My family comes from a long line of Protestants. My mother's forbearers came from Holland and helped establish the Dutch Reformed Church in the Chicago area. My father's parents had found their place in Fundamentalist churches, but had Lutheran and Mennonite roots. I am tremendously thankful for the legacy of faith my ancestors left, which enabled me to grow up knowing and following God. My mother's family eventually left the Reformed church and attended a Baptist church. My mom was the church organist so I know the hymnbook about as well as anyone. I took my faith very seriously. I remember one Easter when I was about 3 or 4 years old my mom was telling our relatives at the table how I would cry whenever we talked about Jesus dying on the cross, and even then I burst into tears. I felt absolutely broken by the fact that Jesus had to die for my sins, even at that young age. My little children's Bible says I asked Jesus into my heart in October of 1981 at the age of 5, something I faintly remember. I would pray every night that Jesus would help me to do what was right. I was baptized when I was 9. I remember feeling extremely disappointed when I learned that communion was just a symbol. When the pastor held up the cracker and said, "This is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me," it seemed pretty clear to me what Jesus meant, but I guessed I was wrong. So I secretly pretended that it was really the body of Jesus.
Growing up in the Chicago area, the majority of my peers were Catholic. I was the lone Baptist. Unfortunately, like most Protestants I know, I never learned the truth about the differences between us. Most of my perceptions were based on mistruths. For example, I was led to believe that Catholics worship Mary and pray to the dead. This sort of anti-Catholicism was always an undercurrent in our faith. Catholics were to be pitied because they didn't know the real way to heaven, which included walking the aisle and praying the "Sinner's Prayer". I was also led to believe that Catholics were people who thought they could get to heaven through some sort of magic and that they didn't know Jesus personally the way we did.
Despite this skewed perception, there were things about Catholicism that made me feel kind of curious. Whenever we drove past a Catholic Church I had this feeling that something bigger than myself was present there, like there was a combination of holiness and infinity just emanating out of the building; something I did not feel in my own church. I kind of liked it. I read a similar account of this sensation in Almost Catholic: An Appreciation of the History, Practice, and Mystery of Ancient Faith by Jon Sweeney. Ironically, he also grew up in the Chicago area and I'm guessing we had similar experiences because there are a lot of Catholic churches to drive past! (Also not so ironically, Jon Sweeney has come into the Catholic Church since writing his book. I had picked it up at the library and began reading it when I thought to myself, "I bet this guy has become Catholic." Ha, you can't be almost Catholic for long.)
There was also something about the way Catholics celebrated that fascinated me. I remember watching out my window as my friend next door posed for pictures in her fancy white First Communion dress. I came to realize that First Communion was a huge deal for my Catholic friends while I don't even remember mine. And nothing could beat the Christmas Eve Mass, which we watched faithfully every year after returning from our own church's service. The Pope, the prayers, the music, it all seemed so... serious. It's something of a mystery to me why we always watched that service since we were no fans of the Catholic Church, but I think it has to do with the hunger one feels when one's religious experience is so bereft of celebration or commemoration. We didn't celebrate much in our own tradition except for Easter and Christmas, and those were just two solitary days. I also observed that in the many Polish and other Eastern Europeans in our area, there was something in the way ethnicity was tied to the way Catholics practice. It was like they belonged to something bigger than themselves, but at the same time their ethnic identity was part of how they practiced their faith.
My friends also noticed how different I was from them. "I love the way Baptists get all excited in their church services," I remember a friend saying. In reply, I muttered something like, "Um, we're not really that kind of Baptist." We were God's Frozen Chosen, not those big haired, long skirt-wearing women from Jack Hyles' church, the local Independent Baptist mega-church, who came in a bus to evangelize the neighborhood. We were the straight-laced Baptists, not the hand-raising ones. One of the main themes of my childhood faith was shame. Our sermons were often of the hellfire and brimstone variety. I couldn't understand why, if I was saved, I was so constantly worried for my salvation since "once saved, always saved" was a doctrine most people in my church held. I suppose it was the corollary idea that if I was to "backslide" then it meant I wasn't even saved in the first place that had me so nervous. Additionally, I was terrified that I would be left behind when the rapture occurred. I was completely scarred for life by the miniseries, "The Day After", thinking that scenario was a picture of the 'Great Tribulation' and that I could be left in the same kind of nuclear holocaust if I wasn't really saved. Whenever I saw that there was an international crisis in the news I was sure the world was coming to an end.
We moved to Florida when I was a sophomore in high school and our new Baptist church was of a more overtly Calvinist bent. I believe that there had always been some strain of Calvinism in my spiritual formation, but at this point I really began to worry that perhaps I wasn't one of the chosen. (My grandmother, who grew up in the Dutch Reformed church, told me that she also worried about that as a child.) My subsequent immersion in Calvinist doctrine taught me that everything I did was like filthy rags (Is 64:6). So here I was faced with this apparent contradiction: Surrender your life to Jesus and stay on the straight and narrow, but even if you do, you're still a worthless sinner. I wondered what the point of the Christian life was. If I had no role in my salvation and everything I did was useless, what was the point? (Understand that I am not embracing Pelagianism but pointing out that having an exclusive, laser-like focus on God's sovereignty to the exclusion of any other of His attributes presents some difficulties as to how one practically lives out one's Christian life in response. I absolutely affirm that God's grace is primary.) What was I supposed to do? Well, being the hyper-conscientious kid that I was, I tried to be the best I could be and grow in my faith as much as I could. I had been taught that it wasn't my works that were going to save me but that works were a natural outpouring of gratitude for my salvation and for God's grace in choosing me (if I was, indeed, chosen). The real sign of my salvation would be spiritual growth; if I bore fruit, it would prove that I was saved. At times when I felt indifference toward my personal faith I was concerned that I wasn't "feeling" saved. If I couldn't work up some kind of excitement or get totally pumped by the worship service I felt that there must be something wrong with me. Whenever people around me talked about what God told them I worried that I was not getting regular dispatches from God. Maybe I wasn't spiritual enough or maybe God just didn't want to talk to me.
The whole "growth" thing continued to trouble me into adulthood. Of course I understood that having a relationship with Jesus changes you and should continue to change you, but I saw that you could put all kinds of spin on that. For instance, 'bearing fruit' in many circles just means to serve a lot. Be there whenever the doors are open, sign up to help with whatever programs need volunteers, etc. It's not that I didn't enjoy serving or being involved in Bible studies, but over the years I began to feel like a lot of those things were empty and were not helping me feel close to God. I knew that I wasn't going to find God in another workbook. Conversely, holiness was a topic that didn't really come up much. Pursuing a holy life was something that always seemed to be brushed off. As if having a little "edge" was really the best way to prove that you could be a Christian but tread the fine line of worldliness so you didn't look too weird. It seemed to me that people think you have arrived spiritually when they can consider you to be some kind of spiritual Jedi master; you know, when you have all the holy-sounding answers and you are completely impervious to earthly suffering. Legalism (which is what any concern about how you actually live out your faith in a practical way would be chalked up to) was seen as a grave threat to our Christian liberty.
Enter my seminary years. I've always felt called to some sort of religious vocation and so I began seminary once our two oldest kids were of school age. I loved seminary. I loved learning about the Church Fathers, soteriology, philosophy, and everything else. It was absolutely exhilarating to be in a program that was so even-handed. We didn't have classes in systematic theology, but instead focused on historical theology. The interesting thing about seminary is that in many ways, it breaks you down. It disassembles all of the preconceived notions you have about how things are, or, as it is called, your imbedded theology. Oddly enough, as I began to sort through and reconstruct, my beliefs did not look at all Baptist. In fact, after studying Church history and reading the writings of the Church Fathers, I couldn't really identify what I found attractive in the Baptist denomination. Instead, I felt myself drawn to the Catholic Church. It's not that seminary was the lone factor in my move toward Catholicism, but it did illumine some of the underlying problems that had always bothered me with the faith in which I had been raised.
I've got to stop here and say that I feel amazingly blessed that Jason and I largely went through this process of feeling called into the Catholic Church together. We have always loved to talk theology together and we were in total agreement when it came to the ways in which our current faith was coming up empty. (Another thing that compelled us to look further into Catholic teaching was the issue of birth control, but I'll let Jason cover that one.) For a long time, Jason and I thought that perhaps we could remain Baptist while embracing Catholic theology, but we discovered that you really can't be an "undercover Catholic" even in a denomination with such diverse theologies. For me, one of the linchpin events that made me realize that I had to make a choice was the loss of a baby girl 17 weeks into pregnancy. In dealing with the devastation I felt, I came to realize, among other things, that life is too short to be waffling about such a critically important thing, my faith! I struggled over making the move into a completely different Church and culture at a time when I could have easily clung to what was familiar, but I truly felt that God was calling us to something different and that to drag my feet would just prolong my agony in a different way. Was it easy? Not really, but whenever I felt sad, I thought of Abraham and God's call to him to leave his home. And I've got to say, our friends from our "old" church have been pretty amazing. I've read many stories of people being shunned by friends and family when they became Catholic, so I am well aware that we are greatly blessed.
During this time, I voraciously read all the convert stories I could get my hands on. I read more writings from the Church Fathers. I scoured Catholic message boards on the internet. I prayed. I worried. And then I nervously started RCIA. I had missed the fall start of classes at our parish and so our priest kindly offered to let me start private classes with another candidate so that I wouldn't have to wait until the following Easter Vigil to come in. As I sat in these sessions, over and over I would think to myself, "Yes! This is what I've been looking for all my life! This is the truth!" I came to fall in love with the Church even more, and I eagerly anticipated being received into full membership so that I could share in Communion. I also have to say that everything I learned in RCIA was basically what I had learned in seminary- as a fellow blogger pointed out to me, Catholic catechists often refer to Protestant seminaries as RCIA!
Jason and I took turns attending Mass, and sometimes we would take the whole family. It was difficult to navigate the details as we started to extract ourselves from our old church and began trying to forge a new life in the new. It was not easy having a foot in both worlds during that time, but God gave us grace. I would say to anyone going through this process not to expect it to be easy, but to pray often! I also sought the intercession of about every saint I could think of. If you are seeking the truth, God will not leave you alone.
Our family was officially received into the Church on the Feast of the Assumption. We invited many of our friends from our old church and we were touched by those who came to witness our special day, in addition to my mom, who came from out of town. Now that it's "official" I can truly testify to the truth of the Sacraments. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I know I was convinced of the truth of the doctrines and teachings of the Church, but I wasn't prepared for the overwhelming feeling of grace I would find in my first Confession, or the grace conveyed in receiving the Eucharist, or the grace I know is imparted in simply attending Mass. I am so excited that our children will grow up knowing these graces, and that as a family, we are finally at home in the safety and comfort of our Mother Church.
You can learn more about Nikki and Jason's ongoing journey in the Catholic faith by visiting their blog "The Roman Road".