As a student, I immersed myself in Eastern spirituality. But when I discovered the riches of Western mysticism, my life changed forever
In this extract from Mind, Heart, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome, edited by Robert George and RJ Snell, the Dominican theologian Fr Thomas Joseph White talks to Hope Kean.
HOPE KEAN What was your religious upbringing, if any?
FR THOMAS JOSEPH WHITE, OP I grew up in south-east Georgia as the only child of a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother. My parents were nominally or moderately religious. My father could be characterised as a somewhat secularised Jew and my mother was a modestly practising Presbyterian, so I had some exposure to both traditions but was neither baptised nor Bar Mitzvahed. And, of course, I’m not Jewish in the Jewish understanding of the term because that passes through the lineage of the mother.
I was surrounded by many people who were deeply Protestant or committed Southern Baptists in south-east Georgia, but I was a sort of generic theist without any real personal awareness of Christ. I did not consider myself an atheist by any means, but the existence of God wasn’t a concern of great importance. I did pray as a child, even into my early adolescence, but I wouldn’t say I was very self-consciously prayerful or particularly reflective about religious matters.
When I was maybe 10 or 11, we travelled a great deal in Asia which gave me an interest in religious diversity. I remember wanting to understand the fundamental differences between religions, what you might call a premature metaphysical curiosity, but it wasn’t religious practice, it was more like a concern about religious truth. By high school I was pretty unconcerned with religious issues, but then I went to boarding school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which eventually precipitated a kind of religious crisis […].
In my freshman year in college I took a class on Buddhist and Indian Vedantic metaphysics and was thinking about the causes of reality. Because I was interested in Eastern mysticism, I thought I should probably also study Western mysticism, so I started reading Thomas Merton, in part because he was interested in both. Because of that, I got interested in things like the Jesus Prayer and Christian forms of meditation. It came to my attention that by meditating on the mystery of God and Christ in one’s own innermost self, you could encounter Christ.
At about the same time, a friend gave me a book of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, whom I liked because she is also from south-east Georgia. In reading her letters, I encountered a Catholic intellectual. I found her views startlingly absolutist; shockingly, even offensively so, but also plausible or attractive. I read especially the Letters to A, which I found compelling, in which she mentioned a few theologians, including Karl Barth. So I went to the library and got out some books of his, including Introduction to Evangelical Theology.
I sat in the basement of the Science Library on Thayer Street, under atrocious fluorescent lights in this rather awful modern architectural setting, and read the book virtually cover to cover in an afternoon and evening – when I closed the book, I knew Jesus Christ existed. That was when I received the gift of faith from God and began to be aware of the reality of Christ. I went back to my dorm and prayed and the next day went to the college chaplain, who was Protestant, and asked to be baptised.
I was eventually baptised as a Protestant at Easter in my freshman year, at which time it became evident that it is very challenging to identify the truth about Christianity because there are lots of different versions of it. I became interested in the nature of Christianity and started going to different churches. I’d sit in the back of Presbyterian churches and go to the high Anglican services, things like this.
The next semester I took a class on Early Christianity, thinking that if I studied the historical genesis of Christianity I would figure out what it was at the beginning. In that class, we were exposed to authors like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus and Augustine and Athanasius, including his important book On the Incarnation, and figures such as John Chrysostom.
As I read them, I had a rising instinct that whatever these authors were articulating, it was something very like Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism, as in what Newman means when he says that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. As I read the Church Fathers, it became clear that they had a unique combination of philosophical depth, theological profundity and spiritual mysticism that was beautiful, strange because ancient, but also powerful and compelling. It seemed to be what the Catholic Church promotes, and it made Catholic things that had previously seemed very strange seem much more attractive – like the sacraments, iconography, the Virgin Mary, the place of the bishops and the papacy, and especially the Eucharist. I started sitting in the back of the Catholic church and began reading more Church Fathers, especially Origen and Augustine.
Not long after this class had begun, I came across a book called Introduction to Christianity, thinking, “Well this is what I need, an introduction.” It was written by a person named Joseph Ratzinger. He differed from Barth in emphasising the combination of philosophy and theology, which I found appealing. I started reading Balthasar, Rahner, de Lubac, and especially John Paul II. Reading them I felt a deep continuity between the Early Fathers and the modern Christianity I was engaging with intellectually.
You can imagine all this happening at Brown University, where I shared almost no intellectual interests with my fellow students, with whom conversations were about postmodernism, Nietzsche, Foucault, post-Kantian intellectual history, contemporary and modern literature, gender studies and feminism. In certain ways, that’s a totally different world; or at least I didn’t have a public setting to engage what I thought was most interesting or important.
In my senior year, I starting reading John Henry Newman and went on a retreat at St Mary’s monastery in Massachusetts, a Subiaco congregation Benedictine monastery. There I met monks from England and Scotland who understood this intellectual tradition I was interested in, and who had a high degree of intellectual acumen, but one also grounded in a life of prayer and work. I was surprised by the discovery of people who had this similar interest, also very pleased, and had the strange feeling I had discovered “my tribe” in this little monastery in the woods with Gregorian chant and beautiful solemn liturgy.
During my visits there I began to experience Eucharistic Adoration, in which I had an overwhelming sense of the presence of Christ that I had never had before, accompanied by an acute awareness of my own sinfulness, but also a radiant sense of the presence and goodness of God. That was overwhelming and powerful, so when I returned to Providence from one of my visits to the monastery, I asked to enter RCIA and was eventually received on Easter Day, 1993, at St Mary’s monastery.
Fr Thomas Joseph White is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome. Hope Kean, a convert herself, graduated from Princeton University in 2018. She is a student member of the Thomistic Institute, part of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. To read more of Fr White’s story and those of 12 other prominent converts, you can purchase Mind, Heart, and Soul at TAN Books or via Amazon