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SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

The Novels That Changed My Life

June 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Conversion, Paul McCusker

Life, As I Find It

I was raised to be a church-going boy. My formative years were spent as a Baptist where weekly doses of Gospel preaching and Bible teaching told me everything I needed to know about accepting Jesus into my heart. Yet, for all of the sermons and studies and Bible reading, it was a novel that made the Truth real to me: The Greatest Story Ever Told by Fulton Oursler.

Unlike a lot of Protestants, I can’t pinpoint a date when it happened. But I remember vividly reading Oursler’s book one evening in my bedroom and reached the part about the Crucifixion. The potency of the drama took hold of me and I knew I was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. So I knelt next to my bed and asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins. That was a pivot-point in my spiritual journey.  From there I desired to go deeper in my life with Christ.

Over 20 years later, after struggling with the “Seeker-style” of worship that dominated Evangelicalism, I encountered “High Church” Anglican liturgy while living in England. That liturgy helped me realize I had been looking for something more than a 7-11 spirituality: I wanted transcendence in my spiritual life. The liturgy pointed me in that direction. And a series of novels about the Church of England by novelist Susan Howatch – beginning with Glittering Images – helped me to understand the dynamic of Anglicanism more than most academic efforts. They weren’t Public-Relations stories at all. On the contrary, they showed the flawed humanness of Henry VIII’s creation five hundred years later. Yet, in many ways, those novels helped prepare me for what would happen next.

Several years ago the Anglican Communion in general, and the U.S. Episcopal Church in particular, began to implode. Amidst the debates, I found myself asking a very basic question: “Who has the authority to interpret Scripture and establish doctrine?” I’d never asked it before. Somehow I had assumed I knew the answer as a Baptist and carried that with me into my Anglicanism – with a modified version that allowed for Anglican tradition as an extension of whatever I assumed my answer had been. But there is was – an obvious question I had never really asked. So a new journey began.

I had no desire to quit Anglicanism, nor was I looking to become something else. Certainly not a Catholic. I figured the answer to the question could easily be found within solid Protestant theology somewhere. By this time I had become friends with Father John Bartunek and he introduced me to the writings of John Henry Newman.

It will seem strange to many that Newman’s non-fiction writing, while meaningful, didn’t impact me as much as one of his obscure novels. Loss And Gain: The Story of a Convert was a semi-autobiographical effort. Father John recommended it to me with the proviso that it was a novel that “shouldn’t work” because it was too didactic, but he wanted to know what I thought of it anyway. Clever fellow.

The novel seemed to capture everything I was thinking and feeling. I saw myself in Newman’s protagonist and his own struggles. And then the unfathomable became fathomable. The die-hard Baptist boy – the dedicated Anglican – moved towards Roman Catholicism. All because of a story that shouldn’t have worked.

Little wonder, then, that Jesus told as many stories as He did. Pastor Eugene Peterson called Jesus’ parables “time-bombs” – planted in the hearts of His listeners under the guise of “Once upon a time…” And the defenses of His listeners went down because everyone loves a good story. But later, when they’re least expecting it, the bomb went off and Truth exploded into their hearts and minds.

As one who writes stories for a living, I shouldn’t be surprised that stories impacted my life as much as anything to bring me to the Truth. Yet I still am. The power of Story to reach past barriers and into the nooks and crannies of the heart is still a mystery to me, one that I relish contemplating again and again. The wonder of it all.

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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • LizEst

    Thanks for sharing with us the story of the novels that changed your life, Paul. Since we are all part of the RCSD family, I’d also be interested in the story of how you became friends with Fr. Bartunek!

  • In the service of God

    Hi Paul,
    I have read many of your posts on here, and I have a friend who has recently been open to Catholicism, she is Anglican. She became aware of our belief of the Immaculate Conception and of Purgatory, and I was wondering if you had any thing that was difficult for you to accept when you first became interested in the Church, and how you overcame it?

    • Paul McCusker

      Thanks for the question. Unlike some who’ve come to the Catholic Church from Protestantism, I didn’t actually have a shopping list of “issues” that I had to overcome. I put everything onto a single question: who has the Authority to interpret Scripture and establish doctrine? The answer to that question would determine everything for me. When I concluded that it was Apostles and their successors, as continued through the Catholic Church, then I determined that I would “embrace all I can and accept what I cannot embrace.”

      For me, if the Apostles have Christ’s authority about interpretation and doctrine, then it’s not for me to pick-and-choose. I’m either in or out. It was all or nothing. And, to be honest, I expected to feel uncomfortable with some of the doctrines because of my years as a staunch Protestant. It surprised me how relaxed I felt about them. Mary, Purgatory, and the like, weren’t issues. (I don’t mean to sound stupidly simplistic, but it’s kind of like committing to marry someone while nit-picking through the vows. Some people may be able to do that. I’m not one of them.)

  • frtrue75@att.net

    Dear Paul: Thanks for your comments. I was interested in your reference to Susan Howich’s Church of England novels because it was in these stories that I was introducted to the rooms of inner spirituality. I read Glimmering Images years ago and read through Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, and the last novel Absolute Powers over a two year period. I was especially drawn to the quotes by Austin Farrer scattered throughout the stories. It was through these novels that I became aware of the value of spiritual direction. I pray others may find comfort and enlightenment in these stories. Thanks for your comments. God bless you.

    • Paul McCusker

      You and I share the same experience, frtrue75. Susan Howatch’s books opened my eyes to the same things. It also made me aware of the many “streams” of spirituality (and theology) weaving its way through the Anglican tradition – both good and bad. Another formative work of art was a play called “Racing Demon” by David Hare. I don’t believe Hare was an Anglican, but he seemed to capture the spiritual tension in Anglicanism really well.

  • I’m with LizEst, Paul. I want to hear the story of how you became friends of Fr. Bartunek. Do tell.

    • LizEst

      Maryellen – Paul posted a response to this above. Check it out.

    • Thanks for the heads up, LizEst. I was happy to read his response.

  • Janet

    I credit Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain with starting my journey home from Methodism.

  • Paul McCusker

    To briefly answer a handful of questions about my relationship with Father John Bartunek: several years ago he wrote a book called “Inside The Passion,” which was his analysis of the film based on the “inside track” he had during its making. He was in on a lot of the post-production, to observe Mel Gibson’s process and artistic vision for the film. The book was published and Fr John came with a press agent to Focus on the Family to gauge its interest in the effort. (You may remember that Focus on the Family was an early advocate for the movie and did a radio program with Mel Gibson to promote it.) I was in charge of the area that handled questions about outside products and met with Fr John. At the time, I had just begun my exploration of the Ancient Church and considered this sudden encounter with a priest rather curious, in a Providential way. Initially we were supposed to have a single meeting together, but that spilled into lunch, then continued into the afternoon and dinner. I was struck by his warmth, openness, articulation of the faith, insights and, mostly, his holiness. We became friends. He played a vital part in my journey to the Church, as you can tell by these posts. (There’s a lot more I could say, but I know he’ll protest.) That’s the short version 🙂

    • LizEst

      Thank you for kindly sharing with us. It sounds like a very blessed meeting and subsequent friendship…and it certainly has been a blessing for us that you are here at RCSD.

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