My Journey Home – In God’s Timing
Featuring Mary Stevanus/
December 30, 2011
Before I was thirty years old, I never considered the Catholic Faith as anything more than a curiosity. Why would anyone be persuaded to worship the Virgin Mary, the saints, and statues in the place of Jesus? How could Catholics be deluded enough to think they could sin all week, confess to a priest on Saturday, so they could receive Communion on Sunday, and still think they would make it to heaven? We were taught many more sinister suspicions about Catholics and warned to stay away from them because ours was the “full Gospel.” We believed even most of the other Protestant churches did not interpret the Scriptures correctly, and we were never quite sure of their salvation.
I was a member of the Nazarene Church, which was founded in the early 1900s and evolved from several break-offs from the Church of England. Its emphasis was on holiness of heart. Nazarene theology fully accepted the articles of faith in the Nicene Creed. They also taught that there were two works of grace: “salvation,” accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, and “sanctification,” the infilling of the Holy Spirit that perfected the believer. I embraced Nazarene teaching and was baptized at age eleven. But I could never quite believe that I was perfect enough to measure up to God’s expectations, though I tried exceptionally hard to live this faith.
There are many good Christian people, including some of my family, who continue to worship in my former church, and I hope we will meet in heaven some day for I do not doubt their faith. I am indebted to those teachers who gave me a foundation of faith and helped me to know Jesus at a young age. My mother was a faithful believer, and I am especially grateful that she made sure her seven children went to church with her on a regular basis. I feel confident my father also believed, but he could not follow the strict rule against the use of tobacco, so he felt unwelcome in our services.
Growing up Nazarene
When I was four years old, our family was invited to attend Sunday School at the Nazarene church in our small Southeastern Washington town. I began learning about Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, among many others. I was fascinated with all these stories, and they made the Word of God vibrant and alive as though they happened yesterday. As I grew older, the stories were more complete and I studied whole Bible passages, memorizing many of them. By the end of my high school years, I had read the Bible cover to cover at least twice.
In spite of all that Scripture study, I was a painfully scrupulous teenager, always afraid I would do something to make God angry. The sermons we heard often emphasized our sinfulness and included graphic images of punishment for sin. The remedy was to begin again, that is, come forward at an altar call and be saved all over again because we had become “backsliders.” I thought God loved sinners coming in from the cold more than those who were backsliders. Looking back, I think I was more scrupulous than other kids my age and feared the vengeance of God, rather than knowing His love. I could never quite trust that God loved one so insignificant and flawed as I was. My red-headed, Irish temper was always getting me into trouble with God.
Two years at a Nazarene College in Idaho brought some clarity to my mind while studying Scripture and theology, though much of the first 1500 years between the Apostles and the Reformation was not emphasized, except for the Apostle’s Creed. But there was little teaching about the formation of the Creed or how it came to be accepted as articles of faith. In a sola Scriptura and sola fide belief system, it was assumed that the entire Creed was based on Scripture alone, and taught by the first Christians. I did not then question how that squared up with the fact that the canon of the New Testament was not finalized until the late fourth century.
It was explained to us that the Catholic Church had become corrupt during the Middle Ages and God deserted it, placing the apostolic succession in Martin Luther, transferring that to the Protestants in order to protect the Christian faith from serious error. The explosion of Protestant break-offs over personal interpretation of the Scriptures was barely covered, but we held that we Nazarenes possessed the “full Gospel” and other interpretations were suspect. Yet, I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of Catholic and Lutheran beliefs of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and why we could not possibly believe in either. The teachings of John Calvin and other reformers were dismissed as containing many errors. I held tenaciously to what I had been taught – I was on the good side of truth.
To be fair, in the decades between my college years to now, many of those Nazarene attitudes toward other faiths have softened and become more ecumenical, less critical and judgmental. Yet, to many Nazarenes, the Catholic Church is still heretical, and they fear Catholics are deluded, having no personal knowledge or experience of God’s grace. John F. Kennedy once said, “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the deliberate, contrived, and dishonest lie, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”
It is so very hard for an individual to step back and take a good look at these myths that have been passed from generation to generation for 500 years. I longed for truth, but I hoped I already possessed its core. It would take an epiphany of grace, wholly unexpected and transforming, to open the eyes of my heart. It would come only in God’s timing, a time when He could penetrate the walls of those unrealistic myths and suspicions I held so tenaciously.
At the end of my sophomore year, I had to leave college for lack of funds. On my last night in the dorm I went up to the small chapel on the third floor and prayed. I had always believed I must find God’s plan for my life, and I didn’t know what it was. I was desperate for some guidance. After a couple hours of begging God to give me understanding, I opened my Bible to the Gospel of John and began to read, hoping for something that would give me clarity and peace of mind. I eventually came to John 16:12-13: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. When he (the Holy Spirit) comes, being the spirit of truth, he will guide you into all truth.”
At that time I didn’t know what to call it, but I think that was the first contemplative experience of my life. I didn’t have to know the road ahead, for the Holy Spirit would lead me and, sometime in the future, I would understand. Time slipped by unawares as I was blessed with a mixture of hope, peace, and awe. The presence of God enveloped me into His love. Like Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor, I wanted to build a tent and stay there forever. But, like them, I had to come down from the mountain top; still the memory of that night continues to amaze and sustain me.
Truth knocked at the door
That next summer, I moved to Portland, Oregon with two college friends, joined a local Nazarene church, made new friends, and volunteered for a number of ministries. Within two years we all married and began our own separate lives in the Portland area, raising children and working. There was nothing extraordinary about my life for the next six years. My marriage was not a particularly happy one; there were a lot of confusing control and isolation issues. It was a struggle every Sunday to surmount the objections against attending worship services, and many times I lost the battle, so my spiritual life suffered.
I often thought of those hours in the chapel in the college dorm – and the message I was sure God gave me. Where was God now, and when would I get some insight about His plan for my life? Surely this was not it.
In 1964, my husband and I applied for jobs teaching school in Alaska for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and were accepted. So we, with our three children, moved to a tiny Russian Orthodox Eskimo village, accessible only by bush plane. The next year we moved to another more isolated village on the Alaskan Tundra, a few miles from the Bering Sea. The people of Chefornak were all Catholic, served by Jesuit missionaries. Two weeks after our arrival, the village priest knocked on our back door, introduced himself, and hesitatingly told us that the former teachers let him come to the teacher’s quarters to take a shower once in awhile. Ours was the only house in the village with running water. I laughed, and said, “Sure – and stay for dinner too,” (after you smell better). And that was the humble beginning of my Road to Damascus and the fulfillment of that message in the chapel.
That night, after dinner, I began asking the Jesuit priest questions about Catholic beliefs. My first question was, “Why do you Catholic priests think you can forgive sins? Only God can do that.” I added that I thought it was possible they got that strange custom from some of those “extra” books the Catholics have in their Bible. He replied, “You mean the ones that Martin Luther tossed out?” Not wishing to be deterred from my original question, I politely passed over that one, and back to the “prove it” about the forgiving of sins. So, he asked me to get out my Bible (King James Version), and we looked up passages referring to Jesus breathing on the Apostles, giving them the power to forgive or retain sins (John 20:21-23). After discussing this, I told him that I could see his point, but there must be some other explanation, and I would have to think about it.
Then the strangest thing happened: he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Now, don’t ask me anything more about the Catholic Faith!” I objected and asked why he would say such a thing. He replied, “because I can prove everything, and then you’d have to be Catholic.” I laughed and told him he had nothing to worry about – I’d never be a Catholic! It was impossible!
Whenever I think back to that night, I have to smile, for I know I was being brashly bold in my own beliefs, thinking I could convince and convert a Jesuit! No one ever warned me about Jesuits. Nor did I suspect that this was the time the Holy Spirit would break through my theological barricades and bring me to understanding and truth.
Unraveling the myth
Two weeks later, in conversation after another shared meal, I asked how Catholics could possibly believe in transubstantiation. So we read together the entire sixth chapter of John, and by the time we got to the end I was stunned! I had accepted literally all the miracles in that long chapter, but glossed over the discourse on the “Bread of Life” at the end. Though I had read that chapter many times, I always held that consuming the Body and Blood of Jesus was not meant literally – it was just a symbol. In my church, we celebrated “The Lord’s Supper” four times a year with grape juice and crackers – the symbols of Jesus’ Body and Blood. But now, the unanswered question in my mind was “if it was just a symbol, why did so many of His followers leave Him?” And, I learned the word “Eucharist” for the first time.
That night I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of was, if I had to be Catholic, how would I ever explain this to my family and friends back home? I would be a pariah, an outcast. Even my husband would find it ludicrous, for though he did not practice his own faith, he had even stronger negative feelings than I about the Catholic Church. I resolved to study this further – surely there were many other issues I would not be able to accept, like the rosary, the belief in Purgatory, indulgences, and other Catholic practices. If I could find anything that was heretical, it would free me to continue in the faith I grew up with. The alternative terrified me.
In the next seven months, I studied some of that first 1500 years of the Catholic Church that I missed in my college theology studies: the sacraments, apostolic succession, the teaching authority of the Church, and sacred Tradition. I had no access to a library, and I wouldn’t have known even what to order if I had a Catholic book catalog. So with what little reading I could find, that Spirit of Truth began to transform me. One by one, my concepts of Catholic practice fell by the wayside as I understood for the first time what they really believed, instead of the myths against Catholics I had been taught.
I began to long to be a part of the Catholic Church. An epiphany of understanding illuminated my mind and heart as I hungered to receive the Eucharist and other sacraments.
The Nazarene faith always taught that abortion was wrong, but family planning and contraception were totally acceptable. These issues were rarely discussed or even questioned, so I never searched for answers to the morality of these concepts – they just were. However, as I began to study Catholic thought on the sanctity of life and the teaching authority of the Church, I reached a decision to stop using contraceptives and discussed this change with my husband. So, during that winter I was expecting our fourth child. At the same time, as I studied Catholic teaching, my hunger to be one with the Church intensified. Finally, on Easter, April 10, 1966, in a little Eskimo Village Catholic church on the shores of the Ooksookvak River, I made my profession of faith and received the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist for the first time. The same day my three children were baptized. It was the most joyful moment of my life, and the memory helped sustain me for the avalanche of pain and suffering that was about to follow.
Embracing the cross
I wish I could say I took the next few years with equanimity, smiles, and gentle responses, but I also had a fair amount of fight and spite of my own to contend with. God gave me a wonderful gift of unbounded grace, but He didn’t make me perfect. That would be a lifelong journey, and it is not finished yet.
I wrote my mother telling her of my conversion a week before we were to head south to my childhood home in Walla Walla for the summer – I didn’t want her to have time to reply before we left. Still, I was in no way prepared for her reaction when we arrived. I had caused more grief than she could bear; for the first time in my life I heard her sob uncontrollably – and I was the cause. She told me she was so ashamed to have a Catholic daughter that she would not go back to her church for the shame of it. I took the tough love stand and said, “I cannot believe you said that! Do you mean to say that all these years you took us to church so others would think well of us, instead of our need for God?” She did not answer, but the next Sunday she went back to her church. And, though she didn’t really accept it, I assured her I still believed in Jesus and His saving grace.
Neighbors from across the street whom I had known for many years were so stunned by my conversion to the Catholic faith that the husband, who was a retired Nazarene minister, turned his back on me. He gave me that dreaded “backslider” label and said he would never look upon my face again – in this life or the next, as he pointed to the door of his home.
My husband said he had no desire to be married to a Catholic and that I had freed him to be unfaithful to our marriage vows. He followed through. I am convinced that his excuse was a smokescreen for the reality – that he felt loss of control and his ability to isolate me from others.
All of these negative responses began in the first three months after I entered the Catholic Church. I was reeling from the sheer impact of it all, like I was in a train wreck, dazed and broken. In the eighth month of my pregnancy I spoke little, went for long walks through neighborhoods and parks of my childhood, attended daily Mass at a local parish, and prayed for healing and patience. In spite of all these difficult events, I never once regretted my decision to come home to the Catholic Church or entertained the notion of recanting. My childhood God of vengeance was replaced by the God of love. I was home.
After our son was born, we returned to Alaska, and taught for another four years – years of intense emotional pain and sorrow. In the aftermath of that first summer, the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse in my marriage intensified and became more than I could endure. So, in 1970 we moved back to Portland and I filed for divorce. I joined a parish, enrolled my children in Catholic schools, made many new Catholic friends, and worked to support my children. Ultimately, I know our separation was a gift of God, freeing me from the sorrow of an abusive spouse and an unhappy marriage.
It was not my Catholic Faith that suffered, for I was just as solidly Catholic as I once was Protestant. Every time I received the Eucharist, I thanked God for this wonderful gift, totally unexpected and unmerited. My study of Catholic belief in that winter of ’65-’66 was only the beginning of exploring the heights and depths of God’s mercy and love. A friend once said, “God’s love is like the ocean – as a Protestant I could only swim on the surface, but as a Catholic, I can explore all the wonders of the deep that I never before knew existed.” I still learn new things, and like a sponge I absorb and treasure each new discovery.
Life as a divorced Catholic with children was not easy, and many times I nearly despaired, but God was always close to me in my darkest times. I thank my Protestant upbringing for all the Scripture memorization from my youth, for I could often recall Bible verses and songs that helped to sustain me in rough times. I do not know why God would grace me with this wonderful Catholic Faith, for I am just an ordinary person with ordinary talents, and I have not accomplished great and memorable things. But, I am sure this gift was an answer to my college prayers and my hunger for truth. I love the Beatitude, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for God, for they shall be filled.” I firmly believe that God will not disappoint anyone who seeks Him with a sincere heart. His timing is different from ours, at a time and a place where He can break through the brick walls of our misunderstanding. It is simply a gift of grace to the least of us in the Kingdom of God.
In the years since my children grew up and moved on with their lives, I have experienced the great pleasure of helping others on their journey of faith through the RCIA process, and taking part in other parish ministries. I go to daily Mass often, and, even after all these years, I am still in awe of the privilege of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. Psalm 139 has a beautiful line that I have captured for my own journey home: “If I should take the wings of the dawn; if I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall guide me, and your right hand hold me fast.”
On an August day in 1964, we took the wings of the dawn (airplanes) and settled at the farthest limits of the sea, (the Alaskan Tundra), and God was there to guide me and grace me with this wonderful Catholic Faith. I am eternally grateful and amazed at God’s goodness. This was His plan for my life that I sought so desperately in the night hours in that little college chapel: the plan I would not have been able to bear or understand then – only in God’s timing. And that plan continues, always through gifts of His grace.