. One was Sr. Monica, the nun who taught me in fourth grade. A woman of sweet, humorous, loving holiness, she seemed to represent everything I should aspire to if I wanted to be worthy of God’s own love. In my memory I still cherish the image of her silently meditating after daily Mass in the small and cozy convent chapel.
Sr. Monica introduced me to the lives of the saints—specifically, to a series of dramatized biographies of saints written for children. I was first taken with the gentle purity of Francis of Assisi, the namesake of our parish in the piedmont of Virginia. But it was Thomas Aquinas who really captured my imagination. Here was the model for the life that would make me truly happy: a contemplative and monastic life of the mind. (Unlike Thomas, I would keep my weight down.)
As a boy I could do more than merely fantasize about the monastic life. I could see it “in action,” thanks to the improbable presence of a Capuchin monastery just over the hill from my childhood home. (I say “improbable” because my hometown, overwhelmingly Protestant and a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War, was not especially welcoming to such exotic expressions of Roman Catholicism.) In a grand and cloistered edifice that had originally been built in the late nineteenth century as a music conservatory, ten or so Capuchin priests were housed, along with an equal number of brothers, and a couple of dozen teenaged seminarians—mainly Italian-Americans who spoke in strange Long Island accents. On schooldays I would wake before the birds and skip over the hill to the monastery for daily Mass in one of its many small chapels. Afterwards, wearing my altar-boy cassock (sans surplice) to fit in, I would stroll the bosky grounds with the monks and talk about scholastic theology and other thrilling things. I especially loved Fr. Marcellus, who taught chemistry and physics to the seminarians. On our many walks together he patiently explained to me such philosophical subtleties as the distinction between “essence” and “accident.” It helped that he looked just like St. Francis.
Such was the religious idyll of my childhood.