I grew up having a serious faith. My parents were among the many young couples in the late 1950s who made the trek up Route 23 from the coal-mining region of Kentucky to find work in Ohio. By the time I was born in 1969, the youngest of three girls, my parents were members of the Church of Christ. Many households of extended family lived in our small town and shared this same faith. To this day, I still cherish the songs and a capella singing that mark this particular faith tradition. The Church of Christ’s tenets regarding full immersion, adult-only baptism, and Bible-only teachings seemed right and reasonable to me.
Cracks in the Foundation
Around the time I was 12, my parents’ marriage began falling apart. There was a lot of chaos in our home. I had always been a sensitive child and thought about things deeply. I was left largely on my own to read, question, and explore the outdoors. I felt a desire to be baptized. I should have felt tremendous peace after the baptism, but it led to the first significant challenge to my faith. I had concerns that my baptism wasn’t sufficient. I never felt “saved.” Rather, God seemed to be retreating from me, and although I stayed in church and continued to pray, this feeling grew. The next summer, I was re-baptized at church camp. But I still didn’t feel “saved.” Instead, I developed a truly deep and dark existential angst that would define the rest of my teen years.
I also had many questions about God, the universe, eternity, and the Bible, and with all of that on my plate, I headed off to David Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, at the age of 17. I met some wonderful faith-filled teachers there, but my deepest questions remained unanswered. The summer before my junior year, I could not face the prospect of returning there, so I instead enrolled at The Ohio State University.
I signed up for a philosophy class my first quarter, and what was left of my fundamentalist faith crumbled. It was a frightening time. I had trouble sleeping at night, not knowing how to feel at home in the universe or in my own skin. I began drinking and learned to distract myself from all the deep questions nagging me by socializing and partying. I took on the secular feminist ideology promoted in my university studies and in society in general. I was going to live “as free as any man.” In hindsight, I lived freer than many men who had enough common sense to avoid the high-risk situations in which I routinely placed myself. I attended the Episcopal church on campus for a time, thinking I could find a way to still be Christian while rejecting some elements of my childhood faith. But that didn’t work out for long. I was deconstructing my faith with no guide, no solid counsel, no one to help me know what to keep and what to purge.
Attempting to Pick Up the Pieces
During these years, I completed two bachelor’s degrees, one in French and one in education. I somehow picked up the French language easily and soon became fluent. I couldn’t afford a study-abroad program but was able to organize a longer stay in France one summer through Volunteers for Peace. I then returned to France as an English teaching assistant for the 1994–95 school year after being selected as such by the Fulbright Teaching Committee. These were absolutely life-changing experiences. I made some lasting friendships, and I embraced the French sense of intellectual, secular humanism, shockingly unaware of the Christian history in France. (The nearly complete obscuring and misrepresentation of Christian history had deeply marked my university education.) My time in France did give me enough moments of beauty to provide a lifetime of memories.
At the end of that year, though I truly wanted to stay in France, my temporary visa expired, so I returned home. It was a tough adjustment coming back to Ohio. My spiritual quest turned to occasional yoga classes (I don’t advocate them now), but by then I had learned not to ask any hard questions. By the second half of 1999, I was almost 30, a smoker, still single, and unhappy with my live-in boyfriend.
I cried out to God, saying, “I just need six months away from all of this to gain clarity.” Incredibly, He heard my prayer and within two days I received an invitation to accept a six-month contract from a former boss. I thought this was an amazing coincidence, though it was all God. The new textbook project turned out to be a season of many graces.
During my time away, Jesus took me on a journey to let go of the smoking, showing me that my new identity would look different. Yes, it was the Lord, but He was working behind the scenes. It would be fourteen years before I would find Him in the Eucharist, and yet, He was pursuing me. He was making me into a new creation. He was protecting me from all that had become toxic, including my relationship with my boyfriend. It was time to purge the darkness, to make room for Christ, even though He was moving in such a gentle way that I did not sense His Presence, but rather His creative power. Something new was happening in me, and I welcomed it.
Lost in New-Age Mayhem
Several months later that same year, I met a fascinating man, Nick. He was a sensitive, deep-thinking person. He had studied philosophy extensively, completing his master’s degree and most of his Ph.D. studies. He was not a heavy drinker (as I was), but we had many common interests, and he had a natural kindness and humility that was disarming. I loved him, and we married in July of 2002.
Around the time I met him, near the end of 2000, I had started a job at a vegetarian restaurant operated by some serious environmentalists. They were starting a community based on creating a wilderness sanctuary, and they had some extensive New Age spirituality underpinning their activities. Specifically, one of the owners was deeply involved in Theosophy, and she taught classes on it. I enjoyed my job in the café and eventually decided to join these New Age environmentalists at their sanctuary.
Nick was hesitant about the whole scene. With the wisdom and foresight that I’ve come to rely on over the years, he suggested I not sell my house before I moved to the sanctuary. So, I relocated to the countryside, as a caretaker for one of the sanctuary properties, and Nick moved into my humble two-bedroom home as a renter there. He wanted to cover me in case things went awry with my new living arrangements.
My involvement with this group lasted just a couple of years, but things became strange very quickly. I will only say that we were delving into spiritual teachings and practices, thinking that we were doing so to encourage love and healing within ourselves and in the world. We were naive; these spiritualities were a dangerous game. There were some long-lasting repercussions that affected my physical and mental health, and my quality of life, for years. I remember being gripped by a terrible depression near the end of my involvement with this group. For instance, during that time, the café owner, an advocate for population control, told me that she thought the earth would appreciate “volunteers” — by which she meant suicides. That was a wake-up call, showing just how far afield I had strayed.
Toward the end of this chapter of my life, I developed a severe case of pneumonia and was bedridden for nearly a month. Several months after that, I developed a pulmonary embolism that doctors initially misdiagnosed as sudden onset asthma. A rare false negative in a CT scan did not help matters, either. My condition, therefore, remained a mystery to doctors for over eight weeks.
Finding a New Lease on Life
The pulmonary embolism was finally diagnosed in October of 2004. By that time, I had seen enough to know that the New Age scene was very unhealthy for me and fraught with spiritual dangers. After I was finally admitted to the hospital 8 weeks after the onset of symptoms, I remember feeling myself slipping away, and it seemed that I could just “let go” and die. I could also sense the prayers of my loved ones wrapped around me like an ocean of grace, a door into healing. Like before, God was inserting Himself into my life with that keeping, that protecting, that wooing, so subtle, so sure. I remembered that, during my deep depression preceding the pneumonia, I had a strong feeling that I no longer wanted to exist. Faced with the reality of these thoughts, I reflected on my life with my husband of only two years. I formed the words very clearly in my mind that, if it was my time to go, I wanted to just go – because slowly and literally suffocating to death was so horrible. But if I had a choice, I would rather stay and live my life with Nick and become a mother. This was God’s work. This was God’s saving power in action. This was God reminding me of my vocation, though I still did not realize Who was offering me a lifeline.
Over the next couple of hours, my life changed course. The doctor was able to get a reading from a lung ventilation/perfusion scan. It showed a large clot in my lower right lung. A cardiologist also intervened to help me, saying he hated that I was so young and suffering so much. He decided to do a pulmonary angiogram to help confirm what was wrong. Just before the procedure, my husband had a sudden realization and “bad feeling” about the medication a nurse was about to give me. He stopped this nurse from mistakenly giving me blood thinner. (The head nurse later came by, almost in tears, to thank him.) And somehow, after all those weeks of fighting to breathe, exhausted and scared, I was able to get through that procedure, and the doctor confirmed that there was a large clot present in my lungs.
Prior to that day, I had been sent home from various ERs over a dozen times and nearly declared a psychiatric case. The relief of finally knowing what was wrong was overwhelming. The recovery was long. I hadn’t walked much in weeks and had lost a lot of muscle tone and stamina. But slowly, over the weeks, my ability to walk longer distances improved. It took years for my breathing to feel more comfortable, and even now, I still have some remnants of that long-term illness.
Re-Evaluating Christianity… Through Buddhism
Sometime in the spring of 2007, I learned about a local Buddhist temple. It was a Tibetan Buddhist center following the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage. A friend of mine from college, an accomplished psychologist, had been a serious Buddhist for decades. This temple was the one he had attended. Curious, I sought it out one day, leading to my regular attendance there for seven years. Those seven years would be like Jacob’s downpayment to Laban, waiting and working through each day to have Rachel at his side, but there would be no cruel prank at the end of those seven years. My Beloved’s Father was no Laban and would not treat me with anything but love.
In hindsight, I see it clearly, and the connection I eventually made to Jacob and Rachel’s story proved that there remained some of the good I had received in my child faith formation. At the time, it was all still a quest, a journey that seemed random, but a journey that was anything but that.
What I liked about the talks at the Buddhist center was their practicality. Essentially, the teachings were agnostic regarding the big spiritual questions. Yet they did provide a very pragmatic framework to help people become more aware of their thoughts and habits, thus encouraging them to cultivate better ones. One of their foundational teachings was that all humans are born with a tendency toward pride and selfishness, and one must conquer these impulses to grow in loving kindness. These teachings struck me as similar to some Christian teachings, and it was a welcome respite from the spiritual chaos of my New Age experiences.
It is an irony that my Buddhist studies were what taught me to be less reactive, less hostile toward Christianity. I had developed quite a negative attitude toward Christianity over the years as I lost my belief in the historicity of the Bible and, thereby, in the justifications for Christian social and sexual prohibitions. Furthermore, the feminism that I picked up in college had led me to a pro-choice viewpoint, and I had no patience for Christian pro-lifers. I thought the whole matter was about controlling women. However, interestingly, at the temple, I was dealing with the pro-life question as a Buddhist. Although many American Buddhists reject pro-life teachings, Tibetan Buddhism teaches that abortion is immoral and a grave wrong that carries with it a very heavy karmic debt. The pro-life mindset seems obvious to state now, but it was an uncomfortable teaching for me to have to face at that time.
Turning Toward the Church
The reason I even set foot on Church property in 2014 was because I realized the local public school wasn’t going to be a good fit for our oldest child, Liliana. Later, I would also seek a better education for our 15-month-old twins, Eve and Georgia. I had tried every other option besides the local Catholic school four blocks away. But my husband, Nick, though agnostic, suggested I at least check it out because we were “open-minded people.” After Nick and I decided to register our daughter, I started studying Catholicism… to protect her from it. I soon realized I’d have to deal with the Bible again, and I was filled with fear. Click To Tweet
When I went to tour the school, I had such a positive experience that I found it confusing. Prior to visiting, I originally felt like I was entering “enemy territory.” But when I opened the door and walked into the school, I noticed a palpable sensation of goodness, warmth, and peace. After Nick and I decided to register our daughter, I started studying Catholicism… to protect her from it. I soon realized I’d have to deal with the Bible again, and I was filled with fear.
Looking for answers, I came across the website of a man who was a former Church of Christ member and a Catholic convert. He provided many answers to my lingering questions about the Catholic Faith that contrasted with the teachings of my childhood faith, especially those regarding the proper mode of baptism, the doctrine of sola Scriptura (Bible alone), and calling priests Father, to name a few. That site is no longer available, but I later came across an even more helpful guide to answering these questions, Christ in His Fullness by Deacon Bruce Sullivan. Sullivan, himself a convert to Catholicism from the Church of Christ, includes several very helpful appendices in his book that addressed my concerns in detail. The book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, by Karl Keating, was also very informative, as well as Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark, a non-Catholic. Stark’s book deals with the most common complaints against the Catholic Church in society and in academia. The excellent radio show Called to Communion, by Dr. David Anders, also provided many answers to my questions.
At this point I began to feel overwhelmed at the enormity of the truth of The Church. Anti-Catholic myths I had absorbed had been defeated by actual historical facts. Impossible to believe Catholic doctrine had become clarified and reasonable. I saw the fingerprints of the Church everywhere in its historicity, its clearly defined teachings on virtuous and right living, and in its legacy of beauty, in some cases, the only remnants of beauty in otherwise desolate corners of my own city.
A Eucharistic Greeting
I rang the bell, and a man opened the door for me. I walked in and genuflected on both knees, as I had read was the proper etiquette. Then I sat down and began counting my breaths, as I had been taught to do at the Buddhist center. That was really all I had to fall back on at that time. I didn’t get very far with my counting. It is hard to explain what happened then, but I began to notice a feeling of intense love, almost like a crushing weight. I felt that I was called to lie face down on the floor. However, there were other people in the chapel, so I was too embarrassed to do that. The feeling was strong enough that I actually had to brace my hands against the pew to hold myself up. At the same time, the words “I’m with you always; I’m with you always; I’m with you always,” echoed over and over in my head very clearly. I also heard a heart beating in my ears. In my mind, I was remembering the many times I had felt “lost in outer darkness,” beyond God’s grace. The message I was hearing now was closer to, “I was never not with you, even then.” This sensation continued for about 20 minutes.I understood that what was before me was the Eucharist, and I mentally repeated that word... . It then occurred to me that this Eucharist was, indeed, what the Church said it was. It was Jesus Click To Tweet
I had a sense of the word “Eucharist.” I understood that what was before me was the Eucharist, and I mentally repeated that word to myself a few times. It then occurred to me that this Eucharist was, indeed, what the Church said it was. It was Jesus, and He had just claimed me for His own and had surrounded me in His love.
This Eucharistic Jesus was here in the bread in that chapel by way of the Church, which had made it the Eucharist as He had instructed them, through the Consecration. And though He allowed me to remain seated before His Presence instead of falling prostrate, as I felt I should have done, I had a special insight into the Scripture that says, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.” Every knee shall, indeed, bow, as He wills.
Finding a New Foundation
The next few weeks and months were a flurry of research and expanding insight as I tried to make sense of what had happened to me. I remember learning that what Jesus left us when He said, “Do all that I have commanded you,” was His teaching authority. He bestowed this authority upon His Church when He said, “You are Peter and upon this Rock, I will build my Church.” This Church predated the Bible by hundreds of years, in terms of the Bible’s arrangement and “table of contents,” and it is the authority of this Church that even Protestants rely on, often unknowingly, for the Bible they hold in their hands. Thus, I realized that the Bible was essentially a Catholic document.I remember learning about St. Irenaeus being a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John, to whom Our Lord spoke from the cross. That’s authentic lineage! Click To Tweet
Moreover, I remember learning about St. Irenaeus being a student of Polycarp, who was a student of the Apostle John, to whom Our Lord spoke from the cross. That’s authentic lineage! How had I never known this? Apostolic succession is a real thing, and the Catholic Church has an unbroken lineage all the way back to Jesus.
Walking and Growing in the Faith
Just a few weeks before I entered the Church formally, I had an interview with the parish priest. He asked me, “So where are you with Our Lady?” I said I didn’t know. I did want to be sure that no line was crossed in terms of giving worship where none was permitted, except to God alone. Interestingly, I had noticed that Marian devotion seemed to spill over for many Catholics into a more general respect and appreciation of women in general and motherhood in particular. It was a noticeable difference from the rest of the world and one I was not prepared for. I had believed the cultural lie that said that the Catholic Church hates women.
Conversely, over the years since then, I have found the Faith to be very healing, as well as an antidote to the harmful messages I had absorbed coming of age while surrounded by secular norms. God wants so much more for us than our society can even dream of. The Church’s teachings regarding the integrity of the whole human person, even in our sexuality, are beautiful and life-giving. The dignity God has bestowed on us is truly awe-inspiring. And I had traded all that in, not realizing what a terribly bad deal I had made in falling for the lies of the world. But the Lord took pity on me and gave me the opportunity to learn these truths in time to be of benefit, not just to me, but to my marriage and my three beautiful daughters as well.
On the day of our interview, the priest mentioned that I shouldn’t be surprised if Our Lady made some kind of an appearance in my life in the coming weeks. I didn’t know what to make of his statement. I was joyful coming into the Church even though no friends or family were present at that Easter Vigil rite. To be fair, Nick was as supportive as he could be, as he was still an agnostic himself. Yet he was unable to attend that late-night vigil, opting to stay home in order to cause as little disruption to our three young kids as possible. He did have serious disagreements with Church doctrine, but he respected my desire to enter the Church and was accepting of my conversion.
Discovering That Love Has a Mother
Then, about six months later, a series of events unfolded over the course of one weekend. Our Lady did, in fact, make an appearance in my life when I was not at all expecting it. She did this in a very sweet and loving way, lining up blessing after blessing, each personalized just for me, letting me know that it was important for me to begin wearing a Miraculous Medal as a devotion. Prior to that, I had not even known what the Miraculous Medal was. In fact, the whole Catholic practice of using sacramentals (blessed objects) was quite foreign to me. I learned on the very night I began wearing the medal that the saint to whom the devotion had been revealed was St. Catherine Labouré and that her American feast day is the same day as my birthday. Later on, I learned that the medal commemorates Mary’s Immaculate Conception. This also happens to be the name of the parish where my conversion had taken place.
And as if this wandering daughter hadn’t been spoiled enough already, within just another few months, through another series of impossible coincidences, I found myself once again traveling to France, this time as a devout Catholic. I was eager to take in all the beauty of the Church found there, in her cathedrals and throughout the country. Until I arrived, I was completely unaware that I had made my hotel reservation just a short walk from the very chapel where St. Catherine Labouré had received her visions. So there I was, almost a year after I entered the Church, accompanied by my oldest daughter, offering prayers in the very chapel where Mary had revealed to the world the very medal that I was wearing.
My understanding of God’s plan for us through Mary continues to unfold. I’m so grateful He is giving me the time to learn about these mysteries and wonders here in this life.
Forever Loved and Forever Home
Several years after that day in the Adoration chapel, I remembered something that had happened to me years before my experience there. Way back in 1995, I had traveled to Paris. A church I visited there one day had left an impression on me. I had felt something there, too, a spiritual Presence. It was noticeable enough that I perceived it even through the fog of my then deeply materialistic and hedonistic mind. That experience had even led to some spiritual questioning on my part in subsequent years. That church was Sacré-Coeur, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the Eucharist has been exposed in perpetuity there since August 1, 1885, on the main altar in that beautiful church. Sacré-Coeur means Sacred Heart, and the Eucharist is deeply connected to Jesus’ heart of love. In some of the recorded Eucharistic miracles, when the host turns to flesh perceptible to human senses and laboratory analysis, that material is identified as striated heart tissue, tissue that has undergone extreme stress. But I knew none of this on the day of my 1995 visit, nor on the day when I first entered a Eucharistic Adoration chapel and heard a heart beating in my ears, as Our Lord told me He was with me always.I knew none of this on the day of my 1995 visit, nor on the day when I first entered a Eucharistic Adoration chapel and heard a heart beating in my ears, as Our Lord told me He was with me always. Click To Tweet
So, in that one encounter in the Adoration chapel, the Lord offered me the immense grace of the gift of faith in His Eucharist and in His Church. I didn’t even know then what a blessing it all was, that great confidence He gave to me. I just knew then that He had claimed me, despite my dangerous wanderings, and that I was still His, and now I never wanted to be without Him and the Eucharist. May I praise the Holy Name of Jesus forever, my Lord and my God.
This Easter my husband, Nick, was joyfully received into the Catholic Church at St. Patrick Parish in Columbus, Ohio. The entire family is so grateful to St. Patrick parish and the Dominican Friars, in particular to Fr. Charles Shonk, whose beautiful, faithful instruction in the gospel of Jesus Christ has moved so many hearts and changed so many lives. The two youngest children were very excited to be attending their first Easter Vigil service, and all of them were thrilled to be present to witness their dad entering the Church. Thanks be to God!