My decision to attend the University of Dallas had nothing to do with its Catholic affiliation and everything to do with the school’s outstanding Master of American Studies program. The atmosphere of the campus was overtly Catholic, and class lectures discussed Church teachings pertaining to our studies. Over time, I began to see the wisdom of some of the Church’s doctrines, in particular its teaching regarding contraception. But, ultimately, I loved my Lutheran faith and wanted nothing more than to be Protestant. As an active member of my church, I participated in Wednesday and Sunday worship services, attended Bible studies, taught senior high Sunday school, and assisted with a myriad of other church projects and activities.
I sought to strengthen my longstanding relationship with our Lord. At Christmas, my grandmother gave me a copy of Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest Journal. On January 1, 1997, I inscribed in my new journal: “I know God has a plan for me, and he will reveal his plan in time. This year I want to surrender to the Lord. May he strengthen me in my walk with him.”
Dwelling with God over the pages of Chambers’s devotionals, I began to notice that some of the readings spoke of our being “garrisoned by the stupendous sanctity of the Holy Spirit,” while others told me that man is not even worthy to tell the Lord that he is unworthy. Not knowing what to think about our incapability as sinners to love God and do his will, I decided to take up the challenge presented by February 8’s reading, “Lord, make me as holy as you can make a sinner saved by grace.”
The more I studied and prayed, though, the more I realized I needed to let myself be guided by God. To truly know God, I was beginning to realize, I had to seek him not only with my mind but with my heart. My relationship with God wasn’t purely intellectual, but neither was it completely personal. I resolved to study the Bible and to listen to God speak to me as a friend. For good measure, I also signed up for some Lutheran theology classes being offered at my church.
Just Not Good Enough
Meanwhile, my roommate and some of my other Catholic friends decided to “enlighten” me about my Protestant faith. According to them, my biweekly worship, reception of communion, daily prayer, regular study of Scripture, love of Jesus as a personal friend, teaching Sunday school, and living a Christ-like life was “outside of the truth” and “just not good enough.” Considering that many of my Catholic friends didn’t read the Bible, didn’t devote regular time to prayer, and hardly ever attended Mass, I was shocked by their accusations. Adding insult to injury, my best friend announced that even though I was a “good Christian,” she could never choose me to be the godmother of her children. Her comments stirred up a distant memory from childhood of a relative telling my parents, “You think you’ve been to church today, but you haven’t, because you did not go to Mass.”
After one particularly intense debate, I retreated to my room and began to sob in the dark on the cold floor of my bathroom. Then I leapt up, grabbed my keys, jumped into my car and drove off. I called my parents from a payphone at a Texaco station, weeping as I recounted the arguments between my friends and me. My mother says she will remember this day forever. I cannot blame her.
My parents empathized with my sorrow. They too had been deeply hurt by the insensitive and sometimes malevolent words and actions of Catholics. Across the miles, my parents comforted me as best they could. They asked me to love my friends in spite of their shortcomings but advised me to be wary of their intentions. “Persevere in your love and devotion to Christ,” they told me. I decided to turn the tables on my friends and show them the truth of the faith they seemed to scorn. I thought this strategy would lead me to a deeper experience of my Protestant faith. As it turned out, Christ brought me to a place I did not want to go.
Clothed in Christ
In the aftermath of this incident, I was thankful I had signed up for those classes in Lutheran theology. “It is important that you come to understand a major principle of Protestant theology,” my minister began. “The best way for me to illustrate this is visually.” Calling two members of the congregation to the front of the class, the pastor turned sideways and positioned one person in front of him and the other behind him. “Imagine,” he continued, “that Tom is God, Joe is the sinner, and in the middle is Christ.” “God” could not see Joe the sinner; he could only see “Christ.” “God sees ‘me’ through Christ. God accepts us because Christ stands between us, because we are clothed with Christ,” the pastor told us. The father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, used a more vulgar example: a piece of dung covered with snow. The dung represents us sinners; the snow is the pure, white covering of Christ.
Could this be true? Not even Christ’s work of salvation frees us? What then was the good of Christ’s dying and rising again? As I forged ahead in my studies and prayer, I discovered that the Lutheran faith holds that baptism does not wash away sin itself but only the punishment for original sin—damnation. It doesn’t fundamentally change us; it just covers us with the cloak of Christ. Jesus, apparently, didn’t die to heal us but to forgive us our debts.
I sat back lost in thought. An uneasiness welled up inside me. Aren’t I limiting God if I believe that man remains depraved? I wondered. Couldn’t God free me from sin if he wanted to? Why wouldn’t he want to? Why would God leave us trapped by sin and only “cover us over”? It didn’t make sense to me, and I wasn’t willing to let these issues go unquestioned.
Healed by God’s Grace
On New Year’s Eve, in a crowded gospel church, God granted me a signal grace that resolved many of my doubts. I recorded the event in my journal.
A Protestant friend invited me to accompany her to a prayer vigil to bring in the New Year. One hour was spent in song-filled praise and the other in prayer. The last hour was one of my finest hours. You spoke to me almost directly. I wanted to know how I stood in relation to you—as a woman healed or as a woman depraved in nature. As I prayed, the minister read this verse: “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Luke 5:37–39). I heard God saying, “Be still, my little child, for I love you. I will carry you through these times to my will. It may not be easy or painless, but I am here; just keep seeking me and I will answer you.”
I vaguely sensed that the “new wineskins” signify that man is given a “new self” in baptism and that the “new wine” symbolizes Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist.
Then it happened. For the first time in my life, I saw the whole picture. Jesus Christ leapt off the pages of Scripture and stood before me as a real person, living and breathing.
A Living Person
Of course, it took me months to understand the implications of my insights. Once I finally g.asped what was happening, I slammed my Bible shut in dismay and began to cry. I didn’t want to accept what I’d discovered by listening to God and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide my prayer. I knew that if I believed that Christ becomes physically present in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, through the priest who stands in the apostolic succession of Peter, I had to become Catholic. No other church upholds the teachings I had found in the pages of my Bible.
What I saw was so beautiful it moved me to tears, but I was also angry and disappointed. I cried aloud, “This is not what I asked of you, God! I wanted to prove Catholics wrong. This is not where I wanted to go!”
Wanting to avoid the inevitable suffering that would result from my conversion, I pretended for a time that God hadn’t summoned me. I stopped praying and hid within myself. When I eventually returned to prayer, I decided to enroll in RCIA.
My conversion was a result of giving my heart to God and his will unconditionally. Living out my Catholic faith brings a richness and a joy to my relationship with Christ beyond anything I ever experienced as a Protestant. I wanted to know God in a way so intimate that the Eucharist alone could satisfy my longing. Only such a personal relationship with Christ, nourished by our Lord himself, can sustain us when he asks us to follow him along paths we do not want to go.