Monday, March 16, 2009

The Race: My Conversion Story

…Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

My conversion story begins with my first remembrance of God, when I was about 8. But my conversion is still ongoing. I’m still running my race. I’m still struggling to live the Christian life and still hoping for the ultimate prize: eternity with Jesus in Heaven.

When I was quite young, my parents decided it was time to take me to church. I have vague memories of other young children in the Sunday School and sitting on the hard, highly polished wooden pews while my parents sang hymns and being very bored during the sermons. But I loved Sunday School and I especially loved hearing the stories about how much God loved me. I remember the grand, white church, Wellshire Presbyterian, which still stands on Colorado Boulevard in Denver, in a posh neighborhood next to a golf course. I don’t know if any of my grandparents attended church on a regular basis. Religion was not a topic in our house, but my parents taught me not to lie, cheat or steal and to be kind to others.

I loved going to Sunday school. The teacher told us we would get our own Bible if we attended for a set number of Sundays. Since I am a very goal-oriented person, I was up for the challenge. I think we had to attend for a minimum of 8 weeks in order to get a Bible. I still have my first Bible, inscribed to me on October 3, 1971, from Wellshire Presbyterian Church. I think my family stopped attending that church shortly afterwards, but the seed of faith had been planted in my heart and I started praying to Jesus, as our Sunday school teacher had taught us. She told us there was nothing we could do to separate us from the love of God and that if we confessed our sins to Him and asked Him to come and live in our hearts, He would. I followed her advice and from that moment on, my life was His.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

When I was about 10 years old, we moved from Denver to a small town in southern Colorado. Around the age of 13, I began going to church on my own. I was able to walk or ride my bike or catch a ride with friends. I chose a church that was a combined Presbyterian and Methodist church because I figured I was Presbyterian. I especially enjoyed going to the youth group meetings in the evenings where we learned more about the Bible and I heard a youth leader talk about a personal God who had a plan for my life. I remember that as an epiphany in my life. Not only was God a God who would save me from my sins, but He also cared enough for me to have a plan for my whole life!

In high school I excelled at academics and sports and I asked God fervently to show me the path He had for me. I was growing restless to leave the small town where we lived and to see the wonders of the world He made. I had a strong desire to serve my country in gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy. For these reasons, I applied to and was granted an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It was about as different a place as I could imagine from the small, isolated town in a remote valley in southern Colorado.

I arrived full of hopes and dreams and a desire to know God better. After the initial summer training period, the academic year began and we had a few moments of free time. I was invited to attend a women’s Bible study sponsored by a Protestant para-church group. I accepted the invitation with eagerness. I spent that year growing in my faith by leaps and bounds. The mental, physical and academic challenges were far greater than I had ever imagined and I clung to God for dear life. He was my port in the storm.

…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

During my second year at the academy, I did a topical Bible study on baptism. I kept reading about people who were baptized. Even Jesus was baptized. I became convinced that I needed to be baptized, so I sought out the Baptist chaplain, Capt. Larry Ellis. I figured Baptists must know something about baptism. He kindly asked my reasons for desiring baptism. My answers must have satisfied him, so we set a date for the great event; at my request, by total immersion. Since the Academy had no baptismal font large enough for an adult to be immersed, we decided to use one of the indoor swimming pools after hours. I invited about 20 close friends to come and witness my public declaration of faith. Chaplain Ellis and I both wore our white Navy uniforms, without the ribbons or shoulder boards. I wore my Navy issue swimsuit underneath. The chaplain and I stepped in the pool, and I was immersed three times while he intoned the ancient words: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…”

Fast forward to after graduation. I was stationed in Naples, Italy, as a communications officer for Naval activities in the Mediterranean, the Eastern Atlantic, the Red Sea and the land areas in and around them. In Naples I met a handsome young naval officer who was stationed at the submarine command. He and I met a few times and chatted, until one day he asked me out. I accepted and we soon became close friends. After only three weeks of dating, I felt strongly that this could be the guy. The only problem was, he was Catholic and I was most definitely a Bible believing Christian. Several of the people who led me in Bible studies had been Catholics who had left the Church because they believed the truth lay solely in the Bible and not with the Catholic Church. It all made perfect sense to me and I wanted to know how an otherwise intelligent and apparently God-fearing young man could believe such poppycock put out by the priests and popes of the Catholic Church and their “traditions of men.”

Joe very patiently tried to answer all my questions one by one, even when some of those questions sounded more like accusations. The smartest thing he did was when he didn’t know an answer to one of my questions, he would say, “Let’s go ask the Catholic chaplain.” As a result, we spent many hours conversing with the priest, asking questions, getting answers (and many books to read) and unbeknownst to us, beginning our marriage preparation classes. We sometimes would go to one of the Protestant Navy chaplains, just to compare answers, but somehow I ended up being more spiritually satisfied with the answers we received from the Catholic chaplain.

Since we were falling in love, Joe and I wanted to spend as much time together as possible. We were both standing watches at our separate commands, which meant long hours, often working through the night. As a result, we would try to go to church together. The base chapel had Protestant worship service followed by Catholic Mass. Joe would attend the Protestant service with me and I would stick around to attend Mass with him. People would sometimes give us funny looks as they were departing the Protestant service. “You’re not staying, are you?” their eyes would ask.

But we did stay and I was surprised to hear the same readings at the Catholic Mass that we heard at the Protestant service. I wondered why the Catholics were copying the Protestants, until Joe showed me the schedule for the cycle of readings the universal Church uses. I was mildly shocked to learn the Protestant chaplains were copying the Catholics! I never asked the Protestant chaplains, but since they shared office space with the Catholic priests, they probably saw the schedule of readings and thought, “That sounds like a pretty good idea--why reinvent the wheel?”

I began to wonder if there was anything else the Protestants might have copied from the Catholics.

I noticed more similarities between the liturgical Protestant service and the Catholic Mass. Four years of Protestant worship services at the Naval Academy with Chaplain Ellis, his daily communion service by intinction, Maundy Thursday washing of the feet, even Ash Wednesday service and Lenten meditations, helped prepare my heart for the Catholic liturgy.

The one aspect of Catholic devotional life that was most difficult for me to accept was devotion to Mary. I had been taught that God alone was sufficient for our needs and if we showed devotion to any other being it was idolatry. Of course, it never occurred to me that I had shown devotion to my own mother or other family members all my life, but this was perhaps the biggest obstacle for me in becoming Catholic.

After several months of attending dual Sunday services, I was getting tired of hearing the same readings, so I asked Joe if we could alternate Sundays; one Sunday at the Catholic Mass and one Sunday at the Protestant service. He said, “Nope.” I thought he was incredibly unbending and stubborn on this point, as he was on many others, such as not eating meat on Fridays in Lent, even if he was hungry and there was a tasty lasagne just sitting there that nobody was eating. Neither would he entertain my idea that we both just become Episcopalian, then he could further explore this idea of being a priest, which he told me he still thought of from time to time, and we could be married. He even had the temerity to laugh at that idea! Anyway, I decided he won this round and I stopped going to the Protestant service altogether because I would rather spend my Sundays with Joe. We went to Mass together every Sunday after that.

When it looked like we were seriously considering marriage and I was seriously considering becoming Catholic, I consulted my dear friend, Chaplain Ellis. He came into Naples when the aircraft carrier to which he was assigned pulled into port. I introduced him to Joe and he seemed to approve. I told him I was thinking of becoming a Catholic and he told me he thought that was a good idea. “It’s good for a husband and wife to share the same faith,” he told me. “And besides,” he said, “the Catholic Church has the Eucharist!”

Coming from the man who had the most devout communion service I’d ever attended, this meant a lot. Chaplain Ellis had daily communion services while he was senior chaplain at the Naval Academy. I didn’t go as often as I would have liked, but the few times I went, they made a big impression on me. Chaplain Ellis would explain the method of receiving communion was by intinction, the dipping of the host into the wine. It was then placed on the communicant’s tongue due to the fragility of the dipped host. And this was merely a symbol; it wasn’t even a consecrated host.

When we were engaged, I became aware of the tug at my heart by the Eucharist. I believed it was the actual Body and Blood of Christ, but I couldn’t fully comprehend the meaning of it all. The Eucharist was Jesus, but He couldn’t come to me yet. My favorite line of the Mass was, and still is, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

We were married in a Catholic wedding, but since I wasn’t yet Catholic and more than half of the people attending our wedding weren’t Catholic, we had the ceremony outside the Mass. The priest celebrated a private Mass for us earlier that day, with just Joe, my mother, father, sister and me in attendance. Joe and the priest were the only Catholics there.

Finally, on our honeymoon, I realized I couldn’t live without Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. We attended a Sunday evening folk Mass in Dublin, Ireland. The church was packed and it was standing room only. We got there too late to get a seat, but the usher motioned us to sit at the altar rail. Honestly, I can’t remember if we sat or knelt the entire Mass, but I have vivid memories of the moment the priest held the Eucharist up before me while I knelt at the altar rail. I wanted to receive Jesus that very moment, but it became clear to me that I couldn’t until I decided to give Him my whole heart and mind in acceptance of all the tenants of the Catholic Church, even the ones I couldn’t yet understand. I left the Mass in tears that night. Tears for the Jesus I couldn’t yet receive, but also tears in gratitude for the graces, which had been poured out on me that evening.

Nine months later our honeymoon baby was born. She was baptized and I made my first communion and was confirmed in the Catholic Church at the same Mass. It was Sunday, January 24, 1988. Years later I discovered January 24th is the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, who converted tens of thousands of Calvinists, i.e., Presbyterians, during his lifetime. Maybe he’s been watching over me all these years?

Jesus’ mother had been a stumbling block for me. She has become a quiet friend, advocate and mother to me now. She doesn’t overshadow her son, as I was afraid, but she points the way to Him. She tells us, “Do exactly as He tells you.” Now that I am a mother, Mary is an important part of my life. How can I deny one whom Jesus must have loved most devotedly? As our family has grown over the years, and there have been days when I felt overwhelmed, I would sometimes get angry with the Blessed Mother, or those who would recommend I look to her for guidance. How could I look to her for advice? After all, she had only one child and He was perfect! But Mary gave me the example of humility, obedience and love I must try to give my children.

After 21 years as a Catholic, I’m still learning my faith and I still struggle to follow the Blessed Mother’s example. I often fail miserably. Our children are beginning to venture into the adult world and I pray they make wise decisions and listen to God’s plan for their lives. Most of all, I pray we may finish the race and spend eternity together in heaven.


Sharon said...

So, you're a convert, too? Thanks for sharing your conversion story! I like the fact that you were baptized in a swimming pool! :)

Marianne said...

I love conversion stories. This one is lovely. I would be very interested to hear about your career as you started your family.Was this a conflict?

MilitantMom said...

Hi Marianne,
I definitely had some struggles with Navy/motherhood. Great idea for another blog posting! :-)

WI Catholic said...

Thank you both for your Service, and glad that you crossed the Tiber!

God bless!

S. R. Piccoli said...

Thanks for sharing, Debbie. May God bless you and your beautiful family!

Kalynne Pudner said...

How well I remember your swimming pool baptism story, and how easily I can visualize Joe's "Nope"! This is a fabulous testimony, Debbie, and fluidly written. You should definitely look into publishing it in a more concrete form.

MilitantMom said...

Thanks, Kalynne! I found some old pics of my baptism, which I will scan and put up on the blog someday when I'm incredibly bored...

MAM'S aBloggin' said...

Great story. :)