I was raised Episcopalian, in New York, in the 60s and 70s, and went to an Episcopalian school with regular chapel services and weekly Mass. But I received virtually no catechism, and when I took a course on the Bible at my secular high school, I read the first pages of Genesis and concluded: If this is what it’s based on, forget it. After that, came all sorts of dabbling: astrology, Buddhism, New Age, Self Help. One of the drivers of my quest was that I desperately didn’t want to end up a materialist, so constellations and tales of Enlightenment gave me a glimmer of hope. But also, my family was chaotic and suffering, and I, the youngest daughter, had observed their pain. I read a lot of books about magic when I was little, and eventually my longing for magical powers morphed into a search for the right technique. Somehow, I would find a way to take away the pain of being human.
I married, moved first to London, then to Milan. My husband left me two years after our son was born. Life kept getting messier, and still, I was trying to clean it up. Down the street was an Anglican church; I’d go occasionally and find myself shouting in my head at the liturgy, living out some version of sibling rivalry (how come He gets to be the only begotten Son?) Yet, there were times when the tears would flow, especially when I was singing hymns, and I knew those tears had some meaning.
After decades of seeking, I filled two enormous Ikea bags with all my spiritual and self-help books and hauled them down to the basement to wait for the Christmas bazaar at the Anglican church — the only place I could donate English-language books — still a year away. I was sick to death of the whole business of thinking I had found the answer, only to be disappointed all over again. Life was still a mess.
That was an interesting year. I had a frozen shoulder and was almost housebound from the pain. All my books were in the basement. For six obsessive months, I painted a single cabbage (I am an on-again off-again artist), all the while listening to old recordings of U.G. Krishnamurti, an Indian teacher whose mission had been to disenchant seekers after Enlightenment, especially westerners taken in by one guru or another. He was a kind of tornado blasting through my life. Afterwards, there wasn’t much left.
A nice vacuum for the Holy Spirit to fill.
Towards the end of October, I went down to the basement to get my books for the bazaar. A couple by Bernadette Roberts, a former Discalced Carmelite, were sticking out of one of the bags. For some reason, I pulled those out before carting the others to the church. They were the only ones I thought might have survived the tornado.
They were not easy reading, yet I couldn’t put them down. For the next month, that was all I did: read those books, and research the death of Corey Monteith, the 32-year old star of the television show Glee, who had died the summer before of a drug overdose. Every time I read something in the book about our “final estate” — the news was very good — I’d find myself wondering about the actor’s family, Googling them to see if they were Catholic, if they knew the good news. And then I’d ask myself what the heck I was doing, when I had turned into one of those people who “stalk” dead celebrities.
Early in the afternoon of December 19th, I finished the second book. I was physically drained, and took a nap. When I woke up, there was a message on my computer telling me to call home. That was when I learned that my nephew, the eldest son of my eldest sister and my godson, had jumped off the roof of the building in Brooklyn where his parents and my mother lived. He had long battled depression. Unbeknownst to me, he had made an attempt a month earlier, right around the time I began reading Roberts. Like Corey Monteith, he’d been 32 when he died.
I hadn’t been reading those books for the actor’s family, in other words; I’d been reading them for us.
I really do marvel at God. He had to do some tricky stuff to get me to pay attention. Freeze my shoulder so I would stay still long enough for the Indian “anti-guru” to declutter my head and get me to clear out my bookshelves … Make sure the two books by the Discalced Carmelite were visible at the top of the bag … Time it so that I got them out of the basement just when my nephew was making his first attempt … And again so that I was turning pages at the right pace to finish on the day he “succeeded” … Make me aware of the actor’s overdose at the same time I started reading (four months after his actual death) … Choose that particular actor, because of his age and his struggle with fame (my nephew had been a moderately successful writer, and it had weighed heavily on him), so that on the most terrible day of my life, all these things would come together in a perfect storm, and I would have no choice but to pay attention to, of all things, the Catholic Church.
My nephew’s death was one mess I could not clean up. For the first time ever, I didn’t even try. My sister and brother-in-law’s pain was too great — and my nephew had been married, with a two-year old son. My own divorce had been a source of deep pain, and left our son scarred. But still, I was always trying to figure it out or reframe it, to make someone the bad guy, or try to forgive — always from a place of knowing. Whereas suicide leaves unanswerable questions; there was nothing to do but accept my own absolute powerlessness. Very soon, images of Jesus on the cross began to appear to me. Perhaps it was because my nephew’s death was also physically violent, but I’d close my eyes, and there would be my nephew, broken on the sidewalk. Then there would be Jesus, hanging from the cross. For the first time ever, the crucifixion made sense. We were living our own version.
The next summer, I was visiting my mother on the New England coast and began going with my second husband, a cradle Catholic, to Mass. In the former Discalced Carmelite’s books had been several statements about the Eucharist getting her through some difficult times, and I believed her. I knew I wanted “that,” whatever it was. The parish I attended wasn’t particularly inspiring. Poor music and all the rest. But it did mean something to me to have to sit out the Eucharist and witness that long line of people receiving it. I heard the priest repeat the words Body of Christ over and over again, and I understood, viscerally, that he was not only talking about the Host, but also about each person who received it, and the congregation as a whole. Including me. Once I had experienced sibling rivalry with Jesus! And now, despite the fact I was not able to receive, the transformation of the people who did, into living tabernacles, was enough for me. Indeed, I felt deeply part of the whole thing.
At the end of the summer, a friend agreed to listen silently on the other end of the phone while I spilled my guts, everything I loved and hated about Catholicism; agreed to say, when I was done, “I heard every word you said,” and that we would hang up without further discussion. I do not remember what I said (probably much of what I’ve written here), but I do remember hearing that sentence, and believing it. I hung up the phone and burst into tears. I knew I had to get to the beach, so I stumbled down the path, crying the whole way, and when I was safely alone, stood under the sky and had my first (and, so far, only) tangible experience of the presence of God. By which I do not mean I saw something (neither did I let myself look up). Rather, I knew that Presence had heard every word I’d said, and that He loved me perfectly, without demanding anything of me, that He would love me not one iota less if I did not join the Church. But also, I knew that because I was utterly free not to, I couldn’t not do it. This is my lived understanding of free will: that once you really experience the love of God, you have “no choice” but to say Yes. It is paradoxical, but I suspect real love always is like that.
Back in Milan, I went to Mass at the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, and afterwards told the priest I was thinking about converting. We made an appointment to talk, and after he had established that my first marriage would not be considered valid by the Church, I told him my story, including the part about the crucifix. “What does the crucifix mean to you?” he asked. “Suffering,” I answered. He said that was true, but it meant so much more than suffering; it meant Love.
Instinctively, I knew he was speaking the truth, but also that I wasn’t ready. It had taken me more than 50 years to get to the place where I wasn’t trying to bring about the end of suffering, and I didn’t want to pretend to be somewhere I wasn’t. Love would have to wait. I began my preparation for Confirmation, meeting with this priest once a month to talk. There’s no RCIA in Italy — everyone is already Catholic or lapsed — and I think he assumed that as an Episcopalian/Anglican (I had gone back to the local Anglican church in the months after my nephew’s death), I knew a lot more than I did. In other words, I was not exactly catechized, but I did receive a great deal of kindness and because the Masses were glorious in that basilica, a hefty dose of the beauty that, in itself, converts on a very deep level.
At the end of those nine months, I had to write a letter to the Archbishop of Milan, explaining why I wished to be received into the Church. I told my story once again, and said I didn’t really know — not yet, not specifically, why. I just knew. And, I knew, too, that many, many times in the future, I would find myself remembering that letter, and say to myself: So, that’s why.
This has proved very true!
That was in 2015; I have now been Catholic almost three years. Years that I have spent catching up on my catechesis and my Bible, and coming to terms with the Church’s social teachings. What an education! I came for the Eucharist, and it has never let me down, but the rest has been surprisingly rich. Many times, I found myself back on the cross, refusing to side either with the liberals among whom I had grown up, and whose opinions I had always parroted, or with the Magisterium. I knew that, as a Catholic, I was supposed to agree with the Church’s teachings, but I wanted to really agree, not merely parrot. And so, I made myself stay with it and go in deep — made myself watch videos on abortion, and confront my own sexual sin and the pain it had caused me and the people I loved. My divorce may not have stood in the way of my conversion, but I knew perfectly well it had devastated my son. Always, I came to agree with the Church’s teachings, to see them, finally, as embodied love. And I hope I have not lost my compassion for those who struggle beyond the reach of the Church, who cannot see it that way. It’s a tough life on Planet Earth, a great big mess. Not even the Church can clean it all up. A priest told me to sprinkle all Church teachings with love, as if from a great big salt shaker. He is a very committed Catholic, yet we all need to wrestle with our inner Pharisee.
My sense, three years on, is that I have just begun. I sometimes say it’s like walking into the biggest library in the world, sitting down next to the first shelf, and pulling down one book. The more I read, the more I sense the immensity of the room I am in, the miles of print I will never lay eyes on.
I am slowly coming, too, to an understanding that, as my Italian priest tried to tell me, Christ’s death was the greatest act of love in the history of creation. But also, that I was right not to run from my own suffering. Because they are connected — utterly, mysteriously connected. I could read all the books in that library and think I’d understood it, but it’s only when life pins you to your own cross, when you cannot wriggle free, that you catch a whiff of the mystery.
Around the time of my Confirmation, my sister called and told me that, between running her business and helping raise her grandson, she couldn’t take care of our then 92-year-old mother; would I consider coming home? My son was about to start off for college, my husband was amenable, and so I came back to Brooklyn, to the apartment my sister and her husband were delighted to give me, the last one in which my nephew had lived, across the hall from my mother’s apartment.
For the next two years, I assumed her full-time care. She was physically wrecked, but sharp as a tack. We spent endless hours talking, especially about Catholicism. She’d been in a long dry spell, faith-wise, and my new-found fervor was a real shot in the arm. But also, we shared the sort of physical intimacy that comes when one person is wholly dependent on another — and this was a lived experience of the suffering that is love. The sacrifices were on both sides. She had to give up her dignity, and I had to give up my freedom. Sometimes, when she felt bad about this, I’d joke that she was teaching me to be a “good Catholic,” and she’d laugh and more or less accept the most recent humiliation. Some moments were, like the washing of feet, utterly mundane and utterly transcendent. They were, I think, the moments when we had no choice but to overcome ourselves.
At the very end, her suffering was almost unendurable. Twice she looked off into the distance and said, “Who are they?” and, “They’re here now.”
We were alone together in the middle of her last night. I had crashed on her recliner, then (as I will always believe), awakened by angels, I had known to go to her. Her agony had come to an end; she was in that moment of transfiguration, still here but also not, serene and glowing with an inner light. I knelt by her bed and prayed the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet — without so much as an inkling that Jesus had told St. Faustina that when the chaplet is prayed at someone’s deathbed, God’s anger is placated, and the “soul enveloped in fathomless mercy”! I named everyone in her family, immediate and extended, and in ever wider circles, told her we loved her, and what a wonderful mother and grandmother and daughter and sister and aunt and friend she had been. And I told her, too, how happy I was to be Catholic, thanked her for having had me baptized and taken me to church, for planting those early seeds that looked for so long like they had not taken root. And then I thanked her again, for having taught me in those two years how to be a good Catholic. This time, I wasn’t joking; and I know she heard it too. Her breathing was so very peaceful, it took me a long time to know it had stopped. Finally, I called in the aide. She pulled down the sheet and we watched my mother’s pulse travel one last time from her wrist to the middle of her forearm, and there we saw it stop.
The aide showed me her cell phone: 3:02. I knew St. Faustina had said to pray the chaplet at 3 p.m. and 3 a.m., and when I saw the time, it was like being given a great big glorious YES. “You did it!” I told her.
And so, Catholicism has been the bridge, from my greatest suffering to my greatest joy. And that, of course, is the mystery of the Cross.