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Higher Ground

Becky Mayhew
September 15, 2022 No Comments

Shortly before my sixth birthday, my Baptist-minister daddy baptized me in the Mississippi River following a tent revival. He placed me at the front of the line while folks sang “Shall We Gather at the River?” Though a Calvinist, Daddy often preached on sanctification and the importance of growing in holiness. When he prayed aloud, almost overcome, he would sometimes exclaim, “Christ, we adore you!” My mother had a servant’s heart as well and taught me to love God with all my heart and to obey Him in all things.

Before my sixteenth birthday, I began what would become a four-year courtship with a young man named Larry Mayhew. His brilliant mind and devotion to Christ made him quite a catch, so I set about making him mine. Our long-term relationship prior to our marriage gave us plenty of time to discuss how we would handle marriage, child rearing, and careers.

After Larry completed his doctoral program in 1972, we moved to Kentucky for Larry’s job at a university there. I taught English at a nearby high school. In our new Baptist church home, we taught adult Sunday School classes. I sang in the choir, and Larry was ordained as a deacon. We gathered weekly in a home Bible study group with seven university couples, a fellowship of Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists.

Larry and I found deep joy, and even humor, together despite the crosses we carried. For instance, although Larry remained the spiritual leader of our home, he was no longer able to attend church with us because of health problems. And when both my parents became cancer patients, they lost the energy to hold together what had been a difficult marriage. Nevertheless, others frequently commented on the fine Christian example of our son Chris, who enjoyed Young Life, an evangelical organization for Christian teenagers. Thus, God’s grace was sufficient, and our happy marriage and our sweet son left us mindful of the Lord’s blessings even in our darkest hours.

As the Holy Spirit continued to work powerfully in my life, I thrived in the Southern Baptist world – until I reached middle age. By then, both Daddy and my husband had died. Missing them both and adjusting to retirement, I felt restless and frustrated, and I seemed stuck spiritually. Something was missing, and the old hymn, “Higher Ground,” expressed my longing well:

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on Heaven’s tableland,
A higher plain than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where those abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

I want to live above the world,
Though Satan’s darts at me are hurled;
For faith has caught the joyful sound,
The song of saints on higher ground.

I want to scale the utmost height
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till heav’n I’ve found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Restless Quests

I found myself trying to make peace with the Baptist faith, yet God was at work, even then, preparing me to become a Catho- lic. I was beginning to recognize the power of the physical to impact the spiritual, evident in my growing desire to collect small statues and prints depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Moreover, for years I had been craving periods of silence and attention to reverence in our worship services. Yet most Southern Baptists seemed to appreciate an increasing move toward informality. I had also known for a long time that something was missing from the Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Almost imperceptibly, I slipped into sacramental theology and found myself asking God to minister grace to me through the Lord’s Supper, even as our pastor was reminding folks that, for Baptists, it was only symbolic. Even the ideas of confession and absolution became more and more appealing.

I began to feel that there had to be more for a follower of Christ. My desire to overcome spiritual pride and to grow in holiness caused some pastors to see these as marks of humility, so they put me on an undeserved pedestal. Ironically, I was invited to lead yet another ministry. A kind of spiritual fatigue set in as if I had been running a race without access to the best possible nourishment and coaching. Yearning for “more,” I explored Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy but decided that neither was the answer.

God’s Providence

For twenty-eight years, I had asked God to give my son a fine Christian woman with whom he could enjoy a happy marriage and serve the Lord. He chose a Catholic, and, though surprised by this, I often joined her for Mass when they visited me. During their St. Louis wedding festivities in 2004, I met two delightful Catholic seminarians with permanent residency at a religious community near my Kentucky home. At the rehearsal dinner, the younger seminarian and I enjoyed almost three hours of animated dialogue about the Catholic Church. He won my trust with his sensitivity, humor, and fine listening skills. I was amazed to hear myself admitting to an occasional longing for the release and comfort that must be found through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I also heard myself, a Baptist minister’s daughter, referring to then Pope John Paul II as the Holy Father.

Out of deference to our Protestant family, the Mass had been reserved for the morning after the wedding ceremony. During the ceremony itself, I was deeply moved by the beauty and reverence of the liturgy, and the emphasis on Scripture was a surprise. The next day, we toured the incredible Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, and the celebration continued with Mass in a side chapel. At that point I understood very little about the Mass, but I was paying attention and accumulating questions. Upon my departure from St. Louis, the seminarians gave me a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and challenged me to find out for myself what the Church taught. So, in 2004, I began studying the Catholic Faith with the hope of leading my daughter-in-law into Protestantism and of being prepared for my son’s questions – should he someday consider Catholicism.

The younger seminarian and I had laid the groundwork for a future friendship. The older seminarian (who was my daughter- in-law’s brother) would soon become a special friend as well. For two years, during their vacations from seminary, I would attend a Mass with them and the Fathers of Mercy, and the three of us would have long theological discussions. By 2006, I was fully aware of the gift God was giving me in those conversations.

Guideposts and Revelations

Most of what I had once believed about the Catholic Church turned out to be misinformation or misunderstanding. I had first questioned my parents’ view of Catholicism when Billy Graham included Catholic priests on his revival podiums, and my fundamentalist father had no answer for why Graham believed those priests were Christians and worthy to be seated there. God planted additional seeds in my mind through the novel Quo Vadis? and the British miniseries Brideshead Revisited.

In The Imitation of Christ, I found Thomas à Kempis’ intimate knowledge of Christ compelling. I initially ignored the section on the Eucharist but later decided that such a holy man might have something to teach me about that as well. The haunting melody and lyrics of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” an ancient chant of Eucharistic devotion, stirred my spirit in a mysterious way. Sacred Scripture was also speaking to me about the Eucharist. I realized that Jesus was not speaking of symbolic body and blood in John 6, and his poignant prayer for a united Church in John 17 broke my heart.

William F. Buckley, Peggy Noonan, Kate O’Beirne, and other intellectual heavyweights whom I admired seemed to have discovered something in the Catholic Faith. I respected them enough to conclude they must know some things about Catholicism that I did not. Through The Journey Home on EWTN, I became aware of devout evangelicals like Dr. Scott Hahn and Rosalind Moss who had been students of Scripture yet had embraced Catholicism. I had believed that only Catholics left their faith for another tradition, never the other way around. The lives of St. Teresa of Calcutta and Pope Saint John Paul II revealed humility and holiness. When Pope Benedict XVI stood on the balcony for the first time in 2005, the Holy Spirit delivered an unspoken message to me: “This is the leader of the Church.”

Theological Obstacles

Sometimes, I would ask myself, “What if the seminarians are right?” Then I would pray, “Lord, lead me to the Truth.” Part of me was afraid of what that Truth might prove to be. I had heard converts say there was no turning back once they had read the Church Fathers and studied the worship practices of the early Christian Church, which involved receiving the Eucharist. Reading Rod Bennett’s Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words confirmed what others had shared – the first Christian leaders clearly believed Jesus was present in the bread and the wine, not just symbolically represented.

The Baptist belief in sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) was surprisingly easy for me to leave behind when I reflected on these two verses:

But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25).

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

Similarly, I considered how many things about my late husband would have remained unknown if others only knew what I’d written about him (without hearing what I shared about him in conversation). Oral accounts are so important for the complete picture. The early leaders of the Church passed on Jesus’ teachings orally and instructed Christians to obey what they had heard.

Nevertheless, Protestant ordination was a thorny issue for me. My father was an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and my father-in-law was an ordained Free Will Baptist missionary. Would my becoming a Catholic suggest a lack of respect for their sacrificial, lifelong service as ministers of God? Both gave their lives to evangelizing, teaching, and serving. As faithful shepherds, they tended their flocks at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Their impact on my life helped prepare me to hear the call of God into Christ’s true Church.

The Perpetual Virginity, the Assumption, and the Coronation of Mary were also challenging. Perhaps I would be able to take those three teachings by faith. Could I jump into the arms of Mother Church and trust Her to catch me, to help me under- stand them better in time?

Resistance and Obedience

In 2007, the Holy Spirit began calling me to embrace the Catholic Faith. I questioned and resisted the call during a painful time of begging God for clear direction. Despite my restless yearning for something more, I did not want to become Catholic. In a desperate effort to keep me in the Baptist fold, my elderly mother told me that she would rather stand at my graveside than see me become Catholic. I did not want to hurt her or other family members!

Obedience to God’s call seemed so costly. I had also invested fifteen years in my relationships with other women at church. Our spiritual fellowship and monthly socials had helped me survive my husband’s early death. I had hoped to grow old with them at our Baptist church. How could I exchange what I had for a small Catholic parish with no Sunday School, no women’s group, and no adult choir?

More than once I was prostrate on my floor, weeping and assuring God that I would do whatever He wanted me to do, and yet — how could He expect me (at my age and with my background) to become a Catholic? But He would not relent. I knew where Christ’s true Church was. The choice was simple: resist or obey.

As I surrendered, I began to understand and embrace Catholic doctrines, so my older seminarian friend suggested that I meet with a priest. I had naively hoped to receive the Eucharist at this first meeting, but my efforts to persuade Father were unsuccessful. Instead, he took me into the chapel, pointed out the tabernacle, and said, “If you believe Jesus is truly present here, it would be good to show your love for Him with a silent prayer and a gesture of reverence.” I genuflected, and looking at the tabernacle, silently said, “Jesus, I love you.” Using holy water, Father made the Sign of the Cross on my forehead, said some prayers in Latin, and then said in English, “May you be given a strong desire for Truth.”

I drove to the chapel twice each day, seeking all the strength I could get to deal with this stressful transition and immersion in the Catholic world. The denial of access to the Eucharist was difficult for me at first. I had already done enough study to know that I wanted to enter the Church. The prohibition did feel like rejection; it was also a matter of pride on my part. Given my family’s background, my leadership positions, and decades of faithful Christian service, how could anyone feel I did not de- serve to receive the Lord? I attended 128 Masses without being allowed to receive.

I submitted to the exclusion of remaining behind in the pew as others went forward because I was convinced the Holy Spirit had directed me to embrace Catholicism. This included obedience to Church authority, to the successors of apostolic leadership. That time of waiting was an essential part of my Catholic formation. It was a time of learning my place as a member of the community rather than as an elite. I also submitted because the Church emphasizes the importance of attending Mass. Through making a spiritual communion, I received my own strength and grace at each Mass.

I was learning to give thanks for all the mortifications of flesh and spirit that helped crucify my pride, and I gained understanding of the reasons behind some of the practices that strike Protestants as so unwelcoming. Having been a devout Baptist Sunday School teacher for almost forty years did not prepare me to receive the Eucharist. I needed Catholic formation and a Catholic heart.

Formation of a Catholic Heart

It was a humbling adjustment that in a Catholic parish I would no longer be the pastor’s daughter, deacon’s wife, director of adult discipleship, or soloist. Protestants who have shouldered several ministries need time alone in the desert with God. It is there, in private wrestling with the Lord, then in submission to Him, that we grow in self-knowledge and in knowledge of God.

Catholicism directs us to know God and love Him, not just to serve. It focuses on what we are spiritually, not on what positions we hold in our church. I learned that becoming a good Catholic involves a formation process of further developing my interior life, with attention to taking up my cross and to humil- ity, docility (being teachable), and interior stillness.

God calls us to holiness and to union with Him. During my first year as a Catholic, I attended Mass every morning, studied Catholic writers, spent time daily in silent Adoration, and attended Benediction and Confession regularly. As a retired widow, I had time to immerse myself in developing a Catholic spirituality. We cannot demand or be guaranteed a fulfilling ministry until we surrender to Christ’s call into His true Church.

I was not required to go through RCIA after two priests met with me to discuss my journey. They had already been meeting with RCIA candidates and felt it was unfair to let me jump into their group months later. Given my background, my decades of church service, and my hours of discussion with seminarians, both priests agreed that I could operate and study on my own. Then, I met with the priests a few times before they were satis- fied that I was ready for Confirmation.

My relatives, despite their hurt and deep misgivings, attended my Confirmation in 2007. They were deeply wounded, though, and a few withdrew emotionally for a time. My wonderful Baptist pastors and friends were kind and supportive of my decision, yet during my first years as a Catholic, I was alone with the Lord in the desert. His love sustained me and gave me peace.

Newfound Ministries and Peace

Immediately after my Confirmation, a strong spiritual tugging began. Thinking that God wanted me to become a nun or a consecrated widow, I entered a period of discernment, with guidance from a priest. Eventually, it became clear that the Lord had placed no strong desire in my heart to become a nun – to detach myself from my family, friends, and independence.

Instead, with the blessing of my pastor and confessor, I started a Catholic Bible study group in my home, with priests in attendance. I also discerned joining OCDS, a group of lay persons who vow to follow a rigorous daily schedule of prayer, Adoration, Mass, and study of the great Carmelite saints, but found I was not a good fit for this third-order group. I volunteered as a Eucharistic Minister, sharing Scripture with and distributing Holy Communion to hospitalized and homebound patients.

For years, as a member of the Coming Home Network’s online community, I responded to inquiries from pastors, pastors’ wives, and laity, supporting them on their journeys into the Church. It was an honor to serve as a co-moderator of the forum, educating and encouraging those wrestling with God’s call into the Catholic Church.

Currently, I lead Bible study and try to be available when others need counsel or encouragement. Several priests have become like brothers or grandsons to me. Spiritual motherhood, especially to priests, is an important ministry. It is also a joy to share their burdens and prayer requests and to enjoy entertainment together. Like Jesus Himself, priests need good friends.

St. Augustine’s and St. Paul’s commentaries on widows once gripped my heart, yet I have realized that I have no desire to belong to any man other than my late husband. The suffering of living without him is my cross to bear. God uses that cross to sanctify me and uses my freedom as an unmarried person to serve others. I have peace knowing this is God’s plan for me.

How blessed I am to have been reared in the home of a Southern Baptist pastor and his wife – how important to have memorized Scripture and studied it from childhood. I learned about giving, ministry, fellowship, evangelism, spontaneous prayer, and the necessity of adult Bible study and spiritual support. The memorized lyrics to hundreds of Baptist hymns and gospel songs formed me and still tune my heart to God quickly and effectively. This spiritual foundation prepared me to respond to Christ’s call into His true Church.

Becky Mayhew

BECKY MAYHEW is a retired school administrator and a former co-moderator of the CHNetwork online forum. She is the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor and the widow of a Baptist deacon and philosophy professor. She was a guest on The Journey Home television program in 2010 and attends Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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