It was August, 2018, and I was in the middle of my spiritual direction program. During one session, a faculty member, Steve, shared about his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. One of his prayers had been whether he should return to the Catholic Church.
When he finished, he sat down next to me, and we started talking. “I really believe the Eucharist has to be central,” Steve said.
“Of course, it should be,” I said. Later, I puzzled at my response, since a central Eucharist had never been part of my religious experience. However, it seemed obvious, since Jesus had instructed the disciples to “do this in remembrance” of Him.
Faith Formation & Formation Challenged
I was raised in a small, tight-knit Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) community. My family sent me to denominational schools from elementary level through college. I was a good student of Adventism, followed all the dietary and dress rules and studied my Sabbath school lesson faithfully, including the readings by Ellen G. White, the church’s prophet. According to the denomination, Ellen White was true prophet because she had the “spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10). The Adventist church was the true church because it kept the “commandments of God” (Revelation 12:17) — most importantly, the Sabbath. Ellen White claimed that the pope had changed the Sabbath to Sunday, and if we ever worshiped on Sunday, we would be branded with the mark of the beast (Revelation 12:16–17). In addition, she taught that the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon. For SDA members, the Lord’s Supper occurred quarterly and was considered symbolic.
All of this changed in 1990 when, as I was driving, an unusual thought entered my mind: “I should study the Bible.” A short time later, I bumped into a fellow Adventist who raved about a Bible study she was attending. On the one hand, I was intrigued. On the other hand, I was repulsed, because growing up, the only people I knew who studied the Bible were those preparing to become Adventist, and they were “weird.”
However, within a few weeks, another woman extolled the virtues of the same Bible study and invited me to attend. I accepted and enrolled in Bible Study Fellowship (BSF), a non-Adventist Bible study organization. Within a few short weeks, it became glaringly apparent that I didn’t know Scripture at all. What I did know were texts taken out of context to prove what my church wanted me to believe — in particular, “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” (Exodus 20) and “The dead know not anything” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). In addition, I became aware of my own arrogance: I had the truth, I was in the true church, I kept the Sabbath. How could these other people be Christians when they didn’t know the truth like I did?
Slowly, as I grew in my understanding of the Bible, my Adventist beliefs were challenged by the contextual study of the Bible that BSF provided.
After a year of BSF, I noticed a meeting advertised at my church: “An Evangelical Protestant Looks at Adventism.” Without knowing what that meant, I attended. There I learned that, until the 1950s, Evangelical Christians believed that the Adventist church was a cult. Shocked by this revelation, I left the meeting with many questions, which led to reading books by, in many cases, former Adventists. I learned that every unique SDA doctrine was based on books written by or claimed to be written by Ellen White (Rea, Walter. The White Lie. One Stone Press, 2021.)
After an intense six months of prayer and study, I concluded that my church was indeed a religious cult — a group that deviates from the orthodox teachings of the historic Christian faith derived from the Bible and confirmed through the ancient ecumenical creeds. For example, the SDA church teaches a works-based salvation theory known as the Investigative Judgment, which no other Christian church has adhered to. In addition, the SDA church held to a non-Trinitarian position concerning the deity of Christ. Realizing this, I determined that I could no longer remain an Adventist.
The Mark of the Beast or the Four Marks of the Church
I had no idea where to go to church, but a former Adventist friend from BSF kept raving about her church, a “Sunday church.” Attending it would mean I would have to face the fear of receiving the Mark of the Beast head on. It was one thing to know that I wouldn’t get the dreaded Mark, but it is quite another thing to put that belief into action.
Finally, the day came. On September 30, 1991, I went to church on a Sunday for the first time. Within hours of my decision to attend that weekend, I was struck down by a severe flu, but I went anyway. Once at the new church, everything was different — the music, the style of worship, the Bible-centered sermon. People even took their Bibles to church and took notes during the sermon. After the service, I determined that I would return. It became the high point of my week.
I slowly untangled myself from the Adventist church and revoked my membership. When I left the Adventist church, I left everything familiar — friends, lifestyle, and my treasured role as a musician. I had to learn how to dress, how to manage non-vegetarian cuisine, how to make friends and where to educate my children without the aid of a church telling me what to do.
Following Jesus would be costly, but I knew He was worth whatever I had to give up.
I continued to attend that Sunday church, which turned out to be an Evangelical Free church, assuming that what I was experiencing was normative for all Christians. I had no idea of the existence of thousands of Protestant denominations, nor that this denomination was only a small subset of Protestantism. In fact, all I knew about the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which we sang with gusto at church. The Lord’s Supper, while not central, was celebrated monthly and was still considered symbolic.
However, in my new Christian milieu, the anti-Catholic rhetoric persisted, especially about how unbiblical transubstantiation was, how corrupt the Catholic Church was, and how Catholics didn’t know the Bible.
During my years in the Evangelical Free church, I began therapy to seek help for a family issue. I learned that, in order to survive my childhood, I had suppressed all my feelings. In short, I was completely unaware of my feelings at any given time. Besides therapy, I sought inner healing and attended a support group for women who had been abused. I sensed that there was a deep well of pain inside, but I could not access it.
During this time, I read books by Brennan Manning and Henri Nouwen, not bothered by the fact that, as Catholic priests, they were part of the Whore of Babylon. Brennan Manning talked about spiritual direction, and when, in 2015, I learned of a local spiritual director, I jumped at the chance and began monthly direction. At my first session, when my director mentioned that she used to be Protestant but was now Catholic, I forgot that meant she was part of the Whore of Babylon. I wondered about that pope stuff, but I didn’t ask her about it. Several years later, we explored whether God might be leading me to become a director. I applied to a Protestant Spiritual Direction program and was accepted. In January 2018, I began that training.
When the Saints Go Marching In
During our first year, we met every three months. Each time, the life of a different saint was highlighted — Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict, Francis of Assisi, and Clare of Assisi. I wondered why I had not heard of these people before. More importantly, I became aware that I was completely ignorant of 2000 years of Church history. Why was that?
Then in August, my instructor, Steve and I had our conversation about the Eucharist. At that moment, a long-forgotten memory suddenly came to mind: years earlier, while still an Adventist, I had attended a workshop led by Catholic priest Brennan Manning. At the end of his presentation, he celebrated the Eucharist, and I wept uncontrollably.
“What was that about?” I wondered aloud to Steve.
Steve mentioned an audible book he had read on his Camino pilgrimage, entitled Lead Kindly Light, by Thomas Howard. “I think you would like it,” he said.
When I returned home, I looked up Lead Kindly Light but found another by the same author that captured my attention: Evangelical is not Enough. I read it and found myself identifying with the author’s observations stemming from his years in an Evangelical church.
In this book, Thomas Howard recounted his childhood experience of visiting a Catholic church with a friend. He stated, “I, not he, was the literate Christian believer… I knew the Scriptures… I knew the gospel… I was the one who could cite texts… yet I was embarrassed over having to appear ignorant… and tried to seem knowledgeable” (Evangelical is Not Enough. Ignatius Press, 1984). I could relate to his outlook, first from my Adventist years as part of the one true church, but also from my years in the Evangelical Free church. While Evangelicals don’t claim to be the only church, they do hold up their biblical understanding as the correct one, yielding the same result.
In addition, the author stated that everything he had learned about the Catholic church was misinformation. Given all the anti-Catholic rhetoric I had been exposed to, I wondered if that might be true of me, as well.
Finally, he recognized his own lack of historical knowledge. Howard stated, “It was as though the Church had never really existed. It was though the Bible had been written yesterday, and I was the first man to open it.” Elsewhere, he mentioned that, in his Evangelical mindset, Church history was composed of the apostles, then picked up with Luther. There was a big gap in Church history that had been utterly ignored. He had reached the same conclusion as I had during my Spiritual Direction program.
The Eucharist Throughout Time
This awareness and my conversation with Steve in August 2018 launched me into a deep dive into the Catholic Church. After reading Evangelical is Not Enough, I discovered The Journey Home program on EWTN, with Marcus Grodi and his son, JonMarc Grodi, of the Catholic apostolate The Coming Home Network International, in which converts to the Catholic faith tell their stories. Through those testimonies, I heard about the early Church Fathers for the first time. Why had I never heard of these men before? I wanted to learn more, so I read Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett. What I learned shocked me: the Early Church Fathers referred to the church as Catholic. In addition, Justin Martyr’s description of the early Church gatherings (written AD 151) sounded a whole lot like a Catholic Mass, including the belief in transubstantiation:
And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration [Baptism], and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 66)
How could I argue against the Early Church Fathers, many of whom were disciples of the Apostles and were much closer to Jesus in time than the Reformers? Their testimony had to carry more weight.
I kept watching The Journey Home, paying special attention to stories by former Evangelicals. I also discovered The Cordial Catholic podcast by K. Albert Little. His weekly interviews with former Protestant theologians turned Catholic led me to valuable resources for overcoming many of my theological barriers to Catholicism.
Was God leading me to the Catholic Church? At this point, I really wasn’t sure, but I knew that I couldn’t go back to a sermon-centered church service devoid of the centrality of the Eucharist.
In September 2019, I read Dr. Peter Kreeft’s Symbol or Substance. Dr. Kreeft, a philosopher and former Protestant, challenged the reader:
Go to a Catholic church some time when no one is present to embarrass you or distract you, and pray: “Jesus, is that really You there in that little box on the altar under that red sanctuary lamp? If it is, oh, please, please draw me there. Feed me with Your Body and Blood, as You promised to do. If it is not You but only a symbol, then please, please do not draw me to this error. You are my only absolute; I want only to go wherever You are and not wherever You are not. The two last things I want to do are to commit idolatry and worship what is not You or to refuse to worship You where You really are. I do not want either to exalt the symbol into the substance or to reduce the substance into a symbol.”
Put the burden of uncertainty on His shoulders, and let Him do the heavy lifting. (Kreeft, Symbol or Substance?: A Dialogue on the Eucharist with C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham and J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 116.)
Given my own uncertainty, I decided to accept his challenge. One morning, I parked in front of the local Catholic church. I sat in the car for quite a while, working up my courage to go in. After a lifetime of being taught that the Catholic Church was the Whore of Babylon, I had to be sure I wasn’t walking into a den of iniquity. Finally, after I made sure no one was watching me, I got out of the car and walked into the empty church.
Once inside, I looked for the little box and the red sanctuary lamp. OK, here goes, I thought, and read the prayer. Nothing happened. There were no thunderbolts or words from the Almighty. Afterwards, I sat in the reassuring quiet.
When I returned home, for some unknown reason, I looked at the church’s website and learned that RCIA (instruction for inquirers) would be starting soon. I realized that if I didn’t start now, it would be another year before the next class started. I still wasn’t sure I would join the Church, but I concluded that RCIA was a good place to find out more about the Catholic Church, so I emailed the parish and asked to join the class.
Around that time, I discovered this Celtic prayer:
Lord, I will trust You, help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, can I trust You to be stronger than each storm in me?
Do I still yearn for Your glory to lighten on me?
I will show others the care You’ve given me.
I determine amidst all uncertainty always to trust.
I choose to live beyond regret, and let You recreate my life.
I believe You will make a way for me and provide for me, if only I trust You and obey.
I will trust in the darkness and know that my times are still in Your hand.
I will believe You for my future, chapter by chapter, until all the story is written. (St. Brendan, Celtic Daily Prayers — Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community, New York: HarperCollins, 2002, pp. 191–193. Emphasis added.)
It seemed as though God was summoning me forward.
That fall, I listened to a lecture on the Coming Home Network website by Jewish Catholic Rosalind Moss (now a religious sister named Mother Miriam). Her turning point came when she visited a Catholic church with her brother, David, at Christmas. Afterwards she said to him, “It was just like the synagogue, but with Jesus.” This reminded me of what I had learned at a Bible study taught by a Jewish believer. His studies, heavily weighted in the Old Testament, showed how Jesus fulfilled prophecy. I learned that synagogue worship included readings from the Law and the Prophets, the singing of the Psalms and blessings by the rabbis: Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth. Blessed are you, O God, our Lord, King of the Universe, creator of the fruit of the vine.
Because of this foundation, when I discovered Dr. Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, I couldn’t wait to read it. Dr. Pitre said that, when Jewish males went up to Jerusalem three times each year, the priests in the Temple would do something remarkable.
They would remove the golden table of the Bread of the Presence from within the Holy Place of the Temple so that the Jewish pilgrims could see it. When they brought out the holy bread, the priests would elevate it and say the following words: “They [the priests] used to lift it [the Golden Table] up and exhibit the Bread of the Presence on it to those who came up for the festivals, saying to them, ‘Behold, God’s love for you!’” (Babylonian Talmud, Mmenahoth 29A as quoted in Pitre, Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Doubleday, 2016, p. 131.)
Pitre noted that, if this tradition were not so well documented, it would be almost unbelievable. To breach Temple protocol by taking out sacred objects was unheard of, yet during the Feasts, the Jewish people were allowed to see the Bread of the Presence, normally hidden behind the outer veil. But what did bread have to do with God’s love for the people? Pitre suggested that the Bread of the Presence was a sign of the covenant (Leviticus 24:7), and as such, was a sign of the divine Bridegroom’s love for his Bride.
When Jesus instituted the new Passover covenant, he took bread and wine and said, “This is my body which is given for you” (Luke 22:19). Pitre concluded, “Like the priests in the Temple before him, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus was saying to the disciples: “Behold God’s love for you” (Pitre, Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Doubleday, 2016, p. 144).
In August 2020, I finally began attending Mass regularly. Despite what I had read about the liturgy, I struggled to understand what was going on. Maybe it was because of the COVID restrictions or maybe because it was all so foreign. Then I remembered Rosalind Moss’s words: “It’s just like the synagogue, but with Jesus.” I recalled what I had learned about the Jewish roots of the Eucharist. It seemed logical to me that the Apostles, all devout Jews, would have continued what was familiar to them from the synagogue, with the addition of Jesus in the Eucharist. When I realized this, I could see that all the elements were there: in the Mass, the Scriptures were read, although instead of reading from the Law and the Prophets, the Church read from the Old and New Testament and then from the Gospels. Just like in the synagogue, during the Mass, the Psalms were sung (or read). The blessings were there, too, similar to their Jewish form:
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.
Finally, when the priest elevated the host before the congregation and said, “The body of Christ,” I remembered the Jewish tradition where the priests said, “Behold God’s love for you.” The Mass finally began to make sense to me.
By December 2020, I felt I had done all the study I needed to. I was convinced that Jesus had established his Church on the Apostles and had given them His authority. I couldn’t refute the testimony of the Early Church Fathers and believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Along with my friend Steve, I believed that the Eucharist should be central and not shoved to the side, as it had been in Protestant churches. I emailed the priest at the local parish and told him I was ready to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. On Easter Vigil 2021, I was received into the Church.
The Gift of Tears
Once again, I was leaving everything familiar to follow Jesus. In the same way, I knew that it would be worth it.
As I began to attend Mass regularly, something unusual and unexpected began happening. At some point during each Mass, I would begin to weep. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes it was just a few tears, other times I cried throughout the entire Mass. Kleenex became my best friend — I never left home without it. The odd thing about the tears was that, despite my awareness that I carried a well of grief inside, I never cried during any Protestant church services. When friends said, “I really sensed the Holy Spirit today,” I would look at them blankly. Sensing nothing unusual, I would wonder what was wrong with me. Now, as I considered what was happening to me during the Mass, I remembered that first Eucharist with Manning decades earlier, where I wept uncontrollably. It seemed like the Holy Spirit pointing to the Eucharist was a common thread.
During my years of study, I discovered this quote by Frederick Buechner:
Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next. (Buechner, Whistling in the Dark.)
It is as if God had been speaking to me through my unexpected tears, patiently summoning me to this place, to where my soul could be saved. Of all places, He chose the Catholic Church as the place to heal my wounded heart, and He has used the gift of tears to reveal His love to me. Thanks be to God.