"Dear, there is no such thing as a personal God." As a child, I remember hearing these words from my mom. My parents and my entire extended family were well meaning, kind, honest, moral agnostics who lived, for the most part, by Christian principals. We were a "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" bunch living a fairly normal, comfortable life.
When I was five, my parents went on vacation and left me with friends who had a teenager. On Halloween night I was awakened by that teen dressed as a witch, leaning over my bed with a big butcher knife and laughing. I was terrified. The next morning, while having breakfast on the porch, I looked out to see an angel in the branches of a big oak tree. It was very clear; the angel smiled at me and was gone, and I felt less afraid. Never having been near a Christian or a church, I had no idea what it was. I never mentioned it to anyone and parked it in the back of my mind and life for decades.
When I was eight, we moved to a house a few blocks from a large Congregational church. My idea of fun was to sit on the church steps and listen to the choir practice. I soon began begging to go to church, but my parents, unwilling to be hypocrites, refused. So I rebelled and began going on Sunday by myself. In Sunday school I was given a little Bible—kind of a party prize. The teacher never read it or taught us anything from it, but I used to carry it around, sensing it was something very special. In college, it never once occurred to me to pray—our family never did. I dated a Baptist for a short time, and he invited me to visit his family at their summer cabin. I slept in a big room with several bunk beds, and on the wall was a big purple and white sign: "God Has a Plan." The phrase burned itself somewhere into my spirit and was filed away with the angel and eventually went dormant. And so, over the years small seeds were planted, but they took decades to germinate.
From Catastrophic to Charismatic
Fast-forward to San Francisco where I spent my twenties during the 1960s. I dated a wonderful Catholic man for years who never mentioned a word about Jesus or the Church, but his family exuded faith in a subtle way that I couldn’t define or imitate. After he married, I sought comfort by visiting different churches, but I kept gravitating to a large cathedral because it was the only one that felt like a church. I would sit in the back pew and cry during the Latin Mass, not g.asping anything except a need to be there for some reason. I began to study with an elderly priest and read the lives of the saints. But I never read Scripture and had nothing approaching a personal relationship with Jesus.
About then I was involved in an awful incident on an airplane. The jet plummeted out of control, nose-down, for four and a half miles. The incident made headlines in both the San Francisco and Chicago papers: It was an absolute miracle we survived. By this time, I had learned to pray. You’d think that near-disaster would be the ultimate wake-up call, but no.
From there I dove into worldly rebellion, drowning in a flower-power morass, until I finally figured out that bootstraps weren’t going to pull me out. I needed real help, and so in 1969 I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. After receiving the Eucharist for the first time, I was unable to smoke a cigarette for three days! But it took me another thirty years to understand the power of the sacraments.
A few months later, I’d had it with San Francisco and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There I joined a parish, took some classes and met a wonderful charismatic nun, Sr. Helena. She lent me some books and took me to a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting. There were nuns in habits, hippies, scientists from Los Alamos, students, you name it. I’d never been in such a completely oddball group of mismatched people, all having such a great time together. I still didn’t know Jesus, but I was being sucked into the Kingdom of God at lightning speed. It was wonderful!
One night the group leader announced that a man had opened a Christian Bible Study coffee house and suggested we drop in and welcome him to town. I did, and for the next three years I was there five nights a week. He was an incredibly gifted teacher, and the small group of regulars there became my dearest friends and family. I eventually married one of them. But it was a Protestant group, and before long I came to believe that the Catholic Church was the whore of Babylon.
So, I barreled ahead in my new Christian life. I raised two wonderful sons and spent twelve years in the mission field, working mostly with northern New Mexican Pueblo people, dragging them out of their Catholic churches into our Assembly of God fellowship. We pastored two small Indian churches. I loved mission work and my church and friends. I will always treasure that solid foundation in Bible study and Christian living.
But there were times that certain passages in Scriptures bothered me, like 1 Corinthians 11:24-25: This is my body, this is my blood. I borrowed a Greek/English interlinear Bible and studied that passage word for word, trying to figure some way that is didn’t mean is, but of course it does mean is, so I swept that, along with several other passages—like the Church (Which church? Whose authority?) being the foundation of the faith—under my lumpy Protestant rug.
Following a divorce, I stumbled along on my own, but it was never the same. One day I ran into an old acquaintance, Laurel, who had been absent from my charismatic church for almost a year. When I asked her where she was seeking fellowship, she cleared her throat and said "Santa Maria de la Paz" (Catholic Church). I was horrified. I said something banal like "Well, there are probably some born-again people over there" and beat a hasty retreat. I didn’t see her for another year but prayed she’d be delivered from deception.
Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly restless at my church with no idea why. One Sunday I opened the yellow pages to the churches section and prayed "Lord, where?" (not realizing I had my hands on the Catholic Church listings). Another night I was channel surfing during a commercial break from the news, and I came across this cute, roly-poly nun teaching the Bible. This went on for a few weeks: I would flip back and forth from the news to EWTN, until one night I forgot to flip back to the news and realized I was in big trouble.
I Stumble Home to Rome
How could these Catholics have such profound Biblical insight and wisdom? (My anti-Catholic arrogance was in full gear at the time.) I began buying recommended books and tapes and dove headlong into Catholic apologetics. I called Laurel, repented for the way I’d treated her a year before, and admitted I feared I was heading the same direction. We started a small weekly Catholic dinner group and invited a dear, gentle, newly ordained priest named Fr. Gary. I assaulted him with all the typical Protestant objections, and he patiently addressed every issue. I studied, cried, lost sleep, and fought my way through doctrine after doctrine, keeping a file on each one. I wrote testy e-mails to online apologists, dove into my concordance and commentaries, checked out the arguments and searched Scripture, trying my best to refute what I was learning—and kept losing.
Over twenty cassettes and six books later, I was finally able to make at least some peace with Mary. I know this must be tough for a cradle Catholic to g.asp, but she is so often the biggest stumbling block for converts from Evangelicalism. The warp and woof of my Christian Protestant life was sola scriptura, so I had to discover Mary in Scripture—and, lo and behold, there she was! Why had it taken me thirty years to see that she is the Ark of the New Covenant, my Mother, perpetually Virgin, a precious gift? I had many humbling moments; this was just one of them. That was my life, back-pedaling and lurching home to Holy Mother Church.
An Unspeakable Rush of Joy
I "double-dipped" for months, going to my Protestant church at ten a.m. and then scooting out early to make Mass at noon. One Sunday at the Protestant service, the congregation was invited to join the elders on a weekend mission trip to Mexico, evangelizing door-to-door (that is, inviting Mexican Catholics to the Protestant church). I sat there in a back pew realizing that, were I to go on that trip, I would do so as a stealth Catholic, sharing with the people the wonders of their Catholic faith. I knew in that moment I had fallen over the edge and was no longer a Protestant.
I was still conflicted and somewhat sad to be leaving what had been so comfortable for 30 years, but I was falling in love. I knew without a doubt I was absolutely on track in going home to the Church, where the Rock of Ages sits enthroned as our King and Eucharist, and to that great cloud of witnesses dwelling in heaven, waiting and praying for our reunion with them. I knew I’d live a lie for the rest of my life if I didn’t convert. And so, after two wrenching years, leaving black heel marks all the way, I went to confession and was received back into the Church at Easter in 1999.
This decision does not constitute a criticism of Protestantism—rather, the Catholic Church is, for me as for all converts, the fullness of the faith, the historical and true Church founded by Jesus Christ. It has completely filled and satisfied a gaping restlessness in my spirit. Now I believe the power of that Catholic baptism thirty years before drew me down this convoluted road back home to Rome; once I was firmly back in the fold, there came a rush of joy, unspeakable and full of glory!
A postscript: After twenty years of prayers, both my parents had a conversion experience before they died, my father at 91 and my Mother at 89. And my stubborn, beloved brother accepted the Lord four months before he died of cancer in 1984. God is good!