Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Surprised by Resonance: How I became (and why I remain) Catholic

*As requested by some, here is the story of my conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism.*

The "how" of my conversion is not really all that different from anyone else's. I went to some classes. I walked in a line down a church aisle. I said some words. I let a man in white grease my forehead. And *poof!* everything changed and I became Catholic.

Except that it wasn't like that at all. Or at least, I could never really reduce it down to any matrix so simple. The decision to become Catholic was the most painful and agonizing of my life. And yet also, as it unfolded, the most surprising. You may know the C.S. Lewis book Surprised by Joy. There's a Catholic volume of conversion stories that gives that title a tweak: Surprised by Truth. I think I would call the story of my conversion Surprised by Resonance.

Having lived for 26 years as an Evangelical Protestant, my faith and my identity were as interwoven as the reeds of a Chinese finger trap. And just as binding. Mostly, I mean that in a good way. Since family heritage carries an enormous weight with me, it means almost more to me than I can say that on both sides of my family, I have at least 300 years of Protestant history. (It helps that my parents are fourth cousins. Somewhere back there the branches of the family attach back to the same trunk…) For all I know, my great-grandparents sixth removed were Luther groupies excommunicated with the best of 'em. In addition, my four years of education at Wheaton College conditioned me to view the universe through Evangelical eyes--a perspective I genuinely cherished. The world was my Protestant oyster. So when Anthony began to do some reading about the Catholic church a few years ago, it seemed merely like an interesting intellectual diversion. When he actually began to suggest we might eventually become Catholic, things got a bit thornier. Like um-excuse-me-who-is-this-heathen-I-married thornier. And then when he told me he actually believed we would definitely one day join the Church, I just got pissed.

I had SO many arguments with the Church's teaching. So many reasons I would never in a zillion years even consider linking myself with such a messed-up institution. They pray to Mary! They baptize infants! They worship statues! Plus, I couldn't recall ever having met a Catholic who legitimately appeared to have a thriving personal relationship with Jesus. This really did not bode well.

At the time, however, both Anthony and I knew we were at a crossroads because we needed to find a new church. For many reasons, it was time to leave the Protestant church we had attended together since getting married. So a few times we tried going to mass at St. Timothy's. Just to check it out, I told myself. But gradually, as we continued our church search, the Evangelical churches we visited just seemed to evoke the same negative reactions in us. We felt so done with the Evangelical culture. For both of us, we knew the church-shaped hole in our souls just could not include pandering to contemporary culture via a Jumbotron, branding, and cooler-than-thou leaders. And every time we visited St. Timothy (or any other Catholic church) we were refreshed by the lack of those things. It was simple people being addressed by simple leaders in a simple format. I also began to find a few of the Church's teachings and practices refreshing in their sensibleness. The idea that there was an establishment that could claim authority to interpret Scripture seemed on the one hand slightly pompous, but on the other hand, extremely practical. No more tomato-tomahto. There is someone to settle the debate. I am reminded of the Apostolic Christians, the Protestant denomination of my family's heritage, who experienced what I like to think of The Great Mustache Schism of 1911 over whether it was biblical to wear a mustache. (Yes, I am serious.) The Catholic church does not permit such ridiculousness.

Little by little, more and more of the Church's teachings appealed to me. Especially when I realized how many of my perceptions of what the Church taught were misinformed or flat-out wrong. I enrolled in RCIA in the winter of 2008 with the private caveat that this was still not a commitment. Just a little recon mission. In truth, I continued to feel this way basically up until Holy Week when I was scheduled to be confirmed. I still disagreed with the Church about so many things. How could I affiliate myself with an institution I took issue with so much? How could I perjure myself by repeating the statement of confirmation, claiming to believe everything the Church teaches? I kept hoping that since I was nine months pregnant at the time, Elliot would be born on Good Friday and I would thereby miss the Easter Vigil and have another year to think about it. Except I knew I couldn't agonize a whole other year about this.

I remember praying about it all in my backyard one afternoon when Gabriel was napping. In one sense, I felt a wifely duty to submit to my husband's desire to become Catholic. (In our premarital counseling, I said that if we ever came to a complete impasse in our marriage, I would be the one to submit--except that I didn't believe we would ever reach such a situation. *Pause for laughter from married people.*) But as I prayed, I felt the Lord very gently tell me that He wasn't asking me to submit to Anthony. He was asking me to submit to Himself. That this was actually His will for me. It wasn't my will for myself. Let to my own devices, I never would have made the choice to become Catholic. But that day of Holy Week, I felt an assurance that this was what God had for my life. To this day, I don't know all the reasons why.

It does, however, begin to unfold. As I said earlier, my journey into Catholicism has been one of surprise. I am still often surprised at how I find myself resonating with the Church. Like Dante's vision of heaven, the Church now seems to me a rose that continues to open with levels of beauty and unexpected truth (and I suppose, in its earthly humanness, the occasional thorn). The Catholic perspective on the dignity of life and incredible, God-revealing nature of our bodies just reverberates with truth. The depth of symbol in the mass is nearly heartbreaking. Catholic compassion for and service to the poor and needy outdoes any other church I have ever been a part of. (I'd be happy to share more with you personally if you'd like to email me--and I plan to write about many more of these truths on this blog.) In the end, I do also still disagree with the Church on many points. I do not hide that fact. I will never feel comfortable with any devotion to Mary, though my respect for her has grown immensely. I don't believe in Purgatory--just don't see a biblical basis. But I have decided to give the Church my respect and submit myself to its membership. After all, it does have 2,000 years of scholarship filled with millions of the greatest minds and spirits ever to walk this earth. I am only one mind, one spirit, with only 27 years of earth under my feet.

Lastly--and ultimately--the reason I am Catholic comes down to this: Jesus Christ established a Church on Earth. No matter its failings, it has stood the test of time and exists to this day in a form descended unbroken from Him. Where that exists on earth, I want to be a part of it.


  1. I really wish David were coming with me in June--he has been attending a very interesting lunch group made up of some staunch reformed Protestants, an LDS, and two Catholics (one seminary trained). It prompted him to do a small study on the Protestant vs. Catholic view of salvation. His final thoughts? In the end, it is not our theology that saves us--it is God.

  2. Wow, this is so interesting! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing. You know, when I became Catholic, one of the things that held me back was the idea of Mary. You know, because Catholics worship Mary. Or so I thought. (Really, that's not true, and I'm sure you know that already.) But after doing some studying, especially reading some of Pope John Paul's (II) encyclicals, I have come to the realization that the Church knows what she is talking about. A great book on the subject of Mary is Scott Hahn's Hail Holy Queen; bonus, as he is a convert as well (I think he was a Calvinist) and comes at it from a biblical perspective.

  4. Thanks for this Sarah. You've given me much to ponder (and I had been meaning to read this for some time). In light of our little facebook discussion, I again apologize for that which offended you. I hope you can see some sort of reason or benefit.

    I resonate with much of what you've said, and have filled my evangelical void differently than you (for now). I can see having taken a different path I would be where you are.

  5. I came over for the first time and have been reading your blog and got to this shows that after reading your other posts after this one you certainly have a relationship with Jesus and in the end that is what matters not the label we put on our 'religion' but our relationship with Him. Look forward to reading more!

  6. Hi Sarah! I don't know if you are still checking comments on this post or not, but I wanted to leave one as I can relate to your story on some level.
    My parents both grew up Catholic and are now Protestant. But due to them and my extended family, I have a more than average understanding and exposure to the Catholic Church. Every church/denomination etc... has it's flaws. What it boils down to is a love for and faith in Jesus. And after reading this, I see that in the heart of your writing.
    My husband and I are not Catholic, but we do agree with some Catholic teachings that most protestants do not embrace. Coming to this realization for me was much like your conversion. I didn't choose this life, it chose me, or rather God chose it for me. That isn't to say I haven't double checked with Him, but I have not looked back on our decision. I know I am doing what God has called me to do.
    I'm about to start a series on my blog about women, mothers in particular, that have all answered God's call on their life and not one of those lives are the same as another. God's call doesn't look the same for everyone as He has created us all differently.
    May He bless you on your journey!

  7. Sarah, I must confess my resistance to read this post since I was raised Catholic and carry a lot of the baggage of that era with me today. I survived the 2nd Eccuminical Council of the 60's . . . but not without very deep wounds.
    What I do want to say, and something you also touched on,is . . . it's all about Jesus. Not religion. Jesus. And full and radical obedience to Him. So if His sweet Holy Spirit is telling you and your husband he wants you in this church, you have no other option but to obey Him (well, you could be disobdient if you chose to)- and in obedience you are displaying your love for Him - not your love for what everyone else might think. Proverbs 3 tells us that there is a way that seems right unto man but that leads to destruction. God's ways are not our ways. Who can understand the mind of God?
    I too was placed in a church for the past 8 years that I would not have necessarily chosen if it was up to me. But my heart is for the Lord. And who knows but that He has placed you there so that He, through you, can bless the church. You are to be a light. Short of that, it is only Him, only Jesus who can glorify the Father. And that is the whole reason we are even here.
    Thank you for your courage. I may not agree. I may not understand. But if your eyes are on Jesus - it just don't matter otherwise.
    Blessings to you and your husband - and on your relationship with Jesus Christ! Amen?