October 24, 2013 by eneubauer
Since becoming Catholic I have spent time sharing my journey home from different perspectives. Today I want to share a truly unique aspect of my journey from being a Protestant Pastor & Missionary to becoming a Catholic writer, speaker and pilgrimage leader (while working hard at my home parish). Therefore, I have asked Shawn Small to contribute his view of my journey home.
Here is my story from Shawn Small’s perspective:
“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.”
The sudden burst of song echoing off church walls in the dead silence caused me to jump. It was 4:15 A.M. and I had fallen asleep again on the hard pew. I roused myself awake by concentrating on the twelve white-robed brothers as they stood up and gathered in front of a lone candle in the middle of the church. Monk shadows appeared on the walls of the sanctuary.
Their final song was a little more than a whisper, but less than a hymn.
“One light burning to the break of day: You whose vigil is deed and signal- Bond and service of lives afar, seek in seeing your own blind being, peace, remote in the Morning Star.”
As Vigils came to an end, I was both exhausted and invigorated. For the next twenty-four hours, I joined the Cistercian brothers of Caldey Island, off the south coast of Wales, seven more times for hymns, prayers, adoration and worship. That day was the spiritual highlight of a summer of pilgrimages and the most physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging process I had walked through that year.
I walked back in the pitch darkness of the island to the guest house for two more hours of sleep before Lauds. As I meandered back, I began to pray for my friend Eric Neubauer. I thought aloud, “Man alive, Eric would love this.” My voice, the only sound on the island, scared some sleeping doves, who in turn startled me as they took flight.
A few years ago, Eric, a protestant pastor at the time, began to sense a call to the Catholic Church. His journey toward Catholicism began as he led a mission trip in Honduras for my organization, Wonder Voyage. We were working with both the Capuchin Brothers and the Missionaries of Charity in Comayagua. Both Orders have significant works amongst Honduras’ poorest and most marginalized citizens. During that trip, Eric had several important conversations with both the Brothers and the Sisters, and these conversations launched his spiritual journey of discovery.
Today, Eric is a graduate of Catholic seminary and the Director of Pastoral Ministries at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Dallas. My friend is Catholic through and through. As Eric likes to say, “I have returned home to the Catholic Church.” And his zeal for God, the Church, and the gospel is more fervent now than at any other point in his life.
Eric says that part of his journey toward the Catholic Church was my fault. That begs the question: How did I, a protestant minister, encourage Eric to pursue Catholicism? And why am I so happy he has found his way home?
I was raised in a non-religious home with minimal exposure to Christianity; however, as a teenager, I found myself on a journey. I wanted to know if truth, in the spiritual sense, existed. Throughout my high school years, I looked into a multitude of various religious thoughts. When I was seventeen, I visited an Assembly of God church.
That Sunday morning the sermon focused on the Incarnation. I had already come to the conclusion that all religions were nothing more than a complex set of rules that one had to excel in to get close to God. I had also come to the conclusion that those rules were desperately useless. How could any man reach the Creator of the Universe with a set of rules?
During that sermon, the minister reiterated these truths. He then expressed how the Incarnation was the answer to the religious dilemma. Man can never reach God, but God can certainly reach man. Through Christ, God showed us the impossibility of our tactics to reach Him, and He shared the good news that He was reaching for us. Without Christ, I was a broken, lost man; however, Christ’s perfect sacrifice allowed me to approach God.
As my mind was satisfied with the answer I had been longing for, my heart was rent. That morning I became a Christian, and by default, a Protestant.
Feeling a call to ministry, I attended seminary and was ordained. Over the next ten years, I served as the youth minister in two hyper-evangelical churches. One of those, a mega-church in Dallas, Texas, taught me how far you can travel with a lot of religious zeal and a small amount of theological stability. The church had a dynamic charismatic preacher with a “name it and claim it” theology, who built the church to 8,000 members in weekly attendance. But this preacher also ran the whole church, absolutely. His minimal accountability and absolute power led to his eventual downfall. I left the church as he announced he was leaving his wife and was adopting an even more radical (and heretical) theology. Within three years of his “announcement”, the church was gone.
After leaving the mega-church, I was hired on at a small congregation. But the problems were still the same: a hyper-evangelical, charismatic leader with minimal accountability. With only 300 people in the congregation, I was able to think clearly, and I began to wrestle with my theological and eschatological misgivings. By year five, I resigned from the church and took a year-long sabbatical.
I felt like a foreigner in the world of Christianity, a man without a home. My search began anew. I had to find a foundation for my faith.
During my sabbatical, I started a Masters in Church History, which led to reading a heavy dose of the Church Fathers. Suddenly, I was studying theological writings that were connecting my heart to my mind. That led me to visit with a priest at the local Greek Orthodox Church. After an hour, Father Antony had answered many of my theological misgivings.
For the next year, I met with him regularly for spiritual direction. My heart settled into
Orthodox theology. Along with a plethora of other changes, my greatest theological shift came in the way I viewed the Eucharist. For the first thirteen years of my Christian faith, my worship experience was “pulpit-centric”. Church services were rated on the strength of the sermon. Now my worship was “Eucharist-centric”. The sermon may be great or it may stink, but in the end we gathered at the Lord’s Table to partake of His Body and Blood. At that moment, Christ was present. Please understand that this was a radical change in the way I viewed Christianity. And that truth transformed my entire Christian journey.
I started Wonder Voyage, an organization dedicated to the ancient practice of pilgrimage. I began to base many of my trips out of Catholic monasteries around the world. My relationship with the Catholic community became deep and significant. The liturgical experience became a vital component of my spiritual journey. I started praying the rosary. I took on spiritual discipline. I even wrote an award-winning book on the Stations of the Cross.
Orthodoxy and Catholicism continue to influence my theology and worship practices. Although I have not joined the Orthodox or Catholic Church, I remain open to the possibility. At present, I do have a local church home; however, in a sense, I remain a wandering-liturgical-Eucharistic-centric-miracle-believing-orthodox-ecumenical-Christ-following-pilgrim who encourages others to pursue their way home, wherever that may be in the Body of Christ.
Who knows, maybe I will eventually find my way home.