Encountering Catholicism – part 4

PRESENT HERE

+JMJ

This is a continuation of my conversion story to the Catholic Church from Protestantism. The last part talked about how I was attached to Protestant services and didn’t want to consider any sort of liturgy.

Despite everything I liked about the Protestant community I was part of, I continually felt a great anxiety after every service. I knew it was probably because God didn’t want me there, and wanted me to come back to the liturgy. Yet I didn’t want to acknowledge it. My heart was not open to God’s Will, so I felt anxiety instead of peace. My conscience was not clean because I wasn’t truly responding and holding on to my attachments. God eventually had much compassion on me and allowed me to see my error…

I was studying for a university exam and decided to take a little break. Since I was researching Catholicism at this time, I went to a website to read a bit about Our Lady and found a page on the Mass. I only remember one sentence – “the Mass is the holiest moment of our lives”. This was the phrase that turned around my whole little world. I suddenly saw, with perfect clarity – the type of clarity I wanted all this time yet also feared – that God wants reverence. Liturgy. The Sacraments. I remembered the Orthodox liturgies and knew – they are valid.. and the Protestant Communion I had didn’t have whatever they had. I wish I could say that my response was an immediate “yes”. Instead, it consisted of many tears and eventually, a half hearted “yes.. but can I still attend the Protestant services sometimes?”. Even that didn’t last long.. because in a few days, I got so frightened of the change (“would  I LOSE my relationship with Jesus?” I wondered..) – that I confused myself and no longer felt sure of anything.

It is a story of great Mercy on God’s part towards a sinner like me.. because He didn’t stop even then. He didn’t give up… and sent me some words through a Catholic friend who had no idea of what had happened in my heart. I will forever remember and treasure them because immediately I received the grace to trust God and respond to what He was asking. I’m still amazed at God’s mercy that He did so much to bring me home.

I came back to the Orthodox Church after this.. yet I felt my journey wasn’t finished. As I continued to research Catholicism, my beliefs started to change, with a profound sense of peace. God did it all and encouraged my cooperation which up to this point had been fearful and uncertain. I would spend time researching about Catholicism but became very lost about whether I should be Catholic after all. I was extremely fearful of making the wrong choice. In the end, I just began feeling extreme peace about Catholic doctrines – and God would somehow just give the grace to believe them. One day, I realized all my beliefs are Catholic, and decided to finally try and go to Mass!

Then I tried praying to the Saints… The first time it was with much fear. I’m forever grateful to St Therese for helping me with this. There’s a novena to her asking for a rose… I wasn’t sure but prayed it, and looked up to find a vase of roses placed in front of me. Roses continued to appear in striking ways throughout the novena. There’s nothing to boast of here because people with strong faith do not need signs. My faith was shaky and fearful. Yet from this, I began to believe. I am sharing this as a way to thank her and to encourage devotion to this beautiful Saint. St Therese must have prayed hard for me because despite all my uncertainty and fears, on Easter of 2009, I finally became Catholic. God brought me home… Or literally carried me, as I was unable to do it. Deo gratias!

Needless to say, my relationship with Jesus didn’t ‘end” when I became Catholic. Instead I found how my relationship with Him as a Protestant was real, but limited in ways. Now, I could receive Him physically into myself! God is infinitely greater and more loving than I ever imagined.

The writings of the Saints are what introduced me to Jesus in a deeper way. I saw the love of God that I always sought out as a Protestant. A love that is infinite, that is like a fire, infinitely sweet, vehement, consuming, tender. Like living water and a brilliant light that overwhelms us. A love that becomes impossible to live without and makes one want to give everything. The ideas I read about went beyond anything I had known… like before, here was a Christ who loved me, but loved incomprehensibly, thirsting for me, waiting, lonely and rejected by so many, hidden in the Eucharist – a Christ who desires reparation. My faith was previously more about me and my feelings.. here, so much was about His feelings. Bringing Him joy and consolation. What is it like for Jesus when I visit Him? Would He have a heart in which to find His rest? His Heart is our Heaven.. can our hearts be heaven for Him, to shield Him from the pain of being rejected by millions of souls? Here was Christ who is in agony on the Cross, desiring our hearts to be immersed in the consuming fire of His Heart. The intensity of the imagery of the mystics: Jesus’ Precious Blood, value of suffering, Christ’s loving embraces, the Crucifix, prayers as arrows to wound Jesus’ Heart with love – all of this was so new and so ..”Catholic”. You could tell right away this was going to be a Sacramental religion. There was nothing abstract. It was unbelievably intimate, vivid – after all, we can eat and drink His Body and Blood…

It was all irresistible and drew me in but at times also surprised me, because the Saints were sometimes so bold, and their language was so passionate, and they stopped at nothing to love Him. I saw God’s love is so much greater than I thought it was, so much more intimate and powerful. I could see their longing for God, a longing that was so strong. How God loves us, that our hearts could be so consumed by Him, that we want nothing else, only complete union with Him, to have Him only and completely, being lost forever in His Heart.. His Heart is our Treasure, more beautiful and precious than gold and silver. And when He reveals Himself to the soul it is in glimpses that only further inflame this thirst for Him. I began realizing that this is only a tiny echo of the longing that God feels for us, hidden in the Holy Eucharist in the Tabernacle, – like He told Sr Josefa Menendez, He waits for a soul all night until she comes to receive Him in the morning…

I could see why the Sacred Heart devotion drew so many of the Saints to Him – it is a devotion centered on His love. These spiritual ideas give more peace and consolation that anything earthly. From the moment of reading about these ideas, I saw that this is what I have been looking for as a Protestant. I was searching for Jesus, I wanted Him to be physically present among us, and there He was, hidden in a little Catholic church across the street – forgotten, unknown, and so little loved.

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Encountering Catholicism -Part 3

The Heavenly Conductor

+JMJ

I left off writing the previous post about how I had found a more personal relationship with Jesus and had joined a Protestant group on campus.

I really did not know much about doctrines at this time, or the differences between Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants.  With time, my beliefs became more and more Protestant. I must say though that I did not look too carefully at other teachings, because I wanted so much to be Protestant. I believed that only Protestants truly know God, and had many erroneous beliefs about Catholics and Orthodox. I thought that liturgy is unspiritual, that they worship Mary, that they believe in saving themselves, etc.. I began attending Protestant services where many of my friends went. It was very different from the Orthodox church because it was not liturgical. There was praise and worship and a sermon, and Communion was given once a month if I remember correctly.

Communion and the Real Presence was the only part of my faith that was not really Protestant. I still believed in the Real Presence, though those around me believed it is a symbol. I tried to convince myself that it doesn’t really matter if others disagree…. I prayed that they would begin to believe in the Real Presence too… but this situation caused me near constant anxiety and pain. Whenever I went to the Protestant services, I loved it but afterwards I felt an unrest in my heart, that I tried to explain away. When I went to the Orthodox church with my family – I felt it was very powerful spiritually, yet I again tried to argue against it.

When we would receive Communion in the Protestant service – it was “non denominational” – they passed around grape juice and little crackers and this was passed from person to person. In Campus for Christ, we also had Communion (I remember it being given once) and it was bread and grape juice – people went up and took a bit of the bread themselves. This was a huge difference from the Orthodox church, in which the priest gave out Communion on a silver spoon from a chalice and altar boys would hold fabric beneath it to prevent any falling on the floor and there was so much bowing and crossing yourself. However, I continued to receive Communion at the Protestant services, and I saved the little plastic cups that the grape juice was given in because I truly believed it was the Blood of Christ really present. Whenever I would hear about the Real Presence anywhere, even by watching a Christian movie based on one of the Gospels – I felt strongly drawn to the liturgy but resisted it and argued against it. This lasted many months and I was in an almost constant state of anxiety about it all, yet could not find clarity in my mind.

At this time, I also began talking to some Catholics. I was very skeptical at first, especially about Mary. However, the Catholics were friendly and kind and treated me with respect… so I continued to ask questions. There were few Catholic doctrines that I agreed with and I had disagreements with most of them.

Mostly, I struggled with the idea that you can “really” know God in Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I thought a liturgical service would be “unspiritual” and that it would impede any sort of a relationship with God. I had tried to “evangelize” Catholics in the past, so when I met Catholics who were really passionate about their faith, I was actually surprised. God needed to do a lot in my heart to even allow me to consider that it’s possible to know Him in a more traditional liturgy.

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“Beauty ever ancient, ever new” – Part 2

My soul doth magnify the Lord

+JMJ

Describing the moment of a realization is always difficult, especially when it is a story of a conversion. How can I describe those first times, when I began to meet Christ with the realization that He is real, – not just an idea but a real Person? The feelings that accompany this – surprise, the sudden certainty that comes from faith, followed by amazement that this could REALLY happen, that God is REALLY that loving, and that all this is real… is actually real! And of course the amazing joy and love that’s beyond anything you’ve ever imagined – a love that truly satisfies and makes one thirst for God like the Psalmist who said: “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42). “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God… For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” (Psalm 84).

I came to university with the same sort of views I had in high school. My faith in God wasn’t very strong – I even wrote an essay against His existence, simply because it was “easier” to argue with the knowledge that I had – something that I’m ashamed of to this day. I took another philosophy course in university, though it had an atheistic emphasis on it. This annoyed me, but I was not strong or knowledgeable enough to counter it. However, I considered myself a Christian, an Eastern Orthodox, though I never considered that fact that I was not practicing. I had not received the Eucharist a second time, after my first Communion, and had only been to Confession once – which afterwards gave me a sudden shock of realization about my sins, which I had mostly hidden from the priest. For the first time in a while, I felt that I was in fact, a sinner, that my sins had gravity and were not as light as I had thought, and this terrified me.

I did not pray much, or at all, and spent most of my time worrying about academics or the fact that I felt very lonely on campus. My belief in God was more in my mind than in my heart, and even in my mind, it was not strong. I went through a time of doubts of God’s existence, which was a real crisis for me and I worried incessantly over it on a vacation day with my family.

As I didn’t have many friends on campus, I had much time to myself. I had been reading CS Lewis’ “Narnia” books, and was delighted to find that the university bookstore had more books by him. They were of course, his apologetic books on Christianity. While reading “Mere Christianity”, I finally understood what the purpose of salvation was – that we were to become “new men”, as he had termed it, that it was a transformation, and I understood that Christianity is not partially true, but is THE Truth, with a capital “T”. He explained it very clearly and I’m thankful for God using these books because it was what I needed. I began reading all the CS Lewis books I could buy and finally the faith made sense to me, and my sense of assurance about it was stronger.

Sometime that year, I was in the student centre and was approached by two girls. They were from the Protestant group on campus called “Campus for Christ” – and they asked if they could ask me some questions. I said yes, somewhat reluctantly, and they asked me about my spiritual background and views. I identified myself as an Orthodox Christian and explained some things I had learned about salvation. The girls invited me to their weekly meeting. I don’t remember what I said… but it stayed in my mind, and I think in the next autumn, I went to my first ‘weekly meeting’ with Campus for Christ.

Here was something new as well. As I did not attend church, I didn’t have much experience of prayer or worship. Faith for me was mostly an intellectual understanding that I agreed with, but I wasn’t sure yet how to put it into practice. I did not pray much, and I still lived in much sin. As I came to the weekly meetings, I saw a new side of it all – here were others who believed in Christ and who seemed so enthusiastic about what they believed in, and they not only prayed and praised God but it seemed to bring them happiness. I was kind of shy, at first, to sing the ‘praise and worship’ songs, or to show any sort of emotion – but the personal element in the words began drawing me more into the more personal side of a relationship with God. Up to this point, I had faith in God and perhaps some personal experience of prayer – but I began to understand more of His love for me. It was like going deeper into the phrase that had so touched my heart as a child – “I love you dearly”.

As I began to encounter Christ more, He became more real, not just as Someone I believed in, but Someone that we could actually know, even delight in. It was a relatively new concept – a two way relationship with God. I could speak to Him, sure… but Him communicating His presence to me? The perceptible presence of His love (what Catholics would call consolation or sweetness in prayer) – was something I didn’t know about. I was again so touched by how much God loves us, and could hardly think of anything else. I still had many faults, and sins, but I began caring about this more. I was also too attached to the consolations, but my love for Christ began to grow.

Even though this happened to me in the context of Protestant worship services, I believe it is simply an experience of coming closer to Christ. This type of grace still came through the Church, unknown to me, and ultimately helped lead me towards the Church. It would be incorrect to say that because it happened at a Protestant event, it means that it is wrong to be Catholic, rather it shows that God was always somehow acting in my life. It would also be incorrect to say that because it happened in a Protestant setting, and not a Catholic one, it served no purpose – because God uses the situation we are in, and although I did not yet have the Sacraments, God helped me to find Him and then lead me further to help me find the Church and the Sacraments when I was ready. I see now how He’s used many things in my life to bring me to Himself and to the fullness of truth. I believe that the Catholic Church is true, yet I do not discount the experiences of God I had as a Protestant. God reaches down to us where we are.

As I consider the experience of a soul encountering Christ, the words of St Augustine come to mind:

“Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for You. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which You created. You were with me, but I was not with You. Created things kept me from You; yet if they had not been in You they would not have been at all. You called, You shouted, and You broke through my deafness. You flashed, You shone, and You dispelled my blindness. You breathed Your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for You. I have tasted You, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace”.

I have wondered about how this happens… ultimately, faith is a gift. The realization that God loves us, is also a gift. He can use various ways to help us realize that. As we read about His love in Scripture and spiritual books, He could use those occasions to reveal His love. As the person realizes this, they respond… the faith becomes more personal, not just an idea of a collection of teachings (which might appear burdensome), but a way to get to know Christ, Who the soul now sees not only as a historical Person who lived 2000 years ago, but as Someone alive today – not only alive, but communicating with us. This is a huge realization and very life changing. I used the songs we sang at those meetings to help me to respond back to Him and tell Him that I love Him, and that I give Him my heart. Now I see that doctrines, correct interpretation of Scripture, is very important – and we shouldn’t forget about these things. Our faith is BOTH a relationship and a religion. Religion is simply how we live out this relationship in our lives. But in order for it to make sense, the relationship needs to be there, because our faith is not primarily about ideas but is about a Person – Jesus did not say that He would only show us the way, He said that He *is* the way.

GK Chesterton put it all very simply: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”.

If anyone is looking for some inspiration to begin (or continue) relating to Christ in a more personal way, I would highly recommend learning about the Sacred Heart devotion. For example, there is this website, which explains the elements of the devotion and also contains these beautiful poems: http://sacredheartdevotion.com/love-poems/  Sometimes just by reading or hearing such words, our hearts begin to open up more to God’s love, which He so eagerly desires to show to us. From that point, we only need to receive it and respond. Have you thought about this, how much God longs for you? Perhaps this is a new concept, perhaps you’re not sure about it – how could God long for anything? why for us? but His love is much more personal than we had dared to hope… maybe we believe, that God loves humanity – but in a general sort of way. Maybe it’s unclear what His love means *for us*. Yet He loves you as if you were the only person He had created. He waits for you, like how someone would wait for their beloved, only even more than that. If you are not sure, try to ask Him to show this to you. The prayer for more faith is answered if we are ready to receive it and if we seek it.

God is not impersonal. We have a God whose Heart was pierced for us. We have a God who would say “I would create the universe again just to hear you say that you love Me” (words to St Teresa). God is our Treasure and our greatest happiness is to be loved so much by Him.

I also invite anyone to read these beautiful words on how Christ thirsts for us

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My journey to Jesus and the Catholic Church: Part 1

glass-window-with-sun-set

+JMJ

It has been roughly four years since I became Catholic. As I ponder that point, it does not seem that long to me… sometimes, I still almost call myself a “new convert” and realize that perhaps this is not the most accurate term to describe me. In any case, I have decided that “it’s time” to write my conversion story. It seems almost funny to do this 4 years after the fact, and I have written one before, but these years have given me further perspective that I didn’t have at the time. Maybe now I can tell my conversion story more completely.. Of course, it’s impossible to capture everything, and I can’t say every detail. But I wanted to do this to thank God for everything He has done. I dedicate this to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for God’s glory.

I grew up non religious, yet it seems to me like God used all the moments I heard about Him as a child. I remember my mom teaching me the Our Father, or giving me a children’s book of stories about Jesus, or my dad trying to paint Our Lord at Easter. I even had a dream about Our Lord as a child in Jerusalem. These instances affected my imagination and I had some sort of secret “link” to Christianity that I kept in my heart… I remember one particular time, when Jesus was mentioned, I would become thoughtful, retreat, almost like someone had uttered a secret and trespassed into something that was too personal for discussion. I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly, but this comes to mind.

I still consider that even at an early age, I was introduced to Christ, without knowing much of who He is. Then, there were some encounters with Christian doctrines that I did not understand. In middle school, I was given a Bible – one of those Gideon Bibles with a red cover. As I read the Bible, I came across the concept of hell. This was a relatively new concept, and it was scary. I began fearing going to hell, as I thought of various things I did that I was ashamed of. I would stay awake at nights, worrying and feeling a sense of anguish, and feeling trapped – I did not understand much about forgiveness. However, I felt my conscience ‘awake’.

I decided also to pray every day to God. However, my prayers were mechanical – said only to “get it done”, with a hope that if I do this, perhaps God would not give up on me. Eventually, I stopped praying. However, God did not give up on me or stop working in my life. I see now how He used everything to bring me to Him. During those years in middle school, I had some struggles. I forget when exactly this occurred, but there was something that helped me to come to God on a more personal level. My mom had given me a book by an evangelical author with little reflections for every day. I don’t think she knew that it was about Christ – it was the type of book picked up in a card shop. As I read little quotes from it, there was one that touched me very deeply. It was one phrase in it – written as if God is speaking, saying “I love you dearly” – that caused me to cry every time I read it. I needed this and did not know it… when things were at their worst, I would read it, or even just remember it, and this concept – that God loves ME – was so new, so moving.

However, this was not the only influence in my life. Through the influence of some tv shows and other things, I began to feel an interest in various other religions and new age practices. I remember that I also believed in reincarnation at a point in my life. At this earlier time, I was specifically drawn to some form of Druidism and researched it on the internet. I even hoped to join – but somehow, I did not. I still believed in God, though I did not think of Him very much. At the time, my family began moving towards Christianity and baptism. My dad had decided to be Baptized, and I was excited for him, though I didn’t know much.

At one point, I came to the Eastern Orthodox church. I remember it being completely different from anything I had seen ever… all the gold, incense, candles, – it was very beautiful, like being in another world, or rather having a glimpse into something still remote and full of mystery. I was told by my dad that if I light a candle and say a prayer, God would answer it. I lit a candle and said a prayer… Probably my first ‘real prayer’. In my child’s heart, I believed the statement and had confidence in my prayer being answered. Though it was something rather important and unlikely, God did answer it soon after! Later, my mom and I were baptized together in the same church.

We had received instruction from the priest, however I did not understand everything. I was looking through my old diary a while ago, and found a journal entry about my baptism… I had written, that when I would be baptized, there would not be any danger of me going to hell. While it’s true that a person would go to Heaven if they died after Baptism, if they commit any mortal sins since then, then they’ve left God and need to confess their sins. I still remember my Baptism.. my mom and I wore white robes and were fully immersed in the water, as is the practice in the East. It was beautiful and after my Baptism, I don’t remember having an interest in the non-Christian religion any more, though I erred in many ways after a while.

At one point when I entered high school, I had joined the choir, but only came once or twice to practice. I only joined because I was interested in singing professionally. I was very ambitious and had many career plans. However, I did not think much about God. In high school, I became immersed in whatever was popular for girls that age – makeup, worries about what your peers thought, hopes for popularity (in my case, hopes that were completely dashed – much to my distress, as I was shy and never popular).

In the last years of high school, I took a course on Philosophy. I was a kind of a relativist in a way.. I looked down on Christians as being too simple, and didn’t believe that Christianity is the whole truth. I had some ideas that were true, but also this pride, and I wanted to exalt myself above others. I prided myself on the grades I received in Philosophy, the books I read, my essays, etc, – I also tried to support God’s existence, and sometimes argued for Christianity, but I downplayed it being the complete truth. God for me was more philosophical than personal…to me, He was an interesting idea, rather than a person who loved me. I talked about Him much, but not so much to Him.

~To be continued

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