Easter 2018 marked my eleventh year as a Catholic. Since that Vigil eleven years ago, I have been asked many times, particularly by those who knew me previously, what on earth happened to cause such a conversion? I’m still trying to make sense of it myself. I find myself asking not so much how it happened, but rather how on earth did it not happen sooner? Surely I share in the lineage of Jonah, having preferred the storms of life and the stomach of a whale to the will of God.
Each time I consider my experience, I only become more aware of the ever wider circles emanating from a point in my history that, although one point, traces a life only God could draw. But then, isn’t this so with every conversion? Are we not all called to be formed in such a manner and likeness, to be Christ-like? So have I been formed through my continual conversion.
My first epiphany of Jesus Christ occurred very unexpectedly during a casual sushi lunch with a member of my dissertation committee in the fall of 2005.
Though I was a year and a half into my dissertation, I had only just begun its writing. My dissertation topic was the influence and significance of the Dionysian in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Six months into my dissertation, I threw everything out. After my own exegesis and research into both the cult of Dionysus and Nietzsche’s work, I found myself struggling with what I argued was Nietzsche’s own conclusion: in order to reveal the wisdom of the Dionysian, which is to say, the wisdom of suffering, one must adopt poetic language. This was problematic since there is nothing more unpoetic than the dry prose of a research dissertation. So I went back to my dissertation committee and presented a new proposal, outlining the production of a tragedy that would demonstrate what I believed Nietzsche had been trying to express about the Dionysian.
Did I have experience in theater? Of course not. Did I know how to format a play? Nope. Did I even have the vaguest idea of what that tragedy would be? Not until that sunny afternoon in the fall, eating lunch with Frederick Turner, poet, professor, and member of my dissertation committee. One might consider it pure luck that I was permitted to depart so radically from traditional scholarship. But I had long grown suspect of such “luck,” having already experienced the impossible so many times in my life.
By the time I met with Professor Turner for this lunch, I had done independent studies in theater, researched Greek tragedy, and turned my attention to a study of the Christian faith. I reasoned that if I were to produce a tragedy with the same cultural and pedagogical impact of the ancient Greek tragedies (this impact being precisely what Nietzsche was trying to express, I argued), then I would have to use a contemporary “myth,” or set of religious beliefs, within which to work. Living in the United States in 2005, I saw Christianity as the obvious milieu. Constructing the specific story out of the Christian archetypes, how- ever, did not prove such an easy task. It was this lack of a specific story that led to the lunch meeting. I was intending to show what I had produced thus far as well as discuss my difficulties in coming up with anything novel. I told the professor all about the success of the “Greek Festival” I had presented the previous weekend and was stumbling through the number of pithy story ideas I had. There was a very long pause. Then Professor Frederick Turner spoke:
“You know what I think the story is? I think the story is about a God …. a God who became man …. and He loved this girl. And, though this girl loved Him very much, too, she did not know Him. And when He came and knocked at her door, she did not recognize Him….”
Honestly, I do not even remember the rest of the conversation. I only remember wanting to flee the emotion welling up inside me as quickly as possible. Indeed, even now, the same emotion bleeds tears in my eyes. Riding home with a fellow scholar who had joined us, I broke down sobbing. When my friend inquired, I could not hold back my emotion as I cried out, “How did he know? It’s me! I’m that girl!”
The fact was I had lived my whole life searching for truth. It was the reason I had decided at the age of 16 that I would study philosophy. Yet this scholarly pursuit itself became a mask. By the time of my dissertation, it had become a well-rehearsed performance disguising the true reality — the wild imagination of a little girl who clung desperately to a fairy tale. And in this fairy tale, the girl was a princess destined for a soulmate, a Prince who is “faithful and true,” who would come riding upon a white horse to save her (Revelation 19:11). But who was He? Where was He? Was He even real? I had spent the previous 30 years convincing myself it was pure imagination.
Yet, suddenly, over a casual lunch of sushi, the mask was torn off, and the fairy tale I sought desperately to ignore lay open before me. I went home and tried to continue work on my dissertation, at the same time resorting to any means at hand to blot out the truth revealed to me that day.
The Institution of the Eucharist
I grew up a “Navy brat,” the youngest of six children. (Years later, I discovered that there was another brother whom my destitute mother had given up for adoption. So we were really seven siblings.) My father was from Minnesota. He married my mother after a previous failed marriage, that had produced two daughters. My mother was from Maine and, similarly, had been married twice before, with three children. I was born unexpectedly in 1975. As a result, while most children attended school with their siblings, I attended with my nephews.
My family was not religious. Though I was taught to identify as Christian, I never really knew what that meant. The few experiences I had with Christianity taught me nothing.
The most memorable of these experiences occurred after my father retired from the Navy, around 1984, when we moved back to his home in Minnesota. At this time, my Grandpa Hauck and Mabel (Grandpa’s fourth or fifth wife) insisted I learn “my” Lutheran faith. They decided they would start bringing me along with them to church.
The first Sunday came; they picked me up, and we drove over to a Lutheran church in Minneapolis. The service was long, and the minister seemed to talk an awful lot about very boring things. Then, all of a sudden, my grandparents dragged me up to the front of the church with them where everyone was taking a place along a rail and kneeling. I kept looking past Mabel to see what was happening and saw the minister with an assistant. The assistant had a tray with little cups and crackers, and the minister would take one of each and give it to each person kneeling. I was excited about the prospects of a snack — until they came close enough for me to hear what they were saying.
A few people away, I heard the minister as he picked up the host first, then the little cup, saying, “The body of Christ; the blood of Christ.” Then I got scared.
I tugged at Mabel and kept asking, “We’re eating somebody!?Who are we eating?! Grandma Mabel, Grandma Mabel!”
Mabel kept hushing me all the way until the minister came to me, at which point, confused and scared and certainly not interested in cannibalism, I screamed and threw a fit, refusing communion.
We left quickly that day, with my grandpa dragging me, crying hysterically, out of the church while Mabel followed, chastising me for embarrassing them. They never took me to church again.
I was a bit of an odd child from a very young age. My parents still tell how I didn’t have just one imaginary friend, but seven — one of which was a doctor! Indeed, I had a vivid imagination, which had the pesky habit of making me too curious. I often wandered on my own, like the time I caused a panic when I did not return home from school. I was simply still riding the school bus because I wanted to see where it went after it dropped me off. I was blunt in my questioning, to the point of rudeness, for I would quickly grow impatient with adults who attempted to pacify me with false answers. I wasn’t just curious; I was seeking after something — someone. The truth.
During my early teens, a few years after my family had settled in Maine, this yearning was expressed through an unquenchable thirst for books combined with the impetus to try everything. I remember discovering Mother Teresa. I didn’t understand exactly what she was — that she was a Catholic nun — but I knew I wanted to be like her.
Then there was Malcolm X. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which began two lifelong events for me: 1. the pursuit of learning and of understanding language, which began with my own reading of The Loom of Language, a technical linguistic treatise by Frederick Bodmer published in 1944; and 2. the search for the True Religion, which began with my own declaration of being Muslim. In his autobiography, Malcolm X discusses reading The Loom of Language and its effect on his own linguistic sensibilities. As for the Muslim declaration, the impetus was primarily Malcolm X’s accounts of his trip to Mecca where he encountered hundreds of people from every walk of life and nationality, brought together in the communion of prayer to God. The moment I read that description, I desired it.
I had a proclivity to dye my hair green or shave it completely. I listened to punk rock and concluded that almost nobody had a clue what was going on in the world. I was disillusioned, desperately seeking after a truth that no one seemed comfortable to admit, let alone discuss. At best I was highly imaginative, and at worst I was crazy. Between the culture of my youth and my own weakness, I concluded in favor of the latter. I tried running away, I did drugs, I attempted suicide.
Then one night, when I was seventeen, I had a dream. I was in a beautiful countryside. The sky was vibrant blue, and the grass was green and soft. In the distance there was a hill, and upon it stood this beautiful lady with a white tunic and a blue veil. It was as if I knew her. I hastened up the hill to the lady, happy to meet her. When I reached her, she smiled and announced, “I have something to tell you; you are going to be a nun.”
“OK!” I answered, “But not a Catholic nun — how about a Buddhist nun? I’ll be a Buddhist nun!” Then I turned and ran back down the hill before the lady could answer me. I have no idea why I was against being a Catholic nun. At that time I knew nothing of Catholicism. Yet somehow, in my ignorance, I was firmly against it.
The next morning I woke up with determination. I had a task before me: I was supposed to be a nun — a Buddhist nun. So I set out to become Buddhist and find out how to be a Buddhist nun.
I went into my high school and sought out my literature teacher, who was a very kind and worldly woman. I proceeded to tell her how I needed to become Buddhist so I could become a nun. Hesitant, she gave me the contact of a meditation space in the next town over. I went, bought several books by Chogyam Trungpa, and enrolled myself in several Buddhist meditation classes.
While becoming Buddhist was easy, becoming a Buddhist nun was not. As it turns out, there really isn’t such a thing. The most I could ever achieve was a regular, humdrum life, punctuated by lots of meditation and retreats. But I didn’t want merely week- ends of meditation; I wanted meditation all day, every day. Actually, I didn’t want meditation at all. It quickly became evident to me that Buddhist meditation was really nothing other than a speaking to oneself. I was struck by the absurdity of a self telling itself that it’s not really a self. The very act of telling demonstrates there is a self that is doing the telling — for there could be no telling without a subject to tell.
Though I found meditation helpful for calming anxiety and ordering my own thoughts, after a couple of years I abandoned Buddhism altogether and turned instead to paganism. I could not get over the absurdity of self-annihilation, and, more importantly, my imagination rejected wholesale the nonexistence of God. For me, the question was never whether God did or did not exist. Rather, I was trying to determine who God is; that is, which god was the God of gods?
The Wedding at Cana
It was nearly midnight on December 18th, 2005. I lay in bed, unable to sleep. I had researched my tragedy for the previous three months. Attempting to stay as far away as possible from Christianity, I had decided to approach the topic from a different, more scholarly angle. This led me to invest time reading about religious ritual, in general, from an anthropological point of view. I read all about the ancient Greek cults, such as the Dionysian; I read about the tribal religions of Africa and even the Mayans.
There was one topic that kept coming up over and over again that would inevitably lead me back to meditation on the Christian Faith: the ritual of expiation. What struck me was how this ritual occurred in so many varied cultures, in all points of time, in every form of ritual. Despite how varied the rituals or the terms used, the whole world appeared to agree on one point: at some moment in human history, there was an original sin that led to a current imperfect, sinful state, requiring some form of continual expiation. The Dionysian cult’s was the sacrifice of a bull. In Mayan culture, there were human sacrifices. And the sacrifice of virgins seemed to happen everywhere, second only to the sacrifice of goats and lambs as found in Ancient Jewish custom. Most required that the sacrifice remain “unblemished.” And all had a cycle around which the sacrifices occured. I could not help but find humor in the fact that, while a bull or goat may be required on a regular basis, human sacrifice often occurred on a more prolonged schedule; it was as if a lamb could only cleanse the soul for a month, but a human sacrifice, well, being the greater sacrifice, purchased a more thorough cleansing. Within this humor I also could not help but draw the conclusion that there is only one sacrifice which could wipe away all sin for all time: a divine one. And there I was again, face to face with my fairy tale Prince on the white horse.
That night many years ago, I thought over my research again and again. I hated it, for it pointed me every time to that very One I had been trying to avoid: Jesus Christ.
What Professor Frederick Turner had commented three months prior simply couldn’t be true — could it? It had to be a coincidence that, even in obscure research, I was always drawn back to this God-man.
I could not hide any longer. The fairy tale was real. I had found my Prince; it was Jesus Christ. In that moment of acceptance, instantly, I saw and understood all the wild effects of my imagination. I was indeed going to be a nun, and a Catholic one, for where else does one become a bride of Christ?
Even more profound was my understanding of the Eucha- rist. Through all my research on expiation ritual, what became evident was that the Eucharist would necessarily have to be the Body and Blood of Christ. If our Lord Jesus is truly divine, which He is, why wouldn’t such a complete offering puncture through all space and time, making itself ever present and thus one single offering, complete and sufficient for all history? Of course it would.
At the time, I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what to do next. So I waited.
A few months later, in February, I made a trip to Dallas to meet with my dissertation committee. My dear friend Chris, married to one of my grad school buddies, picked me up at the airport. Though not Catholic, Chris had always been deeply Christian and devout. She had, in fact, grown up with me in Maine and remained at my side through all the drugs, licentious relationships, and other horrid behavior — even when I would cancel our engagements, fail to call, or show up crying as a result of my latest misbehavior. She never judged me, and though I knew she was deeply Christian, she never spoke a word of it to me.
So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, after a long and quiet car ride to her house, she asked me, “You are different; what’s happened to you?”
With that question, it all came out. I began telling how, three months earlier, Frederick Turner had told me my own fate — a fate that was revealed years ago in a dream and truly known even before then. I just kept repeating, “He’s real! He’s real, Chris! Jesus is truly real!”
I told her how I intended to become Catholic so that I might become a bride of Christ. She grabbed me and hugged me, and both of us began crying tears of joy.
“You have no idea how much and how long I have been praying for your conversion!” she whispered. With that, she gave me the courage to act.
A few days later, from her house in Dallas, I spoke with my mom by phone. Having travelled 2500 miles away, I felt I was at a safe distance to share the news with her. I told her plainly how I intended to become Catholic and become a nun. There was a moment of silence on the phone. Finally, she answered:
“That’s just incredible! You’re never going to believe this. I was clearing out old boxes this morning, putting them out for trash. This one box — the only box I checked — I thought I should stop and just make sure there’s nothing important in there — I found your baptismal certificate….”
I understood her words as the Lord’s confirmation that I was on the right path.
Within three months — between that February and May — my entire life changed. I ended up walking away from my dissertation and abandoning academia altogether. A number of events led to this, one of which was the leaving of my dissertation chair to go to a new job at a new university. I had already sensed that my time in scholarship was done. I had accomplished the end for which I had set out years before when I began my philosophy studies: I had found truth. I had also begun an RCIA program under the guidance of a disciplined Marist priest who determined that if I did have a vocation, then I needed to be well- grounded in the Faith. I left lucrative work in academics for odd jobs and the occasional tutoring session. I was again living with my parents. And I experienced the first of many illnesses that would leave me hospitalized and requiring surgeries.
By the time I entered the Church at Easter 2007, I had nothing but the Lord. And I couldn’t have been happier.
Shortly after starting RCIA in Maine, I was introduced to another girl in a very similar position as myself. Elizabeth was raised atheist and, after an “alternative Spring Break” with a Catholic religious community in South America, came to the similar conclusion that the Lord was truly present, and she must give herself completely to Him. After our initial meeting, which turned into an hour conversation, we had plans to depart for Boston that Friday to go convent hopping. Through Elizabeth, I was introduced to the writings of Scott Hahn, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and many others.
Though Elizabeth believed she had a vocation to active religious life, our priest urged her to visit a small traditional cloistered monastery in upstate Vermont. She made a brief visit of only two days.
“Oh, Kristen! It was like prison!” she described after her visit. Yet, it was also like home, she said. She was torn. She knew she belonged there, yet how could she possibly help the world living such a hidden life?
“I’m going back, and you’re going with me!” she determined. And a month later, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 2006, Elizabeth and I made our trip to the Benedictine Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The moment I entered, I knew I was home.
A few months later, shortly before my entrance into the Church at Easter Vigil, Sister Elizabeth Rose and I made our last trip. She knocked on the great wooden doors which led to the hidden life, and I bid her farewell.
Though I had no doubt that this was my home, I could not enter as easily as my spiritual sister since I had a growing mountain of student and medical debt. I begged the Lord for a means to overcome the debt, and the Lord answered: join the Army.
This was both fitting and humorous. Even my parents laughed at the thought of such a rebellious — indeed, anarchist — child attempting such a disciplined life. Friends from religious communities joked that, on account of my stubbornness, military life might be the only way I could learn the discipline necessary for religious life. There were bets on how many weeks I would survive boot camp, especially since I rejected the option to join as an Officer.
But I did survive boot camp. In fact, to everyone’s surprise, I enjoyed the military.
Once again, I quickly adapted and began to question if military life were not my call. I began longing for marriage — to a man of flesh and blood, here and now. I longed for children. It led me to question my religious vocation altogether. Yet, the Lord put an abrupt halt to these thoughts along with the worldly lifestyle I began adopting. My military career came to an end upon suffering a foot injury, a hip fracture, and, finally, a spine injury. Like Jonah, it was not enough that I simply be cast out into a storm; I had to be swallowed up whole.
I returned home to Maine, much as I did years earlier during my graduate career — fully intending to avoid God and my vocation by any means necessary. I maintained my Catholic faith, but minimally. Any attempt to work deeper into my spirituality would lead me inevitably to my beloved Jesus. At the time it was too painful. I was still too attached to the world. Yet keeping dis- tance from my beloved caused greater pain. I was conflicted; I wanted God’s will but was weakened with worldly desire.
So I prayed, asking the Lord to bring me back into His will by any means necessary. The Lord answered my prayer in the form of intense suffering, taking seriously the “by any means necessary.” A worsening spinal injury led to a series of surgeries, followed by a stroke, and other serious illnesses that brought me to death’s door.
While some might see these calamities as sure damnation, for me they were a glorious gift from God. I trusted even when I said, “I am sorely afflicted” (Psalm 115). They left me with no choice but to return to Him. It was a necessary transfiguration of body and soul that allowed me to return to my home, the cloister nestled in the Vermont wilderness.
On September 14, 2016, the Exaltation of the Cross, I made my full profession as a Benedictine Oblate sister of the Monastery of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Unlike my cloistered sisters, I live out my monastic vocation in the world. Like Jonah, spewed from the mouth of the whale, I still have a mission to fulfill.
All for the praise and glory of God!