My journey into the Catholic faith is a glorious part of my life and this is my attempt to capture some of its beauty.
I grew up in an anti-Catholic environment. I thought Catholics worshipped idols, worshipped Mary, paid no heed to the Bible, added to the Bible to suit themselves and, I knew for a fact, that they drank liquor and danced. The lax morality of drinking and dancing (Haha) in and of itself separated them from my fundamentalist upbringing. Even though I spent almost three decades with this negative view of Catholicism, the next 20 years were marked with a longing for something that Protestantism didn’t offer and an attraction to some things that I may not have known were Catholic at the time. This writing is a recapitulation of some events that happened through the years that pulled me in the Catholic direction, because once I embraced Catholicism, I saw a sacred thread running through my life pulling me in that direction for many years.
I met a good, Christian, Catholic family in my young years and was quite puzzled by them. Just the tiny bit of exposure to their ways, intrigued me. Each daughter had a crucifix over her bed and that made an impression on me. Crosses were part of my paradigm, but crucifixes were not. *
In 1992, I was very struck my Mother Mary’s faith and holiness as I read the story of the Annunciation. I even wrote an article called, Mary, a Woman of Great Faith, that was published in a Christian newspaper.
After Gordon and I married – I was 27 – I entered the darkest season of my life. Gordon bought me a paraphrase of St. John of the Cross’, Dark Night of the Soul. It was so deep and profound that I could only read a few paragraphs at a time. I plugged through it and it ministered deeply to me. Upon finishing it, I re-read it. I had never experienced a book like it. It stirred things within me that had never been awakened. I knew St. John of the Cross was Catholic, but I reasoned that he was way before Catholics went off the rails into idolatry.
During the same period, I experienced “Responsorial Readings” for the first time in the Baptist church we attended. These readings delighted my soul. In the same church, we occasionally recited The Apostles’ Creed. I loved everyone, in unison, saying, “I believe . . .” *
Through the ensuing years, I occasionally picked up a Catholic book or article that added to the intrigue. Paula Huston’s, The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life influenced me greatly as she told her retreat experiences in a monastery and the customs she adopted having spent time there. I was mesmerized and longed deeply for the faith she saw in the monks. I longed to meet a Catholic like the ones I read about. It didn’t need to be a saint like St. John of the Cross or a monk; a faithful Catholic who deeply believed and lived their Catholic faith would have sufficed. That person was elusive.
The Holy Way, the book that I’d recently read, stirred up a strong desire to sit in a sacred space and just enjoy God’s presence. Catholicism was so foreign to me that I was intimidated to go to a Catholic church alone. Gordon escorted me to the local Catholic seminary to see if they’d grant me permission to spend time in their chapel and attend Mass. The few times I went to the chapel were divine; I wish I’d known who I was with back then. I sensed His presence, but assumed it was “spiritual only”. I didn’t yet know about the “real presence.” (Once Gordon and I walked past a tabernacle with the crimson candle beside it and he told me that Catholics believe the wafers are really Jesus. I thought that was a ridiculous concept and said, “Well, that’s stupid.” I’m sorry whenever I recall that flippant remark.) *
I went to a women’s retreat on prayer at a Catholic retreat center and I had a private retreat twice at a different Catholic retreat center. I spent my time in the library alone, reading and praying. I didn’t understand the significance of the chapel and chose the library because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for doing something wrong in the chapel. It seemed so sacred and everyone did movements (genuflecting, bowing, and making the sign of the cross) I didn’t understand and I sure didn’t know the rules of when to do each movement. Even without understanding why they did those movements, I was struck by the reverence. *
When I homeschooled the kids, I designed a course on saints, with special emphasis on St. Francis of Assisi because he was my favorite and St. Nicholas because I loved his story and wanted the kids to see where some of our Christmas traditions came from. *
We started attending a church that was more contemplative and I loved it. The pastor implemented symbolisms, such as lighting a candle to remind us of God’s presence, and other things of that ilk. Once, to the chagrin of many, he lit incense to remind us that our prayers were rising to God like a sweet fragrance. It blessed me tremendously. *
At a powerful Good Friday service – I’d never experienced a powerful Good Friday service – at the end he invited the congregants to come to the front and pass the cross thoughtfully. I was so internally moved. I loved Jesus and wanted to do something external to express my love. I was so grateful for his sacrifice and I wanted to DO something to show it. I sat there pondering this trying to articulate the inner struggle and what it was I wanted, but I didn’t know. About that time, a lady who had grown up Catholic and converted to Protestantism approached the cross and bowed. She bowed. That was it! That was what I wanted to do. As I approached the cross I wanted to bow but at my moment of opportunity, I allowed my inhibitions to get the better of me. I didn’t bow and returned to my pew sorry that I hadn’t had the guts to bow in gratitude to Jesus who died for me.
Communion had always been a bit of a mystery to me. In my childhood church, it was all but comical. (In 2005, I wrote about my lack of understanding of the Lord's Supper here.) To me it seemed nothing more than trying to conjure up sadness: “Poor Jesus. They killed him because of my sin.” I tried to enter into that, but it was never authentic. I went to a number of churches through the years and none of them gave me any more insight into the Lord’s Supper. At this contemplative Baptist church, for the first time, I got just a bit of insight. One thing we occasionally did there was go up for communion rather than being served in our pews. That so resonated with me. His sacrifice wasn’t cheap, didn’t it deserve my getting up out of my comfortable pew and going forward to receive it? Didn’t he deserve my choosing to receive as my getting up indicated. Going up for communion, as opposed to it coming to me, really impacted me. It cost me something to get up. By walking forward, I identified with him and chose him, I felt.
One Sunday during Communion, I had my first Communion insight ever. As the pastor read the Scripture, “Do this in memory of me,” a light bulb went on and it seemed to be Jesus saying, “Remember me. Remember how I loved the children. Remember how I healed people. Remember how I had so much compassion on them.” In my prayer journal, I thanked God for the insight and said something to the effect of, “I know I’ve only scratched the surface of what Communion means. I know there is something much, much more than this insight, but it’s the first one I’ve ever had and I’m so thankful.” From then on, as I received the Protestant communion, I always remembered the insight and tried to remember well the Jesus of the Bible. It certainly helped, but I still knew there was something HUGE I was missing. I knew it!
Around the same time, I started reading lots on St. Francis and the Franciscan order. After much deliberation, I tried to join an ecumenical order of Franciscans, meaning it was open to any denomination and to either gender. Twice I tried to join, both times no one answered my emails. This effort was to no avail, but I tell it to illustrate my hunger for something more than I was finding in Protestantism.
When Deborah started school, I went to work and no longer had the luxury of going to the occasional weekday Mass and quit thinking much about Catholicism. But I grew more and more discontent with Protestantism, although I would have used the word "church" rather than "Protestantism", because it never occurred to me it was a Protestant problem; I thought is was simply a church problem. Catholicism, of course, was not a viable option because I believed all the lies I'd been told. Many Sundays I skipped church to be alone with God. During those times I prayed and read my Bible and got so much more out of it than going to church. Those Sundays were my favorite. It seemed I always got annoyed at church. I very often complained inwardly that it was too people-centric. Everyone who took the stage seemed to think they needed to be entertaining. The announcements had to be clever, the worship leader always had to offer his insights, the minister, then the worship team, the special music, . . . To my way of thinking, the God-focused time was very small. And even that part was sometimes disturbing as I recognized that each minister could believe something different but it was his version of truth. I wondered how one could know who was right, and it seemed like a vicious cycle that couldn’t be escaped. I remember listening to a debate on the end times by two ministers that I respected very much and wondering, “Only one of them can be right, but they both claim that the Holy Spirit taught him. How can we know who’s right and who’s wrong?” *
I remember several times telling Gordon I wish I could find a church where I really fit. I was attracted to different things about different denominations, but there wasn’t one that took my favorite things and discarded my least favorite. I wanted a customized church to my liking. That’s a pretty ugly way of thinking, but it was my way of thinking. And why not? After all, in Protestantism anyone can start their own church and everyone chooses the church they like best.
Once after our Baptist church had an ugly split, it became almost unbearable just to attend. I remember being so incredibly disillusioned trying to figure out what was needed to get church “right.” Something was missing and I knew it!
More sacred threads:
When Gordon was still a Baptist minister we read articles, did a little research, and concluded there were elements about divorce and remarriage that we couldn’t reconcile with his being in pastoral ministry. We both experienced conviction – he could explain his, I couldn’t explain mine – that our marriage was “off”. (That is my word, because as I said, I couldn’t articulate my conviction.) His conviction led to his resigning pastoral ministry. *
Gordon and I used birth control, but we both admitted way back in our young days that we felt conflicted about it. There seemed something amiss about it. We said we trusted God with everything, but recognized we didn't quite trust him not to give us more children than we could handle. *
Once when eating out I saw a man pray over his meal and cross himself. It was enormously compelling and I wished for a Protestant equivalent. When watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the aunts crossed themselves upon hearing “bad” news. Although it was a humorous part in the movie, I recognized a desire to have an instant bodily prayer upon hearing something grave. When I worked at a Vet Hospital and an animal died, I wanted to do something that marked the sacredness of a life ended. Sometimes I secretly made a cross on their bodies with my fingers. Even a dog’s death seemed to merit a holy gesture of some sort since it had been created for God’s pleasure. During those moments, I wanted to be Catholic because I recognized they had an appropriate gesture that conveyed a holy moment.
My pastor offered something that vaguely helped, at least at mealtime. He told me to cup my hands to acknowledge that I come to God empty handed, aware of my need and that everything is a gift from him. It helped, but it was still lacking.
Gordon and I visited a Catholic bookstore and he bought me my first set of rosary beads. They promptly became a part of my evening prayers. I didn’t pray the rosary, but I designed a Protestant way of praying with the beads. I quoted the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, three “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” and then gave my loved ones at least one bead each as I prayed for them. I recognized how involving my hands in prayer kept me focused in prayer. Later, Gordon visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal and bought me two more sets of rosary beads. I cherished them. Later, his friend went to Rome and asked Gordon if he’d like a souvenir and Gordon requested a set of rosary beads from the Vatican for me. I was thrilled, but still prayed my beads in a Protestant fashion. My rosary beads were accumulating. I had a set in the living room, the bedroom, the office, and in my car. Because I was enjoying mine so much, I even gifted some to other Protestants telling them how they were helping me focus better in prayer.
And then finally, . . . after 16+ years of searching, I met a faithful, committed, holy Catholic. Robin and I worked together and I was attracted to her because she didn’t shy away from mentioning her faith. She had convictions and wasn’t afraid to discuss them with anyone. I had often thought of holy people as people who prayed, read their Bible, and tried to live lives of integrity. Robin went beyond that. She went to Mass daily, guarded her tongue better than most, lived a very convicted life, and quickly stood for her convictions if they were being assaulted. We became friends and started taking our afternoon breaks together. She patiently let me grill her for months. I began to go to Mass with her occasionally and I loved how it wasn’t people-centered at all. I presented her with problems I saw with the Catholic faith and she told me what they “really” believed as opposed to what I’d always heard they believed. She cleared up lots of my confusion. She couldn’t clear everything up for me and tons of confusion remained, but Robin’s conviction of being right was unwavering.
Gordon, recognizing my sincere exploration, bought me Peter Kreeft’s book, Catholic Christianity. Peter Kreeft is a convert to Catholicism himself, and this book explains the Catechism. I was enormously blessed by this book and spent the whole summer poring over it, reading it in conjunction with all its Bible references. As I read things that resonated, my heart would pound with excitement. Many questions were answered, others were unanswered. But there was enough goodness, clarity, and beauty that I knew I wanted to learn more. Many of the longings, the dissatisfactions in my church, the vague convictions that I couldn’t clarify, many questions about passages in the Bible that I didn’t understand, - all the things that created that sacred thread pulling me into The Church – were slowly being addressed and, to my amazement, the answers were found in the Catholic Church.
By buying the rosary beads and books, Gordon was being a sweet, kind, and loving husband wanting to help me grow in faith. He had no intention of facilitating my conversion to Catholicism. I told him I wanted to join RCIA (adult classes for people interested in learning more about Catholicism) and he wasn’t particularly happy about that and he wasn’t at all interested in joining me, as I’d hoped.
My first night of RCIA, I was very excited, but nervous. Still in the hallway on my way to the classroom, I sensed the Holy Spirit so powerfully that I nearly began to cry. Then as we went around the room introducing ourselves, I couldn’t hold it together any longer and I cried as I told what I’d been reading and some of the things that were drawing me to Catholicism. I also told how my journey was “upsetting the apple cart” at home and how if I continued on the path, I knew it would be hard. In my world (my family and friends), everyone agreed that the Catholic Church was way off the mark.
From that night on (it lasts about eight months) RCIA became the absolute highlight of my week. It was vibrant, and I fell in love with the faith more with every meeting. The word I use is "beautiful". The Catholic faith is the most beautiful thing I have ever experienced. I had believed a lie all my life. The Catholic faith, were it what I’d always heard it was, was worthy of the vitriol I grew up with, but I was seeing the lies very clearly. The lies I’d heard all my life were just that, ignorant lies.
 St. John of the Cross lived in the 1500’s. Whereas Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation, St. John was working within the Church for reform. He was imprisoned and publicly tortured by fellow Catholics. As Catholics, we esteem him for being among the faithful who fought for reform in the Church without breaking away from the Church.
 This is the Apostles Creed which we say at the beginning of every rosary: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
* indicates that I want to eventually address this topic in more detail.
- Why Catholics venerate crucifixes above crosses
- The Eucharist
- Reverence and Christ-centered worship
- Saints and why we value them
- Marriage and its indissolubility
- Natural Family Planning