I was raised, in no particular order:
· With both mother and father, who modeled what a strong marriage can look like
· With one sibling, my brother, who used to be younger than I am, but since I’ve stopped aging, he’s now older
· In a suburb of Detroit, in a dark brick ranch my grandfather helped build and my mom grew up in
· Going to the same Presbyterian church my mom went to when she was a child
We went to church regularly, and I attended both Sunday school and youth group. Any other religious expression was an individual pursuit. I don’t remember reading the Bible as a family, but I do remember my gold foil “Good News Bible”, with stick figures and crinkly onionskin paper. I don’t remember praying much as a family, outside of grace before Thanksgiving dinner, but I do remember, from a very early age, talking to God.
Specifically, I remember talking to God every night and asking Him to “put my Grandpa on”. I’d wait, imagining God going to get my Grandpa Bob, who had died when I was five. I’d sit patiently in silence, until I imagined Grandpa coming to the prayer line, and we’d chat for a bit. Then God would get back on, and we’d say our goodbyes for the night.
I remember my childhood religious formation being strong enough to forge that vital element- a prayer life, something I never ever lost.
I remember the rest of my childhood formation being tenuous enough that I had slipped it off by college.
My best friend in high school gave me a book to read right before I left for Michigan State. It was called Judas My Brother, by Frank Yerby. Briefly, it is a book that strives to strip Jesus, and by extension, Christianity, of anything Divine or mystical. It has footnotes and endnotes galore, and to a 17-year-old girl with little grounding in theology, it was a revelation. With no education in Christian apologetics to help me critically consume the book, I was happy to embrace the whole thing. The ability to toss aside some Bronze-age set of patriarchal ethics all while spouting off quotes from a historical novel is extremely attractive to a new college student. So, convinced that at its heart, Christianity was nothing more than a monstrous tale of a monstrous God who sacrificed His own Son to Himself to appease His monstrous anger, I chucked it all.
More or less.
I still prayed. Every night. There was that remnant of my childhood faith that I couldn’t even begin to shake. Even if the prayer was nothing more than, “Thank you for this day, goodnight,” I still said it. I didn’t think too hard about who was on the receiving end of my prayer, but I always knew that there was Someone to whom I was grateful for another day of life.
Atheism or agnosticism were never serious considerations. At no point during my spiritual wandering did I contemplate either of them very long. Where I was, at this point, was a theist. Nothing more.
I think that when a person says, “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in religion,” there are only two options left for her. The first is slip off into profound lukewarmness and to begin viewing God like a magic lamp, taken out when there is a wish to be granted. The other option is to keep looking for a deeper relationship with God, which means you have to keep coming up against the one thing you’d rather avoid.
I wasn’t looking to distance God even further. I wanted more. And so, like someone who keeps checking out the window to see if their family is pulling in the driveway yet, I kept returning to the subject of Religion. What was God? Who was God? What was the relationship between religion and God? Did we need religion? Did we need God? All the typical questions that we humans ask ourselves, and, like many others, I had no objective method to use in finding answers. I just knew there was something missing, and that something was God. I also knew that I didn’t want to run the risk of finding Him in some religion that was going to tell me things like “right” and “wrong”.
Pride is fun, isn’t it?
So, looking for a deeper relationship with God that didn’t attempt to burden me with annoying lessons on morality, I found myself becoming more and more enamored with the New Age movement.
Since the only experience I have with universities is limited to what I lived out on Michigan State University’s campus from 1993-1998, I will make sure that I don’t paint all universities with the same brush. So when I say that I found college a very hospitable environment for New Age influences, please understand that I mean this only for a particular place during a particular time.
From the occult “Triple Goddess” bookstore a little ways off campus to the pagan student alliance on it, there was a world of New Age, pagan, occult information at my fingertips. Now, keep in mind that this was the early 90s, and the Internet was more or less limited to telnet and Gopher. So when I say “a world of information at my fingertips”, know that my fingers were much shorter 20 years ago than they would be now. In other words, if I wanted to learn about it, I had to do so through a book or a real live person.
At first, I kept my searches confined to books. Not quite ready to actually talk to another person, I would spend time at the campus library, reading poorly researched works about ritual prostitution in ancient Babylon, or information on the Celtic pantheon derived from source information of conquering invaders. I had as little concern for scholarly integrity as many of the authors of these books did, and information derived from New Age novels was viewed as reliable as that from non-fiction.
In other words, at this stage of my spiritual quest, critical analysis was not part of my vocabulary.
Eventually, my one-track reading theme caught the attention of a friend, who had grown up in the area. She introduced me to the occult bookshop in town, “Triple Goddess”. Here I was able to get more contemporary literature on all manner of New Agey topics, and for an almost unlimited amount of new material, all I had to do was part with both my money and any desire for responsibly researched, verifiable information.
The hallmark of the New Age movement is a do-it-yourself mentality. Whatever whim, interest, or fancy strikes you, there is some way to incorporate it into your customized belief system. Drawn to reincarnation? Find yourself a past life reader who can tell you who you were previously. Want to cultivate a friendship with your animal totem? Grab a book on guided meditation that will take you on a vision quest to do just that. As the signs posted prominently in the bookshop reminded customers, “Following Your Bliss” was the prime directive. There was no evidence that apologetics was an area of concern.
Conceivably, a person could continue like this for the rest of their lives, happily moving from one metaphysical practice to another, or from one deity to the next. Certainly this is what I did for a long while, stopping somewhere until the gnawing sense of emptiness grew unbearable and I started looking for something new to fill it. I was searching for a way to establish a firm relationship with God, yet paradoxically, the more options I was given to do so, the weaker that relationship became.
Finally, I grew desperate enough to seek out other people; to set down the books to go see what I could find in the fellowship of fellow New Age/pagan/occult/notmembers of Organized Religion. I went to a meeting of the campus pagan support group, where I met half dozen or so people who should have been my kindred spirits. I should have felt some connection with them, these folks on a similar journey as I was. Maybe if we weren’t exactly on the same road, we’d at least be able to shout at each other across the distance.
What I found were six people with six wildly different ideas on everything remotely connected to God. One woman worshipped an obscure Egyptian goddess who had a name, but which I’ve since forgotten. This was in stark relief to the only male in attendance, who worshipped a trio of Norse gods, the names of which he insisted were so sacred they could only be revealed to those who had been properly initiated. There were a few women who worshipped a vague sort of Earth goddess type, and someone who was an atheist, but came to the meetings because no one else would believe that she was in communication with alien life forms.
I was immediately struck by the fact that I wasn’t going to find spiritual guidance here. What I found was a hodgepodge of religious beliefs not substantially different than what I’d find while waiting at the dentist’s office, or while grocery shopping. Plus, like payments expected at the dentist or the grocery store, the pagan support group wanted me to cough up money, $20 to cover membership fees.
However, the whole thing wasn’t a wash. The experience got me thinking about the nature of worship. After all, to worship something is a pretty big deal. Even the constant misuse of the word in popular culture can’t water down its meaning completely. To worship something means to view it in a profound sense of admiration. You admire the object of worship in a manner that you admire nothing else. Once I articulated this, fatal cracks in the New Age façade formed. The nature of pantheons, to which most of the deities in pagan religious structures belong, is a familial one. That means individual gods and goddesses were created from previous gods and goddesses. Think about all the Greek myths you learned in school. There was a family tree there, and you could trace Athena back to Zeus, back to Cronus, back and back, and what you had was a series of creatures. It seemed foolish to me to admire a created deity in a manner that I admired nothing else, since that deity owed its existence to another entity. It would be like admiring the Mona Lisa above all other things, even the person whose skill created the painting. Worship, to make any sense at all, had to be directed at the original source.
Most of the pagan gods and goddesses that have any historically documented pedigree can trace their lineage ultimately to some deification of the Earth. I didn’t need to be a geologist or an astronomer to know that the Earth was a created object as well, and so the trail couldn’t end there. Where to look next, however, I couldn’t even begin to guess.
My unquestioning love affair with all things New Agey ended at the same time my stint in college did. I left MSU with a bachelor’s degree in English and a certificate to teach middle and high school students, and I left the New Age movement with a vague set of metaphysical philosophies and a weaker grasp on the nature of God than what I started with.
I left college in May of 1998. By the next month, I had a teaching position in the same school district I went to as a child. The man I’d loved since I was 14 proposed to me in October of that same year, and we moved in together in February of 1999, with the wedding date set for August of that same year.
To say that it was a busy time in my life would be, in retrospect, an understatement.
Moving from the extended adolescence that college allows to something resembling responsible adulthood meant that I could, for a while anyway, shelve the whole search for a resting place in God. I did so with relief. I still maintained a set of holdovers from my pagan years- a belief in reincarnation and a vague pantheism being most notable. Unable to figure out how God wanted us to relate to one another, I gave up trying.
But then time for serious wedding plans came. My first choice was an extremely small wedding of no more than 50 or so people, held entirely in my parents’ backyard- it was a beautiful setting, and full of comforting memories; I couldn’t imagine having it anywhere else. My parents, sensibly concerned about a number of logistical and potential problems a home wedding brings with it, encouraged Ken and me to come up with another option.
We couldn’t think of one. Neither of us wanted to elope, and the thought of the actual ceremony taking place in a dreary, municipal setting was depressing. Lack of options meant that when the Presbyterian church of our childhood was suggested, we couldn’t think of anything compelling to counter it with. What it lacked in religious significance for me, it made up in sentimental ones. After all, Ken and I had both gone there growing up. And while we went to the same school, we were in different grades, so it was the church’s youth group that was the stage for our fledgling romance. Marrying in that church seemed a sweet nod to the physical location that brought us together.
The pastor who had worked there when we attended had since gone to another church, but Ken and I thought we’d see if he’d be willing to come back to officiate the wedding. We met with him in his office at his current church and he agreed to do so. He handed us a packet of common wedding vows and said that we could customize the ceremony however we felt comfortable.
I took him at his word and spent the next several nights sitting at the coffee table with scissors and glue, cutting one phrase from one version of the wedding ceremony, and another phrase from a different one. In every version, however, I made sure to remove the name of Jesus from the proceedings. I was fine marrying in a church. I was fine having our childhood pastor officiate. I was fine mentioning God in the ceremony, but I would not allow Christ to be mentioned. It was too religious, too Christian. A non-specific “God” could be invoked and that was as far as I was willing to go.
Both the pastor and Ken agreed to my editing job, and so we were married in a Presbyterian church in a ceremony that banned any reference to Jesus.
Despite the changes in my life, I found my thoughts returning with increasing frequency toward God. Having found nothing particularly useful in New Age teachings, absolute desperation turned my attention to organized religion. After all, I reasoned, if a religious institution was going to have staying power and a sizable audience, two things it needed to fall under the “organized” category in my mind, it probably had something logical and useful to say.
With summer vacation staring me in the face, I figured I’d start learning what I could. Since at the time I believed in reincarnation, I thought I’d start with Buddhism and Hinduism.
A brief study of Buddhism quickly revealed to me that it was more of a philosophical system, and in its purest form, not concerned with the existence of a deity at all. Since it was my clear experience that there was a God, and the whole point of this excruciating search was to grow closer to Him/Her/It, I left Buddhism to its own devices and turned to Hinduism instead.
The problem I found with Hinduism stemmed from its origins. The majority of world religions have a particular individual as the founder. Buddhism had Siddhartha Gautama, Islam had Mohammed, Christianity had Jesus, and Judaism had Abraham, Issac and Jacob. For each of these groups, there is a way to find what the original intent of the religion was. You can read what the founders themselves had to say and glean information about the theology from that.
Not so with Hinduism, which grew from the religious practices of immigrating tribes. Hinduism wasn’t “founded” so much as it “evolved”, and so tracking down the original vision of its theology proved impossible, because there wasn’t one. What there was was a muddled sense of accepted confusion about the nature of God that I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I didn’t need my understanding of God to be more obscure. Additionally, Hinduism presented the same problem to me as did paganism- namely so many of the deities were created creatures and therefore unsuitable to me as an object of worship.
Islam presented a problem almost immediately. Even before 9/11, there was a tone to discussions about Islam that made it difficult for me to know what was theology and what was politics. Additionally, I kept running into the insistence that unless one was reading the Qur’an in its native Arabic, the translation was invalid. Something about all this struck me as almost Gnostic in its secretiveness, and I put aside Islam as a serious consideration.
Judaism was next. But besides the obvious fact that the form of Judaism practiced in the Bible didn’t exist anymore, it felt too close to Christianity. It was like declaring your independence from your parents, but going to live rent free with your grandfather. I spent time reading the Old Testament and feeling more and more resentful about the whole thing.
Around this time, three significant things happened. The first was one day, in a fit of exasperation over having to listen to the spiritual whining of his wife for the millionth time, Ken said, “Why don’t you just pick something to believe and believe in it?” Bear in mind, Ken never said anything like that to me in regards to my religious angst. So when he finally could take no more, his words sunk in even deeper. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just pick something that fit with my world-view and settle in there? Why did I have to make everything so damn complicated? Surely there were enough people in my acquaintance who insisted that all one needed to do in life was be a good person and that would be enough. Why couldn’t I just do that?
That was the kick in the pants I needed to convince me that something beyond myself was spurring this search. Left to my own devices, I would have tossed the whole God question to the curb and followed a path that offered maximum good feelings with minimum work on my part. But I’d tried that, and it didn’t work. It didn’t make the gnawing sense of something missing go away. So as much as I wanted to chuck the whole thing, Ken’s words made me realize that there was no rest for the wicked, and I couldn’t stop this search until I found truth. It was this realization, that I couldn’t give up searching even though I wanted to, that shaped some of my more embarrassing religious experiments of that time period. Things like “baptizing” our infant daughter ourselves at a local park one weekend. My heart was in the right place, but I can say that it was a great relief, years later, to learn that since I hadn’t used the Trinitarian formula (of course I hadn’t. I think the actual wording called her “a child of the Universe”), she wasn’t validly baptized, but would be, the actions of her hippy dippy mother notwithstanding.
The next thing was we moved into our first house, which was half a block away from a Catholic church. There was a statue of Our Lady outside, next to a playground, and I found myself staring at the statue when I’d take Lotus to the park to play. Whenever I went for a run or a bike ride, I always made sure my path crossed that statue, and I’d pause for a moment, and stare at that image, the thoughts of my heart and mind a mystery even to myself.
The final thing that happened during that period of my life was Ken got his first transfer. We would move away from suburban Detroit, a place I’d lived all my life, to Mississippi of all places. Mississippi! The absurdity of the whole thing was almost too much to comprehend. What on earth would a good Midwestern girl do in the Deep South?
Although the move from Michigan to Mississippi was sought after, welcomed, and wanted, I did not adjust gracefully. What I did do was suffer from major culture shock for the first year or so.
Major. Culture. Shock.
Of course, now that I’m writing this from a distance of 1227 miles and seven years, I have a different perspective, one that is too colored by nostalgia to probably be entirely accurate. But I can remember one thing with laser-like precision that drove me frantic about my new Southern neighbors.
And that was their open, unabashed practice of religion.
This, coupled with the notamyth reality of Southern hospitality, meant that I was confronted with my religious agonies on a daily basis. Within a week of moving in, we had met every single family on our street. They came with flawless charm and goodwill, bearing some housewarming gift, and the conversation went the absolute same every time:
“Hi! I’m So-and-so, your neighbor two doors down on the left! It’s nice to meet you!”
Here I would accept the baked good and/or poinsettia (we moved into the house in December of 2004), tell them my name, and invite them into my house, which was in shocking unpacked shambles. The neighbor would politely decline to come in, to my extreme gratitude (see what I mean about Southern hospitality?), and would continue The Script:
“So have you found a church yet?”
No. I am not kidding you. This was the second question from everyone. Hi, what’s your name, by the way, have you found a church yet? As if they could see right into my heart and knew the one question that would cause me the most discomfort.
Normally, I would mutter something vague and start opening the door wider, just so one of the dogs would escape and I could end the conversation by chasing after it. If this failed, the new neighbor/torturer would press on, asking what kind of church I went to back home. When I had no answer for them, they’d invite me to their church. Repeatedly. With printouts of service schedules for me to reference later.
I remember calling my mom in a tizzy one day over this affront to my Midwestern sensibilities. She wisely advised me to tell them that Ken and I were married in a Presbyterian church and play the odds that the neighbor was either Baptist or Pentecostal, who would then assume I’d found a suitable replacement in Mississippi, and leave me alone.
Brilliant! I did just that, and it worked like a charm. Until I met the last neighbors, who were (of course) Presbyterian. Who then offered to have the pastor of their church over one day so we could meet him. Who started calling every few days to see if I’d checked with Ken to figure out a good time to do so. Backed into an absolute corner, I remember that Ken’s parents, who lived 20 minutes away, were also Presbyterians. In a fit of blind panic one day, I told the well-intentioned neighbors that we were going to my in-law’s church and thanks for the offer, but we were good.
That got them off my back. But hell. Now we needed to go to my in-law’s church once, so I wasn’t lying.
Now I had to do some serious- something. Something. I didn’t even know what. All I knew was that I had this giant chip on my shoulder regarding all things Christian-related, and it was starting to get very heavy.
I thought that it was time to apply my non-negotiables to Christianity and eliminate it from consideration like I’d done all other organized religions so far. It seemed fair. So, starting with the notion of not being willing to worship a created object, I turned the powers of the Internet to the question of Christ. Christ, who I’d firmly shut out of our wedding, was, as far as I understood Him to be, a created creature. After all, He was the Son of the Father, and sons are creatures, so this should be pretty cut and dry.
The search engine helpfully directed me to the first chapter of John, specifically the first few verses. Then it helpfully directed me to a website where I could read these verses in about a million different translations.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
You know the phrase, “my blood ran cold”? And when you feel it, you’re so scared that it’s like your blood has actually turned to ice water?
There is an opposite feeling, but I don’t know if there’s an idiom for it. It’s when you’re so suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of safety that your blood feels like it’s made of sunlight. That’s what I felt when I read those words in John.
Oh, I didn’t understand it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a bible scholar, and I’m certainly not a theologian, but I was able to glean one thing from that passage: Christianity didn’t teach that Christ was a created thing. He was in existence from before time, with God, God Himself.
Immediately following on the heels of that discovery was one even more meaningful for me. Christ was a Word. A Word.
He was the conversation God wanted to have with me about Himself, a conversation He had waited so patiently to have while I flailed about like a three year old on a Halloween sugar crash temper tantrum, kicking the kitchen floor and sticking my fingers in my ears and alternating screams about “Talk to me!” and “I don’t want to listen!”
I sat there for a while, staring at the computer screen. All this time I wanted God to talk to me and then I went around doing things like censoring His Word from my wedding.
Christianity had cleared the first of my ridiculous hurdles. I was interested in seeing what it revealed to me in a church service, and so the next Sunday, I found myself stepping foot in a church for the first time since Ken and I were married.
My first church experience in more than three years was lovely. The people were welcoming, the pastor’s sermon insightful, and the surroundings tasteful and reverent. Even the choir, who performed traditional hymns, was pretty, and I’m not much of a music lover.
Looking back now, I’m not sure what I expected to experience there. There were no extremes in response; I didn’t burst into flames upon arrival nor have divine revelations during the service. Ken and I were both willing to visit again, and I found nothing there to send me running from Christianity.
But my heart still wasn’t settled. So at nights, when the baby was asleep, and Ken at work, I continued my obsessive searching on the Internet. I wanted to know more about Christianity. I wasn’t even sure what it was that I wanted to learn, that’s how little I knew about it.
One night, my searches led me to a picture of a Bouguereau Madonna that made me stop dead in my tracks.
Growing up, I distinctly remember a Bouguereau painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts that I loved. It was called The Nut Gatherers, and it reminded me of my cousin and me.
I had a print of that painting for a large portion of my childhood, and so when I saw the same artist's Madonna, it struck me as particularly meaningful and intimate.
And the painting! Many images of Jesus’ mother I’d seen portrayed her as something so meek and simpering that she almost looked feebleminded, but this one! This Madonna was regal. She seemed fierce. She kept a laser-like focus on Christ. She was not a Mary you wanted to mess with.
(just look at her. She's ready to lay the smackdown on John the Baptist if he messes with her Son.)
I stared at that picture and then realized what it was that I wanted. I wanted to have the same laser focus on God that Mary had in that painting. I wanted that iron will, unshakably fixed on God. I wanted a faith that was, like Mary’s, epic. And once I’d articulated this in my own heart, I knew somehow, that Mary herself would lead me there. I was filled with complete trust that if I followed her example, she would show me how to love God, and how to establish that relationship with Him I’d been longing for my whole life.
Now, finally, I had a focus in my search. I just had to copy Mary long enough to figure out where I was supposed to go. I thought of it a bit like shadowing someone on a job.
I started with the only place I knew to go to see what Mary did- the Bible. I started reading for the first time with an eye for instruction, rather than a way to pass childhood sermons by looking for “the weird parts” in the Old Testament. The more I read, the more I became comfortable with Christ. He stopped being a sticking point with me, something that I viewed as “standing in the way of my relationship with God”. He started being Someone who loved me- Someone who demonstrated in a way that a weak and limited human could understand what God’s love meant. Until I saw God as a human, I never appreciated how impossible it is for humans to grasp the enormity of God’s commitment to us.
I read everything I could get my hands on. With only one child at the time, and a husband whose work schedule ran from 3 p.m. until 4 a.m., I had lots and lots of time to do so. When I couldn’t get to the library, I ran Internet searches, trying to follow Mary’s footsteps and walk a path as close to Jesus as I could get.
And then the path began to get bumpy. And poorly marked. And populated with lots and lots of people telling me contradicting directions.
In my reading, it soon became clear to me that there were about seventeen bazillion different theories, opinions, doctrines, and teachings on Christ and what He wanted His followers to do. One group claimed that the Trinity was an idolatrous creation, and it was Jesus alone running the show, yet I could easily find half a dozen groups denouncing that teaching. Another group insisted that drinking and dancing were hell-worthy offenses; other groups didn’t seem so bothered with it.
I vividly remembered a conversation I’d had with a loved one a few years previously, who was agonizing over officially joining a church she really connected with. The problem arose from the fact that this new church only accepted full immersion baptism as valid, and although she’d been baptized as a young adult in another church, it wasn’t through immersion, and so this new church wouldn’t recognize it.
I marveled at that and grew steadily horrified about its implications. If something as necessary and fundamental as baptism couldn’t be agreed on, how could we humans know that we were getting any of it right? It seemed to me that anyone with an opinion about God and an audience willing to listen to it could start his own church. And all these churches teaching contradictory things certainly made it difficult to reconcile Jesus’ promise to Peter, that the gates of Hell would not prevail upon the church He was clearly establishing.
As I puzzled through that, I was also trying to get a clear answer about why even go to church at all? When Christ said He was establishing a church, did He really mean an actual, physical structure? Couldn’t I spend Sunday out in nature, giving thanks for God’s creation, and be engaging in worship? After all, what did I find at church that was found exclusively there? The Internet made accessing a multitude of pastors and their sermons a cinch, so I didn’t have to go to church to hear instruction on the Word of God. There were plenty of Bible study groups in the area, so I wasn’t dependent on a church to connect me with fellow believers. Those who very much associated worship music with their church experience could find it on the local Christian radio station every time they got into their car. Even things like marrying in a church, as my own experience showed, weren’t dependent on attendance. So what did church offer that I couldn’t get anywhere else? And even if I could find an answer to that question, there was still the 5,000 pound elephant in the room of which church?
As I start what I hope is the last installment of this story, I realize how much is missing.
There is so much more that I could say and chew over and analyze, but hopefully it's enough for now that I'm getting the bones of it down.
The wall right in front of me is covered in that chalkboard paint. And in a series of scribbled numbers, I've figured out how long it was between standing in a church at my wedding ceremony, which firmly ignored Christ, and that Easter Vigil when I stood in front of another Church and first received Him in the Holy Eucharist.
2,444 days. 6 years, 8 months, 9 days.
Don't ever doubt the power of prayer or the absolute fact that there are a multitude of souls on Earth and in Heaven who unceasingly desire a soul's return to God.
And here, the story moves along so quickly that I know I will skip things, either on purpose or accident. In my desire to get to the happy ending, I have the urge to, in the words of Prince Humperdink, "skip to the end", and thereby gloss over some pretty important, but pesky details.
I'll pick back up where I left off in part V.- with two overwhelming questions that were gnawing away at me:
1. Why bother going to church at all? Why not just take my newfound comfort with Christ and Christianity and just be at peace with it? What did the act of going to church provide that couldn't be obtained in other, less organized, areas?
2. If there was a reason for consistent church attendance, which church should it be? Which one was right?
With growing misery and irritation, I returned to the intergoogleweb to try and find answers. I started with the denomination of my youth, Presbyterianism, but immediately came up against not only the issue of Predestination, but the fact that Presbyterians themselves couldn't agree on what it meant.
I halfheartedly sifted through what the Lutherans and the Methodists and the Baptists understood about themselves and God.
It just got worse.
One day, I ran into the first Chick Tract of my entire life (a happy little number called Are Roman Catholics Christians?). I'd never seen anything like this. Flipping through the pages, I remember feeling both repulsed and physically dirtied by contact with that thing. The reactions were so strong and so unexpected that the incident is firmly fixed in my mind.
Growing up, I had friends who were Catholic. My godfather is Catholic. Our neighbors were Catholic. I'd been to Catholic funerals and Catholic weddings.
None of it was enough to inspire me to learn about Catholicism. In fact, I had myself a nice, smug little set of preconceived notions about the Church that I summed up in one of my favorite phrases, "The Catholic Church is going to crumble under its own bloated weight. Maybe in our lifetime."
Oh my gosh, readers, can you imagine what it takes for me to admit this? How vicious and gleefully ignorant I was about an institution that I never bothered to learn about? I figured I knew everything I needed to know- the Church hated women, sex, non-Catholics, and science. In fact, despite my growing appreciation for Mary's faith, Catholicism never even appeared on my radar during my spiritual searches. How could it? How could I possibly consider a religion that was so out of touch with the world, so angry, so patriarchal?
And yet, reading through that ugly little tract, which vomited a level of hatred for the Church that exceeded my own stupid complaints, my reaction was one of indignance. I was offended, on behalf of a Church I knew nothing about, but still cared nothing for. For no other reason than to disprove the wild accusations of a poorly executed religious comic, I found myself turning my Internet searches to Catholicism. Not to explore the possibility that it held answers to my questions, but simply to stick it to Chick Publications.
The first thing that comes to mind was learning that the Catholic Church understood two things about religions in general and itself in particular: one, that all religions contained some aspect of the Truth. Even if it was nothing more than a memory of a shred, there was still some Truth there. Two: that the entirety of what God has revealed about Himself to human beings has been entrusted to the Catholic Church. They even had a phrase for it; "the Fullness of the Truth".
Clearly, these were not people who were going to mince words.
At first, I was astounded by the boldness of that concept. The Fullness of the Truth? Everything that God has revealed to us stupid humans, all in one place?
I rejected it. Maybe those Catholics weren't as horrible as the Chick Tract would draw them, but they were clearly insane.
I couldn't let the concept go. Because if Catholics believed they held the fullness of the Truth, then there would be a Truth, right? There would be clear answers on things that Protestant denominations couldn't agree on- even within their own denomination, right?
The thought was so radical, so foreign to a mind soaked in moral relativism, that I couldn't grasp it. If these Catholics were going to make a claim like this, they'd better prove it. There had better be absolutely undeniable proof that what they were teaching was God's Truth.
And so I started reading what the earliest Christians understood about Christ and the church He founded. I started down the path that is familiar to all Catholic converts- who decided what writings were Divinely inspired and meant to be included in the Bible and which writings were not? How was information on this new religion passed along to the first adherents when literacy and books were not the common things they are now? I learned about the concepts of Sola Scriptura and Sacred Tradition. I was introduced to the Early Church Fathers. I figured I'd follow the history of Catholicism from the beginning until I found something I could use to discount it- a journey I expected to be a short one.
But then I learned about the Eucharist.
For me, growing up with the grape juice and spongy bread, passed from person to person along the pews, once a month at most, the concept of Communion was a muddled one. On the one hand, in the church of my childhood, there was a sense that Communion was expected to be something outside the ordinary, but there was nothing displayed to back that up. The grape juice was Welch's, poured out into small shot glasses right before Communion services. The bread was actually Wonder Bread, cut into cubes by volunteers, and heaped into the centers of the passing dishes. When I learned that my best friend's grandmother made the communion bread for their Methodist church, I was astounded. I couldn't believe that someone would think to take the time to specially make the ingredients for Communion, and as my best friend and I snacked on leftover bread one Sunday after church, I couldn't help but wonder why our church didn't do the same.
Growing up, Communion was an odd mixture of stated solemnity coupled with the casually indifferent. Take this bread. Drink this cup. Remember Me.
So when I learned that the Catholics understood that they were doing something more than remembering, that they were actually coming into direct contact with the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ Himself, I didn't believe them.
I figured they were making it up. No one could believe that.
But as I kept reading the writings from the early Church, I realized that this understanding was there from the beginning.
And, if what they understood was True, then I had my answer for "why do I need to bother going to a church?" If Christ Himself were actually there, actually, physically there inside Catholic churches, then that was reason enough for a person to drag their sorry, slothful, sinful butt to church. It wasn't for the Bible readings, or the sermons, or the music, or the fellowship. While I could certainly see where all those things could contribute to a person's spiritual growth, none of them were exclusive to a church setting.
But the Eucharist? That was a Game Changer.
And with that, I did what any sorry, slothful, sinful person would do: I stuck my fingers in my ears and pretended like I couldn't hear anything.
This was late winter, early spring of 2005. The nation was watching the final days of Terry Shiavo unfold, and you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing something about some bishop or other speaking out against the impending death.
I didn't want to hear it. I didn't want to hear anything else about Catholics and their loudmouthed bishops who were sticking their noses into something that, as far as I could tell, didn't even involve them.
Then she died.
Then, three days later, so did Pope John-Paul II.
Ken, Lotus and I were in a Cici's pizza when the news of his death broke. There were TVs mounted all over the ceiling of the restaurant, and even though the sound was off, the news came across on the ticker at the bottom of the screen.
I started to cry.
For a man I didn't know who was the head of a church I didn't want to think about.
I went to the bathroom and tried to get control of myself. What the hell was wrong with me?
Chalking it up to the hormone cocktail courtesy of my 7th month of pregnancy, I went back to finish lunch with my family. But I couldn't shake the sense of overwhelming sadness. Back in the car, on the way home, the news was on the radio, and I teared up again.
The entrance to our neighborhood was directly across the street from- you guessed it- a Catholic church: Queen of Peace Catholic Church, to be exact. I would tell myself that the only reason I even noticed it was because it had a bright turquoise tin roof and who can overlook something like that?
That day, the parking lot, which had been unsettlingly full during the days leading up to the Pope's death, was full to overflowing. Cars were parked all the way down the street, and somehow, the thought of all those Catholics, mourning the loss of their Pope, made me tear up again.
I couldn't get past it. I couldn't get past the feelings of mourning that would come over me in the following days.
One night, not long after, I was on the Internet again, and found myself at a website explaining the Miraculous Medal. Too perplexed by this newest revelation of Catholic oddity to keep my guard up, I accepted the website's offer to send me a free medal.
Whatever. Weirdo Catholics and their weirdo medals and the weirdo claims of miracles and graces for people who wore the stupid things with devout trust in God.
Mumbo to the Jumbo.
I promptly forgot about my momentary lapse in good reason and went to read about Galileo and all the ways the Church hated science and reason.
Oops. Somewhere along the way, I got sidetracked by a list of famous scientists who were priests and all the other scientists the Church had encouraged, cultivated, and supported.
The end date of my second pregnancy sluggishly approaching, I went in to the doctor for a routine checkup. I walked out of the appointment in a complete daze, having learned that the baby was breech, the doctor wouldn't deliver breech babies, and an appointment for a C-section having been scheduled.
I called my mom both sobbing and terrified. In true motherly fashion, she talked me off the ledge, reminding me that a healthy baby was a healthy baby, no matter how he made his entrance into the world, and it was going to be ok as long as I didn't get into a wreck on the way home due to hysterics. I calmed down, agreed with her, and got a hold of myself.
A week or so later, I went to the mailbox and discovered an envelope from the folks at the Miraculous Medal place. Overcome with embarrassment that I'd given them my real name and address, I opened the package. Inside was another envelope, with the words "Blessed Objects Inside" printed in blue ink, for all the world to see. I opened it, and held the oval piece of cheap medal in the palm of my hand for a long while. It was so Catholic.
But right there, front and center, was Mary. The same Mary whose faith and trust I so admired and sought to catch hold of. Ok, Mary. I'll put this on, but only because I want to remind myself to stay as close to Jesus as you did. I'll put this on as a sign of my trust that you'll lead me to the place where I'm going to be closest to Him, ok?
And I put the thing on.
May 31st was the date of my C-section. My mom flew in. I was admitted to the hospital, and sat there miserably, surrounded by Ken, Lotus, my mom, and my mother and father-in-law while I was prepped for surgery. The doctor came in one last time to feel where the baby was, so he could judge where to make the incision. As his hands were on my belly, he shot me an odd look. He left. He came back, wheeling in a machine.
He quickly scanned my abdomen, flipped the machine off, and looked at me again.
"Why didn't you tell me that the baby had turned?" he said.
I stared at him, uncomprehending.
"What?" the best I could manage.
"The baby. It's turned. When did it happen?"
I kept staring at him. He grew the tiniest bit exasperated.
"You would have felt it. The baby's large. It would have been very painful. Painful enough for you to remember it."
I shook my head.
"The baby's…turned?" He nodded. "So I don't have to have a C-section?" He nodded again. "I can go home?!?!"
"You don't want to have the baby today?" He said, clearly confused by my reaction.
"Hell no! I want to go home!" I shouted, halfway into my clothes already.
And so we all went to Bob Evans and had breakfast instead of having a C-section.
I didn't immediately connect the incident with the promises of the Miraculous Medal, though I certainly considered it miraculous. I didn't connect my increasing admiration of Catholic theology or my growing attraction for the Eucharist with the promises of the Miraculous Medal, though they certainly were miraculous. It was as if Mary and Pope John-Paul II were some sort of background radiation, praying for me constantly, constantly.
My second child, Joaquin, was born 17 days after the C-section that wasn't.
One day, driving home from somewhere, the baby started fussing. I got into the backseat to soothe him as we pulled into the neighborhood, passing the turquoise roofed Queen of Peace Catholic Church.
Time slowed. I know this sounds ridiculous. But it did. It slowed, and everything around me felt different. The air felt different.
I looked at Ken's eyes, reflected in the rear view mirror.
I opened my mouth to speak.
"So. I think I want to become Catholic." I said. Out of no where. Apropos of absolutely freaking nothing.
Ken glanced at me in the mirror.
"Yeah. Ok." He said.
And we went home.
And eight months later both he and I stood in that turquoise roofed Catholic Church, and receiving Holy Eucharist for the first time, came home.
And there are great patches of missing story here, which I apologize for, because I probably won't come back to fill them in for the time being.
But I want to end here- 2,444 days after I said "I do" to the human love of my life, with me saying "I do" to the Divine love of my life.
Cari Donaldson is a wife, mother of six, and resident crazy lady who lets her chickens sneak into the neighbor’s yard. She blogs at Catholic Exchange ( http://catholicexchange.com/category/blogs/clan-donaldson/), at her personal website (www.clan-donaldson.com) and spends vast swaths of time on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/clan.donaldson).