Trip Report: Beauty and Heavenly Bliss, Dark Psychosis and Insanity

Christ Failed – Temptations in the Wilderness

Location: Sydney, Australia

My new flatmate L was playing his first Gig at a cool bar on Glebe point road (Red bar). I was keen to turn up and show some support. On a couple of previous occasions, I had 1. Microdosed a 10th of a tab and gone to work. 2. Microdosed half a tab, 3. Taken a full tab and stayed up all night translating the Vulgate into English. I recalled that the full tab of acid didn’t really have much noticeable effect – almost no visuals and the headspace wasn’t particularly different. In retrospect this was probably due to the rapid tolerance buildup of psychedelics (I was unaware of this at the time). In any case, due to my lackluster experience tripping on a single tab, I decided that this time I would take two.

I took the two tabbies as I left the house and headed to the bus stop to catch a bus from Annandale down parra road to glebe. I donned my “trippercunt sunnies” – diffraction glasses that split light into it’s component colours. I also wore my most expensive shirt, a mambo “roses” loud shirt that hasn’t been in print for years and regularly sells for over $300AUD on ebayau. This fact became highly relevant the next morning.

I quickly arrived at the venue, while still coming up, and rubbed my hands as I looked at the décor: The furniture all was semi-transparent and illuminated from within with many and various colours, purple, pink, blue, red, green. There was also all sorts of psychedelic and spiritual art hanging on the walls. I instantly got good vibes as I knew this was gonna be a kickass trip.

I found a seat middle and centre in front of the stage and listened to the opening solo act by HF, who is a regular opener in the Sydney gigging scene. I had invited my other flatmate (little A)’s sister S to come along too, and she arrived during the opening act. We chatted as I was coming up about her new job and my current job hunt and uni studies.

Eventually HF concluded his act and my flatmate L and his band mounted the stage. All of a sudden I started getting WILD visuals. My flatmate L has a bit of a hunch, but his lead guitarist was standing tall and straight. It suddenly hit me hard just how short L looked next to this guy. And now that the acid was kicking in, he looked like even more of an oompa loompa because his bass guitar was so damn massive. All of the colours of the lights, the curtains, the stage the walls started popping and jumping. The rug that the band was standing on started to melt and wave and the patterns on it looked like live snake sorta things. I could read every little expression on the faces of the members of the band. L looked so excited and happy that the gig was going well. He kept breaking out into these nervous but happy smiles whenever the crowd applauded. Seemed like I wasn’t the only one having a good trip.

I just sat there, shuffling in my seat due to the body load, but not feeling “bad” in any way whatsover. The gig was amazing. The entire show felt like a religious experience. I felt as if I was God, and this band was giving me glory. The fact that so many people gathered together to watch this performance felt as if it had some sort of cosmic significance. As if this is the meaning of life and the pinnacle of human achievement. I started thinking that the story of history is the story of the emergence of God: In the beginning there was nothing, and from that nothing sprung everything, and via evolution, humanity emerged, and with humanity, beauty, truth and goodness. I started to perceive that mankind is on a trajectory towards God, and that final moment of history IS God.

These were the utterly crazy theological and philosophical thoughts I was thinking, and they only got even more intense as the next band mounted the stage. This band was hilarious: on the right side of the stage were three really cool looking dudes with badass haircuts, clothing and moustaches, playing drums, keys and bass. On the left side of the stage was this super geeky looking guy playing guitar. His parents were in the crowd and got a shoutout. In the centre of the stage was what I can only describe as a goddess. This girl with a perfect feminine figure, just the right amount of makeup, brilliant, revealing attire that showed off her physical goods and beauty. While tripping hard on the acid, I was struck to the core by beauty and mystery of the feminine form. I felt drawn to it on a deep and profound metaphysical, essential level of my being. Suddenly I was reconsidering my vocation: Do I REALLY want to enter the priesthood (I had been discerning priesthood for about three years and up to this point, was super committed to signing up)? Considering that the mystery of the feminine has captured my heart in such a fundamental way, perhaps this is some sign from God that my vocation actually involves marriage?

I continued thinking all these thoughts, and absorbing the beauty of this diva with my eyes as they played their set. The sensation that I was God and these people were here to worship and glorify me intensified. The visuals exploded. I noticed every little detail that presented itself to me through my five cardinal senses simultaneously.

Finally, the headline act went on. I was tingling with excited ancipation as I saw the final band wheel their instruments onto the stage. “Holy fucking shit” I thought to myself, “these cunts are playing a fucking HARP and CELLO!” It was a three piece band, with keys, harp and cello. I still felt like God, and as the weirdly dressed keys player gave commentary and introduced the songs, I got this fascinating train of thought that was something like “Look at what my little people are doing, gathering to offer praise and worship to me. Look at how far they’ve come.”

As the harp and the cello and keys started playing, I just lost my shit, in the best kinda way. I could perceive all the infinite microtones as the bow crossed the strings of the cello, as if it were an auditory fractal. It was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever heard in my entire life. And the music was in a slightly sad and melancholy key. The emotions that were being conveyed by the music  were ineffable and beautiful and sad. It felt as if the entire story of history was encapsulated in the song: All the ups, all the downs. The tragedies and the victories. And it just felt as if it was a “movement forward”, as if there is only one direction we can go: onwards and upwards to the heights of heaven.

“It just keeps getting better” I remember thinking to myself. “This is heaven”. I was experiencing infinite bliss, but not just infinite bliss, infinitely INCREASING bliss. This beatific vision was completely exponential!

And yet the sad notes in the music made me remember. Remember all the tragedies of life and history, remember the holocausts, genocides, rapes and murders. And all of a sudden, for the first time in my life, I was struck with the full force of the mystery of evil. “What even is evil?” I remember whispering to my flatmate L, who had resumed his seat in the crowd. I simply couldn’t comprehend it. I knew from my theological studies that evil has no inherent existence or reality, that it is a complete illusion, and suddenly I realised just how mysterious that is.

It just seemed so baffling to me, that here I am, experiencing the heavenly joy that comes from listening to the angelic music of the eschaton, and yet ISIS is out there lopping heads off at this very moment. It just didn’t seem right. Like, of course this is a wonderful moment and I am enjoying it to the full, but fuck; what am I supposed to make of the fact that Hitler did what he did to the Jews? How should I understand this supreme symphony of good, in light of the incomprehensible mystery of evil?

These thoughts occupied me all the way to the end of the gig. At no point did the trip actually become a “bad trip”, but I started to take on a strong sense of apprehension and anticipation. Somewhere deep down, I realised that tonight was to be the night where God (me) confronts evil and attempts to make sense of it. And I realised that this fundamental interplay between good and evil is what is driving all of reality as we know it.

As the gig was over, I exited with my flatmate L and we headed for the busstop. Now that the supreme beauty of the music had concluded, the trip started to get very confusing. I remember saying to L something about how girls don’t exist, and all girls are evil. I was pondering the fundamental dualisms of masculine and feminine, good and evil, and I was drawing some link between light, goodness and masculinity, and another link between darkness, evil and femininity. I thought of the story of Adam and Eve, and how Eve (the feminine) was the principle which introduced sin into the world. L had no clue what I was talking about, and probably was amused at just how hard I was tripping. I began to distrust him, thinking that he was an enemy in some respect. I hadn’t known him for very long after all.

As we got to the busstop, L called an uber and hopped in with his girlfriend. I decided to walk home. That turned out to be a very bad idea.

I walked down paramatta road, still thinking I was God, but this time the thought had a very Christian slant on it. I thought that I was Jesus. I was relating my trip to the gospel stories. I felt as if I had just descended from heaven to earth, and right about now the temptation in the desert was probably due to occur. As I walked home down parra road, pondering the mystery of evil, the insanity started to overcome me. It just sorta crept up on me as I was philosophising. It was as if wondering about evil with such intensity was driving me mad.

I started to feel as if I am invincible, and made the stupid decision to stop by a servo and buy a supersized energy drink. I seriously doubt that the massive caffeine and sugar hit had a positive impact. I even realised this at the time, and was thinking to myself “I am going to die tonight. And when they find me, it’s gonna make the newspapers and they’ll comment on how the exact moment where it all went downhill was when I decided to smash an energy drink while high as fuck on acid”

My thinking started to get more and more scrambled. And the thoughts loops got more and more intricate. Eventually I made it to the local maccas and decided I wanted to get something to eat. I stood in front of the touch screen interface where you order your food, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. I kept touching and selecting and there was just something that wasn’t working. At the time I figured the system was bugged, but in retrospect I was probably just tripping really hard.

I felt like I was standing in front of that touch screen for an eternity, punching the options and trying so hard to buy something. Notions of “Limbo” and “purgatory” became stuck in my mind, and I felt as if I had failed in my temptation in the wilderness and was being punished with this eternal torture of eternally trying to order dinner and not being able to.

Eventually I managed to snap out of it, say “Fuck it” and get out of the maccas. But my delusions of grandeur were multipling. As I walked through the carpark, I started throwing my wallet and phone away, thinking “I don’t need these”. I felt as if I was living out the most important moment of my life, and it was like “I don’t need a _phone_. There are more important things. I don’t need a _wallet_.”

I started to feel as if no matter what I do, I can’t die. I felt as if even if I stepped out into the traffic, something would stop me from being run over. I felt as if it was not yet my time to die, and I could therefore do any stupid thing and be ok. This was clearly VERY dangerous thinking.

Following that train of thought, I ended up knocking on the door of two of the brothels on parra road. There are a craptonne of brothels on parra road. Usually I just walk past them and laugh, but I had always been curious about what goes on inside, and I was in the perfect mindset to ring the bell and find out. I was let in to both of them, but very quickly ferried out once the mistresses realized I had no money on me.

I was descending even deeper into madness. By the time I got to the empire hotel, I was thinking about the orthodox “holy fools” of Russia. These crazy dudes who get naked and wander around the towns and villages prophesying. I started to feel as if I was one such holy fool, with a message that could save the world. That idea, coupled with my sensation of invincibility, caused me to unbutton my shirt and cast it off into the wind and the night. As I crossed the road, I dropped my pants and underpants, and kicked off my shoes and socks.

I was stark naked, rambling on and on about good and evil, walking around residential Leichhardt. Thankfully it was a very quiet part of town, so I’m pretty sure not many people saw me, but still it was an incredibly wacky occurrence.

Eventually I made it home, but I didn’t have my keys on me because I had thrown them away back at maccas. I ended up pacing in loops between my front door and the front door of the house beside ours. My philosophizing was in overdrive. I was thinking about the trinity, dualism, masculine, feminine, the whore of Babylon, the virgin Mary, Jesus etc etc etc.

My drug induced insanity just kept getting worse. Eventually, failing to get in to my house, I instead continued to walk around the suburb, and eventually found myself walking in circles around the local catholic church, where the capuchin friars live. The visuals were labyrinth by this point. Not good, not bad, just alien and weird. I was stuck in insane thought loops, and the trip was oscillating between good, bad and neutral. When I was feeling good, I was anticipating that at any point it would head south, and when it headed south, I was holding onto the gospel promise that it’s all gonna be ok in the end and eventually I would return to the good. This was clinical insanity.

One common theme that kept recurring was the idea that “the unknown” could intrude into my reality at any time. And I was prophesying to myself as I walked around naked around the church that “yes, at some point tonight, something unexpected is gonna happen that sends me to hell.”

Well, lo and behold, as I found myself pressing my naked body against the cold outer wall of the church for some reason, a cop appeared. Soon there were more cops. They asked me what I’d taken. I wanted with all my heart to cooperate and answer their questions honestly, but I was tripping so hard by this point that it was a struggle to communicate with them. They ended up pulling me aside and sitting me down on the concrete, as they tried to establish who I was, where I live, what I had taken, what the fuck I was doing naked running in circles around the local church at midnight etc.

I was very much in “bad trip” territory by this point. The cops were relentlessly asking me the same questions over and over again. “Where do you live?”, “Do you have any flatmates?”, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?”, “Have you taken anything tonight?”

At one point one of the male officers laughed out loud and said “He’s the priest!” and I just felt so full of shame, thinking that I legitimately was the priest and was setting a terrible example and letting down the parish and the church and God. Suddenly one of the officers was saying “Look at his passport photo! He looks like a criminal!”. I was so utterly confused, thinking “how the fuck do they have my passport?”

After what felt like an eternity of shame and horror, the officers chucked me in the back of the paddywagon and locked me up. I felt resigned to my fate. I figured I was about to go to prison, my family was going to be notified, my life was coming to an end. The ride in the back of the police wagon felt like forever.

But wow what good luck I had. When the door of the wagon opened, I found myself out the front of my house, with L standing there at the front door looking sleepy, annoyed and bemused. I hopped out, walked up the steps and went straight inside to the shower.

The cops must have been able to accurately extract my address from me during the earlier interrogations on the concrete at the church. One of them had driven over, knocked on the door and asked L to confirm that I live there. L had gone to my room, found my passport and proved that I was a resident. So instead of locking me up for the night they just kindly drove me home. I was so infinitely thankful that it turned out like that, rather than something worse.

But I was still shaken up by the experience. As I hid under the covers of my bed, I had to leave the lights on so that I could stare at my clock and verify that time had passed and time was passing. The insanity was wearing off, but I was still terrified that at any time I could discover that it was all a dream, and I was actually in a prison cell or somewhere worse. I remember going down and brewing some tea and holding my head in my hands while praying “Oh God, please tell me it was a dream, please tell me it didn’t really happen”.

I managed to rest up a little. When I woke up, I discovered that it was NOT just a dream and it DID really happen, and I knew this because I didn’t have my phone, my wallet, my shoes, or my $300 loud shirt. I had to retrace my steps and literally pick up the pieces. I couldn’t remember where I had dumped all my stuff on the way home, and I had to make use of apple’s “find my iphone” app to locate all my stuff. I ended up finding everything except for my shoes, socks, watch, drink bottle and loud shirt. It had rained during the night, so my shorts and underpants (which I found in the middle of the road) were soaking wet.

In the end, I learned so much from the experience, and I don’t regret it. But It was the first time that I realized that bad trips can involve the police, and actual bad things happening, rather than just psychological terror. I have tripped many times since then, but not on acid. This trip taught me that acid is psychologically next level, and 25i-nbome is actually a safer drug in terms of the headspace.

This trip directly led to me reconsidering my vocation. After being so utterly fascinated by evil, darkness, the feminine, I figured God might be calling me to move away from ordination and instead investigate relationships with girls again. Maybe I’ll get married? At time of writing (A couple of months after this trip), I’ve picked up a new girlfriend. The future is bright, and even from a bad trip, good lessons are learned.

2 Ways to Live – One True Gospel Edition

4f69445fde6ee37851c6b04bd175703e.jpgThe Anglicans in Sydney, Australia have a “Script” which they use to present their understanding of the Gospel to new investigators. Called “Two ways to live”, it gives a whirlwind tour of scripture in an attempt to convey a complete soteriology and quickly hammer home the idea that we are all sinners in need of a saviour and that the only way to escape destruction is to accept Christ as lord.

I thought I would put together my own version, which more accurately reflects the Christian message as I understand it. It follows the following sequence:

  1. Incarnation: The Eternal Battle between Good and Evil. The marriage between the created and the uncreated, God and the cosmos, Christ and his church.
  2. The Murder of God: Original sin, Mortal sin and the Unforgivable sin. The great divorce. Cosmic Tragedy, Total Defeat, Hell and Damnation.
  3. Resurrection: Gospel, Good news and a twist ending. Redemption, Atonement, Unconditional Promise, Predestination and Election.
  4. The Way of Salvation: Two ways to live; how will we freely respond to the gospel? The Sacraments.

I think that these four points fairly well capture the entire Gospel story in an easy to understand and remember way.

Incarnation

Good and Evil

Genesis 1:1: In principio creavit Deus cælum et terram.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

260px-Yin_yang.svg[1]In the beginning there was God and there was nothing else. And out of that nothingness, God brought forth the cosmos and all the myriad created things within that cosmos. God was good, and the creation was also good, as it reflected God’s goodness just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. However the nothingness from whence the creation came was pure evil.

Evil represents the polar opposite of everything that God is. God is the infinitude of being; Evil is the infinitesimal rejection of being, which we refer to as “nothing”. God is freedom and joy and bliss; Evil is darkness and despair and hatred. If God is masculine, then Evil is feminine. All opposites are encapsulated in this fundamental dichotomy between good and evil.

From all eternity and up to the present day and even into the far future, the story of history is the story of the everlasting battle between the good God and the Evil nothingness from which he has drawn out his creation.

Now, there is a fundamental distinction between God and the creation: God is simple, eternal, a perfect unity, infinite, necessary; whereas the creation is complex, temporal, contingent, imperfect, constantly tending back towards the dark and evil nothingness from whence it came.

The Divine Marriage of God and Cosmos

Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

At this point in the story there is a twist. From before the foundation of the world, God chose to unite himself to every aspect and facet of his creation in the closest and most profound way possible: He decided to marry it. This divine marriage of created and uncreated realities has at it’s heart the λογος, or 道 of God.

Just as a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, so too Creation and God become one essence and substance in the divine marriage of flesh and λογος.

John 1:1-4,14: In the beginning was the λογος, and the λογος was with God, and the λογος was God.He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the λογος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

CHRISTMAS-NATIVITY-BIRTH-OF-CHRIST-TRADITIONAL-poster-WEB[1].jpgThe λογος entered the world in the form of the man Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, Divinity and creation were united perfectly and intimately. Jesus was God, come to the creation in a way that the creation could understand and relate to. Jesus came as a bridegroom, and the entire creation was his bride to be. The New Testament refers to Jesus’ bride as “The Church”. The church is not merely a building; it is not merely a group of people; it is the entire cosmos, adorned with beauty and being prepared for the wedding feast after which God will receive it into the marriage bed he has prepared, and envelope it in an infinite love that is so wonderful and elevated that no poet or bard could possibly capture it in song or verse.

Ephesians 5:21-33: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

So God came to us – his creation – in the form of a man, and proposed marriage. Like an inflamed, infatuate young lover, he sings to us “I love you with all my heart, soul and mind. So I pray from the depths of my being: Would you please return my love?”

The eternal battle between good and evil thus takes the form of an infatuation between the Lover and his loved. God tries to woo the world over, but how will the nervous, young and timid creation respond?

The Murder of God

main-image.jpgAs it turns out, the creation rejects God’s romantic overtures in the most definite way possible. God came to us with open arms and proclaimed his undying love, but we responded by torturing him, spitting on him, nailing him to a cross and leaving him to die.

This was the ultimate tragedy. This represented the defeat of God by his creation. The conclusion to the everlasting struggle between good and evil had been revealed: Evil won.

In the marriage of God and creation, God willingly bound his own fate to the fate of his lover, and the creation found itself united to God. They had become one flesh, so whatever happened to God happened to the creation, and whatever happened to the creation happened to God. And God had just been murdered, therefore the creation also became infected by death, decay, destruction, sin. The entire creation became destined for total annihilation and everlasting damnation.

Christ’s bride, terrified by God’s flaming love for her, rejected his overtures and flew away, hiding in the isolation of the outer darkness. This final and ultimate rejection of God’s love has many names: Mortal Sin, Original Sin, The Unforgivable Sin.

xoriginal-sin.jpg.pagespeed.ic.qm0HtIwccE[1].jpgIt is the original sin because it was the one fault from which springs all the death and decay in the world, as well as our tendency towards the darkness and Hell which drags us down like magnetism and gravity.

It is the mortal sin, because it is the sin which leads to death. All men sin, and all men die. Every sin is a repetition of the crucifixion. Every sin represents the murder of God. God comes to us and says, “I love you, please love me back”, but we sin again and again, and in doing so, continue to drive the nails into his hands, feet and heart.

It is the unforgivable sin, because what could we possibly do to recover from such a sin? The only one who has the power to forgive us has been left hanging dead and helpless on a cross. God is dead, there is no other who remains to forgive us. God is dead and by the divine marriage we are doomed to die with him, cursed to pain and suffering and torment for all of our days as we spiral further and further down into the lake of fire and outer darkness, until at the very end of the torments we finally cease to exist altogether.

By killing God, we had judged him and sentenced him to the worst fate: the deepest depths of Hell, the most unspeakable tortures of the lake of fire, and the desolations of the outer darkness. At the end of it all we sentenced him to annihilation and non-existence. But our marriage to God means that all of us are doomed to the very same fate.

This sin represents the total defeat of the good, cosmic tragedy, the most brutal divorce, and the victory of Hell over our good and loving God. Nothing remains to look forward to. The future is bleak darkness, full of nothing but hatred, death and war.

clients-from-hell-760x400[1].png

Resurrection

Resurrection3-600x405[1]But behold, there is a twist ending to the tale. Jesus rose from the dead! Death could not hold him and Hell could not contain him! He rose to new life, a new and glorified life from which he could never die again! Right as it seemed that evil and the demonic powers had achieved their victory over God, and right as God experienced the full depths of the consequences of our sin and rejection; he miraculously snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and turns the tables around completely.

This is called the “Gospel”, or “good news”. This is the core message that Christians proclaim. God is victorious! Hell has been defeated once and for all! The love of God is so powerful and seductive that ultimately the creation cannot escape it, even despite our most definite rejection.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

We refer to this glorious event as the “Redemption”, because this is where God “bought back” his lost bride. God has paid the price that must be paid, in order to win back the affections of his bride. He loved us so much that he was willing to descend to Hell and the terror of non-existence for the sake of his marriage to his bride, the Church.

Resurrection-icon-cropped[1].jpgThis price being paid, we also refer to this event as the “Atonement”, because it is the event which restored all things to how they should be. Once again there is love and joy between God and his creation, because by his resurrection he has secured the rewards of eternal life for us all.

This was also the moment which secured the “Predestination” of all things to heavenly glory. Where before all things were set on a path towards Hell, destruction, desolation, darkness and torment; now all things are set on a path towards Heaven, Joy, Bliss, Love, and divine Relationship. There is a single destination to which the entire creation moves: God himself, the bridegroom who eagerly awaits to consummate his marriage with his bride.

God became man so that man might become God

The entire creation and everything within it thus becomes “elect”. Just as Jesus became the reprobate man, the creation that dwells within him also experienced reprobation. However just as Jesus became elected to heaven and glory, the entire creation that dwells within him is also elected to heaven and glory and beatitude.

God will not abandon anyone or anything. His love for his bride is relentless. He intends the salvation of the entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it. He will not rest until every one in the creation has returned his love.

To seal the deal, God has prepared an unconditional promise of salvation, which he desires to speak to every individual soul. However he requires our cooperation in order to spread the message.

The Way of Salvation

Sacrament and Struggle

God has prepared the sacraments as a concrete way for us to come to him and return his love. In baptism, he washes us clean from all our sins and promises us that he forgives us for our mortal, original, unforgivable sin against him. In confession, he reiterates that promise, because sometimes we forget God’s love and forgiveness as we go through life and need to be reminded. In confirmation, he seals us with his Holy Spirit, which serves as a promise and guarantee that he will never ever abandon us. In the Eucharist, he gives us the gift of eternal life and unites himself to us in a marriage feast in which we literally feed on him. In the Last Rites, he prepares us for our most dangerous journey; the journey from life to death, from this earthly life to the terrors of Gehenna.

Phillipians 2:12-13: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

sacraments%20rose%20window[1].pngWe are predestined to victory in the war, but we may yet fall in the battle. We still have free will; God will not force himself upon us despite his relentless, burning love. Even though he promises that he will love us forever and never abandon us, and even though he has infallibly secured the eternal glory of every creature, we may yet persist in our rejection. We may continue to drive the nails into Christ’s hands, we may continue to repeat and reiterate the mortal sin that doomed the world to damnation.

God calls us to repent of these sins, for we have been bought by his blood already. While it is true that one day everyone will achieve heaven, he is not going to carry us there against our will. God requires our free cooperation. So why wait? Why procrastinate the task of striving towards heaven? Why not repent and love God and Neighbour now? God draws lines in the sand, and one of those lines is death: If we haven’t responded to God’s love by the time we die, a fiery fate awaits us; the very same fiery fate that God himself endured to save us. It does no good to procrastinate the task of repentance. Far better to strive now, while we are alive. Salvation is guaranteed, but salvation is not automatic. God will not carry us to heaven, or force us to love him. We must walk the path on our own.

God will not save you without you

-St Augustine

Two ways to live

heaven-or-hell[1].jpgSo finally we come to the classic two ways to live. Will you accept Christ as your Lord, saviour and bridegroom? Will you return the love of God? Will you do your best to submit to his guidance and strive for his holiness? Or will you instead continue living as your own king, pointlessly rebelling against the God who loves you? Such rebellion is indeed pointless, because it is foreordained that God will win you over in the end. So will you continue to procrastinate your repentance? Or will you seize the day and run the race to heaven?

God’s love has conquered, is conquering, and will conquer. Join the winning team; become a Christian today.

A Universalist Catholic Account Of The Last Things

I affirm the dogmatic, three-fold, Catholic eschatological division of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. However I understand these three realities in ways that are different to the standard presentation, and I also propose a fourth realm which I’m not sure what to call, but will tentatively refer to as Teleoeschaton. Finally, there is also a state called Limbo which overlaps with both Heaven and Purgatory, but it is important to note that my understanding of Limbo is quite different to the traditional understanding.

Hell

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In my understanding, and following the current Catechism, Hell consists of “Total separation from God”. I take this at face value and interpret it as meaning that Hell consists of “Ceasing to Exist”, because this is the only way to truly be “totally separate” from God. As it says in the psalms “If I make my bed in Hell, you are there with me”

I also believe that Hell is empty, which is to say that no one will actually experience this fate. I allow room for the idea that Jesus himself descended to this Hell and suffered the punishment of annihilation on our behalf on Holy Saturday. However I am not dogmatically committed to the idea.

People might wonder what the point of this Hell is if no one goes there. This is easily answered: Without everlasting damnation there can be no salvation. God needed to save us from something, and this is what it was. In this way, the purpose of Hell is to remind us how bad it could have been, which in turn serves to emphasise just how much God loves us, and just how great his Grace is.

Purgatory

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In my understanding, Purgatory is both a punishment and a purification. Both the punishment and the purification are directly proportional in intensity to the amount of sins a person commit during life.

Purgatory is also what I take all the biblical references to “Gehenna” to be referring to. As such, I believe that Purgatory is experienced as “Eternal Conscious Torment” (as long as the word “eternal” is understood to mean “timeless”). I take biblical references to the worm that dies not, eternal punishment, eternal fire, the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal destruction as references to the experience of purgatory. Purgatory really, really sucks and you don’t want to go there.

I also believe that people who do not have explicit faith in Christ prior to death go to purgatory. I believe that it is impossible for someone who has not been evangelised and who has not come to faith in the unconditional promises of God to enter salvation. Salvation requires a full purification, but also explicit faith in the gospel message. Without these two things, it is impossible to experience heaven.

Heaven

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In my understanding, Heaven is the place where someone goes when they have perfect, explicit faith in the unconditional promise of salvation, and when their soul has been fully purified of all stain of sin. Implicit faith is not enough. A loving heart is not enough. The soul must be perfect and their faith must be explicit.

The degree of reward received in heaven is directly proportional to the good works that the person performed during life. It is an abstract, spiritual sort of pleasure that consists of the direct apprehension of God and his pure beauty, truth, goodness, love, mercy, justice and so forth.

Where my view of heaven starts to differ from the standard account, is that I believe that it is impossible for the people in heaven to actually enjoy the fullness of heavenly bliss while their friends and family remain suffering in Gehenna. I believe that the people in Heaven can see the suffering in Gehenna, and they are horrified by it. As such, so long as there is a single soul remaining in the dark torments of Gehenna, this will cause a chain reaction of compassionate empathy that effectively nullifies the supreme joy and bliss of everyone in heaven.

I believe that because of this, the people in heaven will organise missionary trips to purgatory. They will descend from Heaven and minister to the poor souls who are trapped in Gehenna, preaching the Gospel to them, reasoning with them, loving them, and generally doing everything they can in order to bring these poor souls to perfect faith and repentance so that they may escape the darkness. This missionary activity will continue so long as there is a single soul remaining trapped in Gehenna.

Limbo

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Limbo is not really “another state”, and is instead just a dramatically reduced experience of Purgatory and Heaven. People who did not do many or any good deeds during life, but who also did not commit many or any sins during life, therefore do not merit much or any punishment and reward in the afterlife. Therefore regardless of whether these people end up in Heaven or Purgatory, the experience will be much the same: very blank and devoid of any content. This “nothing” state receives the name “Limbo” in my theology. Notice that it is different to “The limbo of the infants” and “The limbo of the fathers” from traditional Catholic scholasticism, although aborted babies and young infants do indeed experience my version of Limbo, on account of the fact that they haven’t sinned or loved at all during life.

Eschaton

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Where the previous states were disembodied spiritual realities which the soul experiences alone, this state has to do with the resurrection and new creation.

The eschaton is the final state, the end of history, the teleos of creation. In this final state, there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Christ is lord. All the gentiles will be saved, all of Israel will be saved. Even all of the fallen Angels will have been saved.

The eschaton will not arrive until the missionary activity from heaven has succeeded and therefore every soul who is stuck in Gehenna has escaped. The joy of salvation cannot be complete until everyone has been fully saved. The eschaton represents the state of affairs when this has finally occurred. It is the most glorious state of all: No longer is there any impediment to the saved enjoying their salvation, because all of their friends and families have been saved too!

Furthermore, this is simultaneous with the resurrection, the Parousia, the final (general) judgement and the new creation. All the disembodied souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies, in a renewed and glorified physical reality that encompasses all of history and includes everything that has ever lived or existed. This is the true and final end to the story. So long as people fail to achieve heaven, heaven can’t really be heaven. But in the eschaton, everyone will have finally achieved salvation and therefore the joy of salvation will be complete. Finally we will all be able to enjoy God to the full, experiencing unadulterated, uninterrupted heavenly bliss, as well as perfect love for all people, all things, all creation and God himself.

Conclusion

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Heaven is not what we should be aiming for, and purgatory is not what we should be settling for. The eschaton is what we are working towards, and the good news of the gospel is that we can’t fail! Salvation is guaranteed, but it is not automatic: we still have to walk the path. But the good news is that we will walk the path. God guarantees and promises us that in the end, we will fight the good fight, we will run the race, we will win the prize. There is a crown waiting for each of us, and in the eschaton we will all be victorious, to the praise and glory of God.

Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the punishment or the life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

time-7[1].jpgIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the punishment of Hell is objectively everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel of universal salvation and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

is-hell-real[1].pngI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel of universalism: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel of universal salvation. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

mormon-spirit-prison[1].gifHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons, because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the LDS church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

Testimony – Christian to Catholic

(Go to part 1 – “Agnostic to Christian”)

Dawn of a New Day

I woke up the day after my conversion and was full of zeal to read the bible. The Valium that my stepfather had given me the previous night was obviously only a quick fix and not a long term solution to my mania. As I woke up I was incredibly edgy; I was dead set on trying to track down Alex Macdonald again to continue our discussion. My family tried to discourage me and get me to stay at home but I was adamant: I felt like I absolutely had to keep talking to Alex. I had so many questions: I believed in Jesus now, but I didn’t even know what that meant or implied! My head was swimming with religious concepts and ideas: I wanted nothing more than to put them all together and integrate them into my understanding of reality.

I left Mum’s house and began jogging back to Alex’s house, shooting him text messages as I went. My phone was incredibly low on battery and the text messages were not particularly sober. As I jogged, I was praying constantly in the only way that I knew how, and for the most minutely detailed things, for example that my phone would stay turned on for just long enough to send the next message. I behaved quite irrationally, taking shortcuts that I was unfamiliar with and getting lost on the way.

new-testament-psalms-kjv-thomas-nelson-vest-pocket-bound-book-gideons-national-0be10e7503f62a9003c7fb6867e51e4c[1].jpgEventually I arrived at Alex’s house and violently knocked on the door. I could tell someone was home because I could hear movement within the house, but no one answered the door. After some frustrating waiting, I went down the front steps and lay on the grass, reading a Gideon s pocket new testament that I had brought with me.

Hermeneutics was a concept that I had never been introduced to at this point, so as I read the New Testament I was filled with all sorts of wacky and wonderful eisegetical ideas and concepts. I turned back to the story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the Devil and read it closely. I read the following passage:

Matthew 4:1-4RSV-CE

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

72647261dcde7ac05e8264f247adf541[1]I looked down at my hands: I was holding some bread that I had brought with me from Mum’s house. I looked around Alex’s garden: there were many stones lying alongside the garden path. “Aha!” I thought to myself: “This is exactly what God is trying to tell me!” – I had made some psychotic link between the rocks in the garden, the bread in my hand, and this passage of scripture. Obviously the pattern recognition part of my brain was going into overdrive.

I continued lying on the grass, leafing through the little New Testament, until Alex arrived in the family car. He and his Dad had been driving around looking for me. Obviously Mum had got into a bit of a panic and so had Alex’s family. I was causing a lot of trouble.

Alex agreed to walk with me again, and we spoke about Christian, biblical and religious concepts as we walked around Pennant Hills. This walk was nowhere near as long as our walk the previous night, and Alex was clearly exhausted and out of his depth. I was buzzing and overflowing with all sorts of ideas and I was struggling to slow down enough to articulate them clearly.

In the Emergency Room

Soon enough our walk ended and my stepfather drove over and picked me up. My mania was in full swing again and I was feeling incredibly excited, bubbling and overflowing with amazing ideas. The connections between all sorts of things I’d learned in the past became super obvious and I was lost for words. My stepfather drove me to Hornsby hospital and we sat in the emergency ward, waiting for our turn.

350ml-Thankyou_2015_450W[1].pngI remember being highly aware of the power of empathy at the time. I was convinced that happiness and joy were infectious things, and that if I could only keep smiling and feeling good in myself, I might be able to “heal” some of the people who were in pain in the emergency department waiting room. To this day I believe that I was right, however in retrospect I recognise that I did not have quite the power to make any significant difference to these peoples mental states. I remember at one point my step dad got up to buy some water from a vending machine. It was the brand “Thank you water”. When he showed me the bottle I was very impressed, because thankfulness was a mindset that I could suddenly relate to incredibly well and it seemed like the ideal emotion to experience.

Eventually it was our turn to enter what can only be described as an interview room. I was talking non-stop, and incredibly excited, experiencing a constant state of awe as I pondered all sorts of deep and amazing ideas and concepts at top speed. My step dad just sat and listened to what I was saying. At the time it seemed like he was actually sincerely trying to make sense of what I was saying, and he had an incredibly humble and understanding demeanour.

Some female doctors entered the room and started talking to me, asking me questions. I was somewhat back in “manipulation mode” and was trying to anticipate what they would say and read the motivations and intentions behind their words. It all seemed like a game to me, and I decided that I would just play along.

cOubz.jpgThere was a fear at the back of my head that I had suffered some sort of brain damage, and I managed to convey this to everyone in the room. Eventually they drugged me up with some sort of extreme sedative, took a blood test and sat me in a wheel chair. At this point I recall all the mania dissipating completely, being replaced with an intense sluggishness and my being barely aware of my surroundings. My memory of what follows is incredibly vague. I do however have vague recollections of being jammed into an MRI or CAT scan tube and having my brain x-rayed.

As they wheeled me around in the wheelchair, I could barely keep my head up. I remember raising my head for long enough to say something like “THIS is what drugs do”: I was a classic “not even once” poster boy.

Into the Insane Asylum

I was wheeled to the hospital mental ward, and the following few days were a total blur. They put me in the acute psychosis ward, which was the most serious and highly monitored ward in the hospital. This was the ward where they had a locked and padded room for the really crazy and aggressive sorts (thankfully I never had to go in there).

not-the-messiah-624x260[1].jpgAt this time, all I can remember is a constant, bright light, and the overwhelming sensation that I myself was Jesus Christ. I suspect that I was enjoying some perverted and unsustainable form of theosis. I was so closely united to God that I was unable to distinguish between myself and Jesus. Obviously this all sounded like total crazy talk to the wardens, doctors and my family. To this day, my Mum likes to joke about the ordeal by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy!”

I don’t know how long I spent in the acute ward. I have many memories of being in there, but I remember that I was not myself: I had lost track of my identity and was feeling generally blissful and protected within some sort of divine embrace. I recall feeling edgy: there was a scary guy in the ward called Warwick who wore Satanistic T-Shirts and had long punk rock hair. I didn’t trust him and he gave off evil vibes. I recall one time he was talking theories about the bible. He wrote up the letters that spell “bible” on the whiteboard and wrote next to each letter: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. This guy was weird. There was one point where I swear I saw him smuggling drugs into the ward with the assistance of one of his visitors. I reported him, and I don’t recall what happened next but I feared for my life.

maxresdefault[3].jpgEventually I was moved out of the acute ward into the “low maintenance” ward. I was held here for three weeks, but the three weeks felt like an eternity. Being in this part of the mental hospital was an extremely unique experience and felt like quite an ordeal. Everyone in this ward is trying as hard as they can to seem sane so that they can be discharged back to the real world, however this feels like an impossible task. The maxim “you become the company you keep” is incredibly profound and totally true. So of course, when you are surrounded by crazy and unstable people, you yourself soak up some of the craziness and instability. This makes actually getting out of the hospital almost impossible: you are trying to regain your sanity enough that the doctors feel safe discharging you, and yet you are constantly being dragged down by the other insane people in the Asylum. Just as you think you are doing alright, a totally bonkers lady from the ward next door gets introduced and brings you back down to where you started.

Eventually it got to the point where the doctors felt comfortable letting me out of the hospital for a few hours during the day. I immediately used the opportunity to collect some stuff to entertain myself while I was stuck in the hospital. I picked up my juggling balls and I collected my full bible. I spent the remainder of my time in hospital trying to learn how to juggle five balls at once and reading through the bible.

I read all of Genesis, all of Revelation, half of Exodus, and all of Matthew. Genesis was easy to read and made lots of sense. Revelation was incredibly difficult and made absolutely no sense.

bookmark.jpgThere were a surprising amount of Christians in the mental hospital. We banded together and hung out with each other. I remember sitting outside in the sun, on a stretch chair, with an older Christian called Matthew and a younger lady sitting next to me. Matthew encouraged me to keep reading the bible and assured me that the Christian life is the good life. The younger lady was happy to see that I was reading the bible and gifted me a Christian bookmark which I still have to this day. I vaguely remember someone coming up to us and trying to attack the faith, but we just laughed it off and continued to enjoy the sunshine.

During my time in hospital I was incredibly resistant to taking the drugs that they were using to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless I consistently took them (they threatened to force me to swallow if I didn’t comply, and I figured I’d rather not go through that embarrassing ordeal). I recall at one point sending a text to Alex Macdonald telling him how I don’t trust the doctors and don’t want to take the drugs. He responded saying that I should probably trust the doctors advice and assuring me that he and his family were praying for me. Who was I to argue with Alex Macdonald? I took the drugs.

A Quiet Six Months

Eventually, I managed to escape the hospital. They decided I had regained enough of my sanity to discharge me and I became an outpatient. I returned to UTS housing right as the next semester was starting and attempted to get back into the flow of life.

My zeal for reading the bible and other religious enterprises slowly receded and died away. I just tried to focus on my coursework. Unfortunately this semester was the semester during which my cohort was supposed to do “SDP” – a massive, double credit points software development project. I ended up in a team full of other scholarship students like myself, including my good friends Alex Eagles and Ryan Lansdowne. Unfortunately during this semester I was not quite “back to normal”; I was oversleeping due to the super sedating effects of the mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics that I had to take, and this was interfering with my coursework. By the end of semester I had contributed absolutely nothing to my SDP team, and was barely staying afloat in my other subjects. Amazingly, Alex Eagles stood up for me against the rest of the team, who wanted to fail me. Even though I really hadn’t contributed anything he still valued our friendship enough to defend me. In the end I failed SDP and just barely passed my other subjects that semester.

VicPark500[1].jpgDuring that semester, I had regular, weekly checkups with the EIPS team at Camperdown. They would write me prescriptions for the drugs that I was taking and just generally see how I’m doing. Getting from Ultimo to Camperdown involved a nice long walk up Broadway and through the University of Sydney. As I would go on this walk, it was a good time to philosophise and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Obviously one of the biggest things on my mind was my mania and psychosis: How was I supposed to interpret it? How should I integrate what happened into my understanding of life? I identified as a Christian now, but I really had absolutely no idea what that even meant: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what I was supposed to believe.

One day, while I was strolling through USyd and following this usual train of thought, two random people walked up to me and nervously asked if I wanted to join their bible study. I was amazed: I had literally at that very moment been thinking about how I want to learn more and understand Christianity, and then these two fellas rock up instantly and offer to answer my questions. I was so happy: this was almost like an answer to prayer. The older guy gave me a business card and we exchanged phone numbers. I was incredibly happy and excited.

Cult days

I quickly shot a message to Alex Macdonald, who I hadn’t spoken to regularly since mental hospital six months before. I excitedly told him about what had happened: I was walking through USyd, wondering about the bible and Christianity, and then these two guys came up to me and offered to read the bible with me! “How great is that!”

Alex Macdonald’s response surprised me: Rather than saying “That’s awesome man, let me know how it goes”, he immediately asked the question “Which church are they from?” I was about to be introduced to denominationalism and the existence of Christian cults. Up to this point, Christianity seemed like a monolithic religion to me. I knew of words like “Anglican”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian” and “Catholic”, but I didn’t discern any difference between them: they all seemed synonymous to “Christian” for me.

600x600bb[1].jpgI checked the business card that the older guy had given me. “Sydney Church of Christ” I responded. Alex Macdonald immediately shot back a message saying “Watch out man, I’ve heard about those guys, they’re a borderline cult. Be careful.” I was a little taken aback, but I thought that I was onto too much of a good thing to simply ignore what had happened. The offer to join a bible study did seem like an answer to prayer, didn’t it? Besides, I had already made an appointment with the two guys. I figured I would attend the study and see what happens, and if it ever got too weird I would eject myself and not look back.

The study came and went, and then we organised another session, and another, and another. It was all very exciting. I was totally open to whatever they were saying and I really enjoyed it as they took me on a tour of the bible and gave me the Jesus 101. I asked questions, they answered, and I felt really excited as for the first time I was actually growing in faith. I was getting a typically protestant theological grounding, mixed with some of the Church of Christ denomination theological distinctives: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Baptismal Regeneration, the necessity of evangelism, the place of good works, and so on.

I went to some of their church events and met some of the other people in their church. At the time I didn’t notice anything weird, but in retrospect I should have realised that pretty much the entire congregation of the church consisted of university students. Everyone seemed incredibly happy and friendly, but there was a subtle undercurrent of falseness to it all, like they were really trying to be full of love, but it wasn’t coming to them naturally. Some of the guys who I spoke to seemed thoroughly indoctrinated and inebriated with Christian ideas: they were incredibly happy that they were going to be going to heaven.

It was at this church that I first had an introduction to the textual history of the bible. There was a talk about the history of scripture that was incredibly comprehensive. They spoke about the Vulgate, the Septuagint, some of the early heresies such as Gnosticism which drove the church to codify the canon of scripture and so on. I was utterly fascinated by this stuff and full of questions.

Soldier-Jesus[1].gifThis entire time, I had kept in mind Alex Macdonald’s warning that this church was a borderline cult. It wasn’t long before I started to see why. I remember the first few services of theirs that I went to. The music was all incredibly numbing and repetitive. The lyrics were banal. There was lots of clapping and “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” – It all seemed a bit crazy to me. This was the first time I got cult vibes. The second time was during one of their sermons: The preacher was talking about the Greek word “okefelou”, commonly translated as “follow me”. This preacher claimed that “follow me” is not really a strong enough translation, and that the Greek word carries connotations of terrorism. He finished his sermon by saying “Christ wants you to be a terrorist! Be a terrorist for Christ!” I know he was trying to make an evangelical point, but his choice of words was kinda weird.

Things started to get even more weird. They started quoting scriptures which talk about “Hating your family” in order to try and convince me to cease communications with my non-Christian friends and family. I had always spoken highly of Alex Macdonald to them, but as it turns out they didn’t consider him to be a Christian. This shocked and appalled me: How could Alex Macdonald possibly not be a Christian? He’s the most Christian guy I know; He’s the entire reason I was there talking to these Church of Christ guys in the first place!

They were classic “Sola Scriptura” Christians, who rejected all the ancient creeds and only believed in the bible. As such, they felt the need to “prove everything from scripture”. One of the claims they were making was that their denomination was the one true church and all people who are part of other denominations are not really Christian at all. I was dubious but open minded, and humoured them as they attempted to prove this from the bible. They were completely unable to do so. They would quote obscure, ambiguous prophecies, make strange appeals to emotion, and totally misinterpret the letters of Paul. I really don’t know how you can pull “The Church of Christ is the one true church” out of Galatians 2:10, but believe me; they tried.

dsc_1085[1].jpgI was about ready to leave at this point. However they had convinced me of one thing: believers baptism. I was now a new believer, and even though I had already been baptised as a Catholic, these guys had successfully convinced me that my prior baptism was invalid and I needed to do it again. I was torn: These guys were seeming more and more cult-like by the day, and yet I really wanted to get re-baptised as a statement of my new-found “living and active” faith in Christ. It was a very stressful time, as I was tossing up between getting baptised, and leaving their community for good.

Escaping The Cult

Eventually the pot boiled over, and I decided it was time to eject myself from this weird cult. It was actually quite hard to do this, even though I was not deeply integrated into the group, because they had been so nice, loving and friendly towards me. I felt like I was betraying them to a degree. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to second guess my decision to leave, thinking “What if they were right? What if they really were the one true church?” But of course, it later became clear that I had made the right decision.

17201170_10212531452940163_5236575150923387689_n[1].jpgIt was around about this time – mid 2013 – that Alex Macdonald reached out, sending me a slick evangelical video and asking me what I thought of it. I responded saying “Yeah man, there’s nothing in that video which I don’t believe. I have no idea what it all means though”. Alex responded saying “Really? That’s awesome man. Hey how about we meet up and chat about it?” I was super keen.

That weekend I met up with Alex and we drove around Pennant Hills in his car, discussing life and the big questions. He parked at Pennant Hills oval so that he could focus more on the chatting and less on the driving. It was raining so we didn’t get out of the car. Eventually, after he asked a whole bunch of questions and we had spoken for a while, he whipped out a book of common prayer and flicked to the apostles creed. We went through clause by clause, and I told him that I affirm all of it, even though I don’t fully comprehend it. He slammed the book shut excitedly as he realised that I really was a Christian, and said “You have no idea how long I’ve been praying for this day to arrive”. It was an incredibly happy moment for both of us.

church060[1].jpgAfter leaving the cult, I was stuck for a church to attend, so I started going to Alex Macdonald’s church at West Pennant Hills, St Matthews. I was familiar with this church, as I had visited the youth group on and off throughout highschool, and I knew many of the people in the congregation already. I ended up experiencing my first Easter Vigil at this church, and it was incredibly exciting.

I still wanted to get baptised, so I spoke to the church leadership and inquired about it. However when they heard that I had been baptised as a child they backed away and refused to baptise me. They were familiar with the theological tradition which states that there is only one baptism, and they realised that it would be inappropriate to baptise me again.

Macquarie_Group_logo[1].jpgDuring this first half of 2013, I was working an internship at Macquarie Bank. It was an incredibly lonely experience. All of my co-workers were middle aged women who were getting married and having kids. I had no one who I could talk to or relate to. Every now and then I would walk down to Darling Harbour and have lunch with Alex Eagles, who was interning at American Express. Sometimes I would have lunch with Paul Nichols, the older brother of a friend of mine from St Matthews. In general I just sat alone at lunch time and read my bible. I was not comfortable being open with my Christianity at this point and generally kept it to myself, hiding my bible so people couldn’t see it, and waffling when people asked me what I got up to on the weekend.

NTE 2013

NTE13-DL-Flyer-front[1].jpgIn December 2013 Alex Macdonald sent me a message saying “Hey, sign up for this thing, it’ll be great”. He linked me to some conference called NTE – “National Training Event”. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but my operating principle at this stage of life was “If Alex Macdonald says to do something, trust him and do it”. So I deposited my $400 bucks and signed up. Not knowing what it was I was getting into.

Later that month, we drove to Canberra and I had a rude shock as I realised where I had found myself: A massive conference with what felt like every single Christian university student in all of Australia in a single place. The vibe was incredibly exciting. There were amazing songs and sermons, all very inspiring. There were workshops and small groups. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be 5 days of amazing, edifying fun.

In the small groups, my mind was utterly blown when my leader informed me that I was already a new creation. I thought that that was something which was going to happen when Jesus came back, but apparently I am already in heaven right now. This was mind-boggling.

NTE_crowd_0[1].jpgAlso in the small groups, we learned about “Exegesis” and the Historical-Critical method of biblical hermeneutics. I felt like I had just discovered the holy grail: this was what I had been searching for. For the past year and a half I had been trying to learn how to read the bible correctly, and this was supposed to be the answer. The conference leadership were utterly convinced that Historical-Critical exegesis is the key to understanding what God is saying through the pages of holy writ. Later on in my Christian journey I came to reassess this perspective, however at the time it was like the most amazing gift of all time.

I attended a workshop focused on Islam and was half horrified, half impressed with what I heard. The speaker was making every effort to insult, smear, attack and tear apart Islam and the Qu’ran. He was using dirty, underhand tactics. I was shocked. When Atheists did this sort of stuff to us Christians, we would get outraged. Stuff like taking a verse out of context and setting up straw man arguments. I thought that it was incredibly hypocritical. Nevertheless the seminar was informative, and I approached the speaker afterwards to ask if he could help me buy a copy of the critical edition Qu’ran which he had displayed during his talk. Due largely to this talk, I was later driven to visit a Mosque to learn from the source about Islam and Muslims. I was convinced that these people could not all be bloodthirsty bandits, rapists and terrorists. I wanted to talk to them directly.

12107858_10153293505873131_4755215337540405378_n[1]One of the other key events that happened during NTE was that I was finally introduced to Credo – the campus evangelical club for my University, UTS. I remember a plump, extremely excited Indian girl called Maree coming up to me and saying hi. She was the evangelical extraordinaire on campus. During free time, she led me over to the UTS corner of the conference site and introduced me to all of the other Christians from UTS.

It was here that I finally got to meet one of my good friends, Poya Heidarishahi. At the time he was just emerging from a rough spot, much like myself, and had finally found some loving and accepting community in Credo. He was mega extroverted, talkative and sociable, but he was unfortunately lacking self confidence. We became friends instantly.

Credo Days and the Move to St Barnabas

It was early 2014. Alex Macdonald had informed me that he was planning to move churches, due to some theological disagreements with the leadership of St Matthews. However he was delaying his departure because he was so integrated into the St Matt’s community. For one thing, I was getting a lift to Church with him every Sunday, and he would drive me to Epping station after the service so that I could trek home to UTS Housing.

At some point – probably due to this announcement from Alex that he was going to change church – I decided to find a church closer to home too. There was a good Evangelical church just down the road on Broadway called St Barnabas. I got in contact with them and asked if they could hook me up with a bible study. I started attending this church rather than St Matthews, and eventually Alex Macdonald made the move to Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he has been serving ever since.

I also became more involved in Credo at UTS, getting involved in campus bible studies, and serving in the FOCUS ministry, which focuses on evangelising international and exchange students (who in practice all turned out to be from Asian countries. But we did get the odd European or middle eastern visitor).

FB-92[1].jpgAround about Easter time, I went on the Credo conference, ETC – “Easter Time Convention”. This was another spiritual high, as I felt like I was hanging out in a temporary monastery, surrounded by other excited, faithful Christians. The “You become the company you keep” principle was in effect here too, as all of us were getting high on God’s word and smashed on God’s love (and drunk on God’s blood). It was at ETC that I met Jaison Jacob. Jaison is a super devout Evangelical Calvinist, familiar with the bible and the Westminster Confession. We instantly clicked and became friends, based on our mutual admiration for theology and deep concepts.

206631_1959400226354_3519722_n[1].jpgIt was round about this time that I started to think about getting married. The Evangelical culture has an unhealthy obsession with marriage that I had begun to soak up. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I was enjoying lots of success flirting with girls and had established many relationships that could easily have escalated to something more serious. I even had my eye on a certain girl from FOCUS, Clara, who I had a mind to pursue more seriously. I thought to myself “I’ll probably be married within the next two years”. I remember sharing this prediction with many of my friends, some of whom were amused while others were sceptical. I remember when I told my Catholic friend from High School, Dennis McCarthy that I thought I would be married within two years, he looked at me with a bemused smile and said “That’s a very bold prediction Herlihy!”

Theological Concerns Begin to Mount

SolaScriptura[1].jpgIt was around this time, when I was more familiar with core Christian ideas and concepts, that I began to be able to formulate some actual doctrinal questions. These questions began to seem more and more serious as time went by. I had many questions surrounding the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

  • Why should I base my entire life on the bible when I have no guarantee that God is actually speaking through it?
  • What about the problem of interpretation? Christians insist that the bible is “clear” but no one seems to be able to agree on what it actually says or means.
  • What about the canon? Why should I trust these 66 books? Why not the Catholic bible, which has more books in it? Or the Orthodox bible – which has more books still? Or the Ethiopian bible – which seemingly has hundreds of books in it?
  • What about other religions and religious texts? Muslims make the same claims for the Qu’ran that Christians make for the Bible; it seems entirely arbitrary to believe the Christians and reject the Muslims.

I also became convinced that some sort of doctrine of purgatory was essential in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Why should it be that sanctification is a long, arduous life-long process while we are alive, but then when you die God just clicks his fingers and completes the process instantaneously? It didn’t make sense to me. I figured that if Sanctification is a process now, during life; it’s probably a process after we die too. Some sort of purification is necessary to bring us to perfection before we enter Heaven. I remember having passionate debates with Jaison about this. He would seemingly blindly quote the bible as if that settles the matter, but I was completely unimpressed with this line of argument. Purgatory simply seemed to make so much sense and Jaison’s attempts to dissuade my convictions were weak and ineffective.

still-looking-imputed-righteousness[1].jpgAnother point of contention that began to creep up on me was the reformed doctrine of “double imputation”. It honestly sounded like a fat steaming pile of nonsense. These guys were expecting me to believe that God simply ignores my sins, and when he looks at me he sees Jesus instead, and when God looks at Jesus he sees me and my sins. This smelt entirely fishy. It is what Catholics refer to as a “legal fiction”: I’m still a totally depraved sinner, but God just pretends that I’m not. I was completely unsatisfied with this sort of theology. It seemed clear to me that I have to be inherently righteous in order for God to accept me. “Being clothed in Jesus’ righteousness” was not going to do the trick if beneath the cloak, I’m still dirty to the core.

There were also still lingering concerns from my cult days: I believed that there was indeed a “One True Church”, but I didn’t know where to look to find it. I surveyed the protestant scene that I had found myself in and was unable to detect the sort of doctrinal consistency that you would expect from a “One True Church”.

Ironically, one of the things that the cult had drilled into me during my bible studies with them, was all of the passages which talk about being on the look out for false teachers. I was incredibly paranoid and would not trust anyone. The question was always lingering at the back of my mind “What if this guy is a false teacher?” I was willing to trust anyone, but only provisionally. In the end I had no clear reason to believe that they were not a false teacher. My Christian walk was wracked with severe doubt and uncertainty due to this.

evil-popes[1].jpgI remember around about this time having big unanswered questions. I remember going to Google and searching there. As I did so, one of the hits was the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio – “Faith and Reason”. I read it and soaked it up. It just made so much sense and resonated with me to the core. And yet the whole time I was freaking out thinking “God help me, this is written by a Catholic, and Catholics are evil.” – I had been indoctrinated by my Christian community into believing that Catholicism was an evil religion of works righteousness and that Catholics are not to be trusted. Oh how wrong I was.

To China!

I was able to put all of these theological concerns at the back of my mind for a time and just enjoy my life in the Evangelical community. I enjoyed serving in FOCUS, attending the campus bible studies, going to church, meeting new people, socialising and visiting other peoples churches. I was church hopping, and hadn’t really committed myself to any particular church. I didn’t attend the Sunday service consistently (Evangelicals do not have any convincing theological reason as to why it is necessary to go to church on Sunday).

china-2[1]During these months I was experiencing hypomania, and life felt amazing. I was flirting with all the girls, I was enjoying success at the gym and actually had some decent muscles for the first time in my life, I was having fun socialising and swimming. I was an attractive guy by any account. I caught the eye of Helen Yim, the Credo staffworker who oversaw the FOCUS ministry. She invited me to come on a mission trip to China during the mid year break. I was still operating under a “If a Christian asks me to do something: do it” attitude, so I agreed to come. It was during the preparation for this trip, and the weekly mission team meetings that I met my fiancée-to-be; Mindy Leng (name changed for anonymity)

Mindy had signed up for the mission as her ticket to get back to Hong Kong after the conclusion of her degree. She was to be the team interpreter, as she understood Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However during her time in Sydney she had basically just hung out with other Cantonese people and so her English was not quite up to scratch. When I first met her I put on all the charm and tried to be friendly, but she just laughed at me and ignored me. I later found out that she could not understand what I was saying because I talk so fast, and she didn’t want to be seen in that position because it would throw questions upon her competency as an interpreter. I also later found out that she had a bit of a racist streak and was not interested in white guys, and she was nonetheless unimpressed with me because it had come out during one of our meetings that I had been at uni for 7 years. “Why has this guy been studying so long?” she thought, and dismissed me as either lazy or stupid and entirely unworthy of being her friend or boyfriend.

10568733_10152630262094813_870665020_n.jpgHowever, during the China trip Mindy and I grew closer and closer together. Due to my hypomania, I was attracted to almost everyone and almost everyone was attracted to me. All the Chinese girls were all over me during the trip and I was loving it. Mindy fell under the spell of my charm and our hormones kicked in. At the conclusion of the trip I wrote her a love letter and then disappeared back to Australia. Mindy tracked down my email address and wrote back to me. The long distance relationship had begun.

I decided to take the plunge and actually commit to this relationship, even though it was long distance. I asked Mindy if she would be my girlfriend, and after a bit of wrangling she pretty much agreed, but on the condition that we get married within two years. I was knocked out of my seat at this, because I had been telling all my friends that I was going to get married within two years: this seemed to be a perfectly happy coincidence!

Driven Back to Catholicism

1426731_10151981780870091_339659697_n[1]Helen Yim had become a bit of a “spiritual mum” to me in this time. When I told her that I was starting up a relationship with Mindy, she rebuked me, saying “Alex! You gotta commit to a church first! You can’t just keep bouncing around different congregations every week! You have to settle down!”

I thought to myself “Ok, sure. So I’ve gotta find the right church.” And finally all those theological considerations which had been gnawing at me came to the surface and confronted me. It was time to deal with this: I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I began to voraciously read articles online. I wanted to work out which church was the true church; which church has the true teachers; which church was founded by Jesus; which church had the inspired tradition. During these investigations I ended up learning more and more about Catholicism. The Catholic religion didn’t seem so evil after all once you actually gave it a fair go. It was consistent, coherent, tight and appealing.

It was also at this time that I had a date with another BIT scholar, the beautiful Sarah Markowskei. During our conversation it came up that she was Catholic. I was intrigued and begun to ask her questions about her faith. She had great answers for everything! Catholicism started to make even more sense. I thought it was amazing how when you actually talk to a real Catholic, things seem so much more clear and reasonable than when you just soak up anti-catholic propaganda from the Evangelicals.

3c2a2c263fdf36662624c6db2d5fe454[1].jpgDuring my internet adventures, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article for “Apostolic Succession” and it immediately resonated with me. Finally: here was a solution to the problems I was wrestling with. How do you identify the true church? Look for the church which can trace a straight line from it’s leadership back to the Apostles and Jesus. There were only a couple of churches out there which could do this. The only two that I was aware of at the time were the Catholic church and the Orthodox church, and (I thought to myself) potentially the Anglican church.

I encountered the concept of the magisterium. This also resonated with me deeply, as it was an answer to pretty much all of my questions about why I should trust the bible and the biblical canon. Jesus founded a church, he did not write a book. The church which he founded is led by a Pope and bishops, all of whom can trace themselves back to Christ and the apostles via apostolic succession. This church has authority; In fact, it has the divine authority of Christ himself, and therefore must be submitted to. This church had identified certain books as inspired, and this is why I can trust the bible and the Catholic biblical canon. Meanwhile the Protestant canon seemed to me to remain completely baseless and unfounded.

I remember talking to Jaison about my concerns regularly, and he vehemently and irrationally attacked the Catholic position and attempted to dissuade me from going down that path. The more he attacked Catholicism, the more convinced I became of the Catholic position.

One day, while I was on a train with Jaison heading to his sub-continental bible study, I suddenly realised that I was Catholic. Jaison was mid-sentence and I remember cutting him off going “Dude, I’m a Catholic”. I remember he just stopped talking and had a concerned look on his face, as I moved away slightly and stood near the window in the train door.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2[1].jpgAt the time, I still didn’t know whether I should become Orthodox or Catholic. They both seemed like viable options and I found Orthodox theology (as I understood it) to be incredibly beautiful. However I decided to return to Catholicism out of convenience. It was pretty easy for me considering I had already been baptised and confirmed when I was a child. All I had to do was go to confession and then I would be allowed to start taking communion again. I did exactly this, and thus cemented my return to the nominal faith of my late primary school years.

I approached the altar and received communion for the first time in 10 years. I had finally swum the Tiber; I had finally returned home; I was finally a Catholic.

(Go to “Testimony: Catholic to Universalist”)

 

An Anathema Against Assurance

“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”

Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.

Council_of_Trent[1].JPGIt is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.

Catholics have been taught that they cannot be certain that they are “saved”; they cannot be certain they will persevere to the end; they cannot be certain they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless cannot be certain that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless cannot be certain that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.

It is my conviction that all of this uncertainty is a toxic parasite on Catholicism which has been sapping the joy from our congregations for over a thousand years. It has been around for far too long and needs to be done away with once and for all. It is my conviction that things really needn’t be this way: Catholics are well within their dogmatic and ecclesiastical rights to have the same assurance of salvation that the Protestants are currently enjoying. Lets pull apart this anathema from Trent to see why.

An Exploration of Certainty

189289836[1].pngWhat exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.

The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.

Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.

We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.

Are You Saved?

oncesavedalwayssaved[1]This principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.

It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.

In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.

Two Kinds of Certainty

And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:

Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.

ordinateur-de-bureau-pc-1456070535WEH[1].jpgBut here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.

I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.

To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.

When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.

This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.

What is actually being condemned?

The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?

It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.

descartes[1]Furthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective, epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.

In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.

Two Kinds of Presumption

An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?

Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.

This is exactly why Catholics have a doctrine of purgatory: You may indeed be guaranteed your salvation, however your sins still have consequences: if you are not repentant you will burn in the hellfire until you repent.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAdVAAAAJDBkZDAxZWU4LTBmNzYtNDk2OC1iMDQxLWE2NjY5ZjE2ZTlmYg[1].jpgThis is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.

I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.

We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.

Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!

One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

saved[1]Now we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.

So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.

Testimony – Agnostic to Christian

Testimonies often come across as mini-biographies or life stories. I am going to embrace this and start right at the beginning.

The Beginning

memumdad.jpgI was born in 1993. Both my parents are materialistic atheists, however my father did grow up in a nominally Catholic household. When I was two years old my parents had a divorce. There was fault and blame on both sides.  I currently get on just fine with Dad, even though I rarely see him as he now lives in California. When I was four Mum remarried to a Chinese Filipino guy who shares my name. Since then she has given birth to two more sons and three more daughters, so I now have quite a large family.

All of my brothers and sisters were baptised when they were babies, so as to more easily get us all into the Catholic education system. I was baptised along with my oldest younger brother when I was 10 years old. It didn’t mean anything to me for many years and it still means absolutely nothing to my brothers and sisters. They don’t understand the significance of the sacraments or believe that they have any intrinsic power. Later on – when I was transitioning back into the Catholic church from Protestantism – I was extremely thankful that my Mum had made me go through all the sacraments of initiation as it made it easier for me to rejoin the church.

My First Encounter with Powerful Drugs

Stimulant-drugs[1].jpgI was an incredibly troublesome and difficult child. Perhaps a large part of this was due to the fact that my father was entirely absent during my early years. In any case, I did not perform well at school and was always getting into trouble. When I was four years old my mother was driven to take me to a top notch psychiatrist in the city who scanned my brain and made me do all sorts of cognitive tests. The conclusion reached was that I was a super-intelligent child but my brain was dysfunctional and I suffered from ADHD. I was prescribed Methylphenidate and from that point forward I was much more well behaved and successful at school. As time went by my dose of Ritalin steadily increased. By the time I was 19 I was on the strongest dose of long acting Concerta on the market. I remember looking in the mirror and seeing the veins on my forehead visibly throbbing. This drug was incredibly powerful. It also had some incredibly negative side-effects; it completely destroyed my sense of humour; it made me feel completely blank and emotionless, like a machine or computer; it gave me intense social anxiety; I was incredibly sexually aroused to the point of hyper-sexuality much of the time (which led to an incredibly debilitating porn addiction throughout most of my teenage years and early 20s); it interfered with my sleep. Later on in life my mum would lament that I had experimented with psychedelics and experienced psychosis, trying to place all the blame on my shoulders; But I always maintain that Ritalin was my gateway drug and therefore her decision to pump me full of Methylphenidate from a young age was a significant contributing factor.

Early Years

From a young age I was pretty philosophically switched on. I remember when I was three or so asking Mum how I could know that she actually existed, or that she was conscious in the same way that I was. She had no idea what I was talking about, but it was important to me. I became a functional solipsist until right up to my teenage years, and remained that way until my flirtations with psychedelics finally gave me compelling evidence to think that other people are not mere philosophical zombies.

Matrixpill[1].jpgWhen I was seven or eight I saw the Matrix, and it quickly became a favourite film and had a profound influence on me. I very quickly became a staunch epistemological relativist who questioned the reality of everything (even my own existence) and as time went by I came to a point where I totally denied there was any such thing as objective truth. This was a defining feature of my thinking right up to my conversion to Christianity.

When I was about sixteen, I read a pulpy “Introduction to philosophy” book which presented it’s ideas in the light of science fiction films. This book quickly became my bible. One key thesis in the book is that all philosophical problems are simply expressions of the one grand philosophical problem articulated within the French philosophy of “Absurdity”. Put simply, this idea states that all big philosophical problems can be reduced to a conflict between our small, human, subjective perspective, and the big, eternal, objective perspective of God (assuming he exists). This idea of “Absurdity” became crucial to my understanding of life and reality all the way up to my conversion.

For most of my life (even my prepubescent days to a large degree) the meaning of my life revolved around girls and romance. I was always pining after some cute girl. I was never really interested in sex, and really was just searching for a loving relationship with someone of the opposite gender. Throughout my high school years I struck out as much as I could at a boys school and tried to experiment with relationships. I never quite got to the point of having a legitimate girlfriend, and I experienced many emotionally crushing set backs and failures which turned me cynical and bitter. By the time I was 18, I was completely cynical about relationships and had fallen in with the pick-up artist community. At this point I no longer cared about finding a girlfriend and my life revolved almost entirely around losing my virginity.

On my 17th birthday my Mum kicked me out of home. I had been a rebellious teenager, hanging out with girls and not coming home until late, refusing to call Mum and let her know where I am. Mum had had enough and booted me out. I went to live with my grandfather on the northern beaches of Sydney. In the end I achieved massive success in the HSC, with an ATAR of 97.15. How much this is due to me and how much this was due to Methylphenidate, I don’t know. My relationship with my Mum and immediate family was extremely strained, and it stayed that way right up until my conversion to Christianity.

Revelations of Hypocrisy

fc8[1].jpgWhen I was 18 I moved out and begun to live on campus at my university (The University of Technology, Sydney). It seemed like absolutely everyone was regularly drinking to excess and smoking weed non-stop. And yet despite that, these people seemed completely normal, great guys and girls, who were achieving significant academic success. This was a major shock to me: I had been brought up in an extremely sheltered environment in which any and all drugs were considered “Bad” and anyone who so much as smells a joint is automatically “addicted” and their life is instantly ruined forever. Suddenly the hypocrisy of the law came crashing down on me: How is it that such a powerful and soul-destroying drug such as Methylphenidate is legal and prescribed regularly, and yet something as harmless as Cannabis is illegal? I had experienced first hand the life-destroying effects of Ritalin and it absolutely baffled me that it was legal while Marijuana was not. This slow burning train of thought stuck with me for many months, and grew to encompass psychedelics, alcohol, and other substances.

Rock Bottom

From 2011 to mid 2012 I was still right into the pick up artist scene and dead-set on losing my virginity. My life revolved around this goal. In the back of my mind I still just wanted love and relationship, but the pick up artist manuals had convinced me that from an evolutionary perspective life is entirely about having as much sex as possible. I had various long term and short term targets who I was trying to get down and dirty with (which is ironically a classic rookie mistake according to the PUA community). Girls did not seem human to me. I was completely cynical about them and saw them simply as sex objects with a complicated social locking device standing between me and the poon. I enjoyed some limited social success as a pick up artist, but never quite managed to achieve what I was aiming for – the loss of my virginity.

I was not really happy or satisfied with life at this point. The only thing carrying me along was this goal of having sex with someone. The scene was set for me to hit rock bottom.

pr0nstashe.jpgI finally managed to get a girl into bed with me (twice), however my nervousness/excitement plus many years of porn addiction resulted in total erectile dysfunction. This was absolutely soul crushing and life destroying. My world was rocked and my ego was entirely shattered. I took my porn stash and physically ripped it in half (It has been stuck to my wall ever since as a reminder of my definitive decision to renounce porn). The entire purpose of my life had been thwarted – I had been in a situation where I could have easily lost my virginity and yet I was completely unable to perform. I felt like life had lost all meaning and I no longer had any purpose.

I had been flirting with the idea of taking a psychedelic drug for many months at this point. I had read much about these substances and they seemed completely fascinating. However there were still remains of my sheltered upbringing holding me back from taking the plunge and dropping tabs. After this life shattering failure to perform in bed I was finally in the mindset to give it a go. “What have I got to lose?” I thought to myself. Life really seemed meaningless all of a sudden and I was in a position where I was a wild card; I no longer cared about anything – I would potentially have even tried heroin or Methamphetamine at this point.

Friends and Enemies

Throughout my time living at UTS I had gotten to know a certain person, who I will call Albert. Albert was already right into all the drugs and was a very manipulative and selfish character. However he also had charisma and charm, and was able to smooth over conversation such that you don’t realise when he is manipulating you. He had been grooming me for about a year, trying to get me to come around to the idea of taking drugs. He had a strategy for doing this. Once he even directly told me his strategy and I was too stupid to realise that he was using it on me at that very moment. In the end I cannot speak to his motivations or judge his internal thought processes, but in retrospect I think he wanted to use me as a guinea pig to try out new drugs and check if they are safe before he did them himself. I had smoked weed and tobacco and been drinking with him a couple of times. He was also a bit of a pick up artist himself and had managed to enjoy some actual success, unlike me.

I thought he was a friend, and in my rock bottom state I found myself at his door. I had decided that I was finally going to give psychedelics a go and he was the guy to go to seeing as he had a large stash of all sorts of drugs. He was more than happy to oblige. We blocked out that Saturday to try a new, recently synthesised psychedelic known as 25i-NBOMe. At the time almost nothing whatsoever was known about this drug, but Albert had tried it a couple of times and found it enjoyable and safe enough, so I felt confident enough to give it a go myself. Since that time, there have been many reported deaths surrounding this drug. In retrospect I am extremely lucky to have survived.

The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao

eyenowords[1].jpgOn Saturday, some time in July 2012, Albert and I met on the roof of Yura Mudang, the largest building in UTS housing. We stuck the tabs containing 25i-NBOMe to our gums and waited for the drug to kick in. During the come-up we just talked about life and shot the crap (talking about “assignments, uniwork, hot babes of housing etc” as I later described it to a friend). I was nervous and excited, wondering what was going to happen. I expected to hallucinate and see some beautiful colours and patterns, but in no way did I expect what actually took place.

The psychedelic experience is ineffable. It cannot be described with words, it can only be experienced. Once you have experienced it, you know. As such it would be futile for me to attempt to describe what happened. When you try to describe a psychedelic experience you end up saying crazy things like “I saw snakes riding cowboys” or “I saw a pink elephant dancing on the roof”. Of course you didn’t actually see anything like that, but these are the only words that you can find to describe what you saw, even though they are totally inadequate to capture the experience. I will elaborate on certain interesting aspects however, and if you have ever had a psychedelic experience you will know what I’m talking about.

When you are on psychedelics, time completely dissolves. You feel like you are in an eternal, everlasting moment. The only way to keep track of time is to have a stop watch or pocket watch which you can consult. This can be an experience of heavenly bliss, or hellish torment, depending on your state of mind. Furthermore, your identity completely evaporates. You try to locate your “I” and it is nowhere to be found. This leads to some interesting feelings; you feel like you are intimately connected to the universe and everything else. The boundary between you and the outside world breaks down and the two flow into each other and through each other. You are the universe and the universe is you. This is particularly profound when you take psychedelics with someone else; you feel as if you are intimately linked. Your empathy levels are raised to the point where you feel exactly what the other person is feeling, and you feel as if you can read their mind. They feel exactly the same way, and the result is a mingling of souls in which two people feel as if they are the same person, but sharing two bodies simultaneously. Your sense of free will completely evaporates, which can be both ecstatic and terrifying: You find yourself just going with the flow, and not exercising any agency at all. Questions of epistemology come crashing down on you: “Is any of this real? What is reality? What is real and what is not? Is there any difference?” These questions are always relevant, even when you’re not high on psychedelics, however they become particularly pronounced when you are tripping. This can be a dangerous state of mind to be in: when you spend all your time questioning reality to this extent, you might just get to a point where you find it reasonable to fly off a building or walk in front of a bus.

When you are tripping, everything is exactly the same, but everything is simultaneously totally different. It’s the same old buildings, the same old roads, the same old vehicles, the same old park, the same old sights and sounds. And yet you see them in a way in which you have never seen them before. You feel as if you fully understand everything, and yet simultaneously understand nothing at all. You come face to face with God and experience the most intimate communion, and simultaneously realise that he is impenetrably ineffable, mysterious and completely incomprehensible.

Revelations

During my first trip with Albert, he was something of a guide. While we were indeed both high, he had far more experience and was able to direct the trip and ensure that it never strayed into “bad trip” territory. I don’t know whether to be thankful or not, because in retrospect this was obviously a manifestation of his psychopathic, manipulative character. We walked from the roof of Yura Mudang to the outdoor balconies of the UTS tower. We walked from UTS to Victoria park. We walked all around Victoria park and USYD. Then we came back home and relaxed in my flat as the drug wore off. The visual effects were amazing; I recall looking up at the sky and seeing millions of shooting stars, and they were all different colours; green, red, orange, blue. The psychological revelations were profound – I felt like I had finally discovered the answers to all of life’s questions. And yet as the drug gradually wore off, my grasp of these important truths began to slip away.

23e2f2717ce8e472a676f6e08fee221c[1].jpgThe revelations were the most important part of the trip for me, whereas Albert was just in it for a good time and to see some visual patterns. I remember talking to him about the revelations and he responded with “My biggest revelation was when I realised that the revelations don’t mean anything”. Maybe he was right on some level, but I wasn’t buying it. After he went home and I was lying in bed trying (and failing) to sleep, I wondered at what I had just experienced. I felt like I had just been initiated into some secret society that has always been before my eyes but I had never seen it before. How many people knew what the psychedelic experience was like? It felt as if traffic light crossings and Victoria park had been designed especially for someone who is tripping. It was almost as if psychedelic drugs were the invisible driving force behind all of society. It became apparent that everything we do as a society boils down to making trips more pleasant. Psychedelic drugs were suddenly right at the centre of my world view.

My previous angst over being unable to get laid almost immediately dissolved. I had discovered something far more meaningful, mysterious and profound than simply striving after sex. I immediately purchased another 25 hits of 25i-NBOMe from Albert. I had decided that I was going to trip regularly and explore the psychedelic landscape further.

I also emailed one of my good old friends from high school, Fordy. In the past we had chatted about experimenting with drugs. He had never gotten further than weed, but I recall he had mentioned he was keen to try all sorts of stuff (even ice). I was gushing to him and pontificating about how amazing the experience had been. I was like “you’ve got to try this dude”. He responded with “fuck yeah let’s do it ASAP” and we scheduled another trip for the following weekend.

Descent into Hell

The following weekend, Fordy met up with me and I attempted to replicate the experience I had had the last weekend. We started on the roof of Yura Mudang, dropped tabs and begun to wait until the drug kicked in. It didn’t take long for things to go wrong and get out of hand.

Fordy was incredibly nervous about the whole thing, even though he had not admitted this to me. Furthermore at the time I was an absolute autistic idiot with no real empathy, so I couldn’t see the signs on his face and in his way of talking that he was feeling uncomfortable. The idea of a “bad trip” was not something I really understood at this point; it was a foreign concept. I just assumed that taking psychedelics was always an extremely pleasant and profound experience.

a1221146842_10[1]The situation was dire: Fordy was deep in the city, far away from home, in a building where he didn’t know anyone. This is not a good mindset to be in if you are going to drop tabs. Unfortunately from the way I was talking it was becoming more and more apparent that he didn’t really know me any more either. So from his perspective he was surrounded by a subtle darkness which was becoming more and more manifest as the drug kicked in.

As our mindsets began to change, he became increasingly terrified at the fact that he wasn’t thinking straight. Paradoxes were proliferating and things simply did not seem how they should seem. It was hard to follow a logical train of thought to it’s conclusion without getting distracted and muddled. Our free will disintegrated.

I went into crisis management mode: I was still in a familiar, comfortable environment so I was not feeling particularly bad in myself. However as described above, when you take a psychedelic the barriers between you and other people are washed away – you feel what they feel and they feel what you feel. As such, Fordy’s panic and paranoia began to seep into my own consciousness and I began to panic too. I decided that the safest place to be was back in my flat.

At one point the idea came to me that Fordy would be more comfortable if we could get him back to his own bed in Normanhurst. He agreed and we headed to the elevator. Right as the elevator had reached the bottom floor and the doors had opened, we looked at each other and I knew we were thinking exactly the same thing: “If we leave the building, we’re both going to be in trouble”. Sydney trains were not the place to be during a bad trip. We immediately retreated back to my room and tried to do damage control on a bad situation. “I can’t believe we almost left the building” Fordy would later say.

hqdefault[1]We trekked back to my flat as fast as we could and Fordy hid in my room. I tried to do everything I could to make him as comfortable as possible. I gave him my bed and he immediately rugged up and hid under the covers. I opened my window so that he could watch the stars move and the sun rise. I turned on the heater in order to keep the room cozy and snug. I offered to play whatever music he wanted through my speakers. He chose “Vivaldi – Concerto No. 6 Op. 3 in A minor RV356 for violin, strings & b.c. – 1. Allegro”. We listened to this piece of music on repeat through his phone for the entire night, right up until dawn and morning. The song was stuck in my head for many months after and I have been able to easily recall the tune at any time in the years since. It was truly burned into my brain during this traumatic night in Hell.

At one point Fordy asked if there was a way to make it all stop. I recalled that Albert had said taking Xanax could calm you down during a bad trip and I made motions to contact him. Fordy immediately became incredibly uncomfortable: he was not keen to take further unknown substances and meet more untrustworthy and unknown people. I took the hint and put my phone away.

Fordy’s bad trip affected my trip, and I became hyper-aware of my heart beating. This was my mortality passing right before my eyes and it was terrifying. Time had completely dissolved and I felt as if I was in an eternal moment that consisted entirely of fear, pain, terror, suffering. I have since come to believe that this is what Hell and Purgatory feel like: pure, timeless terror. An interesting side point here is that while the suffering was subjectively everlasting, objectively it did indeed come to an end. I apply this principle to my universalist theology: Hell/Purgatory feels subjectively everlasting, but objectively it comes to an end.

The Journey Home

Eventually it got to a point where a basic level of trust had been re-established between me and Fordy. He communicated to me that he was happy that we were “back on the same wavelength” and we began to somewhat enjoy the trip again, from the safety of my room. He told me about how he could see “snakes riding cowboys” and attempted to draw a graph of how he was feeling. I knew exactly what he was saying and talking about as I could see it too and I felt the same way.

The night carried on and eventually the sun rose, and the drug wore off. Now we were into the hangover, or “afterglow” period (psychedelic hangovers are usually incredibly pleasant). I cooked some sausages for breakfast (it felt like they took forever to cook). Fordy emerged from my bedroom, still seeming entirely fragile and shaky. We ate and then ventured out into the world that had just awoken and started to go about it’s daily business. I took Fordy on a walk up Broadway, through Victoria Park and around the University of Sydney, showing him what I had planned to show him during the trip, had it not gone entirely wrong.

1478572278926[1].jpgAfterwards I accompanied him on an express train to Normanhurst. We tried to rest and move on from what had just happened. I accompanied him almost the entire way to his front door. I remember telling him “Just say when you need me to leave”, and as we approached his house he turned to me and said “Now would probably be a good time to exeunt”. He went home and attempted to avoid his parents while I began the trek back to my apartment in the city, feeling a bit paranoid and vulnerable the entire time. I later found out that Fordy descended into a deep and extended depression following our trip, whereas I entered into an extremely pleasant mania, which I will describe shortly.

The Great Awakening

Once I arrived back home, a deep seated, unconscious pride began to bubble to the surface. I thought to myself “I’m such a good guy, I managed to handle that situation like a pro. I got Fordy home safely. I’m so amazing”. This pride stuck with me and grew more and more pronounced as the following week went by.

Pride like this is incredibly powerful, often coming with inflated self-confidence and self-importance. I had entered into a Manic state that was getting more and more intense as the days went by. Delusions of grandeur were blossoming in my mind. Towards the end, I actually thought that I was God; I don’t think pride can get any worse than this.

82163912-back-view-of-young-businessman-drawing-abstract-glowing-digital-business-hologram-on-concrete-roofro-Stock-Photo[1].jpgFollowing my bad trip, I entered into what has become the most amazing week of my life to that point and since. Armed with my newfound self-confidence, as well as the heightened sense of empathy which psychedelics bring about, all of a sudden I was the man. I knew everything about everything. I was able to command any conversation and predict what my interlocutor was going to say next. I felt as if I could read peoples minds. All of a sudden girls made sense. This was absolutely massive for me. I realised that girls are human too. It sounds so obvious now, but for 19 years of my life I really had no idea. Suddenly I was enjoying success with all the women in my life. All the information from my pick up artist manuals suddenly flooded my consciousness and I was able to analyse every social situation in the blink of an eye and remain in total control the entire time. I was thinking at top speed, like a super computer, and empathising to the point where I knew exactly how people were thinking and feeling. This was power. I felt omnipotent, as if I could manipulate my way into achieving whatever goals I desired. I was all of a sudden super-productive at work, getting far more done than I had ever before in the 12 months prior to this manic state. It was incredibly exciting.

I came to the delusional conclusion that I was God, and therefore did not need to sleep. I stayed awake for seven days straight, and begun to take much more Ritalin than I would have taken otherwise, to attempt to focus my mania and remain productive at work. In the evenings I would stay up all night thinking, philosophising, writing poetry and feeling amazing. This could not continue forever. At some point, I was going to crash.

“Pride Comes Before a Fall”

There is a biblical quote that is appropriate here:

Proverbs 16:18 RSV-CE

Pride goes before destruction,
    and a haughty spirit before a fall.

I was so completely full of pride, thinking that I was amazing, godlike, God himself. I thought I had discovered all the secrets of the universe: everything made sense to me. The French philosophy of Absurdity which was so dear to my heart seemed spot on and I could see it in action everywhere in life and reality.

However after 7 days straight of not sleeping and experiencing a severe and growing mania, I transitioned into a state of psychosis. Suddenly nothing made sense any more. Suddenly Absurdity seemed entirely contradictory. Suddenly my entire world-view was falling apart: I was grasping for something to hold on to and nothing came to my aid. I was not God; I was just some schmuck. My sanity was slipping between my fingers.

maxresdefault[1].jpg I was thinking to myself “I need help, who can I go to?” but no one was coming to mind. It was at this time that I became highly aware that I was completely surrounded by evil. I sent my thoughts out of my room and probed my flatmates. It seemed completely clear to me that all of my flatmates were evil, depraved and fundamentally untrustworthy. I extended my thoughts to the rest of my floor in UTS housing and came to the same conclusion: all of them were manipulative and selfish drug and sex addicts. Panicking, I extended my thoughts to the entire building: again, all I could find were evil, selfish people who would gladly sell me out if it meant they could get more sex and weed.

This was incredibly scary. I felt as if I were utterly surrounded by evil and there was nowhere I could run. Being an introvert, I decided to do what comes naturally to me: lock my door and hide in my room. Suddenly I thought back to all my interactions with Albert and I gasped as I realised that he had been playing me like a pipe. I had been his pawn as he manipulated me into doing drugs and used me as an unwitting wingman in his quest for sex. This was also incredibly scary – I felt as if I was caught in a giant spiders web spun by Albert and I felt as if he still had significant power over me. He started to seem like some sort of demonic incarnation in my mind. However things only got even more terrifying: I realised that I myself am also totally depraved, manipulative and selfish. I thought back to the previous 7 days of mania and assessed my behaviour: I had been manipulating people left, right and centre for personal gain and selfish reasons. I was just as evil as everyone else!

This was utterly traumatic and terrifying: there was nowhere I could run or hide – everyone was completely drenched to the core with evil, even me. I couldn’t run to my room, I couldn’t hide in my mind. No matter where I looked; no matter where I turned; all I could find was pure evil.

The Man in the Desert

2016024411desert_22_300[1]At this point of pure panic and terror, a strange idea suddenly lodged itself in my mind and would not go away: The story of Jesus in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. I had never seriously read the bible before, and I could barely remember the details of this story. However for some strange reason, it was firmly lodged in my mind and I knew with all my being that it was important: I needed to understand this story right now. I knew that it was somehow relevant to my current situation, but I was not sure in what way.

Still in a panic, I went to my bookshelf and found the NIV bible which my Christian mates had given me back in high school. I had a crude, basic knowledge of the structure of the biblical canon: I knew that the stories about Jesus are to be found in the New Testament, in the four Gospels. With this in mind I frantically flipped to the gospel of Matthew and began rapidly scanning the headings of the sections looking for the story about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. Thankfully, this story occurs early in the Gospel of Matthew and I was able to find it quickly. I ravenously read the story from beginning to end, and it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I didn’t know how to apply it to my current situation. It may as well have been written in another language.

At this point I completely and utterly freaked out and broke down: It was absolutely essential that I understand this story right damn now, and yet it was completely impenetrable to me. There were tears in my eyes and I was shaking. I thought to myself, “I need someone to help me understand this”. This logically lead to the question “who would understand the bible?” The answer that came to me was “Christians! They wrote the book so of course they should understand it!”

I cast my mind towards all the friendships of my past, searching for someone who was Christian that I could go to for help. This was not easy; I had met many Christians during my life, but all of them were total hypocrites, just as evil as me and Albert and everyone else. I was searching for the light on the hill: A Christian who is worthy of the name. There was only a single person who came to mind; the only true and faithful Christian I had ever met, my good friend from high school: Alex Macdonald.

The Only Saint I Know

I sent a text message to Alex, trying to keep it together and not let him know that I’m totally falling apart. I no longer saw him regularly, but I had caught up with him some time in the previous two weeks. Still thinking of how he really is a good Christian and so is his entire family, I sent something along the lines of “Hey man, how are you? You’ve got a pretty cool family don’t you?” He responded with “Yeah, I’ve been heaps blessed with family. I’ve gotta run to a soccer game now, catch up soon!” I immediately freaked out and begun to send him a barrage of messages thinking to myself “NO! I need to talk to you right now! Don’t abandon me to this isolation”

1531658_1For 45 minutes I sent him message after message, pouring out my heart and talking about how I was in a really bad state. I was lamenting about the relationship with my mother and extended family, my failures with girls, and all sorts of other things. I was telling him what a wreck I was and how my life was totally messed up. I told him about how I was searching for meaning in life and couldn’t find it anywhere. I mentioned that I want to read the bible but I have no idea how to do it: I had an intuition that it contained the answers to all my problems but it was an entirely cryptic and mysterious book which I had no idea how to approach. I said to him “I don’t know how to pray, so please can you do it for me?”

Eventually the soccer game came to the half-time break and Alex checked his phone. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he looked at the barrage of messages I had just sent him. He responded succinctly, assuring me that he would indeed be praying for me and that I needed to come and meet him ASAP for a face-to-face chat. He also made it clear that I needed to meet with my Mum and tell her everything that has happened.

At this point I was at the end of my rope and willing to entrust myself entirely to whatever Alex recommended with no complaint, argument or resistance. He really embodied the “light on the hill” mandate of the bible; he was like a light shining in the darkness that surrounded me. I wanted to do nothing but latch on and trust him to take me to a better place, dragging me out of the pit of evil and the lake of darkness that I had found myself in.

Coming of Age

family-730320_960_720[1].jpgI boarded the train from central to Hornsby. By this time it was late afternoon. Being out in the world, surrounded by other, sane people put me back into a relatively composed state of mind. You become the company you keep, so I was no longer completely freaking out. This was a lull in my psychosis.

I arrived at my Mum’s house and knocked on the door. The effects of the various drugs I had taken in the week prior were still present: I was high on empathy and thinking incredibly quickly. I knew in half a second that mum had been crying and was trying to hold it together. Obviously Alex Macdonald had gotten in contact with her before I had arrived to let her know that I was coming and to expect me to be in a bad state. I was happy that he had done so. He had also gotten in contact with many of my other high school friends to let them know I was having a rough time and encourage them to reach out and make contact. On the way to the house I had received a variety of text messages from old friends asking how I was doing and saying that we should catch up.

Me and Mum sat down at the dinner table and I poured out everything. For the first time in my life I was completely honest and open with my Mother. We were both crying, and it was a beautiful reconciliation between us that has largely persisted to the present day. Ever since that evening I have had a massively improved relationship with Mum.

During my late teenage years, and the first few years in UTS housing I had wanted to distance myself from my family and set off on my own. However it was suddenly incredibly obvious that you can never escape family, and you really shouldn’t even try. They will always be there for you and are the most important relationships in your entire life. Family is everything. This has been a significant change in my thinking that has persisted to the present day.

It was at this point that the pride came back. I thought to myself “I just fixed my relationship with my mother: I am the shit.”

The whole family went to our local Japanese restaurant for dinner. It was packed. Once again I was manic and the man of the moment. I was telling jokes, stories, flirting with the waitresses and generally manipulating everyone into forgetting that I was technically in the middle of a psychotic episode.

At the end of the dinner I received a text from Alex Macdonald on my phone saying “Hey man, how are you doing? I still want to talk to you face to face; are you able to meet up?” I convinced my step father to drive me to Pennant Hills where I could meet Alex and have a chat. When I saw him I said “Thanks for meeting me man, I hope I’m not imposing too much” and he said “Don’t worry dude, I can talk all night!”

Thus began the most important hours of my life.

The Long Walk

2[1].jpgThe next 11 hours were spent walking and talking late into the night and early into the morning. We roamed around all the north shore suburbs, having an intense debate about all the most meaningful questions in life. It was quite surreal: at no point did we ever encounter any other people during our long walk. It was just me and him.

I had never before been honest with what I actually believed and thought about life with anyone, but I figured “If honesty could so easily fix my relationship with Mum, perhaps if I keep it up good things will happen here too”: for the first time I was completely honest and open about what I believed and how I thought.

The pride had returned and entrenched itself in my mind. I was convinced that Alex Macdonald was just a stupid Christian who doesn’t know how to think for himself and just believes whatever nonsense his church, family and bible tell him. I was convinced that Absurdity was the answer to all of life’s questions. Nevertheless I had this openness and honesty about me for the first time, so I was willing to put my world-view up for scrutiny and engage in open debate.

Me and Alex had a very intense back-and-forth dialogue. I would try to attack his position and Christian world-view, but no matter what I tried he was able to successfully defend his beliefs against my assault. His world-view was tight, consistent, coherent. I was completely unable to put a dent in his faith, even after throwing the most difficult apologetics issues at him. Whenever I brought up something he didn’t have an answer for he simply said “I don’t know the answer man, but I’m sure that there is an answer out there somewhere and I’m happy to go and find it for you”. This was completely infuriating for me.

At the same time as I was attacking Alex’s position, he was criticising mine. Unlike my attack on him, his attack on me was entirely successful. On point after point he was able to reveal inconsistencies in my understanding and highlight incoherence in my belief system. On issue after issue he was able to demonstrate how illogical my world-view actually is. This hurt. When someone is tearing apart everything you believe before your eyes it is incredibly painful. Even though he was doing it in the most loving and “Christian” way possible, it was still a very unnerving and psychologically painful experience. The foundations of my understanding of life and reality were being slowly pulled out from under me and I had nothing left to stand on. As he progressively tore apart my world view, I reflexively lashed back and attempted to do the same to him, but I was simply unable to put a dent in his faith.

By the end of the eleventh hour of this, I only had one idea left: the concept of Absurdity. I had never before told anyone about this belief of mine. I said to Alex Macdonald, “So far you have been able to show me why everything I believe is wrong. I only have one thing left, and if you show why it is wrong I will have nothing left. If you do this, I don’t know what is going to happen.” He responded calmly with “No dramas man, I trust God, let’s do it.” So I told Alex what I believed about absurdity, and it wasn’t long before he was able to find a significant hole in the theory, thus pulling that out from under me too. (If I remember correctly, the hole in the theory that he identified is that it claims to know what God’s perspective is, but no one can know what God’s perspective is except for God himself)

All of a sudden I had nothing left, and things got incredibly weird.

The Twelfth Hour

My life flashed before my eyes. I saw every little thing I had ever done and the guilt of all my sins came crashing down upon me all at once. The significance of every action I had ever performed was laid out before me: all the good things I had done as well as all the bad things I had done. I could see clearly how my actions had affected those around me. I was lost for words and gasping for air. I became unable to speak in complete sentences. I was like an animal.

nov16-10-hbr-marion-barraud-emotional-intel[1].jpgAt this point I also experienced something that the Cantonese have a succinct expression for: “A thousand emotions at once”. I was simultaneously happy and sad, full of love and full of hate; I both wanted to hug Alex and choke him to death. I was simultaneously laughing with happiness and crying tears of sadness. I felt completely calm and composed, and yet I also felt totally and utterly terrified. I felt jealousy and contentment, joy and despair all at the same time. I was experiencing the entire emotional spectrum all at once.

The Uncreated Light of Tabor

At this point I looked at Alex Macdonald for support and I could tell that he had no idea how to handle this. I recalled his promise at the beginning of the night: “Don’t worry man, I can talk all night!” but it was obvious that this situation was beyond his capacity. He had a scared and concerned look on his face which said “I really don’t know what to do”. He said to me “You’re not giving me much to work with here man” and I said back to him through my tears “Words! I need good words!”

He began to list off a whole bunch of Christian jargon: “Gospel, Love, Faith, Worship, Beauty.” Every time he said a word, it was as if I had been struck by lightning. It was just so plainly obvious to me that yes, these are good words! I gestured to him with my hands and cried “More! Give me more!” He continued listing off words: “Justification, Sanctification, Divinity, Holiness, Sacrifice.”

As he continued to say these good words, suddenly my mind’s eye was flooded with a brilliant mental light. Once again I was lost for words and gasping for air. For the first time I clearly perceived the love of God. John 3:16 came to me and I fully appreciated it. Jesus loved me. He died on that cross for me. He didn’t just die for “the world” in some generic collective sense; he actually died for me personally. He still would have gone to the cross even if I were the only other person who had ever existed. He loved me that much. I didn’t fully understand how it all worked; all the theology and doctrines of redemption and atonement. But what I did understand, and what was incredibly clear to me at this point, is that Jesus really and truly loved me. I realised that I couldn’t just shrug this off: love demands a response. How was I going to respond to this man who had died for me?

346c3aacbb35f3c0c639c72fb91f6f6e--jesus-pictures-jesus-on-the-cross-pictures[1].jpgAs I considered the love of Christ, suddenly the true nature of the mystical church came crashing down upon me. I realised that the church is not merely a building or group of people: the church is everyone throughout history who has devoted their life to following Christ and submitting to his leadership. A mental image clearly materialised in my mind’s eye, with Jesus as the centre and head of the church and billions of his followers surrounding him, trying to follow his leadership. I saw that in this way, Christians are the body of Christ; his hands and his feet in the world. Jesus is alive in the world today through his followers.

Again I was gasping for breath and completely stunned by what I was beholding. I was face to face with a supreme, incomprehensible love, and before my eyes it was as if I could see this love working through history via the church – the mystical body of Jesus Christ. I turned to look at Alex Macdonald and once again was completely blown away: As I looked at him, I could clearly perceive God. It was as if he was glowing with an invisible light. I have since come to learn that this was the uncreated light of Tabor that is so dear to Eastern Christians, as well as the image of God that all humanity bears; usually it is hard to detect, but on this night it was clear and obvious. I felt as if I was staring directly at the face of Jesus Christ himself, permeated and glowing with the fullness of divinity.

I turned my attention back to my interior state of mind, which was still experiencing the full force of a life review and a thousand emotions simultaneously, and it suddenly became incredibly obvious what was going on: This was the Holy Spirit wrestling with sins and demons for possession of my heart. The hatred and sadness were my sins while the love and joy were the Spirit. When I realised this, I instantly knew who I wanted to win the fight. I was praying “Come Holy Spirit!” as this epic struggle continued to unfold in my heart and mind.

Conversion

At this point of the early morning, when it was still dark we were walking back to my house along Pennant Hills road. For those who are unaware, Pennant Hills road is incredibly busy at all hours of the day and night, however in a surreal twist of fate, this night it was completely empty. Just me and Alex walking along the road alone with each other. I was still completely freaking out and experiencing the interior struggle between the Holy Spirit and my demons, and Alex was still doing his best to manage the walk home.

By the end of the night, it seemed that the demons and sins had won the fight: I was full only with negativity; All the positive emotions had gone away. I wanted to slaughter Alex there and then. I wanted to pounce on him and rip out his throat with my fingers, I wanted to pound him into a bloody pulp. I was verbally lashing out at him in the most immature, condescending way. I felt as if I were possessed by demons. Perhaps I was.

Louisville%20creative%20driveway%20and%20path%20lighting[1].jpgFinally we arrived out the front of my mum’s house. Both of us were completely exhausted. Alex said “Man, I’m wasted and I’ve really gotta sleep, but before I go I want to pray for you”. He stood underneath a street light, closed his eyes and prayed. I paced around him at the edge of the light, wanting with all my being to pounce on him and destroy him then and there. Something stopped me from doing so however. I remember thinking “Who does he think he’s talking to? Does he really believe in this God? What a fool!” Quickly after the prayer his father arrived in the family car and picked him up, taking him back home for sleep and rest.

I trudged down the driveway to Mum’s house, full of negativity. I knocked on the door and was let in and led to the bottom bunk in my brothers room. I lay there, rolling around in bed. I thought to myself “If I do not sleep now, I am going to die”. The negative part of me thought “Why don’t you just do it? Go ahead and die.” But thankfully it was not meant to be. My step father is a doctor. Something within me said “Go and ask your step dad for help”. I went downstairs and woke my step dad. In many words I conveyed that I was having a panic attack. He could tell in any case. He rummaged through his filing cabinet and found a Valium.

1b4c7887790f565a92287901a34cb77e--sheep-the-lord[1].jpgWe went back upstairs and I took the Valium. As I did so, the negativity all quickly vanished and I suddenly felt safe, protected, blissful, encompassed in a cloud of pure love. I was extremely excited, but this was different to the mania I had experienced in the prior week: it was more “pure” and “innocent”. There was not a hint of pride. I was full of humble energy. I chatted away to my exhausted step-father, who sat in the doorway playing on his iPhone while he waited for the Valium to take full effect. Every few minutes he would consult the Valium cheat sheet and ask me questions to see if the drug was working. “Do you feel a metallic taste on your tongue?” “Yep”. I looked at myself in the mirror and it was as if I was glowing and all my signs of fatigue were receding away. I felt completely at peace and enveloped in love. I was safe at last. Most importantly, I finally believed! Even though I didn’t know what it all meant and how it all fit together, I finally trusted Jesus. I remember the last thing I said before I fell into the first deep sleep I had had in eight days: “Ah, so this is what they are talking about when they say ‘born again’!”

When I woke up the next morning I was a Christian, and I have never looked back since.

(Go to “Testimony – Christian to Catholic”)

The Binding of Isaac, The Agony of Job, and The Dark Night of the Soul

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 

gulag+vorkuta[1].jpgThese are harsh words from our lord and saviour. What could he possibly mean? We have to hate our families in order to follow Jesus to heaven? Doesn’t this contradict his commands (found elsewhere) to love our neighbour?

I have encountered certain bible commentaries in my time which have attempted to take the edge off of these passages. The Greek word translated “hate”, they say, really shouldn’t be understood as meaning “hate”; it should instead be understood as preferring one thing over another. So we shouldn’t actually hate our families; we should simply prefer God over them. Maybe there’s some truth to this exegesis, but honestly just taking the English at face value: “hate” is far different in nature to a simple preference of one thing over another.

We will return to these passages later, but for now I want to propose that rather than being too strong a choice of words, the word “hate” is in actual fact not strong enough to convey what Jesus was actually saying. We should not merely hate our families; we should be willing to see them cast headlong into everlasting damnation if that is what God wills. We should be willing to lovingly and devotedly follow Gods commands wherever they may lead, even if those commands make us uncomfortable and apparently contradict the love that God has poured into our hearts.

Salvation in Darkness

St-John-of-the-Cross-Dark-Night[1].jpg

St John of the Cross is a western saint and mystic who is probably most remembered as the man who formulated the theology that has since been referred to by the shorthand “Dark night of the soul”. I will briefly outline the essence of this unique idea.

God is a good, kind, and loving God who enjoys lavishing good gifts upon us. He does this to everyone: young and old, believer and non-believer, Christians, Atheists, Muslims; everyone. Such gifts include good, tasty food and drink, good health, success in study, sport and romance, a bed to sleep in each night, clean water, breathable air, rain and sun to grow crops, familial love, friendship and so on. The Calvinists like to call this aspect of God’s loving disposition “Common Grace”, because these are gifts that are lavished upon all people without exception or distinction. Even a starving African child can detect such gifts from God in their life.

Now, when someone initially comes to faith in God, these gifts will seem to multiply exponentially: All of a sudden the soul is full of supreme and invincible joy as it contemplates the salvation that has been won for it in Christ through the cross. The soul seems to overflow with a pleasurable love for God and neighbour. The soul will seem so completely happy and content. Life will suddenly be full of purpose and meaning. The world seems far more colourful than it ever did before. Smiles and laughter will surround this soul.

But in a short time, the trials and tests will arrive thick and fast. The Christian is warned to expect persecution and suffering; how will they respond when it actually arrives? This is where the Dark night of the soul begins: some people are plunged deep into the dark night; most only experience a taste of it, presumably because God in his wisdom has decided that they are not strong enough to handle further trials.

What happens at this point, is that God progressively withdraws his gifts. Where before the soul was overflowing with joy and enjoying the wonderful gifts that God was bestowing on them, now the soul is receiving fewer and fewer gifts. The soul is being plunged into a darkness of sorts: most particularly, the soul experiences an “absence of God”. With the eyes of faith, the soul may know that God is indeed still there, but nevertheless he is unable to “feel” this presence. The words of the psalmist become apt to describe the experience:

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
    How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Why does God withdraw his gifts? It is to test us. God is peering into the depths of our heart and asking: “Do you truly love me? Or do you only love my gifts? If I withdraw my gifts, will you still love me?” So God progressively withdraws more and more of his gifts, and the Darkest night possible is when he withdraws all of his gifts: Your family hates you, your friends have abandoned you, you are starving, you are sick, you are dying and the question God is asking is, “Despite all this hardship, do you still love me?”

The good news is that this testing does come to an end. The end of the dark night of the soul is the bright dawn of salvation. Once the dark and fiery trials have concluded, God lavishes his gifts upon the soul to an even greater degree than before the dark night had begun. And in the case of a ascetic mystic who has walked the path of darkness to the very end, the ultimate and final gift of God is bestowed: The fullness of salvation: Theosis. The soul becomes perfectly united with God, such that it is hard to distinguish between them.

The Father of Faith

ft464-news_graffiti_web[1].jpg

One biblical figure who experienced this dark night of the soul is the father of faith: Abraham. The Dark night of the Soul is clearly manifest in the story of the Binding of Isaac.

To establish some context: Abraham and Sarah have been praying and hoping for a child for most of their adult life. Even when they arrive at old age and still have not yet had a baby, they continue to hope and await the fulfilment of God’s promises to them that they will have a child. The day finally arrives, and despite Sarah’s old age and barrenness, Isaac is miraculously born. In Abraham’s time, children were considered one of the highest blessings and most wonderful gifts of God, and a son (rather than a daughter) was an even more special reason to rejoice. So Isaac would be considered one of the most precious, if not the most precious gift that God had given to Abraham. Now with this in mind, consider the following passage:

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.

After many years of painful waiting, God finally bestows Abraham with his heart’s deepest desire: a son to carry on the family legacy. Abraham and Sarah would have rejoiced and been full to exploding point with happiness when Isaac finally arrived, praising God and thanking him for his overwhelming goodness.

But behold; Abrahams personal dark night arrives. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering”. God is commanding Abraham to renounce his greatest wordly attachment: his love for his son. God is testing Abraham, just like he tests everyone who goes through the dark night of the soul. God is asking Abraham “Do you really love me? Or do you only love my gifts? Would you still love me if those gifts were taken away? Are you willing to sacrifice that which you hold dear? Are you willing to kill your son if I command you to?” And amazingly, Abraham essentially responds with “Thy will be done lord. If you command me to kill my son, this will I do. I love you above all else. I trust you. My faith is unwavering.”

The scene is tense, Abraham practically has the knife against Isaacs throat. Imagine what is going through his mind and his heart. Sometimes I think we imagine saints and biblical figures as being superhuman, not feeling emotions the same way that we do, but this is inaccurate: Abraham was most likely suffering the full force of a particularly violent dark night; he was probably wiping away tears of agony and anguish as he approached the alter; he was willing to follow Gods commands whatever they may be, but he would have been crying out in anger, confusion and despair. He is thinking that he is about to lose his son forever, his most treasured relationship on earth, the son he had waited for for all of his life, moreover he has already accepted this fact and is already dealing with life in those terms: Isaac is already dead to him. Abraham is already mourning the death.

And right as he is about to perform the fatal blow, a messenger from God swoops in and says “Stop!!! You have proved your faith: God does not ask any more of you than this, you are willing to sacrifice your son, and for this reason you do not have to.” This is followed up with one of the most important promises in all of scripture:

I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

This narrative contains all the elements of an intense dark night of the soul: the initial gifts (The birth of Isaac), the purification in the darkness (The sacrifice of Isaac) and the final gift (The rescue of Isaac and an eshatalogical salvific promise)

The Trial of Job

Job[1].jpg

Another biblical figure who suffered a particular profound dark night of the soul is Job. The prologue to the book of Job reveals that God had lavished many gifts upon him. Job was practically swimming in Common Grace. He had it all: A large, devoted family, health, wealth, property, servants, land etc. Furthermore Job responds to this love with love: he is a purely righteous soul who never sins and always does what is right.

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.

But God decides to test Job. Scripture reveals that Satan makes a wager with God that he is able to tempt Job towards sin if God would only plunge Job into a dark night. God permits Satan to drag Job into the darkness and see whether or not he cracks under the pressure:

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

But despite being plunged headfirst into a dark night, and having all his good gifts taken away from him; Job remains faithful and does not crack:

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

20 Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Satan returns to the heavenly assembly and God quizzes him, saying “See? Despite withdrawing all my gifts from Job, he still loves me.” Satan responds with “That is because you have not harmed his body. So long as he has his good health, he will continue to love you, but take away this, and he will hate and despise you. He will renounce you.”

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordAnd the Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Jobs wife comes up to him and expresses her astonishment that Job continues to love and worship a God who is so clearly callous and evil. But Job remains steadfast in his faith and refuses to renounce his good lord:

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The rest of the book is brilliant poetry, in which Job and his three friends dialogue on matters of sin, justice, punishment, salvation, mystery, goodness. Job wonders out loud why God has allowed this misfortune to befall him: he is particularly confused because he knows in his heart that he has not sinned in any way. He wonders why it is that the righteous suffer and the unrighteous are able to get away with iniquity unpunished. The truth of the matter is that God has plunged Job into a particularly dark night of the soul in order to purify him into a shining, glorious saint. God has taken away all of these gifts so as to test Job’s love. Amazingly, Job remains steadfast in his faith through the entire ordeal: he questions God, and cries out for God to provide some sort of explanation for the suffering he has had to endure, but at no point does he curse God or renounce his love for his creator.

And just as in any dark night of the soul, when Job emerges out the other side God bestows even more gifts and grace upon him than he had in the first place!

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first Jemi′mah; and the name of the second Kezi′ah; and the name of the third Ker′en-hap′puch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17 And Job died, an old man, and full of days.

So once again we have a classic case of a dark night of the soul: The initial gifts (Job’s great wealth, health and love), the plunging into darkness (The testing by Satan and loss of Job’s entire fortune), and the emergence from the darkness as a purified, tested, victorious saint (Job’s restoration of health, wealth and love as well as his long life and happy death)

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

Lets put all of this together. Each of us is called to enter the dark night at some point of our lives. God is going to test every single one of us, just as he tested Job and Abraham. He is going to refine us with suffering until we are able to love him even in the absence of his gifts. But lets consider just how difficult this is going to be and what this is going to involve. Consider again the words of Christ, quoted at the beginning of this post:

“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”

When Jesus says “Hate”, he really does mean hate. If we desire to love him, we must be willing to trust him and follow his commands even when they contradict the love for our families that God has already gifted us with. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we too must be willing to see our families sacrificed if that is what God commands. We have to be willing to truly hate our families and desire their eternal, everlasting torture in the endless ocean of fire that is Hell if this is what God asks of us. God does not ask us to enjoy this prospect, he does not ask us to be happy about doing this, he does not ask us to take sadistic pleasure in the torture of our families, however he does ask us to have a rock solid faith in him and a perfect obedience to his commandments. Just as Abraham was crying as he ascended the mountain to the altar and pressed his knife against his sons throat, so too we are permitted to grieve at the eternal loss of our families, but nevertheless; we must be willing to accept this loss, all for the sake of the love of God. As Jesus says: Whoever loses his life will save it. We must renounce ALL worldly attachments and cast them into the dark flame, and this includes our closest relationships: Husband, Wife, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter. We must be willing to see everyone in our life damned, all for the sake of loving God.

The darkest night of the soul is pitch black: bleak like the trial of Job. All of Gods gifts are removed and he demands that we sacrifice everything for his sake. If this was the end of the story, it would be incredibly depressing and entirely bittersweet: we gain God, but at what cost?

Thankfully this is not the grand finalé to the tale. Recall how the narrative of the dark night of the soul always plays out. First of all there are the abundant gifts of God – in this particular case the amazing unconditional love that is found within a family. Second, there is the removal of these gifts, as a testing of darkness and a refining of fire – in this case, this consists of a renouncing of familial love in order to pursue the greater love of God. It consists of hating your family to the point where you are willing to see them damned if that is what God decrees. But there is always a happy ending. Finally, the dark night of the soul always ends in joy: the gifts are returned a thousandfold more than they were in the beginning. In this case, our families are not actually damned for God desires all people to be saved. Just as it was revealed to Abraham that he didn’t really have to kill Isaac, and just as Job had all of his wealth, health and loving relationships returned to him, so too we will see those whom we love come to salvation: we never really had to be sad at the prospect that God would damn them, because this is not on his heart. The good news of the Gospel is that God desires the salvation of all and he has the power to bring this about.

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

61P45+ToLrL._UX250_[1]John Piper is a famous Calvinist teacher and preacher, living today. I find his views and theology to be shocking and disgusting for the most part. He believes that God desires the damnation of multitudes and that this somehow gives God “Glory”. He is happy to worship a God who would damn members of his family. For the longest time I found this to be completely weird and skewed, but after the reflections I have set down in this post concerning the dark night of the soul, I suppose I have uncovered a window into how people like him think.

In the end it is true that John Piper has an amazing, invincible faith and trust in God, just like Abraham did: He is willing to see his sons burn in Hell for eternity if that is what God commands. He does not revel at the thought; he does not take pleasure in the prospect, but nevertheless he has come to an acceptance that “if this is what God wants, this is what I will do”. The following quote is representative of his thinking:

“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.

But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”

I used to read this and be completely appalled. How could he be so unloving towards his sons? And yet… now I see where he is coming from. He is just like Abraham, standing on the mountain with the knife raised above his head; ready to bring it down and plunge it into Isaac’s heart if only God would give the order. He is not happy about this. He does not take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the sacrifice of his sons. Nevertheless he is willing to follow God anywhere. It is a sobering faith, but it is nevertheless a strong and true faith.

What John Piper does not seem to realise, however, is that the Gospel is “Good news” and as such there is always a happy ending to the tale. While he is to be commended on his strong and invincible faith in the face of the prospect of God sending his children to damnation, he does not have to fear this as if it were a live possibility. God always wants the best for everyone, John Pipers children included. It is admirable to be willing to sacrifice your sons, but it is even more admirable to rest in the confident Gospel Hope that you will never have to do this, for the dark night of the soul always concludes with happiness and joy, and not a bitter-sweet victory of tears, sighing and sadness.

“The night is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is entirely glorious”

dawn-dusk[1]

In summary, we have to be willing to see our closest loved ones eternally damned for the sake of the love of God, however we do not have to fear that God will ever truly demand this of us. We know that there is always a happy ending: no matter how tense it gets; no matter how dark things seem; there will always be an angel swooping in at the last minute to stop us from slitting our sons throats, just as it was with Abraham. God’s demands are intense and exhausting, but Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light: we can always trust that God has our best interests at heart, as well of those of everyone we love; our friends; our families; and even our enemies! God loves everyone without distinction and without exception. This is what we have to keep in mind at all times, for this is the faith that will carry us through the dark night of the soul. When everything seems dark and Satan is tempting us to give up Hope and wallow in despair: remember the unlimited, unconditional salvific will of God and remain steadfast in faith. The reward at the other end of the tunnel is theosis: supreme Joy, the fullness of salvation and eternal satisfaction. Press on for this prize. We have to be prepared to pass through Hell on the way to Heaven; pray that God would give us strength, faith and resolve for the journey. All praise be to Christ the victorious redeemer, who has saved the world, is saving the world, and promises to save the world to come. Amen

Understanding Indulgences

gallery_298_17_65466[1].gifIndulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”

It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.

A Shift in Paradigm

catholic_indulgences_116338[1]An Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.

In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.

However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.

With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”

Indulgence as Promise

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:

  1. God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
  2. God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
  3. God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.

Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.

It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.

Indulgences and Sacraments

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.

This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.

“Earning” Indulgences?

get-out-of-purgatory[1]Similarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.

To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.

The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.

To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.

The Final Assault of Satan

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.

The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.

In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.

Penance is Supererogatory

self-flagellation[1].jpgSomeone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.

An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.

Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.

God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?

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