By Jonathan Turtle

It was the year 2000, during the long dog days of summer, and I was a teenager spending a week at a Pentecostal summer camp. It was not quite Jesus Camp but it was not quite not Jesus Camp either.

On one of the final evenings, as the three-hour service was drawing to a close, a good friend of mine was baptized in the Holy Ghost and spent the next 12 minutes or so running through the old wooden chapel before spilling out into the breezy summer night. Several of us chased after him with a sort of boyish abandon in the hopes that his baptism might be contagious and that we might experience it. It was not, and we did not. The last I heard, he had long abandoned the faith and was drumming for a metal band in Toronto in between drinking 40s of malt liquor.

The next summer I found myself back at the same camp, but this time without a friend in sight. They had all dropped out at the last minute. While I tried to convince my parents that they needn’t send me, they were having none of it. (There is a lesson in there for parents.) So, I spent the better part of the week alone, sulking, apart.

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It turns out that was exactly how God in his sovereignty would have it. On the final night of camp, as another three-hour service was drawing to a close, I too had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Unlike my friend’s experience from the prior year, however, it was terribly boring. A camp counselor asked me if I would like to pray. The Holy Ghost did not permit me to say no and so I followed the counselor up to the front of the chapel. He did not lead me to the center of the room where the spotlights shone and the band was playing but rather off to the side of the stage in the stillness of the dark. There as he prayed with me and for me, the light that I had received in baptism as a small child illuminated my heart and mind in a fresh way and I beheld the beauty of the Lord. That was more than 16 years ago, and I am now both delighted and humbled to serve Christ as a priest in his Church.

I often think about those summers and wonder why my friend could so easily leave the Church, and why I cannot seem to imagine my life without her. Why him and not me? At the time his faith appeared so alive and vibrant, whereas I felt that my faith was a constant struggle. To this day I cannot easily answer those questions. The best I can come up with is that, on that summer evening, I experienced the mercy of Christ in a decisive way. Largely because of that I am convinced that one’s perseverance in the faith is directly related to the closeness of one’s personal contact with Jesus Christ, and not just once-off, but over time. Even daily.

In his book-length interview with Nicolas Diat, Robert Cardinal Sarah says, “Many circumstances and deep motives, or the people around us, may have led us to follow Jesus. Then comes the moment of maturity, when only our personal experience of Christ guides us. This personal encounter is decisive for the rest of our life.”[1]

There are a whole host of reasons why we might have decided to follow Jesus, but apart from what Cardinal Sarah calls a “heart-to-heart conversation” with Christ, people do not have in them what is required to sustain their faith for the long haul.

This is why for Cardinal Sarah the re-evangelization of the West, which is so desperately needed, cannot be accomplished apart from the promotion and nurture of the interior life of the Christian. If you are a pastor, ask the Lord to grant you a sense of urgency and priority for your interior life of prayer, and then be about the work of providing opportunities for your people to be still and contemplate the mystery of Christ. The world will not be saved apart from this. It is absolutely indispensable.

Have you noticed that the epistles of St. Paul contain almost no exhortations to evangelize?[2] This is at least curious given that St. Paul was the most formidable Christian missionary in history. His epistles do, however, contain numerous exhortations to pray[3] and to cultivate one’s interior life by contemplating the inexhaustible mystery of Christ.[4]

Why is this? It is because St. Paul knew the same truth of the gospel that Cardinal Robert Sarah knows: There can be no great evangelism, no good works, no moral or faithful life at all apart from a deep and abiding personal encounter with the living Christ.

Hence, that wonderful prayer of St. Paul for the Church in Ephesus: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe” (Eph. 1:17-19). The Christian life and all that it entails flows forth from the wellspring of Jesus Christ as the eyes of our hearts are enlightened to the insurmountable height of his love and mercy.

The task of re-evangelizing the West is immense, no less in the face of dwindling congregations and social pressures to privatize religion. My hunch is that churches — even small churches like the two entrusted to care — that learn to embrace evangelism with joy will simply be unable to hide the love of the One they have been with in prayer.

The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of a two-point rural parish about an hour north of Toronto, where he lives with his wife and three children. His non-ecclesial interests include being outdoors, strength training, and Toronto Blue Jays baseball.

Footnotes

[1] Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith with Nicolas Diat, (Ignatius Press, 2015) p. 145.

[2] Some notable exceptions include Rom. 10:14-15 and 2 Tim. 1:8, 4:5.

[3] “But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6); “Devote yourselves to prayer” (Col. 4:2); “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

[4] “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8); “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2).

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