“My longing for truth was a single prayer.” – St. Edith Stein
As a thirteen-year-old Evangelical Protestant, I spent a day in a sporting good store asking people, “If you died tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven? Would it be worth two minutes of your time to know for sure?” Today, at twenty-seven, I am a devout Catholic, in formation to become a Catholic sister with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. Surely, God has a sense of humor, but when I reflect on how He brought me here, I know that it was His providential hand guiding each step.
A fervent foundation
I grew up in a nondenominational Evangelical church in Boulder, Colorado. I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” for the first time when I was three, again when I was seven, and several other times after that for good measure. My parents, both fervent believers who met each other at church, made it a point to raise my two younger sisters and me to know Jesus. We went to church together every Sunday, and I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t believe in God.
My parents taught us that the first and most important thing in life is to love Jesus Christ, and I am incredibly indebted to them for that. In the charismatic, evangelical church we attended, I saw firsthand the beauty of fellowship among Christian believers. My parents hosted a weekly home Bible study, where they and their friends would sit in our living room and discuss God and the faith for hours. When we were little, we would play in another room while they conversed, but as I grew older, I began to sit and listen to them talk. It seemed to me that there, in our living room, true Christianity was being lived out, permeating the lives of everyone there.
At our church, we understood communion to be entirely symbolic, so there was usually no formal communion service. Instead, we had baskets of small crackers and cups of grape juice on tables at the front of the church, and during the time of worship, as you felt led, you could go up and help yourself. Sometimes I would partake of the bread and juice very reverently, imagining that it really was the Body of Christ broken for me, and the Blood of Christ shed for me. I remember wanting to be connected to Jesus through this communion. For a time, I helped to prepare the wafers and juice cups in the kitchen before service. I remember asking the woman in charge about this communion, why we do it and what it means. She told me that Jesus told us to eat His Body and drink His Blood, so we do what He tells us to. She said it helps us to remember how He died for us on the cross. I remember her answer was unsatisfying: I wanted it to mean something more.
Faith nourished by Truth
Growing up in Boulder, one of the least religious cities in the country, I found vibrant and open opposition to my Christian faith from my teachers and friends at the public schools I attended. This opposition didn’t deter me from my faith; instead, it drove me to seek a deeper understanding of what I believed and why. I learned what made Christianity different from other religions and how it differed from the build-your-own-spirituality mentality around me. I began looking for apologetic arguments for the faith. Surrounded by a secular, relativistic culture, Christian authors like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton bore witness to something much more solid. I became convinced, first of all, that truth exists outside of myself and my own experience. I became even more convinced that the truth is always found in Christ. This deep conviction originated in my own personal experience of Christianity in my church, and especially in our charismatic worship services. I became active in my church’s youth group, as well as in the Young Life and Student Venture ministries at my high school. A Christian friend and I met at the flagpole of our school every Friday morning at 6:30 for two years, snow or sun, praying for our friends and teachers. My own experience of God’s love in my life deepened, and during high school my identity as a Christian became deeply rooted in my heart.
When choosing a college, I decided that I wanted to find a Christian school where my faith would be nourished. It was also important to me to find a school that took questions of faith seriously, without any fear of asking hard questions. I was convinced that honest questioning would always lead to the truth, to Christ. I wanted to be around other Christians where I could delve more deeply into the faith. I found what I was looking for at Wheaton College in Illinois, a beautiful community where I found many students and professors genuinely committed to Christ and seeking truth. My new friends were from many different Christian denominations: Presbyterian, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, and others.
I found through these friendships that, although we were united in our search for truth and our deep love of Christ, there were also vast theological differences that existed between our faith traditions. As each of us looked to Holy Scripture as the infallible and only source of truth, we came to different conclusions about almost every aspect of the faith. We all believed in Baptism, but we disagreed on when to baptize (infants, adults, or somewhere in between), and whether Baptism was regenerative or merely symbolic. We disagreed about whether the Holy Spirit is active in the Church today and, if He is, how the Holy Spirit is active. We disagreed about whether Christ died for all or only for the elect. We disagreed about whether the human person has free will to accept or reject Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We disagreed about issues of morality and how to discern when something was acceptable or unacceptable for Christians. For each item of faith there was a broad spectrum of thought.
I heard over and over that this disagreement was normal and even desirable; that among Christians there should be “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” However, no one agreed on what was essential and what was left up to personal discernment, so subsequently almost every issue was considered non-essential, a matter of personal liberty. One day, in a theology class, our professor instructed us to define the central gospel of Christ — to make a list of what we believed were the essentials of the faith, the non-negotiable items of that must be believed in order to fall within orthodox Christianity. Each of us in the class wrote down a different list with a different number of items. It was striking to see how much we disagreed even on what was essential to agree upon. And ultimately, no one had the authority to say with any true confidence what was essential or what was non-essential, so we left the class, each with our own list in hand, unified only by the lowest common denominator. Each of us was left to discern the truth for ourselves. I found it hard to believe that this fractured church was what Christ had in mind when He prayed for Christian unity in the High Priestly prayer “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:21). I began to wonder if any one church had preserved the truth revealed by Christ, beyond any personal opinion.
After my first year at Wheaton, I began to attend an evangelical Anglican church. For the first time, I experienced liturgy and formal prayers. It was also the first time I experienced a church service where the central event was not the sermon, but rather the Eucharist. At first, I worried that the liturgy would become monotonous, but I discovered that the opposite was true: the more deeply I learned the prayers and the liturgical dance (stand, sit, kneel, stand …), the more fully I could enter into it. Knowing that Christians had been praying these same prayers for years, I felt connected for the first time to the universal Church beyond my own time and place. Pronouncing the Nicene Creed each week, I felt more connected to the common belief of Christians, in all times and places. I began to work with the middle and high school students in the youth group. The youth pastor assured me that I didn’t need to be an Anglican to work with their students, but he asked that I be “open to a sacramental worldview.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. He explained that as Anglicans, they believe that Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments; that is, that God uses matter (water, bread and wine) to convey His grace to us. In other words, “matter matters.”
As I began to consider the idea of the sacraments, it occurred to me how fitting it would be that the God of the Incarnation, who chose to send His Son to bring salvation to the world by His life and death in a physical Body, would also choose to use matter to minister His grace to us. When we received the Eucharist as Anglicans, we believed that Christ was really present, spiritually at least, in the bread and wine. We also believed that while the elements of bread and wine remain in their own substance, Christ becomes spiritually present alongside that, consubstantially, during the consecration. Because Christ is really present, we receive actual grace when we receive Him in communion; thus, the sacrament affects a change in us.
Theology of the Body
Through my Anglican church, I was also introduced to the Theology of the Body of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II. For the first time, I met Protestants who thoughtfully and lovingly chose to follow God’s natural plan for their families by using Natural Family Planning. (“NFP” refers to methods of achieving or avoiding pregnancy by cooperating with a woman’s natural fertile and infertile periods.) At first, I thought it was a strange choice, but I also saw the beautiful fruit which it bore in their marriages: along with their precious children, their marriages were open, loving, and radiated an astonishing depth of love and trust in God.
I learned first of all about the intrinsic and uncompromising value of each human person — persons of soul and body, not a Gnostic dualism, but embodied spirits. I also learned that marriage is intended by God to be to the world an image of the Trinitarian nature of love: as God the Father loves the Son, eternally pouring Himself out in love, and the Son loves the Father, eternally returning that love to the Father, the love between them is so real that it is the Person of the Holy Spirit. Thus, as the husband loves his wife in the marital union, and the woman loves her husband in return, the love between them is so real that it brings forth a new life in their child. The marital act is intended to be an act of total self-surrender, affirming the personhood and value of both husband and wife.
For the first time, I understood why Catholics believe that this sacramental image of marital love is distorted by contraception; it turns the definitive marriage act into a self-gratifying experience, rather than an act of total self-gift. Although challenging, I found this Catholic teaching morally consistent and beautiful. I was surprised to find something that rang with truth coming from the direction of Rome. I was also surprised to learn that Christians of every denomination had always rejected the use of contraceptives throughout the entirety of Church history, until the Anglican Church decided at the Lambeth Conference in 1930 that contraception was morally permissible in certain circumstances within marriage. This decision less than a century ago opened the door to the current state of the church, wherein the vast majority of Christians — even many Catholics — use contraceptives without even considering their moral permissibility.
A draw and a dread
As a Protestant, I never gave much thought to Christians of the past. My vague impression of Church history was based on an assumption that the early Church was evangelical and charismatic. I believed early Christians instinctively trusted in faith alone for salvation and looked to Holy Scripture as the sole authority for that faith: in other words, I believed that the early Church was full of Protestants. I believed that at some point in history, the Catholic Church had infiltrated the unadulterated gospel belief of these early Christians, usurping the pure teaching of Christ and introducing heresies like purgatory, indulgences, and the worship of Mary and the saints. This assumption was the only way to explain what changed between Jesus’ death on the cross and the heretical practices that necessitated Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. I believed that the Reformation had restored the church to its original purity.
During my junior year, I took a class on St. Augustine. I was interested to see what the Church Fathers actually believed. I was hoping to find in St. Augustine teachings similar to Martin Luther and the Reformers, to reinforce my own view of the early Church as essentially Protestant in theology. As I read St. Augustine’s writings first hand, however, I found him to be disturbingly Catholic; much more Catholic to me than I expected. His comments about the Church, the Eucharist, Mary, and the saints were strikingly Catholic. Most shocking to me was how strongly St. Augustine viewed the sacraments; he said that “the importance of these sacraments cannot be overstated, and only scoffers will treat them lightly.” If anyone had a “sacramental worldview,” it was St. Augustine. And if anyone was a Catholic, it was St. Augustine. This terrified me, because it meant that my own narrative of the early Church was wrong: if the early Church was Catholic in its teachings, then the Reformers weren’t actually restoring the Church to its early purity as I had believed.
I felt both a draw toward the Catholic Church and a dread of what I would find once I began exploring. I signed up for a class on Roman Catholic theology to put an end to my Catholic questions. I wanted to prove to myself that the Reformers were right in leaving the Catholic Church. But, as I learned about each doctrine from the Church herself, reading books like Karl Adams’ The Spirit of Catholicism, and Mary: The Church at the Source by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) and Hans Urs Von Balthazar, I was surprised to find that the Catholic teachings were far from what I thought they were, and that they were more convincing than any Protestant rebuttals. The actual teachings of the Church, when I heard them directly from a Catholic source, weren’t at all what my perceptions of them had been. The Catholic view of the world, of human nature, and of God intrigued me. I tried to ignore it, to shake off the growing suspicion that I had been wrong about the Catholic Church, but the Church’s teachings made too much sense for comfort, and were (most surprising of all) too in line with Scripture, to dismiss offhand.
I had assumed that the Reformation had restored the Church to its Protestant roots, but I saw now that the Church was Catholic from its very beginning. And while the Church has developed over the years, as a tree grows out of an acorn, it is still the same organism. Or, as an old man looks very different than he did as a baby, he is still the same person. I had a sinking feeling that I had been wrong about the Catholic Church: she looks different today than she did on the day Christ handed the keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, but I realized it was, indeed, the same Church. And I, a Protestant, suddenly saw myself standing outside of full communion with that Church founded by Christ. It is a historical fact that the evangelical church I grew up in would have been unrecognizable to early Christians, to the Church Fathers, and even to the Reformers themselves.
Though, at that point, I was interested in Catholic theology, I still held firm to sola fide, the belief that we are saved by faith in Christ’s all-sufficient work on the cross, and that we are saved only by faith and not by any works that we do. I had always been told that while Protestants believe salvation is by faith alone, Catholics believe that salvation is by works alone. But when I learned the actual teaching of the Catholic Church on justification, I found that this is far from a fair distinction. The Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by faith in the atoning work of Christ, that justification is a work of the Holy Spirit, merited for us by the Passion of Christ, and which requires our cooperation. This justification comes from the grace of God, which is the free and undeserved help given to us by God. It is the grace of God, which justifies and sanctifies us, and it will necessarily result in the fruit of good works (see: Catechism of the Catholic Church 1987-2016). I had to admit that this view of justification was more consistent with several passages of Scripture that had always made me nervous and clashed with my “once saved—always saved” views (see Mt 25:31-46; Lk 12:41-48; Lk 13:23-28; Lk 18:18-30; Jn 14:21-24; Jas 2:14-22; 1 Jn 3:4-10).
In good conscience
After graduating from college, as I continued learning more and more about Catholic teachings, I began to struggle more with whether I could remain a Protestant in good conscience. I realized that I actually believed that the Catholic Church was who she claimed to be — the very Body of Christ on earth — and I believed that she had been given authority by Christ to minister His sacraments to the faithful. I also believed that Christ was present in the Eucharist — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. But still not wanting to convert, I consulted a friend of mine who had converted to Catholicism that year. I told him of all that I had come to believe, but asked whether he thought I could remain a Protestant. He told me that if God had revealed to me the truth of His Church, that it would be wrong for me to walk away from that knowledge. I knew he was right.
I began RCIA in the fall of 2009, a little over a year after finishing college. There were still things with which I struggled: Mary and the saints were especially problematic for me, as were some other Catholic practices, which seemed superstitious upon first glance. Mary proved to be the most difficult hurtle to overcome. To me, the doctrines of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption seemed unnecessary, and many of the devotions to Mary seemed overly sentimental and even superstitious. In fact, it was less the Marian dogmas that bothered me, and more the Catholic practices of Marian devotion. But once I began to see for myself that Catholics don’t worship her as they worship God, but revere her because of her singular role in salvation, I began to open myself more to understand the Marian teachings and they began to make more sense. It was also helpful for me to see Mary as the fulfillment of the Old Testament type of the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets of the law. Mary, who contained within herself the Word made flesh, was singularly set apart for that task: it is because of this that she has a special place within the life of the Church.
But because I had come to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I wanted more than anything else to be admitted to the sacraments. I wanted to be able to finally receive Christ’s Body, broken for me, and His precious Blood, shed for me. I wanted to be able to receive Him physically, not just symbolically. I wanted to be able to commune with my Lord in the most Holy Eucharist. This overcame any other doubts or scruples I may have had.
The beginning of a journey
When I received the Sacraments of Confirmation and First Communion on Easter of 2010, I felt as if I had finally found what I was searching for: the fullness of truth. I discovered in the Catholic Church a depth and breadth I can never plumb — centuries of theology, philosophy, prayer, mysticism, and sanctity. In the lives of the saints, I find the gospel mirrored in unique ways in the lives of real people, in real times, in real places — mystics, virgins, martyrs, and doctors. Living alongside the witness of the saints has made me strive for holiness in my own life. The saints are not statues to adorn church buildings. They are people, our older brothers and sisters who have triumphantly gone before us, who are helping those of us who are still on our way to heaven.
The grace of the sacraments has transformed me. I thank God every day for bringing me to the Eucharist; I want to receive the Eucharist every day for the rest of my life. It is truly the “source and summit of Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 11) It was during eucharistic adoration that I began to discern whether God is calling me to follow Him in Religious Life, and I am currently in formation with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. That has been another unexpected journey.
It was difficult to explain my decision to become Catholic to many of my friends and family, most of whom were Protestant. Some of my friends who knew me during college weren’t surprised, since they had seen the progression of my journey and could see that I was heading in the direction of Rome. Other friends and family were surprised by my decision, and couldn’t understand my reasons for it. Many people assumed that it was a matter of taste or preference — as if I chose to become Catholic for the music, the liturgy, the incense, or the hats. But it was only because I was convinced of the truth of her teachings, and for no other reason, that I decided to come fully into communion with the Catholic Church.
I am entirely convinced that Catholicism is the fullness of the Christian faith. I didn’t lose anything when I was received into the Church — I gained more than I can express. My faith was real before I came into the Church, I truly loved Christ before I knew that He was present in the Eucharist, and I experienced the healing of God in my life before I had the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But, by the help of the sacraments, through His Church, I know Him more deeply than ever. Through the Church, my faith has been incarnated in my life and in every aspect of who I am, body and soul.