Jurgen Liias’s Move to Rome: A Spiritual Autobiography
Here’s another man’s thoughts about his church search. Obviously, I disagree with his foundational assumption which is that Rome’s assertions about its identity as “one true church” are true. If Rome is wrong about that one thing, then it suffers from a level of delusion that approaches mental illness and certainly cannot produce healthy churches over the long term. But it’s not as if The Episcopal Church isn’t delusional either and those who believe the Gospel within TEC are confronted with bunches of decisions about the nature of church, one’s mission within various organizations, as well as a post-Christian country, and countless other choices.
That being said, his is a fascinating spiritual biography. I found the narratives about his early childhood to be particularly enthralling—make sure you read it all. And here’s the T19 thread on his decision as well.
In a small Lutheran (Evangelische) church located in the city square of Schwenningen am Neckar in the Black Forest Region of post-war Germany, I received the Sacrament of Baptism as an infant in 1948. I was the son of refugees, displaced persons; my father Arnold Liias, an Estonian but conscripted into the German army during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, had been taken from his native Estonia as a wounded soldier, an amputee from a gangrenous leg wound; my mother Ingeborg Schneider at nineteen had been separated from her home and family in East Germany and fled westward away from the Soviet invasion and occupation at the very end of the war.
The poverty and chaos of post-war Germany forced them to apply for emigration and in the winter of 1951-52, my parents and I now with as well my younger brother, their second child, arrived in the United States and were settled into a displaced person camp in Western Massachusetts. My father moved alone to Boston to find work and a new home. Months later we were taken into the Rectory of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Charlestown. An old bachelor priest, the Rev. Wolcott Cutler, had filled his home - a large five story brownstone situated on the square of the Bunker Hill Monument- with refugees. Though most remained for short periods of time, we lived in that Rectory for the next ten years, becoming caretakers of the building and even, in the case of my father, the sexton at the church.
Mr. Cutler (as he was called- a deeply committed low churchman he would have been offended to be called Father Cutler)was an extraordinary saintly pastor and a most fascinating character. Though from a rich Boston Brahmin family, he had devoted his entire ordained ministry to inner city work among the poor. He was seen as the Pastor of all of Charlestown, though 90% of the community was Irish Catholic. He was a zealous activist for peace and justice; the author and publisher of a Christian pacifist journal; an avid naturalist; a historical preservationist; and a most accomplished photographer of urban life. His glass slides are still one of the treasures of the Archives of the Boston Public Library. Mr. Cutler had a profound influence on me as a child; my mother used to tell me that even as a small boy I said that I wanted to be like Mr. Cutler when I grew up. The call to ordained ministry was there as far back as I can consciously remember. Childhood fantasy games often included playing church and of course I was the priest distributing communion.
In 1962, Mr. Cutler retired and a new priest, Fr. Brian Kelly with wife and children arrived. At this point we were required to leave the Rectory, and my parents through intense and diligent work-my father a machinist during the day and my mother working night shifts packing ice cream at Hood’s milk factory-were able to fulfill the American dream and purchase their own home, though just a few blocks away from the Rectory.
Charlestown as already noted was an Irish Catholic working class neighborhood and considered the toughest neighborhood of Boston. My family and I were not infrequently verbally abused and even on occasion physically abused with stone throwing and gang beatings for being “protestants and naziis.” In the pre-Vatican II sensibilities of the time I was constantly told by my childhood friends that I was going to Hell, spoken often not with gladness but poignant sadness. They were truly sorry for me. Fr. Kelly-note the title change-was a high churchman; and I remember distinctly the day in Sunday School when he instructed us that we were not Protestants but Catholics; but we were not Roman Catholics, we were Anglo-catholics. Well this was the best news I had ever heard. I was a Catholic too! Perhaps that epiphany was the seed of this journey now.
St. John’s Episcopal Church was the center of my life. Besides being a refuge where we as immigrants were accepted and loved, a kind of extended family, it also was the formative spiritual community of my childhood and adolescence. We had a boys choir –a then common but now rare feature of Anglicanism; I was the lead soprano until my voice cracked somewhere around 14. There was a church Boy Scout Troop, which provided recreation, fellowship, and camping trips out of the city. In high school we had a very active Young People’s Fellowship, of which I was president and because of which I had my first preaching opportunity on Youth Sunday. (The sermon is lost to history). Seminarians from the Episcopal Theological School provided youth leadership, and one in particular, Fr. James Hagen, still to this day a very close friend, solidified my vocation. Already as a senior in high school I met with my Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Anson Stokes . “ Jurgen you’ll make a wonderful priest; now when you go to college, don’t major in religion. You’ll get plenty of that in Seminary.” He shook my hand and I was a postulant!
2.College and Seminary
In 1965, I went off to college. I had been recruited by Harvard College but when my mother said I would live at home if I went to Harvard, I swiftly accepted the full scholarship I had been given by Amherst and moved to the Pioneer Valley. My secondary education had been at the Boston Latin School, the oldest and one of the finest public schools in the U.S. Six years of Latin and three years of Greek in high school and an interest in archaeology (as my backup career if I were rejected for ordination) directed me to choose Classics as my major (though in my Senior year at Amherst I added Psychology as a second major). Again perhaps there is providence in all my Latin as I journey to Rome.
The greatest providence of college, however, was the meeting on the very first day of Freshman year of a young lady from Smith College named Gloria Gehshan. She would become my wife. Adding the five years of courtship to our 41 years of marriage, we have been together most of our 64 years of life.
This was the turbulent 60’s and the days of student revolution: political, social, sexual, and spiritual. In high school I had already become somewhat of an activist in the civil rights movement. At Amherst I joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the premier New Left organization, and was very engaged in organizing teach- ins, demonstrations, and marches against the Vietnam War. This activism for peace and justice was for me an expression of my faith and Christians like Merton, the Berrigans, Dorothy Day and of course Martin Luther King Jr. were, in their writings, sermons, and witness my heroes. But the underside of this era was also part of my life; sexual promiscuity, drugs, growing cynicism. By the time I arrived at seminary, the Episcopal Theological School, in Cambridge, in the fall of 1969, I was burned out from my efforts to change society; the world it turned out was a much more intransigent place than my idealistic activism understood. I found myself in a deep depression.
Spirituality had not been a very significant part of my Christian life, but my depression created a quest for inner resources. Though dabbling in Eastern religions and new age philosophies, Jungian Psychology became my new religion. Carl Jung, the great Swiss Psychiatrist, unlike Freud his mentor, was sympathetic to religion and believed in God. I was consumed with reading his works, going to lectures of the Jungian society, and doing dream work with a Jungian therapist. In my last year of seminary I became an Intern at an Episcopal Church on the North Shore of Boston working under a priest who himself was an avid disciple of Jung. One peculiar feature of this priest and this parish was an interest in Spiritual Healing. Having been well indoctrinated with a biblical hermeneutic of Bultmanian demythologization where all the healing miracles of Jesus had been discarded, I was not sure what these folk thought they were doing, but I dutifully participated in the weekly Healing Eucharist which was followed by a Bible Study and Prayer Group. Though a Senior in seminary I had never participated in a bible study or prayer group before much less a healing service! But these Wednesday morning gatherings became utterly transformational: spiritually, theologically, pastorally. For the first time I began to “experience” the reality of God and the power of prayer. It was the beginning of a conversion to God the Holy Spirit.
3. My Conversion as a Young Priest
I was ordained Deacon at the end of that academic year in June 1972 and began my curacy at a large suburban Episcopal parish in Winchester, Mass. Though the ethos of that parish was decidedly liberal protestant, I will be eternally grateful to the Rector John Bishop who was a wonderful mentor to me in learning the craft of being a good parish priest. He invited me to share in the full scope of parochial work: leading worship, preaching regularly, editing the weekly newsletter, pastoral visitation, leading a large and vibrant youth group, bringing high school students every week into an inner city church to tutor, teaching adult education and much more. I loved my work; I had no question that this was my divinely ordained vocation and I was, by worldly standards, popular and successful. But God was doing an even more important work within me.
I continued my explorations in the Holy Spirit. The charismatic movement was at that time making its appearance in the Episcopal Church. 9 o’clock in the Morning by Dennis Bennett, Gathered for Power by Graham Pulkingham and Miracle in Darien by Terry Fullam were narrations of priests and parishes totally transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit. I went on occasion to Charismatic Prayer meetings in local Roman Catholic churches. I attended “Renewal” conferences around the country. ”Spiritual Renewal” was the new buzz word in the church; Cursillo, Faith Alive, Marriage Encounter, the Charismatic Movement-all were efforts to bring new life to the church in the face of what was beginning to become evident- decline and decrease in the Episcopal church. The heady days of church growth and expansion of the 50’s and 60’s were over. I was drawn to these movements, not just for the church’s sake, but for the sake of my own very thirsty soul.
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