*The author is publishing this story under a pseudonym.
One of my earliest memories is of waking in the night. After my mother had helped me get to the bathroom and stand on a little stool while I washed my hands, she tucked me back into bed. I asked her, “Is it still Sunday?”
“No,” she answered. “It’s now Monday morning.”
An incredible feeling of relief spread through me. If it was Monday, I could sing songs and tell jokes and laugh, play with my toys and see my friends.
Even though I was tiny, I knew that Sundays were difficult.
Our family attended a Presbyterian congregation where everyone had connections to the Scottish Highlands. We did things differently from other Christians, keeping a strict Sabbath, and not celebrating either Christmas or Easter in the church. However, my parents did hang up stockings and buy presents so that we wouldn’t feel left out.
We wore hats to church, in obedience to St. Paul’s rule that a woman’s head had to be covered. On Sunday, we sat through a morning and evening service in a tiny church with no images or symbols, not even a simple cross. The sermon alone lasted over an hour. We sang the Psalms without musical accompaniment. With our simple worship, we thought that we had come as close as possible to the New Testament Church.
During the long Sunday, we aimed not to do, say or even think anything which wasn’t either necessary or directly glorifying to God. Work was banned. Food had to be prepared on Saturday, although we could heat it on Sunday. Children couldn’t play, and we were only allowed to read the Bible and missionary stories.
I do have good memories, too. My parents, who seemed to be in perpetual motion during the week, did absolutely no work on Sunday. Sunday afternoons were a time when I could curl up beside my Mom on the sofa, while we both read our Sunday books. Or I could climb onto my Dad’s knee, while he read me a story from the childrens’ Bible. I was allowed to draw Bible stories. Sometimes I got around the Sunday rules by drawing my favorite Bible scene: Esther being chosen from among the other women by King Ahasuarus. It allowed me to draw a beauty contest — Israelite-style, of course.
All these strict rules and separation from other Christians, even looking down on them for being lax, were difficult. However, the message itself did the most harm.
Until I was ten or eleven, the Sunday sermons were just a boring thing to be endured. After that, I began to understand what the minister was saying. I heard a lot about hell, graphic descriptions of gnashing teeth and an eternity of torment, nor did the preacher spare us the painful details when he described Jesus’ torture and death. I remember feeling incredible guilt, that I was somehow responsible for Christ’s crucifixion. The minister said that we were worms in God’s sight. If he talked about God’s love, I didn’t relate it to anything positive, such as snuggling up to my parents. If God didn’t love me, then how could I believe that I had any intrinsic worth?
Of course, I didn’t want the pain of hell, so I followed the minister’s instructions and asked Jesus into my heart. However, I didn’t understand, or wasn’t told, that God would forgive my sins. I still felt incredible guilt and thought that I had to punish myself in order to please God. After a few self-harming episodes, I realized that hurting myself wouldn’t help. Even if I offered sacrifices, God probably wouldn’t accept them. This was my first step along the road to despair.
Our congregation celebrated communion twice a year, but my family never took part. Although my parents attended church twice every Sunday, they didn’t consider themselves good enough to become church members and take communion. I was a teenager before my mother explained that God hadn’t given them any assurance of salvation. Assurance only came if God showed you, usually through some dramatic Saul-on-the road-to-Damascus type experience, that you were one of the Elect. Since God had decided before time began who would be saved and who would be condemned, there was nothing anyone could do except wait in quiet desperation. This Calvinist belief in predestination was the second step along the road of despair.
As long as I lived at home, I didn’t have a choice about practicing faith. When I left home to study, I welcomed the opportunity to discover my own faith and strengthen it.
I started attending a Baptist church and the student Christian Union. Although I was among Christians, everything was different, from the worship songs and musical instruments to the fact that nobody else seemed to keep the Sabbath the way we did. Many of the Evangelical students were extroverts who wore their faith on their sleeve, but I was shy and quiet. Conversations seemed to be either a quick “How are you doing,” or an attempt to work out whether my beliefs matched theirs. Rather than feeling at home in this environment, I felt as if I was weathering a storm in a small boat.
Friendships came more naturally with the students in my science classes. I met two caring, intelligent people who were passionate about the environment and social justice issues. They also happened to be atheists. Under their influence, I lost my belief in God. Fortunately, this miserable period lasted only a few months. When belief returned, it felt like a gift. However, even though I continued to attend church and Christian meetings, I had grown cynical and angry.
Signs of Spring
I visited an Evangelical church, where I talked to an older person about my confusion. She spoke about God’s love, and I had a horrifying realization: I didn’t believe in God’s love. Yes, I had always paid lip service to the idea. However, my idea of God was closely tied to sin and judgment. In a sickening moment of insight, it dawned on me that a huge gulf existed between where I was and where I would need to be in order to accept the idea of a loving God. I had been shown a glimpse of my life’s journey.
Through a discussion group on science and religion, I was invited to take part in an Ignatian retreat organized by the Catholic chaplaincy. Looking back, it seems a bit of a miracle that I accepted, given all the anti-Catholic preaching I had heard as a child. However, I was desperate to try anything which might help. Over several weeks, I meditated on Bible verses each day and met with a kind, but firm, nun once a week for spiritual direction.
What came out was the humbling realization that, despite all my knowledge of the Bible, I hadn’t really made any progress spiritually. On the last evening, a short service was held in the chapel. All the retreatants were encouraged to share one word. It cost me a lot to say it in the candlelit silence, but I managed. My word was starting. However, I didn’t see any way forward and never imagined that the Catholic Church would have a further role to play in this journey.
Battling on All Fronts
In the early 1990s, I moved to London to continue my studies. Living in a mega-city was challenging. People didn’t talk or make eye contact. I knew almost no one, and it was hard to make friends. I began suffering chronic fatigue and stomach pains.
Low mood and homesickness developed into feelings of desperation and suicidal thoughts. Several times, I called the Samaritans crisis center. They urged me to come by in person, but I felt too ashamed. In those days, mental illness was a taboo subject, and I didn’t realize that I was suffering from depression and needed help.
I still hoped for an experience of God that would dispel my doubts and transform me into a new person. I tried out different churches, from the conventional with hymns and sermons, to those with worship bands and emotional preaching, and even a church where Biblical scenes were acted out by adults in bathrobes and wearing towels on their heads. Through it all, I continued feeling suspicious and cynical. I can’t remember ever praying that God would show me the way forward. I don’t think I trusted God enough even to ask.
I met some people doing street evangelism. They were very positive and smiley, and I wanted to be like them. They thought that maybe I hadn’t been saved the first time around. I should ask Jesus into my heart again, so that my life would be transformed. It seemed so simple. All I had to do was pray the right prayer, and my confusion and low mood would disappear.
After praying, I did experience a few days of euphoria, but then the depression returned. What had gone wrong? I was still the same old person, and I felt even more hurt and cynical than before.
One day, I had had enough of the physical, mental, and spiritual struggle. I walked out of a lecture, called the university chaplaincy and blurted out my feelings. The stranger at the other end told me to come over right away.
In this way, I met an Anglican chaplain, to whom I owe a huge debt. He listened without condemning or trying to convert. He lent me books, including God of Surprises by the Scottish Jesuit Gerard Hughes, which gave me hope that one day I would come through my rebellion and move into a mature faith.
Sent into Exile
After my initial attempt at conversion, I kept visiting new churches, but now there was a bitter edge to my seeking. I wasn’t going to leave any stone unturned until I had proved that there wasn’t anything in this religion thing. I wouldn’t give God any excuse for saying that I hadn’t tried hard enough. However, my search for the “right” church came to an end quite abruptly.
An older lady had told me about a church which had transformed her life. This time, I went with a bit of hope mixed in with my skepticism. However, as I approached the church, I felt an invisible force pushing me back. The closer I got, the stronger the force grew, until it felt as if I was walking into a gale or trying to wade through glue, even though it was a calm, sunny day.
I should have taken this as a warning, but I was determined to continue my mission of either “finding” God (what did I expect — to carry Him off like a trophy?) or proving that Christianity had nothing to offer. With a final shove, I pushed my way up the church steps and sat down on a pew near the back. I was joined by a man who sat uncomfortably close.
The pastor asked us to make the sign of peace, something with which I was never comfortable, and the man next to me wouldn’t let go of my hand. I looked around uncertainly. Did this church have a tradition of very long handshakes? Everyone else was finishing their greetings, but this man had captured my hand and was trying to chat me up! That was it. I pulled my hand away and did something I had never in my life done: I left church in the middle of a service.
After this incident, I stopped attending church. I had been sent into exile. But if I had been sent away, Who had done it? This occurred in early 1994.
A short while later, I escaped to the Highlands and walked in silence for five days. On the sixth day, I was sitting in a cafe, reading a book on saints (one of the Anglican chaplain’s books), when I was overtaken by a vision of God’s love. That love was so immense that there was no way under, over or around it, no way at all.
I knew that God exists, and that God is love. As I traveled south to London, I felt a great love for every person sitting in the train car. Realizing that this state of consciousness wouldn’t last, I told myself, “Remember this day. Whatever else happens, you will never be able to say you didn’t know God exists.”
Many Years of Exile
Despite this experience, I didn’t see a way forward spiritually. After giving up on churches, I quickly came to hate religion, especially Christianity. I became articulate and opinionated, and there were always people ready to listen to my negative views on religion.
I would have described myself as an agnostic who leaned towards a belief in God. Although I believed that God is unknowable, I also had a vague feeling that I was being given time and freedom to heal, and that one day I would be pulled back.
In the mid-1990s, I began dating a Catholic. At first, it was an act of rebellion against my Presbyterian childhood, but we fell in love. Despite initial worries about marrying someone from “a different religion,” both families were incredibly welcoming and supportive. I assured my parents that I would never become Catholic. It was an easy promise. There was no way I was going to exchange one rules-bound traditional religion for another.
Anyway, we married. Occasionally, I went to Mass with my in-laws. My husband said Mass was like a meditation. You weren’t meant to understand everything.
After our first child was born, I felt so helpless and inadequate that I couldn’t sleep at night until I had sent up a long imploring prayer, “Please keep her safe.” In my mind, God was still a bogeyman who had to be placated. One day, I heard a clear reply, “Do you think you’re the only one looking after her?” The answer was a great comfort.
When our second child was born, I fell into a deep depression. I was once again plagued by chronic fatigue and digestion problems, and because I was breastfeeding, I lost weight very rapidly. In desperation, I began meditating and practicing yoga. My health improved, and I found that concentrating on my breath made me aware of Something or Someone waiting in the silence.
When we moved back to the Scottish Highlands, my husband reconnected with his Catholic faith, perhaps in response to the dominant Presbyterian culture of the area. I felt confused and even angry; this had never been part of our relationship. However, I began attending Mass to help with the kids.
When a close relative became seriously ill, I remembered the Bible verse about moving mountains if you have a grain of faith the size of a mustard seed. I began praying and discovered that going to Mass helped me feel more peaceful.
The priest asked how I was doing. I replied that I didn’t even know if Jesus was the Son of God. Instead of trying to persuade or argue, he simply said, “Faith is something you just have to do,” and walked away. The statement was cryptic but fascinating. Was he saying that even if you felt doubts, you just had to act as if you believed? Then what? Where would that lead?
One Sunday, around February 2012, the priest included a story in his homily about a Protestant minister asking him if he was expecting to make conversions. I hung on the answer. If Father said that he intended to convert people, then I would leave and never come back. But what he said was, “No, I leave conversions to God.” In that moment, I felt a contrary disappointment and realized that I actually wanted someone to persuade me to become Catholic.
A Fish in Water
The thought that I might become Catholic was daring, delicious. As long as I nurtured it, I was aware of a quiet presence which brought peace and joy. It was as if I was a fish which had just become aware that it was swimming through a medium called water.
I kept quiet, reckoning that if the invitation was from God, it would persist. After six months, it was still there. I gathered up my courage and asked for instruction in the Catholic Faith.
My husband had to get used to the fact that his Protestant–agnostic wife, with an allergy to organized religion, was now devouring the Catechism of the Catholic Church as bedtime reading. In the sections on the Creed, I found much that was familiar from my upbringing. I asked myself if I could assent to it again, and realized that I could, because I trusted the Church.
Our parish was too small to have an RCIA curriculum, so I met the priest every few weeks with questions. The first question seemed like a technicality. Why did the Catechism mention Tradition? From it, I learned about authority and the framework of Church teaching which had been passed down along with the Bible. Having grown up in an environment where the Bible was interpreted by individuals, arguments festered, and new entities were spawned whenever there were differences of opinion, I welcomed this with relief.
My heart had already fallen in love with the Church, Christ’s bride, but I needed to convince my head. Some things clicked instantly, such as the Real Presence in the Eucharist. The Highland Presbyterian church had treated communion with such reverence that it was as if they believed in Christ’s presence. Having grown up in a culture with a strong belief in the persistence of life after death, the Communion of Saints also made perfect sense.
It was harder to accept devotion to the Virgin Mary. However, I thought about other kinds of knowledge. I couldn’t prove the distance to the moon or the shape of the earth from first principles, but I trusted the authority of books which taught these facts. Likewise, when it came to faith, I didn’t need to find it out all by myself; I could trust the authority of the Church.
During this time, I heard that one of my university friends had become Catholic more than ten years before. My initial reaction was disbelief. As a Northern Irish Protestant, she must have faced immense barriers. I got back in touch with a tentative e-mail. The story was true. I told her what I was going through, and she listened without trying to push me one way or the other.
The Final Steps
The sense of God’s presence, which had been with me for almost a year, left quite abruptly. When it didn’t return, I felt confused and abandoned. Was I still on the right path? I was waiting for God to “come back” before I made a decision. One day, the Mass reading was, “Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain.” (Galatians 3:3-4).
It spoke straight to me. I had received enough favors. Rather than waiting for the nice feelings to return, I knew what I had to do. I told the priest that I was ready.
Living in a Highland Protestant town, the weeks leading up to my reception into the Church felt almost surreal, with the consciousness of my decision ticking inside me like a bomb. Would people accept me if they knew I had gone from Presbyterian to Catholic?
The hardest thing was telling my family. However, their reaction was softer than expected. My parents had recently attended the funeral of a Catholic neighbor and were impressed that Catholics actually read the Bible! They had begun to see Catholics as Christians. Although shocked by my decision, they were glad that I was attending church.
In December 2014, I was received into the Catholic Church and it felt like I had come home.
My Catholic journey has involved learning to forgive my family for the pain and fear caused by extreme Calvinist beliefs. I’ve also had to ask God to forgive me for the harsh way I sometimes treated my parents. Nevertheless, I am now grateful for the good things in my religious upbringing: strong ethical values, a sense of responsibility and a strong knowledge of the Bible.
The sick relative I prayed for recovered a year or so after I was received into the Church, allowing me to see God’s benevolence.
Still, since becoming Catholic, I have struggled with no longer feeling God’s presence. However, Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux showed me that even saints do not always feel God’s presence, and that faith should not depend on nice feelings.
I have also felt very lonely. Apart from my Northern Irish friend, I knew no one who understood my conversion. I told some of my friends. Some, including one of my atheist friends, accepted the decision. Others didn’t know how to react, and our friendship suffered. Feeling that I would explode if I didn’t find a way to express what had happened, I started a blog about my experience (anonymous, although I did share the link with some friends).
When I first became Catholic, I expected that I would do the absolute minimum as far as Confession went. However, I soon felt myself being prompted to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation repeatedly and realized that this is something I need to do regularly. Even when confessing to a strange priest in a different place, I have been shown God’s care, love, and forgiveness. It has helped me progress in believing in God’s love. For someone like me, brought up with Calvinism and emphasis on God’s anger and judgment, this might have been the only way for me to continue believing in God’s love and forgiveness.
Sharing in the Eucharist, Christ’s giving of Himself, is something which requires total self-giving. Knowing that I couldn’t quite hand myself over all at once, my prayers went something like this: “Please, God, help me to be willing to give you whatever you want, but leave my children out of this.”
God did, however, touch my children when my daughter became seriously ill. At the same time, we were faced with practical problems, such as medical expenses and finding a way to stay close to the hospital. I had no solutions and became absolutely dependent on God, but it all worked out.
I once heard a priest say that the Bible shows us the Virgin Mary in times of difficulty: when no room is found in the inn; at Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth; when Jesus is lost in the temple; at the foot of the cross; and praying with the young church after Jesus’ Ascension. In times of crisis, which occurred several times a week over a period of many months, I prayed Mother Teresa’s emergency novena: nine repetitions of the Memorare (“Remember most loving Virgin Mary that it is a thing unheard of that anyone who had recourse to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession was left forsaken…”).
By God’s grace, I have been carried through a difficult time. Sometimes I have worried about praying through the Virgin Mary. However, Our Blessed Mother has never obscured my view of God. I seldom catch sight of her. She is clear, like a window or a glass lens, and has focused my trust in God.
My child almost died, but God gave her back. I hope that I never forget the lesson I have been shown. I am small, weak, and utterly dependent on God. Anything else, and the belief I once had in my own strength and ability to make things happen would be an illusion. What I have — even my capacity to act — is God’s gift.