Friday, December 24, 2010

My Christmas Eve Conversion Story

I have a rare opportunity this Christmas Eve evening to sit down in silence and write. Tonight my heart is pounding against what contains me to mull over what I think of as my major conversion experience. So, let me  tell the story.

It was 1991 or so, I don't remember the exact month. I had a very good friend who was married to a man attending Lutheran seminary. For some time he had been toying with the idea of becoming Catholic. His wife, my good friend, was not thrilled with the idea, and I commiserated with her. In fact I suggested that he was being attacked by demons to wish such a thing. This drama went on for several months, and finally my friend announced to me that rather than fight with her husband about it, she had agreed that they would become Catholics. Gulp.

About the same time, a man who attended my charismatic fellowship who had been raised Catholic announced to me, somewhat privately, that he was going to receive Confirmation and return to the Church. I was agitated by my married friends' announcement, but I was dumbfounded by his. I had always considered him the most intelligent, theologically correct person in the whole fellowship. And besides that, I was in love with him. In my confused way, yes, I was in love with him.

These announcements hit me within a very short time of each other. I was left very confused and very compelled to start some serious thinking about Catholicism. Growing up as a conservative Lutheran, in a church which taught that the papacy is the anti-christ, I nurtured a strong anti-Catholic sentiment. It was somehow a strong part of my own spiritual understanding of my world that I was not only not Catholic, but I was opposed to Catholicism. Why? Because I honestly believed that God was opposed to Catholicism. I believed it was an evil religious system. I remember earnestly and honestly praying this way: "Lord, I know that you hate Catholicism. But when I think about hating my friends, I get confused. Lord, if you don't want me to hate Catholics, then you have to show me why not."

It took me a long time to emotionally calm down enough to get to the point of grasping that I knew nothing about Catholicism except what I had been taught as a Lutheran. Well, it wasn't only a matter of calming down emotionally, it was also a matter of surrendering my pride. I truly thought I knew it all. I truly thought I was superior. It took me several months to come to see that if I wanted to understand the Catholic paradigm, if I wanted to understand what made Catholics different, I had to start investigating Catholic sources. I remembered that I had read Medieval mystics in college and my heart had caught fire, so to speak. I just didn't believe that anyone knew about them anymore (because, of course, I didn't, before then). That little spark of hope awoke. I bought a Catholic Bible, a copy of the documents of Vatican II, and later the book Catholic and Christian by Alan Schreck. And tapes by John Michael Talbot and the Brothers and Sisters of Charity.

I read. I studied. I prayed. I was shocked. Catholics quoted the Bible. They talked about evangelism. They talked about the supernatural power of God to change lives. The arguments for doctrines like Apostolic Succession and the Marian dogmas were logical, and Biblical. I began to discover valuable riches. Things began to make sense.

Some time before this, I had been experiencing a sort of hunger for something in the worship I had loved so much in our charismatic fellowship. I had thought of liturgical worship as a ball and chain, but more and more I saw that what we did had a similar kind of planned format. I felt as if I were experiencing nothing but the "dead religion" we railed against in the mainline churches. I had been musing that surely, Lord, there was something deeper than this. I wanted to be free of "dead religion" at all cost. But it seemed to cling to me.

And here I was now, discovering riches. This process had taken all of 1991. This man who I was so in love with had left Milwaukee for seminary in London (there is so much to that story; don't know if I'll ever write about that one!). But he wrote to let me know he was coming home for Christmas. We had arranged to go out for lunch on the 23rd. On the 22nd, my grandmother passed away, and we decided that our family would not celebrate Christmas until after her funeral, which would be the 27th. This left me in Milwaukee on my own for Christmas. Keith (yes, he has a name) therefore invited me to go to the Midnight Mass with him and some friends on Christmas Eve. I was ready to say yes. In fact, it had been going through my head that attending a Mass probably would be fitting for me at some point, as another step in my investigation of Catholicism.

Before the Mass that night, we gathered at his friends' house. One of them tried to show me his rosary that had turned gold, but I couldn't look at it or even touch it. I wasn't that comfortable with Catholic things! All that stuff that had to do with saints and people and humanity turning holy -- that was just still unfathomable to me.

We walked in the church, which was named for St. Anthony of Padua. There was a large statue of him in the foyer, and I instinctively recoiled from it. I was trying to be open, but those saints were the hardest for me to stomach. We went into the church to sit down, and I saw another statue of some other Catholic guy I didn't recognize. I grumbled to Keith, "Who is that?!" "Marie!" he answered, somewhat shocked at me, "That's Jesus!"

We sat there in silence for a good long time. Other than the fact that I vaguely recognized the liturgy (it had been only four years or so since I had been at a Lutheran service), I remember only two main things striking me. (Well, the one really odd thing was how at the beginning of the gospel reading the entire congregation developed an itch on their foreheads at the same time!) The first was the penitential rite. The way I heard it, the priest was asking his people, the Catholics, to repent of their sin. It reeked of humility. And I was undone. I thought to myself, "No, Lord, it's not these people that need to repent -- it's me! I have spent years and years belittling them, hating them, making fun of them, judging them, using them to make me feel superior... They don't need to repent, Lord, I do." If that moment brought me to my knees, the next profound moment put a state of awe into me, and literally I have never been the same. Keith and his friends went forward to receive the Eucharist, and we were sitting in the very front pew. As they came back and sat down around me, my eyes were drawn to the Eucharist at the altar and I suddenly was aware that this was Jesus. This was the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, giving Himself away right there. And what, my heart shouted, was Jesus doing in a Catholic Church?

Keith dropped me off at home and I sat up until at least 4am, mostly just staring. I can't even say I was trying to take in what happened. I was so shocked. I read a magazine Keith's friend had given me, and I stared some more. Finally, I slept. I spent the next day with friends from my church, and the following day at work. But internally I was still in this moment of complete shock. I couldn't even pray, or ask the Lord about what had happened. Finally, on the evening of the 26th, I was doing some envelope stuffing at home and listening to yet another John Michael Talbot tape a friend had given me. His voice sounded so peaceful. I had to turn it off. I yelled at the tape player: "You're a Catholic, and you're supposed to be wrong. I'm a Protestant, and I'm supposed to be the one with all the peace!!"

I had finally broken the ice to sort of speak about what had happened to me at that Mass. I felt the Lord Jesus, as real as if I could see Him, sort of tap me on the shoulder and say "When you're ready to talk about this, I'll be right over there" (on my couch, where I often went to pray). I went over to the couch and began sadly lamenting and complaining to the Lord that I didn't know what to do or what this was all about. I had a lot of lament to pour out. When I was done, the Lord showed me a sort of mental vision. There were two roads. One road was wide open, and empty. I knew that this represented my life as it was right then, and I knew that one option for me was to continue on just as I had been. Then I saw the next road. A short ways down it, there was a cross standing in the road. I immediately knew three things. The cross meant that that's where Jesus was. The cross meant the Catholic Church. And I knew that I would choose to go that way.

More lamenting. (I did a lot of that in those days! No joy.) I told the Lord, in a martyrish sort of way "Oh Lord, Ok, if you want me to become a Catholic, I will. I'll become a Catholic." The Lord answered me clearly. "I don't want you to say it. I want you to sing it." The Lord was after no less than my heart. No surfacy response would do. Suddenly I sprang up. "But Lord, what about that thing about saint intercession. If I could just find that Bible verse again and ask you how that really speaks of the saints praying for us?! I'm just not sure about that yet." The Lord was stern, but kind. "Sing."

Somehow I knew exactly what to sing, so I did:

I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, No turning back

The cross before me, the world behind me; The cross before me, the world behind me; The cross before me, the world behind me
No turning back, No turning back

Though none go with me, still I will follow; Though none go with me, still I will follow; Though none go with me, still I will follow
No turning back, No turning back

Well, no, come to think of it, that isn't what I sang, but it was in what I sang which was this:  "I have decided to become a Catholic. I have decided to become a Catholic. I have decided to become a Catholic. No turning back, No turning back."

I am still unpacking this experience. I realize now that it was absolutely no mistake that this happened at a Midnight Mass of Christmas. The message that has been sinking into my heart ever since that night is that in the Incarnation, God proclaims that holiness and humanity have wedded. In Christ, the way is open for holiness to enter the frailty of our human existence. This does a drop kick to the notion that humanity is, in its essence, depraved and capable only of depravity. The goodness of creation is once again restored and proclaimed and affirmed, and in it I too am restored and proclaimed good, and affirmed. We humans are made for the lofty purpose of receiving from the Lord glory, and bearing it forth to all the world. We are made for transformation unto holiness. We are not only loved by God because we are have been cleaned up by Jesus' blood. While we were yet sinners, Christ loved us, unto death! He loves us because of who we are, even in our sin! I think my notion of Christianity had been that our sin had messed things up so badly that Jesus had to fix us and then God let us into heaven simply because he agreed to forget about who we really are. But all along it was really only Himself that He loved. No! The Incarnation proves that Jesus loved us enough to live among us in our sin, and to patiently love us until we are made hungry for His love.

The Incarnation continues, of course, in the Body of Christ, His Church. I love being Catholic, but more importantly, I love Catholics! I love non-Catholics too, but I have a special love for the very type of Catholic I once judged myself superior to. Every time I see a run-of-the-mill Catholic (no, wait. I decided just recently these don't exist. Each Catholic is a miracle.) Every time I witness a certain flame of the love of God in the heart of a Catholic person, I well up with awe inside my soul, and a wave of unworthiness to be in their presence washes over me. There are moments when I kneel in Mass and I am so overcome with gratitude for the privilege of just being there. God has filled me with great joy, great peace, and great delight.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 915)

Post Script:
After I wrote this post, at Midnight Mass, the priest in his homily commented on a quotation from St. Leo the Great that sums up succinctly what is in my heart: the key of what we are given in the Incarnation is our own dignity, restored. The quote:
"Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom. Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit."


The Cathoholic said...

Wonderful Marie! It brought tears to my eyes. I'm a convert myself. The more I read conversion stories, it's amazing how similar they are.

Mathochist said...

Completely beautiful!