God Writes Best with Crooked Lines
by Ercy Joy Ghiringhelli
God writes best with crooked lines. How true that is! (At least it has been in my life.) As I look back, it gives me much comfort to know that through it all, the Lord was there, guiding and waiting…
It all started back in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was born in the late 1940s. I was an only child who grew up in an atmosphere void of spiritual and emotional expression. A nominally Catholic country, Argentina was — at that time at least — extremely secular. However, children like me, were baptized and also catechized in order to receive their First Communion. It is amazing that after all these years I still remember the long weekly walks to church and the question and answer memorization, as well as the prayers. But in time, some of those teachings left me fearful and angry. How could it be, I would think, that God would expect me to go to Mass on Sunday and condemn me if I didn’t when nobody would take me to church and I was not allowed to go alone? I felt that I lived in a constant state of sin, but also felt it wasn’t my fault. On the other hand, I did feel guilty, because the only reason I would have wanted to go to Mass was not to have committed a mortal sin. I felt doomed! Confused and angered, as time went on, I decided this whole thing made no sense and declared myself an “atheist.” That would certainly leave me off the hook, I thought. But often, as I looked into the night sky, the immensity and depth of it and its myriad of stars, I sensed the greatness of a distant God.
Growing up as an only child was lonely, but the greatest emptiness was spiritual. I now know that my parents tried the best they could, but they could not give what they did not have themselves. “God” was an off-limits subject — as were most others. Our verbal communication at home was limited to rules “spoken, or mostly unspoken, but well understood for sure” high standards of behavior and maybe, the weather.
One mighty crossroad
As I finished elementary school, I was told that I would go to a Catholic high school. The thought terrified me! What would I do in such an atmosphere? I knew that regardless of how much I complained, the decision had been made for me and was irrevocable. I remember the fluttering in my stomach as I shopped for my uniform, knowing that my summer vacation would soon be over and I would be in “nun school.” Finally, the dreaded day arrived. The school building was severe and intimidating, outside and in. I knew no one and no one knew me. I looked like the rest of the girls on the outside, but I was only an outer shell dressed to match. I was directed to a long, hallway line outside the entrance of my homeroom.
As I waited there, I saw one of the sisters walking through the hordes of people. She caught my attention; something was different about her. Light shone through her skin and as she walked by and I could sense a very beautiful presence was with her. She was young and very beautiful, but it was her spirit that I was encountering, a dimension totally foreign to me. For the very first time in my life, something was triggered inside of me. No words would be adequate to describe it except for the fact that at that moment, I became hungry for what she had. I knew at a very deep level that she knew God and that it was He who was shining through her! What an amazing power is evident when God is present. Without much thought, I decided that I would visit the chapel every day and pray for what this sister had. It is amazing to think that, amidst all of my confusion, it literally took seconds for my heart to be changed! My spiritual hunger had been awakened and led me to the beginning of a fascinating journey. From that day on, I would visit the chapel and pray. Somehow I knew this was the time to find the answers for which my heart longed.
The long corridor that connected the school with the church was a welcomed relief from the noise of recess. It was quiet there. Stained glass windows on both sides of the gallery filled the place with colorful light. The smell of incense, which had escaped from the morning offering, created an atmosphere of peace. There were luscious plants along the sides of the ally, leading to an internal garden on the side of the chapel. This was an inviting and soothing place.
I walked tentatively, yet determinedly into the chapel, but once I was there I wondered what I should do. I couldn’t talk to God after all I had said and believed — but, what about Mary? I knew that she was “highly honored,” but she was not God. She felt “safer” than “Almighty God.” Besides, she was a woman and a mother. I walked over to the side of the chapel where an image of Mary was displayed and said:
Mary, I have been saying that there is no God and I don’t feel that I can talk to Him, but maybe, just maybe, if there is anything to all this, you can help me find Him. I’m asking you that if He is real, you help me find Him. I don’t want to be convinced only in my mind, I want to know for real. I promise that I will come every day to pray for faith. Amen.
From that day on I visited the chapel every time I was in school. Every day of every week of every month, praying, “I’m here to ask for faith, if this is real.” I finished my first year of high school and, even though I was growing more comfortable with all the religious activities, I still did not know God.
It was during that summer that we took a family vacation to the mountains of Argentina. As we climbed higher and higher, I became sick. I was vomiting, all my breathing passages constricted, and I could no longer breathe. I heard my mother calling out to my dad, “She is leaving us.” In that moment, outside the limit of time, I saw my whole life pass before me with great detail and clarity. Then, I felt a deep sense of peace and a very gentle voice spoke. It wasn’t an acoustic voice, but it was familiar. This kind presence told me how to breathe again. Ever so slowly, following the instructions, I started breathing and came back. A brand new dimension had opened up to me.
I started my second year of high school and continued my daily visits to the chapel. In theology class, we were given the four Gospels to read and study. I quickly read the synoptic Gospels and when I came to the Gospel of John, I was smitten. The Person of Jesus captivated my heart in a way I had never experienced before. I fell in love with Jesus! As I spent more and more time reading the Scriptures and in prayer, my behavior changed. This was not well received at home. I was prohibited from reading the Bible and, even though I was normally an obedient and compliant child, for the first time I defied my mother. I got hold of a flashlight and under my covers at night I would spend long hours reading the Bible, memorizing whole chapters of the Gospel of John.
An encounter with the living God
The school year was coming to an end and, as was customary, we needed to participate in a spiritual retreat week. During that time, we were not supposed to watch television, listen to the radio, or read secular material, but instead we were to spend time praying, journaling, and reading spiritual books. We also had excellent speakers that brought teachings and meditations to us. For most of the girls, this was a welcome vacation from schoolwork. For me, it was serious business!
After the last meeting was dismissed, I lingered in the chapel. I really don’t know why, but I felt almost glued to the pew. I sat in silence. Suddenly, as I was looking at the crucifix to the right of the altar, a scene started to unfold. I was curious and amazed at what was happening. As if watching a play, the plan of salvation was displayed before me. The cross I was looking at became my cross. There was a clear sense that Jesus on that cross was taking my place and that I could never reach God in my human condition, but because of what Jesus did I was made right.
Tears started flowing and I wanted to hold Jesus in my arms and take His place, but there was no way I could do that, He had done it all! My heart was full of gratitude and repentance and I cried bittersweet tears of sorrow and gratitude. I don’t know how long this experience lasted, but suddenly I became aware that He who had opened up the curtain of heaven for me was drawing near. Closer and closer, He came, and a sense of anticipation filled my heart, while absolute panic bombarded my mind. “Run, get out of here or you will die!” was the thought that hammered my mind. The Presence was so close and the war of two realities — good and evil — became evident, as fear possessed me. Then the Presence spoke, “Can I come into your heart?” There was great and wonderful peace in those words. Terrified, but defying the fear, I said, “Yes, Lord.” And He did.
Wave upon wave of liquid love rushed through my body, soul, and spirit. All the Scripture that I had memorized rushed deeply into my being. From my head to my heart, the vacuum of the “unknown” was filled with life. “Out of their belly will flow rivers of living waters…”; those rivers sprang up in glorious splashes of joy and I began to thank Jesus — my Jesus — for His Presence, the Holy Spirit for His revelation, and the Father for His love! Then I realized that my words were not Spanish anymore. I did not understand what they were except that it was glorious! I kept on apologizing to the Lord for my foolishness and then a new wave would come and bring me back to the same shore of adoration. Irresistible love bathed every cell of my body and embraced me with unconditional acceptance.
By the time I left the chapel, everything had changed. I became keenly aware of the world around me, aware of the blueness of the sky, the beauty of creation. The trees were so green and the air was so pure. But the greatest shock came when I met people on the streets, total strangers walking by, and I could feel the way the Lord Jesus in me loved every one of them. I felt so overcome with the love of God! That was certainly not a feeling I knew after growing up under constant criticism and sarcasm. Now I was loved, accepted, and made adequate, because the love of God had been shed abroad in my heart through the Holy Spirit. I would be 15 years old in just a few weeks and I had no idea what would become of my life after such an encounter.
If I knew one thing, it was that God was real and that He was really living in me! Nothing could compare to such an awakening. The problem, however, was that now my life was fully in His hands and this new reality was not compatible with the world around me. All I wanted to do was be with Jesus, but I was still living at home and my home environment grew more and more hostile. Even so, the ridicule, rejection, and emotional pain could not waiver my commitment to the Lord.
It was during this time that a son of my parents’ friends reentered my life. We had known each other since childhood, although the four-year age difference between us never solidified our friendship. Now at 19, he was all grown up and was planning to leave Argentina to go to the United States. He was in a relationship that caused a lot of chaos in his life and he felt that getting away would be good for emotional and financial growth, so that he would eventually be able to marry his girlfriend. Horacio was a charming young man who was spiritually hungry. We met a few times before he left and I promised to write to him and to pray for him and his girlfriend. That I did. For a long while, I was continuously caught in the middle of their problems, trying to repair a relationship that was falling apart. I would write to him and encourage him to guard his heart against the materialism of the United States and to keep his eyes on Jesus.
While the promise to pray for and write to Horace (as he called himself once he arrived in New York) became part of my daily routine, my life became increasingly difficult. The only religious support I had was from some of the sisters at the school, but day-to-day life was extremely painful. I had decided that the experience with God I had must have been a call to the religious life. My plan was to join the convent when I graduated. In the meantime, I lived in great isolation, as my family became more and more adamant against my newfound faith. I was in severe emotional pain and I would even beg the Lord to take my life.
Convinced to be “normal”
One day, my mom sent me to see a neighbor who was studying psychology and needed to “practice” using projective testing. My mother volunteered me and, as usual, I did as I was told. After running a battery of tests she was horrified — she had never seen the level of isolation and depression that I was exhibiting! I don’t remember the entirety of what she said, but I do remember that she told me (in no uncertain terms) that if I did not change and change fast, I would end up in a mental institution. In the few sessions that we had together, she managed to instill in me such fear that I felt I was given a life sentence and a mandate to change. I knew something had to change since I was becoming increasingly depressed. Certainly, the Lord had given me strength and comfort through all those days, but with such an awful “prognosis,” I felt that I had gotten to the end of the road. Looking back on that situation, I suspect the reason my mom sent me to her. It was probably a maternal cry for help, as she sought out someone she knew could reach me and enlisted her help. However, I did not realize this at the time.
I cried and cried after that day. I felt that God, who had drawn me to Himself, was now turning His face from me. “I will not stop believing Lord, but I have to change.” With that, I became less “devout.” I stopped attending daily Mass and fasting and I became more “normal” by befriending my fellow students.
At the beginning of my last year of high school, I was in a very different place. I had compromised my relationship with the Lord in order to be accepted. I continued to visit the chapel daily, but my heart was becoming cold. I graduated with a teacher’s degree (at that time high school was three years of “basic education” and two more years in which one chose from three options: to continue with general college courses, or specialize in business or teaching). I decided to delay my idea of joining the religious life and to go on to college instead. The convent walls did not seem that appealing to me anymore, not if my passion for Jesus was not there. There was still a deep aching in my heart. Once again I had become a shell. Possibly due to my emotional issues, I decided to major in psychology; I figured that it would help me to better understand my inner conflicts and pain.
College was a rude awakening. Coming from a protected environment at a Catholic school, I never imagined the vicious attack on Christianity that awaited me! As a psychology major, I was exposed to the most outrageous, immoral, and perverted teachings. Very soon, I began to question even my most treasured experience with Jesus. I would stop by a church near the school, kneel down, and cry. I knew what I once had; yet, I couldn’t even begin to make sense of my current situation.
Out with the old, in with the new
Something interesting happened at this time as well. My friend in the States had finally broken off his relationship with his girlfriend. He also told me he was now “saved.” Now, our roles were reversed: instead of me praying for him and reminding him of the love of God, he was the one sermonizing me. For all my questions and insecurities, he had answers. A part of me felt “safe” with him and that maybe — just maybe — I could go back to believing in Jesus with the passion I once had.
Regardless of our differences, our affection and love for each other grew and we were married a year later. By then, we were both living in the United States and I had agreed to try attending his Baptist church. I needed the Lord whom I had known. I so desperately wanted to find Jesus again that I did what I was told I needed to do: “Accept the Lord as my Savior, confess my sins, and I would be born again!” I sincerely humbled myself and I did what I was told, but nothing really changed. The doubts that my professors had successfully planted in my mind were still dictating my judgments. After “getting saved,” the next step I was expected to take was baptism. Oh, how I fought with that pastor! “My baptism served me well, thank you very much, and I had known the Lord. Now, I’m nowhere, and you want me to be baptized?” I held my position for a long time, but being in a Baptist church, one must get dunked! The argument that finally won me over was that Jesus did not need to be baptized, but he did so out of obedience. So, down I went! I prayed that it would help, but it didn’t.
That particular congregation had a very different spirit than that of the Catholic Church. I tried to accept things that made no sense to me just because I wanted to be obedient. I read my Bible and prayed hoping that God would answer me as He had before. I missed the Eucharist, a foundational part of my faith, and Mary, who had introduced me to her Son (but at that point, I could not even think about her without feeling guilty and idolatrous). I had a relationship with Jesus in my youth, but now I had religion. It wasn’t a matter of the heart; it was a matter of appearances. All the don’ts were so oppressive! This particular church was in the Bronx. It was a Spanish church and I did not speak any English at the time. We were living in Bergen County, NJ, and had to cross the Hudson River to get to church. My fantasy at the time was to jump off the bridge and end it all, which was something I would never do, because the Lord had given us a precious baby and another one was on the way.
After a few years of our weekend commutes and having had two little ones by now, it was time to search for another church home. Horace had to fulfill his commitment to the end of his Sunday school class, but I, along with the children, started to look for a new church. Every Sunday, we would visit a different denomination and every Sunday, my hope was crushed, until I went to a Lutheran church. For the first time, I felt more at home. The fact that this was a Protestant church, but felt Catholic to me, brought a flicker of light to a very dark time. I continued going. Then one day, the pastor said that it had been brought to his attention that some “non-Lutherans” were partaking of communion, which was not allowed. I supposed I needed to be baptized Lutheran, too! I felt as if somebody had punched me in the stomach. I went back home in tears and decided to stop looking. Disillusioned and rejected again, I stopped going to church.
During Holy Week of 1972, my husband and I were watching a talk show on television that was featuring what was known as the “Jesus Movement.” There was a group of teen-agers with their pastor. They had come to know the Lord and underwent amazing transformations in their lives. They were in love with Jesus and all that “had held them captive had been washed away by the Lord.” My husband and I were glued to the television set and we knew it was what we had been looking for! We looked at each other, knowingly — we were so hungry and so lost! As the program came to an end, they shared where the church was located and, to our utter shock, it was ten minutes from our house! When Horace called to ask for directions and whether they had a nursery, a very enthusiastic and loving response came back: “A nursery? We’ll make one! Just come on down, brother!” and added, “Praise the Lord!” We looked at each other, wondering if we would end up in a cult. But it was too late: we were there that same day.
That is how we came to Maranatha Church of the Nazarene in New Milford, NJ. After years of wandering, I once again came face to face with the Spirit of the living God! The dry wood of our hearts caught fire and our lives would never be the same. Revivals are wonderful and the renewal that they bring is life changing, but the ebbs and flows of revival can be difficult to navigate. For years we were there and, because the congregation was so young and we were in our early twenties, we quickly became part of the “elders,” doing altar counseling, phone counseling, small groups, etc.
During our time at Maranatha, I realized that a similar revival had also happened in the Catholic Church. I was beside myself with joy, because during the years I had spent in Catholic school, the Second Vatican Council was going on and we would pray daily for revival and for a new Pentecost to come upon the Church. My heart ached to go back. I attended a “Life in the Spirit” seminar and became close to a priest who was part of the renewal. Looking back, that was the perfect time for us to come back home; however, we didn’t. Possibly because of our children, who had been exposed to some strong anti-Catholic teaching, and even our own biases regarding the Catholic Church.
We were now a family of six and unfortunately our church was going through great trouble. Marriages began falling apart, starting with the pastor’s and spreading through the congregation like a viral infection. Control and manipulation became “our daily bread” and this beautiful church, once full of glory, became a pitiful place. We needed to leave. From that point our wandering started again. We went through many denominations and many fellowships and, in my opinion, there always seemed to be so many opposing positions! The pastors had too much power and often times there was abuse of that power. In many cases we found that the anointing on a particular ministry was powerful, but it would quickly change if enough people complained about something with which they did not agree. Sometimes the Lord Jesus was presented as a severe God with no compassion, demanding more and more, and other times He would be presented as a wishy-washy character that loved us and understood everything, kind of the “once saved, always saved” mentality. There was a nagging feeling in my heart. “Please,” I wanted to cry. “I don’t want to hear your opinion anymore. It is not about you!”
Years went by without having a church we could call our own, without a feeling of belonging. Over time, we developed wonderful relationships that will always be in our lives. Those compensated for the lack of church identity. Eventually we moved out of the area and started attending an Assemblies of God church. In this church, there was great worship and wonderful people, but we eventually realized that it was so focused on self and sin that our lives became negative and depressing. I remember one Sunday when the message was on Romans 8, “there is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus…” and we left feeling totally condemned!
Another Divine appointment
One day, just before Thanksgiving, I was driving my husband to the ER because he had fallen ill. I was driving and crying, “I can’t handle church anymore!” By now three of our four children were in a Catholic school. They were bussed both ways, which freed my time enough to know that I needed to serve, work, or study. I needed to do something! He was so sick, but I was hurting so much that, the more he coughed, the more I cried. Whether because of conviction or simply because he wanted me to stop my complaining, he gave me full support and promised that the Lord would open a way. It is funny to think about that exchange now.
We got to the hospital and he went in for X-rays, while I sat in the waiting room. A few minutes later, a woman came over and started to talk to the gentleman sitting next to me. Then, she approached me and introduced herself. She was the hospital’s chaplain. I quickly answered some of her questions and then I said, “Would you mind if I ask you what it is that you do?” She explained to me how she ministered to people in need, people who were hurting — real people, no “Sunday smiling church people,” with the appearance of “perfect” lives and answers to all possible questions! That was the beginning of my move into chaplaincy ministries. Raylene, the hospital’s chaplain, was trying to build up a volunteer group for the pastoral office. As she promised, she called me after the holidays to start my training.
I could write a book about the many experiences and amazing stories that I lived in those days. Suddenly, my life was full of meaning! From then on, Raylene (who was graduating from Princeton University) became my mentor. Together, we attended Clinical Pastoral Education training at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, NJ. I also became a volunteer for hospice.
My husband and I decided to leave the Assemblies of God church and, with much hesitation, visited a very small country church closer to home, another Nazarene Church. We couldn’t say why, but from the moment we walked in there, we felt connected and basically at peace. This became a perfect setting for my newfound vocation of ministering at the hospital, hospice, or crisis pregnancy center.
A couple of years later, during a “monastic silence” at a Nazarene retreat center, I sensed the Lord telling me to enroll in the Nazarene Bible School. I grew in my confidence of who God wanted me to be. One thing concerned me though; my husband was starting a new business venture and had asked me to stop all my volunteering to help him. Although business was not my cup of tea, I would gladly do it to help the family and I consented. How was I going to tell him what had just happened to me? As I approached our home, I sensed the Holy Spirit saying to me, “Just wait and see. Trust me.”
When I walked in our house, there was a beautifully arranged table, with flowers, fine china, and a card on my teacup. My darling husband had written the most amazing card in which he said, “I know you belong in the ministry and, don’t worry, Jesus and I will take care of you!”
In a less than a month, I was enrolled and ready to begin the very long Bible School journey. Those were very wonderful yet difficult years, as my children were getting older and I was “cramming” for exams. I remember the joy of studying the Bible, theology, preaching, and Church history. I was introduced to the early Church and the early Church Fathers. Nazarenes don’t come from a Reformed theology, but from the Catholic/Anglican/Methodist vein. Through early Church history, I was taken back to my Catholic roots. I remember one of my professors talking about tracing his apostolic lineage. That seemed very strange to me, because the more the church divided a separated from her original roots, how would one go about finding the apostolic succession? The issue of authority, which I had wrestled with in the past, became very important to me.
Regardless of my concerns, I eventually graduated and was ordained as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene through the laying on of hands. It was a very special time, but just as there is no higher Christology than the first chapter of the Gospel of John, I knew that nothing compared to my experiences as a Catholic. I became an associate pastor at two different churches. I really enjoyed preaching, studying Scripture, teaching, counseling, and just working with people. Board meetings, however, were a different story.
A new direction
In time, I was asked to be a substitute for my good friend, Liz Danielson, a chaplain at Karen Ann Quinlan Hospice, in Newton, NJ. Every time she was sick or on vacation, I filled in for her visiting patients, bringing communion to people, and even officiating at funerals. For a couple of years, I became a familiar presence at the agency, becoming more comfortable with all the aspects of the job. Then one day, Liz shared with me that she was moving and was recommending me for her position. I was both elated and very scared! It was very comfortable for me to work under her, as she had experience and confidence in her calling, but I felt I could never fill in her shoes (she was, and still is, an amazing woman). With both apprehension and excitement, I took the position. I was ready for a new adventure in my life.
My time as chaplain for the hospice was special and very challenging. I spent long hours driving through whole areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania visiting patients. This was physically and emotionally exhausting, yet extremely rewarding. For years I had struggled with Multiple Sclerosis and suffered with severe fatigue. As the weeks and months progressed, my commitment to my church (which was an hour away) became more and more difficult to fulfill. Sensing that my job was my calling, I resigned from my position as associate pastor. It was not an easy decision, because my senior pastor had been a great support and given me freedom to minister as I felt led. I also loved the people there and it was hard to leave. I felt as if a whole chapter in my life was coming to an end, and it did.
Now, I was facing a new problem, I needed to find a new church. The only Nazarene church closer to home was still half an hour away and I knew well the problems that the church was experiencing. It had been a good solid church, until a new pastor came and managed to scatter the congregation. I had encountered control issues many times and I had no desire to be a part of another “church saga.” Therefore, I stayed loosely connected with my church, but once again started visiting other denominations. One Easter Sunday, my family and I attended a Bible Church. The church was beautiful and the music very inspiring, but when the time for the message came the minister started his sermon saying, “Today, we will continue with our series on the book of Genesis.” This was Resurrection Sunday! I was embarrassed for having brought my family to a church that paid no attention to the liturgical season!
One day, I came back from work late and my family had already eaten, so I sat in our little TV room to eat and watch some TV. As usual, I went to my favorite Christian channels, but nothing was getting my attention. Switching channels I “landed” on a talk show. I liked the simple conversation about Jesus. There was no hype. So, without knowing what I was watching, I stayed…
On the Journey Home
The “talk show” turned out to be The Journey Home program on the Catholic television network EWTN. It was my first contact with the Church that I had missed so much over the years. Monday nights became sacred for me and nobody was allowed to interrupt me. I closed the French doors and shut out the world — I was hooked! Within months, I had read many conversion stories and the early Church Fathers, dissected Scripture passages that I had ignored for years, and felt totally terrified. I was becoming more and more Catholic in my theology, but I could not imagine leaving all my connections, training, and identity behind! I was in no-man’s-land.
Through my job, I was exposed to all denominations and I found many people of faith who touched my life. However, one family in particular made a deep impression on me. The mother, a 36-year-old woman, was dying of cancer. They were very devout Catholics and very poor, yet they had an amazing faith community that was always there for them. Because they only spoke Spanish, I not only visited as a chaplain, but helped translate for the nurses, social workers, and aids. That meant that I was in their house very often. This family was a catalyst for me. I would listen to the father talking to his four children about trust in God and walking in humility, because that’s what the Lord loves. I remember the contrast with some of my other patients, who approached God as if He was their servant. This family’s way of life resonated in my spirit as a totally different spirituality than I confronted on a daily basis. Strange as it may sound, it felt as if they were living the Gospel, while most Christian churches were intellectually studying Scripture.
There was a deep hunger within me. My husband, who in the beginning kept on making fun of me, started watching The Journey Home as well, which continued opening his eyes and heart. He had also always struggled with the issue of authority and he felt very comfortable about going back to the Catholic Church, but my mind was still a constant battleground!
Around that time we went through a very difficult situation due to illness. It was a real crisis. The more I prayed, the deeper into despair I fell. I would usually take walks around the neighborhood. One day, in a very spontaneous way, I began remembering the mysteries of the rosary and started to pray. It was an amazing relief not to have to repeat the same awful, despairing prayers, but rather to meditate on the blessed mysteries of our Faith. In a way, I felt free: I could pray and not get more depressed. I found myself drawing strength and peace from the rosary and asking “my Blessed Mother” to pray for me. This daily activity became a great secret that I did not dare to share with anyone!
One day, my husband decided that we would start attending Mass. He was ready and willing to go back to the Faith of his youth. As much as I was hungry for it, I would not allow myself to “go there” in my heart. After a few months of attending Mass, unbeknownst to me, he asked the priest if we could speak with him after Mass. Then he came back to the sanctuary where I was praying, grabbed me by the hand and said, “We are meeting with the priest now.” I was far from ready to speak to anybody. However, I followed him.
The way this priest dealt with us left much to be desired. He went through a whole list of things that we should believe — or renounce — and gave us absolution. Then he took us back to the altar and we received Communion! Certainly this was not the way I thought it would happen, but that was the way it was! When we left I said, “What just happened to us? Are we back in the Catholic Church?” Yes, we were. As inadequate as our return was, we were back! We laughed on our way back home and enjoyed the feeling of having crossed the threshold of faith.
Searching for “Home”
What a turnaround! What would happen to my job, if they found out? Should I come out and say it? Should I keep it in the “closet” as I had done for nearly two years of researching the Catholic Church? My credentials would no longer be valid and I knew that my supervisor would go “by the book” in regards to my position at hospice. After much prayer, I decided to speak to her, share the changes in my life, and let the Lord sort it all out. However, just at that time, she experienced the sudden death of her husband. There was no way that I would burden her with my story at that point in her life! At the same time, I was recovering from a major health set back and my husband insisted that I quit my job. This was really a very difficult decision for me, because I loved my job and we had depended on it during the times when Horace was out of work due to health reasons.
In February of 2009, the Lord opened doors for us to relocate. We moved to South Carolina, where one of my daughters and her family had been living for a year. I had agreed to stop working and to trust God and my hard working husband to provide for us (as Horace had promised all those years ago).
As we drove our two cars south, there was a major prayer in my heart: “I want to be home!” We had never become involved with the Catholic Church in New Jersey, mostly because of my “incognito status,” but now we were miles and miles away from our former lives. Now, I was ready!
The first day I visited Saint Philip Neri Catholic Church, an announcement was made for an Emmaus weekend. Since our move, we had company every weekend, but that particular weekend was free. I eagerly signed up. The retreat was held at The Oratory, just a few miles from my new home. I did not know one single person.
That was an amazing time for me! I had gone in with one prayer: “Father, let me know if I belong here with these people, in this particular church.” During that time I had an opportunity to meet with the pastor and we had an instant connection. He gave me such a warm welcome back and, without knowing what I had been praying for, he said “I know this is the right place for you. You belong here!” The following morning, as I participated in the activities of the day, we were asked to sit at a different table than the one we had been previously assigned. Then, they told us that under our plate, there was a personal message for each of us given by the Holy Spirit. The girl seated across from me read her message and started to cry. She had lost a baby in childbirth and her Scripture was “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I thought to myself how appropriate for her, but what if I had sat there instead? Then I took my message. There was a picture of drawn curtains with the Eucharist exposed and it said: “Welcome home!!! When you come back home, I will throw the biggest party ever!” Now, I was the one crying! My prayer that I wanted to be home had been answered in a very clear way.
The long labyrinth of my life — all of those crooked lines searching for Mother Church — was over. I had made it home! In that atmosphere, I started to blossom. I feel that the change in my life has been dramatic and there is a prevailing peace in belonging.
Just like most people that make this journey, I felt frustrated with the indifference of many practicing Catholics, but then I find precious jewels in hearts that are so open and so hungry! I don’t find the hype and excitement of some of the services I was used to, but now I have the weekly and sometimes daily encounters with the living God, who calls all to a deeper walk of faith and trust. The Eucharist is a constant source of growth in humility and dependence on God. I don’t know why it took us so long to come back and not to have our children brought up in the Church (although most of them went through Catholic school). Funny, right? But I trust their walk with Jesus and their profound love for the Lord. I know the Lord will bring them into the fullness they desire.
How can I express the joy of coming back home? Home is not a perfect place, but it is the Church that Jesus founded; the Church in which — through His Mother — Jesus first revealed Himself to me; and the Church that has opened its doors wide for us to come back. I just hope and pray that I could give back some of the glorious truths I had found along the way. I give all the glory to my precious Lord and the “cloud of witnesses” that had cheered me on through this long process.
God did draw the picture of who I am today with all the crooked lines of my life!
Ercy Joy Ghiringhelli is now retired and is a grandmother to 11 grandchildren, and counting. She is involved in her local parish, St. Philip Neri, in Fort Mill, SC. She teaches confirmation classes and participates in Bible studies, prayer groups, and many other activities.