The first signs of hunger for something more didn’t really even rise to the surface. As soon as they would rise up I would push them back down. I think I had questions that I wasn’t looking to answer. Catholicism never crossed my mind and on my own I never would have considered it. I didn’t know much about it, but what I did know made it a non-option.
I felt this hunger pang for spiritual direction, an inarticulate need for guideposts on my spiritual journey. As a protestant I felt this burden to journey alone in my faith – to figure it out on my own. There were classic books and protestant thinkers, but it was hard to read their material without a fine tooth comb to ensure they didn’t pull me off track. I was weary of being an individual in an individualized gospel.
I was raised by devout Protestant parents and was always serious about my faith. As a child I remember re-praying the salvation prayer alone in my room just to cover my bases. As a teenager I dabbled in minor rebellion, without anyone noticing, and quickly repented. I was careful to be who I thought I was supposed to. I was designated as a “leader” (whatever that means) and felt I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes – the wrong guy, bad grades, poor athletic performance being the main offenders. After a few years of that charade I grew weary and after a romantic heartbreak I found myself seeking the real God – and found Him. He was much more tender than I could have imagined. As I finished out high school with this real faith, I was rebelling against some of the rigid and robotic expressions of faith I had observed most of my life. In typical adolescent fashion, I assumed I knew everything about church life and Christianity. I had real experiences of God and solid beliefs, but little experience.
In college I started struggling with my faith. I wasn’t having those spiritual, mystical experiences I had a few years back and I couldn’t figure out why. I attended a protestant church that I loved, but it was an hour away. I just didn’t love any of the churches in the small town where I attended college and so I made the drive each week. While I appreciated the variety, I felt lost among all the choices as a protestant. This denomination, that church, his theology, or that movement. Honestly, it was one more choice to make, and one that I felt sure I would make poorly. I did’t know what to look for in a church beyond matters of personal taste and general orthodoxy, although, “general orthodoxy” was even getting trickier to pin down. I started wondering, if all we have is Scripture for authority, and there are countless interpretations of scripture, then who is right? And if I couldn’t tell who was right, then how did I really know what orthodoxy meant?
The first idea that me propelled into exploration was that where we attend church matters because it has an implication for the unity of Christianity. Unity is a big deal, despite the thousands of protestant denominations to choose from. While many of us have spent our lives church shopping to find a good fit, we forgot to consider that we’re called to unity.
I had all these questions underneath the surface, but just thought that was part of being an actualized Christian. I don’t want to perpetuate misguided images of Christianity being black and white – because it isn’t. Much of what we believe is nuanced and mysterious, and that is a beautiful part of our faith, but there is a lot more that is solid to our faith than I thought.
After college, I started in a graduate counseling program at a Protestant seminary. I thought it would be the perfect combination of intellectual, theological, and practical – not to mention it was 6,000 miles closer to my boyfriend’s law school. While that had nothing to do with my decision to attend seminary (wink) I was excited to have a deeper foundation of faith. I imagined myself extracting deep insight and inspiration daily as I did thorough exegesis during my morning devotions. I pictured my life suddenly swept up in the current that I had observed in many other devout protestants whom I admired. They were so sure of the answers they had. And they were good at talking about God.
The program requirements included 30 credits in bible classes. The first semester of my second year I begrudgingly enrolled in the most basic Old Testament course. I had read and appreciated a lot of the Old Testament, but I didn’t understand much of it. As we studied I began to understand the timeline, the covenants, the rituals and laws and I began to see the context of the gospel. It started making so much more sense; who Jesus was and why he had to “hang on a tree” (Dueteronomy 21:22-23). It helped me understand that who I pictured as a violent God of the Old Testament is actually the inestimably merciful God who tried everything he possibly could to get us to keep our covenants with Him.
In the class we talked a lot about what it means to make a covenant. A covenant, different than a contract, binds the two parties together. We learned that the process of sealing, or ratifying, the covenant was very important. Without it the covenant was invalid. A covenant always had to be ratified with blood (usually a lamb), and both members had to participate in the ratification for the covenant to be valid. As we wrapped up the course, the new covenant fulfilled by Jesus on our behalf made so much more sense to me. He accomplished for us what we could not; he fulfilled our obligation to the covenant. But I could not suppress one pesky question: How do we participate in the New Covenant? If it is so important that both parties participate in the ratification of the covenant, then how is the New Covenant valid? I never asked the question in class, nor did I really think to go searching for the answer. Thankfully, it came searching for me.
As time went on, my boyfriend became my fiancé, and his interest in Catholicism was growing unbeknownst to me. He was drawn to the intellectual coherency, the rich tradition, and recognized that since we weren’t actually protesting anything as Protestants, there was an obligation to Christian unity. He thought he should join the Catholic church unless he could come up with a good reason not to. I was more than hesitant. I considered breaking the engagement. Since we were obviously going to be in a Catholic-Protestant marriage, was it really wise to start off with such a major difference in beliefs? I decided to go forward in marrying and agreed to attend some silly RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes with him, but made no promises.
We had the privilege of attending RCIA classes taught by another convert; a genius
man who put a lot on the line as a former Anglican minister in order to convert to Catholicism. The RCIA class was extremely informative. There was so much material to be covered – most of which I had never heard of. I was so excited just to have new material in my spiritual life. All of a sudden I had been exposed to this whole history of writing and people who had beautiful things to teach me and who could show me the way. It turns out I had not reached the height of spiritual maturity as I had surmised; there was a bend in the path that from the distance looked like the end of the road, but was really just the beginning.
It only took a few months of attending classes before everything started shifting for me. Once we started covering the doctrine of the eucharist it became clear. This transubstantiation idea those Catholics believe, it’s how we participate in the new covenant. We drink the blood and eat the body because that is the scandalous way we participate in the new covenant. This is why the Catholics take mass so seriously, why the service is less about production value and more about “Heaven on Earth” as Scott Hahn says. I could not believe God answered a question I didn’t dare ask. He was faithful to me even when I didn’t think to search for answers. I was so content to live with questions. I thought learning to embrace tension was part of being spiritually mature. It is, but I had resigned myself to living without any answers, my own version of post-modernism. Converting to Catholicism from being a lifelong Protestant had a lot to do with letting go of my obsession to appear right before others in order to live what I believed was the truth. Ultimately, becoming Catholic felt like coming home.