My heart laid itself bare. How often had I left my children behind so I could experience “authentic worship”? My tendencies bordered on escape at times~~desiring to have my authentic worship happen alone or with others who wouldn’t need me to make them food or change a diaper. Going to church with my children safely tucked away in Sunday school was a wonderful opportunity to get some time with God and~~be free. The freedom for which Christ set us free? (Gal. 5:1) Not exactly. Rather, freedom the way I defined it~~from the daily toil of my housework, chores, and child-rearing responsibilities. From my obligation to maintain a cheerful countenance with my children and husband and to keep my complaining~~and my long-suppressed yet award-winning and formidable skill called sarcasm~~in check.
In short, I had fallen into a mindset that God was there to entertain me, and as my church was also very entertaining, this mindset found a place to flourish each Sunday. I began to doubt whether the answers to my spiritual life would be found so clearly on my own terms~~wrapped up in the heights of a formulated Pentecostal-like experience alongside the rest of the “in-group,” as Henri Nouwen put it. Nor would I find it on the outskirts of my “ordinary” life as a mother and wife.
I began to pray to God in the gym that night, while my children leaped around me like wild banshees, to change my heart. I prayed that I would be able to find Him right there, everyday, alongside those precious charges~~and not just when they were well-behaved. I prayed that I would find Him and love Him through the many small and repetitive acts of my day. I declined to attend the next event and determined to stay at home and find God there instead of falling into that emotional bliss that occurs so effortlessly in the presence of great music and pretending like that was me being close to God.
I don’t want to downplay the reality of the Pentecost~~it did happen, after all, that the Holy Spirit rested upon God’s people, a “violent wind” with “tongues of fire,” rendering them able to speak in tongues and heal people. Nor do I want to be lumped in the category of those who said at the time, “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:2, 2:3, 2:13) My experiences with the Holy Spirit have not always been tame and quiet, and I have experienced sudden healings, like deep and undeniable injections of love, which have left me capable of nothing but intense and joyful weeping. My escapist attitude at this event was not the default position of everyone there, I’m sure. Rather, I was questioning seriously whether this “style” of worship, if you will, was the way God was calling me to be with Him at that time.
From that point forward, I began to experience my worship time in our church as emptier and emptier each Sunday. I longed for quietude, to be on my knees in reverence before the Lord, to have silence in which to pray and hear His voice, yet our church was so loud. By the time a space would occur in which to pray, it would be gone again and we would be flooded with the terrific sounds of the band members. I connected my former enjoyment at church with the types of emotions I would have at a musical concert, when everyone experiences emotional communion with one another because of the common appreciation for the song. Yet this was as far away from “authentic” as I could be at the time. The very aspects of our church which had excited us as beginning church-goers were becoming less and less attractive, even while we still enjoyed it on one level.
My desire to kneel received a brief response from God: Catholics kneel.
My response was equally brief, and accompanied by a raised eyebrow. Seriously, God?
I acknowledged there were certainly places to kneel in a Catholic Church, as well as the custom of genuflecting. Each pew has a bench that folds down where one can kneel before the crucifix. I thought that was a little bit strange, kneeling before the crucifix, although it was a hope of mine that I would have something other than a screen with words and graphics on it before me during our church services. If nothing else, it could symbolize Jesus for me and I might be able to render my heart more humble and reverent before the Lord. But just for the record, God, there is no way I’m becoming Catholic. We have a good thing going here. Strong friendships, intelligent and engaging pastors, awesome music. The kids are happy. My own reversal on my dissatisfaction as I pondered the seriousness and reverence of the Catholic environment amused me.
Catholics, as every committed Protestant knows, don’t have it right exactly. They’re too serious, too boring, too routine-oriented. Everything is the same each Sunday. The crucifix hangs down from the front of the church as though that were the final word in the story of redemption. What about the resurrection? What about the Holy Spirit? What about all those repetitive prayers, prayers to the saints and Mary? We are saved by faith alone, and only by faith in Jesus, at that. It shouldn’t take a full year or two to join a religious faith, and it’s rude to deny Communion in the meantime. The priests have no idea what “real” life is like (marriage, sex, and all that messy stuff) and the Pope thinks he’s God. All these protests ran through my head as I opted to attend a midweek Mass at my husband's encouragement. He was raised Catholic and knew that Mass was celebrated every day.
I picked a Wednesday Mass. I showed up. I felt bored. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know what to say when or how to respond. I didn’t know anybody. The echo was dreadful and I couldn’t hear very well (I have hearing problems anyway). I left halfway through and determined that there was no way I was Catholic or ever going to be Catholic. I let my husband know that, in spite of the many conversations I had had with him while sharing my struggles about our church, I felt certain I was not Catholic and was quite happy to stay at our Protestant church where life was easier, the acoustics better, and the prayer more spontaneous. Deep down, I felt scared that this strange, new life was actually God’s will for me when the current one had been so entertaining and comfortable.
In spite of my fervent intentions, this failed first attempt at Mass did not deter the inner desire, which grew stronger every day. I believed God was calling me to the Holy Catholic Church, and my readings and prayer convinced me that this universal Church was God's desire for Christians. I began to pray daily that God would change my husband’s heart~~he still wasn't entirely on board with my desire to become Catholic and had a lot of reconciliation to do with the Church he had left as a teenager. I gave myself wholly to the prospect that I would convert as soon as he wanted to, God willing. While he agreed with me about all of my concerns with our Protestant church at the time, he didn’t have a compelling interest to return to the church of his childhood that I could see. Yet underneath the surface, God was also acting on his heart to turn it back in that direction. This was a huge grace.
I started to think of myself as a closet Catholic. A friend supplied me with books about the Church, as Catholics did all sorts of downright strange things that I didn’t entirely understand. They prayed to the saints and Mary. They baptized infants. They prayed for the dead. Many of these “strange things” began to make perfect sense, as though my perspective was being systematically changed. My readings confirmed my new understanding rather than the other way around, and my husband and I would have long discussions and pray about it.
But one doctrine, the most audacious of them all, had already been drawing me closer to Catholicism from the time I first learned about it years before, and I was just now beginning to recognize my longing. Transubstantiation pertains to the Eucharist, more commonly known as communion—the eating of bread and drinking of wine in remembrance of Jesus. I remember our initial church service at our Protestant church—my very first as a Christian. “When’s communion?” I whispered to my husband. I learned that this would occur once a month during Sunday services. It involved standing in a circle with other believers and eating a piece of bread dipped in juice. I paid close attention to this monthly event. Eating the bread and juice seemed to serve as symbols, which imparted to us a tiny understanding of what communion in Jesus Christ means. Yet this dissatisfied me from the first time I participated.
A major doctrinal issue between Catholics and Protestants is this belief in transubstantiation. Rather than a symbol, transubstantiation teaches that the consecrated bread and wine during Mass become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in actuality. Catholics celebrate this at every Mass and it is professed to be the “sum and summary” of the faith (Catechism 1327). The doctrine has divided Christians since the very time it was instituted. In John’s account of the gospel, after Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, He stated,
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him… On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"
~~John 6:54-56, 60
Simultaneously, many Jews were arguing “sharply among themselves, [asking] ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52) Jesus went on to ask them, “Does this offend you? ...The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” From that point on, many disciples turned their backs and ceased to follow Him~~hardly the response of those understanding His words to be purely symbolic. I started to see how the Catholic Church holds up the words of Jesus Christ~~the Word of God~~as the Living Truth, the very means by which our redemption occurs in an ever-present and abiding way.
Within a short time of committing in my heart to conversion while hoping to receive my husband’s blessing, he too began to acknowledge more honestly the emptiness that had come to characterize our worship time. The pain of being out of communion with the Lord was too great to make up for the many positive aspects of that church. It no longer mattered to us that the children were so comfortable and that we had strong friendships. The reality was that it had been a long time since we had felt able to worship God there in a meaningful way.
I wept tears onto the floor at the first Mass I attended as a believer~~to be witness to my Savior’s physical presence in my midst finally, face to face. What wonderment to realize I am not genuflecting or kneeling before a wooden model of the crucifix~~it is the true Bread of Life within the Tabernacle Who deserves our reverence and praise. Participating in Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has been intensely fruitful and my love for Him and relationship with Him has been growing the most during those quiet times of sitting in His presence. I have marveled along the way at how I can believe that He is actually there in the Sacrament~~it defies reason~~and His answer is so simple~~“My Word is true.” It is the gift of faith. He is always with us.
To learn more about Mindy and her ongoing journey in the Catholic Church please visit her blog The Devout Life.