Surfing the (Catholic) net is not a mindless occupation. You can stumble on some wonderful articles; indeed, depending on what you read and your state of mind when you read it, an inspiring personal account of faith might be enough to trigger a change in your life. The internet, despite its reputation for easy corruption, can be a school of evangelisation just as any other means. The trick, as with choosing friends, is to select sites that encourage “the better angels of your nature” rather than those which merely confirm – or feed -your personal weaknesses or vices.
By way of this preamble I came across a most uplifting article yesterday on CFNews. I then discovered it had been written earlier this year for the Christendom Awake website. Entitled How I became a Catholic, it was by author and journalist Philip Trower. I happen to have known Philip for nearly 25 years and have enjoyed reading his two very informative books about the Second Vatican Council: Turmoil and Truth and The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith. Now aged 91 he is one of the few people I would describe as genuinely “saintly”: gentle, wise and charitable, all his conversation is about God and his love for the Church. He radiates faith.
His essay on his conversion is as thoughtful, reflective and candid as one would expect it to be. Like Evelyn Waugh, whose Face to Face interview with John Freeman, I blogged about recently, Philip had come to see that “all converts become Catholic for the same reason…they come to realise that the Church is what it claims to be: the sole authorised guardian and disseminator of the one true revelation of God to men through which they can know with certainty the purpose of their existence and their final destiny.” Such a statement tends to stick in the throat of ultra-ecumenists but it still remains true, as any Catholic, cradle or converted, comes to recognise.
Philip’s detailed memory of the steps and phases of his spiritual journey also reflects the truth that faith is a gradual process, both taught and caught in different ways that will bear fruit often years later. From a prosperous and distinguished legal family, he went to prep school, Eton and Oxford, absorbing the Anglican rituals of his time and class but also influenced by a devout and loving Catholic nanny, a French Catholic governess and other Catholic personalities he met in his youth. One amusing anecdote describes the period before he went up to Oxford, when he discovered in his father’s study a book by an ancestor of his, a former Bishop of Gibraltar in the early 19th century, entitled Trower on the Epistles. Opening it at random he read the phrase, “as the Church of Rome so wrongly maintains” and writes that he experienced “a sudden, intense feeling of irritation”. The seeds of his later conversion were already apparent.
Another moment came at Oxford when, in personal turmoil, he spoke to a don he knew who, although not a Catholic, told him “You will never find love until you find it in the tabernacle.” Recalling this incident years later Philip was amazed that at the time these words did not make a greater impression on him.
Then, at the end of the war, in which he served and was wounded in Italy, he met the man who was to prove the final catalyst for his conversion: the American, lapsed Catholic poet and homosexual, Dunstan Thompson. Philip admits that he had been living a homosexual lifestyle already; the two became lovers and set up home together in a little village in North Norfolk, near Walsingham.
In 1950 Dunstan began to recover his childhood faith, reading widely and receiving instruction from a priest in Farm Street, London. By 1952 he had returned to the Church. Philip relates that from then on they made the decision to live together chastely as friends and to distance themselves from the “gay culture”, although not from individual friends. He himself entered the Church at Farm Street in 1953. From then on, until Dunstan’s death from cancer in 1975, both men used their gifts, their time and their energy in apostolic work for their local parish and for the wider Church.
One anecdote that Philip told me, which he does not include in his essay, relates that before Dunstan made a renewed profession of faith he and Philip once happened to be in Walsingham (which had been one of the most famous Catholic shrines in medieval England) as a procession of the Blessed Sacrament was passing by. Dunstan instinctively went down on his knees; observing this Philip realised that his friend’s faith was more important than he knew or was prepared to admit at the time and it made a deep impression on him.
Perhaps at that moment in Walsingham, Dunstan began to recover the “love” that, as the Oxford don had told Philip some years before, can only be found “in the tabernacle” – and which was to draw Philip himself into the same Church in which, for the last 60 years, he has been a faithful and devoted member.
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