Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Return of My Heart to the Catholic Church

In my early twenties, I always slept in on Sundays, preferring the lazier, afternoon Mass than the morning one. Shortly after turning 23, I would be blindsided by C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, G. K. Chesterton and Bishop Fulton Sheen. But for the first months of marriage, I did not how deeply asleep I had fallen. I went to Mass once a week, which sufficed for me. The fact that there was no other evidence in my life to show that I was a Catholic did not occur to me.

Still, my husband had promised prior to our marriage that he would do his best to learn about the Catholic faith so we could raise future children as Catholics. Plus, he was on a spiritual quest, searching for a sense of order and purpose to a life that had seemed chaotic until this point. My young husband was curious about Catholicism and decided to attend the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program at our local Catholic Church. This meant he was studying the Catholic faith and would, through prayer and discernment, decide to become a Catholic. His own life had been primarily seeped in the hazy feel-good paganism of his youth. It had never felt right to him, though. He wanted real food and real drink, rather than the spiritual junk food that had hardly nourished him all these years. The piety and sweetness of his paternal Catholic grandmother, appropriately named Mary, also had created a longing in him for something of substance. And then there the fact that his wife was Catholic.

Sort of.

I was Catholic in the sense that I had been baptized Catholic as an infant and had a good, honest Catholic faith during most of my childhood. My First Communion was a joyous occasion, and I truly felt in the company of the angels when I went to Mass afterward. My Catholic school years were some of the happiest ones educationally and spiritually speaking. I kept to the faith, inspired by the stories of saints, martyrs and the blesseds. At this time, Father Maximilian Kolbe was canonized, and the bishop at my Confirmation spoke about the testimony of this extraordinarily loving person. I adopted him as my patron saint, asking him to pray for his little sister in the faith. And I was an active little Catholic.

Until we moved to California.

Groggy in the Golden State
I am still not quite sure what happened to induce me into a spiritual coma. In retrospect, it could have been shock, for I was pulled out of my small-town Catholic community and left reeling.

All my Polish, Italian and Irish friends had been Catholic like me. My parents were Eucharistic ministers, I was the youngest lector at church, priests came over for dinners just like ol' relatives. The nuns of my Catholic school played kickball with us, sometimes yelled at us (like regular people), taught us folk songs and chants and Simon & Garfunkel bits. Due to my bus schedule, I was the first student in my class to arrive, usually forty minutes early. The teacher put me in charge of our little chapel. I treated it better than my own room at home. I polished everything, the altar, the pews, the crucifix, and cleaned the stain glass windows with great reverence, tracing the broken bits of glass brought into a new image. The faith was everywhere in my upbringing. But not as overtly in our new city.

My high school years were spent in a dark, wretched abyss. I stumbled blindly through them, lost my way. Sometimes, I read the Psalms to help me through the sadness that colored all my days, but I felt mostly alone. The gentle, loving Jesus of my childhood became a memory like all the friends that I had left behind. The faith that had meant so much to me could not withstand the pressure of my new life. And rather than strengthen it, rather than grow, it crumbled.

In college, I abandoned my relationship with the Lord, aside from a few prayers murmured absently at church. If I went to church at all. For three years, I thought little of God.

An Invitation to Learn (or the Part Where I Learn That I Didn't Know Everything)
And so, years later, as a newlywed, as my husband learned about Catholicism, I would lounge lazily beneath a mountain of comforters and pillows, and think rather fondly and vaguely of that Jesus fellow. We had been so close once upon a time. I wondered what happened to Him.

"You should go with me," my husband said one morning as he put on his suit for church.

I snorted at him. "But I went to Catholic school! I know all that stuff!"

And he desisted in his invitations and continued going to RCIA. See, when we had gone to Engaged Encounters (because that's just what you do if you want to marry in the Catholic Church), we had come to the surprising realization that we wanted our marriage to be centered in Christ. And because we considered me to be "Catholic" he decided to study Catholicism.

But he knew that I was not fully awake, so he tried again weeks later.

"You should really go with me," he said another morning. "Everyone knows so much. And everyone is very nice and friendly. You should go."

"I know all that stuff! I'm a cradle Catholic. I went to Catholic school for most of elementary school! My parents are Catholic!"

"Please?"

I grumbled and got in an exceedingly grouchy mood but decided to go. For a few weeks, I went with him. My arrogance must've been obvious. I'd sit in my chair, arms crossed, stifling my boredom, staring at the clock. I knew everything they said! And then, one morning, I didn't.

The extremely well-educated members of the RCIA group talked about ideas about the Mass that presented it to me in a new light. It wasn't just a supper, something to be checked off the list for Sunday's tasks, but it was an entire experience that incorporates our faith. They quoted St. Justin Martyr, who wrote about Mass in about 150 A.D. and discussed today's Mass in the light of it. I was surprised by how true the Mass had remained to the early church.

"I never heard of the early church fathers," I told my husband. "Or maybe I wasn't paying attention. What else didn't I hear?"

The Narnia Guy
The RCIA catechist soon discovered that the peevish, arrogant wife of the new guy was a reader. And the catechist knew that a book would be the Trojan horse to launch an attack into my prideful heart. After an RCIA class, he came up to me and said, "You should check this book out. It's very good."

"The Screwtape Letters?" I said. "By C.S. Lewis? Isn't he the Chronicles guy? I loved the Chronicles." Out of nostalgia and perhaps expecting a quirky, charming little English read, I took it.

That evening, after dinner, I began reading. The satire is about a senior demon writing letters to a newbie demon about how to completely ruin his patient. At first, I laughed at the wry, scathing wit of Screwtape. By midnight, I was no longer laughing. I saw myself in the position of the tempter, not the patient. I continued reading through the night.

When I finished the book in the morning light, I burst into tears. "I've got to change my life." I just didn't know how.

I embarked on a rigorous journey that began with the basic question: "Is there a God?" That year, however, I spent every spare moment immersed in reading everything substantial that I could from known intellectuals.

18 Months of Straight Reading
The scales had fallen from my eyes with "The Screwtape Letters." Next, I read "Mere Christianity" to answer questions about the existence of God and where Jesus was the Messiah, then "The Problem of Pain" to answer some basic questions about how God can exist when there is so much evil and suffering in the world.

At the same time, I decided to read the Bible from cover to cover -- and to read it with the mindset of a person on a quest. I would analyze the Bible to see if there were prophecies regarding a Messiah, if Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and if Jesus was the Messiah, what that would mean for me. I read and read and read my New American Bible and then, for comparison, the New Jerusalem Bible. My husband and I also attended Bible study at our local parish.

"I went to Catholic school. Why didn't I know this?" I asked an RCIA team member.

"You had the faith of a child because you were a child. But then, you stopped growing and learning. You became an adult with a child's religious education. You had to open yourself up to learning and growing."

I decided to keep learning. Everything I could.

My family and friends were all a bit shocked about how I'd seemingly changed overnight. I went to my parents' house, ransacked their extensive Christian library for as many books as I could get to help me on my quest. My father, with degrees in theology, became the person I would grill endlessly about passages in the Bible, historical context, etc. He gave me a deep appreciation for the Old Testament and explained much of what was there, though I was a difficult, argumentative student for a while. My mother helped feed my heart with her recommendations of St. Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and so forth.

In RCIA, I was the person who would not go home, but remained with my husband, asking this and that about the Catholic faith to the RCIA team members and director. We were given a lot of lunches by RCIA members who were thoughtful, honest and sweet ... and could not bear to end conversations either.

It's impossible to list everything read during that time. So much was just absorbed and discussed and shared with my husband. Among the highlights are: "Surprised by Truth, Vol. I: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Being Catholic" edited by Patrick Madrid; "Rome Sweet Rome: Our Journey Into Catholicism" by Scott and Kimberly Hahn; "The Everlasting Man" by G.K. Chesterton; "The Faith of the Early Church Fathers" edited by William Jurgens; "What Catholic Really Believe: 52 Answers to Top Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith" by Karl Keating; "Orthodoxy" by G.K. Chesterton, etc. I read anything I could find from Thomas Merton (especially "Seeds of Contemplation"), C.S. Lewis and the early church fathers.

Once I came to embrace Catholicism, I still had to hash out some arguments regarding artificial birth control, but, in light of everything I had read, I easily came to agree with the Church's stance on it.

As I awoke in the faith, I shook the dust out of my eyes and remembered all the beautiful stories, the graces received of my childhood faith. I remembered Maximilian Kolbe and asked him to pray for me once again. I wept and wept because of the sarcastic, self-centered, worldly, inflated person that I had become ... then rejoiced in God's mercy and forgiveness. I was so happy to read that I was becoming a new creation.

Easter
During this time, my husband continued growing and learning. He was not a reader like I was, but I'd share everything I read with him. He preferred listening to the recordings of: Thomas Merton's talks at the monastery, the lectures of Bishop Fulton Sheen, Scott Hahn's testimony and subsequent talks and so forth.

The morning of Easter Vigil, the evening that he could be baptized, receive First Communion and Confirmation in the Catholic Church, we were giddy with excitement. His journey had not been alone. Through his seeking, my husband brought me, the formerly sleepy Catholic, into the Church. Sometimes, people who did not know us very well would say, "Oh, you're going to be Catholic because your wife is!"

If they only knew! When time allowed it, I'd explain how my husband's own curiosity and passion for the faith had ignited my own. My husband never said, "Are you kidding? She was Catholic in name only!" but I said that of myself.

The joy of that Easter is indescribable. I felt that I was born again, the same evening that my husband received the sacraments of initiation.

On a Journey
The lessons, joy and gratitude of the beginning of this journey remain with me forever.

Soon after my husband's reception into the Church, the priest of the parish, who knew my story (and had been subjected to my questions during his talks at RCIA), asked me to start a program for returning Catholics. I could have been the poster child for returning Catholics! Through God's grace and strength, we ran that little program for a few years and saw a good many wonderful people awaken in their faith.

It's never too late to learn more about the faith. Whether you are a cradle Catholic or a convert, you can always find new treasures in the deposit of faith in the Catholic Church. You just need a willing spirit. God will take care of the rest ...

4 comments:

Prudence Arcadia said...

Hi! I just discovered your site from my newly downloaded "Catholic Toolbar." Oh my goodness, your story sounds so much like my own. My faith took some weird twists and turns but I ended right back where I started. However, my journey is much newer, and I am quite overwhelmed at how much I don't know. I loved the explanation "You had the faith of a child because you were a child..." Yes! That is how I feel. Stunted, in a way. I am grateful you provided what books you read, it gives me a starting point. It seems on other sites/blogs, everyone has known all this forever, but I haven't! So I thank you, so very much. It is so wonderful to know I am not alone. Blessings to you!

Vee said...

Prudence:

Thanks for taking time to leave a message.

It is overwhelming to realize how much one doesn't know, but it's also very exciting and refreshing, too, isn't it? When I thought I knew everything about the faith (now I can't even believe that I truly thought that!), I was so sleepy in it.

Once I did see how much there was to learn, I felt invigorated. And I learned so very much.

But it's 15 years now, and I am still learning ... which is wonderful, too. How dull and small and pointless it would be to understand God completely. How much better to find so much to delight in, to consider, to love ... and to find that all this Love and Mercy has been there all along and always will be.

No, you're not alone in your story, though your story has its own uniqueness.

So, thanks for stopping by and sharing. Come back again soon. Don't be a stranger ... ; )

Gardenia said...

I'm here tonight checking out all your lovely drawings. I'mmaking liturgical folders with Xhonane at Familia Catolica and printing out saints. I'm really looking forward to getting your book on Blessed Miguel Pro, and then I click on this beautiful tribute to your growth in Catolicism. what a lovely post. thank you Vee. such a good read!!

CindiW said...

I found your website while trying to supplement my lesson for All Saints' Day with my kindergarten PREP. Your site is fantastic and I will share it with the other catechists.

Creative Commons License ... and please do NOT offer my works as downloads from your site.