Some nights, after my daughters are asleep, I creep into their room and watch them. It’s almost too much for me—their beauty, their peacefulness, their small, perfect limbs . . . and the fact that they are Catholic, their father is Catholic, I am a Catholic. It is all too great a gift for me to speak of it. But I’ll try.
Fifteen years ago, had anyone predicted that by the year 2000 I would become a Catholic homeschooling mom, I’d have laughed in his face and gone about my self-important business. I was agnostic (formerly atheist), and married to Tom (a fallen-away Lutheran), and we didn’t plan to have children. We agreed that kids were time-consuming, sticky little creatures who got in the way of real life. We were “pro-choice” and marched together in abortion-rights rallies. When we were married in 1984, it was by a judge; we simply had no room for God in our lives, at least not the God of simple-minded Christianity.
But God had other plans. He let me run into so many walls that I had nowhere to go but through the one door he had left open. And that is how I became a Christian. In the late 1980s, after plummeting to the depths (emotionally and just about every other way), I surfaced to find Jesus Christ. When I told Tom I was embracing Christianity he said, “That’s fine. Just so it doesn’t affect my life.”
I was baptized by an Episcopal priest on March 11, 1990, and my first months of being a Christian did indeed affect Tom’s life. Our leisurely Sunday mornings with coffee and the newspaper were no more. I went to church regularly. I invited Tom to go with me; we argued about the reasons he should go.
Then came the big change: I wanted to have a baby. It seemed the natural thing to do—Christian marriage was made for families, wasn’t it? But Tom had no interest in my new take on kids, so I began to pray in earnest that he would someday agree to have a child.
Miraculously, by the end of the year his heart had softened. I went off birth control in early 1991 and soon became pregnant. When we lost the baby I was devastated, but the pregnancy and our shared grief had brought us closer.
During that year and the next Tom began to attend the Episcopal church with me. When our priest encouraged Tom to begin receiving communion I discouraged him, worried that he was only going through the motions for my sake. I wanted him to wait until he could wholeheartedly embrace the Christian faith.
I was having struggles of my own with the Episcopal church. I had been attending the church because it offered many of the things I craved: ritual, liturgy, a rich sense of history and tradition, weekly communion. In other words, it had many of the things I liked about the Catholic Church with none of the things I despised about Rome. At the same time, it allowed me to believe in women’s ordination, birth control, and open communion.
But I hadn’t officially joined the Episcopal church because I was still nagged by questions and doubts: Why are there so many Christian denominations? Why so much division? Exactly where is the Church that Jesus left us?
When our priest asked if we were ready to join the Episcopal church, Tom surprised me by saying yes. I wasn’t ready, but I went ahead with the confirmation because I longed for spiritual unity with my husband. Only later would I find out that Tom had gone through with it solely for my sake. Neither of us was ready, but each did it for the other.
We tried again to have a baby and lost it to miscarriage. Then in 1993 our first daughter arrived. With her came some serious marital difficulties, as Tom and I faced down some of the demons of our past. I found no consolation in my faith and drifted further from the Episcopal church. Tom stopped going altogether.
I had so many questions that no one seemed able to answer, chief among them the authority question. Where in the Episcopal church did the buck stop? Where in any Christian denomination did the buck stop? I saw thousands of Protestant denominations whose apparent answer to that question was, “It stops here, with our interpretation of Scripture.” That made no sense to me, and it defied the unity that Jesus spoke of in the Bible. So where was my answer?
I began to fear it was in the Catholic Church. It was the only place I was finding reasonable, cogent arguments on the authority issue as well as a number of other issues I had long avoided. I had a dear Catholic friend, Jack, who gave me books and magazines to read and tapes to listen to.
I was as frightened of becoming a Catholic as I had once been of becoming a Christian. How could I—former feminist, former pro-choicer, former ridiculer of all things religious—become a Catholic? And yet all the signs pointed to Rome. In the fall of ’94 I signed up for an RCIA class, still uncertain I would actually join the Catholic Church.
After a few months, I had only one struggle left: Could I give up birth control? Could I accept the teachings on marriage, sex, and children? I knew I didn’t want to enter the Church unless I could do everything in my power to be faithful to all of her teachings. In trying to resolve this, I came face to face with my key issue: the Church’s teaching authority. Did the Catholic Church have the authority to teach us infallibly on matters of faith and morals or not?
I admitted that I had come to believe the Lord is actively guarding his church. That meant I must be willing to submit to a teaching I didn’t like, agree with, or even fully understand. But sometimes, I realized, God will ask me to do things simply because he says so. Because he’s my Father. Once I submitted in obedience to the teachings on birth control, I came not only to understand them but also to embrace and passionately defend them. What a grace and a gift from our Lord. When we obey, his grace flows in such abundant quantities.
And what was Tom’s reaction? He agreed to live with natural family planning instead of birth control because he knew how important it was to me. He didn’t like or understand it, but he lived with it. His generous nature allowed him to see that he could never force something on me that I objected to morally, especially when his preference was—as he put it at the time—motivated by selfish interest.
In the spring of 1995, I was received into the Catholic Church. Tom didn’t attend the Easter Vigil that night, but he didn’t stand in my way, and he agreed that I could raise our daughter Catholic.
The Lord continued to work on Tom’s heart in subtle ways. One of them was his view of abortion. When I became a Christian, I became pro-life. Initially, Tom and I had shouting matches over my new beliefs, shouting that gradually changed to measured discussion and careful witnessing on my part. But it was natural that our daughter would have an effect on how Tom saw the gift of life, and fourteen months after I entered the Church we had another daughter.
Both of our children were medicine for Tom’s heart. But he also thought seriously about our discussions, and a re-read of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had a profound effect on him. A passage he had read many times, which described babies stored in jars, chilled him to the bone, and he saw in a stark and frightening new way what our brave new American world was doing through abortion.
In the next few years my faith was a source of tension between us. I attended Mass alone most of the time. I was active in our parish’s RCIA program, began to make new Catholic friends, and joined a Bible study. Tom and I could share none of this, and it bothered us both that what was now the core of my existence had created a divide between us.
In the spring of ’98 my spiritual director suggested that he and I both pray to Thérèse of Lisieux for Tom’s conversion. “Look for a sign of roses,” Fr. Joe told me. About a month later, Tom and I were sitting in the back yard of our house. We’d bought the house the previous summer, and Tom was still hard at work getting the yard in shape. That week he’d been cutting and chopping things with a vengeance. As we sat there that evening, he glanced toward a bush close to the house.
“Well, look at that,” he said. “It’s a rose bush.”
My heart nearly stopped. Tom continued, “I almost chopped it down the other day. I didn’t know what it was. I don’t know what stopped me, but for some reason, I thought I should leave it there.” I looked at the pink roses blooming near our house, and said a silent prayer, thanking Thérèse for the bloom of encouragement. When Fr. Joe came to dinner the following week, Thérèse’s roses graced the dinner table.
Around this time, a dear friend of mine had a feeling that Tom and I would conceive a son and that our son would somehow lead Tom into the Church. I doubted this, since Tom wasn’t open to more children, but I decided to begin novenas to St. Joseph. By early ’99 Tom was indeed open to children again, and I became pregnant that March. In May we lost the baby, whom I’d felt sure was a boy. We named the baby James.
Did this son lead Tom to the Church? Though we won’t know for certain on this side of heaven, I believe that James began to intercede mightily for his father. Just three months later, Tom told me that he’d been thinking a great deal about the nature of evil, about how evil really comes down to being separated from God. He said, “And I don’t think I want to be separated anymore. I want to be where you and the girls are.”
Tom still didn’t want to become a Catholic. He decided that he wanted to sit in on RCIA classes that fall, “just to learn more—not to join the Church.” I agreed, and since I was still on the RCIA team, it was easy to have Tom accompany me every week and feel no pressure to be an official candidate.
That same fall, we had a wonderful new director of adult formation at our parish. We became friends with Steve and his wife, and it was a God-given friendship. Steve had experienced his own conversion in the past, and he had the right intellectual stuff for Tom. Issues I thought I’d adequately explained somehow made more sense to Tom when he heard them from Steve. Tom was also doing a lot of thinking on his own about music, art, and the nature of beauty. His conviction that there is objective beauty and quality in art was leading him to the idea of objective truth concerning God and the nature of the universe.
Fr. Joe was an influence too. He had become a regular dinner guest in our home, and Tom was impressed by his combination of intelligence and spirituality. I believe his quiet holiness had a real effect, and at one point I told Fr. Joe that Tom’s conversion was only a matter of time. “He’s started to pray!” I said. “He hasn’t got a prayer.”
Tom continued with the RCIA meetings, but by January he was still just an observer and had taken no formal steps. When I asked about it, he said he didn’t know exactly what was holding him back other than fear. I sympathized with that fear of turning into someone unrecognizable. I’d experienced the same thing with my own conversion. I talked about reaching a point where I simply knew that I had to make the leap or turn my back. He seemed to mull that over.
In the meantime, I had become pregnant, and miscarried yet again in January. God granted many graces through that miscarriage, giving me peacefulness and acceptance of his will that I could only hope was a witness to Tom. We named the baby Rachel, and I believe that she, along with James, began praying fervently for her father.
That same month, while at Mass, Tom had found that by sitting in the first or second pew, he could hear the priest or eucharistic minister saying “Body of Christ” during Communion. The repetition of those words helped him to enter a deeper state of prayer than he had ever experienced. One week we were in the front row, but he couldn’t hear anyone. He was frustrated, and began to pray, “Please let me hear it . . . please let me feel that again.” Suddenly a eucharistic minister stepped directly in front of him. He could plainly hear it: “Body of Christ . . . Body of Christ . . . Body of Christ . . .” When he told me I said, “Tom! Do you see how directly God answered your prayer?” He had to admit it seemed “coincidental.”
The Saturday before Lent, when we awoke Tom told me he wanted to know the name of the man born blind in the Gospel of John, chapter 9. Verse 25 reads, “One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” He said that man’s name would be his confirmation name. If he joined the Church, he added.
Fr. Joe came to dinner that night, and asked the question Tom must have been tired of: “So, where are you, Tom? What, if anything, is holding you back?” Tom replied, “Nothing. I’m ready. Can we schedule something?”
The day before Lent began, we had a private “Rite of Welcoming” at daily Mass, with Fr. Joe presiding. I was Tom’s sponsor, and as we went through the rite, and the beautiful portion of it in which the sponsor “signs the senses” of the candidate, Tom and I felt that we were experiencing a rebirth in our marriage. We really felt that we were getting married again, recommitting to one another and to God. Our marriage by a judge, sixteen years before, seemed as if it had happened in another lifetime.
Tom proceeded through Lent participating in all that the other RCIA candidates did, and at the Easter Vigil in 2000 he was received into our one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. My friend Jack, who had been so instrumental in my conversion, drove one hundred and twenty miles with his wife and children to be there, and we rejoiced that night with them and the many Catholic friends who had also finally become Tom’s friends. He hadn’t known about the host of prayers that had been sent forth on his behalf, but that night many of those who had prayed for him were present, sharing with us the unspeakable joy of the night.
Tom and I have been given a second chance, like the man born blind. We neither deserved it nor saw it coming, but one thing we do know is that we were blind and now we see. For that, we are eternally—and that’s a phrase we no longer use lightly—grateful.