About ten years ago, I was a confused, libertarian, atheist college freshman, and I was about to embark on a revolution – first downward towards Hell and then upwards towards Heaven. As a complacent atheist who grew up in New England and was surrounded by other complacent atheists, I had never had the existence of God explained in any rational way. It was not until college that someone had challenged my beliefs at a deep level. However, the debate over God actually took place as a debate over trans fats.
A ban was being proposed in New York City, and I thought it an injustice in the highest degree! My logic seemed simple: it is wrong to prevent by law a voluntary exchange of goods. As long as an agreement is voluntary, a third party cannot obfuscate it. Looking back, it is a silly position for more reasons than can be counted, but at the time, it had as much psychological force as the existence of God has to me now. But unlike God, my proposition had no explanatory power. My interlocutor repeatedly asked me, “But why is it wrong to prevent a free trade?” I would reply, “It simply is.” And he would reply, “Why?” And we would go back and forth in this hopeless argument until a break was needed, after which we might resume the argument again.
Eventually, during the hundreds of “Whys” that were lobbed like grenades in my direction, one finally hit me. I finally asked myself, “Why?” And it was almost as if that “why” undid my entire certainty of reality. With that “why,” I realized I had no reason to think anything I thought, and even to act in any way I acted. A sudden skepticism took over my mind, forced upon myself by my own reason, and I saw that my atheistic logic meant nihilism. Now, for someone who seriously considers this nihilism, it is not something liberating and exhilarating; rather, it is draining. It feels like mental death.
At the same time as my atheism was driving me into depths of nihilism, I was meeting intelligent Christians, with real arguments and real zeal. By a sort of blind instinct (that sort of instinct that only upon later reflection one sees is the Holy Ghost), I knew truth was either to be found in nihilism (and the psychological hell that logically followed from it) or in this strange creed. Reality was either hell or it was God born in a cave on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Soon, each of these sides took on historical proportions. It was either modernity or what had come before; it was either kings, priests, and peasants or it was Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. There is no middle way.
I had seen philosophical hell, even if I did not yet believe in theological hell, and I knew that if what I had seen was not reality, then reality must be a strange and powerful enough thing to confront all the fallen angels of modernity. If this age insisted against dogma, it must be dogma that saves souls. I had a choice to make. The entire world urged me on in my atheism, but in a sort of terror, I saw what the world didn’t see. I saw the hell that lay on the path I was supposed to follow. I knew no way of proving to myself that the alternative – God – was reasonable, since I had already doubted my faculty of reason. It had to be mere choice; I had to choose God or nothing and see what happened.
And after I made my choice, I found what seemed sufficiently strange to be that which takes a stand against the devils of modernity: a conservative, Presbyterian church. I was baptized, read the scriptures, joined protestant Bible studies, and became a happy and zealous protestant. Yet, something was missing, for the creed that I believed was invented by modern men, Luther and Calvin. I had subscribed to the nominalist revolution of the 14th century without realizing it, and I had not rejected modernity but simply chosen a very old time within modernity and declared, “This will do.”
Very soon, I realized that this will not do. The medievalist within me began reading and studying, and out from behind the quaint Presbyterian church rose into the landscape the towering Eternal Rome. The Church Fathers, G. K. Chesterton, and Our Lady of Fatima led me Home, and I embraced the Church as if I had, after years of chasing after her shadows, finally found my Mother. In her saints, her liturgy, her dogma, her popes, and her piety, I found the antidote for modernity.
Finally, a few months after having entered the Church on the Easter Vigil of 2012, a friend brought me to a traditional Latin Mass at St. Boniface in Pittsburgh. Now, we have all experienced “aha!” moments that last a few seconds, or sometimes even a minute or two.
This “aha!” moment lasted three days.
I was dazed, and my poor Catholic roommate got to hear all of my sudden revelations. In the traditional Mass, I finally experienced a complete and total rejection of every error of modernity, but more than that, a transcendent affirmation of all that is good, true, and beautiful. All evil was rejected in that Mass, and all good affirmed. I still, to this day, have a sense of peace after a traditional Mass that I can find nowhere else in this world. Everywhere, we see the effects of Ockham, Descartes, Luther, Calvin, Hume, Kant, Sartre, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and the rest of messengers of modernity. All has been affected; even the Church has not survived unscathed from the twentieth century.
But, this Mass was like a miracle, preserved against all odds out of a shipwreck. One can smell the incense and breathe like saints breathed. One can read the beautiful introits and think like the saints thought. One can bow one’s head during the silent canon and pray like the saints prayed. One can forget for a short time the horrors that have assaulted the West and have destroyed Christendom, for during these solemn minutes one prays with St. Benedict even as night closes once more on Christendom. During this Mass, I found what I had longed for. I found where Heaven descended and came to rest, driving out the world.
I do not write this simply to tell my own story, but because there are millions of young atheists (and protestants) who, if they are going to come to the Faith, are going to come because it represents the only cure for a deadly disease. Woe to us if we tell them we have diluted the cure to make it less painful! Woe to us if we think we need to affirm their hell in order to secure their conversion! We need to have the humility to recognize courage in these lost souls; it is revolution they seek, not peace. If they choose to join the revolutionists and march beneath our banner, they will be more than happy to rush to the front lines. Our task is not to build a bridge between modern man and the rest of Christendom, but to encourage him to make the terrifying leap, and it is the Holy Ghost who will infallibly land his feet on the other side.
Let’s give modern man the one thing that might entice him to make this daring leap. Let’s give him Christendom and the Mass that forged it. Let’s give him the Mass of the Church Militant, so he can be the soldier that he longs to be. Let’s give him the Mass that is masculine, so that he (or she) can revel in that interplay and communion of genders that modernity insists to be in conflict. Let’s give him the Mass in the sacred tongue of the Church, since he wants something serious and is willing to worship God especially when it requires skill, diligence, and learning.
In Chesterton’s ingenious novel, The Ball and the Cross, an atheist and a Catholic adventure around England in order to duel over an insult given by the atheist to the Mother of God. All of Britain is awakened against them, and they are chased by the police across the island in search of a place to fight their duel. A young, aristocratic, modern woman, searching for “a way out” of modernity, goes out of her way to help these outlaws. When pushed for a reason why, she explains,
“But I may be wrong; there may be a way out. And for one stark, insane second, I felt that, after all, you had got the way out and that was why the world hated you. You see, if there were a way out, it would be sure to be something that looked very queer.”
The modern mind might not be always ripe for conversion, but when it happens, it will be not a reformation, but a revolution. Let us give him the ancient Mass, which was once a sign of order, but is now a sign of revolt. Countless modern men and women peer across the cultural landscape searching for “a way out.” They have tried dozens of solutions, and they have learned that the familiar cannot save. Let us give them the unfamiliar, the sign of contradiction, the cross. Let us give them the Mass of the Revolution, the liturgy of the God who stepped into his own creation as a rebel against the false prince of this world. Now, more than ever, the false prince rules in his territory. Now, more than ever, is the Mass of the Revolution is needed.
In every traditional Mass that is celebrated, Eternal Rome cries out to modern men,
“Courage, you who wander in search of a way out! You can hold nothing back from Christ. Here, you see it. You see that this is the definitive split with the world that you must make if you are to cling to eternity. You see it, somewhere in some corner of your heart, you see it. Take courage and come take part in this Sacrifice of the Revolution. The choice is yours. Come join the strange company of the saints and the even stranger company of God.
“You have a seat between the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, the passion of St. Francis, and fierce eyes of St. Pio. Together you can peer into mysteries unthinkable as the priest elevates the chalice towards the Eschaton, the servers drawing back his chasuble, the angels on either side of the altar adoring the Incarnate Christ, and the faithful with eyes wide open. Surely this Mass is beyond you, surely it is incomprehensible, foreign and strange, but, you see, it must be so. For it is Christ come into His Kingdom as a rebel. Rejoice that you are owls in the daylight, not because you ought to be blind, but because you are meant to see – and how glorious that must be!”
Originally published on June 11, 2015. This article has been updated.
Carl Wolk lives in Wisconsin with his wife and children. He entered the Catholic Church on Easter 2012, a convert from Calvinism and before that, atheism. He has a B.A. in Medieval and Renaissance Studies from Washington and Lee University, and an M.A. in Theology from the Dominican House of Studies in DC. He is the Upper School Dean at Providence Academy in La Crosse, WI, where he teaches theology and philosophy.