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From High Church to the True Church

Emily Woodham
November 17, 2021 No Comments

C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian apologists, turned to Jesus because of a late night conversation with his friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. Scholars debate the exact timing, but the influence of that evening is undeniable. A conversation with friends changed his life.

Of course, Anglicans are quick to point out that Lewis chose the Anglican Communion and not the Catholic Church. If Anglicanism was good enough for Lewis, then why should anyone bother with the rules and regulations of Catholicism?

Despite Lewis’s preferences, though, his writing drew me closer to the Catholic Church. I loved reading The Great Divorce in high school, and I found his views on purgatory to be fascinating. Lewis’s vision of heaven and hell in The Last Battle(from the Narnia series) was more Catholic than Evangelical. It resonated with me, especially his themes of choice and free will, instead of predestination. In his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” he said that, next to the Blessed Sacrament, the most holy thing presented to your senses is your neighbor. That was a truth that I believed, but didn’t see even among High Church Anglicans. I saw it only in the Catholic Church.

“The Catholic Church is great if you need a lot of handholding,” my husband, David, once said. “But if you have the grace of faith to walk with Jesus in a personal relationship, then the Catholic Church is a hindrance.”

What David said didn’t sit well with me, because deep down, I wanted a lot of handholding. Try as I might to find my sufficiency in Christ alone, I knew I was lacking. I remembered my Catholic grandmother clutching her rosary as she wept over my grandfather’s death. I thought of my French teacher in high school boldly talking about her conversion to the Catholic Church and her need for the Eucharist. I remembered our Catholic neighbors saying how much better they felt after going to Confession.

As I drew closer to the Church, I began to think that Tolkien was right when he lamented that Lewis’s conversion had been incomplete.

Nevertheless, our family’s journey to the Church was a long one. It involved a lot of reading and conversations with David and friends. We went through moves, and we changed churches several times. We homeschooled four of our children. There were a lot of struggles for us as a family.

Then, on May 30, 2014, the Feast of St. Joan of Arc, I had an appointment with a Catholic priest. We were supposed to talk about a homeschool dance, but that topic didn’t last long. Instead, we had a conversation that changed my life.

The Balm of Faith and Middle Earth

I had more experience with Catholics than David did. Through Catholic family and friends, the Church was always part of my life. I was raised Episcopalian, like David was, but my family’s views were more High Church than those of his family, with a deep belief in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

My dad, who left the Catholic Church in college, busted some myths about Mary and the saints. He said Catholics didn’t worship them, and because they were in heaven and fully alive, people could ask them for prayers. But he also said it was a waste of time to pray to them.

My parents allowed me to read his old childhood books on the Mass and the saints, until I started begging to become Catholic and to be a nun. My family left the Episcopal Church in 1986, when I was 12. I had hoped we would become Catholic, but they believed it would be better for us to go to charismatic churches.

During my wandering from the Episcopal Church through other branches of Protestantism, I married David and had children. We were the ideal conservative, homeschooling family. We prayed and read Scripture every day, we were engaged with our local church, and we believed that faith must be backed by action. But difficulties have a way of smashing idealism.

After we moved to Austin, Texas in 2005, our family began having health struggles, especially with severe allergies. Then, in January 2009, two months after my mother’s sudden death, we nearly lost our youngest son to a severe case of bacterial pneumonia. While holding my toddler son in the hospital after his lung surgery, I thought of Mary watching her Son in agony on the cross. This vision of her pure faith and love in the midst of such horrendous suffering brought tremendous comfort and peace to me.

Thinking of her pure trust in God enabled me to entrust my son to God’s care. The next morning, my son awoke hungry, and the nurses and doctors practically danced in joy at how well he was doing compared to the night before.

As I read theological books in the months after my son’s recovery, I wanted to know more about the Catholic Church and Mary. Protestants ignored so much of what the Church Fathers had said. I tried to push aside concerns that Protestants had little accountability outside of their own interpretation of Scripture.

Interpretation could be so arbitrary. It was the cause of splintering for many churches, as people debated on what was correct belief. How could Christianity be both for the poor and the rich, the illiterate and the intellectual, if so much depended on knowing Scripture, with its multiple possibilities of interpretation? Tradition and the Church Fathers seemed far more important than most Protestants gave them credit for being.

In dealing with the pain of the death of my mother and the stress of almost losing our son, David did not turn to theology. Instead, he turned to his favorite author — Tolkien. As an engineer who is constantly analyzing and using logic, he needed the escape of mythical stories.

In the evenings, after our four children, ages nine to two, got ready for bed, we would all curl up together and listen to David read The Hobbit. When The Hobbitwas finished, the children begged for more stories, so David read The Lord of the Rings. It took nearly two years of faithfully reading each night to finish Tolkien’s classics.

Our youngest usually fell asleep, but the three older children were captivated by the books. After saying prayers, we tucked them into bed, and they often asked questions, wanting to know more about the characters and Middle Earth. A Tolkien fan since middle school, David knew most of the answers. When he didn’t, he would look them up before the next story time.

To delve deeply into Tolkien is to peer into the truths of the Catholic Church. Although Tolkien had said that he hated allegory, the tales of Middle Earth are a vibrant tapestry, woven with his faith. How his characters dealt with suffering was especially meaningful to my husband and me. After the kids fell asleep, we would talk about Tolkien, suffering, and faith. But we still felt that some of the Catholic teachings about Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception, were wrong, and that there was too much emphasis on the Sacrament of Penance.

Back to Tradition

Longing for tradition and liturgy, my husband and I returned to the Episcopal Church in 2010. Not fitting in well any more with the non-denominational crowd, our family joined the Catholic home- schooling group. Although I had been told that Catholics were legalistic, I found them, instead, to be gracious. There was less pressure to be perfect, and they talked about faith being a journey. In other words, they seemed to accept the frailties of humanity, more than did Protestants. Also, Catholics seemed to unify all cultures and backgrounds in a way that Protestants failed to do.

When we moved to Boise, Idaho in 2021, we knew we needed to either choose to go to RCIA classes or to stick to our Protestant beliefs by staying away from the Catholic homeschoolers. Despite all that we found right in the Catholic Church, we still didn’t feel it was right for us. So we joined a parish that was a part of the Anglican Church in North America.

Somehow, though, we ended up being added to the Boise Catholic homeschool group. Then my brother, Glenn, who is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, joined RCIA with his wife in the fall of 2013.

Our family was on a slippery slope. When we missed our Anglican church service, we went to Mass with friends, although we couldn’t receive Communion. My husband and I were already using NFP (Natural Family Planning, a sticking point for a lot of Protestants) because a Catholic OB/Gyn in Austin had said that I was so prolife in my beliefs that I needed to use NFP for the good of my soul — even if I wasn’t Catholic. I became friends with the community coordina- tor for the Catholic radio station in Boise and volunteered for her during pledge drives.

The kids often asked, “why can’t we become Catholic?” Our answer went like this: Confession was an unnecessary burden, purgatory denied the grace of God, the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) was too strict, with Holy Days of Obligation and other requirements, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary was a denial of Mary’s humanity and need for her Son.

But the draw to the Church only became stronger. The kids and I prayed with 40 Days for Life, whose members were mostly from St. Mark’s Catholic parish in Boise. They taught us how to pray the Rosary. I had a dream about Mary in 2012, and my brother Glenn would remind me of it. “Mary wants to help you, Emily,” he’d say.

I began to feel that I was living a lie by staying in the Anglican Church.

St. Vitus, St. Joan, and a Conversation

In the spring of 2014, I decided to organize a dance for the Catholic homeschool group. The other mothers agreed, but with one stipulation: they wanted a Catholic priest to be involved. Someone suggested Father Ben Uhlenkott at St. Mark’s parish, and my Catholic neighbors also said he was good with youth.

I committed our dance to the prayers of St. Vitus, the patron saint of dancing, and I prayed to him each day for help with the dance. It was kind of an experiment to see if God would punish me for praying to a saint regularly. Moreover, I mistakenly thought my appointment with Father Uhlenkott was on the Feast of the Visitation. So I prayed to Mary, not knowing that the day was actually St. Joan of Arc’s feast day.

With my baby bundled up in my arms, I met Father Uhlenkott. He was an outgoing and happy priest, and I could see right away why he was recommended to help with our dance. We talked about the dance for 10 minutes. I thanked him and quickly went to the door, when he asked me what parish I belonged to.

“Holy Trinity,” I replied, as if Holy Trinity was just any other church in the diocese. I started to say good-bye, but his puzzled face made me stop. I hesitated, then explained, “we’re Anglican, but the Catholic homeschool group lets us hang out with them.”

“Really?” He smiled and sat down as he asked, “well, why aren’t you Catholic?” From that flowed the conversation that changed my life.

We talked about Henry VIII and St. Thomas More and the many branches of Protestantism. We talked about C.S. Lewis, purgatory, faith, and forgiveness. We discussed the pitfalls of materialism and pride, the beauty of humility and service. We touched on Mariology, openness to God’s will and Mary’s essential role in the Incarnation. Time seemed to stand still, as we sat side-by-side in armchairs, bent over, speaking softly as old friends might do. The conversation was so peaceful that my baby fell asleep.

Then Father quietly said, “You pray the Rosary, don’t you?” Without thinking, I answered simply, “Yes.” Then I immediately realized my mistake.

He jumped up from his chair and grabbed a book. I tried to explain I didn’t pray the Rosary regularly, et cetera, but he waved away all my protests with his hand.

He handed me a large book with the simple title, A Guide to the Sacraments. It was written by an Anglican Oxford scholar, John Macquarrie. Father Uhlenkott said Macquarrie almost became Catholic at the end of his life but decided it was too much work.

After he blessed my baby and me, we left. I was joyful all the way home, but as I walked through our front door, the fear came back of what would happen if I became Catholic without my husband. So I put the book on a shelf and decided to wait before reading it.

Longing for a Change of Heart

It took me a couple of weeks before I got the courage to open the book from Father Uhlenkott. When I did, I was amazed. I would not have been able to understand it if I had tried to read it before my mother’s death. The last six years of personal study had prepared me for it, and I was open to all the insights provided in the book. I was thrilled as I read the theological and scriptural basis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I marveled at the explanation of the Holy Eucharist. I felt convicted to live out my baptism more fully.

The more I read, the more I realized how right the Church was about the Sacraments. If it was right about them, then was it also had been dismissing all my life?

But my husband was not ready to become Catholic. He had been reading a book by Peter Kreeft on Tolkien’s philosophy, and he was warming to the idea. But he still wasn’t comfortable with some of the Church’s teachings. Not wanting to rock my marriage by crossing the Tiber alone, I returned the book to the parish office in silence. It was not easy to avoid Father Uhlenkott, though, because our homeschool co-op began meeting at St. Mark’s.

Through my kids’ studies, I finally understood that the Immaculate Conception was necessary because Christ’s humanity without original sin was necessary. This also brought to light a sharp difference between Catholics and Protestants: Catholics don’t gloss over tough issues with spirituality. The physical matters to Catholics. So instead of glossing over Christ’s humanity through Mary, they examined it. Instead of dismissing her humanity as unimportant, they saw it as vital, and they understood that her freedom from original sin was crucial.

Other doctrines about Mary also came from this understanding that her role was key to our salvation. Being ever-virgin safeguarded the truth of the Incarnation. Especially in Evangelical churches, I had heard that Mary and Joseph had many children. This was despite the beliefs of the first Reformers, such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, who upheld the necessity of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The idea that she did not remain a virgin came from an unprecedented interpretation of Scripture, without any context of what the early Church believed or why.

Emboldened by all these realizations about the Church’s teaching, I decided to read aloud the book of Wisdom for our morning Scripture and prayer with the kids. I noticed that some passages in Wisdom were similar to St. Paul’s writings, although I had never heard of the connection in Protestant circles. I asked a friend, who is a New Testament scholar and teaches at a Baptist seminary, about it. Always brutally honest, he told me that the Apocrypha were actually more important to understanding the New Testament than most Protestants were willing to admit.

Immediately, I began to wonder: if Protestants were picking and choosing what they included in their scholarship to discern Scripture, deliberately leaving out Scriptures that Jesus and the Apostles referenced, then how could their interpretation be valid?

The weekend before St. Valentine’s Day of 2015, my brother Glenn came to visit. He went to Confession, and we went with him to Mass afterwards. His love for Confession and Mass made an impression on all of us, including David.

Before Glenn left for the airport, he sat with me in the car and said, “I know you don’t want to become Catholic without David, but he’s not God. You have to choose God over your husband. Emily, God wants you to be Catholic.”

I knew he was right, but I still didn’t want to enter the Church without David.

Praying for a Sign

That night, I talked with David about my desire for us to be Catholic. He said we would pray and discern during Lent, but he didn’t want me to tell anyone.

A few days after that, our co-op decided to make Valentine’s Day cards for Father Uhlenkott, to thank him for letting our co- op meet at his parish. Even though David wanted me to keep our time of discernment a secret, I felt we needed some serious prayer. I thanked Father Uhlenkott for the book he had loaned me and told him our plans to discern God’s will for us during Lent. I asked him to pray.

My kids also wrote notes that day, and without my knowing it, they each told Father Uhlenkott how much they liked the Catholic Church.

The next night, near midnight, we wound up in the emergency room with our toddler, Evelyn. She had hit her head on a concrete floor at a friend’s house and sustained a minor concussion. She was cleared to go home, but we had to make sure she didn’t hit her head again.

We were exhausted all of Valentine’s Day, although we were encouraged by the many messages from friends offering prayers and Masses for Evelyn and our family. One thing after another seemed to keep us from finally going to bed. Sometime in the night, sleep overcame us — a peaceful, deep sleep.

In the morning, David awoke in a panic because we had slept in. We had literally missed a month of Sundays at our Anglican church, and this Sunday was an important parish meeting. The morning was a flurry of breakfast and getting ready to leave, while keeping Evelyn from hitting her head.

We piled into the car, and the kids started fussing again for the Catholic Church as they snapped on their seatbelts.

“Enough!” David shouted as he turned around to look at them in the back seats. “We are not Catholic! We are Anglican! We are not becoming Catholic! Just accept it!” With that, we left in silence.

While David drove, I prayed. I was hurt, and so were the kids. Had he already given up on his promise to discern becoming Catholic during Lent?

When we arrived at our church, the older children crept out of the car and filed in beside my husband. Then a man from the parish moved toward us.

“There’s no room!” he shouted as he waved his hands. We were stunned and confused.

“What?” David asked in disbelief.

The man came closer. “There’s no room! It’s standing room only!” he yelled again. David’s face turned to stone. The kids looked at us, waiting for us to say something, but we were too bewildered to speak.

David just stared the man through until the man finally spoke again, “But you can come in if you want. It’s just there aren’t any chairs left.”

Red crept up David’s neck and then to his face, like a cartoon thermometer about to burst. He barely maintained control as he said through gritted teeth, “Everyone. Back. In. The. Car.”

After we all scrambled into the car, we decided to go to St. Mark’s for Mass. David tried to keep back the flood of thoughts that were bombarding him, but it was too much. “I guess God wants me to be CATHOLIC!”

David ranted the whole way to Mass, while I drove: “No room! I can’t believe they don’t have room! I’ll be Catholic because at least they have room for large families! After all, it’s not as if GOD didn’t make it OBVIOUS! I wanted a sign, but I wasn’t expecting THIS!”

I tried to be sympathetic, to be comforting, but it was so hard not to laugh. Like the kids, I couldn’t wait to tell people.

When we arrived at St. Mark’s, David calmed down and asked us to not talk about the decision to join the Church. He wanted to collect his thoughts more before we went to friends and told Father Uhlenkott.

The Church Holds the Full Truth

Although the providential events of that February 15, the Feast of St. Claude de la Colombière, were an uncanny and hilarious sign, David and I did have serious conversations following it. He didn’t understand how, he said, but he knew that the Catholic Church was the true Church. He found some of the teachings mysterious, but he said he could no longer deny that the Church held the truth, the fullness of Christianity. The faith of Tolkien and the truth told through hobbits and kings, elves and even orcs was too clear and rich to be denied.

I met with the pastoral associate of St. Mark’s, and she had each of us, including our four older children, write letters to her and Father Uhlenkott explaining why we wanted to be Catholic. We shared our letters with each other before handing them in, and our discussions as a family strengthened our belief that the Church was right about Mary, the sacraments, the Pope, and all the other teachings of the Magisterium.

After meeting with David and me several times to make sure we understood Catholic teaching, Father Uhlenkott brought our entire family into the Church on August 9. 2015, the Feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (St. Edith Stein).

I went to daily Mass the next morning with my toddler, Evelyn, because I was so excited to finally belong to the Church. We arrived just before the procession. With a flourish, Father Uhlenkott bowed and said, “Emily! Welcome to the Table!” It seemed to seal the joy of the day before, and I knew that I was home.

Being Catholic

Two months after we became Catholic, David began having trouble with his health. After speaking with Father Uhlenkott about it in Reconciliation, it seemed best for me to leave the life of a stay-at-home mom and start working on a career. I decided to see if a friend could help me get started in writing. Within a few weeks, I had a job writing for CatholicMatch.com. Then, in the summer of 2016, I began writing for the Idaho Catholic Register (ICR).

For over four years, I have written the saint story for the back page of each issue of the ICR. Researching and writing about the saints has been my continuing catechesis as a Catholic. To look back over our testimony, I cannot help but recognize the feast days of the different saints who have helped us on our journey!

David is unable to volunteer because of his health, but he goes to Mass faithfully and also goes with me to a small faith community for Bible study and prayer. I have found my old love of music and singing and am a cantor for our parish. Our adult children practice their Catholic Faith without any prompting from us. Our younger children are also involved in parish life. St. Mark’s is truly a second home to us. We had another baby, our first cradle Catho- lic, in October of 2017.

Each time I go to Mass, Confession, or adoration, I am flooded with thankfulness. Being Catholic is such a gift, and I am humbled by all that the Lord has done to bring my family and me into His Church.

Tolkien was right about Lewis: his conversion was not complete. But I believe that after a very short pass through purgatory, the friends may have found each other in paradise. And just as our sense of time holds no meaning in Narnia, there is also no time in heaven, where Tolkien and Lewis go on long journeys through unexplored worlds, drinking pints of perfect ale and holding the lively conversations that mark the best of friendships.


Emily Woodham

EMILY WOODHAM is a wife and mother of six. A year after entering the Catholic Church, she became a staff writer for the Idaho Catholic Register, the biweekly newspaper for the Diocese of Boise. Among her articles for the Register, she writes the saints’ column for each issue. In addition, she has written book reviews for the local Catholic radio station. Her blog is rosesandwhimsy.blogspot.com.


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