I suppose the proper place to begin is to share how I became a Christian, because my conversion to Christ is the beginning of my conversion to Catholicism. I grew up in a family that was sporadic in church attendance (Methodist). Nevertheless, I was taught to revere God, and when I was a very little girl, my mother would take me on her lap and teach me songs about God and bits of the Bible. Mother taught me the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), the 23d and 100th Psalms, the Apostle’s Creed that was recited every Sunday in the Methodist Church.
When I was in high school, I began to attend the MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) at our church in Aberdeen. I began to see that the Christian faith is relevant to our lives today, not at all archaic as was being claimed in popular culture. Because my parents had neglected to have me baptized as a baby, and because I had not been interested in attending confirmation classes as a fifth grader (when such things are “required”), I spoke to the pastor and was soon baptized and confirmed into membership in the church.
After I graduated from high school in 1975, some events occurred which altered my life forever. One night, alone in my room, while I was stewing over something, I heard the voice.
“Before the beginning.”
I knew I was alone in my bedroom, but I sat up from my bed and looked around the room, anyway. The voice seemed very close.
“Before the beginning.” Well… I knew enough of the Bible to recognize “the beginning:” “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1), and “In the beginning was the Word….” (John 1:1)
“Before the beginning – “ the Voice again – “I knew you.”
And I saw – I cannot tell you whether it was an image given to my imagination or something more physical, I can only tell you I saw – two figures in very bright light, looking down a corridor into a room – a room with dingy green walls, an antique four-poster bed, and a teenage girl crying on the bed. My room. And me in it. I was given to understand that the corridor signified Time, and that the two figures I could distinguish were Father and Son; the brightness surrounding them was to signify the Holy Spirit. One turned to the other and said, “I’ll take care of it.”
And then I saw Christ on the Cross. You must understand that at that time, my sole familiarity with the appearance of the Crucifixion was from classical art representations I had seen in books and in the museum on a school tour. Very clean, very sterile. Very polite.
But the Jesus I saw on that cross – from His chest up – was beaten to a bloody pulp. No part of His body that I could see was without the varied discolorations of bruising, from yellow to angry purple. There were cuts and scratches and deep lacerations – even places where part of His flesh gapped open in deep angry holes, skin and muscle hanging loose from His shoulders. His hair and beard were matted with blood and gore. The crown of thorns was larger than anything I had ever seen in any painting – before or since – and the inner spikes of the crown were gouged deeply into the flesh of His forehead, creating still more deep lacerations.
I was horrified. Only years later I would hear of the nature of Roman scourging, of the cat o’ nine tails with the bits of nails and metal that would catch an gash and tear a man’s flesh open from his body. Only years later I would find the verse in Isaiah 52, the chapter before the better-known “suffering servant” passage, which states that He would be “marred beyond the appearance of a man” (v. 14). But that night, I saw with my own eyes the naked reality of Christ’s Passion.
He lifted His head and looked at me, and He said, “Sweetheart, don’t you understand? If you had been the only person in all of human history who needed to be reconciled to the Father, I would have done all this… just for you.”
My concept of the generic salvation of the “world” of John 3:16 as I had previously understood it was shattered. It was my sin, my despair that had put Him on the cross, damned Him Who did no wrong to such unspeakable, obscene suffering. I began to weep, and to say out loud, “Yes Yes ” (My parents never said anything, but they must have thought I was totally nuts.) “Oh, yes ”
After that night, I became very dissatisfied with the Methodist Church. So little passion for the Lord! And the order of worship we followed, with its watered-down liturgy – I thought the problem, the spiritual complacency I observed, had developed because people were reading the responses without thinking what they were thinking and saying and affirming, in the prayers and in the Creed. I blamed the liturgy; I wanted something better.
I gravitated toward fundamentalist churches. I spent several months attending Calvary Memorial Church, an independent fundamentalist church with a great deal of zeal and strong Bible teaching. I learned to love the Scriptures and to rely on them for doctrine and life instruction through that church. There were problems, though, and I wasn’t there long. Danny and I were dating by then, and I attended his home church in Southern Pines; together we participated in services at other friends’ churches, most frequently the Pentecostal Holiness church in Aberdeen, where a friend’s father was pastor and one of our friends was preparing to enter the ministry.
For years I jumped from church to church. It seemed I couldn’t be happy anywhere for long. This church seemed to be filled with people who had no real care for religion, beyond habit and “duty.” This church was exuberant and excited about sharing the Gospel… but there were no opportunities for deepening the faith beyond “spiritual infancy.” This church was too insular, ignoring the needs of people outside its doors. This church was negligent in matters of mission work. This church saw no need for evangelism. That one was superficially vibrant and enthusiastic, but was trapped in emotionalism as a gauge for “grace.” I was looking for perfection – in my church, and for myself.
We were at a Christian and Missionary Alliance church for several years, happy ones for me. They had a strong family program, AWANA, women’s Bible studies, a wonderful women’s mission union. Every February the church sponsored a missions conference, in which missionaries home on furlough from all around the globe would come and share stories of their work with us. The C&MA is a much larger denomination overseas than in the U.S. as a result of its deep commitment to foreign mission work. I loved the stories we heard, and the people we met through the missionaries’ stories and slides. A choir was begun while we were there, and I became choir accompanist. This is a job I held until Dan and I separated, and it was my favorite and deepest mode of worship and prayer.
Ironically, though, after the separation, it was not from my church that I received my strongest spiritual or emotional support, but rather from the academic community at Guilford College, where I was working on my bachelor’s degree. The gentle but strong Quaker influence over the campus allowed me a lot of room to go through the faith crisis that was inevitable with the end of my marriage.
I had been taught, indoctrinated, from my earliest days as a Christian, that if one “plays the game right” – if one attends church, reads the Bible studiously, prays, gives to the Church, abstains from all immoral practices – if one has enough faith – then God will perform miracles and bad things will not happen to the faithful believer. But I had played the game right, and Dan had still left me. Suddenly, a lot of the things I had been taught I had to believe as a Christian – and I confess, that I had obnoxiously passed on to other people as well – were invalidated. They didn’t hold water. The surface upon which my religious life had been built for more than a decade shattered.
If it hadn’t been for the still-vivid memory of the vision of Christ on the Cross, that profound revelation of God’s love for me, I believe I would have done what a lot of other severely disappointed Christians do in an unanticipated crisis and abandoned Christianity altogether. But somehow the memory of that vision assured me that God’s love for me was real, even if His ways had been misrepresented to me through human religious institutions.
The Quakers gave me plenty of room to sort out the mess. Theirs is simultaneously a mystical yet bold confidence in God’s ability – and desire – to lead His people to Himself. I felt as if I had to start all over again as a Christian, from the basic reality of “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” and discover anew what it means to be a Christian. This did not frighten the Quakers as it did the evangelicals; rather, it excited those with whom I shared my thoughts on the matter.
It was while I was a Quaker that I began working for an attorney in Greensboro whom I had met while we both served as volunteers for a local pro-life ministry. Jim was a member of a large, upscale Methodist Church in downtown Greensboro… but he was also a great admirer of the Catholic Church who attended Mass regularly, prayed the rosary, and read Catholic writers by the truckloads. His enthusiasm for the Church intrigued me.
My first memories of exposure to the Church were as a child. The movie The Sound of Music comes immediately to mind. I thought it was wonderful that someone could choose to live life fully for God. Later I read Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, and I realized that her Catholic Christian faith was a much more vibrant part of her personal and family life than the movie had portrayed. Of course, as I grew older and began hearing things about the Catholic Church, its superstitions and oppressive rules and regulations, I though it was a pity that such devotion was tragically wasted on such an institution
I have never believed that the Catholic Church was the “whore of Babylon” like so many fundamentalists have taught. I did believe some of the things I heard: that Catholics worshipped Mary, that they unquestioningly followed the Pope and even worshiped him; that they had superstitions about praying to dead people, that they didn’t believe Jesus’ sufferings and death were adequate to save others but needed “help” from suffering Christians, that married people could only have sex to make a baby and were paranoid about sex in all cases … but I didn’t think Catholics were bad people, just misguided and trapped in bad teaching.
And I’d even read some of the Catholic fathers in college, in a History of Christianity course. Frankly, I hadn’t seen the pertinence of them. I wasn’t mature enough as a student or as a Christian to appreciate what important works I was being exposed to; I had wanted to get dates, a time line of crucial developments in the physical structure of the church, not read a bunch of dense ideas by people I’d never heard of, people like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origin… Thomas Aquinas. I did enjoy Augustine’s Confessions, a text appreciated by Christians of all denominations. But most of the Church fathers were sleepers, by my reckoning. Dead, outdated, outmoded… totally irrelevant to contemporary church life. If they weren’t, we’d hear a lot more about them in the modern pulpit, wouldn’t we? Well, wouldn’t we? And I was content with that attitude.
But then I found a pamphlet. A fellow named John Barger, just five months after the death of his wife, Susan, had given a talk to a men’s group about what it means to be a husband. “Do You Love Me?” had been reproduced in pamphlet form, and one day at the office, I picked up a copy from Jim’s desk and sat down to read. I had tears in my eyes when I finished: here was a man who understood, who reaffirmed and validated, everything I had longed for in my marriage with Danny – ideals of heart-companionship and partnership – everything was laid out in black and white, right there in that pamphlet.
Something stirred in my heart. I knew Catholics were consistently faithful in their pro-life testimony, even though the mainstream Protestants were becoming increasingly accepting of abortion, of homosexuality, sexual license in all forms as well. I realized that the Catholic Church was the only large Christian group that had consistently held on to the old moral values. And I respected that. Admired it. And now, through this little pamphlet of John Barger’s. I began to be aware of the great idealism with which the family is honored by the Church – and of the Catholicity of the ideal I’d thought unique to Quakerism: the sacramental quality of all of life.
Laura, you certainly have a gift for writing!
I agree with Chris 100%. You have given me a wonderful feeling with your creation of words. Keep writing!
Wow! I’m hooked. Onto the next chapter. You do write wonderfully, Laura!