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From Darkness to Light

Bonnie Lee Bryant
December 16, 2021 No Comments

My childhood faith development was a “broken road.” I was baptized in the Episcopal Church about the age of three, but based on family photos, it doesn’t seem to have been anything special. My family attended church off and on, meandering among different Protestant denominations. That was the extent of my religious upbringing until my mother began taking us to a local Episcopal church when I was about ten.

What I remember and loved the most was Sunday school — the arts and crafts; the Bible stories; the opportunity to learn something, to be tested and to excel; and the time spent with other kids. In some deeper part of me, though, something that had been slumbering was beginning to awaken — a longing for an understanding of deeper things, things like the absolute nature of truth; why I did bad things when I knew better; why terrible things happened to people who had done nothing wrong; why sometimes I felt so frightened, ugly or alone; and what about all those feelings and thoughts that could never, ever be spoken of to anyone. Where did they come from, how could I deal with them or make them go away?

This was a time when deep conflicts were developing within the Episcopal denomination, and our parish was no exception. I remember that a ceremony during Sunday worship, self-created to acknowledge the end of a divorcing couple’s marriage, created conflict within the congregation. Youth Group Sunday was also contentious, as we teens turned every song and Bible reading we selected, and the sermon (preached by my husband, a conscientious objector) into an anti-Vietnam War protest. Our church also faced crises of shifting theological foundations, as when one of the men was seriously shot in what was first reported as a mugging. When it later became known that he had been shot in a homosexual pick-up area, this suffering family found itself largely untended as the congregation wrangled with questions about right and wrong, justice and mercy.

Our parish was a strange mix of high liturgy and the current fad of “accessible worship space.” The newly constructed church was built “in the round,” with the portable altar surrounded by folding chairs for pews. Children played behind the last row of chairs. The coffee and donuts table was set up during the service. We held square dances there by folding up all the chairs and rolling the altar aside. As a high liturgy church, though, there was great solemnity with the procession of choir, altar boys, crucifix, and minister in their ornate vestments making their way singing around the entire sanctuary, bowing deeply as the crucifix passed. The service included somber communal kneeling confessions of sinfulness and unworthiness, with heads bowed and faces covered by hands. It was all very confusing to me, and I concluded it wasn’t very important, that we just did it because that was the way it was done.

The event most responsible for my leaving my incipient relationship with God for a life of rebellion was my confirmation. Everyone else in my 7th grade class was going to be confirmed, and I didn’t want to be left out. My confirmation classes consisted mostly of lessons about Tudor and Elizabethan history, the victory of the “good, true and liberating” Protestant Reformation over the “bad, false and oppressive” Catholic faith. My understanding of historical, political, social, and other “truths” at this time became firmly fixed in a Protestant point of view — which, for 40 years, I never questioned. Despite having rebelled against history in high school and college as “the story of men” and studying as a feminist to develop a binocular view of history which included “her-story,” I remained completely blind to my Protestant bias. Later, when the call to become Catholic entered my comfortable Evangelical life, everything I accepted without question as “true” shook, slid, and slowly collapsed. It was as if I had discovered, as one culture’s creation story tells it, that what I thought was a world solidly grounded was actually just something balanced on the back of a turtle which, after a long sleep, had awakened and begun to move.

For my confirmation, I memorized the creed I was to recite, and the responses I was to make. I was never taught how the creed came to be, what it meant, nor did I ponder whether or not I believed it. Confirmation was just a “rite of passage” that teenagers in the church did, and I just needed to say the words and not ask questions. The week before confirmation, the bishop  came to teach our class instead of our minister. As described in his obituary years later, this bishop was quite unconventional, even for those times and that denomination. He was loved by many for his charismatic personality and his interpersonal warmth, but he frequently flouted the church hierarchy and tradition. Such rampant individualism, I later came to see, is an inherent flaw in Protestantism. Untethered from authority and tradition, faith becomes “whatever I believe is right is, in fact, right.” History is full of individual, community, national, and international atrocities committed in the name of God by mostly well-intentioned people who believed what they were doing was God’s will and in accord with Scripture. As Proverbs puts it, “There is a way that seems right to a man, and that is the way of death.” Martin Luther himself, reflecting on the progress of the Protestant Reformation, said: “Now every plowboy and milkmaid thinks they can interpret the Bible.”

The bishop told us that we did not need to be concerned if we did not believe what we were saying in the creed, that in fact “nobody really believes that any more.” According to him, Jesus was a man like any other man, a good man who had some good things to teach us, but that was all He was: one of many good men who taught good things. He died like any other man and stayed dead. The nativity story, the virgin birth, the miracles, the Resurrection were all made-up stories that ignorant people had believed in the past because they didn’t know any better. But we who, in our modern times, had the benefit of greater knowledge could understand that God (whoever or whatever he/she/it was) only used these stories because that was all the ancients were capable of understanding. I had only recently learned that the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus were made up. And now, it seemed, Jesus, too — and maybe even God — was all a fantasy.

A week later, I went through the ceremony. I was happy for my presents, including a Bible (that went unread for decades), but my innocent trust and longing for God had been ruined. I had been detoured onto the path of self-centered relativism: nothing but mechanical facts — like spelling words and math calculations — is absolutely true, and it’s every man for himself in finding his way through life. The only person I could trust was myself, the only tools I could rely on were my own mind and senses, the only guides were what I thought, what I felt, what seems right, good and true to me. Everyone is on his own; other people’s answer may be right for them, but has no relevance as to what is right for me.

Relativism leaves life with no meaning other than the meaning each of us makes of it. Until when I became a Christian, I was terrified of death. Death, I knew with cold clarity, was coming for me and I was vulnerable and defenseless. I was often tormented by dreams of dying and of being dead, and I would panic in the moments before falling asleep that, instead of sleeping, I would die. In my unbelief, my soul still sensed that some “I” would continue after death, so these terrors about death would involve my “self” continuing, but without speech, sight, movement, or companionship. These experiences worsened in adolescence, and I began to sleep with a night light, ashamed of my need for an infant’s comfort. As a married woman, several times a year I would jolt suddenly to awareness, eyes wide with terror, unable to speak or move, desperately trying to wake my sleeping husband so he could assure me that everything was all right. In these experiences, I tasted the torments of hell, separated from all that is good and beautiful and light and warm and loving, and I endured them hopelessly for many years. One of the first blessings I received as a Christian was the end of these terrors, and by the grace of God I could finally say with Job:

 

“As for me, I know that my vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.
This will happen when my skin has been stripped off,
and from my flesh I will see God:
I will see for myself,
my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him:
my inmost being is consumed with longing.
(Job 19:25–27 NIV)

 

I graduated from college in 1974 with a certification to teach high school social studies and a deep love for teenagers and teaching. After several years of substitute teaching and temporary work, I had settled into a job as a medical office manager for a radiation therapist. Eventually, though, I realized that I needed to find a different job. I got a call one day from an employment agency which had found my four-year-old résumé at the bottom of a file drawer they were cleaning out — and what a coincidence — they had a position for a high school psychology, sociology, and history teacher. It was in a Catholic girls’ high school about 20 minutes from where I lived. Would I be interested in a job that paid a third of what I was earning, had really limited health insurance and almost no paid leave, would require lots of evening and weekend time, and in addition, would involve being one of perhaps 10 or 12 lay teachers in a Catholic school operated by traditionally habited nuns? I jumped at it, and it became one of the happiest experiences of my life.

There were many strange and wonderful things about teaching there, especially as a non-believer. I found the pictures of the Sacred Heart very disturbing and was careful to avert my eyes whenever I passed them. While I ridiculed the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist in my thoughts and in conversation with several Protestant lay teachers, I was impressed by the commitment and faith of some of the Catholic lay teachers and by their educational background and intellectual development. I loved many of the nuns and found them peaceful to be with and a pleasure to work with. Sr. Maria Gnerro was my department chair, and she trusted me and allowed me great freedom, in my curriculum, to range widely into exploration of values and ethics in social issues. We had wonderful discussions from very different perspectives that were always respectful and stimulating. She made me a much more mature and better teacher, and gave me my first glimpse into the expanse of thought and learning found in the Catholic Faith.

During my years at that school, my husband, Keith’s, construction business began to flounder, and we had difficulty adjusting our lifestyle to our shrinking income. Credit card debts were mounting, and we had increasing arguments about who was working harder, who should do more, who should spend less, and where to cut expenses. One morning, after leaving home in the middle of yet another angry and painful argument, in desperation for a private place to cry, I went into the school chapel during my planning period. Even now, knowing that Christ is truly present there, it is hard to describe what I experienced. The silence was not the absence of noise, but the presence of something else — something profound, real, and wonderful. I know now that I was longing for sanctuary, for holiness, for God. At the time, all I knew was “that place” gave me something I could not name, and after I left to take a job in the public schools, I missed it as an exile misses home. Despite all that I found, all that I received when I first became a Christian, I always longed for something more, something mysterious, transcendent, wonderful. I had forgotten what that might have been until, one morning in a similar state of longing and despair, and found it again coming into St. James’ parish church.

Somehow I lived some 40 years with many of the same blessings, resources, and privileges that Moses had been given without ever being aware of them. Like Moses, I had responded to those blessings by becoming self-absorbed, self-centered, self-reliant, stubborn and willful. In the fall of 1999, I was in the end stage of a life crisis that had been building up for years. My personal life plan was non-negotiable; things had to turn out a certain way, or I was not allowing it, regardless of the consequences. Like the early Moses, I did not realize that my life did not belong to me, but to God. And like him, I was humbled and broken by being driven into the wilderness to become the person God wanted me to be.

My wilderness was not a desert place, but rather my inability to conceive and carry a child. Through 11 years of trying, two miscarriages, and many disappointments, I finally went to that God whom I did not believe existed but still managed to be angry with, and dared him to speak to me.

I dug out the dusty Bible which had been gifted to me long ago by “born again” friends: “OK, I’ll give you one chance. Show me some reason for hope in here.” Surprisingly, God responded to my broken heart rather than to my rebellious spirit. I opened my Bible to the story of Rachel and Bilhah, an account of motherhood through adoption. For the first time in my life, my heart moved in response to the voice of the Lord in Scripture. But — stupid me! — adoption wasn’t my plan for becoming a mother, so I closed the book and hardened my heart against the Lord for several more years.

My born-again sister finally asked me what it would take for me to believe in God. In anger, despair and hopelessness, I answered that having children would convince me. A short time later, my husband and I began exploring the possibility of adoption.

I knew what I wanted and tried to control everything — which of course inevitably led to quarrels with my husband. But in the midst of our inability to move forward, God snuck his divine plan into our hearts. We had finished the paperwork, asking for girls no older than two years, with no serious health problems — a virtually impossible demand, considering the kind of children that mothers were willing to give up for adoption. However, with my sister’s prayer circle working on it, suddenly the adoption agency was flooded with little girls from Russia. But the conditions for adoptable children there were terrible, and the girls being offered were nowhere near meeting our criteria.

Our trip to Russia was repeatedly delayed, but this was providential in getting us there just in time to find that the girl we were supposed to be adopting was not available. We met another — cute and smart — but my husband could not warm to her, and I was frustrated and angry. We were then offered some handicapped children.

Amy had been abandoned and left to die in a building without food, heat, or care. Found three days later, she had suffered a brain malady of some sort which deprived her of speech and motor function, leaving her at the level of a newborn at four years of age. Likewise, Jennifer had been born 10 weeks premature, weighing just over two pounds. She had spent 15 weeks in a hospital as a state ward and was not expected to live. She was not even placed in an incubator — something that might have saved her life, since Russian incubators at that time often malfunctioned, resulting in oxygen starvation and brain damage. This infant also had major digestive problems, was scrawny and weak.

Somehow, God softened my heart at the sight of these frail special needs children. In response, I said to Him, still blind, “Well, maybe you exist, but I’ve got this covered, I can take it from here.” We accepted them and took them home.

As the months passed, my children’s challenges became ever more evident. Amy’s learning disabilities and attention problems worried and frustrated me, and Jennifer’s lack of social engagement and delayed and eccentric speech frightened me. Still relying on my own resources, I became determined that if we worked hard enough and did all the right things, their difficulties could be overcome. So I spent my nights searching the internet for some way to make my children “normal.”

God had called to me, but I continued to focus on self. But God persisted. I would be reading a dry and pessimistic research study about autism, turn the page and find something about the importance of faith in families with special needs children. Or I would be reading my email from the adoptive families network and, interspersed among the letters asking for help and support, I would find something from a Christian testifying to the Lord’s presence in some way in their personal experience or their children’s lives. But I continued blind, my heart still dark.

Nevertheless, God responded to my self-centered self-reliance in the same way He responded to Moses’ self-centered emphasis on his unworthiness: by telling me about Himself, the things He has done, can do, and will do. He told me of His essence, of His heart for my daughters and me by stirring up memories of Bible verses I vaguely remembered from long ago in Sunday school, and I began to look them up in my previously untouched Bible.

I started taping three by five cards on the walls with encouraging biblical messages throughout the house. I began and ended my days with Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” At the dining room table where Amy and I struggled day after day over her homework, I had Galatians 5:22, “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

The neuropsychologist who evaluated Amy had told us that she would never speak, never read, and never be capable of an independent life, but I was determined that I could save her from all that. I was convinced that I could do it on my own with “love, joy, peace, patience, etc.” Daily I failed, but the Lord continued to woo me. In the middle of this life, I found myself devouring books about the historical Jesus: “Who are you, really?” In my reading, it became obvious that those who claimed that Jesus never existed were wrong. As a doctoral student, I had been trained to dissect published research and look for hidden biases, untested hypotheses, poorly done research procedures, and exaggerated conclusions which ignored other conclusions which might be equally valid. I was able to see that something was wrong in the books that argued that Jesus was a man like any other man, or primarily a social activist, or that nothing supernatural can occur, or that nothing can be real outside of human understanding and the laws of nature, or that God could not possibly exist.

Moses had been called at the burning bush. God refocused him on Himself and on His plan for his kinfolk back in Egypt. But Moses balked, saying that what God was requiring of him was beyond his capabilities. Finally recognizing my daughters’ handicaps threw me into a crisis like that of Moses. I couldn’t make them better. When Jennifer was formally evaluated sometime later, the doctors told us “she will have more severe symptoms of autism as she gets older.” Thank you, dear Jesus, that you knew what the doctors didn’t, that despite me, both Amy and Jennifer would leave the experts’ predictions in the dust. And thank you for being with me through those days.

I felt no gratitude at the time, of course. Instead, I was terrified, desperate, and I wanted someone to blame for the burdens that were crushing me: my gentle husband, whom I had loved for almost thirty years, my dearest friend. His “failure” to “get with the program,” to parent the girls according to my specifications, I blamed for everything that was wrong in my life. We had been through counseling, individually and together, but things kept getting worse.

In September of 1999, on a beautiful fall Saturday morning, I sat across the dining room table from the man I had loved since I was fifteen, and told him I was making plans to leave him. I had determined with my psychological expertise that he was the problem in my life. We had talked so much to deaf ears that there was nothing more to say. Our marriage moved into the silence of a death watch.

God, however, saw things differently and stepped in to prevent me from wrecking my life and those of everyone I loved. Like Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the tomb, He called me out of the dead life I was living into a new life in Him, filling my poor, empty heart with His love.

I had gone to what would become my first church for my sister and brother-in-law’s baptisms just a few weeks before in West Virginia. Arriving ill at ease, I watched my daughters swept away into Sunday school classes and myself into the tiny church office, folding programs with women I didn’t know but who seemed to know every detail of each other’s lives. If I hadn’t been blocked from the door, I would have fled, so I kept smiling and pretending all was well.

The service began with singing, and tears filled my eyes. When prayer time came, I thought, “Oh, no! I’m on the Jerry Springer show!” as people requested prayers for their own and loved one’s difficulties, but I was moved by the strong sense of concern and family feeling these people exhibited for each other and their simple trust in Someone they believed heard them, cared about them, and would act to help them. My lonely independence was melting away. When the service was over, I grabbed the girls and fled the scene, vowing as we returned to Maryland that I was never coming back. How the Lord must have laughed!

Each Sunday after that, I found myself unable to sleep in and lounge around, as I had done for years. As fidgety as a cat in a cage, I was up early, dressing children, packing breakfast, driving back to West Virginia, telling myself I’m going crazy the whole way and feeling strangely happy about this sudden homecoming. Every Sunday, my eyes would fill with tears, and every Sunday, I would vow never to return. But Sunday after Sunday, there I was, amazed as my sadness and loneliness faded away. Where did this sense of belonging, this feeling of quiet happiness, come from? And why was I listening to Christian music on a station I had discovered scanning the dial?

In some Protestant churches, the pastor does what is called “the altar call,” when he asks people to come up front and give their lives to Christ. For several Sundays, when this happened at the end of the service, I felt strangely energized, like my body had become electrified. The last bits of the illusion of being in control were shredding and blowing away, and I didn’t like it at all. The last Sunday before I said “yes” to the Lord’s proposal, I was literally sitting on my hands to keep them from going up in response to the call. I remember the pastor saying, “No one is looking. Everyone’s eyes are closed. You know who you are. You know the emptiness and sorrow in your heart that no one knows.” That struck way too close to home. My defenses were nearly breached, and I knew I had to go away and never come back.

Soon afterwards, though, driving home over long stretches of empty highway, God spoke to me through a remarkable series of songs. He spoke to my broken heart, saying, “My child, I know how much you’re hurting. Let me hold you while you cry out all the sorrow, all the grief, all the shame and disappointment and failure and despair. I know everything you’ve been through. I am here.” When I could bear it no longer, I turned the radio off, but His voice continued in my heart. Like Moses, I begged Him to leave me alone and to, please, go find someone else. This was my first examination of conscience, my first confession, looking at the log in my own eye, seeing myself through the eyes of the One who is both truth and love. I received more mercy than the prodigal son, who had at least returned home. Running furiously in the opposite direction, throwing in His path all the objections I could muster to drive Him away, no matter how I ran, God stood there, wrapping me in His love. Finally, He began to deal with my objections: “Shh, be still.” All went silent as He asked me, “Won’t you just let me love you?”

As C.S. Lewis wrote of his own conversion in Surprised by Joy, “This was the most important question I would ever be asked, and the only time I knew I would be absolutely free to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And I suddenly knew with absolute certainty that the only possible answer was ‘yes.’” Thus my Beloved and I became engaged. Six weeks later, as I was playing on the floor with the girls, my husband came over to me and said, “I have a question for you.” Instinctively, my guard went up. “Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

The Lord had put me on an intensive, remedial program, and it truly seemed that “the old things had passed away, and all things had become new.” I couldn’t get enough of singing, praying, reading, learning about my Lord.

I spent many nights up after midnight, reading the Bible as if it were a suspense novel. That first year I was a Christian, I read the entire Bible and dozens of Christian books. One book in particular, written by the Jesus Seminar, in which scholars voted and determined in their scholarly “expertise” that fewer than one fourth of the words attributed to Jesus in the Bible were actually spoken by Him, I could read only a page or two before I got an excruciating headache. Still wanting to be independent, my own boss, I struggled to be a student of my divine Teacher, to read what He knew I needed.

But in real life, the initial rush of making the commitment fades, and the relationship work to be done looms large. I began to realize there was a lot more in me and my life that needed changing. The competing realities of being “born again” and seeing the new me living a new life, versus the daily encounters with the old me and my old habits, were troubling.

As I came to know other “born again” Christians, I was puzzled by the same thing in them. How could we be completely new, yet remain so much the same as before? Many were what I called “cicada Christians,” people who had a brief experience of Christ, made a profession of faith, then soon seemed to go underground for years, only to reemerge again for a similar brief episode. If “once saved, always saved” was true, then how could I understand those people who made a profession of faith but showed no evidence at all of inner change? Had they ever truly been saved? If they were self-deceived, might I be also? These and other uncertainties were the beginnings of my search for authoritative teaching that, combined with the miracle of the Eucharist, would lead me into the Catholic Church.

During those years, the Lord began to bring me Christian patients. Initially, I didn’t do anything to be visible as a Christian psychologist. I tried to stay invisible professionally, but God sent them anyway. Some of them were wonderful models of deep and humble faith, people who blessed my life by allowing me to know them and companion them through excruciatingly difficult times. Others, some with years of serving in positions of leadership in their churches, were as blind as I had been about themselves, trapped in resentment and bitterness like me, clueless as I had been regarding truth. They “talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk.”

I couldn’t understand how other Christians in their relationship with the Lord could treat Him, and other Christians, the way they did. But then, how could I? How could they be so ungrateful for what they had been given, so cavalier about the price that Christ paid to redeem them? But how could I? Where was the acceptance in these people of that discipleship of “taking up the cross daily and following Him,” “presenting your bodies as living sacrifices,” “crucifying the flesh and its desires”? And how could it be so missing in my own new life?

My marriage was on the mend, but it had a long way to go. In my first two years as a Christian, over and over I was given hard lessons in confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I remember standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs wrestling with the Lord, knowing I needed to go up and apologize to my husband for the cruel things I had said, even though “he was wrong.” A blessing I was discovering in the long process of ongoing conversion was that I would have the puzzling example of my husband, as my travelling companion, also making amazing changes, but without “praying the sinner’s prayer” or “accepting Jesus as his Lord and Savior.” He was a conundrum to us Evangelicals, and to me, his wife, most of all.

From my background in substance abuse treatment, I knew about sponsors, and I wanted a spiritual sponsor. After multiple half-way and short-lived efforts to create something on my own, I applied and was accepted into the Fellows program for what I thought would be one year, but it ended up being three wonderful years of discipleship. Like a mini-seminary, we were assigned readings, papers, discussion groups, and mentors. C.S. Lewis recommended that, for every “new” book read, three “old” ones should be read. In these readings, I was thrilled to read the works of other devoted Christians who had wrestled with the same questions as myself and to encounter the Fathers of the Church.

John Henry Cardinal Newman had said that to be deep in church history is to cease to be Protestant, and this was certainly my experience. When I first read the Bible, my reaction had been, “How was it that all this wonderful stuff was here all along, and I have a Ph.D. in psychology, and I never knew it? Nobody ever told me!” I had the same reaction when I began to read the Church Fathers. There was an enormous history of Christianity before the Reformation that was rich, challenging and thrilling to read. Unsettling, too, because rather than reassuring me about Protestantism, it made me ever more aware that the foundation of Protestantism is rebellion against authority.

The more I learned, the more I longed to know. The closer I got to Jesus, the more aware I was that I longed to be even closer.

It was at this point that Jesus asked me a second question, the one that set me definitively on the road to the Catholic Church. What He said in response to my pleading for more intimacy with Him was, “Why would you NOT want to be as close to Me as you possibly could?” He knew what I didn’t know: that there were reasons I didn’t want what I was asking for. Stunned, I began to see what one of the main reasons was: the need to accept Church authority, that one Truth and one Tradition with capital ‘T’s. C.S. Lewis, in writing about his own journey into relationship with God, said, “What mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred that the word INTERFERENCE. But placed in my path was what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. There was no region even in the innermost depth of my soul (nay, there least of all) which I could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice ‘No Admittance.’ And that is what I wanted: some area, however small, of which I could say to God, ‘This is my business and mine only.’”

While I was becoming aware of my own deep-seated resistance to giving up being my own personal religious authority, just me and Jesus working it all out, a series of heartbreaking relationship fractures happened among my Evangelical friends. I watched people who deeply loved the Lord and loved each other break off relationships because of personal interpretations of Scripture, “leadings by the Holy Spirit” to say or do something that caused great pain to someone else, unforgiveness, and other unhealthy personal and relationship dynamics. As a family therapist, I was familiar with these dynamics of troubled families, but I was unable to help, even when asked, because everyone in the conflicts inevitably became stuck in their personal understanding of God’s will and God’s word, and what I came to see as confusion of “my truth” versus “the Truth.” How could “the Truth” be determined when there were so many competing interpretations?

I came to understand that the Protestant tradition is held no less dogmatically than the Catholic Tradition. But Protestant tradition is too often whatever someone says it is, and that is the stuff of church splits. I watched this sad truth lived out among people in my church. Where there is no hierarchy, no accepted authority, no one has any more authority than anyone else. Without authority, there is no way to establish expectations of others, to hold people accountable, or to set consequences. I came to see that, despite years of faithful Christian living, many of those I had admired and looked to as models were no better than adolescents. Our church relationships broke down into rivalries, power struggles and squabbles. As the months passed, more and more people were missing from the family table, and their names were not mentioned, as if they were people unknown.

During this time, I discovered EWTN, particularly Father Benedict Groeschel, who as both priest and psychologist appealed to me. His humanity, passion, and humility were comforting and compelling. Then I found myself watching Marcus Grodi and his program, The Journey Home, about converts to Catholicism. Somehow I had assumed people never converted to the Catholic Church. The only conversions I knew about were from Catholic to Protestant.

I remember sitting in church one Sunday, when we were having the monthly communion service, and the pastor was reading from 1 Corinthians 11:23–29 (NIV): “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So far so good, nothing new, heard this every time. Then the last verse, which left me sitting there stunned: “Those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” I stayed stunned, speechless, and did not take the bread cube or the juice cup as they were passed around that Sunday.

Another Sunday we sang a beautiful song, “In Remembrance of Me.” The lyrics are simple (emphasis added):

 

This is my body, given for you;
this is the cup that holds the blood of the new covenant,
this is forgiveness, simple and true;
this is the Way I have made for you.
I am the Way; this is the Way I have made for you.
Before you eat, before you drink,
take a long look inside and tell me what you see.
He said do this in remembrance of me.
This is the bread of life, broken for you;
this is the cup that holds the wine of a new covenant;
this is the love of Christ poured out anew;
this is the Son of God who died for you.

 

C.S. Lewis wrote of his conversion from Deist to Christian: “I was driven from Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.” And this is how I came to know that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.

I began to have heartbreaking longings to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. I had a dream where I was waiting in the line in a Catholic church and got all the way to the front, only to be told “No” and sent away in tears. A friend who is Catholic told me that I could come to her liberal Catholic parish, and the priest would have no problem giving me the Eucharist because he believed in universal communion. I was sorely tempted, but I knew this was leaving one “I myself am the ultimate authority of truth” for another. I asked her instead to pray for me whenever she received the Eucharist and to receive Him for me.

I wanted a place to pray, a special place that was open whenever I needed it, and I began to stop by St. James, a local Catholic church, to sit and wonder what in the world was going on. I ended up at morning services and noon Masses, feeling like an outsider. I couldn’t figure out the missal, couldn’t follow the Mass, but loved Father Larry’s simple homilies. Many times I would put my face in my hands and weep during the eucharistic rite. I did not want to be Catholic; I loved my Protestant friends, my Protestant reality. I considered for a short time being “Catholic lite,” going back to the Episcopal Church, but it was still a denomination in turmoil, and I had had enough of that in my life.

The day when I could not bear it any longer. I knelt at the foot of the crucifix in tears and said, “I can’t stand it, I have to know! Are you really here in some way that you are not ‘with me always’?” And I knew His presence, the exact distance I was from the Tabernacle, standing over me with His hand held over my head in blessing, and I heard His gentle voice in my heart — the voice of my Beloved, to whom I had been engaged to since 1999, saying, “I am here.” It was the most extraordinary, most precious moment I have ever known.

Having recently read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, I knew I needed to meet with a priest. Like Thomas, I assumed that I would be immediately welcomed in. I sent Father Brian Owens an email saying that I wanted to become Catholic and thought that such-and-such a date would be good. Father Brian replied that we should meet and talk about it. Himself a Protestant convert, Father Brian was a tremendous blessing in my faith journey. I told him I didn’t really want to become Catholic, but I knew that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist, and I wanted to receive Him, so becoming Catholic was a means to that end. Father Brian wisely suggested that I practice patience and continue to follow — rather than lead! — the Lord. He then suggested to the church’s deacon, David Galvin, that perhaps RCIA could be waived for me. Deacon Dave scheduled a meeting with me. At that meeting, he told me that I would have to complete RCIA, which didn’t begin for several months. It would meet weekly on Monday evenings for about eight months. I would have to change my complex and demanding work and family schedule to accommodate those classes. So here I was, confronted with Catholic Church authority, to either submit or reject. Thanks be to God, I had been made ready by all those “trust and obey” practices, and I meekly said “OK.”

There were challenges for me in RCIA, particularly with regard to Mary, and I remember one class when I thought, “This is where it all ends.” I put up my hand, tears in my eyes, and said to the priest who was teaching, “I am not saying that I don’t believe this, but I can’t say that I do. Is there room in the Catholic Church for someone who doesn’t know?” His wonderful reply: “There is always room in the Catholic Church for someone who is seeking the truth.”

I think of that Easter Sunday in 2009, when I was first united with my Beloved in the Eucharist, as my wedding day. My eyes were filled with tears, I couldn’t stop smiling, and I felt like I was floating as I walked up the aisle. That continued for many months. Like a new bride, I couldn’t get enough of my Beloved, and I went to Mass three, four, five times a week, as often as I could. I loved being Catholic: I loved the history, the liturgy, the music — I loved it all. It was the honeymoon.

Since my conversion, as in any marriage, there have been wonderful times and hard times. There have been seasons of rest, seasons of growing, and seasons of pruning. One gift I have discovered in the Catholic liturgical year is there is a program of progress, a spiritual cycle like the earthly seasons, that keeps me from stagnating if I am willing to keep doing my part alongside God’s work in my life. I have learned, and re-learned, and learned again that God’s grace is sufficient, that He is with me always, that He will never leave or forsake me, that He is sovereign in all times and circumstances. I have found Him faithful, and if I am humble and obedient, He will give me the healing and peace that he promises through prayer, adoration, and the sacraments.

In the 12 years since I came home to the Catholic Church, I have held my grandchildren as their godmother in the Sacrament of Baptism. Though my husband has not felt led to become Catholic, he now identifies as an agnostic rather than an atheist. He recognizes the loving and sacrificial witness of my friend and spiritual mentor, Deacon Dave Galvin, and acknowledges the value of our faith in Amy and me. In January 2020, just before the pandemic, I had the great joy of making a pilgrimage to Israel with my daughter, Amy, along with Father Leonard Smith, my friend Deacon Dave Galvin, and many others from our parish, St. James the Greater in Charles Town, WV. Amy was my spiritual companion and encourager when on-site Mass was not possible for many months. We rejoiced together when we were once again able to receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

I continue to commend all those I love who do not know, or are away from, the One who loves them, and to trust that He is patiently wooing them as He did me, willing to wait for more 11th hour workers to come to Him. Meanwhile, approaching 70 years old, I work on listening to God’s voice and obeying. “They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall run and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).


Bonnie Lee Bryant

Dr. Bonnie Lee Bryant recently celebrated 37 years in the mental health field serving teenagers to seniors and working even harder and more in the power and strength of the Lord during the COVID-19 pandemic. She celebrated her 49th wedding anniversary on November 13, 2021 and was overjoyed when her husband, daughters, and grandchildren attended the Mass offered with this intention.  The happy couple was additionally surprised when Father Timothy Grassi invited them to renew their vows and blessed their marriage, followed by congregational applause. While so far this is a “one of”, she is placing her trust in the Lord and His word, as given in Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold without wavering to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.”


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