What 10 years in a Protestant church taught me about my Catholic faith

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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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.

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Michael Caggiano
4 months 2 weeks ago

I'm not sure how a faithful Catholic could ever call the Sacraments "imperfect" especially considering the Eucharist is literally Jesus Christ, God and Man, Perfection. I also think it is a damn shame that someone could be raised Catholic, go to a Catholic college, and still think nothing of attending Protestant worship services rather than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Did you not long for the Eucharist? Or were you, like me, never catechized to believe the Eucharist was anything special?

Woe to the generation that taught us nothing about the grandeur of the Sacraments.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Thanks for reading Michael. I DO believe that God's table is both special and sacramental..I also believe that it can be shared with Christians of other denominations. Hope to continue the dialogue.

Caterina Smith
4 months 2 weeks ago

Courtney, thank you for this beautiful, poetic, and vulnerable reflection. I’m currently (re-)reading the poetry and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins so that quotation immediately drew me in, and for me, too, Catholicism offers, among many other things, a poetic approach to life and faith. And there have been times when I went to church mainly to gaze at Jesus on the cross and the Eucharist and know that He was with me in my suffering. I’ve been married for more than 25 years to a man from a Protestant background who only became a Catholic 8 years ago, and also some of my relatives are Greek Orthodox. These connections have given me the opportunity to see how much the branches of Christianity have to offer one another.

Kathleen O'Hagan
4 months 2 weeks ago

Indeed! I also married into a family whose background includes Southern Baptist, evangelical and Presbyterian traditions (My son and I are the only Catholics; certainly outnumbered!). There is much to learn from experiencing their services and engaging in discussion. The curiosity factor (on their part) is surprisingly strong. In fact, I do believe that engaging with other Christian faith traditions has done nothing but enhanced my understanding of my own.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Thanks for reading Kathleen. God is good to have surrounded you with such a diverse community. Grateful to hear it is deepening your faith.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Caterina, thank you for reading! I couldn't agree more that the diversity of faith traditions is a gift to the church. I hope church men and women will see this more and more in the years to come.

Patrice Kelly
4 months 2 weeks ago

Courtney, thank you for writing this beautiful essay. A born, raised (& never left) Catholic, I attended an interdenominational Seminary where I was the sole Catholic in virtually all of my classes. I saw in every class the results of sola scriptura where literalism permeated every conversation to the dissatisfaction of all. The poetry and mystery of Catholicism was not something most of my classmates were interested in. And yet, occasionally, a classmate would approach me after I said something in class that was “Catholic,” and told me that what I said appealed to them. I was filled with the realization that so many of us have focused on the rules, the doctrine of our faith traditions and have forgotten what the great mystics like Julian of Norwich have tried to tell us. We will never “understand,” we are not meant to understand. This is what the mystery of the Trinity is trying to tell us... it is the poetry of God, not meant to be understood in the here and now. This should not inspire a rejection of the Divine but as Julian tells us, we should reject despair and trust in God and know that “all will be well.” This is what the Catholic “imagery and experience of the crucified Christ” has taught me. Thank you again for your beautiful and meaningful essay.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Hi Patrice...such a thoughtful comment. I hope to explore the mystical dimensions of our faith in future months and years. Was literally just discussing this with Andy on a road trip this weekend. I sense the mystics are able to hold the tensions of the life of faith in ways that are most helpful.

Crystal Watson
4 months 2 weeks ago

I used to belong to a bible study group in which I was the only Catholic among Quakers and an Episcopalian - Catholicism really suffers from a lack of emphasis on reading the bible. Perhaps part of the problem is the worry that scripture study will bring up conflicts with Catholic doctrine, like verses in the gospels indicating Jesus had siblings, though Catholicism teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

Michael Caggiano
4 months 2 weeks ago

Except that these verses do not contradict Catholic doctrine in the slightest. The greatest lovers of Scripture (Jerome, who translated the entire Bible, Augustine, John Chrysostom) were also the greatest defenders of the "hot point" doctrines that Protestants think isn't biblical. If Catholics actually knew and studied Scripture and historical exegesis, they would be prepared to answer Protestants when they claim that Scripture disproves Catholic teaching.

Crystal Watson
4 months 1 week ago

What? How does one believe Mary was a perpetual virgin while recognizing the gospels state she had multiple children?

Michael Caggiano
4 months 1 week ago

The short answer: They don't. They talk about Christ's brothers and sisters using a word that means "close kin". Traditionally, the entire Church believed this to either refer to cousins, or potential children of Joseph and that Joseph was a widower.

https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/the-case-for-marys-perpetual-virginity

Crystal Watson
4 months 1 week ago

Yes, that's the Catholic answer, but sadly it's one not backed up by scholarship. For those interested, here's a short podcast from Duke University bible scholar Mark Goodacre (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Goodacre) on Jesus' brothers and sisters ... http://podacre.blogspot.com/2014/03/nt-pod-73-who-were-jesus-brothers.html

Michael Caggiano
4 months 1 week ago

Scholarship hardly has any single opinion on any scriptural topic. One can find plenty of scholarly articles defending the Catholic position. Hell, the article I linked to you is written by a scholarly source, just for an accessible audience.

Pick up Fr. Aidan Nichol's There is No Rose, Scott Hahn's Hail Holy Queen, Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, and plenty other scholarly works that all make cogent defenses.

Lets also look at what St. Jerome, who literally translated the entire bible, had to say on the matter: http://newadvent.org/fathers/3007.htm

Crystal Watson
4 months 1 week ago

Or JP Meier ... "the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings"... https://www.jstor.org/stable/43721789?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
The pint isn't to try to turn yourself into a pretzel to make historical Jesus research match Catholic theology. The point is to try as best as possible to find out the truth about Jesus, whatever that might be.

Robert Lewis
4 months 1 week ago

The "truth" of Jesus is in the ALLEGORIES of Sacred Scripture, and, of course, these are "myths"; "myths" are not facile fabrications. Indeed, for those with the sense and the wisdom to know it, there is more "truth" about life on earth, man's relationship with his fellows and with God, than there is "truth" in the periodic tables.

Crystal Watson
4 months 1 week ago

I would like to know all there is to know about the actual Jesus who lived here. He's not a myth created by men, he's an historical figure (and I think, also still alive to us spiritually as God). Some people are more comfortable keeping that Jesus at arms length, with a bunch church-created fairy tales between him and us. That's not me.

Paul Hierholzer
4 months 1 week ago

I agree Crystal. Catholics who do the pretzel thing in insisting that Catholic teachings such as Mary never having sex with her husband/never having children after Jesus are no different than Protestant fundamentalists who insist the bible is inerrant and entirely consistent with itself, which it clearly is not. This particular teaching regarding Mary, along with several others, only perpetuate the Catholic sex-shame problem, which has alienated so very many Catholics. It's very sad, as our tradition is so rich in spirituality--richer than the Protestant tradition--which the author speaks to in the article.--but for some reason, it seems most Catholics who stay, or those who self-identify as the most "authentic," make it all about the pretzel and sexual morality.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Thanks for reading Crystal! Would be interesting to consider/know how the church might help its parishioners learn the Bible in a more formative way. As mentioned, I attended 15 years of Catholic school and didn't learn half of what I've learned in Protestant denominations in a shorter amount of time. This is a huge invitation for Catholics in my estimation.

Joseph Dalelio
4 months 2 weeks ago

The sad fact is many bishops and priests do not catechize and teach Catholic history or doctrine as well as apologetics. That's why so many Catholics are cannon fodder for fundamentalists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's witnesses and Latter day saints.

Al Cannistraro
4 months 1 week ago

"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."

I hate seeing the rich legacy of Roman Catholicism apparently going down the fundamentalist tubes.

Countering my own disillusionment over much of the theology based on the many questionable historical "facts" asserted by Roman Catholicism (and Christianity generally), are the broader metaphysical perspectives of philosopher Bernardo Kastrup and silenced bible scholar Thomas L. Brodie.

Stepping back and taking a broader perspective is keeping me on on the same spiritual path I started on as a child, even if I am no longer "faithful" in the conventional sense of the word.

Robert Lewis
4 months 1 week ago

Don't worry, then, because, if what you have written is true, you are still part of "the Body of Christ." The fact that you read at this website is indicative of it.

Al Cannistraro
4 months 1 week ago

Thanks much for your generous comment.

Bill McGarvey
4 months 1 week ago

Thank you for this great piece. Loved this line in particular "...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."

You really capture the nuances of a pilgrim faith.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Thanks for reading Bill. I have been surrounded by pilgrim believers for my entire life and have had incredible mentors. A gift from God, to be sure.

Alan Johnstone
4 months ago

I hope the reference to the Jesuit poet was not indirectly saying that you have realised that when confronted with paradox or contradiction in thinking and talking about reality you now pass over it as sufficiently true if thought of as poetic.

I will guess that the man who fell into atheism was most troubled by the error that science and Catholic faith cannot both be true at the same time.

First, modern science developed in Christendom starting about half a millennium ago and arrived and thrived amongst faithful believing Christians; it is NOT the fruit of the "enlightenment".

Highly qualified scientists of many denominations of Christianity have no problem accepting that although the bible is not a scientific textbook, it describes the creation of the universe and the commencement of life in ways perfectly in line with the best of 21st century physics and biology.
Language scholars and experts are no less daunted by the bible content to do with genealogy and relationships, archaeologists are finding the remnants of peoples and centres of culture and historical monuments previously claimed to have been absent by atheist predecessors.

Science DOES NOT disprove Biblical revelation.

We must teach this to our children in season and out of season.

Courtney Beck
4 months ago

Thanks for reading Alan, and I agree. The doctorate that Andy received while we lived in Texas was in experimental pathology. We are both pro science and pro religion in our household and look forward to sharing this viewpoint with our kids.

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