My Journey to God and the Catholic Church 12/22/2015
Although I doubt anyone will ever see this, I have decided to write down the incredible story of how I came to find God and become Catholic, because it is pretty amazing. I hope that people who need to hear it will come across it, perhaps long after I am gone--because the Internet is forever, right :-) Everything here is absolutely true, just as it happened.
I was raised in a family where religion and God were never discussed. For some reason, however, whenever I had a chance, I used to dress up like a nun, which gave my mother considerable amusement. I had a very well-concealed and inexplicable interest in Catholic things, and managed to secretly buy a crucifix and a Rosary at the local dimestore, even though I had no idea what to do with it.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, my parents joined the Lutheran Church in town and we began to attend. My brother, my father and I were all baptized the same day. It had no impact on me whatever, and although we went to church quite often and I was also forced to attend Sunday School, I hated it and only went because I was taken and had no choice in the matter.
At the appropriate age, I was enrolled in Confirmation classes, memorized the Catechism and prepared for Confirmation. I had an epiphany one day in class, when the pastor put a diagram on the blackboard which was supposed to prove to us that the Lutheran Church was the one true Church: it was very clear to me--and this was a shock--that he was WRONG! It actually was the Catholic Church that had descended to us from the Apostles--and at that moment, I knew that I would eventually become Catholic. I still had to go through with the Lutheran Confirmation, however, which made me feel very guilty because I did not have the nerve to tell my parents that I did not want to be Lutheran. I told God I was sorry I had to do it, and during the ceremony I had my fingers crossed behind my back, a childish symbol of the fact that I was making promises I did not mean.
During the summer between my junior and senior years of high school (1964), I had the opportunity to attend a National Science Foundation program for talented students at Grinnell College in Iowa. Before I left, my mother made me promise to go to church every Sunday. It was the first time I had ever been away from home for an extended period, and for the first Sunday I was there, I suggested to my new friends that we should visit different churches in town just for fun, to see what they were like. However, there was a very charismatic boy from Kansas there, upon whom I quickly developed a crush, and who questioned my faith, asking me WHY I believed in God at all. No one had ever asked me to defend my faith, and I had no answer, since it was not very deeply rooted. He recommended the books of Bertrand Russell to me, which they had in the college library. It did not take long after reading Russell before I considered myself to be an agnostic.
Needless to say, my mother was pretty horrified when I came home and declared myself to be an agnostic. I gravitated into the sphere of another fascinating person during my senior year, my chemistry teacher. I started hanging out in his office whenever I could, so we could talk. He was an atheist; it is a very short step from agnosticism to atheism, and before long I decided I was really an atheist too.
We were living 35 miles from a city which was heavily Catholic. A man running for mayor of the city was written about in a newspaper article, which mentioned a rumor that he was an atheist. This made me very angry, because I knew that this was the "kiss of death" to his political career in such a Catholic city, so I wrote a letter to the editor of the paper complaining about the fact that a newspaper had repeated a rumor, and in my letter I mentioned that I was an atheist myself.
Somehow this letter came to the attention of the elders of the Lutheran Church, and they contacted my parents to ask if they could come to our house and talk to me about it. I did not want to see them, of course, but my mother insisted, so they came. They asked me if what I said was true, and I confirmed that it was and refused to recant. Soon after that I started college, and during my Freshman year, I received a very stern letter telling me that I was formally excommunicated from the Lutheran Church and damned to Hell for all eternity. Even though I did not believe, I still found the letter frightening (although I would not admit it), and I tore it up. Now, I wish I still had it.
I was a very aggressive atheist, and actively tried to destroy the faith of others, for which I am very ashamed now. I was also very sexually promiscuous, and remain profoundly grateful to this day that I never needed to have an abortion, because I absolutely would have done it. I would be crushed with remorse now if I had.
Anyway: despite being an atheist, I remember that when I moved out of the dorm for my senior year, I had to pass a Catholic Church on the walk to and from the campus, and I always wished I could go in, although I never had the nerve to do so. Occasionally the doors would be open, and I could see the sanctuary light. Something (Someone) was drawing me, even then.
After I received my master's degree in Library Science, I was offered a job in a large midwestern city and I accepted it. At the time I was working in the University Library where I had been studying, and was already being pressed to start publishing, which I resented. I have never wanted to write unless I had something to say, and I did not feel at that time that I did--so working in a public library seemed very appealing. I was also quite altruistic, and felt that I could have a more positive impact on the world in a public library, rather than working with college students who were already pretty assured of being successful and prosperous in life, simply because they had managed to go to college; I was drawn to helping those who were disadvantaged. I have been blessed with a grateful heart, and I have always known that even though our family was not well-off financially, that I grew up with great advantages others did not have: a stable home and loving parents who believed strongly in education, and gave me no choice about whether I would go to college or not: I was going!
I also wanted to see if I could make it in a strange city without my usual support system. I arrived there in January 1971, knowing no one there other than the man whom I had met at a conference in Texas, and who had offered me the position.
I met a man one night while working in the downtown Library. He reminded me of my father, and I thought I was in love with him. We even drove around looking at houses we might buy, so you can imagine what a horrible shock it was to me when he confessed that he was married. At first he was going to leave his wife for me, but then she had a breast cancer scare, and he went back to her and his 2 sons. I was devastated, and when I met someone else soon after, I took up with him and married him, as they say, "on the rebound." Although the man I married was very attractive, I did not give the marriage much chance of succeeding; I was just in the mood to get married, needing to prove to myself, I think, that someone wanted me enough to ask me. I remember telling my mother the night before my wedding that I gave it 50/50, and she said that in that case, I had no business getting married at all! Of course she was right.
By chance, my husband-to-be and I had gotten to know a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who was pastor of a rather moribund church right behind our house, and we asked him to marry us. Getting married in that church proved to be a great blessing, as I will tell later.
My husband was a free spirit who was not willing to be tied down in the kind of relationship I wanted. I had a full-time job, while he was doing a wide variety of freelance things, theatrical set design and minor drug dealer. He was quite free during the day, and I suspected that he was not being faithful to me, so as a defense against being hurt, I started having affairs myself. He was also verbally abusive, and our marriage began to deteriorate rather quickly.
During the period when my marriage was falling apart, I had become friends with a lesbian whom I had hired to run an adult literacy program in the branch library I was managing. It seemed like an exotic adventure to start a relationship with her, plus I was so insecure, I was unable to leave my husband until I had another relationship to replace it--and thus she became that relationship. I was divorced in November of 1977
My new lover fascinated me, because she took me to gay bars and drag shows in East St. Louis, a world I had never experienced. I was also quite bitter about men, and so the idea of being associated only with women really appealed to me. I decided that I would be a lesbian. I honestly thought then that you could CHOOSE your sexuality! How crazy is that? But that is where I was at the time.
Unfortunately, she was also an alcoholic, and I was forced to accompany her to bars nearly every night just to keep her from driving home drunk and probably killing herself. She had had a very unhappy life, and I made her my "project" to fix. I managed to persuade her to enroll in graduate school, which she thought was beyond her (it wasn't). I wanted to do anything I could to make her successful and confident. I really did like her: she was a wonderful, generous and funny person, and I wanted to believe I was in love with her. She loved my parents and they really cared about her too. I have no idea even now if my parents realized that we were a couple! Both her parents were already dead by the time we were in our early 30s, which really made me think: she was an orphan so young, while I still had my parents whom I loved but hardly ever saw. It was her idea for us to move to the Atlanta metro area, where they had relocated a year or two before: she wanted to explore the gay scene in Atlanta, and I saw an opportunity to get her away from the drinking life we currently had--plus a chance to live closer to my parents and enjoy their company while we were all young enough, so I quickly agreed to her idea. By the way, she had also been raised Catholic, although she was no longer practicing, and at that point I had lost interest in anything pertaining to religion.
We sold my house and moved to Georgia in 1980. We did not have jobs, but I made so much money selling the house, I was not worried. We both began to work down here, and pretty soon bought another house.
She was a teacher, and that was the beginning of the turning point which led me to write this story. The school she was teaching in was Christian, but not Catholic. People in the South can be very aggressive about religion: I remember being stopped occasionally on the streets of downtown Atlanta to be asked, "Are you saved?" So one day, early in her first year, a student approached her and said she wanted her to come to church with her family the next evening: would she meet them there, or should they pick her up?
She was completely incensed by this aggressive approach, and rather harshly responded, "I am Catholic!" which definitely silenced the student, because Catholics are the anti-Christ to many fundamentalist Southerners. That night after we were both home from work, she told me about this, and to my amazement, she said she actually might like to go back to the Church.
As I said, I always acted on anything positive she wanted to do, so although I told her that I was willing, secretly I knew there was no way I could be that much of a hypocrite, I have too much personal integrity to fake something like that. What a dilemma! I wanted to help my friend do something I thought might make her life happier, but how could I accompany her?
I just had one idea, born of desperation. For 2 nights, right before I went to sleep, I made this "prayer," if you can call it that: "God, if you are really there, make me believe in You, because I don't." I only did it twice, and of course I did not think anything would happen.
At that time I was working for a really terrible proprietary school in Atlanta, one of those places that keeps students around until their federal aid runs out, even though they are not college material The next day after my last snarky prayer, my boss gave me the keys to his car and told me to go down to the Georgia State University Bookstore and meet one of the book buyers, who was going to give us some books for our library. I was a little early, so while I was waiting around for her, I wandered around the store looking at the books. I found myself next to the religion section, and I started browsing. I was laughing to myself, to see the bizarre collection of books that college bookstores will insist on shoving into a Religion section, just as in my own college bookstore. I noticed a book about St. John of the Cross by Thomas Merton, a name I recognized because my mother had enticed me to read The Seven Storey Mountain when I was in high school. For some unknown reason, I decided to buy it, and put it in my purse.
At the end of the day, when I was once again on the bus heading to the Park 'n Ride lot out near my home, I remembered the book, took it out, and started reading it. Although I still have that book, I have never been able to find the sentence that I read that day, that precipitated a true miracle. I read a sentence, and suddenly I was flooded from head to toe with a feeling of incredible warmth. I was in the presence of God--I knew it--just like that, He was there, and I believed. It happened in seconds, and I cannot explain it. Luckily we were very near my stop because I was about to fall apart. I stumbled off the bus to my car, unlocked it, threw myself in, and sat there sobbing for at least half an hour. All of a sudden everything in life made sense: I realized that I had found what I had always been looking for--but didn't know it--and I was indescribably happy. When I finally was able to compose myself, I drove home and told my friend that I was going to call the church the next day and ask to start receiving instructions in the Faith.
Learning about Catholicism was wonderful. First of all, the pastor at that church is one of the most incredible human beings I have ever met, in addition to being a really holy priest. We are friends to this day. I loved everything about Catholicism, and I just soaked it up like sponge. I could not wait to be brought into the Church, so I could receive the Eucharist. I wanted it so much, I know he shortened my preparation a bit because I pressed so hard for it.
I was received into the Catholic Church during the first week of Advent in 1981, and my friend and I began to attend Mass regularly. Only one problem: I was still in a relationship I now regarded as probably sinful, and I had not divulged this when I made my General Confession prior to being received, because I had been persuaded that somehow we could still be Catholics in spite of it. We had found a Dignity group in Atlanta, and the priest who ran it had convinced me that it was OK to be a lesbian and Catholic. For me, though, it did not feel right, although my friend agreed with him. I had been avoiding sex with her for awhile and she had not yet noticed, and in addition, I had also begun to recognize that I really was not gay. I eventually accepted the fact that I am straight, and that you cannot choose your sexuality, no matter how much you may want to: you are what you are.
I began to be more and more troubled, but did not want to admit to my beloved pastor that I had not made a complete Confession. As soon as I could, I had started attending daily Mass on my way to work each day. I began to ask God to send me a priest I did not know, to whom I could confess and clear my conscience. A few days after I began asking, a terrible ice storm hit Atlanta. The city was paralyzed, and I was stuck downtown because all the buses had stopped running. I did not know what to do, but finally remembered the Night Shelter at Central Presbyterian Church, because I had thought about volunteering. I went there, and because many volunteers had not made it that night due to the weather, I was immediately pressed into service to make sandwiches and pass them out to the homeless men who had come. Guess what? There was a priest there working as a volunteer. I asked him if later on that night, he would hear my Confession; about 2:00am or so, he did, and I was liberated at last. In the morning I walked out with the homeless men on a dazzling sunny day, to a city encased in ice. Nevertheless, the buses were running again and I got back to my car and home with some struggle--the roads were awful.
I had become very active in my parish, and I prayed a lot. The pastor even gave me a key to the church so I could make visits to the Blessed Sacrament whenever I wanted. Prayer comes very easily to me for some reason; I am continually aware of God's presence in the background, and whenever I am in a place where I can open myself to Him, I just "fall" into prayer. I don't really say very much, just allow His incredible Love to flow through me, and sometimes I can ascend to place where I seem to just disappear, and I become part of Him. I can't explain it in words, but it is WONDERFUL; it feels like being in Heaven. How can Heaven be better than this, I wonder? Usually I end up crying, because it is so unbearably sweet, I can hardly endure so much joy.
After awhile, I began to feel as though I might be called to religious life. All my life, I had been looking for love, but never finding it, until I fell in love with God. Everything in my past life made sense then, and I knew that for some reason, I was meant to belong to Him alone. My pastor agreed with me, and he encouraged me to pursue it, so I started writing to communities for information. I did not want my friend to know, so I rented a PO box near my workplace downtown so I could receive this mail, which I knew would upset her terribly. By this point she had agreed to a celibate relationship, probably hoping I would eventually relent. At some point, I do not recall exactly when, I told her about my decision to try to enter a convent, and she was extremely angry, as you would expect. I hated hurting her, but I was not only committed to entering religious life, I had also gotten weary of her verbal abusiveness when she was drunk. If you have ever lived with an alcoholic, you can understand. We parted ways, not very amicably, and I promised to give her most of the money I'd get from the sale of our house in Georgia, so she could start a new life back where we had come from.
She went back, and I rented an apartment in town. The first thing I had to do in order to enter a religious community was get an annulment of my marriage. This turned out by a stroke of good luck (although personally, I don't think it was mere luck) to be very easy: my ex-husband was nominally Roman Catholic, but we had been married in a Ukrainian Rite Church. Under RC Church rules, he was supposed to get permission from the Archbishop to be married outside his Rite; because he had not, the marriage was deemed invalid on the grounds of "defective form." Presto, I was free.
The first place I decided to go as a postulant was a Carmelite monastery up North. This was because it was my pastor's favorite community: he knew them well from giving many retreats there, but this was not a good reason to enter a community. I was so eager to give my life to God, I failed to spend enough time in discernment to wait for God to lead me to the right place: I just leaped. I flew up there in January to enter, and came back to Georgia in October. They were wonderful, but I felt like a caged animal in the cloister; I paced the floors of the Novitiate, and I believed I was on the edge of some kind of mental breakdown.
I came back crestfallen, but not completely discouraged. I found some temporary work thanks to a friend from my parish, and then a couple months later, a full-time, but temporary job in the library of a local university. Soon after, I met a woman who was closely connected with a well-known Dominican community; I visited there for a vocations weekend, and soon after asked to enter.
The day I made my First Profession was the the happiest day of my life. I remained there almost 6 years, but left of my own volition before Final Vows. It was complicated; I loved that they wore full habits and were completely loyal to the Magisterium--they are a wonderful community--but they are teachers mainly serving in schools which only rich people can afford. You may recall that my motivation for going to work in a public library was a desire to serve the disadvantaged. I should have remembered that myself, because it is my true charism, I now finally realize, although it is too late.
The next part of my story is very hard to tell. I came back deeply wounded, like a hurt animal that wedges itself into a dark place and stays there until it dies. That was me. I was so ashamed, and so hurt because I felt as though God had rejected me. All I wanted--all I still want--is to give myself to Him completely--but I believed that he had turned me down. You know the old saying: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and that was exactly how it was. My dear priest friend was no longer in Georgia: I was completely alone in my despair. I recognize now that I should gone up to North Carolina to see him: he would have talked me down, and none of what transpired over the next 25 years would have happened... but I was so angry, bitter, ashamed... I did not want to talk to anyone.
By then I was in my early 40s, and I felt that no community would take a chance on me again, so I threw myself into my career. Within about a year, I came to work at the University of West Georgia, and my only goal was to be a successful academic librarian, love our students, and make Full Professor eventually (which I did). Although I seemed outwardly to be OK, I was definitely not. I tried, but could not make the adjustment back to normal parish life. I was too embarrassed to go back to my old parish, which had given me a great sendoff when I left, and the other parishes I tried just did not feel like home. Gradually, I stopped trying, and eventually stopped going to church completely, although somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I would someday come back. I just did not know it would take 25 years.
Over the next decades, I drank heavily and yelled at God all the time. "Why do You hate me so much?" "Why did you let [that bad or annoying thing] happen to me?" I blamed Him for everything. I took anti-depressants but of course they did not help. When you have a good reason to be depressed, drugs can't help you.
In August of 2015, I could finally afford to retire. Being retired meant that I had time to think for the first time in years. I had slowly begun to heal, although I didn't realize it at first. The yearning to return to the Church began to impinge on my consciousness, but I didn't know how to come back. I began to pray again, rather timidly. I finally realized that He had not really rejected me, that it was actually my fault that I was not patient and did not trust Him enough to lead me to the right religious community. I started asking Him to fix things for me, like He always had: not happening! Eventually I knew I was going to have to do it myself this time, so I called the office at my local parish and asked to speak to the pastor. He was not in, so I left a message; when he did not call me back after a day, I decided I would just show up at the scheduled Confession the next night. Bad tornado weather was predicted, and I thought "perfect: everyone will stay home and I will be the only one who shows up," which was exactly what happened. I was extremely nervous and distraught, but the priest was incredibly kind. After he gave me Absolution, he stood up, said "Welcome back," and gave me a big hug: "This is the penance I give people who've been away from the Church for a long time!" It was such an endearing and heart-warming thing to do, and I was very grateful!
So, I am back, and it is wonderful. The beautiful, joyful prayer has returned. I am able to participate in the Eucharist again, which had been the center of my existence. Meanwhile, I wasted a third of my life, which makes me very sad, but I cannot change that. I have a strong sense that I am supposed to serve God and the Church in some way, but I do not know what He wants me to do. I made a private Act of Consecration, promising God to live the rest of my life for Him, to follow the evangelical counsels and to seek perfection in charity. It is all I can do now, but I am whole again, and I wait on God to show me what He wants me to do next.
Thanks for listening! Take one thing away from this, if you have lasted this long: if you want Faith, ask for it, because God will not deny it to you if you just ask. He is so good, and I love Him so much--and whether you realize it or not, He loves you. If you feel emptiness in your life, God is what you are missing.