Some days, I walk in my house – a remodeled rectory next to St. Clement’s Oratory in North Dakota – and I can’t believe what I see.
I marvel. I admire. A masterfully intricate wall rosary, handmade by my husband with over 10,000 beads, is nailed to the family room wall. A painting of the Holy Family hangs over my children’s play kitchen set, and ultra-Catholic looking statues rest on the piano. A stack of Catholic devotionals and a rickety old chaplet sit next to my prayer chair. Wow. I’m definitely Catholic – and I’m raising a really Catholic family!
When I was a teenager, if you had asked me what I envisioned my home to be like when I was “grown up” you would have somewhat of a ridiculous response, like “Umm… something artsy, with hippie posters on the wall and bead jewelry all over the place?” And, if there was any imaginable remnant of anything religious whatsoever in the future home, it would have been an overly-highlighted Protestant Reformed Bible stashed under a bed.
How did all this happen? It’s seriously astonishing! It’s safe to say that it took loads and loads of unmerited divine grace won on my behalf by a lot of selfless people. I can only imagine the blister-ridden fingers of Carmelite nuns praying the Rosary for some poor girl’s conversion. I can only imagine how God took pity on my parent’s well-meaning Protestant prayers and used them to bring me home to Rome (although they would be horrified to hear so).
I first remember strongly feeling the presence of God when I was at a Reformed Vacation Bible Camp outside of Muskegon, Michigan. I knew He existed and that He loved me, and that somehow, someway, everything would be alright. I was a deeply troubled young person, having suffered from severe nerve issues since I was a child for reasons no doctor could pin down, and I longed for the comfort of His hand. This pervasive awareness of God’s majesty was so consoling, and little did I know, it would be the rock to carry me through many tidal waves in the years to come.
Despite this encounter, I fell away from His Presence as a teenager for many reasons – one being the really rough, anti-Christian public school environment I was immersed in. As a teen, I sought God in all the wrong places. I got involved in New Age religions, searching for peace and love. I spent a few years in dangerous living, apart from the grace of God, only to end up in a hospital for adolescents when I was 17 years old.
Down and out and humbled beyond measure, incredibly, I started to desire to pray. I hadn’t prayed to Jesus Christ for years. I actually had never really been taught any formal prayers besides the Our Father, which I don’t think I could even remember at that point. But I distinctly remember wanting to pray, and I believe that God the merciful Father looked on my simple desire and from that point on, began to lead me home to Catholicism.
After I got out of the hospital, my sister took me on a vacation out to the Black Hills. There, still feeling “like one big bruise,” sitting in the midst of that mighty work of Creation, I prayed. I prayed. It was just for a few moments, and no words were really said, but it was a prayer, a true prayer. The kind of prayer that I long to have, even these days.
After coming back from the Black Hills, I completed a year of AmeriCorps National Service in Denver, where I helped preschoolers in poverty and did plenty of mountain biking and healthy eating. I met a few good friends in Denver that helped me more than they ever realized. They were not Christians and were in fact living quite sinful lives, but there was an unmistakable goodness in them – the goodness of God, and they taught me some truly great things.
One of them knew I loved helping the poor, so he encouraged me to visit his father in Blythe, California, an elderly doctor who ran a missionary clinic out of his own home. Adventurous as I was, I hopped on a Greyhound bus and went out to California for a couple of weeks to help at the clinic.
During my time at the mission, I met Catholicism – the gorgeous religion that was to captivate my heart, little by little, one step at a time.
In the waiting room of the clinic hung a realistic-looking crucifix, with the words I THIRST in bold letters next to it, as well as the Stations of the Cross. The daily grind of the clinic was a continual response to Jesus’ cry of thirst from the Cross. Each morning, the doctor would wake up very early to meditate, and then go to daily Mass with his staff. Afterward, his staff would pray a Rosary back at the clinic for all of their patients. Each patient was treated in the spirit of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, with tender love and kindness.
During my time in Blythe, I was not only touched by the work of the clinic, but I was also touched by the friendship the Mexican Catholics there had with “La Guadalupana,” as well as their vibrant faith in God.
After I got back from the clinic, I finished up AmeriCorps, and started earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Reformed Theology and Spanish from Hope College, which was founded by a great, great uncle of mine, Rev. Albertus Van Raalte, a Dutch Reformed pastor. For two summers during college, I returned to the clinic to volunteer, and each time, seeds of faith would take root deeper and deeper into my soul (although they had hard soil to dig into).
One day, the doctor and one of the clinic’s nurses took me out to the Mojave Desert, and as we stood there in the midst of the scorching heat looking out over the vast expanse, I felt that God was turning my “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh.” From that day on, I began to pray with nearly every free moment I had, and seek my King with real love.
I knew that the religion I encountered in California was truly beautiful, but it would take several years for me to realize that God wanted me to become Catholic, and there was no getting out of it. I continued to fast and pray passionately, seeking the Truth of all truths.
My mind swarmed with doctrinal puzzles and baffling spiritual enigmas. I was haunted by questions like: How could all of the Christ-like Protestant professors who taught me be wrong about Catholicism? They had studied for so many years – why didn’t they realize it was the one, true Church if it really was? Why did the Protestant Revolt happen in the first place? Do Catholics really worship the pope, Mary and idols? Why did it seem that Calvinism hindered one’s search for holiness? How could my good Christian parents be wrong? How can Catholics actually believe Almighty God is really present in a Communion wafer? Did Catholics really believe that we could so pridefully earn our salvation without the Blood of Christ as I’d heard?
As each question arose in my heart, I would pray over it for a long time, study whatever I could get my hands on, and ultimately, experience a sort of angst as I totally surrendered my confusion to the wisdom of God. I felt how utterly helpless I was as a creature (much less a fumbling 20-year-old girl with a worn Bible in my hands) to discern the ultimate Truth without the help of my Creator.
After several years of searching, I was praying in a chapel on campus that my grandfather, a saintly Dutch Reformed minister, used to pray in. I opened my Protestant Bible up to John 6. As I read the passage, it dawned on me that Jesus’ words must be taken at face value. All my life I had heard that only Protestants take the Bible “literally,” but at that moment I realized that actually, only Catholics must – at least when it comes to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
I also realized that there was actually no real Protestant faith in itself. The Protestant faith was founded on a protest against a faith, the Catholic Faith. Why would I ever want to part of a “church” that was actually no church at all; one that was racked by division and founded on protest!
The blindness that had always covered me was now gone. I saw that there were countless Protestant denominations, and that they all disagreed with each other on at least one important point of doctrine. This defied the very nature of Truth itself, and rendered all of them imperfect. I finally saw that there must be an authority to clear the air, which I now understand is the See of Peter.
And what of religious life? I had read piles and piles spiritual books at this point in my life, many of them by medieval monks and mystics. How could I possibly say towering spiritual masters like St. Francis of Assisi were actually fools? Get real! Certainly they would have known if the Eucharist they were consuming daily was not Christ, the God they had given their entire lives to. And if Protestants had the fullness of the truth of Christianity, where were their monasteries and convents?
As these questions roared throughout my spirit, I decided to spend a semester studying to be a Protestant missionary at a Reformed Bible College.
Over Easter break during that semester, I felt led to fast like the age-old Catholic saints I had read about. In the midst of the silence of Holy Saturday, I went out to the beach to pray. I looked over Lake Michigan and I pleaded with the God who had created everything I saw before me. I just listened, and I soon felt a nudge on my heart to go to the Catholic church down the road. I obeyed.
When I got to the church, I saw a sign that read: “Easter Vigil 8:00 p.m.” I was terrified to go, but in my Protestant mind, a “vigil” meant an easy 20-minute-long song service outside with candles, so I went. Good! I thought. No idolatrous Mass, no worship of Mary – nothing “offensive” to God. Maybe this Vigil would be safe to go to after all.
When I got there, I was pleased to see that everyone was, indeed, outside, just singing and holding candles. Phew! However, after a few minutes, they started to proceed into the church. I was about to turn around and go home, but I knew I had to face my fears once and for all – I had to know if the Catholic Church was the devil’s agent, or if it really was the One True Church mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed.
Throughout the Holy Mass, I sat in awe as every lie I had heard about the Catholic Faith was cast down. How could Protestants claim that Catholics don’t read the Scriptures? At the Vigil, they read at least six or seven readings. How could people say that Catholics don’t have a personal relationship with Christ? They received Him at the Vigil, many so reverently, taking Him into their own bodies. Clearly, Mary wasn’t being worshiped at this Vigil either.
And the beauty of the liturgy was just breathtaking – it was the authentic worship of Almighty God. I’d never experienced anything like it. How telling the Mass was of the awesome nature of Heaven and of God!
Towards the end of the Vigil, when I saw a number of people receiving their First Sacraments, I knew God was calling me to do the same thing. Mother Church was opening her arms out to me, and even though I knew many crosses would come my way if I ran to Her, I could not resist Her love. Family members of mine would shun me, professors would shake their heads as I had received prestigious scholarships in the Reformed Theology department, my future would be so uncertain, and friends would laugh, but it didn’t matter anymore.
The next Easter, I received my long-awaited Jesus in Holy Communion as a Catholic, and my soul was finally at rest. I had come home.