A friend of mine got married on Thursday. I’ve known him from the time we both attended a Reformed secondary school, and as we belonged to the same group of friends, we’ve stayed in touch. His bride comes from another part of the country. Her family name is De Pater, but since women traditionally acquire a double surname on their wedding day, her last name is now Brand-de Pater – which translates as ‘Burn the Friar’.
I was unable to make it to the civil ceremony and the church service, but I did attend the wedding reception. While standing in line to congratulate the bride and groom, I had a conversation with someone I had not seen since secondary school, about seven years ago. Back in the day we had had only casual contact.
We exchanged news on what we were doing these days; he had gone into graphic design, I think. On hearing that I was in formation for the priesthood, he remarked that there was an ongoing rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants. ‘The main lines are the important thing,’ he thought.
‘Yes, those too,’ I said.
More confidentially he went on, ‘I don’t know how [the groom] stands in the faith; do you? I couldn’t make it out from the sermon either.’
‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘But what do you mean by ‘how he stands in the faith’?’
‘Well, whether he is converted,’ he answered, ‘whether Jesus Christ is his Redeemer. I don’t know how that is with you…’ (This was in the plural form and thus referred more generally to the Catholic perception on conversion. ‘Yes, certainly,’ I said.)
‘But I’m afraid to ask him now,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really talked to him since secondary school and it might be strange to ask the question now, when I haven’t brought it up all those years. You do feel that you’ve fallen short…’
I agreed today might not be the best day to ask, and excused myself on the ground that I still had to write my card.
The bride and groom were radiant and cordial, and I managed to extend my congratulations just past the point of awkwardness; for which I take full responsibility.
Once inside, I joined two old friends at a table and asked, ‘How was the church service?’
Before the answer was given, we were joined by a young couple. The husband also belonged to our group of friends; he had always maintained a near-complete silence at our gatherings, but had still managed to get married in January, whereas the two others did not even have girlfriends on the horizon. His young wife was with him, and being married seemed to agree with them both.
One friend told them I had just asked how the sermon had been.
‘Technically speaking I was asking about the church service,’ I said.
The couple said that the sermon had been mostly inaudible where they were sitting; the sound installation had not been properly synchronized with the minister’s speech.
The friend had been seated more towards the front and had not experienced these problems. He said: ‘It was good, it is always good when the Gospel of grace for sinners is preached honestly.’ Or words to that effect.
‘Hm-mm,’ I said.
Some time afterwards, we were joined by another person I hadn’t seen since secondary school, though I knew he had gone on to study theology. He was accompanied by a girlfriend. The last three years of school, we had had heated but friendly debates about all sorts of topics. When I converted to Catholicism during my first year of college, the first question he asked me on MSN was whether I had already returned to Protestantism. I was insulted because he seemed not to take me seriously, and stopped responding.
Today the six-year silence was broken. One of the first questions he asked was, ‘Are you Reformed yet?’
‘I am in a process of daily reformation,’ I said, ‘in the context of Cornelis semper reformandus.’ This made him laugh.
Studying God’s revelation as an academic subject has a way of generating rather than arresting conversations, and so my talk with him was longer and more spirited than the ones reported above. It turned out he was in his final year of his Masters in Theology. ‘And then?’ I queried. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What would you do if you were me?’ ‘I haven’t seen you in seven years,’ I said. ‘What would you do if you were you?’ ‘I really don’t know,’ he said.
Though he had been a math-and-science type at school, he had started specializing in Semitic languages, studying not only Biblical Hebrew, but also Ugaritic and Syrian on the side, and who knows what else. Also he had started reading The Lord of the Rings, after having seen the first movie. ‘Only now I begin to understand what kind of world you were living in back at school,’ he said, not unkindly. He praised the masterful writing of the book, its Christian themes and the way it conjured up an authentic medieval worldview, but still saw the danger of getting too involved in a fantasy world.
He asked: ‘What do you think about Luther? What do you think about the justification of the sinner?’ I struggled to give just answers. He said, ‘The answer is, Does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?’ (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 64)
It was good to chat with him again. His girlfriend was nice too; she studied English at Leiden University, so I asked about her favourite author. It turned out she was less interested in literature than in grammar and phonetics. Knowing her boyfriend, perhaps I should have guessed.