What 10 years in a Protestant church taught me about my Catholic faith
The Donnelly Science Center at the entrance to my alma mater, Loyola University of Maryland, is engraved with a quote from the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It reads: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Most years, when I head north from my home in Atlanta to visit family and friends in the mid-Atlantic, I make a point to stop on campus.
I was never personally proficient in the sciences and took only a few courses in the school’s science buildings, and yet I always feel a sense of warmth rise within me as I crest the hill on Cold Spring Lane to read Hopkins’s words. The years I spent on Loyola’s campus were a definitive instruction in the Ignatian spirit to find God in all things—scientific or otherwise.
I have spent the past decade and a half since graduation worshipping in the evangelical Protestant traditions of our Christian faith. I met my husband, Andy, while at Loyola, and his upbringing in a wide variety of Protestant denominations landed us most comfortably at a Presbyterian church in town shortly after we were married. Truthfully, I have not thought much about returning to Catholicism since we graduated because in some ways I never really felt like I left.
With my life laid bare in my mid-20s and early 30s, I learned I would need every resource available to me, Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, to make it through in one piece.
Thanks mostly to my mother, I was raised to consider Catholicism as beautiful, complex and worthy of my admiration. My mom also helped me to see our Catholic community and the sacraments as both important and imperfect. Given this understanding, there were no tears or sense of epic struggle in mine and Andy’s shared decision to attend church in a faith tradition that was, in part, new to us both. After a few years in the Christian charismatic community, Andy was ready to return to something more traditional. For me, there was simply a feeling that we were called to see the faith from a different limb on a tree with the same root.
Protestants have taught me to see Scripture in both its specificity and its splendor. I now understand the Scriptures as the one great story of the world and its purposes, and in a profound way, this helps me to keep my days in perspective. The Protestant community’s focus on weekly study and fellowship with others and a relational God has helped me see most clearly when the Lord is intervening to lead us and our family in a new direction.
A year after we married, Andy and I moved from the forested green hills of the mid-Atlantic to the flat and treeless gulfside town of Galveston, Tex. Before the move, I was a successful non-profit administrator in Baltimore, surrounded by family and friends. I was also successfully avoiding the emotional fallout of a family trauma that had occurred in my college years. Landing under Galveston’s burning tropical sun at the age of 25, I suddenly found there was nowhere to hide. With my life laid bare in my mid-20s and early 30s, I learned I would need every resource available to me, Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, to make it through in one piece.
After a decade away from weekly Catholic worship, I realize that Roman Catholicism offers me the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a poet.
Given the fluidity of my spiritual experience, I was surprised to find myself reflecting so specifically on my Catholic upbringing in recent weeks. Andy and I were listening to an interview of a former Baptist deacon and churchman who now runs his own podcast that interprets scientific theories for lay people like myself. After a season of intense personal turmoil, this man, who had spent years leading Bible studies and discipleship classes for others, turned to the Bible in search of personal solace. After several readings of the Scriptures from cover to cover, the man ultimately concluded that his clear next step was a hard turn to atheism. He simply could not make sense of the discrepancies and inconsistencies he found in a book that he had for so long read and quoted to others.
This man’s exchange caused me to wonder aloud to my husband: “Why do Protestants who lose their way in the faith always seem to go right off the cliff? Where is their sense of mystery?” It seems everywhere I turn in recent years I hear of some Protestant leader or another who is abandoning ship. Fifteen years into our journey of shared faith, my husband and I often find ourselves interpreting our traditions of origin to each other. That night, Andy pointed out there can be an idolatry of knowledge within Protestantism that causes deep pain when there are no easy answers. For all the benefits I have been afforded in Protestant churches, I, too, find that a death grip on sola scriptura and the black-and-white truth can lead to a quick and spiritually deadly disintegration when the way forward is messy and unclear.
After a decade away from weekly Catholic worship, I realize that Roman Catholicism offers me the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a poet. The Protestant church that tells me to run to the Bible for specific answers might just miss the Catholic call to the quiet, cool and darkened church in the middle of a college campus, where the search for answers can stop and I can finally exhale. This is the place where I sat with life’s unanswerable questions while in college, and it is the place that has best complemented the profound but relatively few things I know for sure about the God of the Bible.
I know that God is the author of love. I know that this world is difficult and wonderful and filled with beautifully broken people. Finally, I know that it’s the combination of imperfect people and a crucified and resurrected God that helps us move through the world with any lasting power. Beyond these things, I have mostly informed opinions that I hold somewhat loosely as I age.
Catholics and Protestants alike can and do lose their faith. My personal understanding of the divine that took root in Catholic churches and Catholic schools never allowed me to jump off the deep end when things got complicated. I have had my share of disenchantment. Yet I have always sensed that, given enough time, God would show himself and his purposes once the smoke cleared.
Getting to the other side of pain has depended upon my ability to go through it, not avoid it. This is something Catholics and their insistence on the imagery and experience of the crucified Christ understand. For this I am most grateful. The journey of faith and hope in a broken world is not for the faint of heart. Faith is for the poets who see in the ebbs and flows of life that the world is in fact, charged with the grandeur of God, and he is leading us all home.