My Efforts in the Monastery
During my childhood I often heard it said that one of the best ways to escape from eternal hell was to enter a monastery. I decided to follow that advice.
Monastic life is meant to cultivate strong will power and make one capable of controlling all passions and lusts. In my monastery, various forms of bodily torture were employed to achieve such will power. We scourged ourselves several times a week, lashing our naked bodies with knotted cords. Despite the great pain, we were told that if we could endure such whipping calmly, we would receive strength to resist every kind of sensual and sexual urge. We were also told that by scourging ourselves we could atone for sins we had already committed and so shorten future punishment in Purgatory. Around our waists, thighs and arms we wore penitence chains on which were spikes which dug into our flesh. There were also many other kinds of "bodily chastisement."
Along with self-inflicted punishments, we had other kinds of humbling exercises designed to extinguish our pride and vanity. In one of these routines a priest had to lie on the floor across a doorway so that other priests would tread on him as they went by. Whenever I did this I felt like a worm upon which people trod, but I thought that God must be very pleased with me for such a voluntary self-humiliation.
The worst humiliation included licking an area of the floor clean with our tongues. Doing this made me feel like an animal, like a pig wallowing in the mire or a dog sniffing around. Sometimes I even felt like an insect creeping in the dust.
But however I punished and humiliated myself, I could not detect any change or improvement in my character or behavior. I only discovered that my weak and sinful nature was very much alive. For example, when I licked the floor clean with my tongue, it was just then that the strongest feelings of vanity and pride rose up in me. What a wonderful chap you are, I would think. What will power you must have. You inflict such painful humiliations upon yourself. How wonderful! I realized that by these absurd practices I was only inflating myself with pride. The monastery is a sublime effort that is doomed to fail. Why? Because the priest or monk takes his sinful nature along with him into the cell.
My Attempt to Reach God by Mysticism
During the novitiate years, in addition to our attempt to gain the victory over the body with its passions by means of asceticism, we also applied ourselves to the practice of prayer. This was called the cultivation of the spiritual, or inner, life. Its purpose was to bring about an increasing intensity in our uninterrupted contact with God, Jesus Christ and Mary. Our highest goal was the attainment of true mysticism.
During my novitiate I never experienced this desired mysticism. Consequently I thought the practice of prayer very difficult. We were shown a few methods to pass the time of meditation well. In the evenings, pious reflections on our Lord's passion written by one author or another were read aloud to us. We were to ask questions such as the following: Who is suffering? What does He suffer? Why? For whom? The answers to these questions were intended to induce acts of repentance of for our sins and acts of faith, hope, and love, as we were to make up our minds to lead better lives.
Usually I was prompt with the answers to these questions, and then my imagination wandered away out of the chapel. Also, I thought the reflections of Roman Catholic authors upon Christ's suffering quite poor. They were thoughts that had been worked out by men who had colored and molded them in conformity to their own emotional life. They never could hold my attention for long.
One day in 1940 the idea occurred to me: Why not take the Bible? In it you will not find the thoughts of men, but of God Himself. Our monastic rules, however, required us to listen to what was being read to us during meditations. We were not to read the Bible on those occasions unless granted permission. That permission was given me.
My Provisional Use of the Bible
From that time everything became quite different. Meditation no longer caused me mental fatigue as before. I began to enjoy it; the very thought that I now had to do with the infallible Word of God made me happy. I knew I entered holy ground. My imagination would lovingly rejoice in the biblical text. I would turn it about again and again, and tremble before the blazing fire of God's presence in its sentences. And I would be profoundly moved by the love of the Father Who bent over me in His words. I preferred above all else to meditate on the story of the Passion. Every sentence revealed something of the greatness of the suffering soul of Jesus. He rose before me in His glory, His mercy, His purity, and His peace.
Jesus was no longer a coldly intellectual idea, no longer the effeminate and characterless doll at which for so long I had been obliged to look in countless pictures. There was now a bond between Him and me, between soul and soul — Oh yes, between two souls,but not yet between two persons. That was to be later on, when I knew Jesus through the pure Gospel as my personal, perfect and only Savior.
I Had No Assurance Of Salvation
What remains as the chief obstruction to this kind of personal union is the doctrine of the possible forfeiture of grace. While I was lost in the loving contemplation of the triune God, or of Jesus Christ, the thought suddenly would assail me from another quarter: But this same God, this same Jesus Christ, with Whom you now know you are in the closest union, may perhaps one day reject you, saying, "Get thee hence, damned soul, into the everlasting fire!" To be sure, I knew this condemnation would be of my deserving on account of my sins. And the very possibility of God and myself hating each other eternally disturbed my pure relation to Him.
I Try To Relate To Mary
Another obstacle to perfect love of Christ is the worship of Mary. According to Roman Catholic doctrine, devotion to Mary is the best means for bringing about perseverance. A child of Mary will never be lost. This assertion is repeated continually from the pulpit. And the implication is that anyone who is not a true child of Mary runs the great risk of being consigned to Hell.
In spite of all my efforts, I never succeeded in developing great affection for Mary. To me, she remained a creature, a woman, although exalted and "blessed among women." But I was unable to detect anything divine in her. I failed to place her in my life. My prayers to her were always somewhat restrained. I could not be silently immersed in her. Yet this failure on my part to develop a profound devotion to Mary greatly troubled me.
When in my meditation I surrendered wholly to the contemplation of Jesus Christ, it would suddenly occur to me that I rarely prayed to Mary. I therefore feared that one-day I would be separated forever from Jesus Christ. Then turning nervously to the mediatrix of all grace, I implored her to save me from eternal damnation. And when I thought that I had paid enough attention to her, I returned at once to Christ, to the Christ as He had revealed Himself in the Holy Word of God.
Later I sought to discover something divine in Mary. I thought I could find in her the eternal, passive, pristine basis of things, and the feminine, receptive, productive principle manifest in the entire creation, in contrast to the masculine, active and creative principle. Thus I hoped to establish a kind of mystic bond with her which might facilitate my prayer to her. But this search led me into a sea of paganism.
My Biggest Problem: Rome's Claim to Have the Final Word
Another stumbling block to perfect communion with Christ was the doctrine declaring that the pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church are the highest and the ultimate source of the knowledge of God's revelation. Whichever way one views it, this doctrine reduces the Bible to a second-rate book in Roman Catholic eyes. No papal admonitions to believers to read their Bibles often can alter that fact. A Roman Catholic, therefore, never can devote himself fully to meditating upon the Bible. The deeper meanings of the divine Word, which he is convinced he must infer from it, are always surrounded by a multitude of questions. If the Church has made some pronouncements on the matter, the Catholic must relinquish his own conviction as to what the Scriptures say and conform to the view of the Church. It would be more consistent, therefore, with the Church's position if the pronouncements of Popes and councils were given to Roman Catholic people for more careful consideration. But this would create a problem in that these pronouncements are often very abstract and scholarly. They cannot bear comparison with the living Word of God. They embody a dry, doctrinal scheme. Besides, though such pronouncements are held to be infallible, they are not the Word of God Himself, even according to Rome.
They remain human utterances, although Rome claims that through the Holy Spirit, they contain no error! The result is that these pronouncements lack the direct appeal that the Bible has. It is not God Who speaks to man directly in them. They remain merely the interpretation of the divine Word, even in Rome's eyes.
The Bible in the Shadow of Rome
Thus the Roman Catholic Church labors under the ambiguity of a Bible that cannot give any certainty and the pronouncements of the Church which lack life. It exhorts its members to read the Bible, though such reading can lead to nothing. The Bible never can have the central and prominent position which it has with Biblical Christians. Sustained propaganda may be conducive to a temporary revival of Bible reading among Roman Catholics, but in the long run it will subside. Who will continue to read a second-rate book which cannot give absolute certainty, and do so day after day and year after year? Besides, it is a book that brings along with it the risk of doubting the doctrines of one's own Church, which doubt amounts to a capital sin and might spell eternal damnation.
All these difficulties were met and overcome by the Biblical doctrines of salvation by "grace only" through "faith only" on the authority of the "Bible only"—the teaching of the Reformation. This is the reason that the Reformed doctrine is excellently suited to make possible the genuine revival of the soul of man. Man is saved through faith only — faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior.
True Spiritual Union
Union with God is in its essence dependence on the Totally-Other; it is an interpersonal relationship. Nature based search cannot be true union, even though it experiences the Totally-Other behind the changing phenomena. A naturalist perceives something of the beautiful divine garment, and may point out God's footprints in the creation. He may attain to a certain kind of ecstasy, an exodus from the narrow limits of his little self. He may break through the oppressive earthly forms and enter the realm of the incorruptible behind the form of this world. Panoramas of goodness, truth and beauty may be disclosed to him. But he cannot grasp the essence of true union, namely the personal bond with God, even though theoretically he makes confession of the existence of a personal God, the Creator of the universe, who is not to be identified with it but remains apart from it. A naturalist has no experience of true communion with God. There is the question of an absolute bond with the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
True union is not merely a feeling of dependence on the creator; it also implies a sense of dependence on the grace of God. Thus the ring of union with God is made whole. In the awareness of one's creatureliness, his arms reach out to Heaven, his soul yearns for the multicolored light of God, it kneels down in adoration and worship of the majesty of the Eternal, the Limitless; it experiences the innate urge towards the Eternal, the Timeless. But it does not feel the embracing arms of the Father. Sooner or later it is bound to feel at least an uneasy flutter of the heart as it senses the vacuum below. Then the soul has an inkling of the gaping darkness beneath.
A human being with this creaturely awareness may long be ignorant of any feeling of sinfulness. This ignorance is due to his failure to realize that the light playing about his soul is only the reflection of the Divine Light. It is God's robe shimmering over his soul. The doctrine of "faith only," however, gives the soul perfect peace, upwards as well as downwards. According to this doctrine, man's salvation is faith —exclusively based on Jesus Christ in His propitiatory death and in His resurrection from the dead. Trust in Jesus is thus a question of to be or not to be.
To Be Or Not To Be
My reliance on Him is my salvation. That is the reason that this faith seizes hold of my deepest being. It is something of my most intimate self. It is the predominant attitude in the whole of my existence, stirring energies within me, straining my whole person in its exclusive direction toward Jesus. Yet this straining is nothing painful, for my faith turns to the merciful love of Jesus and is comforted. Also, the downward doubt is cut off, for it is not my faith in the sincerity of my faith that saved me, but my faith in Jesus. Thus it is as though the soul were torn away from itself. It cannot fail to transcend its own being and linger in the loving contemplation of its Savior. This faith leads one to practice true mysticism; spiritual union with God.
"Grace only" — man is saved by grace alone. He cannot earn heaven. It is God's faithfulness that saves him. "And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:28). By these promises of the Savior, man knows he is perfectly safe in the arms of the Good Shepherd. He knows he will never fall away from the grace of God. God Himself takes our perseverance in hand. God will never relinquish the work of His own hands. There is no longer anything to disturb love; no fear of hell can darken its glow or extinguish its light.
"The Bible only" — only the Bible is the record of the revelation of God. Here is God's revelation of Himself to man in black and white for him to scrutinize at will. It is the pure gift of God to man in search of God.
Truth That Sets You Free
No longer may human traditions make claims upon man. It is true, in the communion of the saints — and this is also valid for the Church, which is the communion of the saints in divine service and has been so through the centuries — a believer may find a great many things that will lead him to a deeper understanding of the Word of God. But the Scriptures will always remain the final court of appeal and the ultimate test of the truth of any doctrine. Therefore, the believer pores over the Bible and listens to its message, praying for the illumination of the Spirit, and there the living God speaks to him and fills his soul with reverence, goodness, and joy.
My Promotion and Doubts
After seven years as a priest I was promoted to be Professor in Philosophy in a Roman Catholic Seminary in Brazil. However, serious doubts had already begun to assail me.
What did I do when such doubts arose? I never entertained them voluntarily. I refused to consider the notion that the doctrine of my Church actually might be wrong. Had I for one moment accepted the real possibility of error in the doctrine of my Church, I would at that moment have been guilty of mortal sin, according to the teaching of Rome.
This absolute prohibition against doubting or questioning the doctrine of the Roman Church is the source of her great strength. Protestants wonder how it is possible for Roman Catholic scholars to study the Scriptures without discovering the pure Gospel. The answer lies in the simple fact that the mind of the Roman Catholic is not free; it is ever under the threat of fire unquenchable should it deviate from Rome. The very instant he even considers as a genuine possibility the idea that the Reformation view of the Bible might be correct, the abyss of rejection opens at his feet. The Roman Catholic is sure that God is ready to speak the words: "Depart from me, ye cursed!"
More than once we were told that we need not be afraid when such doubts assailed our souls. I often discussed them with my spiritual adviser, but his unhesitating advice was invariably, "Your doubts are no reason for you to give up your priestly idea." According to Roman Catholic doctrine, each time one overcomes a doubt, he earns a higher station in heaven. We were advised to say a short prayer in such cases, and to try to think of something else. Later on when the doubt had subsided, we would be able to make a study of the question. But the supposition that Protestantism might be right could come only from the devil we were taught.
Thomastic Doubts Allowed
I have stated that we were forbidden to hold any real doubts about the doctrine of the Church. But it was permissible to have a methodological doubt. Such a doubt was often indulged for didactic purposes. Thomas Aquinas makes a systematic use of it in his Summa Theologica. It consists of positing the correctness of the opposite view for the time being, in order to understand it better and afterwards to refute it more effectively. The same method also is applied to discussions with non-Catholics. A Roman Catholic may pretend to believe that his opponent could be right, but that such an admission might be genuine is really impossible.
My Priestly Duties Increase Doubts
As a priest, the first power given me was the daily celebration of the Mass. While I was whispering, according to Rome, the holy words of consecration, the substances of bread and wine would change into the Body and Blood of the Lord — a daily miracle at my hands! This doctrine of transubstantiation never fascinated me. I felt a certain reluctance to kneel before those external elements. Something in me refused to offer prayers to the Host. A God localized by the forms of bread and wine was against the grain of my deepest religious sentiments. I felt it difficult to lift up my soul to a God Who appeared to me in those dead things. I could not really discover the splendor of the glorified Savior in the Host that I was eating.
Roman Catholic authors are also aware of this difficulty. They never mention "Jesus who is in my stomach," but speak of "Jesus who rests on my heart." Involuntarily they change over in some way to a spiritualization of the formula: "This IS my body!"
And indeed, what is the point in transubstantiation? What use is it to me if Jesus ultimately lands in my stomach in the shape of bread and wine? The truly great thing is my living communion with the Savior. What good is a bodily presence in those forms? They only divert my attention from the glorious shape of my Redeemer. Jesus appears to me through His Word and Spirit. I rest on Him as He reveals Himself in His Gospel.
The doctrine of the magical presence after transubstantiation only frightened me. I felt as if I were standing before a fire which seared me, not a glow that warmed me. There was no question of love. This was why I did not know what to say to Him. I struggled on to the obligatory thanksgiving. I became terrified by all the diversions assailing my imagination. Afterward there often remained a sense of frightening emptiness. Another difficulty for me was the involved character of the theory of transubstantiation. According to Rome, it is not really Jesus who descends body and soul onto the altar. Jesus remains in heaven. The substances of bread and wine change into the substances of the Body and the Blood of Christ. I found great difficulty in addressing Jesus in this reasoned presence. I felt it to be a hindrance when I wanted to turn to Him, for there is not much left of a real physical presence in this way.
Most Protestant theologians teach Jesus' real presence in the Lord's Supper, but they conceive of it in a spiritual way. They do not try to unravel the mystery with cold reason. They are nonetheless certain that Jesus is with us in that supper in order to assure us of His eternal faithfulness and love by means of the signs and seals of bread and wine. Therefore, His holy supper does not frighten by the pure presence of the divine majesty; rather it fills one with a supra-mundane peace.
My Second Power, More Doubts
My second important function as a priest was in the administration of the sacrament of confession. Confession holds a very important place in the structure of Rome's power. To Rome it is a strategic basis of the highest importance. It emphasizes the subjection of the layman to the clergy. In the confessional, the priest is sitting in his judgment seat. The penitent is confessing his weaknesses. He divulges secrets that he would not reveal to anyone else. And it depends upon the priest as to whether or not the penitent will be absolved from his sins. The priest decides for him between heaven and hell.
I will not speak here about the Biblical grounds the Roman Catholic Church adduces in defense of the practice of auricular confession. I would only ask: Is this the "glorious liberty of the children of God?" Is this the blissful salvation of which the Bible speaks in its rapturous praise? Is this the peace proclaimed above Bethlehem? Is there anything here of the picture of the Good Shepherd Who goes to seek the lost sheep in the wilderness and carries it on His shoulders back to the fold? Are not the sheep rather kicked along the path of auricular confession to the so-called sheepfold with the threat of eternal death?
True Confession to God
It is good indeed for a believer who is oppressed by the load of his guilt to seek to confess his sins to God. And there is something fine in his confessing them also to a reliable human being. It may have an elevating effect, and it may comfort him. A man may be so broken-hearted on account of a particular sin that he can hardly believe that his sins have been forgiven. He knows indeed that according to the Bible, there are no limits to the forgiving mercy of Jesus. But it may fortify him when a fellow-believer, a minister or another Christian, affirms this truth explicitly and in a very personal way: "It is for your sins, too, that Christ died." But this is quite a different kind of confession and absolution from that taught by the Roman Catholic Church. I rarely heard anyone in the confessional who had come because he was urged by the need to accuse himself. The great majority came because they had to come. It was a troublesome job which they must tackle if they wanted to escape hell.
I Am Pressed by Truth
At various times I read the Bible and asked myself, "Is my Church really in accord with this book?" In the Bible it is clearly stated that the only mediator between God and man is Jesus Christ, who took away the punishment of sin on Calvary's Cross. My Church, however, taught that there were several mediators, especially Mary, the "mediatrix of all grace." I also began to doubt that God had given to the Pope infallible authority and power to interpret the Bible and that it was the duty of every Christian to accept the Pope's view. Could it be right that the Pope had absolute authority to overrule and restate the plain words of the Bible?
Since it is especially through fear that one's mind is paralyzed and one's thoughts are blurred, how can the intellect work properly if, behind it, there is the threat of deadly sin and hell and if the flames of eternal reprobation force one to a particular conclusion? Critically speaking, the conclusions of an understanding that is forced to operate in such a way are manifestly unreliable. Do what I would, I could not attain to any degree of certainty about Roman Catholic doctrine. At best, I could grant the probability of its truth, but nothing more. I should be lying to myself were I to assert anything beyond that. My subconscious now could no longer succeed in projecting an irrational conviction upon my intellectual uncertainty. I had observed too long the workings of the subconscious. I knew that my conscience would always reproach me with being guilty of self-deceit. And, holding such a view, I could no longer be called a Roman Catholic. The doctrine of my own Church drove me out.
In our textbook, Theologia Maralis, by Aertnijs Damen, XII, No. 323, I had read that a man who obstinately holds that the truths of the faith are doubtful is a downright heretic and, therefore, has lost his faith. In accordance with the adage, "Dubius in fide, infidelis est" (Anyone who doubts his faith is an infidel), I was no longer a Roman Catholic believer. I could only assert doggedly that the Church's arguments for the existence of God's revelation could establish nothing more than a probability. This doggedness did not spring from any rebellious disposition on my part, nor from pride. It was simply a matter of sincerity towards myself. I was confronted with the choice between two ways of life: I could remain a Roman Catholic and go through life as a liar; or I could remain true to my profoundest insights and leave the Church. I chose the latter course. With Luther, I could but say: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise."
Sand Not Rock Was Where I Had Stood
It was a terrible moment when, in all sincerity, I felt obliged to refuse to submit my mind to the doctrinal pronouncements of Rome. Until then, the Roman Catholic Church had been my support, the rock on which I had built my convictions. Now I saw that I had built my house on sand. The waves of honest self-analysis had washed away the sand from under its foundations, the house collapsed, and I was carried along by the flood of despair. Nowhere could I find a support on which to lean. Alone I had to push my way through the undergrowth of many views of life.
With such doubts in my heart I could obviously not remain a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. For me, the living death of the monastery came to an end. I left the life of semblances and shadows for a world of fascinating reality in which I was free to breathe at last. I surrendered my office as professor and left the Roman Catholic Church. I laid aside my priestly cassock, which in tropical Brazil just soaked up the heat, and walked lightly and free in my shirt sleeves. But deep within I still carried the burden of my guilt.
Saved by Grace Alone, Through Faith
Outwardly I was free, but inwardly I was not at rest, for I had lost sight of God completely. I received much help from an evangelical church in Rio de Janeiro—a local church where the congregation based their faith only on the teachings of the Bible. The sympathy of the people there helped me very much, for they provided me with civilian clothing which I had no money to buy, and food and shelter. I shall always be grateful to them. But most of all the preaching of their minister gripped me. It was completely new to me, to hear such explanations of the Bible. But could I be helped by a non-Catholic preacher?
Certainly, in my seminary training and as a priest I had heard regularly about the alleged false teaching of such churches, but I had never understood what they taught. In Rio de Janeiro I heard the minister explain that a man cannot save himself, or deserve entrance into heaven by any of his own efforts because he is utterly lost and hopeless. With all this I could heartily agree, for I had all too clearly experienced my inability to change myself. In spite of the greatest efforts and every kind of penitence, I had not succeeded in becoming a different kind of person. The preacher went even further and showed that there is only one way to be set free from sin, and that is to be given by God a completely free pardon and a new life. He showed how this experience must be obtained directly from Jesus Christ, who gives it freely and unmistakably to all who hand themselves over to Him in complete trust in His perfect sacrifice.
Light and Life
At first I found this difficult to believe. It was like a fairy story — too good to be true. I could see the beauty of yielding to Christ. It sounded wonderful, and yet at the same time, it seemed too easy, too cheap. As a Catholic I believed that salvation was the hardest battle in life, a matter of struggling for and deserving God's favor. But now I began to understand the true teaching of the Bible. Yes, salvation is indeed the hardest thing in the world and must be deserved by perfect obedience to all the demands of God's law, in other words, perfect sinlessness. But the amazing fact is that the Lord Jesus Christ, God's Son, has fulfilled all these demands for us and on our behalf, if we trust Him. "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:24-26).
At last the wonderful breakthrough came. My soul opened itself wholly to Christ in completed trust. I could see that it was not the Jews who had crucified Christ — I had done it. My sins were taken by Him. A blinding flash of light illuminated the rubbish heap of my former life.
My soul lay like a bombed-out city before me, and I was filled with anguish at seeing the sin which had permeated my whole being. But, over the rubbish heap I realized and knew that Christ had forgiven me and made me a true Christian. I had become a new creature.
Jesus spoke of the relationship between Himself and true Christians in these words, "I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine" (John 10:14). I had begun a new life, with all the feeling of close fellowship with God which I had never known in all my days as a Catholic priest. The dead legalism of the Church of Rome was behind and the future was a living personal relationship with our wonderful God.
(Born in Holland and saved by God's grace in Brazil, Herman has authored about 25 books since his conversion. The ministry that he founded called "In the Straight Street" has been a solid witness to Biblical truth and a resource for those inquiring about Catholicism. In 1996 he published "God's Commandment is Love" and the "Army of the Light." His best seller in Holland is: "Mother Church I Accuse You!" He may be contacted at telephone number: 01131- 26-361-5215 or you may write to him in Dutch, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese or Italian. His address is: Dillenburglaan 8, 6881 NV VELP Holland)
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