Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Part of My Conversion Story I've Rarely Told

I decided to become a Catholic two decades ago, on December 26, 1991. I've told the story of my conversion to Catholicism many times, both a two-minute version and a 15 page version, and some in between, like on this blog. But there has been one strain of the story that I've almost always left out. I've been thinking about that a lot, and it is time for me to dig through that part of the story.

And as I do, I think of what Anne of Direction for our Times wrote in her book Mist of Mercy about a mystical vision she was given of purgatory. She writes this: "[S]ouls were voluntarily examining where they had rejected God in their lives, thereby rejecting His grace so that they would not have to change. Souls were helping each other understand where and how they had taken turns against Christ" (p. 155).  I have dug through this part of my story to come to grips with the issues I've had, and I write here and now to really appreciate what I've learned. I share it here in hopes that someone else may understand something they need to.

This part of my conversion story begins in earnest in early 1990 and really continued on after I entered the Church. Some background is fitting to explain how I got to this day in 1990, though.

Since college I was absolutely obsessed with getting married. To me, being married meant finding someone who would fill the gaping void I had in my life for positive attention, or this thing I called "love." The only "romantic" relationship I'd been in (and it turns my stomach now to call it that) was in the few years previous to this with a man 26 years my senior. With the exception of the day we met, he was in jail or prison the whole time. It was an awful, demeaning relationship, but I was willing enough to cash in my dignity for his attention, which was intense when he wanted it to be. At the beginning of 1988 I joined a non-denominational charismatic fellowship, and after a decent amount of time of soaking in the worship and the prayer of people there, I developed the strength to block this man out of my life. But my marriage obsession went on. Any man who actually expressed the slightest interest in me scared me half to death, however, and I panicked over not knowing how to get them to go away, so I was incredibly rude. For being so dead-set on marriage, I was pretty much a mess when it came to relating to men.

I found one man who seemed somewhat manageable. He was a member of my church and so we saw each other a lot. (There were only about 75 people in the whole church, including the children.) We were involved in quite a few of the same ministries. I really didn't find him all that attractive, but it honestly never dawned on me in those days that such a thing mattered. Although we never really dated in a way that felt remotely romantic, we did things together for several months and sort of very stiffly considered our relationship with a sense of being sweet on each other.

And then one day, he up and announced to everyone that he had a new girlfriend. (Later, I learned that someone had given him a "word from the Lord" that he would marry at age 30, and just before his 29th birthday, he found this girl to whom he eventually became engaged. They broke it off before they married, and he was single well past 30.) But there I was in 1990, at a birthday party in his honor, he with his new girlfriend in tow. I was incredulous. Fuming. Crushed.

And then a very unfortunate thing happened. I sat in a chair at this party, with my pastor on my left side and an empty chair on my right. Probably my pastor picked up on my feelings and wanted to cheer me up. But he used the following to do so: He told me "I have a word from the Lord for you. God has a husband for you, and he's going to fall in love with you and want to marry you. And you'll have a call to work in the mission field." I remember he followed this up with asking my opinion if this was a "good word" or not. Oh, pastor, that's a wonderful word I thought. With every ounce of earnest faith I took this as a promise from God Himself. And just then, who should sit down next to me in the empty chair but basically "the other" single young man in the church, Keith. And -- ohmygosh -- I knew that he wanted to be a missionary! It's him! He's the one God just promised as my husband! Wow! Thank you God!

You can see it already. This became a grossly painful deception in my life: total Satan bait.

Now, I do believe that God speaks to people. But folks, you've got to be extremely leery when anyone tells you that God just told them something for your life. I gained a lot of wonderful things from my time in that charismatic fellowship, but goofy things like this did happen to lots of people. People wound people in the name of religion all the time; the few cases of priestly pedophilia are certainly not the only instances of this.

My pastor was irresponsible in what he said to me, but I was also stupid for taking it in and immediately giving it a life in my mind with this new man. I didn't really care what God wanted for me. If I did, I would have waited to talk to Him about it for several weeks or months. I wanted what I wanted. I treated God as the one who fulfilled my dreams, like Cinderella's fairy godmother. I didn't even really know what Jesus being Lord of my life meant, although I would have emoted greatly over the phrase, calling it a fact in my life.

God can write straight with our crooked lines, though. If you read my conversion story, you can now understand when I talk about this friend, Keith, from my church who up and became a Catholic. His announcement to me about this came in about October of 1990. And it was then that I really had to seriously seek God concerning the hatred in my heart that I still harbored towards Catholics.

I didn't really see much of Keith after he was confirmed. He still came to our weekly Bible study, but I couldn't bear to even look at him carrying a huge Catholic Bible with a crucifix bookmark! But I still believed on some level that God meant for him to be my husband. He eventually said he was going to school to become a missionary, which made my heart jump up again. Only, he didn't explain right away that this school was a seminary, and he meant to be a priest. It was in fact a couple of years before he was forthright with me about that. But that's jumping ahead in the story.

Keith showed up at some pivotal moments, including taking me to the Christmas Eve midnight Mass that was the crux of my conversion. I never even told him of my decision to convert at the time; I wrote it to him a few months later. When it came right down to it, this warped prophecy of my marriage to him was not enough to convince me to embrace Catholicism; that was a completely separate work of grace. But it did help me open my heart to explore what the Church proposed. So, God did redeem some parts of the mess my pastor and I made that day.

There were other aspects that didn't go away quickly, though. Even after I came into the Church, I was still left wondering what of my charismatic experience could be trusted. I still dearly wanted to believe that God meant Keith as my husband. All the while he was in his early formation, and then in Africa on mission, I wrote to him, often a couple times a week. I learned to give my heart to him, and I learned to love him. He came back stateside a few times, and eventually insisted to me he wanted to be a priest. I never quite believed him, but I learned enough about loving to tell him that if that was what he wanted, then I had to honor him and want that for him, too.

The story gets stranger, though, because eventually I learned -- yes, by something I would say God spoke to me -- that he is a person of same-sex attraction. Once when he was home I finally simply asked him point blank if he was gay, and he told me yes. Even then I'm not sure I completely gave up "faith" that God has promised me him as my husband. Although my love for him morphed, it really still to this day holds true. Then one day when I lived in Japan, he sent me a letter unlike any I'd ever gotten from him. I understand that he was struggling to own his own identity. But this letter was brash and defiant and hurtful. He said his superiors suggested he postpone ordination and then he'd left the seminary and was living with a lover in England. It was absolute multidimensional heart-break for me, even though by then thoughts of marriage had completely evaporated. I've never heard from him since.

My spiritual life felt like a heap of rubble. I was Catholic, but felt no joy in prayer or sacraments. Experiences I had trusted in, ways that had brought me healing and good in the past now seemed a froth that had dried up and fizzed away. But again I'm a bit ahead of myself.

Before I left for Japan and while Keith and I were still friends, I made a postulancy visit to John Michael Talbot's order, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity. This order integrates celibates, singles and families. While I was there, along with quickly realizing that I was not ready to respond to such a vocational call, God made something about my view of marriage abundantly clear to me, although I still didn't understand it at the time. The parable of the seed and the sower spoke powerfully to me one day. As you recall, some of the seed sown fell among thorns. What struck me was Jesus' explanation of this seed, as Mark has it: "but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word and it proves unfruitful." This phrase "the desire for other things" hit me like a ton of bricks. Jesus was telling me my desire for marriage was "the desire for other things."

Oh. My. I was so good at being religious and telling God that all I wanted was His will and His way, and how could marriage be wrong and blah, blah, blah. But I realize now that I still had no clue that marriage meant giving the gift of oneself, and receiving the gift of another. I didn't realize that if I didn't possess myself, I couldn't give myself. I was looking to get something from someone else first, to make me complete. I wasn't looking for God, even if I was asking Him to supply this "thing". I didn't get that He alone makes me complete. That it had to be His love that enabled me to possess and give myself, and to receive another. That He was the "one thing" I needed.

Oh, I said those words. I believed those words. But -- what a Catch-22 for me -- I only learned slowly that His love penetrates our hearts when we live in union with Christ's Church. Our hearts cannot hover outside and away from the Church or we hover outside and away from Christ. Some blessed people grow up with the love of Christ's Church as the foundation of their family. I did not. I have had to allow this love to soak me as an adult.

After I left Japan I came to Steubenville, and almost immediately I found myself soaking in healing graces. My experience here had the academic life and the charismatic dimension that gave me peace and security, and a rich Catholic life that gave me soil in which to grow by leaps and bounds. I asked God to be in charge of what people I met, and within two weeks of arriving I landed a job working for Dr. Scott Hahn and was immersed in the crazy chaos of the office in his home, and in an intense theology of the Church as the family of God. I also met the man I eventually married. Most importantly, I found my heart's home here.

I am still discovering union with Christ in His Church. I am still receiving myself from Him so that I have myself to give as a gift. I am still learning that it is His love alone that I seek, but that I find it in loving and being loved by those God gives me. I imagine my love will always limp, but let the limp bear witness to how I was healed of complete paralysis.

I know now that if God wants to tell me something, He'll make it clear, but that my primary concern is with obeying His Word which belongs in the context of the Church. I know that I can trust the Lord with my life, and this means not needing to have my way. God knows the way to make me very happy, and ultimately I'll take my dream to the cross to gain His dream for me, because I know His is better.

1 comment:

J said...

He told me "I have a word from the Lord for you. God has a husband for you, and he's going to fall in love with you and want to marry you. And you'll have a call to work in the mission field."

I really and totally hate stuff this like. In American Evangecalism of that era (and because Evangecalism was so influential it spread to other countries, including mine) it was widely believed that everyone's calling was to 1. get married 2. work in missions. So, of course the pastor had a word from the Lord for you: it's simply because it was believed that that was the word of the Lord for everyone.

(I remember churches where the focus was on missions and the pastor would cajole and guilt-trip his congregants by using phrases like "if you don't feel ready it's ok, God will provide for your weaknesses, and if you still don't want to go, it's because you don't have enough faith in God".)

I hate it because it was extremely shallow (but then again, Protestants, having lost the monastic and priestly orders, find it very difficult to comprehend calls to singleness, and it's only with the recent rise of gay rights that it's even shown up on their radar again), and I always found the specificity of the phrase "word of the Lord for you" a very manipulative way of putting what is supposed to be a general truth. By all means, there are specific words of the Lord for people, but don't dress up a general word as a specific word.