I spent three days recently with my daughter and son-in-law in a grueling marathon of house and yard work as part of an effort to sell their home in the suburbs of an American city that supposedly has a “seller’s market.” Unfortunately, this has not proven true for them in two years. Houses in that market appear to fall into three categories, the last of which proves to be unappealing to buyers. That is the category into which their home falls.
The first category is the “Older Small House,” which is snatched up quickly by those with limited means. Next is the “Modern Sprawling House,” popular with those of more substantial means. Last is the “Mid-20th Century Solid House,” which sports reasonable square footage on a sizeable lot for comparable great value. It perhaps requires some cosmetic updating for personal taste, but buyers are apparently reluctant to invest sweat equity.
As it happens, my spiritual journey falls into these same three categories of houses.
Older Small House
My childhood years were spent in a spiritually “Older Small House.” What is now in this category, materially and spiritually, was trendy and ubiquitous in the Baby Boomer era into which I was born. Though spiritual content and formation were minimal in our house, it was sufficient to set my feet on the path for the longer journey ahead.
My father was an abusive alcoholic. He harbored an inner anger against his own alcoholic father. My mother’s upbringing was rather devoid of faith. She was unbaptized until she married my German Lutheran father. As her three children came along, she felt the need to have us baptized. Subsequently, she sought membership in a local Presbyterian church. Her motivation was to do what she thought was proper; it was not indicative of any spiritual awakening. My father had decided he did not believe in God, but attended church with my mother, while my brothers and I attended Sunday school.
Despite the stormy atmosphere in our home, I never projected onto God, my Eternal Father, any ill feelings I harbored toward my earthly father. Rather, I experienced a remarkable grace of God’s abiding presence in my life. My earliest memories are of praying earnestly and of an acute sense of God in nature, into which I escaped as often as possible. I loved singing the old hymns and learning Bible stories in Sunday school and was thrilled when my beloved grandma, Dad’s mother, gave me a Bible for my tenth birthday. I faithfully read and highlighted that Bible, finding a deep spiritual connection and solace that counteracted my tumultuous family life.
Modern Sprawling House
As I entered my high school years, the spiritual trajectory in our home took a radical turn. The Charismatic Movement had burst onto the scene in many mainline Protestant denominations, transforming the humdrum spirituality of pew warming and “checking the box” into a vibrant pursuit of embracing life in Christ to the fullest measure. God’s “Modern Sprawling House” lay wide open, available to anyone who would give his life to Christ and accept Him as his personal Savior. Isaiah 43:18-19 beckoned: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth.” The banner that flew over this “Modern Sprawling House” was 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” Our family enthusiastically departed the “Older Small House” for this new leg of the journey.
Two years earlier, my father had quit drinking “cold turkey,” without the help of Alcoholics Anonymous or any other sup- port group. That left him very lonely and tormented. My mother became involved in a Bible study group with a co-worker and convinced Dad to join her. They both encountered Christ in a powerful, life-changing way.
Dad found the strength to remain sober and soon felt that God wanted him to resign his seventeen-year teaching career to “train up for the Gospel ministry.” Off we went for his three years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Divinity at age 46.
These same years were my high school years. Our dinner table had always been an arena for discussion, both my parents fostering educated conversation with us children. Dad’s seminary years were no different, but the topics were profoundly different. I spent countless hours assisting him with studying, absorbing oceans of theological formation myself. I developed a deep respect for him in these years, his example spurring me on to cultivate my own spiritual journey toward excellence.
Dad was ordained as a Presbyterian minister on June 22, 1975, and I decided to seek a degree in Youth Ministry from a Bible college.
During my college years, I met a young man at work who was a “born again” former Roman Catholic. Having been active in Evangelism Explosion, a ministry birthed by Dr. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, which encouraged me to particularly target Roman Catholics because they usually didn’t have adequate understanding about being “saved,” I considered his “former” status a positive. My parents liked him and strongly encouraged me to marry him. I wasn’t really convinced, but I felt obligated to trust my father’s wisdom in picking out the husband for his only daughter. My father married us, and we attended the church he pastored, having him baptize our three children as they were born to us.
During the first ten years of our marriage, I was plagued with the residual effects of being the adult child of an alcoholic, “recovered” though he was. I confided my difficulty to my father. We discussed the challenge of having him as both pastor and father, and he recommended that I seek out another church, where I could be helped in my emotional healing by a neutral pastor. He assured me of his help as my father in any way he could. Over the years, that help proved to be invaluable.
We settled in a non-denominational charismatic church where conventional structured worship was non-binding. Freedom in the Spirit was tantamount. I was skeptical about some of the expressions of that freedom, but as with my misgivings about marrying that young man, I put aside my doubts to “go with the flow.” I later discovered that this ecclesiastical freedom actually provided the environment I needed to explore and discover emotional stability, but, simultaneously, it put me on the approach to the last leg of my journey, moving into the “Mid-20th Century Solid House,” also known as “The House upon the Rock.”
Mid-20th Century Solid House
The non-denominational church I attended had an association with a retreat center with some very interesting leanings, which I later discovered to be Franciscan. The owner of the center was a former professor at a Bible institute and was very committed to providing a quality environment to help retreatants grow closer to the Lord. Nestled in the wooded hills of central Pennsylvania, it was a haven of tranquility, inviting quiet reflection and a deep encounter with Christ. The occasional time I spent there reminded me of my early years, escaping into nature to be with God. And I did find Him.
Certain books and authors were introduced to me through that retreat center, providing an intriguing spirituality that was like a magnet, wooing me ever deeper. I was greatly encouraged by books like: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection; The Way of the Heart by Henri J. M. Nouwen; A Life of Prayer by St. Teresa of Avila; The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton; God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi by Julien Green; and An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis De Sales. These authors were Catholics, which astounded me, but the depth of their intimacy with God was like nothing I had ever encountered. Questions began to nag at me: “How could these people be so unquestionably intimate with God while they were steeped in the errors of Catholicism? Didn’t God care that they were so off the tracks while being unmistakably on the tracks? Why didn’t God correct them? Was He just being merciful in overlooking their blatant ignorance? But how could He turn a blind eye to what I had always been told were grave idolatries?” But I couldn’t shake the lure. I was hooked and began reading the life of every saint I could get my hands on, often crying at the end as though a good friend had died. Many of my friends, especially that former Roman Catholic man I had married, were worrying for my soul.
Aware of the “danger” I was courting, I resolved that it would be impossible, even preposterous, to leave the spiritual opulence of the “Modern Sprawling House” to commit spiritual suicide by transferring residence to the “Mid-20th Century Solid House” that was clearly outdated and faulty. I resolved to be a “closet Catholic” and feed my craving for truth in the obscurity of secrecy. That seemed to be a reasonably safe hideout — until I was convicted by John 17:20–23:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who be- lieve in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.
I began to pray for unity, not just an ethereal unity, but a real, substantial unity that did not exclude Catholicism. The “Mid- 20th Century Solid House” was beginning to pique my interest. The destination was looming, but the questions were only just beginning.
What the Broker Did Not Disclose About “The House Upon the Rock” … Until I Asked
Aside from the personal impact of approaching the “Mid-20th Century Solid House” there was concern for the lives of those with whom my little world intersected. Certainly there was the risk to the marriage I had entered into with that former Roman Catholic, who himself had only grown more stalwart in his resistance as he became more entrenched in the Protestant tradition. There was also the probable loss of most of my friendships. I figured my parents would not abandon me, even if they were disappointed and might become spiritually distant. But there was the question of the impact on the children, who were now in their teenage years. There was also concern over the effect on the wider public, who knew quite well that I was the daughter of a prominent Protestant clergyman. Most striking to me was the impending culture shock. Could I ever effectively make the transition? Additionally, there were many issues regarding doctrine that had to be wrestled with and settled.
When the “Mid-20th Century Solid House” is viewed as just another house on the block, it may elicit either casual admiration or critical disdain. If it is noticed as possibly “The House upon the Rock,” full disclosure does not blare out with a trumpet fanfare. Upon questioning the broker for my daughter’s house about a visually hard-to-detect issue that needed attention but was not a deal breaker, he replied that he does not draw attention to it unless asked because it is in the full written disclosure. “We are not hiding it, but there is no reason to draw attention to it to frighten buyers.” Some may say the devil is in the details, but regarding the Catholic Church, I have found that the devil is in the distortion of the details.Some may say the devil is in the details, but regarding the Catholic Church, I have found that the devil is in the distortion of the details. Click To Tweet In the magnificently thorough Catechism of the Catholic Church, full disclosure has been made and is readily available, but it would overwhelm any prospective interested party if he were required to read it cover to cover before proceeding. Asking along the way is far more expedient. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
My strong theological formation kicked into high gear in order to search out the truth. I had one quest: to lay aside all that I had ever been taught and believed, start over from the beginning, and allow the Spirit to help me discover rock-solid twentieth century truth. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak” (John 16:13).
I had to realize, however, that I had it backwards. I had set out to find out if the Church’s doctrine could be reconciled to my understanding of orthodoxy, but I eventually surrendered to the reality that my doctrine had to conform to what the Church understood as orthodox. I had to let the Church speak for herself and not collect evidence from sources outside the Church to “expose” what she purportedly teaches. I consciously decided to approach everything through the lens of a single question: “Was the Catholic Church just different in practice from what I was used to, or was its doctrine intrinsically wrong?” If the Catholic Church was just different in practice, I felt I had no justifica- tion for remaining separated from it. If the Catholic Church held doctrine that was intrinsically wrong, I needed to know that beyond a doubt and remain securely opposed to it.
As with the project at my daughter’s “Mid-20th Century Solid House”, there were three areas of focus: inside, outside, and foundation. None of us is a professional house stager, but we launched into it with all of our energy, and God blessed our efforts. Likewise, my adventure exploring “The House upon the Rock” had three areas of focus: inside, what pertained to the interior Catholic spirituality; outside, what pertained to the public practice of Catholic worship; and foundation, what pertained to the authority on which the Catholic Church is built. Moreover, I knew of no one who had engaged in such lunacy as to move from Protestantism to Catholicism. So I had to fly by the seat of my pants and hope I didn’t land in hell. I was admittedly scared, hoping I would find something to dissuade me. I launched into it with all my energy, and God blessed my efforts. Truth be told, I discovered it was not “The House upon the Rock” that needed sprucing up, but rather myself and my perceptions.
My initial exposure to Catholic interior spirituality through the lives of the saints raised several concerns that would rattle any Protestant: statues, prayers to the saints, crucifixes, Marian devotion and the Rosary, and relics topped my chart of concerns. I searched the Scriptures, times stumbling unsuspectingly onto passages that quelled my uneasiness. I was also graciously given a Catechism of the Catholic Church, which had just recently been published, and I carefully read it cover to cover.
Reason alone settle my problems with statues and prayers to the saints. In the Protestant churches I had attended, there were crosses, banners depicting various Christian themes, and the Christian flag. At Christmas time, the churches were decorated with appropriate items for the season. They simply drew our minds to the spiritual truths they depicted, with no guilt of idolatry. We were also in the habit of asking one another to pray for our concerns and even encouraged to do so. This did not seem radically different from asking those already perfected before the throne of God to pray for us as well. Logically speaking, it seemed more expedient to ask someone released from a state of sin to pray for us than someone still struggling with concupiscence.
Scripture seemed to easily sanction crucifixes in Numbers 21:9: “So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” and John 19:37: “And again another scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced.’” I discovered that the Rosary was a very beautiful reflection on the life of Christ, the Hail Mary drawing directly from Scripture. I was not struck by lightning, as I begged of God in fear, during my first use of those beads. Also from Scripture, I ac- cidently stumbled across justifi- cation for the use of relics in Acts 19:11–12: “And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them”; and 2 Kings 13:21: “And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet.”
By definition, liturgy is the official public prayer of the Church, and the sacraments are the outward sign of the inward grace they effect. This external expression of worship in the “Mid-20th Century Solid House Upon the Rock” was not prob- lematic. The structure of liturgy seemed to be simply a different flavor compared to the order of worship to which I was accustomed. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of Scripture in the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, notwithstanding the amount of Scripture which informs all of the components of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Sacrament of the Eucharist itself, as the Real Presence of Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, required a closer look at John 6 and the realization that, if Jesus had not really meant literally what He said, He would have clarified His meaning when many of the disciples left Him, saying it was a hard teaching.
Again, simple logic indicated that if the Almighty King of the Universe could reside in the material substance of a human being, while maintaining His full divinity then it is not a far stretch that He could be present under the appearance of anything He chooses, including bread and wine, while maintaining His full divinity.
As I read through many of the early Church Fathers, I discovered that the Liturgy of the Mass has not changed in its basic structure since at least the mid-second century, as recorded by Justin Martyr. The Fathers spoke clearly of the Eucharist as the actual Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus. They also spoke of the hierarchical structure of the Church and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, who seemed to be considered by them as the foundation of the Church.
The foundation of this “Mid-20th Century Solid House Upon the Rock” became my tipping point. What exactly is “The Rock”? Is it the Bible? Is it Peter and the Papacy? Is it a teaching Magisterium? What authority does it have?
According to Revelation 21:14, the wall of the New Jerusalem has twelve foundations upon which are the twelve names of the Apostles. My father, as a Presbyterian minister, had always spoken of his conviction that he needed to be a man under authority to protect him from running off too easily into heresy. God worked through human authority all the way through the Old Testament to keep people of faith from wandering. The Church in the first centuries did not have a canon of New Testament Scriptures, so human authority must have prevailed. The canon of the New Testament was decided by a series of Church councils in the late fourth century, so it must be acknowledged that the Bible is itself a product of the authority of the Council Fathers. St. Paul assumes authority of both oral and written tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” All this pointed to a reasonable assertion that God has given authority to men to govern His people on earth, throughout the Old Testament and continuing into the centuries of His Church. My job as a disciple is to study well and to submit to Christ through His ordained bishops and priests, who act in His stead.
This bore itself out when the former Roman Catholic I had married decided to divorce me in a civil court of law. Since my Presbyterian father had been the only clergy present at our wedding, it did not satisfy Canon Law and was invalid. For a baptized Catholic, like my erstwhile husband, to be validly married a marriage needs to be witnessed by a member of the Catholic clergy. This was very foreign to me, but by now I had learned to trust the authority and wisdom of the Church. Within two years, I met a remarkable man who was passionate about the Catholic Church. I had asked St. Joseph to bring me a husband like himself to care for me and my children, as he had done for Mary and Jesus. He answered me beyond my wildest imaginings!
The House Upon the Rock
My tale of three houses, and my journey to “The House Upon The Rock,” cannot be better articulated than by G.K. Chesterton’s three-stage explanation in The Catholic Church and Conversion: “The moment a man ceases to pull against [the Catholic Church] he feels a tug towards it. The moment he ceases to shout it down he begins to listen to it with pleasure. The moment he begins to be fair to it he begins to be fond of it.” I became so fond of it that I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on June 22, 1997, twenty two years after the date of my father’s ordination. Five years later, I was blessed to be joined together with my husband as we celebrated the Sacrament of Matrimony on June 22, 2002. I went on to study and receive my Bachelor of Arts in Theology from Catholic Distance University. I put my training to work to equip Catholics with a deeper understanding of the Bible and the beautiful treasure of the Faith. I have been a sixth grade religious education catechist, focusing solely on the Bible from Genesis through the Acts of the Apostles. I have taught several adult Bible studies at our parish. I had the distinct honor and pleasure to be the RCIA Coordinator at our parish, and I am currently the instructor for the Adult Confirmation Program for the Archdiocese of New York, which is designed to provide formation to adults who did not receive the Sacrament of Confirmation as youths. Strengthening people in their faith was my passion as a Protestant and continues to be even more so as a Catholic.
When considering the “Mid-20th Century Solid House” people often contend that it has some flaws. It would be ludicrous to deny that. Any institution comprised of sinful human beings is going to have flaws. The nature of the flaws must be determined. If the flaws are cosmetic or functional, those can be tended to. If the flaws are intrinsically structural, the house is undeserving of consideration as a safe dwelling. Trusting the stability of “The House upon the Rock” provides spiritual sanctuary for the soul who takes refuge there and a repository of answers for questions to delight any honest seeker. The unfathomable magnitude of life in Christ is found securely within its walls. To anyone who lives in an “Older Small House” or in a “Modern Sprawling House” or in no house at all, I invite you to look down the block at the now “Mid-20th Century Solid House Upon the Rock” and consider Jesus’ own invitation regarding where He was staying: “Come and see” (John 1:39).