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The Path to Eternity

Melissa Funderburk
March 31, 2020 No Comments

I used to live in a fog. At first, it didn’t bother me. I was convinced my young, strong lungs could handle anything. But the fog was silently growing thicker every day.

In 2012, the air around me was filled with busy-ness. I was about ten years into a skyrocketing career, a marriage with two children, Mariah and Carson, multiple activities with family and friends, responsibilities to various church committees, maintaining two expensive cars, and a luxurious house with a pool.

It all seemed good. Great, even. It measured up to what I heard the world saying I should have and do to be successful and happy. Except.…

Except I wasn’t happy. The air was also swirling with tension, exhaustion, and a loneliness I couldn’t explain. I finally couldn’t breathe anymore. The fog was too thick, and so very heavy. I tried to slow down. To just breathe deeper and longer. But a deeper breath of fog choked me all the more as I watched in slow motion the reality show of my family’s life that was spinning out of control around me.…

Mariah shouted a hateful comment at her brother about eating the last of the Pop Tarts she planned to eat for dinner before her cheerleading practice. As he anxiously packed a bag for his third business trip that month, my husband, John, yelled at our son to pick up his Nerf bullets or they were getting thrown in the trash. Carson shrugged his shoulders with no reason to care; he had hundreds more. Mariah had been sick for three days. Instead of staying home from practice, she asked for ibuprofen so she could power through. She got home late and stayed up even later doing homework while watching TV and coughing the entire time.

My family was a living example of an overpacked schedule, stressed-out snappy responses, and habitual overspending. My family was acting just… like… me.

Over the next few years, I made several attempts to get back on track, with my best friend at my side for the journey. We waded through every self-help book and went to Malibu for a weekend of how-to-change-your-life workshops. I was exhausted from striving — but never succeeding — at fixing whatever was broken.

In a strike of perfect timing, my employer sent me to a training session on prioritization. The instructor set us to work on a simple task. Write down your top five priorities in life. I was a good Christian girl, raised in the Disciples of Christ denomination; I knew the answer to that!

  1. God
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Career
  5. Volunteering

But then came the test. Use your calendar to determine your real priorities — the top five ways you spent your time last week.

  1. Career
  2. Kids’ sports and activities
  3. Exercise
  4. Entertainment
  5. House maintenance and errands

Comparing these lists replaced the fog I had been breathing with a swift, hard kick in the gut that knocked any remaining air right out of me. My career was running my life. God didn’t even make my list! Neither did my family. I felt like a complete fraud as truth saw right through me, and my first world problems finally spilled over into tears.

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

A deep sorrow came over me as I considered all the choices I had made without God and in spite of God. I begged Him to save me, while at the same time I wondered if it was too late.

Not long after that, we had the coldest Kansas night I had ever felt. The kind that hurts all the way into your bones — the physical representation of what my soul was feeling. Something in me finally snapped, and I found the courage to tell my husband that I wanted to leave. Not to leave him, but to pack up our children and leave this plastic, cold life behind. Quit our jobs, get rid of our stuff, start over. I squeezed my eyes shut tight and prayed as I waited for him to tell me I was crazy. Or worse — this was the window he could use to escape our marriage and I had just opened it wide. Instead, I heard the most freeing words: “What took you so long to ask? Let’s go.”

Together, we started dismantling our life. I reset my priorities, this time with God as my purpose, and breathlessly watched as He responded to my cry for help with a slew of “everyday miracles.” We received the exact amount of money we needed for my husband to quit his job and start his own business. We got our house ready to sell — uncertain of how that would happen in a neighborhood where houses sat idle for years. Yet, it sold the first day on the market for the exact amount we needed. The very same day, I got a job offer in Florida while signing a lease on a townhouse that moments before had seemed impossible to find. In the span of six months, we left confused parents, siblings, coworkers, and friends in our wake as we moved our shell-shocked children fifteen hundred miles away from chaos to start a new life.

I spent the next year soul searching. Books, workshops, retreats. I studied psychology until I understood why I had been spending time on everything but God — I was putting real effort into my worldly life and getting tangible results. Promotions, money, expensive things. This hadn’t been true in my spiritual life. I went to church most Sundays. I had even ramped up my participation and joined the board, led some classes, and volunteered at the food bank. But I didn’t see or feel any results. Was it because God wasn’t real? Christianity wasn’t real? My efforts weren’t real?

I explored and quickly dismissed the thought that God wasn’t real. I could see the proof in creation itself. Plus, I had witnessed the miracles in my own life. I was convinced that I just needed to channel all that productive, passionate energy I had been pouring into worldly things into my relationship with Him. I was determined to be the best Christian I could be. My constant prayer became, “Jesus, show me how to do this for real.”

I started reading the Bible every day. It was amazing — like I was seeing truth for the first time. However, I soon became frustrated. Nothing was matching up. What I was reading contradicted what I was hearing in church and how I was living even after all these radical changes. I met with my pastor at the Disciples of Christ church we had just joined to discuss the hardest parts of Christianity: Suffering; Sacrifice. How to follow the commandments in modern times. Faith versus works. We wrestled with it all, but I never felt satisfied with the answers. He finally gave me a life-altering book called The Imitation of Christ and suggested I go to a prayer retreat center and discuss it with God in silence.

When I arrived at the retreat center, there wasn’t another soul there. A place capable of filling twenty beds was strangely empty the entire weekend. My heart raced as I walked the grounds. Crucifixes. Statues of Mary. And down a path into the woods, the Stations of the Cross. I quickly texted my brother: Get this — this place is Catholic.

My brother had converted to Catholicism over a decade prior, when he fell in love with a beautiful Catholic girl. I had bantered with him about it off and on over the years, switching between worry that he had chosen the wrong path and nonchalance that it was just another denomination. But when I walked the Stations of the Cross for the very first time, with no one to guide me but the Holy Spirit and the Mother of God, something changed inside me.

Intently focusing on the passion of Christ, uninterrupted in the silence of nature, brought me to my knees in a mess of grateful tears. I knew before that weekend that Jesus died for me. But until I took the time to feel it, to absorb it, to experience it — it was just words in a book. He breathed the truth into my soul that weekend, as He started showing me how to do this for real. Knowledge became reality. Words became life. I started to feel His Name as if it were His Heart, beating in time with mine. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

I left that retreat with a heart wide open to whatever God’s will was for me. I just wanted to be His forever. The next major step was a conference I had signed up to attend called IF. It is run by Jennie Allen, an Evangelical Christian, whose message is: IF this is true, then how should I live it? Her question felt eerily similar to my prayer: Jesus, show me how to do this for real.

The conference had all the normal aspects of a non-denominational Christian life coaching gathering, but two things stood out: Public confession and communion. I was mesmerized as this woman shared her sins and failings on a video broadcast across the world. Women everywhere were lifting their cell phones in solidarity like lighters at a concert. And afterwards, the conference paused and everyone shared in communion. There was something so powerful about confessing and then focusing on the mercy that started at the Last Supper.

I sent another message to my brother: Why don’t we do this all the time? It makes so much sense, and it’s right there in Scripture! I’ll never forget his response: We do. We always have in the Catholic Church. He sent me CDs of Father Larry Richards explaining the Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. For the first time, I actually listened. And once again, truth knocked the wind right out of me.

Even so, I was stubborn. Catholicism could not be the answer to my prayer. There were so many challenges. I was concerned that Catholics worship Mary and the saints. That they were superstitious with their holy items. That the need for priesthood ended after Jesus came; weren’t they all like the Pharisees? Martin Luther walked away because they were selling indulgences! And don’t get me started on the Crusades. I was determined to study Christian history until I could prove to my brother and myself why I couldn’t be Catholic. Jesus, show me how to do this for real.

Meanwhile, I set my sights back on being the best Christian I could be. There was a group of homeless people at the intersection I passed through every single day. Determined to prove my Christian worth, I rolled down my window and gave five dollars to a very skinny man. I will never forget his smile as he handed me a small gift in return. I tried to refuse, but he insisted. Please, ma’am. I make them myself. He placed his hand over his heart as I put the blue necklace with a dangling crucifix over my rear view mirror.

Not long afterwards, I shared the story on my blog. I wrote about how the blue necklace must be my calling from God to help the homeless. My sister-in-law was quick to comment. That homeless man gave you a Rosary. Seriously? Again with the Catholic stuff? Jesus, show me how to do this for real. I shook my head in disbelief … and then I asked her how to use it.I felt a wave of peace as I whispered the words to my very first Rosary. It reminded me of my Stations of the Cross experience … each stop along the way a powerful lesson focused on Jesus. Share on X

Hidden in my closet while my family was sleeping, shaking with nervous fear, I told God I only wanted to please Him. I asked Him to stop me if He was offended by this prayer full of Hail Marys. But instead, I felt a wave of peace as I whispered the words to my very first Rosary. It reminded me of my Stations of the Cross experience … a walk with the Mother of God, each stop along the way a powerful lesson focused on Jesus.

Have you strayed from the path leading to heaven? Then call on Mary, for her name means “Star of the Sea, the North Star which guides the ships of our souls during the voyage of this life,” and she will guide you to the harbor of eternal salvation. (St. Louis de Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary)

Before long, I was praying the Rosary regularly while studying the history of Christianity. The Mother of God flew me straight to her Son. Scripture I didn’t understand before was now crystal clear, especially the 6th chapter of John. I followed Jesus through the Gospels, the Apostles through the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament, and then I ran smack into the Catholic Church.By the time I got to the part of history when Martin Luther was posting his grievances on the door, I was tearfully begging him not to go through with his Revolution. Share on X

I don’t know how to explain what happened during the next year, other than I fell in love. There was no more wrestling. The early Church was holding the answers to all of my long-unanswered questions, and I couldn’t get enough, especially regarding the Eucharist. I read and re-read St. Justin Martyr’s account of worship during the first century of the Church. The Church Fathers taught me how the Old Testament fits seamlessly with the New. I learned about the unbroken line of Apostolic Succession; Mary, the saints and martyrs; angels, miracles and the supernatural. By the time I got to the part of history when Martin Luther was posting his grievances on the door, I was tearfully begging him not to go through with his Revolution.

To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. (St. John Henry Newman)

At this point, I was longing to be Catholic while still attending Protestant services with my family. Each time, it got harder to go, and I felt horrible. These nice people hadn’t done anything specific to deserve my sudden change in demeanor. But the building felt hollow and sad to me, as if I were in the house of a loved one who wasn’t there. My participation felt forced and fake. At the end of a particularly relaxed off-site gathering, a communion plate of Cheez-its and Sprite came to me. I looked my pastor in the eye and whispered “No” as my heart broke into a million pieces for a million reasons.

I found myself in a familiar state of panic, preparing to tell my husband I wanted to leave something. Of course, I desperately wanted him and the children to come with me, but they had already been through so much change. How could I ask them to overhaul their lives again? I was terrified of Bible verses that say families will be split over following Jesus (see Matthew 10:35–36; Luke 12:52–53). But my extremely patient husband never stood in my way: “Go find out whatever you need to know.”

My brother sent me a link to a parish not far from my house. I e-mailed the office. I think I might be Catholic, and I have no idea what to do. Less than a week later I met Father Bartholomew, who did know exactly what to do. It eventually involved the Catechism of the Council of Trent and answering my endless questions. But first, he sent me to Mass.

I was terrified walking up to Christ the King Catholic Church. My shaking hands could barely grip the handle of the heaviest door in the world. If they heard the clacking of my heels echoing across the nearly silent (yet completely full) sanctuary, the congregation didn’t show it. Many were already kneeling, deeply contemplating something else entirely. The aroma of incense and candles and flowers overwhelmed my senses as I tried to understand why the air felt so … thick. Hadn’t I left the fog behind? I felt completely exposed, surrounded by images and statues of angels and saints and Mary. My heart was pounding in rhythm to His Name, repeating in my head: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

This nervousness I was feeling wasn’t typical anxiety. Walking into His house with the knowledge that He would be physically present, I was experiencing the edges of fearing God for the first time. The air was “thick” because it was saturated with Him. I wondered why I had never felt this way walking into a church before. If I truly believed the Creator of the entire universe was there, shouldn’t I always be trembling with the awareness of how small I am in comparison to the Great I AM?If I truly believed the Creator of the entire universe was there, shouldn’t I always be trembling with the awareness of how small I am in comparison to the Great I AM? Share on X

I used to mistake the intimidation I felt walking into a Catholic Church as judgement or even arrogance coming from the congregation. But now I think I just didn’t understand reverence. I cherish my personal relationship with Jesus. He knows every hair on my head and loves me in spite of every way I have failed. He is my Friend, my Teacher, and my Counselor. But I had been so comfortable in that part of our relationship that I not only took it for granted, I also didn’t know how to worship Him as our Almighty King. As I looked around at everyone who was ignoring me — kneeling with heads bent low, whispering prayers, some even shedding tears — I wondered, when did I forget that He is GOD?As I looked around at everyone who was ignoring me — kneeling with heads bent low, whispering prayers, some even shedding tears — I wondered, when did I forget that He is GOD? Share on X

My mind flooded with reminders of Old Testament worship — the intense preparation the priests went through, the Holy of Holies, women only allowed in the outer court, the way people were struck dead for disrespecting or disobeying the rules of worship. It hit me hard how the veil had been torn — Christ’s sacrifice allowing me, a terrible sinner, to come in closer to my God. I didn’t feel obligated to be there, I felt humbled and honored.

As I timidly sat in the back pew, eyes wide, the pages of Scripture came to life all around me. There was a visible reminder of the spousal relationship between Christ and His Church, as most everyone seemed dressed in their best, and the women were wearing beautiful lace veils.

Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. (Revelation 19:7)

The people were kneeling before, during, and after the service.

As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. (Romans 14:11)

There was recognition and honor of Mary, the Mother of God.

For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:48)

The service began with the priest sprinkling the congregation with holy water.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Psalm 50:9)

I heard the priest and the choir repeatedly begging His mercy, singing Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison.

And he cried, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38)

The Mass was almost entirely in Latin. I would learn the significance of it later, but at that moment it didn’t distract me. I was captivated with desire to be with Him. I was transfixed by the inescapable truth that this worship service was not about me or my comfort. This was about worshiping God in His way, not mine.

Even in a foreign language, I recognized the words Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest), and the near angelic sounds of Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy).

Day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8)

The priest was dressed in intricate detail, carefully and purposefully carrying out the minute requirements of worship.

Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the church of the Lord which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28)

There were prayers of confession and forgiveness of sins.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. (John 20:23)

Then there was the bread and wine transubstantiated into His Body and His Blood.

Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)

He was lifted towards heaven as an offering. Jesus.

An offering broken and blessed. Jesus.

This was the focal point, the entire reason everyone was there. Jesus.

It was carried out like a sacrifice, just as He promised it would be.

For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 1:11)

And then His people came to Him for Communion. They closed their eyes and held out their tongue to receive Him. They signed themselves with His cross. And when they went back to their seats, they knelt again in solemn prayer.

The very last Gospel reading was (and always is) from the Book of John, once again confirming the reason everyone was there. It certainly was the reason I was there.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:14)

The service was over, but many stayed on their knees, thanking God for always fulfilling His promises.

I had many more hurdles to overcome. Stigmas and stereotypes and reputations and so many questions. But the longing that started like a heartbeat intensified that day. I was completely mesmerized. Totally in awe of my Savior, I was craving to participate in Communion… to fully experience the Eucharist.

The sacrifice of the Mass finalized my decision; there was no turning back. I know for certain His real Body and His real Blood saved me. I have yet to find words worthy of my first taste of the connection that happens through the Eucharist, but experiencing the Real Presence is what keeps me Catholic. If there was any other reason besides Christ, then I may as well pick any religion or life-coaching strategy to live a good, comfortable life on earth. But Jesus Himself created an unbreakable bond between us that is driving this devotion and loyalty I now feel for Him and His Church. It’s supported by priests offering all the Sacraments; knowledge from the Holy Spirit through Scripture, Tradition, and the Catechism; the example of a multitude of saints; and the love and guidance of Mary through the most holy Rosary. But most importantly, His Blood is literally flowing through my veins via the Eucharist. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

By the grace of God, through the kind and patient help of Father Bartholomew, my children converted with me in 2017. I prayed hard for Mary’s intercession, held my breath, and watched as God transformed my husband before my eyes. His conversion followed a year later. We are still experiencing the pain of division from our parents and friends, but I know God has all of us in His very capable Hands and I trust Him completely.

Today, I continue to go to Jesus through Mary. Because that’s how He chose to come to me thousands of years ago, in a tiny stable on the other side of the world. And four years ago, on a little street corner fifteen hundred miles away from what I had planned. Life is not easier, but it is more purposeful, peaceful, fruitful, and desirable now that it is focused on Him. Eternity in heaven finally feels possible with full access to His Sacraments as part of the Body of Christ in the Catholic Church.

Melissa Funderburk

Melissa Funderburk is a convert from Protestantism, transplanted from Kansas to Florida, where she lives with her two teenage children and her husband. She is an accountant at a local college and for her husband’s real estate investing business.

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