The Conversion Story of Richard and Ruth Ballard
Ruth: That Good Friday, I carefully took out white construction paper and the big, thick crayons that normally were reserved for my coloring books. Slowly, and very deliberately, I drew three crosses, the middle one in red. I don’t know how long I sat there, but I remember talking to Jesus in my own child-like way. That is my first memory of prayer or any understanding, however rudimentary, of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. I was a preschooler, not yet attending kindergarten, but this memory is still so vivid and detailed that it doesn’t seem that almost fifty years have passed.
The whole scenario could be easily explained away by a child’s interpretation of Bible stories; however, this was not the case. Neither of my parents were religious; there was no mention of God much less Scripture reading in our household. In spite of this, I always had an awareness of God within my life. Even at this young age I possessed an awareness of a spiritual realm, although I did not have the means to verbally express it.
It wasn’t until junior high school that I encountered “church.” My father, a career Naval officer, and our family were living in Taipei, Taiwan, at the time. At the invitation of my best friend, I attended a Protestant Thanksgiving service on the military base. The Protestant ecumenical quasi-liturgy gave me the framework upon which to hang my “heart knowledge.” I began attending services on my own at age 13. Eagerly, I read and studied the Bible seriously for the first time in my life. And although I was not yet baptized, I attended confirmation training. I was hungry for the Word of God and the fellowship of Christians actively committed to church and worship.
When my family returned to the States, I was baptized at my Grandmother’s Baptist church. From that point on, depending upon where my father was stationed, I attended either a military chapel or a Baptist church. Eventually I made the decision to attend Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. My goal was to serve God as an ordained minister in order to share the Gospel with others.
Now, I should insert here that I was Baptist by virtue of being Southern rather than any specific theological beliefs. At that time, the late 70s, the Bible Belt wrapped tightly around the South, contributing significantly to individual identity and cultural milieu. To be Southern was to be Southern Baptist. I was a Southerner. I was Baptist. Enough said.
Richard: In a similar way, I grew up in Western North Carolina in a farming family of predominantly nominal Baptists. I say “nominal” because, even though my great-grandfather had been a Southern Baptist minister in our community, no one among my immediate relations, other than my devout paternal grandmother, ever seriously practiced this faith. And so, I was left fairly much to my own devices in matters religious and spiritual.
As a teenager I began attending services of holy communion at an Episcopal church not far from where I lived. What impressed me the most about this church was two fold. First of all, the architecture spoke of the transcendent. There was an altar positioned against the east wall and the priest read the liturgy facing the altar rather than the people. It seemed as if he was praying with and on behalf of the people rather than performing for them. This was so different from my grandmother’s Baptist church where the minister faced the people from a central pulpit and became the focal point of attention during worship.
Secondly, the worship was liturgical and centered upon the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I fell in love with the beauty of Anglican worship. I loved kneeling for prayer, the lighting of candles, and the angelic sound of Anglican chant. By this time, I had a sense that God was calling me to ordained ministry and I might very well have sought to fulfill that calling within the Episcopal church had it not been for the advice of a priest who suggested that Episcopalians had far more ministers than they had positions for, and recommended that I should consider the Lutheran church.
I followed his advice and discovered that Lutheranism also had liturgical worship, much of it borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer. They also had altars, knelt for prayer, lit candles, wore vestments, and celebrated the sacraments, while embracing chant, chorale, and plainsong in their services as well. I soon felt right at home worshiping in the local Lutheran congregation. In addition, the more I read about Lutheran doctrine, the more I came to believe that it was clearer and more precise than that of the Episcopal church. The Lutheran Book of Concord had a compelling and carefully articulated theology that made the assertions contained in the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion seem limited and vague by comparison. And so, I embraced Lutheranism and began my journey towards ordained ministry in that tradition.
Ruth: In addition to providing a superb Biblical education, Southeastern Baptist Seminary allowed me to delve more deeply into church history, as well as the theological underpinnings of Baptist belief. And in doing so, I discovered that I disagreed with the basic teachings and polity of the Southern Baptists. The concept of ordinances did not make sense to me. I believed that Baptism was more than a symbol of one’s personal decision “to come to Christ.” Otherwise, why would Christ have issued a specific command to baptize in the name of the Triune God? This name was God’s essence, active and powerful in its own right. Applied to the waters of Baptism, how could something not happen to the individual? I came to grasp that Baptism was a means of grace that brought God’s very presence to the individual and removed the stain of original sin.
And would not the Christ who bid the children come to Him, freely want to offer this gift to all? Not only did I embrace the sacramental nature of Holy Baptism, I also went a step further to accept the validity of infant baptism. Not a popular stance among the Baptists. After I came to these conclusions about baptism, it was only a matter of time before my thoughts on the nature of holy communion changed. No longer could I accept that this was a just a “memorial meal of grape juice and bread squares.” The Gospel of St. John, chapter 6 made it very clear that Christ’s Body and Blood somehow mysteriously were connected to the earthly elements of bread and wine.
I saw clearly that I was Southern, but I was certainly not Baptist. So where to go? Which was the right Church with the right teachings? How could I connect with the Church founded by Christ without crossing over that invisible line separating Protestants from the “Dark Side?”
I had been enough of a Southern Baptist to absorb a prejudicial message that the Catholic Church was full of abuses and not the place a good and faithful “Bible-believing” Christian wanted to be.
During my last year of seminary, I found my answer in the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). I was attracted to the stately liturgical practices, the emphasis upon sacramental theology, and, as I perceived it, the historical grounding of Lutheranism as the reformed, and thus, the purest remnant of the Church that Jesus Himself founded. As a Lutheran I could point to the writings of Martin Luther and his colleagues and say: “This is what Lutheranism is about. This is what we believe.” To top things off, my father’s ancestry was Norwegian Lutheran. So I felt confirmed in my decision on a personal level as well.
After graduation, I began an additional year of study at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS) in Columbia, SC. My days were filled with classes to round out my previous studies and to prepare me for ordination in the LCA.
Richard: In the meantime, after completing my undergraduate education, I was accepted at LTSS and became a candidate for ordination. My four years in the seminary were filled with challenging academic study and opportunities for spiritual growth. Each day was centered on the historic offices of prayer and there was a weekly celebration of the Eucharist that often made use of the rich ceremonial tradition of the church. I long had been drawn toward what could be simplistically termed a more “high church” understanding of faith and practice and this orientation grew and solidified during my seminary experience. It was there I discovered that this particular theological point of reference had a name, and within Lutheranism was called “evangelical catholicism.” Evangelical catholics, by and large, regarded Lutheranism not as a separate and distinct Protestant denomination that permanently had divided itself from the Catholic Church, but rather as a movement of renewal and reform within and for the Catholic Church of the West. Evangelical catholics also held that the most critical ecumenical endeavor was to “heal the breach of the sixteenth century” and reestablish full-communion with the Bishop and Church of Rome. In discovering evangelical catholicism, I had located what I felt at that time was my true theological home and a vision that would guide my ministry within Lutheranism for the next 23 years.
Ruth: At the same time, I, too, came to an identical understanding. My old “Baptist-style” prejudices regarding the Catholic Church had faded. Richard and I met, fell in love, and were married in 1981.
The path to ordination in the LCA was almost a decade long struggle for me. Although the LCA approved the ordination of women as pastors in 1970, the day-to-day reality was somewhat different. Congregations were slow to accept female pastors, especially in the South. Such was the case in South Carolina where Richard had received his first call to parish ministry. This was an extremely painful time for me. As much as I loved Richard and supported his ministry, to watch Richard preside at the Eucharist and preach Sunday after Sunday while I sat in the pew as “pastor’s wife” left me feeling depressed and conflicted. I, too, felt called by God to exercise the office of Word and Sacrament. Finally in 1988, Richard resigned his parish in South Carolina so I could become an associate pastor in North Carolina. After 2 and a half years there, we realized that we wanted to work together in a parish ministry. We moved to Millersburg, PA, and spent a very happy fifteen years together as pastors of a wonderful congregation. I thought I had it all: a fantastic husband, ordination, and a ministry that was flourishing; yet I felt something was missing.
Richard: In 1988, the LCA and two other Lutheran church bodies merged to create a new church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). From its inception, there were ominous signs that this new church was inexorably moving in the direction of liberal mainline Protestantism and away from evangelical catholic commitments. This reality has been demonstrated in a variety of ways since the ELCA’s formation, but most importantly in two crucial areas: faith and morals.
When considering the area of faith, one inevitably comes to the question of authority. During the course of our years in the ELCA both Ruth and I tried to always preach, teach, conduct worship and celebrate the sacraments in accordance with the Scriptures, Creeds, and Confessions of the Lutheran church. However, even as we were engaged in what we understood to be a faithful ministry, the ELCA pastor down the street could be teaching the exact opposite of what we were teaching and be considered just as authentic as were we, and perhaps more so. It all boiled down to an issue of authority. Who could say that point “a” was correct while point “b” was in error? In the ELCA, nobody, and that is the problem. Private interpretation of the Scriptures, Creeds, and Confessions is the norm. Without a magisterium that is the ultimate arbitrator in matters of faith and morals, orthodoxy becomes optional. This has happened in the ELCA as a whole on any number of issues ranging from the doctrine of the Trinity, to ecclesiology, to God language, to Eucharistic theology, to liturgy, and on and on.
Secondly, regarding morals, the ELCA has succumbed to the spirit of the age in which it was created. In matters concerning marriage (the ELCA permits sequential divorce and remarriage and tolerates artificial contraception), in matters of sexuality (the ELCA is considering whether or not active homosexuals can be ordained and their unions blessed) and in matters regarding life (the ELCA permits abortion and its health plan will even pay for an abortion by one of its covered members). In all of these matters and more the ELCA has rejected the normative nature of the historical teachings of Scripture and the Church and has adopted the tack of relativism based on principles of diversity and inclusiveness. In fact, the voting system of the ELCA is designed to empower quotas of those who, for the most part, are the least qualified to make theological decisions, and yet are elected and appointed to make such decisions at church conventions. During this time Ruth and I read an article published by a colleague titled Real Churches Don’t Kill Babies. This really got our attention and made us think very hard about the life issues in the ELCA and whether or not that pointed to the ELCA as a false church.
Ruth: The dramatic turn in the road that led me to Rome occurred on an afternoon when I happened into a Catholic bookstore and bought the book, The Story of a Soul. Despite an extensive seminary education, I had never heard of St. Therese of Liseux, nor did I know that she was one of the most popular saints in the Catholic Church. I’m not even sure why I picked up the book other than to attribute it to the working of the Holy Spirit and to the intercession of St. Therese, herself.
St. Therese’s concept of “the little way” and her resolve to be “love in the heart of the Church” brought me back to the spirituality of my childhood. Therese had stripped away the façade of complex theological constructs to reveal a way of sanctity based on simple, unshakable faith in God’s love. I felt that I had discovered the Gospel anew. I returned to the bookstore and bought all the books I could find about or written by Carmelite saints. I poured over each volume, researched Discalced Carmelites on the Internet, and began incorporating Carmelite spirituality into my own prayer life. With the different witness of each Carmelite saint, I found a common thread of love for Our Lady. My heart began to open up to this love of which they spoke. I found myself venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary in my personal devotions, praying to her, and asking for her intercession in my life and the lives of others. I loved her as a mother, and I believed she loved me as her own daughter. And, while still a Lutheran pastor, I began to pray the rosary on a regular basis.
As a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (STS), a Lutheran ministerium of which Richard and I were both members, I was encouraged to have a spiritual director. Msgr. John Esseff, whom I had met through a common friend, became mine. We discussed Carmelite topics, especially prayer and the spiritual life, for hours on end. Over a ten-year period, I came to the knowledge that my true self was Catholic and Carmelite. This understanding transformed me. I felt an intense yearning for the hidden, prayer filled life of a contemplative. Although Msgr. Esseff never pressured me to convert to Catholicism, I had a sense that I would not remain Lutheran. Without any doubt, I knew that God was leading me to the Catholic Church and to the Carmelite lifestyle.
During this same time period, I began taking lessons in iconography from Jody Cole, also a Catholic, at a Roman Catholic parish in Gettysburg, PA. Her classes stressed not only painting technique, but also the use of icons in prayer. This wonderful marriage of art and spirituality, and Jody’s witness to the Catholic Faith, drew me even closer to Rome.
My final decision to convert did not originate from my trying to escape the problems of the ELCA as much as moving toward the conclusion of a very long spiritual journey toward Truth. As I reflected and prayed and studied, the beauty of the Catholic Church unfolded before me: the fullness of all seven sacraments; the sacrifice of the Mass; the real, undeniable presence of Christ in the Eucharist; the respect for all life, from conception to natural death; the authority of the Magisterium and the Papacy; the emphasis upon the dignity and unique gifts of women; the saints and sacramentals… what richness the Catholic Church held! How could I remain apart from Her any longer?
Richard: As Ruth was being drawn to the spirituality of the Carmelites, I was determined to go deeper to the roots of the faith, to the Scriptures, and the teachings of the early Church Fathers about what the Scriptures meant. It was through an extensive reading of the Fathers of the Church over a period of years that I came to understand that the ELCA bore scant resemblance to the Church that was described in those writings. Furthermore, no other contemporary Lutheran church body did either! Where was the Bishop of Rome in our faith and practice? Where was the college of bishops and the magisterium? Where was the historic apostolic succession of bishops, priests, and deacons? Where was the sacrifice of the Mass? Where was Eucharistic adoration? Where were the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other saints in the life of the church? Where were sanctification, growth in holiness, and the role of good works in the schema of our redemption? Where was the morality demanded by the Church of those who called themselves followers of Christ? Where were the religious orders, ancient pious practices, and devotions? The list could go on. What became clear to me was the fact that the Church described by the Fathers was not the ELCA, not by any stretch of the imagination. If it was not the ELCA, then where was it?
As I looked around I found it in the place that I had for some time thought it would be: the Catholic Church with the Bishop of Rome at its head. It is in this Church that the teachings of the early canonical Fathers are accepted. It is this Church that has demonstrable continuity from the time of its founding by Jesus Christ. It is this Church alone that has never erred in teaching about faith and morals from the time of its inception, but has stood as a beacon of truth and grace. It is this Church in which all of my previous evangelical catholic commitments still exist, but in a rightly ordered and properly completed fashion. Everything that is good and true in classic Lutheranism, and there is much there that I value because it helped to form me in my faith, is to be found in the Catholic Church, but made whole and fulfilled.
By the grace of the Holy Spirit I became convinced, in the words of Lumen Gentium, 14: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in her could not be saved.” I therefore determined that I must be a part of this Church that Jesus founded and decided that, no matter the cost, I would seek to enter it and finally realize the trajectory of my life that had begun within Lutheranism all those many years ago.
Ruth: Richard and I decided to take a step of faith and arranged to be received into full communion on Easter Thursday, April 20, 2006, by the Most Rev’d. Kevin C. Rhoades, Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg. Originally this was to have taken place at the Diocesan Center, but on Easter Monday I was diagnosed with a serious illness. Hastily, everything was changed to the chapel at Holy Spirit Hospital, where I had been admitted as a patient. Msgr. Esseff and Richard’s spiritual director, Sr. Cor Immaculatum, served as our sponsors. Two years later I was received as a secular Carmelite in the Flower of Carmel Community (OCDS), Asheville, NC, and am now in formation. At last, we are home and, in the words of another convert, the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, have moved “out of shadows and phantasms into the Truth.”