Throughout my life, I can see a thread of gold woven in between many events, good and bad, and that thread is the love of God. I can see that love in my life when my family was loosely agnostic, and His name was nothing more than a word that people used when they got angry. I can see it when my mother took us to church one night for reasons she didn’t entirely understand. I can see it especially in the darkest moments of my life, when the love of God prevented evil from having its day. I can see His love pulling me closer to Him, every day, in every circumstance. It’s astonishing that He considers us at all, and yet He calls us His family (Hebrews 2:11-13).
My family began attending a Missionary church when I was eight years old, and it was a dream come true for me. In our small, rural community it seemed that everybody went to church. I wanted to be good, to do the things that good people did, and it seemed like church was part of that. I loved Sunday School and gave my heart to Jesus on a weekly basis, just to be safe. I learned the Bible verses and songs; I made friends with the preacher’s kids, and I learned something that has stayed with me for the past thirty-five years: Life is better with God than without Him. I remember how happy I felt that first summer, when we began going to Vacation Bible School and then to Sunday worship. It was a new kind of happy. I think I was born wanting to devote myself to something, to someone. Maybe that is the gift of faith — instinctively I wanted to believe, and going to church helped me to accomplish it. Some people claim to have had the opposite experience with churchgoing, but I can only tell my own story.
After moving and spending a few years at a small Congregational church, we began attending an Assemblies of God (AG) congregation. I attended an AG college before marrying a preacher’s kid. I am not good at doing things by halves, and when something is important to me, I am all in.
While a student at Bible college, I took a Church history class. There was something in that history that bothered me to no end. Between the Book of Acts and the Reformation, it appeared there was not very much to report. I wondered what the Holy Spirit had been doing during those 1,500 years. No one seemed bothered by this giant gap. I found it hard to believe that the work of God had gone largely undone until the Azusa Street revival in California, the cradle of Pentecostalism, in the early 20th century.
One of the Bible college professors had told me to switch my major to Greek, that my analytical mind was a natural for it.
But I got married instead. My brain continued part-time the art and science of picking things apart. Babies were born, and I kept reading theology, right along with Peter Rabbit and Pooh Bear.
I remember borrowing a book from my mother called What Catholics Believe by Josef Pieper and finding it odd that most of what this “false religion” taught was what I already believed. Still, Mary and the Eucharist seemed “off” to me, bordering on idolatry. As I look back, I realize that the Incarnation had never been properly explained to me, and I didn’t understand the significance of it. Without that understanding, the mother and the Sacrament of the God-man appeared unimportant.
The Catholics I knew did not speak of their faith, but my acquaintance with it came about in other ways. For example, when I was expecting my third baby, I read a Natural Family Planning brochure, published by a Catholic organization, in the doctor’s office. I was amazed by how thoroughly the sanctity of life and the pitfalls of artificial contraception could be presented in such a small pamphlet. The references from the Catechism of the Catholic Church were authoritative and concise, easy to understand, and seemed to me to reflect reality as I understood it. I had never encountered this kind of religious literature before. It made no appeal to the emotions. Church tradition and scientific evidence simply pointed in the same direction. Unfortunately, busy raising a family, I had little time to ponder such things.
After a traumatic church split, we began almost a decade of church hopping. During that time, I was given a crash course in Christian denominations, and only by the grace of God did my faith in Christ survive. There were several moments when I really wanted to chuck the church stuff. But in the middle of it all, God sent me one of those little golden threads, in the person of a new friend.
Liz (not her real name) was a client of my midwife, and I kept hearing about her. The midwife would come over to check up on me (I was expecting baby number four), and she would say, “I was just over at Liz’s house this morning. The two of you have to meet some day. You could be sisters. You have everything in common.” I kept hearing this, visit after visit. Then one day we did meet, and oddly enough, it was all true. We even looked somewhat alike. After chatting a while, Liz said something about “Our Lady.” Say what?
Liz obviously loved her Faith. She was the very first Catholic I had ever met who talked about her religion naturally, as if it were woven into the very fabric of her life and being. Her husband was the same way. I could see the light of Jesus in her eyes. I was used to seeing this in the non-Catholic Christians I knew, but this was a little different. She said things like, “St. Anthony found my keys this morning, or I would have been late,” and I didn’t know what to think, because it obviously wasn’t superstition to her. The “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12:1 was just a matter of everyday fact for Liz and her family.
When Liz’s husband’s job took them out of state, we stayed in touch via email, and every now and then I would screw up my courage and ask a question about Catholicism. I was always afraid that one day I would ask a question and get an answer that seemed ludicrous to my Protestant sensibilities and that it would some- how harm our friendship. But with every question, I would get a clear, concise answer. I teased her, “You Catholics have thought of everything!” She simply said, “Two thousand years is a long time; a lot gets figured out.” Then she used the fateful phrase that changed everything for me: “the Church Jesus started.”
That phrase lodged itself in my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone. I had never really thought of faith in terms of a visible organization started by Christ Himself. “Religion” was a dirty word in my environment; it was always presented in opposition to a “relationship with Jesus.” Faith was all on a personal level for me; Christ calls you to accept Him, then it’s your job to figure out where to go to church and get involved. The notion of the Church coming first is entirely scriptural (Jesus did say, in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my Church”), but for some reason, it had never occurred to me to think in these terms. I was not yet ready to concede that the Catholic Church was the one He started (even though, from a historical standpoint, there’s no denying it). Instead, I began praying, “Help us find the Church You started, and we’ll do whatever You say.” This was in the middle of our church hopping, and it was getting old.
Over the next few years, 2004–2008, I read conversion stories constantly. I borrowed a Catechism of the Catholic Church from the library so many times that I started to forget it wasn’t my book. I listened to Catholic radio in the car when I had a chance. Ignatius Press probably misses my business from those years. I just kept reading and reading. In hindsight, it was pretty obvious that the Lord was calling me to become Catholic, and I was put- ting Him off without saying a flat-out “No.” I didn’t want to deal with the loss of relationships, the criticism, the feeling I needed to explain myself to everyone. I’m an introvert that processes ev- erything interiorly before I can talk about it. The up side is that I don’t say a lot of things I regret. The down side is that it can take me years to make a big decision. And with this, it did.
But the crazy thing was, no one was pressuring me. I talked to a couple of priests who seemed completely content to leave me in my state of religious flux. “Call again if you have more questions,” was all they would say. Where was the altar call and the “repeat after me” prayer? “Maybe they really don’t care about my soul,” I reasoned. But I think it was simpler than that. They could see that the Holy Spirit was working and didn’t feel the need to push in front of Him and take control of the wheel. This was something I wasn’t used to. I had reluctantly participated as a teenager in door-to-door evangelism in the hopes of getting someone to sign a card, say a prayer, accept a Gospel tract. And here were these priests who seemed to trust me to do the right thing when it was time. I really had to decide for myself!
Meanwhile, our Sundays took us all over the place. We were visiting different Catholic parishes, Lutheran churches (I briefly thought this might be a happy medium, with the Lutheran liturgical service and belief in consubstantiation), and occasionally worshipping with friends in the house church movement. I moved from being genuinely confused to actively avoiding a decision.
The more I read, the more I realized I had painted myself into a corner. Nothing satisfied me like Catholic teaching. Nothing filled my soul and made my faith feel alive like a book on the Eucharist or a conversion story. Everything I read, I had to share with my family. My kids liked the stuff I was learning about Advent traditions and St. Nicholas and other saints — what kid doesn’t like the idea of more holidays? My husband seemed mildly interested, too, but it later came out that he thought I was “going through a phase” and would soon “return to the truth.”
For a while, I boxed up all my Catholic books and put them in a closet. I was expecting my fifth baby; we were having financial issues after moving, and I felt I was just irritating my husband with all my religious exploration. After our third baby boy was born, our two girls, upon professing faith in Jesus, were baptized in a pond with a bunch of our house church friends’ kids. It was a special day, but I was bothered by the fact that so many of the kids had been baptized before. It really didn’t mean anything, and I had read too much about Baptism to feel okay with that. In retrospect, I think most of those people viewed it more like the baptism of John, a public statement of repentance, instead of the sacrament that followed the day of Pentecost.
During the next year, we continued our wandering. I really do regret my indecision during this time. It was entirely motivated by “What will people say?” when what I should have been asking was, “Do I believe what the Catholic Church teaches?”
I had memorized the Assemblies of God’s “Sixteen Fundamental Truths” as part of my education at Bible college, but affirming what the Catholic Church teaches is somewhat more involved. The thick catechism book that Pope St. John Paul II promulgated in the 1990s is pretty comprehensive, and there’s no memorizing that. Also, many of the distinctly Catholic doctrines are intertwined and require lengthy explanation.
Mary is another huge stumbling block to many Protestants who are feeling the tug of the Catholic Church. The elevation of Mary as a Queen really grated against my sensibilities, particularly how it was portrayed in art. I distinctly recall asking a priest before my conversion how Jesus might be in all things preeminent (Colossians 1:18) when He was often portrayed as mournful, while His mother was breathtakingly beautiful. It just seemed to me that she had been placed beside Him as an equal and that, more often than not, Jesus took a back seat. I never blamed Mary for any of this, but I wondered why Catholics made such a big deal of her.
You can find fascinating answers to this conundrum with a Google search. You can read about the New Ark of the Covenant and the New Eve. You can read about the Davidic kingdom, in which the king reigned with his mother — not his wife — as queen. As someone who has always been fascinated by Jewish history and tradition, these concepts were all very interesting to me on an intellectual level. But I think it was the generosity of Jesus that helped me finally “get” Mary.
All that is His, He offers to us. He offers a share in His life, His death, His home, His family … His mother. She is my mother, because she is His mother. And the part of Jesus that is like me, the human side that I can relate to, came from her. Jesus is not God-made-man without her. When I receive Jesus’ “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity” in the Eucharist, the Body and Blood I am receiving comes from His mother. Of course Catholics make a big deal about Mary! Everything we have in Christ is possible because of her “Yes, Lord.”
Another thing I had to hash out was the Mass itself. I had heard and assumed that the priest believes he is re-sacrificing Jesus again and again. Then I read in the book of Hebrews (7:27) that Jesus was sacrificed once for all, and I felt that obviously the Catholic Church had got this one very wrong. I wondered how all those brilliant Catholic minds had missed something so obvious.
On a visit with my friend Liz, her brother-in-law, who is a priest, came over to “answer a few questions.” We chatted a bit about Mary, the concept of “hierarchy,” and St. Peter. Then I launched into my questions about Christ’s eternal priesthood. “Do you really believe you’re sacrificing Him over and over? Why would God allow His suffering to be prolonged? Didn’t the resurrection mean that His sacrifice was completed? Doesn’t the book of Hebrews say that it was ‘once for all’?” My questions poured out because I was sincerely disappointed. I thought I had asked the unanswerable question, taking me back to square one in my searching for the Church Jesus started.
Very gently and quietly, he said, “I don’t sacrifice Him again. He makes the past sacrifice present to us so we can take part in it.” Suddenly, another event from the past became present to me. Years before, I had taken a Sunday school class called “Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith,” and in that class the teacher taught extensively on the Passover. We learned about the “perpetual memorial” that God commanded, which included being dressed and ready to leave Egypt, whether you were in Jerusalem or Paris or Detroit, as if the Exodus were happening now. “It was God’s invitation to the Eternal Now,” the teacher had said. “God is outside of time, and once in a while He brings us outside with Him.” As these things came back to me, I sat speechless in Liz’s living room. I had been expecting this great mystery to fit inside the little box of my understanding, but God had opened it all up in that moment.
In time, I learned that this view of the Eucharist was not a secret, and I have heard many priests say that we are present at the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection at every Mass. We join the angels and saints in heaven as we sing the Sanctusand the Great Amen. Once my “unanswerable question” was answered, I mentally moved on from questioning to learning.
In 2008 we had one more boy and made the decision to stick with a parish and ask about RCIA. I can honestly say that from the moment we approached the priest about how to begin the inquiry class, I stopped doubting. I finally said my own “Yes, Lord,” and He pulled me completely into His circle. I was no longer vulnerable to the endless cycle of doubts and questions. Straddling that circle, I had been that “double-minded man” that St. James warned us about (James 1:5-8). I read an article about John Henry Newman’s conversion and his great desire as an Anglican to show that Anglicanism was the “via media” between Catholicism and Protestantism. His awakening came when he realized that his position was simply that of a heretic, accepting neither side.
The following Pentecost Sunday, in 2009, we were received into the Catholic Church as a family. The boys were baptized, those of us old enough to do so received our first Holy Communions, and we lived happily ever after.
Well, not exactly.
It would be nice to end the story there, but following Jesus involves carrying a cross (Mark 8:34). The universe is not a vending machine where you put in your coins of faithfulness, and it spits out the candy bar of everything going right. It doesn’t work that way. I had thought I trusted God, but my faith was about to be tested.
In less than a year, I was taking the kids to church alone, and every marital problem we had ever encountered was back with a vengeance. Within two years, it was obvious that things were not reparable without divine intervention. We had reached an impasse. All I can say is that things were more terrible during those two years than I ever thought possible, and the following year they got even worse.
Our priest did what he could, but as he said, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. One thing he did do was help me to understand that my prayers and novenas were not going to eradicate someone else’s free will. This was a foreign concept to me (don’t we pray so that God will do what we ask?), but I did learn over time what a risk God took when He gave us this irrevocable gift of free will. And all for love! It has made me look more closely at my own decisions, knowing that God wants us to choose Him, not out of obligation, but out of love. He loves to see us rightly using the gifts He’s given us.
For the kids’ sake, I kept up with the liturgical calendar of the Church every day, learning about saints and traditions, even if we couldn’t get to church to celebrate them with others. One year, during Holy Week, we were without a car, but we washed each other’s feet and venerated our crucifix at home. We read poetry and classic literature and studied beautiful artwork, a little every week. Really, these activities felt very routine, but I now understand that they were preserving our hope when it would have been easy to despair. I highly recommend keeping “the good, the true, and the beautiful” within reach during any time of difficulty. My faith sustained me; I can say that honestly. But it sure wasn’t that “Jesus and Me” kind of faith that had tempted me years previously. Jesus’ hands and feet were my parish. When my kids and I had no vehicle, a couple picked us up for Sunday Mass and catechism every week, even though they usually went on Saturday night. Other parishioners prayed, called, sent cards, dropped off food, and brought me Kleenex after Mass when I blubbered in my pew week after week, praying for wisdom. As I journaled during the winter of early 2012, “There is no solution to this disaster.” I really believed that, and it terrified me to imagine what might happen as the nightmare played out.
During all this, my oldest daughter was approaching Confirmation. I brought something to Mass that I had made for her and asked our pastor to bless it. In an offhand sort of way, as he walked over to the font to get a handful of holy water, he said, “Hey, we had an idea. What if you guys moved into the extra rectory?” Within a month, the kids and I were living in an empty rectory, part of our parish cluster, out in the country. I was offered a job cleaning at the parish, and a couple of families pooled some money together and bought us a used minivan. It all happened very quickly, and our lives changed dramatically. It was a miracle! Our parish was a lifeboat in the middle of a storm. Where would we be now without them? I don’t even want to guess.
We lived there for two years, during divorce proceedings and a complicated annulment process. I spent many nights sitting in the church in front of the tabernacle (the rectory was connected to the Church by a breezeway), praying and processing everything that had occurred. None of the terrible things that had happened added up, and I couldn’t understand how things had gone so bad so quickly. On the other hand, nothing of the good that had happened added up, either.
“What did I do to deserve this?” is one of those funny questions that has no business being asked. So much of what we go through in life is the result of living in a broken world that has not yet been overcome by its brokenness, and we live in the ebb and flow of that tension. It is hard for someone with my over-thinking personality not to ask, “Why?” — but that door swings both ways. I never expected to be a divorced single mom. I also never expected to be so spectacularly loved and cared for by so many people. Faith truly is both a science and an art, because we are dealing not only with knowable facts and absolute truths, but also with the inexplicable, undeserved love of a God who just wants us to tell Him, “Yes, Lord.” He calls us to trust. He doesn’t eradicate other people’s free will, He doesn’t put us in a bubble where we are unaffected by the results of original sin. But when we open the door to Him and say, “Make Yourself at home,” He does exactly that. He walks the whole way with us. He gives us grace to walk that road with each other. He helps us forgive and let go of the things that will hurt us if we hold on to them. Truly, life is better with God than without Him.
In the past five years, we have settled into our “new normal.” I still live close to our parish and work there, and we continue to be blessed with the friendships that kept us going during our most difficult days. I love being a lector at Mass, and I help with sacristan duties as I’m able. Liturgical ministry really helps you appreciate all the beauty of simple things, like altar candles, the lectionary, and the significance of the color purple. There is much food in them for both the intellect and the soul, just waiting for us.
My brain still loves to pick things apart, but I am more accepting that there are some things that are simply beyond my understanding. One of the beautiful facets of Catholicism is the embrace of mystery. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, and clearly this means there will be things unknowable. If you look at the world only through the lens of facts and figures, all is not as it should be. Humankind has made a woeful mess of things. But O felix culpa (Oh, happy fault)! God is an Artist, and He is making something beautiful in the middle of it. He is weaving that thread of love in and out of our lives, and it shines brightest in the dark spots. The “happily ever after” is a sure thing after all, just not quite yet.