On television several years ago, I heard the testimony of a man who—though born and raised Jewish—had completed his own personal quest for truth and had decided to become a Christian. This was the first time I had ever heard the expression “completed Jew.” His long, tortured, often comical journey was one I knew and sympathized with. I am what might be called a “completed Catholic.”
A Sketchy Notion of Sin
My childhood experience of the Catholic Church was almost entirely positive. I grew up in the 70s, one of seven children in a happy, close-knit family. My parents were kind, generous people, and their testimony of faith in word and deed was impeccable. I attended 12 years of Catholic school, which delivered a seemingly innocuous message of “Jesus loves you, so just be yourself.” My picture of the faith was not complete, but I clung to what I knew.
Everything in life seems clear until you become a teenager, though, and being a teen in the 80s was a dark, complicated affair. That you would engage in casual sex was taken for granted. Getting high was no more consequential than renting a movie. The ubiquitous media message of debauchery made you feel pressured to conform. Living the Ten Commandments was definitely not a formula for popularity. I still loved God above all else, and when backed into a corner I put up a good defense of my beliefs, but I caved on my morals just enough to keep myself in “normal” social circles.
My motto was “If it’s only a venial sin, it’s fair game,” and it is surprising how far a girl can go astray when her concept of sin is sketchy. I was a fan of heavy-metal music back then, so I adopted the trashy wardrobe and the tough-girl attitude of that scene. Not only did it garner attention from the musicians I idolized at the time, but it was a convenient façade to buffer me from any criticism for living a Christian life. The music I listened to was generally obscene and sometimes even satanic, but I felt no guilt about it. “Soft” drugs seemed no more serious to me than cigarettes, and getting drunk until I was sick just did not register as being such a terrible sin.
Then, something unexpected happened that brought my fun to a rude halt: The Gulf War.
Ever since I had learned about the capacity of nuclear weapons in school, war was something that filled me with abject terror. Add to this my father’s almost obsessive love of documentaries about World War II and Nostradamus and a doom-and-gloom film I had seen about Our Lady of Fatima, and it was the formula for my complete nervous breakdown. In hindsight I can blush at my overreaction to a conflict that lasted about a month, but to me war was war, and the powder keg of the Apocalypse could be lit anywhere.
All my life I had been certain that, whenever my time came, I was ready to die. As a child I loved the stories of saints like Maximilian Kolbe and thought, if martyrdom is the noblest way to die, then that’s the way I want to go. Only when you are older do you realize how difficult it is to live for the faith, let alone die for it, and my new fears made me realize how unprepared I was to die. When sin, suffering, and death are what you fear, the only person you can turn to is God, so I started attending a local chapel where a kindly old priest offered daily Mass. Some mornings I was so depressed I could barely drag myself there, but I would not dream of telling him or anyone else about my anxieties for fear of being thought a lunatic.
Around this time, I began to have suspicions that 12 years of Catholic school had not really taught me my faith. I had been peeking in old religion books around my parents’ house and was encountering foreign notions like the “beatific vision,” the fact that not all religions are the same, and that some sins had more gravity than I thought. When I went to confession and mentioned what I was reading, I was told that times change and that what used to be true is no longer true, and what used to be sin is no longer sin. Common sense told me that people change, but God does not. I realized that if I wanted answers I would have to get them elsewhere.
But I did not really know where elsewhere was. I frequented a local Marian shrine, but their old-fashioned books and pictures gave me the creeps. I picked up the pamphlets and holy cards that little old ladies left behind in church pews, thinking I could piece together the Church’s true teaching from them. My mother had always been a fan of St. Therese the Little Flower, so I read her autobiography again and again, thinking somehow it was going to catechize me. I remember standing before a statue of the Sacred Heart at that shrine and crying out despairingly in my head, “Who are you?!” We were never taught the meaning of such devotions in school.
Though I was not finding the answers I sought, my life was nonetheless being revolutionized. I received the sacraments more often and realized that—even though I had not robbed a bank or committed murder—I still had some serious moral housecleaning to do. But those old religion books had spooked me with their straightforward declarations on the difference between right and wrong. I was not keen on finding any strange new demands on my life—demands that I was certain would be unreasonable and arbitrary. Even though I knew I had to settle my questions someday, I put off the search for years.
Time to Face Facts
That old wound would be torn open again when New York was attacked on September 11, 2001. Just as in the past, my only consolation in these new anxieties was to be as near to Christ as possible. I turned to God in a new and soon-to-be-favorite devotion: eucharistic adoration. It was there that I decided I could no longer put off the search and that my questions had to be resolved. I started watching EWTN and reading the books it recommended, especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I browsed Internet sites like Catholic Answers, Catholic Culture, and the Catholic Education Resource Center. I did an Internet search for “Catholic examination of conscience” and finally faced up to how the Church defines sin.
I was in the odd position of attempting to convert to a Church whose authority I had accepted all my life. I already knew Jesus was who he said he was, and my own life experience had long since proved to me that Catholicism “worked.” But now I had to consider all kinds of new ideas, and my pride rebelled against them. In the interest of fairness, whenever I came up against a teaching I disagreed with, I searched secular resources to see if empirical evidence would shed light on which of us was right. I was about to come to a staggering conclusion about all of my objections: I was wrong and the Church was right, and I did not even have to mention God to prove it.
My research led me to many more shocking discoveries, but the most startling realization of all was that the Church was not presenting me with the arbitrary rule book I expected. It was teaching me Truth, a truth that corresponded with reality and that binds all men whether they realize it or not. Contrary to my fears, God was not going to ask me to be a social outcast. He was going to reveal to me the tracks on which life was meant to travel and that any attempt to jump those tracks would get me nowhere. Sin was not something that men in funny hats in Rome made up to restrict me. There was a natural law to the universe, and to violate it—whether out of spite or ignorance—was a formula for misery and a culture of death.
A Necessary Anxiety
I recently revisited that church I used to attend on those mornings so steeped with fear, a parish long since closed and now deteriorating. As I sat studying this sad tableau, I could not help but feel an incongruous surge of joy. It was on this spot that I was once engulfed in a terror that I thought was an inescapable consequence of living in this world, but that fear has been supplanted with strength and confidence that feels like lightning in my bones. I have been graced with something I can only call a “holy stupidity,” for I now see clearly the evils of the world and my own insignificance and yet, instead of being crushed by their weight, I cannot hold myself back from fighting the good fight.
Padre Pio once said, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Anxiety helps nothing.” I hate to disagree with a saint, but the anxiety God sent me all those years ago was the greatest gift he has ever given me. That pain was the only effective tool God could have used to push me to my search for the good, the true, and the beautiful, to find the meaning of life—in short, to find him. I have discovered that the bloodshed of a thousand wars is insignificant in comparison to the loss of a single soul, and that I am called—like every Christian—not to be an animal that merely cowers for safety from death, but to be the greatest saint that ever lived, and to set the world on fire with love for God. Just as God’s unseen hand guided me through the darkness of my past, I trust that my future sorrows will be equally full of purpose, meaning, and merit. I regret the many years I wasted avoiding such a good God, and forever does not seem like enough time to thank him for leading me to the peace I have today.