Forgiveness on the Path to Faith
Featuring Ari Mack/
May 16, 2016
I was raised in a Christian home, the youngest of four children. My dad was, and still is, a minister of a Bible church. He and my mother, both raised Baptist, are very fundamentalist evangelicals. My grandfathers on both sides were raised Catholic but later left the faith.
Dad considers himself a three point Calvinist. We children were raised strictly, very limited as to television, movies, clothes, etc. We were taught to know and read the Bible regularly and to know what other Christian denominations taught and why they were “wrong” in comparison to our church. Catholics were perceived as being the worst of all the churches. Most individual Catholics were likely not Christians; they thought they earned their salvation through works and donations, they worshiped Mary and statues. The Church itself was a cult. Priests and nuns, we were told, were not really celibate, as they claimed.
There was not a lot of warmth or love in our home. I now understand that my parents are likely dysfunctional. We appeared to be a wholesome Christian family on the outside, but in the home, there was no connection to the heart. Instead, there was physical, emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse, no talk about the “why” of Christianity beyond avoiding hell and being “right.” We were held to perfectionist standards; appearances were more important than reality. I began to view God in the same way: exacting, judgmental, perfectionistic, and terrifying. Looking back, my parents’ beliefs held the Bible to be almost more important than Christ Himself; the apostle Paul was revered almost more than Christ Himself, and none of their theology made any difference in the way we lived. As Marcus Grodi sometimes points out, we had a belief in “Gospel A” and “Gospel B.” Certain things Jesus talked about, such as losing your salvation or doing good works, did not apply to modern Christians, but only to His Apostles before His passion. There were elaborate explanations for the simple words of Jesus.
Our beliefs set up opportunities for spiritual pride and a sort of Gnosticism and disconnect from the physical world. Christianity was reduced to mental assent to certain teachings, in order to avoid the wrath of an angry God and to avoid hell. This was the classic notion of penal substitutionary atonement — Jesus was punished for us by a vengeful God; He didn’t give his life voluntarily. And even after the fact of the crucifixion and resurrection, we weren’t really changed by God or His grace, we were merely covered by it to avoid hell. “Snow-covered dung” was definitely how I thought God saw us and how I viewed myself: worthless, unable to change, deserving of death. Growing up with such a nihilistic worldview was depressing.
From a young age, however, I internally questioned many of my parents’ beliefs. I had friends of other Christian denominations and of other faiths, including Hindus and Muslims. I remember thinking that it didn’t seem right that I got to go to heaven and they didn’t, simply because they were born into non-Christian homes or the wrong denomination. Some of my friends were children of immigrants, very cultural in their religion. Our religion, in contrast, was bookish and intellectual. We had no cross in the home or the church growing up, no symbols — too Catholic! But I knew my friends of other Christian denominations were truly Christian. I remember wanting to be part of a group larger than our small, independent church. I wished I were able to give one word, a clear answer when asked what religion we were, like the name of a denomination, rather than having to give a long explanation of what we weren’t. I loved the Sound of Music movie as a child and mimicked behind closed doors the kneeling and praying with the sign of the cross. I also always wanted to be Mary in our family nativity plays at Christmas time. These seem like small, silly matters, but I look back and see little signs that God was drawing me to Catholicism.
Burning the Heretic
When I was a teenager, my brother’s wife expressed a desire to become Catholic. (They were more than 10 years older than me.) My brother enlisted the “help” of my father to stop her from doing this. They locked my sister-in-law in the house and yelled at her for hours on end, trying to convince her of her folly. This was her first exposure to the kind of abuse we were used to. It was followed by a letter-writing campaign, harassment, physical threats, and bullying for years. Eventually, in spite of their efforts, she did become Catholic, and she and my brother divorced. My brother holds many of the same theological positions as my parents, but their intervention contributed materially to the end of that marriage. Though my family members do not believe in divorce, they make exceptions for certain circumstances, such as my sister-in-law not properly “submitting” to her husband on this matter. They believe she left Christianity when she became Catholic. In their minds, it was also an abandonment of her marriage vows. These were the violent extremes my parents resorted to when one of their own turned to Catholicism.
By the time I left for college, I considered myself a skeptical Christian. I rejected much of my childhood religion, such as the exclusivity of predestination (I preferred a New-Age style universalism), the crudely literalistic interpretations of the Bible, the suspicion against other religions and denominations. I figured most people had some truth, but we Christians were at least all on the same team. I would have left Christianity altogether, but there was something about Christ that made me stay. I couldn’t deny the fact that the resurrection had changed history. The C.S. Lewis argument of Jesus being either “lunatic, liar, or lord” was convincing. Though I wasn’t sure what else to believe, I accepted that Christ was a distinct figure in history.
I had some Catholic friends, but none of them seemed very devout. Nevertheless, I loved the reverence and beauty of the Catholic Faith. Though I didn’t understand it, I didn’t view Catholicism the way my parents did. I respected Catholics for their beliefs, as I would respect anyone else. It was my good fortune as a musician to be able to visit the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York, and Notre Dame in Paris, all before becoming Catholic. These places seemed holy to me, even if I didn’t always understand what went on inside those walls.
The Song of Angels
I began to attend a charismatic church in college. At the time, the messages that God was good, that God wanted to bless you, not curse you, that God could care about you in a material way (providing physical healing or a job) were much-needed messages to help me see God differently. This was the opposite of the stern, unmerciful God of Calvinism. I embraced it and, for the first time, learned about forgiveness. This was truly a turning point in my life. I had known about forgiveness only to the extent of God forgiving us of our sins (a vertical forgiveness). It was a foreign concept to me that we, in our turn, must forgive others, that our salvation might even depend on it (a horizontal forgiveness). This new understanding set me free from bitterness and anger, especially toward my parents.
The charismatic church also opened my mind to eventually believing in the sacraments. They believed that physical things had power. They distributed prayer cloths to those who needed prayer, they had anointing oil for prayer, they emphasized communion as an important way of receiving God (still symbolically, of course), they prayed by laying on of hands, etc. This was all new to me, but it made sense.
I am a classical musician by training. As such, I worked in many different churches as a musician throughout college and young adulthood: Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Non-denominational, Presbyterian, charismatic, and finally, Catholic. I had no problem participating in these various faith communities. I never felt a need to become a member of any of them until I performed in the Catholic Church. Nor did I feel the need to convert anyone or disagree with their beliefs. I simply agreed with some things and internally may have disagreed with others. I still felt that we were all a little bit right and a little bit wrong as Christians. It made no difference to me what people believed, nor did I ever want to fight about theology or doctrine, as I had seen how destructive that was in my childhood. We had Christ in common, and that was enough, so I thought.
To study music history, as I did in my classical music training, is to study the music of the Catholic Church. During many eras, the Church was a major patron of music and responsible for some of the only records and remnants we have of the music of those times. The musical parts of the Mass are largely unchanged throughout history (the Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc.). This knowledge made me appreciate the Church for its contribution to the arts and music throughout history.
Travel, Tomes and Disillusionment
As a musician, I had the opportunity one year to go to Taize, France for a week. The members of the Taize community are an ecumenical group of monks, founded by a Catholic. They are known for their short hymns, which are sung several times to create a meditative atmosphere. We had church services three times a day, beginning with Eucharist each morning. (There was a separate line of consecrated hosts available to Catholics there.) I loved my time at Taize; it was like attending an international church camp. There were people there from around the world, all seeking God, many of them Catholic. There was a real peace there. Though I only stayed a week, it felt much longer.
When I came back from that experience, I began looking for a church that had weekly communion available and started attending an Episcopalian church semi-regularly. (At this point, the thought of attending a Catholic church had not even crossed my mind.) This satisfied my Eucharistic desire and my more liberal political beliefs that I had taken on in college.
Around the same time, I discovered two books at my parents’ house, which my sister-in-law had given them during her attempted conversion: Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie and Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard. They were filled with notes of disagreement in the margins from my parents. One had a 15-page hand-written rebuttal from my father. I decided to return the books to my sister-in-law, their rightful owner, but first, I read them for myself. This was probably the conscious beginning of my conversion.
While I had rejected many aspects of my parents’ Christianity and respected Catholics as I would respect others of any faith, I didn’t really know what Catholics believed. These two books answered many questions, disabused me of preconceived notions or misunderstandings, and showed me a beautiful Church. For the first time, I understood something of the Catholic perspective. I did not feel compelled to convert, but I remember thinking that, historically speaking, Catholicism is the original form of Christianity. Also, whether I agreed with them or not, the Catholic explanation of all of these doctrines made at least as much sense, if not more, than the explanations I had heard about various elements of the Catholic faith from Protestant sources. I read John 6 for what seemed like the first time. I began to believe in transubstantiation, though I didn’t think I had to go to a Catholic Church to find Jesus in the Eucharist. I had already sought out a church which had weekly communion; I just changed my approach to thinking it really was the Body and Blood of Christ.
Then one week at the Episcopal church, the priest said in his homily that the resurrection was not real, that we didn’t have to believe it. He also said something along the lines that everything we profess in the creed was really not dogma. We were saying it without having to believe it. As I sat in the pew, this really bothered me. I had enough skepticism as it was. At times it was hard for me to believe many of the doctrines of the faith. For a clergy member to give me permission to stop believing was so disheartening to me. I wanted him to call me to deeper conversion, greater belief. I wanted him to give me answers to why I should believe, not give me permission to stop believing.
I remember looking around that beautiful church with the stained glass windows, the altar, the vestments, the red light to signify the presence of the host in the tabernacle and thinking, “This is just a fake Catholic church.” Why are we bothering with the symbols, signs, and forms of Christianity if none of it is believed to be true? Why bother, if everything is meaningless, symbolic, or mythical? I never went back to that church.
Creeping Towards Catholicism
Around the time I was disillusioned by the Episcopal church and had read the two books about Catholicism, I began playing music for the Spanish Masses at a Catholic Church. It was the first time I had set foot in a Catholic church, much less attended a Mass. I believed that Catholics were Christians, that Jesus was present in the Eucharist, that it was historically the Church Christ founded. However, I still did not want to convert. I didn’t feel compelled or that it was necessary for my salvation or conscience. I thought I could stay as a great admirer of Catholics, one in spirit, but have the best of both Protestant and Catholic worlds. It also seemed utterly impossible to convert because of my family. I couldn’t even tell my parents that I played music at a Catholic church. My working for “the enemy” would have caused an uproar. I didn’t even consider it — it was inconceivable.
During this time, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of Catholics. One of them gave me a rosary. People at Mass never questioned my faith, never pressured me to convert. I saw how they reverently and beautifully practiced their faith. For the first time, I met Catholics who knew their faith.
Then one day I had a dream in which I saw Mary. She was motionless, said and did nothing. Bright pink roses were circling around her. She wore red, green, and yellow stars (similar to the dress of Our Lady of Guadalupe) and was standing on top of the world. I started to pray Hail Marys and the Rosary. Still, I didn’t feel that I had to become Catholic. I occasionally attended the charismatic church during that time, but I began to have a problem with some of the “prosperity” teachings. Their theology of suffering did not make sense to me.
The next year, I moved and began graduate school. I got another job as a church musician, once again in a Catholic parish, this time for English Masses. I attended two or three Masses per weekend, leaving me unable to attend church anywhere else — not that I knew where I would go.
I loved the liturgy and the prayers of the Catholic Church. I appreciated that the Mass did not depend on the personality or the preferences of the pastor. Almost every part of the Mass was a biblical reference or quotation. I appreciated that we actually sang the psalms. Gradually, as I saw the host raised over the altar week after week, with the words “This is my body” and “behold, the Lamb of God,” I came to believe that Christ was truly present there, that this was my Church, and that I wanted to receive communion there. I was tired of watching on the sidelines. I wanted to be Catholic.
I remember thinking how humble it was for Christ to become our bread. Incidentally, Pope St. John Paul II died that spring on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. He had been pope my entire lifetime. It felt like a great, personal loss to me. Upon hearing of his death, I thought to myself, “I have to become Catholic.”
I still didn’t think this would ever be possible because of my family, but I mentioned it casually one day to a choir member. She grabbed me by the hand, walked me over to the priest and told him, “She wants to become a Catholic.”
Once the cat was out of the bag, I looked up an RCIA class that would work into my schedule. I attended weekly, thinking, “If my parents could see me now!” I didn’t tell anyone about going to RCIA. I thought, “I don’t have to go through with this, I’m just seeking.” I was going to take the classes, week by week, one step at a time, and not feel pressure to convert. But, as I took the classes, I gradually knew I had to be Catholic. Everything made sense. I felt affirmed in many of the beliefs I already had and was able to accept the Catholic teachings as they were presented to me. I read books, heard conversion stories, and became totally convinced. If I didn’t convert, I would be violating my own conscience.
Though I was extremely nervous for my initial Confession, that night I had the deepest, most restful sleep ever. It was a healing experience. I ended up receiving Confirmation on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, exactly one liturgical year after the death of Pope St. John Paul II.
Since becoming Catholic, I have come to realize many rich paths within the Church: the intellectual tradition, the mystics, the social justice warriors. It is the best decision I ever made. I won’t say that life is easier as a Catholic — in fact, my life is much harder. But there is so much more meaning. The Catholic explanations of suffering, of human sexuality, of the true, the good, the beautiful, of natural law.… The more I learn, the more I want to learn.
I remember how, as a Protestant, thinking I needed to attend a church that closely fit my beliefs. I, as an individual, had to determine what was true. And each individual Christian had to discern, through his Bible or his church, what was true on a host of issues. Now, I feel so secure in the tradition of the Catholic Church. I don’t blindly accept the teachings, but it is a relief that a group of individuals much smarter than I, guided by the Holy Spirit, have labored to present the divine truth on every issue.
I will admit that, in the first few years of my Catholic life, I had many struggles with Catholic teaching. I still had some Protestant leanings. I didn’t see anything wrong with being Catholic but disagreeing with or even disobeying the Church on certain issues.
Two of these issues were contraception and homosexuality. I didn’t know anyone who practiced natural family planning or was completely open to life. I thought that was crazy and antiquated, that if we had the technology available to plan families, we should use it. I misunderstood the Catholic teaching against contraception to mean that all couples were expected to have as many children as physically possible. I also had a problem with condemning homosexual acts. I didn’t think it fair to tell gay people, many of whom were my friends, that they had to abstain or be alone their whole lives, especially since they didn’t choose to be homosexual. I just thought of myself as a “liberal Catholic.”
A few years into my conversion, the translation of the English Mass changed. This seems like a minor issue to me now, but at the time, I remember really struggling with it. The familiar Mass that I loved had been taken away from me. I considered using that as a reason to leave the Catholic Church and become Episcopalian again. But the real reason was that I disagreed with the Church’s teaching on sexuality. As society at large came to embrace gay marriage, I didn’t see how I could in good conscience remain Catholic and support my gay friends as people. I still thought natural family planning was the rhythm method, used only by radicals. Since I was unmarried at the time, it wasn’t a pressing issue. I just figured I wouldn’t have to obey that teaching when the time came. I was sure no one did. The only thing that really kept me in the Church was that I knew Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.
All the Way Through the Door
During this period, a number of people in my life died over a short length of time. I began to feel the fear of God. I decided I would at least obey Church teaching, even though I didn’t understand it. Life was short, and I wanted to put my earlier priorities back into place. This was definitely imperfect contrition, but it was contrition. I changed my behavior through fear of hell, although I still truly believed that gays should be able to marry and that contraception was perfectly acceptable. My thought was that I had better try to be right with God by submitting to Church teaching.
I went to Confession much more regularly. I remember the priest saying that I had been “running my own show” for some time. It was time to try it God’s way for once and let him run the show. This submission was the death of the last vestige of my Protestantism. I didn’t understand these teachings, I still had protests and doubts, but I was willing to submit to the Church. Addicts in a 12-step program talk about “white knuckle sobriety.” This is very much where I was, spiritually speaking — a place of obedience out of fear and sheer will power, not out of understanding or holiness.
During this time of outer obedience and inner confusion, I learned about natural law and Theology of the Body. I took one of the “Great Courses” on Natural Law, I heard Christopher West speak in person about chastity and Theology of the Body, and I also took a Natural Family Planning class for marriage preparation. (I was engaged to a Catholic man who is now my husband.) These three experiences resolved both my issues, contraception and homosexuality. It’s as if I had never understood the point of sex or the human person to begin with. I finally realized that these Church teachings were for our own good, that they represented God’s love for us — free, faithful, total, fruitful — and that all of us are required to treat our sexuality with restraint and chastity, not just my gay friends. I finally accepted the teachings inwardly. I understood the connection between contraception and homosexuality, in that I accepted that all sexual acts must be open to life. When I finally understood it, I was grateful for the teaching. This was the final turning point in my conversion.0
These teachings are difficult and countercultural, but they make so much more sense to me now than Protestant and worldly teachings. They don’t exist to be restrictive. They are actually liberating. I have found a strange connection between the Calvinism of my youth and the secular humanism of my young adulthood: both disregard and disrespect the body. The one viewed the world and the body as evil, fallen, and depraved. The other viewed the world and the body as meaningless, completely for our pleasure and choice, and subject to the human will or assigned meaning. Catholic teaching respects the body and teaches the meaning behind it. I finally understood the “why” behind the rules.
The Compassion of Baby Steps
I threw myself ever more deeply into my Catholic faith. Somehow, as I have learned about the Theology of the Body, natural law, and the human person, I have found myself passionately pro-life. I see my former viewpoints as part of the culture of death, and I pray for my gay friends.
When Pope Francis recently talked about gradualism in the conversion process, I really understood what he meant. If you had told me, after living with monks for a week in France, that I needed to become Catholic, it would have never worked out. As a new Catholic, still not understanding the teachings, if you had told me that I needed to be married in the Church against family wishes and never use contraception, I would have scoffed. Now, however, I see that Christ wooed me, first with the Eucharist, and then, bit by bit, with the fullness of truth.
My conversion has been a major source of tension in my family. I was married to a Catholic in a Catholic Mass. While my parents did attend the wedding, they tried their hardest to prevent it during our engagement. However difficult our relationship is, I know I am home in the Catholic Church. The sacraments give me strength to deal with that tension, along with other challenges in life. I thank God for the gift of Confession and the Eucharist and a Catholic marriage. I look back and see that the Eucharist is one of the main ways I was drawn into the faith. However, knowing that I faltered in my Catholicism early on makes me pray for the gift of final perseverance. As passionate and “on fire” as many converts are, we need to pray for them and guide them so that they don’t lose the faith. As unlikely as that may seem, it is a very real possibility. I know because I lived it.