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The Rose Window & The Labyrinth
Why believe in God? Because He is light shining through the icon of the world
There has been some controversy over a young Republican just elected to Congress, who told a reporter that he had attempted in the past to convert Jews and Muslims to Evangelical Christianity. Some were outraged by this. I think that’s absurd. Christians — especially evangelical Christians — evangelize. So do Muslims. What’s the big deal? As long as one is not trying to coerce me, I see no problem with it, any more than I see a problem with them trying to convince me to join their political party or movement. It’s a free country, after all. They are free to propose, not to impose.
I have had Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses try to evangelize me. I told them politely that I was not interested, but I thanked them for their concern. I meant it too. If I believed what they believed, then I would want to share the good news with everyone. I have had Evangelicals attempt to evangelize me, and I shared the same sentiment with them. No one has ever been rude about it. I seem to recall a Muslim once invited me to talk about his faith with him, but I declined. I have had a couple of Catholics try to talk me into returning to Catholicism, but, same deal.
I have been an engaged Christian for over half my life now, but I have never once tried to evangelize directly. Some people have that gift; I do not. I have not ever been offended when someone tried to share their faith with me, but I have also resisted those conversations. Why? Because fair or not, I have always regarded them as people trying to befriend me for instrumental reasons. They’re not interested in me as I am; they are only interested in me as a potential convert. It’s like they’re trying to secure my vote for Jesus, or something.
Again, I have never held it against them; how else would you evangelize if you didn’t take the risk of coming off that way? But I was also not the slightest bit interested in what they had to say. Had we become friends first, and I had come to trust in their care for me, then I might have been open to hearing them out. Not before, though.
I have shared my faith over the years with strangers, though not in the conventional way. Most of my writing has been, when not directly about Christ, then certainly Christ-haunted. I receive letters with some frequency, asking me about Orthodoxy. I am always happy to tell people what I have found, and how it has changed my life. Is that evangelization? Maybe pre-evangelization; I usually send them to sources who know the theology better than I do, and help them find churches where they can visit, and see how we worship. I suppose, though, that I have tried to live the kind of life that drew me to the Christian faith — a life that shows people what it can mean to be a sinner, a man of many faults, who has nevertheless committed himself to wayfaring as a pilgrim and servant of Jesus Christ. I’m embarrassed to put it that way, because it sounds so pious. But there you are. My stance is not, “Be like me” — that would not be good advice; I know myself too well — but rather, “I’m walking this way, and would love it if you would come with me.”
A reader e-mailed the other day to say he is not a Christian, but asked why I became one. I wish I could find that e-mail to recall precisely what he asked, but I get so much e-mail these days that it’s easy for these things to get lost. I seem to recall that he wasn’t asking me to tell my conversion story (which in any case is familiar to my longtime readers), but rather to say why I think he should become a Christian.
I don’t want to make an apologetic argument. There are many of those, done by people far better at that than I am. The reader’s query has bobbed to the surface in my mind over the past few days, and made me think more deeply about what it was that made me feel that if I was going to live in truth, I had to become a Christian — and not just a Christian, but the kind of Christian I became. What I’ll say here is not intended to be an apologetic, but just some musing on what seized my imagination, and compelled me to convert. I’m not interested in offering propositions and syllogisms. I only want to talk about the core experience that opened my eyes, and then my heart, to God.
It begins in awe. That is the primordial experience of religion: becoming intensely aware of the numinous realm, and one’s need to establish a relationship to it. The novelist Paul Kingsnorth’s wonderful essay, “In The Black Chamber,” about visiting a cave in the Pyrenees with prehistoric paintings, captures this well. A few years ago, Kingsnorth went with his family deep into the mountain, with a guide, to see paintings made by people who lived there 18,000 years ago. Excerpts:
I’m overtaken by a number of emotions as I stand in the Black Chamber, but the one that proves impossible to shake off is a huge sense of awe: a physical sensation that I did not expect and don’t quite know how to handle. It is as if something age-old and darkly powerful has descended from the roof of the cavern and settled in me and will not leave. And as I look at the paintings, and take in the sensations of being in this place, I think that perhaps I begin to understand why people were here. I don’t know what they did, or who they were, but I can feel the power in the place, and it tells me why they might have come here.
It seems obvious to me – and I think the scant evidence bears it out – that whatever happened in the Black Chamber was not driven by utility. Whoever was here, and whatever they were doing, they were forging a connection to something way beyond everyday reality. These paintings are not expressions of economics or natural history. They surely sprung from the same sense of power and smallness and wonder and awe that I feel as I stand in the same place that the artists would have stood. This was a reaching out to, for, something way beyond human comprehension. This was a meeting with the sacred.
Kingsnorth writes that words like “sacred” put him off for ages:
The association with established religions on the one hand and New Age vagueness on the other tended to spur the antibodies of my university-trained mind into action. I was a teenage atheist of whom Richard Dawkins would have been proud, and even now, if I find myself dragged into a church service I am more likely to spend my time looking for green men on the roof beams than listening to the vicar. I kick against obedience and worship and priesthoods. I don’t believe in messiahs or second comings. I don’t like books of rules.
But you can’t approach the numinous with discursive thought, any more than you can solve an algebraic equation through the use of metaphor. ‘Sell your cleverness’, advises the Persian mystic poet Rumi, ‘and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion; bewilderment is intuition.’ It seems like good advice, and when I try to follow it I see these things appear in a subtly different light.
When I saw God, as religions seemed to want me to see God, as an all-seeing supernatural entity with a great personal interest in my life and behaviour, laying down laws, demanding worship and promising me an afterlife in return, I had no interest, and still don’t. I don’t believe it. But when, later, I began to see that perhaps this was a common human interpretation of an experience of something greater than the individual ego – when I began to understand that all religions and all spiritual traditions have their mystics who had interpreted this great spirit, this Dao, this experience of the divine, very differently – then I began to see that perhaps it was something I could understand after all. I began to see that perhaps what some people call God, or the sacred, or the divine, was what I experienced as some power, some strange greatness, immanent in the wild world around me.
In other words, perhaps I do after all understand the perpetual human search for the sacred, whether I can adequately explain it or not, and I think I may know why it still matters, despite my culture’s frantic attempts to convince me otherwise. I have experienced the feelings that charge the concept with so much electricity. It’s just that I have never experienced them in places that people designate as holy.
I, however, did: walking into the medieval cathedral of Chartres, in 1984, aged 17. I have told that story many times, so I won’t repeat it. The point is that I felt overwhelmed by awe. Nothing in my knowledge or experience of the Christian faith had prepared me for the glory of God made manifest in that Gothic cathedral. What did I feel? Not only the glory of God, but the depth and complexity of Him. When I push myself to remember what it was like to stand in the center of the labyrinth in the nave, staring up at the great rose window, all that comes to mind was the sense of standing in the center of the world. Inside the cathedral, I sensed the barrier between the eternal and the temporal thinning. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.
Many years later, when I first read Dante’s memoir Vita Nova (trans. Andrew Frisardi), his description of what came over him the first time he laid eyes on Beatrice rang true to my Chartres epiphany:
At that time, truly, I say, the vital spirit, which dwells in the innermost chamber of the heart, started to tremble so powerfully that its disturbance reached all the way to the slightest of my pulses. And trembling it spoke these words: “Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur michi.” [“Here is a god stronger than I, who comes to rule me.”]
At that time the animal spirit, which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of sensation carry their perceptions, began to marvel, and speaking especially to the spirits of vision it said: “Apparuit iam beatitudo vestra.” [“Your bliss has now appeared.”]
The book to read about Chartres is Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, by journalist Philip Ball. He talks about the sacred geometry of the Cathedral, which makes it a perfect depiction of the medieval cosmos. You might prefer to rent this hour-long documentary about Chartres’ sacred geometry, by Prof. Keith Critchlow. I learned from it that if you lay the western façade (the entrance) down flat, the Rose Window would twin perfectly with the labyrinth on the floor of the nave.
Chartres is like that. Nothing is random. It is all harmony and complexity. You don’t have to understand any of this to be awed by Chartres, but learning it so many years later helped me understand, I think, one reason why it had the effect on me that it did.
You can’t unsee what you have seen, though you can try to forget about it. I did not leave the cathedral that day reconverted, but I did believe after that that God existed, and that He wanted me. And I recall clearly having the thought, standing in the labyrinth, that I wanted to know the God who had inspired these people of the 13th century to raise such a temple to His worship. Those are not the kinds of thoughts that most 17 year olds have. I did not forget them, though heaven knows I tried.
In college, I wrestled with religion, though it was the Christian religion, no other. Why did I set that boundary? Perhaps it was because I had come to believe that God revealed Himself to me in a medieval Catholic cathedral. Surely it was also because Christianity is my cultural inheritance. The truth is, none of us have enough time to enter fully into all the religions of the world, and sort out which one makes the most sense to us. Besides, that’s not how you meet religion. I learned this from reading Kierkegaard in college. Truth is subjectivity, he said, meaning not, as you might think, that truth is relative. Rather, he is saying that the kind of truth that is worth living and dying for can only be known subjectively, with the most passionate inwardness. The implication here is that if God exists, you can’t know Him in the same way that you know a mathematical proof, or the biology of a human cell. You can only know him in the same way you come to know a lover: by giving yourself to Him heart and soul. You make a leap of faith, and hope that He catches you.
I understood after Kierkegaard that if I wanted to know God, then I would have to enter into a committed relationship with Him. I was too restless and immature to do that at the time. If I give up things to be with God, what if something better comes along? It is not a coincidence that I felt the same way about committing to a woman back then. I wanted the psychological comforts of religious faith, without having to sacrifice my freedom. Last night, in this newsletter, I wrote about the mysterious gift of learning freedom through confinement and commitment. I was not willing to receive that back then.
And then, in 1991, working my first journalism job, I met in Baton Rouge an ancient Guatemalan monsignor, Carlos Sanchez. I had gone to see him to profile him for the newspaper, focusing on his early career as a visual artist. Here is my account of what happened that day, and its effect on me.
The power of that old man’s testimony of the miracles that not only brought him back to the faith after atheism, but that also brought him to surrender his life to Christ as a Catholic priest — it changed me. I believed his testimony. The old man wept as if all the things he had experienced half a century ago had happened to him the day before. And he had utterly changed his life because of these things.
I believed that Carlos Sanchez, born in the waning years of the 19th century, literally heard the voice of God. This solidified in me my growing conviction that I should stop running, and surrender. For me, the Catholic Church was the only possibility, too. I knew nothing of Orthodoxy, but because of its apostolic antiquity, because of its sacramental vision, and because my two uncanny experiences of God — at Chartres, and in the monsignor’s retirement apartment — occurred in Catholic settings.
I was received into the Catholic Church in 1993. In 2006, I lost my ability to believe as a Catholic, and entered into the Orthodox Church, which has the same deep sacramental vision and apostolic antiquity, though differs significantly in ecclesiology, and somewhat in theology.
Over the years, I have had a few numinous experiences. Dreams, visions, mystical happenings such as the overwhelming aroma of roses, ecstatic moments in prayer, synchronicities. I have also encountered ghosts and demons. I was speaking recently to a friend who is suffering from demonic possession or obsession, I’m not sure which. She is a Catholic, and is under the care of an exorcist. She told me that she believes absolutely that what the Catholic Church teaches is true because she has lived through how the demons behave when they are confronted with the sacred. When I visited her and her husband last year, I saw this happen as well. When her husband brought out a sacred relic, growly voices emanated from her, cursing, and her face contorted in inhuman ways. I saw this with my own eyes, in New York City. She and her husband have both told me that the only freedom she has known from these things have come through the prayers and rituals of the Church — or to be precise, from the power of God as channeled through them.
I don’t believe these powers are exclusively within the domain of the Catholic Church, but I believe that they do reside most completely within the mystical Body of Christ, and her ordained ministers. I have seen it. At this point, it would be harder for me not to believe in God, and in Jesus Christ, than to believe.
And yet, I still struggle. Lord I believe, help my unbelief. (Mark 9:24). Faith does not give you the kind of certitude that you have when you learn something from a book. Why do I confess Christ, but wrestle to trust Him, and to obey Him? Why do I know that He is who He says He is, yet I do not love Him with all my heart, and I do not do as He commanded, and love my neighbor as myself? Why could those men of the High Middle Ages raise a matchless cathedral for the love of God, but I can’t even raise myself up out of bed early to pray as I should?
I have no answer, other than that dying to oneself takes a lifetime. I would tell the reader who wrote asking why he should become a Christian that first of all, because it’s all true. God is real. Jesus Christ is God incarnate. The material plane is not the whole of reality. There are men and women who have known God in a special way. Saints, we call them; they were not sinless, but yielded, over time, to the refining fire of the Holy Spirit, and became Christ-like — living icons of Him. Others who may not have been of saintly character, but knew Him in another way, testified to the reality of Him through their art (including architecture). These are the ways most of us first encounter God. It happened to me at Chartres, and it happened to me in the presence of the old holy man Carlos Sanchez. God was there; He came to rule me, not by force, but by love.
That’s why you have to look for Him. He’s not going to compel you to believe. He’s also unlikely to come as you expect Him to. Don’t be the kind of person who says, “If God is real, then [He must do this thing, or behave this way].” Who are you to tell the Creator of the Universe how to approach you? Humility is the only way forward. For so long I wanted God, but only on my own terms. I wanted a God I could fit in a box, and take out when I needed Him. But that is not God, and never can be. Strive as hard as you can to be honest with yourself about your search. Are you looking for God, or for a cosmic butler? One of the most unnerving stories in the New Testament is when the Rich Young Ruler comes to Jesus, and asks what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus says, “Sell all you have and give to the poor, then come follow me.” The Rich Young Ruler goes away sad, because he doesn’t want to do these things. Well, few of us do. Why do you think I believe, but still struggle? This is normal. Conversion is a lifetime of surrender. But it happens first with awe, with learning to see.
I photographed just now the only image I have of Monsignor Sanchez. It was taken by my late photographer friend, Miriam Jeurissen, in the early 1990s, when she visited me here in Baton Rouge. A cleaning lady once sprayed Windex directly onto the frame. It seeped around the corner and damaged the photo. I can’t remove it now without tearing it. But I photographed it just now anyway, despite the glare from the glass, and I noticed that my own face was merging in the reflection with Monsignor Sanchez’s. It made me think of the Chartres Rose Window pairing with the Labyrinth. It made me smile. Anything good I do as a Christian is thanks to the good news that God allowed me to see in the face of that dear old man, who changed my life.
One more bit: remember Paul Kingsnorth, whose visit to the Grotto at Niaux in the Pyrenees awakened in him a sense of the sacred? If you read my recent interview with him, you’ll know that he has been on a quest for God for the past decade or so. He has been shocked this year to discover that he is moving towards the ancestral faith he had never held: Christianity. This is Paul’s story to tell, but I can at least say that after he and I began corresponding with each other about faith, and I urged him to read Kyriacos Markides’s 2002 book The Mountain Of Silence, about the search for Orthodox spirituality, Paul discovered that there is a new Orthodox women’s monastery not far from his farmhouse in rural Ireland. He has been visiting there, and loves the nuns. Who knows what is going to happen for him next?
One of the most thrilling things to me about walking the Christian way is the surprising turns in the pilgrim trail. You meet the most interesting people on the journey. But the journey really does begin with that first step, that leap into the dark.
I’ve been getting a lot of good advice from you readers about the things you would like to see in this Daily Dreher newsletter. This one was especially on point:
I'm enjoying the newsletter so far. I think you should explore some encouraging subjects in your newsletter. Your TAC column is largely negative. It's all doom and gloom and apocalyptic visions of the future. Why don't you find islands of peace and happiness in this world and write about them? There are lots of solid people and communities out there who go on living their lives regardless of the larger events in the world. The Amish come to mind. They keep living their simple lives in spite of the changes going on around them.
You could find people trying to live the Benedict Option and report on their progress.
You could find some living saints doing God's work in the world. I'm sure there are other Mother Teresas out there that none of us have heard about.
You could find good priests and pastors and lay people out there doing great things and tell their stories.
What this world needs is role models. People are hungry for someone to show them how to live in peace and love other people in a world that tells them they have to hate everyone who disagrees with them politically. This world desperately needs a new Fred Rogers.
The internet is drowning in vitriol and alarmism already. Lots of us are looking for a reprieve from that madness. We want something that makes us feel good for a change and encourages us to be better people. Times will surely be difficult up ahead. We need to figure out how to thrive despite the chaos and how to keep our sense of humor and love for our fellow man. It's easy to be down on everything. It's easy to point out problems. It's a lot more challenging to encourage people and find light in the darkness.
Thanks for this. I will do my best. I am not a roving reporter, so it’s harder to find things like this to write about than it is to find bad news, which is always near to hand. But that’s something I can work harder at. This letter helps me understand why it’s important for me to do this Substack. The news blog I write really is doomy-gloomy, and it’s hard to switch gears and write about the things that give me hope, despite it all. Those are all much quieter things. The newspapers write about floods, but not about the river staying peaceably within its banks, because that is what news is: when the natural order of things goes awry. But it’s also news when the natural order of things is thrown off by miracles, and by holiness. And the deep harmony and beauty of the world, the kind of thing that requires patience and humility to perceive — when you see it, it testifies to a greater and truer reality than chaos and pain.
As I write this, my old dog Roscoe is lying beside me on the couch. He is breaking down. His hips are so weak now that he can no longer jump up. In the next few months, we will probably have to make the decision to put him down, out of mercy. How can I speak of the beauty of my time with this dying old dog? How can I write of the love I feel for this little black foundling who came to us as an older puppy who had been abused, and whom we rescued? Can I talk of the bright sadness in this long goodbye? Yes, I can, and I need to find a way to do that kind of thing. Thanks for pushing me, people.