I was 33 when Jesus sandbagged me. Looking back, I can see that he had been sneaking up on me for quite a while, but at the time I never saw him coming.
I had always been a spiritual seeker, and maybe that’s what fooled me; I expected to seek God, but I didn’t expect him to seek me. And I could not have imagined what it would be like to be found.
Born in Enid, Oklahoma, I was raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) after my family moved to Oklahoma City when I was four. I was baptized at ten, having asked to “receive Christ as my personal Savior.” For a few years I indeed felt I had a personal relationship with Jesus.
I read the Bible. I played “communion” with saltines and Welch’s grape juice-but I added such non-Disciples touches as candles and incense. In Camp Fire Girls I learned that “Worship God” was the first law of life; singing songs to “Woh-Kon-Dah,” the Great Spirit, around a flickering council fire imparted a sense of the immensity and mystery of God.
There were a few Catholics in our Oklahoma City neighborhood, but I understood they were somehow beyond the pale. My mother recalls my once coming home in tears because a Catholic kid had threatened to sprinkle me with holy water.
I did have pleasant experiences of Catholics, of course. When my mother, who was a registrar of voters, visited St. Ann’s home for the aged, I accompanied her. One of the men was so grateful that she had come to register the residents that he gave me a pop-up storybook that was a favorite for years. I recall being impressed by the nuns in their flowing black habits-and surprised that they seemed so gentle.
I felt envious of Catholic kids because their religion seemed so serious. Once a classmate told me that he was sure a Catholic friend was telling him the truth because he’d been holding a crucifix: “He would never lie while holding the crucifix.”
But I heard the usual anti-Catholic stories Protestants grow up with, and it never occurred to me to question them. When I was eleven, my parents and I visited Monterrey, Mexico, and our guide took us to a beautiful church there. We admired the art and architecture, but thought it scandalous that such a church existed side by side with obvious poverty. That this discrepancy was somehow the fault of the Catholic Church we never questioned.
In high school I became active in Young Life, an Evangelical youth movement whose members met once a week for singing and Bible study. The leader was personable, and the talk seemed more relevant than what I heard in church. I began to resist attending services with my parents. Before long, though, I lost interest in Young Life as well-about the time I started dating.
I Learn Where We Got the Bible
When I had learned enough history to know that the Bible, which had been presented to me as the sole source of doctrine, had been in the hands of the Catholic Church for 1,500 years, I lost all confidence in Protestant Christianity. It made no sense to me to say, on the one hand, that Catholicism was corrupt and not to be trusted and, on the other, that we were to place our entire faith in a book of which the Church had sole custody for centuries.
At the same time I felt an inexplicable attraction for things Catholic, especially religious life. I remember standing in front of a mirror, arranging scarves to resemble a nun’s veil. When I saw The Nun’s Story, I thought Audrey Hepburn was a fool to leave such a beautiful life. I didn’t know any Catholics well, but I remember liking the nuns when I visited friends in Oklahoma City’s St. Anthony’s Hospital. I was surprised to find them joking and laughing.
At seventeen I had the opportunity to be a summer exchange student with American Field Service. I was sent to a village in the French Alps, and during a stopover in Paris I visited Notre Dame Cathedral. I was stunned by its beauty and reverent atmosphere. I looked forward to learning more about Catholicism from my host family, but they were not practicing Catholics; indeed, they ridiculed the Church and all who were fidèles.
They took me to several churches as tourist attractions, including the Church of the Visitation in Annecy, the foundation church of the Visitandines; beneath the altar rest the remains of Francis de Sales and Jeanne de Chantal. I recall having a feeling of awe as I looked upon the saints’ bodies in their glass sarcophagi-my French family and friends teased me about being dévote. They also laughed at me for reading the little New Testament I had brought with me.
My French family and friends were kind, generous people, and I don’t mean to criticize them, but I see my stay in France as an opportunity missed. If I had known any solid Catholics then, I might have pursued my attraction for the Church, but the moment of grace was squandered. Instead I returned to the States for my senior year with a new cynicism and a deep impatience with high school life in what I saw as a cultural wasteland. Increasingly alienated, especially after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I turned more and more to the writings of Beat poets, existentialists, and Zen masters. For the rest of my adolescence I drifted spiritually, reading D. T. Suzuki and Albert Camus, the Tao Te Ching and Jean Paul Sartre. I longed to go to California, where I was sure life must be less provincial.
I began attending the Unitarian Church, where I felt at home in the liberal intellectual ambience. In those days of desegregation and social change, it was good to feel a part of throwing off the old order. One of the sermons I recall most vividly cited Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which I now know is the fictional source for much of the disinformation about Pope Pius XII’s role in World War II. The sermon fed my sense of outrage and probably contributed to my mistrust of institutional Christianity. I still considered myself a Christian, but not in the sense taught in churches; I felt I would have to invent my own religion to feel completely satisfied, and I even made some notes as to its projected beliefs and practices.
Whether coincidentally or not, I experienced some emotional problems about this time, and I canceled plans to attend college out of state. Instead, I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, about thirty miles from Oklahoma City. During my first semester there, I fell in with a group of campus Bohemians who stayed up all night on weekends playing music and writing poetry. I had found my people at last! I started taking amphetamines (so I could stay up all night) and drinking a lot (to take the edge off the uppers).
I also cut classes, and my grades plummeted. But I was ecstatic to be with others who talked about Eastern religions, art, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, racial justice. One young man in particular caught my attention: He had actually lived in California, and he was full of tales of its perfections. A couple of weeks into my second semester, I left school to live with him, on the understanding that he would take me to the “Promised Land.”
We arrived in Los Angeles just after the Watts riots of August 1965. By then I was regularly using marijuana and had taken LSD. Drugs were more plentiful than in Oklahoma, and, while I was never a heavy user, I was immersed in the drug-and-music subculture. I was exposed to a side of life I hardly had suspected, mingling with prostitutes, drug dealers, convicted felons, porn-film actresses, and petty hustlers.
My boyfriend and I co-wrote songs as staff songwriters for Leon Russell’s publishing company. At the time Leon was a partner of producer Snuff Garrett and was enjoying the success of Gary Lewis and the Playboys. His fame as a blues-rock singer came later. Living at his North Hollywood home (called “the mission” because a number of musicians always lived there) gave us entree into the mid-sixties music scene. The studio and rock salon drew artists from Glen Campbell to the Electric Prunes, Delaney and Bonnie to J. J. Cale. Many were other Okie musicians who had known Leon in Tulsa.
For the next year and a half, my partner and I wrote songs and smoked grass and hung out with other musicians and dopers. We shared an apartment in Laurel Canyon with Tom Tripplehorn, then guitarist for Gary Lewis (and later father of actress Jeanne Tripplehorn). It was a pleasant life, but I knew what it was to go hungry, and something in me wearied of its aimlessness. I had little contact with my family for the first two years I lived in L. A.
Flower Child Mystic
During this time I began studying astrology, the occult, and the writings of Edgar Cayce. Like drugs, such ideas were ubiquitous in California in the 1960s. I remember one afternoon, relaxing in the lambent Laurel Canyon sunshine, realizing with a shock that I no longer believed in Jesus, even in my idiosyncratic way, and wondering how that faith had slipped away.
In late 1966 I met the man who was to become my son’s father. We lived together for a year, then married in 1967. He was also a songwriter and musician; I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was an alcoholic as well.
That disease was disguised for the next few years as we practiced a form of spiritual yoga that required abstinence from meat, eggs, drugs, and alcohol. We meditated every day under the guidance of a guru, a “perfect living master.” Although the organization was, in some ways, a cult, there was never any request for money, no coercion, no abuse of power; I still value much of what I learned about traditional Eastern mysticism from its teachings.
In 1969 we moved to San Francisco and opened a music store. Our son was born in 1971. Since my husband was recording often in Nashville, we decided to move there. We sold the music store and bought a small farm.
Completely ignorant of the rigors of farm life, we cut our own firewood, worked a large garden, and learned how to freeze and can our food. Isolation took its toll. Without the support of other practitioners, our spiritual practice declined; we fought frequently; we tried marriage counseling, separated, tried counseling again. He resumed drinking, and with that came the beginnings of physical abuse (he had always been verbally and emotionally abusive). Like most women in my situation, I continued to believe that, if I could only show him enough understanding and love, he would change.
When I stopped meditating, however, I felt I had been sleepwalking through my life for the previous six years, learning to “transcend” the unacceptable rather than making needed changes. When the threats escalated, I took our son and moved out. Friends hid us for several weeks until I felt reasonably assured that he would not carry out his threat to kill me or kidnap our son.
For the next few years, I lived an unsettled life. I worked in a Nashville music store and pursued my own songwriting with some success. I hated leaving my son in day-care, but I had to work to support us. As a single woman, I tried to fit in with permissive 70s attitudes, but I was never comfortable with them. My behavior was pagan, but my heart was monogamous.
I had no spiritual life at all; indeed, I was an agnostic. My “failure” with Eastern meditation left me with a distaste for spirituality, although, ironically, I continued to consult psychic readers occasionally. I ridiculed any sort of Christian belief. Once, walking downtown on my lunch hour, I snickered at an old black street preacher, who whirled on me with fire in his eyes and said, “You’re too proud, young lady! You’re too proud!” I laughed, but inwardly I was shaken. I knew there was truth in his words.
In 1976 a friend gave me a copy of Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, and I went on to read all of Percy’s books. I was baffled by the fact that such a gifted writer could be a Catholic, but I tried to overlook that failing in him.
The End of Innocence
Another experience with a Catholic writer coincided with a turning point in my life. One Sunday evening a friend and I were assaulted as we walked through a restaurant parking lot. We escaped with our lives, but not without injury. I was immobilized for several weeks, and I took the opportunity to read J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Reflecting on the mugging and reading Tolkien’s tale, I came to acknowledge, for the first time, that evil exists and that sometimes one must resist it. It was the end of my days as a flower child.
Largely for social reasons, I began attending the Unitarian Church again. I liked the idea that I was not required to believe anything-or even do anything. My son seemed to like the Sunday school, and several of my women friends were already members, so I joined. In fact, I became quite active, serving as president of the council and working part-time as church secretary.
For about five years I embraced feminism, including a “personally opposed but pro-choice” position on abortion. I belonged to a women’s group and was briefly a member of NOW. I came to part ways with secular feminism even before my conversion-over the issues of abortion and lesbianism. In my soul, I knew these were not genuine “women’s” concerns.
I had gone back to college, attending evening classes in journalism and English, and in 1979 I began freelance writing. Among my first published pieces was a review of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being. I had long enjoyed the Southern satire of her short stories, with no consciousness that she was an orthodox Catholic. I felt stunned as I read the letters and realized, for the first time, that she really believed that stuff. The prevailing attitude among Unitarians was that Christians were generally benighted and Catholics were positively backward; I was shocked to discover that this obviously intelligent, witty, superb writer took her faith seriously.
A meditation group met weekly at the Unitarian church. Using a rock or a candle as a focus, we silently repeated a mantra of our own choosing, like “Peace” or “Joy.” One morning, a participant asked us to “send healing vibrations” to a church member who was in the hospital for thoracic surgery. She suggested that, since blue-green is “a healing color,” we all visualize blue-green and “send” it to the man. I dutifully closed my eyes and tried to visualize blue-green.
I was astonished when I saw an inward image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, wearing a blue-green mantle-the color, I later learned, of her cloak as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In my mind’s eye, she took off the mantle and laid it across the chest of the man for whom we were meditating. I understood it as a gesture of healing and protection.
When the meditation was ended and I shared my experience (which baffled me, since I had never had any previous “dealings” with Mary), other participants seemed shocked and embarrassed; it was such an un-Unitarian thing to visualize.
Over the next few months, I continued to meditate on my own; I wanted a spiritual life again, but I had no idea where to find one. Inspired by a phrase I heard interiorly, I took as my mantra, “Show me the right, and help me to do it.” I had no idea Whom I was addressing, if anyone, but the prayer was sincere.
By late 1979 I was working full-time for The Tennessean as a reporter. That Thanksgiving, I was assigned to write the holiday story. I had the cynical attitude obligatory for journalists; I shocked my city editor by telling him, with a straight face, that I planned to do my story about Clover Bottom (a residential facility for the severely retarded): “For Thanksgiving, they’re going to let the inmates bite the heads off turkeys.”
He did a double-take, then grinned. “Newkirk,” he said, “I think you have management potential.” I tell this not because I am proud of it, but to offer a glimpse into my habitual way of thinking at the time.
What I actually wrote about was the local food bank, and a telephone interview with its director (let’s call him “Andrew”) led to a lunch date. We began seeing each other.
Andrew and his daughter went home to Oklahoma with my son and me that Christmas, and on Christmas Eve we went to services at the Episcopal church in Enid. It was my first exposure to liturgical worship, and, although I felt uncomfortable, I was also moved by it. There is a “sweet spirit” about Anglican worship, as Fr. Ray Ryland says, and it drove home to me the hope of the Nativity. I think of that Christmas Eve as remote preparation for what was shortly to come.
Ambushed in Nazareth
Back in Nashville, Andrew usually attended a Methodist church, and I sometimes went with him. I was touched by the communion service there and began wondering why we couldn’t have something similar for Unitarians who wanted it. After all, the great thing about Unitarianism is that it can appropriate whatever it likes from any faith tradition. Why not communion? The associate minister was all for it, and we made plans to discuss it.
Before that could happen, though, I was ambushed. Jesus knocked me on the head.
Andrew had heard about a weekend seminar in Nazareth, Kentucky, on the spirituality of Thomas Merton, and he wanted to go. Moreover, he wanted me to go. I was reluctant to spend an entire weekend with a bunch of Catholics. I knew they would be judgmental, fanatical, and just plain weird. But Andrew insisted it would be fun, and I let him sign us up.
I checked a book out of the library called, I believe, The Thomas Merton Reader. I read an excerpt from The Seven Storey Mountain and thought, “Well, of course he’d be attracted to an authoritarian Church; it’s obvious he’s compensating for the early loss of his mother.” I went on reading, and became more and more impressed with Merton’s insights. I had an insight of my own: Everyone has a psychology. It’s possible to discount anyone’s ideas on that basis-but, since allideas can thus be dismissed, it is not a useful method of determining truth. That had the effect of a revelation to me, and I read the rest of the anthology with a more open mind.
When we arrived at the retreat center, I was embarrassed to discover that Andrew and I had been assigned a room together in the guest house for married couples. The good sisters had assumed we were married, and I was too embarrassed to set them straight. Fortunately, the room had twin beds. (Much later, I had a good laugh with the retreat center director about the mix-up.)
Discovering the Tradition
The seminar was given by James Finley, author of Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, still the finest exposition of Merton’s spiritual teachings. I arrived for the opening conference on Friday night with legal pad in hand and began furiously scribbling notes. The more Finley said, though, the more I realized that he knew everything I knew about Eastern mysticism-and he also knew about a whole rich tradition of Christian mysticism of which I had been wholly unaware. At some point that evening, I laid my legal pad on the floor, capped my pen, and began simply to listen.
As I had been with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, I was surprised that someone so obviously intelligent and knowledgeable could actually believe Catholic dogma. To my Unitarian-flower child mind, immersed in syncretism, that was incomprehensible. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Catholics, religious and lay, attending the conference. They were so friendly, funny, and-well, normal. I especially felt comfortable with Sister Carol, from Nashville, to whom Andrew introduced me; it was she who had told him about the seminar.
Sometime during the weekend, I began to feel a Presence. I can’t explain it, except to say it was an overwhelming feeling of love, the most powerful love I had ever felt. It was not an abstract feeling merely, but a Person. I knew absolutely, without knowing how I knew, that the Person was Jesus Christ. He was as familiar to me as a dear friend or parent; all my childhood closeness to and trust in him returned in a split second, but infinitely intensified. The conference began on January 25, which I later learned is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
I told no one what I was experiencing; in fact, ironically, Andrew and I fought like cats all weekend.
“This Is Where I Live. . . .”
On Sunday morning, the conference closed with Mass. I had never been to a Catholic Mass before, but I wanted to go. I sat with Andrew and Sister Carol, and she coached me on when to stand, sit, and kneel.
As I listened to the readings every word seemed aimed directly at me. The hymns and the homily, too, pierced my heart, so that I spent the entire Mass with tears streaming down my face. Most of all, I felt even more strongly that Presence. It was as if it said, “This is where I live. I’ve been waiting for you here.” At Communion time I knew I wasn’t supposed to go forward, but I couldn’t stop myself. When the priest placed the Bread in my hand, I said, still in tears, “Thank you!”
When I returned to Nashville, I wrote about the experience for the paper’s Sunday section. My editor called it a “conversion story,” which rocked me; I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. I spent the next few weeks reading every book I could find about the Catholic Church-and attending every otherkind of church. I went back to the Methodist church. I returned to the Disciples of Christ. I attended Episcopal services.
I knew my experience demanded a response, and I knew that response had to be to live as a Christian, but I was frantically bargaining with God: “Please don’t make me be a Catholic.” That was too radical, too exacting. It would interfere with my life.
When I went to the Catholic bookstore in Nashville to buy books, I covered one side of my face as I walked in the door-the whole right-hand wall was covered with crucifixes, and I could not bear to look at them. Yet I knew that to become a Christian and not embrace the Catholic faith would be to perpetuate, in my own life, the divisions that hinder the Kingdom. I spent a lot of time crying.
One day when the roads were thick with ice, I went to the noon Mass at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. There were only a dozen other worshipers in the church, which was gloomy and garish before its renovation. The priest muttered the Mass quickly, and the people looked bored. There was nothing at all, humanly speaking, to appeal to me. But that Presence! Again I found myself in tears throughout the Mass. Not knowing when to stand or kneel, I ended up kneeling throughout the liturgy, weeping. I did not go forward for Communion this time.
After Mass, I stayed behind to pray. “God,” I said, “if you want me in the Catholic Church, give me some sign.” Just in front of me was a statue of a woman in a mantle and veil, whom I assumed was Mary. I prayed the Hail Mary (as best I could recall it). I asked her to pray for me, to help me know God’s will. (Later, I learned the statue was of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who became my co-patron.)
I Get the Message
When I got up to leave, I discovered I was the only one left in the church. I tried to go out the door I had come in, but it was locked. One by one, I tried all the other doors and found them locked, too. I began to chuckle and cry at the same time, as I realized I had my “sign” that God wanted me in the Catholic Church.
At last, someone came out of the sacristy and showed me how to get out the rectory-side door.
I finally told Andrew I intended to become a Catholic, and we broke up that night; I guess his ecumenical spirit went only so far. I called the only Catholic I knew, Sister Carol, and she gave me the name of a Franciscan priest who was campus minister at Tennessee State University. I made an appointment.
On the afternoon we were to meet, I was getting cold feet. I shouldn’t rush into this, I thought. I’ll just call and cancel the appointment. As I picked up the telephone, I heard a strange rustling in the holly bushes outside my window. I went to look. There, beating its wings and hovering in front of the window as if it were trying to get in, was a white dove. In the greenery behind it, another dove rested on a branch. Feeling that God was being a little too obvious, I got my car keys and left to meet the priest.
Later I described these “signs” as God’s way of speaking to me in large, primary letters, in words as simple and clear as a Dick and Jane reader. He needed to get my attention, and I was too dense for subtlety. I started attending daily Mass at the TSU chapel, Lwanga House, and was privileged to meet several African Catholics whose deep faith and solid orthodoxy were models for me. On May 4, 1980, I was received and confirmed, with Sister Carol as sponsor. At the same time, my eight-year-old son, at his request, was baptized.
Becoming a Catholic is one of the two great decisions in my life I have never regretted (the other is becoming a mother). I was afraid that living a Catholic life would be difficult, and it has been. It has meant remaking my whole self, discarding all sorts of cultural and psychological baggage, slowly and painfully surrendering pet assumptions and cherished vices, a process that is, believe me, still far from complete.
Why Me, Lord?
I wish I could say that, like saints I read about, I had been entirely faithful, from the moment of my conversion, to the tremendous graces I have received, but I have been unfaithful to them all too often. I have sinned and come back, sinned and come back, until I was sure God must be disgusted with me. Sometimes I think the only thing I have done right is to keep dragging myself to the sacraments. I have found God to be, as Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas, “mercy within mercy within mercy.”
A stranger once asked me why some have faith, while others don’t. I replied, “Faith is a gift, and I pray for it daily.” I don’t know whether my answer satisfied him. It only partly satisfies me. Every Catholic must ask himself at times, “Why me? Why am I deluged with grace, bathed in it, when others seem to live parched lives?”
I wonder, for example, why Andrew, who, by any measure, was a far better person than I, only enjoyed a pleasant seminar that January weekend, while I ran smack into the Living God. Why have I remained a believing Catholic, even while disobedient, while Sister Carol eventually left her order and the Church?
I don’t know. My only response is grateful awe at God’s goodness to me and a silent prayer to keep the faith.