Autumn 2007 Haverhill, Massachusetts, is a rusty, decaying old industrial town. It peaked in the 1940s, when it was the hub of shoemaking and leather-tanning. Hitler wanted to bomb it so our boys on the Western Front would have to trudge through the brutal German winters without boots.
The local gentry – lawyers and farmers – all send their kids to Sacred Hearts. It’s your typical North of Boston Catholic school. The walls are painted that drab pinkish-beige and bear either a Crucifix or a statue of Mary. The teachers all have Italian or Irish names and a low tolerance for insubordination. Boys are made to wear white polos and blue trousers; girls, white blouses and plaid, blue-and-grey skirts. Most are the grandchildren of immigrants. A few (mostly the Hispanics) are immigrants themselves.
I get teased relentlessly for being fat, bookish and Presbyterian. Kids will find any excuse to be mean to each other, but the priest is no help. One day, during religious education, he uses me to demonstrate extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. I’m the Protestant boy, aren’t I? Yes, Father. Well, no heaven for me. The following year rumours about his behaviour start up, and he disappears.
The new priest is Japanese. All the students love him, but I’ve soured to all this Catholic business. My teacher makes me go to First Confession with all the other students. When my turn comes and the priest begins his prayer, I hold my hands up. “Don’t bother,” I snarl. “I’m Protestant.”
He looks hurt, says a little blessing, and lets me go. I leave the confessional feeling triumphant – and, for some reason, a little ashamed.
Spring 2010 I did well at Sacred Hearts and earned a place at St John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts – an idyllic, rural all-boys’ Catholic school. Most of the students here, too, are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. My best friend is Polish and wants to go to seminary. (He ended up working for House speaker Paul Ryan instead.)
He asks campus ministry for help starting a morning rosary group and convinces me to tag along. Every Wednesday morning one of the ministers gives us all cheap wooden rosaries, and we take turns reading the Mysteries. I like it. It’s soothing. One day, while we’re playing frisbee in the yard, mum calls and says my grandfather had suffered a massive stroke. The doctors aren’t sure he’ll pull through. I can feel my heart breaking. My grandfather is my hero. I’m closer to him than anyone else in the world.
Without a word to my friends, I run to the Marian grotto. Students tend not to hang out there. It’s set right next to the graveyard where the Xavierian Brothers are buried. When I get there, I find myself clutching the Virgin’s feet. I beg her to pray for my grandfather. If he lives, I promise to say a rosary every day for a week. She does, and he does, so I get permission from campus ministry to borrow one of their beads.
I used the money my grandparents gave me for Christmas to buy my own rosary. I don’t tell them; they were, like many older New England WASPs, gently anti-Catholic. Still, I don’t hold it against them. Mary didn’t.
Autumn 2014 I excel at English at St John’s and fall in love with TS Eliot. I devour everything he’s ever written – poetry, plays, essays – and eventually come across Thoughts after Lambeth. One of my Religious Studies teachers recommends the Church of the Advent to me. At once I fall in love with Boston’s grand Anglo-Catholic parish.
After an abortive year at the George Washington University, I transfer to the University of Sydney (USYD) in Australia. It is home to Barry Spurr, author of Anglo-Catholic in Religion and the world’s leading Eliot scholar. We become fast friends. He offers to sponsor my formal confirmation in the Anglican Church and agrees to help steer me toward a doctoral programme at Oxford. My thesis would be imaginatively titled Royalist in Politics. In the meantime, I start blogging. One of my first posts, an attack on the ordinariate and a call for Anglo-Catholic unity under the See of Canterbury, draws the ire of a certain Damian Thompson. We have a heated (but cordial) exchange over email and part amicably, agreeing to disagree.
Winter 2016 After finishing my degree at USYD I decide to abandon academia and pursue journalism full time. A Catholic friend convinces me to visit Boston’s ordinariate community: if I’m going to spend so much time rubbishing it, I should at least do a bit of field research. Reluctantly, I agree.
The liturgy is almost identical to that of the Church of the Advent’s, except on a much smaller scale. The community meets in the basement chapel of a local parish. Its 12 members make the place feel huge. I take a seat at the back and tap my foot, regretting humouring my friend. Then it comes time for Communion.
When visiting Catholic churches, I always go up to receive a blessing, more out of respect to the priest than anything. I take my place at the far end of the altar rail as the priest begins to make his way back down the line. As he draws nearer, something lights up inside me. It’s a kind of sixth sense, like the one you might feel at the airport when your loved one comes through the gates: you can feel them before you see them. This is what I sense, kneeling at the altar. And suddenly it hits me: this, here – this bit of unleavened bread – this is the living God.
It’s a terrible revelation. I squeeze my eyes tight and bow my head, but I can feel Him drawing closer and closer. All my muscles strain, as though to keep my soul from leaping out of its body. Body and soul fight until the priest pauses over me and blesses me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Then, the soul wins. As I give myself over to that total, desperate longing for Christ’s flesh and blood, all my muscles relax. It is all I can do to keep from toppling over; I wonder – indifferently, detachedly – if my heart will stop beating.
Spring 2017 Holy Saturday is warm and drizzly. I process in with the priests, deacons and altar boys into the pitch-black church. One by one the pews light up, as candles are lit from the Great Fire. The child behind me threatens to burn down the Church with his, kicking the back of my pew. It turns out he’s being baptised.
The soft light bounces off statues of martyrs and Madonnas. I can make out the gilded crown of the Infant of Prague and the medals on Blessed Karl of Austria’s chest. This is the Church of Constantine, Charlemagne, Richard the Lionheart… and, now, Michael Davis. One by one, the priest dips his thumb in oil and makes a cross on the catechumens’ foreheads, giving us new names and sealing us in the faith. I’m called Thomas, after St Thomas More – being, I hope, the Queen’s good servant, but God’s first.
Then, at last, my first Holy Communion. One of the other confirmandi cuts me in line, but I don’t care. It’s a few extra seconds to practice my oral calisthenics. As a Latin Masser, I’m all but expected to receive on the tongue. I have to give the priest a broad target to land the Host without letting my tongue hang out like a gargoyle. I can’t quite describe what happened in that moment – that consummation of my love for God, and God’s love for me.
After the Mass ends, the woman sitting next to me asks if I’m going to be a priest: “You have that way about you.”
“Quite the opposite,” I should have said. “I’m a journalist.” But I don’t. I’m still half-blind and dazed.
After thanking the priest I rush to the Marian grotto, and – whether from all the kneeling or what – my legs give out. Just as well; I’ll pray on my knees, in the rain.
Michael Davis is a freelance writer based in Boston