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Three years after returning to the Catholic Church and prior to writing my autobiography in the fall of 2009, my mother and I embarked upon a Catholic pilgrimage to the churches of my youth. Reconnecting with this origin meant going on a pilgrimage to the Midwest and visiting all the Catholic churches that had been part of my early childhood. This pilgrimage, my mother and I had decided, would begin at the Cathedral of the Epiphany in downtown Sioux City, Iowa, which was the very place where I had received the Sacrament of Baptism and first entered the Catholic Church.

In the Cathedral we attended a Latin Mass under the old Tridentine rite that seemed like such a divinely perfect way to reconnect with a past from so long ago. The Latin Mass was beautiful and communicated a sense of the holy. We decided to stay for the second Mass under the ordinary rite; I could not help but notice a certain middle-aged woman sitting right in front of us. She was alone and was wearing dark sunglasses. As I had a bit of a profile view of her, I noticed that this woman began to wipe tears away from beneath her dark sunglasses just as the Mass began. As the liturgy continued, I found myself distracted, as she occasionally would pull a Kleenex out of her purse in order to dry the tears from her face.

Initially, I was a bit miffed at her and the distraction she was causing me. What was the matter with her? Why is she crying? What is she going through? And why would the Lord permit this annoyance that prevents me from participating fully into the Mass? 

Immediately after the flood of these thoughts, it all became clear, and I began to pray for her. I realized the surreal purpose of her presence in the pew in front of me: that woman was a reminder of who I had been just a few short years ago, as I re-entered the Catholic Faith after a very long absence. I, too, had begun the journey back by attending Mass for the first time in ages, hiding behind my own dark sunglasses, and dabbing away tears throughout the liturgy.

My fall from the Church began at the age of eighteen and lasted for thirty-two years. I had lived a worldly life of sin for a dozen years before experiencing an interior conversion at the age of thirty that led me to the practice of evangelical Pentecostalism for two more decades. Eventually, by the grace of God, I returned to the Catholic Faith of my youth as an older and wiser Christian. This testimony is a story of how the Lord led me back to the Catholic Church gracefully and in His wonderful timing.

Faith of our mothers

I was born in 1956 in Sioux City, Iowa, and grew up in a Midwestern family of six children. My father and mother were born and raised Catholic, yet came from religiously complex family backgrounds. They were encouraged in the Faith primarily by their mothers, while my grandfathers — one a Catholic, the other Protestant — were not as engaged in the religious formation of their children.

My mother loved my father dearly for the fifty-eight years they were married. Because of the example set for me, I always admired the Sacrament of Marriage and the matrimonial commitment my parents kept so sacred. Despite all the difficulties and trials they went through together, my mother and father stayed committed to one another. “I married your mother for better or for worse,” my dad would always say.

I learned to pray the rosary from my mother and widowed paternal grandmother who lived with us while my parents raised six children. They both were strong examples of good practicing Catholics. There was never a time that my grandmother did not have a rosary in her hand while rocking in her chair in which she sat most of her waking hours. She would always say that she was praying a rosary for each of us children. She made sure all of us kids learned our faith early on by teaching us prayers, having us read our Catholic prayer books, and helping us study the books brought home from the Catholic grade schools we attended. My mother said she had no problem with me when I was young, because I followed the practices of our faith that she tried to instill in us.

I even took up the hobby of collecting different rosaries and holy cards. At the age of six or seven, I would gather holy cards from the church and from family members. I would place the cards throughout the pages of my Daily Missal, and I would spend long periods of time sitting in my bedroom staring at various images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The images that had the most profound effect upon my heart were those of the Crucifixion and of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. These meditations provided moments of deep devotion and adoration of Christ that made me feel completely in love with Him. Jesus was a special friend, my best friend in life, who would hear my troubles and petitions and make everything seem all right again. It was as though He was right there with me, consoling and protecting me, helping me to understand who He is, even though I was only a child. I knew little about Jesus other than His greatness as Protector, but through those precious times I also came to know him as my Savior, Comforter, and Mighty Counselor.

Our family’s faith life led my three older brothers became altar servers. One older brother even spent a year in a seminary as he discerned whether he had a call to the priesthood. My mother was especially adamant in encouraging and helping teach me how to behave as a young Catholic girl. Her pious practices helped lay the foundation for my spiritual formation as a Catholic.

In my grandmother’s old age and frail physical condition, she had stopped going to church, after which, consequently, my father’s attendance declined as well. My mother faithfully continued to take all of us children to Mass each week regardless of whether my dad came along. Even so, my father’s example of apathy had an effect on our family’s practice of the Faith. We grew out of the habit of praying the rosary when I was in my mid-teens, and our parents allowed my older brothers to decide for themselves whether they would attend Mass once they turned sixteen. Not surprisingly, two of them gave up their Sunday worship soon after attaining this age of discretion. My mother did not offer my younger siblings and I the same option, however; she expected us to attend Mass at least until we turned eighteen and left home. My mother kept firm to her commitment and made sure, to the best of her ability, that her last three children went to church, with or without their father. To my dad’s credit, he at least always attended Mass on Christmas, Easter, Holy Days of Obligation, and special occasions such as the First Communion and Confirmation of my younger brother and sister.

The draw of the world

In my junior high school years, I was enrolled in the public school, which, I believe, began the inexorable creeping of the ways of the world into my young life. After being coddled and protected by compassionate nuns and teachers at the Catholic schools I had attended, I found myself virtually defenseless against the temptations and peer pressure I would face in my new and less-friendly secular academic environment. During this time, my social network was beginning to involve an older crowd, which had its privileges, or so my teen-age mind thought. The friends my parents knew of were all my age, but I also liked to hang out with an older crowd who were old enough to drive — and even to buy liquor for those of us too young to do so on our own. We no longer had backyard campouts as pre-pubescent adolescents, for now the evening social event of choice involved driving along county roads near the fast developing neighborhoods listening to loud rock ‘n’ roll, parking, making out, and engaging in other activities centered around the consumption of alcoholic beverages.

In my mid-teens, my parents told us we would be moving from the Midwest to the southwestern desert because my father had received another job promotion. I did not take the news well at all. During those six months before we made our move I went berserk, my bad behavior escalated. I became an angry teenager and acted out my anger and frustration through gross rebellion at every opportunity. I must have made my poor parents and younger siblings miserable. Yes, I was a middle child — and I behaved like one, always wanting to be the center of attention.

In my high school years in the new environment of the southwest, it did not take too long to get hooked into a not-so-good crowd of friends. My “look” always seemed to attract the wrong type of attention from my peers. My parents did not know that I had taken up a new pastime with this newfound southwestern desert crowd that transcended alcohol. I wanted to be entertained constantly, and high school simply was not entertaining enough. I would skip school and take refuge in the homes of friends, where I could just hang out, get high, and not think about school. These years entailed cruising all over town in search of the best parties and the older crowd who could feed my seemingly insatiable desire for alcohol and illicit drugs. That party-girl life set in motion the events that eventually would wrest from me any remaining minute fragment of my teenage innocence.

I became enslaved

Despite the teenage years of ditching class and partying, my mother still insisted that we attend Mass every Sunday until we either turned eighteen or moved out on our own. Going to church was the furthest thing from my mind during that troubling phase of disobedience and sin. To appease my mother, I would go through the motions of going to church, ditching Mass the same way I ditched school. My mother habitually attended the early Mass, so I always chose to go to the later Mass, with my younger sister thrust upon me to tag along. Although the church was just two blocks away, we would take the family car. Once we turned the corner I would explain to my sister that we were going to take a cruise around town rather than attend the church service. We would take long drives past the mansions atop the suburban hills. I would time our trip just right so as to reach the church just as Mass was letting out. I would turn into the church parking lot, drive against the flow of traffic, barely miss minor collisions with the exiting cars, pull up to the front of church, and send my sister in to fetch the latest bulletin from the back of church. The bulletin was all the proof we needed for my mother to believe that we had attended Mass. Fortunately, my mother never asked us about the content of the homily; if she had, we would have compounded our sins by inventing the homily topic or claiming we did not remember.

In my mid-teenage years, I met the man who was to become my first husband at age eighteen and one whom I would endure several years of mental, emotional, and physical abuse until I left him in my mid-20s. My relationship with my first husband impaired the relationship with my parents and siblings. I was caught in a relationship and cycle of domestic violence until I left and finally set myself free.

After my first divorce, I was fighting so many demons that I lost track of where they came from and how they were manifested. Worse still, I had no remorse for my behavior as a single woman living in a world of mortal sin. I moved on from one male suitor to another. I became enslaved to spiritual poverty, sexual depravity, and a greed for money that would take its toll on my emotions and psyche for years to come. Everything in life seemed easily disposable, especially my money, which I spent lavishly to maintain my steady diet of alcohol and drugs that would salve my emotional pain.

During this time, my male acquaintances and friends would hang out at the horse track, where we would drink and bet on the horses. My lack of gambling savvy also affected my gaming during the time or two that my friends and I stumbled into Las Vegas, Nevada. Eventually, over the next several years, I completely lost interest in gambling and spent my money on tangible goods such as Chanel perfumes, designer clothes and shoes, and Louis Vuitton bags to pacify my fleeting and impulsive nature. Still, my life was pathetic and out of control in a different way. I just did not realize it until some years later.

Wanting more

Throughout my crazy mid- to late-twenties, my spiritual life began to take on a form of insanity as well. I began to search for some sort of enlightenment, yet without adopting any particular religious practices. I stumbled into the New Age world for a brief time and began placing a pyramid at the head of my bed in hopes it would siphon off my “negative energy.” I also frequented shops that catered to the New Age crowd by selling books and paraphernalia. Still searching for my soul’s respite, I went so far as to enlist the services of psychics and palm readers on a regular basis. I relied heavily on the daily horoscope, bragged about being a Libra, and always compared my astrological sign to those of other people I encountered in bars and nightclubs in order to assess what and how I was to feel about them. So I continued my search for happiness and peace, but had no clue how to find it.

In the first years of my second marriage in my late-20s, it was difficult for my husband and I to get settled down as a couple. We were not practicing any faith, never talked about religion or existence of God or any type of spirituality. We separated and during that time my second husband accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Upon a return after a separation, I too received Jesus Christ into my heart with my sister-in-law and a few of her Pentecostal friends. I remember praying with them, and at the very moment I mentally consented to allow the Lord to rule my life, I felt a warm surge flowing through my entire being. These women then prayed that the Holy Spirit would touch me, and they made their best attempt in prayer to get me to speak in tongues, or what is called glossolalia. It didn’t happen at the table, but it did later that evening in my car. While backing out of my sister-in-law’s driveway to return home, I heard a still, small voice say, “Now, go and sin no more.” I took it to be our Lord’s heavenly voice speaking directly to me.

“He had captured my heart…”

The following morning, I went to the local Christian bookstore and waited for the doors to open, so that I could purchase the first Bible of my new life. When I arrived back home with the Bible under my arm, I could not put it down. For the first few days of my spiritual conversion, that Bible went everywhere with me as I read as much Scripture as I possibly could and never grew tired of sharing the Word of God with others. Even my husband thought I must not be feeling well, that perhaps I was going a bit overboard with my evangelical enthusiasm. I had just found Jesus, and He had captured my heart and changed me. Once and for all, the chains had been broken and I was set free of the snares of the devil.

As I drew closer to the Lord in prayer and in His providence, I gradually conquered bulimia, a terrible eating disorder that I had continued to suffer for years in a less acute form. I kept it a secret all those years from family, friends, and even my husbands, never letting on to how I was able to maintain a size eight despite my overeating binges throughout the years. After becoming a Christian (miraculously and after much prayer), I was cured of my behavioral eating disorder.

I soon was taking classes at the nearby community college as I set off on a journey of postsecondary education. I worked part-time between school semesters while I pursued an undergraduate degree with an emphasis in business and later to complete graduate studies in clinical psychology (M.A.). I also achieved a doctorate in ministry (D.Min.) at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in 2008, graduating from this Protestant institution two years after reverting back to Catholicism.

In 2000, I opened a Christian counseling practice and as it grew, my husband and I joined a local church community where I became involved with church leadership and he became a worship leader. For myself, it only seemed logical: I was praying with so many clients, witnessing to them about Jesus Christ, and sending them off to a church that I sensed a creeping guilt at not being connected with a local church myself.

Unfortunately, my second marriage ended after twenty-one years, due to unforeseen obstacles within each of us toward making a marriage last. The marriage ended partly from us growing leagues apart spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. Not being a Christian when I was married and looking back at my first two weddings — one before a justice of the peace, the other performed by a randomly selected minister — it is no wonder neither marriage lasted for long. A few years ago, when I sought to have these marriages annulled, I had no trouble identifying the pre-existing impediments by which both unions could be declared invalid by the Catholic Church.

Remembering Catholicism

Although I sampled Christian churches of various denominations in the months after my divorce and had even attended a Catholic Mass sporadically over the previous few decades, the thought of regularly attending Mass at a Catholic Church never crossed my mind until my father passed away in early 2006. A few weeks after my father’s funeral, the journey back to my home in Show Low, Arizona, was a desolate one. I was alone again, going home to an empty house, still empty in spirit, lacking fellowship in a Christian community, and desperate to find a church to call home. There really were not many Christian churches left to investigate within driving distance of my home, since I had checked out virtually all of them already and found each to be lacking something. I thought about my recent experience surrounding my father’s funeral. I remembered how my sister and I had practiced our readings in the church on the day before the Mass. I reflected upon the sweet surprise of walking up to the sanctuary of the church and almost being knocked over backward by what seemed to be the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. As a Pentecostal, I was pleased, and immediately thought, Wow, the Holy Spirit lives in the Catholic Church as well! Cool, the Scripture readings should be really good now; we’ll have the Holy Spirit backing us up!

Realizing then that one of the few churches I had not yet visited was my local Catholic church, I made that my objective the following Sunday. As I drove to the roots of my childhood Faith and entered the parking lot of St. Rita Catholic Church before the start of Mass, I carried on an internal monologue with God that went something like this: If this is where You want me Lord, You really need to give me a sign, PLEASE. I have nowhere else to turn, I have tried so many other churches. PLEASE, if this is Your will, just give me a sign!

As I walked into St. Rita’s for the first time, my eyes began to fill with tears. One beautiful and unique aspect about the Catholic Church that I had forgotten is the reverence of the faithful before, during, and after Mass. As I looked around the church through my dark sunglasses before Mass began, I already felt as though I was coming back to my Christian roots; a welcome sensation that was settling deep within me. When it came time for the homily, the Lord grabbed a firm hold on my spirit and brought healing to my broken heart, solidifying my reconversion to the Catholic Faith.

The homily, preached by the parish deacon, was based upon the Gospel of John, where Jesus breathes on the disciples and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:22b-23). During all the years as a Pentecostal, I had questioned the Catholic practice of confessing personal sins to a priest. I had Jesus now, I reasoned as a Protestant, and I will just tell all my sins to Him! Jesus will forgive me… It’s between Jesus and me. Never, throughout my twenty years as an evangelical Christian, did I ever read or hear that particular Scripture passage from the Gospel of John. God knew I was a Bible-based Christian who held so many standards of life up to the Bible, and He knew I needed to hear the Truth preached out of Scripture. That was it — the sign I had requested from the Lord. After hearing the homily in church that day, I felt like the scales had fallen from my eyes, and with tears streaming down my face I had to put my sunglasses back on.

In the past few years of strongly practicing my Catholic faith with daily Mass and receiving regularly the Sacraments of Communion and Reconciliation, I have grown exponentially in my spirituality and faith practices. During Lent of 2010 I felt a calling to vocation as a religious Sister. Although I am still discerning this process, God’s grace has provided many internal and external changes attributing to a greater sense of holiness I had been seeking. That very call to a religious vocation comes from my heart; therefore, I consider it to be one of God’s greatest graces in my life that has brought me closer to Jesus and a greater internal peace.

Dr. Jean M. Lee

Currently, I am an active member of the Legion of Mary, an Association of Catholics that has helped enrich my devotion to our Lord’s Mother, Mary, and seeks to create a sound fellowship in reaching out and helping Christians and evangelizing the Catholic Faith. My faith journey — my highway to heaven — has brought me full circle back to the Catholic Church.

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