I had spent the last year learning much about Catholicism and, more important, about the riches of Christianity. I had also experienced how the Catholic community, at least as it is at our parish, St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan, did feel like home. But all along I also knew that while my move toward Catholicism was about me and my religious life, it was also for the sake of my husband, whom I love dearly, and my children. I wanted it to be real, not just an act I put on to make our family look more coherent. My long skirt hid my trembling legs. Was I doing the right thing? Above all, I wanted to do what God wanted me to do, and here in the church, only an hour or so away from my confirmation, I just did not know.
Almost exactly a year before, we had attended a childrens Mass at the parish in our quest for a church home in New York. I had come across a note in the parish bulletin, which I filed away: Interested in becoming Catholic? Call Maureen Fullam. Both Mark and I deeply honored the Eucharist as the central act of worship in our respective churches, and the importance the Catholic Church placed on preparation for first Communion had already led us to register our daughter for religious education classes for the following fall. I was curious as to what she would be learning in them and how it would differ from what I had learned years before. That line in the bulletin kept coming back to me. By this time I had also figured out that if either of us were going to shift denominations, it would have to be me. My inquiry into the Catholic faith began with trembling fingers dialing the parish office.
Preparing for Initiation
Maureen met with each of us individually long before the class actually started in the fall. Deciding honesty was the best policy, I poured out my story, half expecting to hear her say it was the popes way or the highway. Instead, she turned my whole perception of the Catholic Church on its head by saying, What really matters is your relationship with Jesus Christ. Immediately I felt that my already vital relationship with God was validated. Rather than having to put it away in order to take on Catholicism, the initiation experience could enrich what I already celebrated.
And enrich it, it did! We started with the foundations of ChristianityChrist himself speaking from the pulpit of the Gospels. No matter how many times I have read and thought about his words, hearing other peoples reflections on them always adds new dimensions, especially when the thoughts come from people whom I respect deeply. During the past year, I have felt blessed to spend time with my classmates in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. They challenged me intellectually and spiritually. I looked forward to our classes on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings and Mass together on Sunday. I brought home all we talked about in class and generally rehashed it with Mark, who learned a lot too.
While I had considered myself pretty religious before starting this journey, I began to encounter God in many unexpected people and places. I noticed my world outlook gradually shifting. Though I was looking for a personal aha moment, I could relate when a classmate referred to the process as more of a warm bath. That phrase accurately summed up my experience. If the idea of a prayerful life, to paraphrase Henri Nouwen, is to experience absolutely everything in relation to God, then I was slowly discovering prayer everywhere, becoming immersed in God. Not only did I plainly see God in my children, in whom I have always had glimpses of the Almighty, but also in our unplanned adoption of a dog. And not only was God in the people I saw everyday, but rooted in what they were saying to me. I learned more than I could ever imagine from nearly everyone I encountered.
I look for clear direction on where God wants me in any given moment, a habit that, left unchecked, can lead to some discontent. Yet I became more at peace as I grew to understand that God uses us as we are, even without clear direction. Being human means letting God put us where we need to be. With that, I became enthused by projectsat my childrens schools, in the community and in my own personal pursuitsand got more involved in life than ever before. It felt good.
Sitting in the quiet of the church on Easter eve, I knew all this. Just thinking about how amazing the initiation experience had been evoked in me a sense of peace and purpose. Yet even as the light from the paschal candle spread and illuminated the excitement in the faces of my classmates, now friends, I still felt a vague sense of disquiet. Internally I argued with my doubts. Holy Week had been special: my conception of Christs humanity had stretched. The agony of Jesus last week was magnified because he was fully human, limited in understanding what was happening to him. It makes his plea from the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? much more powerful and makes his dying there so ignominiously (possibly thinking hed been forsaken literally by all) that much more an act of love. Even as I write about it, I get goose bumps.
At the vigil, my legs still shook: could I possibly be turning my back on a 38-year-old relationship with a church, and the God, I grew up with? Or supporting corruptions that Martin Luther had rebelled against long ago? Such questions had bubbled up over and over during Holy Week. When yet another sleepless night passed, I felt that I was experiencing a minute taste of Christs own yearnings that first Holy Week. While I knew my pain was microscopic, it was still hard longing to know if this was what God wanted me to do.
Time to Trust God
Standing in the sanctuary, I located my husband in the congregation. A surge of love warmed my hands, but even that did not calm my knocking knees. My turn was next: I was about to become a Catholic. I prayed, God, if this is what you want me to do, I have to stop shaking! It sounds silly now, but at the moment that practical prayer was of the utmost importance to me. God is there for us in things little and big, there for us wherever we are, doubts and all. In that moment, I could feel the tension stop, my knees become still and my shoulders relax; and that blessed peace that passeth all understanding transcended everything going on around me. It was O.K.; I was doing Gods will; I did not have to understand it all.
That night I did not sleep, not from nerves, but from excitement and anticipation about what God had ahead for me.
A week later I was still amazed that I was Catholic! While I do not understand it all, I do know that God is divine. I know that no one person or group has a monopoly on God. We are all human, and the church, as a human institution, has flaws. Thats why we need forgiveness and the privileges of the sacramentsgracious avenues to Gods grace. Thats why we need Jesus, who, despite his human limitations, followed Gods will perfectly. In attempting to follow Gods will, we Catholics, as individuals and as a church, bring ourselves as close to Christs divinity as we possibly can in this life. When we fail, we can always bring ourselves back to Christ, who, with the Father, will welcome us with open arms. How much better does it get than that?