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He Sang to Me

Katie Curtis
January 11, 2021 No Comments

I grew up nominally Catholic, but my life actually started with a miracle. I was born in 1993 and seemed to be perfectly healthy.  By the time I should have been learning to crawl and walk, though, I wasn’t. My parents took me to the doctor, and I was diagnosed with a kind of Muscular Dystrophy (MD) that was predicted to kill me by the age of five. My parents were not especially devout, but my mom prayed for me at this point. My dad took me to several appointments over the course of the next year, and the news continued to be bad. Finally, my mom stopped praying to God, and prayed to Mary. She said, “You know what it’s like to lose a child. If you save my daughter, I’ll raise her as a ‘good Catholic girl.’” Shortly after that, my diagnosis changed to something that meant I would have a relatively normal life, but in a wheelchair.

As a kid, I lived in a neighborhood with three other families who had children my age, and all three of those families were nominally Catholic. We all went to CCD (doctrinal instruction for children) together, but after my friends received First Communion, they dropped out. I wanted to drop out too, but my mom wouldn’t let me because she had made a promise. To my parents, raising me as a “good Catholic girl” meant getting me through the Sacraments of Initiation and raising me to be a morally upright person.

We did not practice the faith at home, and only sporadically went to church on the weekends. I went to public school in the 1990s and early 2,000s, so I was learning what the culture wanted to teach me. The catechesis I received once a week was poor and didn’t sink in. When my mom would pick my brother and me up after class, she would ask us what we learned, and we would tell her, “Nothing.” I reflected years later that, actually, that was probably true. As a young child, I had a vague idea of God as a benevolent Creator, but I had little sense that He cared about me in particular, and the notion that He might care dwindled as I got older. By the time I was ten or so, I was agnostic.

Two important factors that play into my story are that I’m smarter than the special education program in our school system gave me credit for, and I have a very active imagination. The Special Education department assigned me a personal aide, and I figured out early on that if I just “played dumb,” that aide would just “do school” for me, leaving me free to wander around the fantasy land of my own mind. I would pay just enough attention to learn what I needed to, to pass tests and do my homework. But by the time I was in middle school, it began to matter to me how other kids saw me. It seemed to me that they were seeing the wheelchair, and not so much seeing me.

Several of my friends were bullied for other reasons, and we got each other through middle school. By my freshman year of high school, however, we were not in each other’s classes, one of my friends had gone to a private school, and another was involved in several sports, so I had less of a support system. On top of that, the Special Education department was trying to implement technology and other “helps” that I didn’t need, and I was fed up with them, so I wrote a letter. It effectively said, “I don’t need you. Get off my case,” in terms as eloquent as a 14-year-old could muster. I was summoned to a meeting with the whole department, including my parents, but they did, indeed, get off my case.

Everything seemed great, then. I no longer had an adult lurking over my shoulder. But I was still “the kid on wheels,” and unlike in middle school, my friends and I didn’t even have lunch at the same time, so I was alone most days and didn’t get to talk with anyone unless I was addressing a teacher. It was at this time, too, that one of my friends, who had been like a brother to me growing up, started dating someone, and I realized that boys could be more than friends. I realized simultaneously that, as “the kid on wheels,” I had about zero chance of ever having a boyfriend. I’m naturally an introvert, and at this point I wasn’t willing to initiate contact, because I didn’t want to be hurt, as I had been as a younger child.

It happened, that earlier that year — I think it was for my brother’s birthday in June — we had got the game “Guitar Hero.” I can’t turn my hands completely over, so I played the game upside down, which worked well with my limitations. I reasoned that I might be able to play a real guitar upside down, so my parents got me a cheap one for Christmas that year, and I started taking lessons in January. My teacher agreed to teach me using the upside down position, and I fell in love with playing the guitar, so my parents got me a fancy Les Paul guitar for my birthday in April. I named that guitar Francisco, because I thought that giving it a name would fill the empty space that loneliness had left in me. Of course, the guitar’s name didn’t make any difference in my life, but I learned something important while taking lessons that had absolutely nothing to do with music.

I thought my teacher was the coolest guy in the world, and I asked him how he got the name for the business he owned, Alpha Omega Music Studios. He explained that he wanted to honor God, who was the Alpha and the Omega, but it also implied that they did everything at the studio, from teaching people who had never played an instrument before to recording full-length albums for professional artists. The idea that my teacher could be a “cool Christian,” though, seemed like a contradiction in terms to me. My impression of Christians was what I had gleaned from my experiences in CCD and encounters with other churchgoers at our parish, who were mostly elderly. To me, Catholics — who were the only Christians I had any real experience of — were old, boring, and judgmental.

I was confirmed in the Catholic Church in my junior year, but I had no idea what it meant. I went through with it to appease my parents. After that, I fell away completely. I remember distinctly the moment I prayed the agnostic’s prayer: “God, I don’t know if you exist, and I don’t think there’s a way of knowing, so I guess I’m agnostic.” That prayer came from a part of me that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know how to access, but it was one of very few real honest prayers I had ever made. What I think I meant was, “If you’re out there, I’d really like you to let me know.” The strange thing was that I had given up on finding “The One” at my school, but I hadn’t totally given up on finding “The One.” When I was lonely, I would imagine this boy trying to find me because I was trying to find him, and although I didn’t really give it any thought, I imagined him praying.

As a kid with a very active imagination, I had imaginary friends. Those friends and I had an entire world we went to on the weekends, called “Mythic Island,” where we had magical powers and fought the army of the wolf demon Agorauth. When I was bored riding in the car, I imagined a character riding alongside us on a flying skateboard, doing tricks off fences and trying to keep up with us. The questions of “Why,” and “What if,” were staples in my vocabulary, so imagining and hoping for this boyfriend wasn’t out of character. The difference was that I actually felt like this person was real, and I was a teenager at this point, so he wasn’t an imaginary friend. He was someone real out there, and we really were trying to find each other.

Over the course of my junior and senior years, I began going with my parents to look for colleges. Like any teenager with a guitar, I didn’t want to go to college. I had begun writing my own songs and had even played a few open mic sessions. I wanted to be the bands I listened to. I was reasonable enough, though I knew that I should have a backup plan. I settled on two schools: Berklee College of Music in Boston and Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. I ended up at Gordon.

I had settled on Gordon as my alternative, not because they had a fantastic music program, but because the people there all seemed really happy, and I didn’t know why. They all seemed to have something that I didn’t, and whatever it was, I wanted it. I knew Gordon was a Christian school, but that didn’t bother me. I didn’t have anything against Christians; I simply didn’t believe what they did. Gordon was slathered in Christianity, though; we had to go to chapel services three times a week, and as freshmen, we were required to take an Old Testament and a New Testament history class. That first semester, along with other textbooks I’d need, I had to get a Bible, because I didn’t own one. For some reason, getting that first Bible at Barnes and Noble felt special. I think part of it was that it was a facet of the overall “newness” of college. But there was a strangeness to it, and I somehow knew it was significant. It was at Gordon, too, that I learned that there was actually good Christian music. The only Christian music I had ever heard was at church, and the stuff I heard at church was either outdated (to my ears, at least) or poorly performed.

Our chapel services always started with a few worship songs, which was where I discovered the song Divine Romance by Phil Wickham and sang, along with my fellow students, “In your presence, God, I’m completely satisfied.” I didn’t mean it, or understand it, at least at first, but it began my great Curiosity Quest. I began looking on my own for Christian bands and artists that I liked to listen to, and discovered lines from Tenth Avenue North like, “I’ll be by your side whenever you fall, in the dead of night, whenever you call, and please don’t fight these hands that are holding you; my hands are holding you.” It was really through Christian music that I began to hear God’s message.

By my senior year of high school, I had almost entirely given up on love — at least romantic love — and had started believing that I was unlovable. But I was suddenly hearing that the opposite was true through Christian music, so I started tentatively praying that God would help me find “The One.” This went on for about two months, during which time I became more and more lonely and desperate. One night in October 2011, I was alone in my room, praying and crying, and I knew that, if He didn’t do something that night, I would give up on Him completely. For some reason, though, I said to Him, “Please, I need your help! I love you!”

I was confused, because I knew it to be true, but I didn’t know where it had come from. The moment I said it, a profound sense of peace and a kind of warmth came over me, like an emptiness in me had been filled. I felt His love. It was as if He had said to me, “I’m not going to find someone to love you, because I love you.” It took me a few days to completely process what had happened, during which time I wrote my first Christian song, You Answered. It was my response to what He had done for me that night, and it completely changed the trajectory of what I would do with music. Suddenly, I knew that God was definitely real, Jesus was a real Person, and He cared about me in a personal way. That meant I had to be Christian. The next question was, “What kind of Christian am I?”

I had gone through the motions in my Catholic formation, but it had never really meant anything to me. I started going to Mass regularly as a kind of “place holder” while I tried to figure out how I could find a permanent “home.” But I didn’t really know how to go about my search. At some point during that time, our priest started mentioning Eucharistic Adoration in his homilies. I had no idea what this was, and since I’m naturally curious, I started going to the Adoration chapel. I found it odd at first, but I felt drawn to it. Despite it being really haphazard and accidental, I had been crash-course re-catechising myself, largely with the help of YouTube. This took me about four years. Finally, I came across a talk by Father Mike Schmitz entitled, “The Hour That Will Change Your Life.” He talked about love and intimacy; he was funny, and most importantly, he explained John 6. He explained that the Eucharist is Jesus Himself. What finally convinced me to return to the Catholic Church was one night in Adoration, when I was feeling sorry for myself, though I don’t remember why. I asked the Lord, “Who am I to you?” I very clearly heard Him say, “My daughter.” For some reason, that had been the final thing I needed to hear, and I felt an impulse to go to confession for the first time in five years, the first time since being confirmed. I really felt free and new after that, and when I left the confessional, I felt a great sense of gratitude.

I didn’t have much difficulty moving from agnostic to Christian to Catholic, because I wasn’t burdened by the hang-ups that Protestant converts to Catholicism have. The Catechism and other resources were able to give explanations of things in a way that simply made sense, like the way they explained the real purpose of marriage. Two issues that did cause me varying degrees of trouble, though, were devotion to Mary and the “problem of evil.”

Although I didn’t hold to it strongly myself, I knew about the misconception other Christians have that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. I knew that wasn’t true, but I struggled with what it really meant to have a devotion to Mary and other saints, and to pray to them. It seemed to me that there was a line between devotion and worship, but I didn’t know exactly where that line was. I didn’t want to cross it, wherever it was. In the end, I decided that it was not a major issue for me, and I would figure it out over time. What really helped me was learning how to pray the Rosary. I had read or heard somewhere that the devil hates the Rosary, so I just figured that, naturally, I should pray it. I quickly came to understand that it’s really all about Jesus, and that Mary guides us to the Lord.

The problem of evil was a harder issue for me. It didn’t stop me from becoming Christian or Catholic, but I really struggled with it. While I believed, the problem of evil got in the way of my trusting God completely. When I was a kid, I had asked God — if He really was there — to heal me and make me “normal.” He didn’t do that, and it really bothered me. That was part of the reason I became agnostic so young. When He rescued me in my freshman year, it really disturbed me why a good God, a God I had suddenly come to know, would allow not just my suffering, but generally so much evil in the world.

The explanation I found, as with many other things, made sense. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, emotionally satisfying. The idea of redemptive suffering — the idea that, when we suffer, we somehow share in the suffering and redemptive work of Christ — made sense, but it didn’t appeal to me. I understood why He would allow bad things to happen when it was directly caused by humans, because there had to be consequences. But I didn’t understand why He would allow things like plagues or deadly hurricanes if He doesn’t want those things to happen. I got angry with Him on occasion about this issue. When I went through difficult things myself, I always remembered that initial moment of peace afterwards, and that got me through it. Again, I saw in hindsight, over and over, good things that came out of various hard times, and in this way, I discovered the concept of redemptive suffering. I found it laid out clearly that God can take the very worst thing — the Crucifixion of Jesus — and turn it into the very best thing — the salvation of the world. I begrudgingly accepted this as true.

Becoming Catholic wasn’t really the end of my journey, though. Over the course of several years, I became somewhat more familiar with one of the priests who served at our parish. He was my regular confessor, and kind of an informal spiritual director. I began feeling restless again, which didn’t make sense to me because when I had finally made it back to the Catholic Church, it was like I had found “home.” But now I was beginning to feel that I wasn’t all the way “home.” I told Father Patrick about this, and that I just wanted to be a saint. He told me that I was probably called to a specific spirituality. He advised me to read something by one of the Carmelite Doctors of the Church, so I read The Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross. It was intimidating, but it didn’t scare me away. My thought was, “I don’t want this, but if I have to go through it to get to heaven, then … okay.” When I told Father Patrick about this, he got me in touch with the president of a Secular Carmelite community that meets near my home, and I started formation with them in 2018. In November of 2019, I had my clothing ceremony and officially became a part of the Carmelite Order. I must confess that, at the first meeting I attended, even though it was far from anything I was used to, it felt like I had truly found “home.”

Music has been a constant part of this journey, too. As a Carmelite, I pray the psalms every day, and the songs I write are very much like prayers in the same way. I use music to process what’s going on in the world and life in general, but I also feel like music is my love language. I feel like God didn’t so much speak to me, but sang to me, to get my attention when I was a lonely 19-year-old. Like the Psalmist, I write songs of worry, complaint, hope, praise, and gratitude. I majored in creative writing in college, and over those four years, I was learning to write, but I was also learning my faith. Songwriting was definitely a bridge between the two. I had to learn how explicitly Christian I wanted my songs to be and how willing I was to write what I felt He wanted me to. One of my best songs, Passenger, was also one of my earliest. It is much more implicit, while my later songs are more obviously worship songs. I write for myself and for the Lord, but my hope is that people on the same journey will hear these songs, and maybe they will speak the same language.


Katie Curtis

Katie Curtis is a songwriter and blogger based in Reading, Massachusetts. In a world where there are so many mixed messages about what is true, right, good, and beautiful, her desire is to use her music to help people find their way home to the Lord. Her blog can be found at katiecurtismusic.wordpress.com and her music at katiecurtis.bandcamp.com. Her latest album, A Song to Sing in the Dark, is available on a number of platforms, including Apple Music and Spotify.


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