I wrote a series of three posts in early 2008 on a previous blog, detailing my faith journey. This journey resulted in my joining the Roman Catholic church. For those who have written me, wondering how it all came about, I have brought those posts telling my story here:
My search for God
I grew up attending various Protestant churches: usually non denominational churches with my mom, Presbyterian with my dad. We always went on Sundays, and Wednesday nights as well. I made my first attempt to become a Christian in the fourth grade. I prayed over and over for “Jesus to come into my heart.” I never felt like I got the prayer perfect enough though, and cried and cried that I couldn’t get it right. It was at this time that I had a very scary experience. I am convinced that something supernatural occurred on this night. I was lying on my bottom bunk and it was around 9 p.m. I had not yet fallen asleep. I was trying to ask Jesus to come into my heart, but I couldn’t do it without my mind wandering. I felt that if I couldn’t give him my 100% full attention, that I would never be saved. Looking back I wonder why I was given the impression that a prayer was going to save me. Anyway, I began to feel a very strong pull towards the wall that my bunk beds were pushed up against. The wall had become a black abyss and I was being sucked into it. I knew that something very evil was in that blackness and I was terrified. I fought with all my might to escape. And so began a battle that would rage for the next ten years.
The following summer I went to a Christian horseback riding camp called Camp Joy. I had a terrible time because of homesickness. I still battle homesickness today when traveling. (I owe that to my parents ugly divorce and the back and forth visiting I did throughout childhood, convinced that none of my parents really loved me.) The one really positive part of attending that camp was that each day we got to ride horses for a brief time. I LOVED horses so this made it all worth it. At night we would have big prayer services of the sort where a speaker asks everyone who wants to invite Jesus into their hearts to raise their hands and come forward. I wanted so badly to have him in my heart. So despite my shyness, I raised my hand and some lady took me behind the stage to say the magical prayer that would bind me to Jesus forever. This time I felt like it really “worked!” I was flooded with relief that Satan would never be able to pull me into his black abyss.
After that experience, life just went back to the way it was. I will spare you the details of my childhood, but I faced many hurts and challenges. It wasn’t long before I was fighting my demons again. At age twelve I started smoking cigarettes with the “bad kids” after school. I swallowed an overdose of over the counter drugs halfway through my sixth grade year and ended up hospitalized for weeks. At age fifteen I started smoking pot and drinking the occasional beer stolen from a friend’s parents. By age seventeen I was drinking regularly, and by eighteen I was using much more serious drugs.
I made a deliberate decision NOT to believe in God anymore. There was not a feeling of loss of God, or an “I just don’t believe anymore.” It was a blatant, “I CHOOSE not to believe that you exist.” Looking back, I know that at the root of this was my belief that there was no way that he could love me, evidenced by my life. During these years I listened to punk rock music that is very different from the “punk rock” that is all over the radio these days. This was the dark music of a disillusioned youth who had not only given up on God, but actually hated him. There was one band in particular that I listened to whose lyrics still make me shudder at the memory of them. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, listening to those songs made me very uncomfortable. I did it anyway. I was so confused, that I thought by rejecting the Divine, I would be free. I was living a complete farce. I was miserable, and the whole time I was fighting God, it felt like he was whispering in my ear, “No matter what you say you believe, I AM STILL HERE.”
The drugs I was filling my system with started to take their toll on me physically. I am 5’6″ and weighed less than 100 lbs at age eighteen. I stayed up all night on those drugs and then replaced them in the morning with different drugs that would bring me down and help me sleep all day. My best friend Sarah (who was in the same crowd I was in, but didn’t use drugs) told me that she couldn’t look at me anymore. However, she never stopped being my best friend. I finally managed to stop using the “serious” drugs, but replaced them with alcohol for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Looking back on this time is very painful. It is only because of God’s mercy and protection that I survived. Of course, I couldn’t see that at the time. As I have written about before, about 6 weeks after I turned twenty Sarah died of a heart attack related to Crohn’s disease. In the 6 months or so before her death, Sarah became involved in her family’s church and became a Christian. She didn’t want to offend me with her faith because she knew that I “didn’t believe in God”, but she couldn’t help but share with me. I reached the lowest point of my life after Sarah’s death. I didn’t know how I was going to continue to wake up and go through the motions of being alive anymore. I know that sounds dramatic, but when you have forsaken God, and your only real friend is dead, life becomes desolate and empty. At Sarah’s funeral her pastor, with tears streaming down his face, told us that he “promised that we would see her again.” I felt my heart soften as I grabbed for that shred of hope. My desire to see her again led me back to Christ. It was in that moment that I made the choice to believe. The truth was that I had never truly stopped, no matter how hard I tried. The change that had to be made was in how I was living my life, and who I was living it for. I had to confess that I had been horribly wrong in so many of my choices, admit that I needed a Savior, and ask to be forgiven. Harder still, could I trust that God loved me?
I now realize that I have always known deep within myself that there is a God. I could list an endless number of reasons why I know he exists. I am a very logical person, and a bit of a science geek. The order and beauty of our very existence and the nature of creation itself points so clearly to a divine Creator. I never doubt God’s existence, although I don’t always feel His presence, nor do I understand many aspects of this life. Even as a hurting and angry teen I was never able to truly convince myself that he didn’t exist, no matter how much I wanted to. It’s the love part, that’s what’s so hard. I didn’t grow up feeling loved by my parents, despite the fact that they did love me as best as they could. I fell prey to lies that were easy to believe because of my circumstances. To believe that God loved me, was nearly impossible.
I realize that as a child, praying for Jesus to come into my heart, I was hoping for some sort of feeling to wash over me so that I would know that I was saved. I think that the feeling I was searching for must have been love. For me, becoming a Christian was a long process that happened over time as the realization came that if I ever wanted to be truly happy, I couldn’t ignore God’s call. Most importantly though, I had to believe that if He ultimately kept me safe from lasting harm, and never left me, that it must have been because of some great Love. Love for me? I guess I finally gave up. I stopped fighting. I decided to try, to try to live the life of someone who is loved by her Creator. And one day, I realized that I truly believed in the truth of that Love.
I love this passage from Eugene Boylan’s This Tremendous Lover, describing the choice to believe in and love God even when you don’t “feel” anything:
“It would be a grievous error to conceive the love of God as anything which essentially involves sense-emotion or feeling. The love of God lies in the grace-aided will, it presupposes the intellect insofar as the will needs its co-operation to love, for the will is a blind faculty; but in practice one need only attend the will. A very high degree of love of God is quite compatible with an absence of any feeling of emotion, and even with the presence of a feeling of distaste for the service of God. We have only to remember our Lord’s prayer in the Agony at Gethsemani to realize that. In fact, if one is going to achieve the heights of spiritual life, it is necessary to pass through a stage where one’s apparent spiritual activity is reduced to a dry act of willingness to conform one’s self to God’s Will, in the darkness of the sheer decision to believe in God without light of any sort.”
And that sheer decision to believe and to love without the aid of any light, is, I believe, called FAITH.
My search for a church
A few weeks after my friend Sarah died, I met Jonny (my husband.) After knowing each other for about six months, we got married. There’s a lot more to that story, but I’ll have to save it for another time.
Jonny and I had this sort of vague desire to start living our lives for God. The first thing we thought we needed to do was find a church.
I grew up in mainly charismatic non-denominational churches. Jonny wasn’t really raised going to church at all, but because his mother played piano for various churches throughout his childhood, he sometimes attended whatever church she was playing for. We both ceased to attend any church as soon as we were out of our parents’ houses. There was a church in Athens, GA where we were living called Church of the Nations. We heard that this was the church that all the “cool people” went to. Wanting to somehow mesh being cool with being Christians (we had our priorities,) we decided to give it a shot. We arrived Sunday morning, and settled in for about 2 hours of pure entertainment. There was lots of rockin’ music, dancers in the aisles, there was a skit, a movie played on a big pull down screen, and finally a sermon (which I do not remember.) Something about all this just didn’t feel right. It felt, well, weird. We couldn’t convince ourselves to go back to that church again. The mere idea of continuing on this quest to find the “right” church was very daunting; how were we to choose? The idea of studying the doctrines or teachings of the different denominations never occurred to me. I couldn’t have told you what doctrine was! I just thought that we were supposed to sample churches until we found the one that “felt” right. The one where we found people we liked and could listen to inspiring sermons. We never got past that first church.
Shortly after I found myself pregnant with our second child in 2002, we moved to Virginia. In the back of my mind I still wanted to find a church to go to. I asked the few people that I came in contact with where they went to church for ideas. One day I decided to stop in at a non-denominational church near our house and talk to the pastor. When I asked him about his church he enthusiastically told me that it was very casual, that you could come in whatever clothes you wished, and that they played Christian rock music at the services. That was the extent of what he had to say about his church. Oh my, I thought to myself, not this again! I was looking for the truth, not a good time. So I pretty much gave up this idea of going to church. It sort of seemed pointless. There was this underlying thought running through my mind that all of the different denominations existed because they all believed something a bit different. So which one had it right, and was this important? If interpretation of scripture and Jesus’ plan for his church was really left up to the individual believer, then I figured we could just set aside a special time on Sundays to read the Bible, and sort of have our own church at home.
Into this picture walks my dear friend, Lori.
Why I am Catholic
I met Lori about a year after we moved to Virginia. I had given up on finding a church and had become pretty complacent about the whole thing in general. One day I was at Lori’s house and our children were playing when she brought up the fact that she was struggling with her in-laws. She and her husband are both Catholic. However, her husband was not raised Catholic; he converted as a young adult. His parents were less than thrilled about his choice and made their opinions known loud and clear. Lori lamented to me that they believed all the typical stereotypes such as the common misconception that the Catholics worship Mary. I laughed, and said “Well, don’t you? Isn’t that what Catholicism is all about?” I was raised in the Deep South. My family is southern Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or non-denominational. The only thing I ever heard about the Catholic Church is that it was a “cult of Mary-worshippers.” This wasn’t a regular topic of conversation, just something I picked up in passing. We weren’t concerned with Catholics beyond maybe feeling a little sorry for them. They weren’t really Christians after all.
Lori answered my question with an emphatic “No.” She talked about her relationship with Jesus Christ and the fact that it was central to her faith. I was really surprised! Lori happens to have a library of books on Catholicism and me being a bookworm, I asked to borrow a few. I am a natural student. I love to learn, and always have. I was quite curious about my new friend’s “cult.” I wasn’t curious on a “maybe I should be Catholic” level, more of a “how interesting, she claims to know Jesus and she’s Catholic, I should check this out.”
So I started reading these Catholic books. Among those that I read were: “Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic,” “This is My Body,” “Surprised by Truth,” “Catholicism and Fundamentalism,” “Rome Sweet Home,” “By What Authority,” “Why is that in Tradition?” and “My Life on the Rock.”
A curious thing happened as I read these books. Many of the questions I had growing up and in early adulthood about the existence of so many conflicting Christian denominations were answered (there are more than 20,000 different Christian denominations outside the Catholic Church.) I was very surprised at what I learned. I had no idea that there was a church who could trace her origins to Christ himself and actually back up that claim. I wondered how I had lived my entire life and never known that such a church as this existed. The obvious reason why I never considered the Catholic Church is that the family I was raised in is pretty anti-Catholic and their prejudices against the Catholic Church are based on stereotypes and misconceptions rather than what the Catholic Church really is. They don’t know, and they really don’t want to know. There is so much truth in Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s statement: “There are not over a 100 people in the U.S. that hate the Catholic Church, there are millions however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.”
I really didn’t start researching Catholicism out of anything other than sheer curiosity. It didn’t start out as a search for the truth, but that is what it turned into. I joined the RCIA class at our local Catholic Church as an inquirer, not intending to convert, just wanting a place to ask questions.
That year was one of the most amazing of my life. I had never before heard of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. I grew up believing that we took communion every now and then and that it was symbolic of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. However, it was just a symbol. My mind was totally changed when I read “This is My Body” by Mark Shea. He is one of the many Evangelical Protestants who has joined the Catholic Church because of it’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I found this quote in a little booklet published by New Hope Publications:
“Christ having said “This is my body,” who shall deny and say, “This is not your body”? Christ having said “This is my blood,” who shall deny and say, “This is not your blood?”
I was originally more interested in the concept of authority and had questions about the “Bible-only” (sola scriptura) mentality (this just didn’t make sense to me given the thousands of churches who exist because of their different interpretations of the Bible.) However, the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist was the most profoundly important and life changing reason I converted to Catholicism. I attribute the healing I have experienced, and the exponential growth of my faith in the fact that I am a beloved daughter of God, to the transforming power of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
My family was critical of my decision to convert to put things mildly, but they are softening over time. My husband who supported my decision all along, joined the Catholic Church himself at Easter Vigil 2008.
I will be forever grateful that God led me to the Catholic Church. It has truly been a “coming home” like no other.