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Accepted in the Beloved

Connie Regener
September 11, 2017 One Comment

When I was in kindergarten, I used to play with a girl named Gail, who lived across the street. Gail was like me — very tiny and skinny. When her parents left the house, they locked the front door and left a window open just a bit. When they returned, they let Gail shimmy in through the window and unlock the ​door for them. I thought that was cool. One day Gail invited me over to her house to play. My mother said I couldn’t go into the house because they were Catholics. We didn’t go to church, but that didn’t matter. They were Catholics.

About that time, my brother was born, and most of the attention in the family went to him. His bassinet replaced my crib in my parents’ bedroom (we lived in a one bedroom apartment). My new bed was placed in a downstairs garage without heat or windows or any way of communicating with my parents. I would lie awake at night, cold and frightened, feeling cut off from the rest of the family, punished for something I hadn’t done. I stuttered a lot and was put in a special speech class in first grade. I couldn’t read out loud very well because of my speech problem, so I was classified as being mentally slow.

During that year, while school was in session, we took a vacation to visit relatives in Oklahoma. My father became gravely ill and was admitted to a Catholic hospital. A nun stayed in his room for two days, rocking in a chair and praying for him. She said he had a family and he was too young to die. God bless that nun, because my father finally recovered. However, I had missed a lot of school, and when I returned, my teacher was very angry because I was not up with the rest of the class. I remember going home and eating mud pies that I made, because we didn’t have very much money. I felt I wasn’t worth real food.

When I was about ten years old, my grandmother insisted that our family start going to church — the Church of Christ. I was afraid. I didn’t know what a church was. When I got there, I felt very awkward. I had never been in an auditorium with that many people in my whole life, and I didn’t know what was expected of me.

Not long after, the church had a summer Bible camp for kids my age in the mountains, and all my family insisted that I go. I didn’t know a single other person that was going. I trembled all during the long bus ride into the mountains, feeling anxious about what would happen when I got to camp.

It was amazing! My cabin counselor was an elderly widow, a lot like my grandmother. She seemed to think I was special, and I got to sleep in the cot beside her. She prayed for me every night before we turned the lights out. There was a camp cook, a jolly fat lady. She let me help her in the kitchen and didn’t act like I was any trouble at all. There were skits around the campfire at night, and I remember looking into people’s eyes and laughing. All of these were new experiences for me.

We studied the Bible, which I had never seen before. I learned that Jesus was the Son of God. He died for my sins at this awful place called Golgotha with sweat running down His brow and blood coming out of His side. There was a gory picture in my Bible that showed how it happened. I studied a “Gospel Gems” workbook that was about types and anti-types. I remember learning about the Jewish Tabernacle and drawing the tables of shewbread and the sacrifices on the altar. Even at ten years old, I could understand the foreshadowing of the New Covenant revealed in the Old Covenant. This has undergirded my theological studies to this day. (Who knew?)

I remember leaving that place a changed little girl. I had never experienced such acceptance and joy. It was like living in a happy family instead of a sad one. I wasn’t sure what made the people so happy. They were always breaking out in song a capella in the lunch line about their wonderful Jesus — in four part harmony and sometimes syncopated rhythm. And they were always talking with a twinkle in their eyes about God and heaven. When it was time to go, I wanted to stay.

When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to be like those people, putting my hope and trust in Jesus. I was baptized (immersed) on a Sunday evening in a borrowed church’s baptistery. No baptismal certificate was given because they didn’t want me to think my salvation was tied to a piece of paper. I began to feel like I wasn’t alone for the first time, and that God was always there for me and always loved me, and probably always had loved me — even when I didn’t know it.

Because my daddy had survived, I grew up in an intact family with good parents. Because I was in the Church of Christ, I memorized a ton of Scripture. Because I could sing a capella, I joined the school chorus. The music scores I was given were hard for me to read. They weren’t in shaped notes, nor were they in four part harmony. The first secular song I ever sang was “Hello, Young Lovers.” I never told my parents.

We were a poor working class family. They saw no need for a girl to go to college or even graduate from high school. The man was to support the family. I won a partial academic scholarship to a Christian college about 400 miles from home. At first, my parents were adamant that I not go. They were angry that I would be taking up a place that a man could have had, who would be supporting a family. And girls didn’t need higher education to run a household, so it was a waste for them to study. But I was a first year Baby Boomer, and like many of us, I was destined to be the first in my family to go to college. I covered part of my expenses with a work contract in the Journalism Department. I was an excellent student and was elected president of the Associated Women Students in my junior year. That was 1966.

While at college, I began to see the hypocrisy of the staff and president. The Church of Christ at that time preached total abstinence from alcohol, yet the school president was found guilty of drunk driving, where he caused two fatalities. We believed in chastity before marriage, but one of my roommates was secretly married, another roommate was unmarried and pregnant, and the third roommate was having an affair with a well-known campus figure. Another one of my classmates was a Vietnam war bride — married a soldier she had only corresponded with and never met. Another was tricked into marrying a homosexual man because the pastor thought it would straighten the groom out. It was this incongruence that eventually caused me to leave the college and the church.

I decided to get away for a three-month summer break before I returned for my last year of college at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State University East Bay). I went to stay with some missionaries in Brazil, whom I had met while in the Christian college. It was an eye-opening experience to be outside of one’s own culture for the first time. I was “free, white, and 21.” I saw the world with new eyes.

When I landed in Rio de Janeiro, the missionaries picked me up at the airport and took me shopping along Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach. We eventually went to another state in Brazil to a secluded beach, and that’s where I talked with God for the first time. I was by myself, playing along the surf line in the bright Brazilian sun. It was a remote place, and the villagers had probably never seen a white woman with blond hair like me. So I was probably being watched, but it made no difference. God came and entered into my play day at the beach. He gave me some reassurances and let me know of His love for me. It was like my spirit was “quickened” or came alive.

I returned to the States and finished college. In 1974, I met and married a wonderful former naval officer, John, who was working as a civilian architect. It has been the first and only marriage for both of us. He was Presbyterian, and I liked that church better than mine because they let me have an organ and stained glass windows for my wedding. At the time, I thought the Presbyterian Church was “high church.” I studied the bulletin before attending my first service. The organ played classical music selections, there were times to sit and stand, and they sang something called “The Doxology.” It sounded high church to me.

After three years of marriage, we started a family in 1977. I had one beautiful son. Three months after delivery I was pregnant again. My second son had Down’s syndrome and died of Sudden Infant Death. I was treated horribly by our church. The pastors refused to visit me in the hospital or at home, saying they either didn’t know what to say or they thought my husband and I would get divorced and the church would have to choose sides. The other young mothers felt I was cursed. We finally left that church and went to another.

One day, the pastor at our new church asked me out of the blue if John and I were in adulterous relationships. I said the only thing I could: Not me, but I could not speak for John. He asked John the same thing — and amazingly John gave the same answer: Not me, but I can’t speak for Connie. Somehow, the pastor interpreted our answers as “Yes” and removed us from ministry. He said he had suspected it, and that another woman in the church had had a word of knowledge that confirmed it for him. The truth is that, until his death, my husband and I lived in conjugal chastity and faithfulness for 43 years.

Another time, the woman who led the Women’s Bible Study told her class that they should pray for me because I had invited evil spirits to kill my baby. This was another pregnancy in 1987, which had ended in a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). I was heartbroken at the loss of this child, too, and devastated that not a single female friend came to visit me. They were told that evil spirits lived in my house, and if they visited, the evil spirits would enter them. Our pastor advised me to quit lying and to get along with others. He did tell my husband he could stay in the church, but only if he divorced me. Can you imagine that? We finally left that church and went to another.

Now it was 1990. As lay people, we were asked to write and teach the new members class for a developing charismatic fellowship. We were entrusted with overseas ministry, for which we paid our own way. We also led healing prayer teams at the church one evening a week. One day, I asked the pastor if I could change to another evening. I said I had checked the church schedule, and it didn’t seem to conflict with anything. The team members had all agreed that the new night would be better for all of them, and I was beginning a new seminary schedule. He was shocked. Even though he had written my recommendation for seminary, he thought I was studying to be a Christian counselor in the Psychology Department and not working for an M.Div. He then proceeded to tell me that just attending seminary was in rebellion to male pastoral authority, that rebellion was the same as witchcraft, and that therefore I was a witch, and all of my actions in the past would be interpreted as of the devil. I asked him if we could discuss this further. He said he did not have to dialogue with the devil, nor did God ever tell him he had to let the devil speak in his church. He sent me to another pastor in that church for correction.

That pastor saw me by himself, prayed over me in tongues, and pronounced that I had the spirit of Jezebel that wanted to kill all the prophets and pastors of their church. He tried to expel the spirit from me. When I didn’t cough it up, he accused me of being rebellious and unrepentant. He said there was a prophecy that someone from within would try to destroy the church, and that if I opened my mouth again he would declare me the object of that prophecy. The result of these encounters was this: If I ever came back to that church, the pastors would have Security throw me out. I should consider myself persona non grata. And if I ever tried to use the church as a reference, they would all say I was just a housewife and a “folder monitor” (our healing teams used folders to keep notes) and that I had held no position of responsibility! We finally left that church and went to another.

I could go on. One pastor told me he couldn’t bless me because he could only bless what he saw God doing, and he didn’t see God doing anything in me. Another pastor said I didn’t have any credibility with him and that God could have given me credibility any time he wanted to, but he didn’t. Other church leaders challenged my sexuality and asked why I hadn’t been born male if I wanted to study theology. I remember that yet another pastor told me it was his job to keep people like me away from the flock. Well, he got his way. I had no contact with the several hundred people in his congregation. But I wrote a regular column for several years on the religion page of the L.A. Times and several hundred thousand people read my messages. God will rise up and bless and give credibility to whomever He wants — He doesn’t need the pastors’ approvals.

With all this rejection, I began to recall those feelings of childhood — cold and frightened. I wasn’t watching a horror movie — I was in one. I went for counseling. I learned that when you leave a place in which you have had many friends and they never speak to you or see you again, this is called psychological death. As I later learned, according to Catholic church tradition, a “white martyr” is one who suffers greatly but doesn’t shed blood; I can relate to that. I have been through psychological death four times. Each time I didn’t think I could survive. Each time my only consolation was my relationship with God and my husband. I never felt God condemned me. However, it was strange that I could not get God and my pastor to say the same thing to me. Was the devil messing with my mind, trying to get me to curse God and die? My counselor said there was really no reason I should stay with the church. But I loved God and His people, even if it broke my heart to do so. I wish I had known about the Catholic doctrine on suffering so my heart wouldn’t take on the bitterness I had worked so hard to expel. I probably spent longer in the wilderness than I needed to because I was not open to exploring the truth of the Catholic Church.

One day I was talking to God about this, and He used a term that shocked me, a term that I would have never used. He said that I had been “spiritually raped.” I never question God. In fact, seeing things from His perspective is often part of being healed.

By now, I was in the doctoral program at seminary and was struggling financially. I changed course and entered a Clinical Pastoral Education program. After about a year, I became a Board Certified Chaplain. I was ordained in the Evangelical Church Alliance in January 2000. I have worked in non-religious hospitals or hospices ever since.

I also found some non-parish work. I began writing a monthly column for the largest Muslim newspaper west of the Rockies. The column was titled “Where the Cross meets the Crescent.” I received an award at the local mosque for my efforts. I preached Christ in every article and never compromised, but my columns were very popular because they engaged people in real life situations that everyone can relate to.

I was recruited to work on a grant as Interfaith Director for the county I lived in. The grant was underwritten by a Jewish foundation. At one time it dawned on me that all of my girlfriends were Jews or Muslims. I didn’t have a single Christian girlfriend in the world.

I would, however, visit a Protestant church once in a while. One morning I listened to a pastor ridicule and verbally abuse his congregation in terms I would have never used to anyone, much less from the pulpit. A church member elbowed me and said “Isn’t he wonderful?” I was nauseated.

Now for the Catholic part. While I was going through all this difficulty, God had me touching the Catholic Church in various ways. It was probably what kept me sane.

During much of this time I was in spiritual direction with a nun, a Sister of Providence. She was wonderful and took me through the 19th annotation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. With her advice, I took the two-year evening program in spiritual direction at Mount St. Mary’s and completed my summer internship at Mercy Center in Burlingame. I completed the requirements for my Certified Bereavement Facilitator credential with a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. I attended a Catholic charismatic healing seminar, a day of Catholic instruction on how to heal victims of abortion, and two Catholic end-of-life conferences.

For twenty years, my “go to” place was Prince of Peace Abbey in Oceanside. It is a lovely place overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean. Whenever I was making a discernment or a transition, I would book a room there. I had met one of the resident Benedictine priests when I was on a field trip from my Protestant seminary, and we kept in occasional contact. One time, he directed me on a personal retreat. He always said “Connie, if the Protestants don’t want you, the Catholics will take you.” (My spiritual director, the nun, had said the exact same thing!) He showed me how to go forward for a blessing when he saw me just remaining behind in the pew during Mass. He later was elevated to abbot — a smart, loving, discerning man. He let me use their library to research a seminary paper on St. Scholastica, St. Benedict’s twin sister. Later, she would become my patron saint.

I had an interesting experience while attending Mass at that abbey. My Protestant seminary president had declared that any student taking Latin in his seminary had to read and translate every word of the Latin Mass. That’s because the basis for all Protestant liturgy is the Catholic Mass. He insisted we use the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass — the long version. We usually started each Latin class by translating a portion of it. So one day I found myself sitting in the abbey, listening to the Mass in English but recalling the original Latin. How could God ever have orchestrated that? But the Mass still felt foreign. Just knowing the words didn’t do a lot for me. It was head knowledge, not heart knowledge. It was a language exercise — not worship. (How close can you come, Connie, and still not get it?)

Time passes on to 2015. One day, I was having a conversation with God, and He asked me this question: “Why are you so loyal to the Protestant church? What has it done for you?” You know that when the Creator of the universe is asking questions, He doesn’t do it because He needs an answer. You are the one who needs the answer. I reviewed my spiritual journey. I really could mount no argument as to why I should stay Protestant. I do appreciate my sovereign foundations and how God brought me to faith and captured my heart in some very imperfect situations. But I could sense that the door to the Catholic Church was opening. This was the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis had got it right. In His mercy, God was going to help some of us who needed a push to get over the line. But what will it take for me to come into full communion with the Mother Church? What will God do next?

In October 2015, I volunteered for a ministry trip to an area of the world that had experienced a disaster. While there, I met two Catholic Board Certified Chaplains who had regular jobs as mission integration officers in their Catholic medical centers back home. These two men mentored me in this disaster operation in the kindest and most competent way. I observed their wisdom, maturity, and dedication — also their holiness, discernment, and spiritual formation. I wanted to be like them. I knew they didn’t get that way overnight. I knew it takes time to produce fruit and virtues like that.

I went home and threw a tantrum before God. I think it is called prayer de profundis. I lay prostrate on the floor, pounding my fists and my feet. I said I wanted what I had seen in them. And then I sassed Him a little and said, “And don’t tell me I can’t have it because I’m a girl!” I said that just in case the Catholic Church limited virtue to men only.

In my desperation, I started reading voraciously, on line and off. I made voluminous notes while devouring The Three Ages of the Interior Life by Rev. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. I sought counsel at the Loyola Institute for Spiritual Direction and began to pour out my heart. The discernment was that I was going through a radical reconversion! Everything seemed new to me. I would read some of the Catechism of the Catholic Church late at night and just sob myself to sleep because it was so beautiful and profound.

I noticed, as I read, that I could see the truth in a new way. Oddly, I never really found any theological sticking points. It’s like God just tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Now!” I felt like putty in His hands.

It was Advent, and I wanted to attend a beautiful Christmas service, but I had no church to go to. I knew the Catholic church about a mile from my home would have beautiful decorations and music, so I went there alone. Nowadays, I actually feel that Mary nudged me to attend, although I had no theology for that. To my surprise, the Mass seemed simple and understandable. How it got unlocked to me, I do not know!

All this time, my husband was on the same journey I was, minus the theological considerations. I think he felt badly that he could not protect me from so many disappointing experiences in the Protestant churches. When I pointed out to him that, in the Catholic Church, I don’t have to defend my seminary education nor my desire to use my pastoral care skills for the sake of others, he felt relieved.

The parish advertised RCIA, and we decided to sign up. But then I found out that I had to do some traveling and would be missing some of the classes. I was devastated. I went to the Blessed Sacrament chapel and poured out my anguish before the tabernacle in an abundance of sobs and tears. I was inconsolable. A man came over, touched my shoulder and asked if he could pray for me. We introduced ourselves. He was on staff as the Parish Life Director. He was in his last year of the deaconate program, a wise and patient man. I told him I knew it was my turn to come into the Church, but I didn’t see a path. He promised he would make it possible for me to meet the program requirements, showing me mercy and compassion.

My husband and I began the RCIA journey, attending a weekly meeting. Unfortunately, his health failed and he was diagnosed with dementia. He lived long enough to know that I had been admitted to the Catholic Church, but died shortly thereafter. In a period of a few weeks, I went from being a married Protestant minister who lived in one town, to being a widowed, retired Catholic layperson in another town.

As a child, I was never able to enter Gail’s “Catholic” house. But now as an adult I can enter the House of God, the Catholic Church. I don’t have to shimmy through a window — I can walk through the front door. It is right and just. I am currently planning a pilgrimage to Rome with my parish choir. And I will probably be part of the RCIA team. I remain active in the Red Cross, helping to provide spiritual care during disasters. God answered my prayer and gave me a most wonderful church family!

Connie Regener

Connie Regener is a former Protestant minister, newspaper columnist for the religion page,
and Board Certified Chaplain who plundered the riches of Catholic spirituality and spiritual
formation in her quest for more of God. The door to the Catholic Church finally opened during
the recent Year of Mercy, perhaps due to Pope Francis’ prayers.

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