One day, in early 1996, not long before I moved back to the farm, a situation arose in the middle of the week that left me feeling a very strong need to go sit in a church and pray. Well, the only act in town during the week is the Catholic Church’s daily Mass. I knew that Jim sometimes went to Mass before coming in to the office, so I called the parish he attended and got the schedule. Then I called him, told him, I’d be late to work the next morning, and where I was going. He got excited, he told me “You’re going to love it I just know you are ”
I got to the church a little before 7:30 the next morning. I had been inside Our Lady of Grace church once before, during a choral performance my older daughter had been involved in. But this felt different. Somehow I hadn’t really seen the church then. This time, I pushed open the heavy oak doors and walked into the sanctuary and – I froze. For the first time I was aware of the splendid architecture, the vaulted ceilings, the stained glass, the white marble altar area. For years and years, I’d been in Baptist churches, Christian and Missionary Alliance churches, Friends meetinghouses, all plain, and the Friends’ completely unadorned. This, then, was splendor, this was magnificence – and every bit of it pointed, not to the human designer but far beyond. A voice inside me proclaimed, “Behold the majesty and glory of Almighty God ”
I stood for several minutes before taking my seat in the back pew, and even then I continued looking around in curiosity and awe. I watched several people enter, genuflect and cross themselves before entering a pew, then move forward to kneel on one of the drop-down kneelers to pray before the service began. It was a demonstration of devotion I found strangely moving. I noticed carvings along the outer walls of the sanctuary – from literary allusions I’d encountered in college, I recognized them as the Stations of the Cross, a beautiful meditation and prayer on the sufferings of Christ. I saw statues. I saw the stained glass windows depicting the Life of Christ. My eye was regularly drawn to the white marble altar area up front, with all its splendid fixtures.
Particularly, my attention was riveted to a “gold box” in the front of the sanctuary. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it was called or anything about it. But I couldn’t take my eyes off that gold box. I knew, viscerally, by revelation, that my Lord and my God was in that box. I was electrified. And I knew just as surely that it was in the Communion Host, which until that moment I had thought was just one of many Catholic superstitions, that He was Present. The very word “Eucharist ” popped into my mind as clearly and succinctly as if someone had whispered it in my ear.
The Mass itself is hardly memorable. All I could think was, He’s really there And Ooh, how gross! Because literal meant… well, literal. Like cannibalism. But I couldn’t escape it or ignore it: He was really there, in the Eucharist. I knew it. I didn’t know how to reconcile it with my prejudices or sensibilities, but I decided that day that if the Church was right about that one crucial point – and she must be – then if she were wrong about everything else, it wouldn’t really matter. I was going to have to become Catholic.
A couple weeks later I was able to speak with the director of religious education for that parish, a man who was also a convert and an acquaintance through our daughters. He laughed at my question about Catholics being cannibals. Evidently lots of people think it, but most are too polite to say anything about it. Not me
He explained that the term Transubstantiation dates back to the time of Thomas Aquinas, whom I remembered from my History of Christianity class at Guilford. Then it clicked for me.
Essentially, according to Aristotle, whose philosophical work was a major source for Aquinas as he undertook his great theological work, an object has two parts: its substance and its accident. The accident of the bread and wine (or the “species”), in the consecration, remain the same – that is, the physical nature of the host, if you were to examine them under a microscope, would still be bread (wheat flour, no yeast) and wine (grape, fermented). They retain the taste and other sensory elements of their original accidental nature. But the substance – that is-ness of the object, is transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ.
It’s a hard concept to try to explain. But I’d heard of substance and accident before – not in my religion classes, but in a lit class. “Think of what makes a tree a tree,” said my professor. “The isness of the tree.” The particulars that make it recognizable as a pine or an oak, a willow or a poplar, those particulars are the accident. The essential “treeness” is the substance.
Aha. Transubstantiation. But, having been taught for nearly forty years that the Lord’ Supper, Communion, is merely a symbolic remembrance of the Last Supper, a commemoration of the sufferings He foretold at that last Passover, it was still a difficult concept to grasp.
Well, said my friend, let’s look at the Gospel of John, chapter 6. Starting at verse 26, Jesus begins His discourse on His identity as the Bread of Life. I’d always been taught this was a metaphorical reality, not literal. But look at v. 41:
“The Jews therefore were grumbling about Him, because He said ‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.’”
Well, it was hard for them to accept that He was the Messiah, right? That’s what they were complaining about.. Wasn’t it? Look at v. 52:
The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying ‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?’”
Already they were beginning to take Him not metaphorically, but literally And verses 53-58:
…Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life… for My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.. He who eats this bread shall live forever.
Now, Jesus taught this very publicly, in the synagogue in Capernaum. It wasn’t some secret, cultic teaching shared only with the Twelve, it was something He had laid wide open before everyone following Him and thinking about following Him. And it was such a difficult idea for them, that “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” It wasn’t just the Jewish officials who had difficulty with this, it was His disciples (remember, by this point He had many disciples, and the Twelve were distinguished from all the other followers). Some abandoned Him because of it.
If Jesus had been speaking only symbolically or metaphorically, nobody would have been offended. Instead, everyone – the Jews and the disciples – understood Jesus to be speaking literally. And He never corrected their literal understanding or offered any alternative explanation, as He did with parables and other difficult teachings His disciples did not understand.
I have since learned that the Church taught this essential doctrine, also known as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, from its very earliest days. Even after the Reformation, the change to a symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s supper came about well after the major splits of Lutheranism and Anglicanism and seems to have been developed to further distance these rebel groups from Rome – not as primary objections to the teachings of Rome. In fact, the Anglicans/Episcopalians and the Lutherans today teach a doctrine called consubstantiation, that the Real Presence of Christ co-exists side by side with the substances of bread and wine. With, but separate.
I knew that the Holy Spirit had revealed something powerful and totally unexpected into me in that first Mass about Christ’s Real Presence, and this Scriptural evidence, unaddressed by my former Protestant pastors, was compelling. The historical evidence of the Church’s adherence to this doctrine for more than 1500 years up to and including the early years of the Protestant Reformation was even more so. Again I thought: if the Catholic Church was right about that one, essential point, then I was willing to bet the farm that they were going to be right on the money about everything else. Or if not, it really didn’t matter to me: I simply had to become Catholic.
Once I realized that Christ is truly Present in the Eucharist, I began to think of things that hadn’t occurred to me before. Like, the fact that our definition of orthodoxy – the Trinity, the virgin birth, the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the physical death and resurrection of Christ… – all these things were identified and codified by the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Catholic Church remains faithful to those doctrinal essentials, and to the sanctity of life, even when mainstream Protestantism is now guilty of increasingly compromising them in a growing liberal movement away from orthodoxy.
I began to wonder why the evangelical tradition ignores the earliest Church teachers and Fathers. Why did we only quote contemporary theologians? It was as if Christianity were supposed to have suffered an 1800-year gap in its history, had somehow been abandoned after the completion of the Book of Acts until the last two hundred years or so. So often I had heard evangelical pastors boast of recapturing the essence of biblical Christianity, the heart and purity of the first century Church, when they patently ignored the writings available to us from those first Christians, who lived and worked alongside the apostles and their disciples and successors. I had accepted the omission without question; now it rankled.
I also began to ponder the source of the Bible. The collection that we now know as our New Testament was officially compiled about 300-400 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the work of… the catholic Church In fact, while I had actually been told once that the Catholics had added the deutero-canonical books we Protestants called the Apocrypha, I knew that the opposite was true, that the Protestants had eliminated them after the Reformation; in fact, the earliest King James translations were required by law to include those deutero-canonical books
It also began to seem clear to me that even while we evangelicals claimed that the Bible as our only authority for faith and practice, the Bible itself does not claim to be sufficient in and of itself. II Timothy 3:16 does not claim that the Scriptures are adequate or sufficient, only “useful” or “profitable.” In fact, Paul wrote to Timothy that the Church is “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Tim. 3:15, NKJV). Moreover, Paul and the other New Testament writers made no claim to be writing Scripture; the authority of their writings was verified by the Church long after they had been disseminated through the Christian community. It seemed irrational to think of these simple servants of Jesus Christ seeking to add to what they knew already as the Scriptures; they were only recording what they know of the life and teachings of the Lord, or writing to give counsel and direction to the embryonic Church and its leaders.
It was startling to discover previously-overlooked passages in Scripture that promoted tradition and oral teaching. These include 1 Cor 11:2, II Tim 1:13-14, 2:1-2; II Thes 2:15. I had been indoctrinated to believe that, with the compilation of the New Testament, the oral traditions became moot. But the very fact that the New Testament was compiled by councils of the Church, established in large part through the traditions of their origins and prior use, seemed to set the New Testament as part and parcel of that Tradition. I realized, although all the traditions of the Church that I was encountering were solidly rooted in and supported by Scripture, the priority had become reversed: Tradition validates the Scriptures, not the other way around.
I was also amazed, in subsequent visits to Catholic parishes in Greensboro and in Southern Pines, to discover that the Mass is full of Scripture. On Sundays, there are four readings: Old Testament, Psalm (usually sung), New Testament and Gospel; on weekdays there are three readings. And so much of the Mass itself, in the prayers and responses, is a recitation of Scripture I’ve never been in a Protestant church with a fourth as much.
So… why, in the midst of these wonderful discoveries, why did I go back to the Protestant Church? Because I did. When I moved back to my homeplace in ‘96, I went back to the Methodist Church where my father’s family had been charter members and where I’d spent many Sundays of my own childhood. I told God, “If You ever relieve me of (duties I’d assumed when I moved back home), I’ll go back to the Catholic Church.” I didn’t remember my promise very long. I was relieved of those duties, in less than two years, but by then I had forgotten the promise.
When my second husband’s work took him to Louisiana, I began packing up belongings, expecting our furnishings to have to go into storage when I joined him. Books – I had so many books – are generally cheaper to replace than to store, so I began to sort out those books I would probably not read again. Many went to the just-beginning library of a church where I’d been playing piano for several months, but I also had Catholic writers whose works would not be well-accepted there. I decided to donate those books, three large boxes full, to the parish library at Sacred Heart Parish in Pinehurst.
When I walked into the parish office and announced my mission, the reaction of the women in the office was even warmer and brighter than the September day. A Protestant reading Catholic books! And they were thrilled when I told them how I had come to believe in the Real Presence. And when I assured them I was keeping more books than I was giving away – Thomas Merton, Msgr. Romano Guardini, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and more – they were delighted. We had a wonderful visit together. I felt I ought to come and worship there soon.
As I cranked up the old pickup, I heard The Voice again, this time with music and laughter: “Oh, Sweetheart…” and I immediately recalled my promise to return to the Catholic Church. I had to laugh – God does not allow us to forget our promises, but He can and does approach us with warmth and tenderness and even with humor.
Still, it was not easy to return to the Church. I knew that by returning I was making a commitment to live as a Catholic even though I couldn’t be received into the Church, and I didn’t know how long it would take until I could be Confirmed. I would be committed to honoring the obligations of mass attendance, of fasts and abstinences, a great challenge, even though I knew that these acts of self-denial and obedience would enrich my soul. I knew I would have to accept all the teachings of the Church, whether they made sense to me or not. These are disciplines alien to nearly all the Protestants of my acquaintance and even to my own strong-minded nature
There was, in fact, only one final obstacle to my whole-hearted acceptance of all the Church’s teachings, and it had become only a half-hearted objection: Mary.
I had long been dissatisfied with the Protestant habit of virtually ignoring Jesus’ mother. It seems we brought her out only for our Nativity scenes at Christmas (after all, you can’t have a birth without a mother), but as soon as we could, we would stuff her back into the storage shed and try to ignore her for the rest of the year.
But I also wasn’t comfortable with what I perceived an inordinate emphasis on Mary among Catholics. Unfortunately, over the years I’d encountered people who’d been so enthusiastic in their devotion to Our Lady that they seemed to regard her as a fourth Person of the Godhead, seemed more excited about her than about her Son. I was very uncomfortable when I heard Catholics speak of praying to Mary, or refer to her as Mediatrix or as Queen of Heaven. I was uncomfortable with the Rosary, preferring instead the Chaplet of Divine Mercy which directly addresses “Eternal Father”. I didn’t know where the balance would be found, but I kept coming back to my original thought: if the Church is right about the Real Presence….
I had no trouble accepting her title “Mother of God” or Theotokos (literally, God-bearer) because it reflects Jesus’ divinity, not her own.
And I learned soon thereafter that the Church makes a clear distinction between worship, which is due only to God, and veneration, which may be given to the saints, and the highest form of veneration, which is accorded Mary.
Shortly after the visit at the Sacred Heart parish office, I was watching tv when BBCAmerica was re-broadcasting their tribute to Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on her 100th birthday. That’s when it clicked for me. The Queen Mother, was not the monarch, but her husband was king during WWII, and her daughter, Elizabeth II is now reigning monarch of Great Britain. The British people were simply wild about “the Queen Mum,” she held a very precious place in their hearts. And it occurred to me, what a marvelous analogy this was Jesus is King of Kings; Mary, His mother, is like “Queen Mum” of Heaven.
We have three incidents where Mary is recorded to have spoken: at the Annunciation, when she responds to the angel’s announcement with the humble Fiat, “Be it done to me according to thy word;” her song of praise, the Magnificat, sung when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth; and finally, at the wedding feast in Cana, when she tells the servants, “Whatever my son tells you, do it ” But those three instances deserve more attention and honor than they’ve ever received in any Protestant church of my background. Those words, plus her faithfulness from the Annunciation to the Upper Room at Pentecost, make her a powerful model for any practicing Christian.
I came to realize that the Rosary, a Marian devotion which made me squirm for so long, is really a series of reflections on key events of Jesus’ life. The “Hail, Mary,” central prayer of the Rosary, is taken from the Annunciation and from Elizabeth’s greeting, both in Luke 2. We repeat and fulfill Scripture in praying the Rosary.
Then I heard a tape by Dr. Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister and convert to Catholicism, in which he described Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant, having borne in her body the Messiah, the Covenant-Maker. This image struck me as profound, and it led to another realization: by receiving in her body the conception of the Lord Jesus, she becomes the Bride of the Holy Spirit, in a unique spousal relationship with God, making her worthy of greater respect and honor than I had ever been taught, as a Type of the Bride of Christ, the Church.
My grasping the truth and beauty of Mary’s unique spousal relationship with God also brought into focus for me the Church’s teaching of her perpetual virginity. I had thought this issue a hair-splitter until quite late in the process, but I have come to understand that it is crucial in the Church’s covenant theology. The Protestant English translations indicate that Mary and Joseph had other children – at one point Jesus is told his mother and brothers are looking for Him. However, the scriptural evidence seems stronger to the contrary. For one thing, the ancient (and some modern) languages do not distinguish between close relatives – there is no separate word for cousin, for example, in either Greek or in modern Thai.
But also, if Mary were not perpetually virgin, an intended state from the time preceding her marriage to Joseph, her ability to conceive the Messiah would not have been such a puzzle to her in Luke 2; it might logically have been taken for granted that the Child would have been conceived after the impending marriage. Also, it seems unlikely that Mary could have traveled as extensively as the Gospels record, had she had other children to care for or to live with. Too, had Mary borne other children, it would have been unnecessary for Jesus to provide her with a home after His death; instead, He gives her to John, the beloved disciple. And through John He gives her to us, to take into our homes as His mother and now ours, for us also to become her son(s).
Most of all, because Mary accepted the role given to her by God as mother of His Son, it was necessary that she remain pure in body as His Spouse. Her constancy mirrors the purity of her heart and soul, provided from the time of her conception by the work of Christ even before His Incarnation (called, consequently, the Immaculate Conception). Mary bore in her body the New Covenant of God; her perpetual virginity reflects her spousal fidelity to God.
Then it became easier to recognize her as the Mother of the Church. In the Book of Romans, Paul speaks of our adoption as sons by God, so that we become joint-heirs with Christ, the true-born Son. It makes sense that, if Jesus is God’s Son and Mary’s Son, then when we receive our adoption as children of God, we also become her children. And in Revelation 12, every Protestant Church I’ve even attended admits that the woman and the Child are Mary and Jesus – but none has ever acknowledged that the dragon goes in search of the woman’s other children, who must of necessity be us, the “sons of adoption.”
With those reflections in mind, it wasn’t hard to begin praying to her. After all, ever since my first commitment to Christ, back in the ‘70’s, I’d always been told “Prayer is simply talking to God.” Well, talking to someone isn’t worshiping them, so it didn’t make sense to treat “talking with” Mary as an act of worship. Moreover, whereas Protestants equate worship with the entire program of hymns, prayers, and sermons of the church service, Catholics view worship as the reverence with which we view the Consecration and receive Christ in the Eucharist; the reading of the Word, hymns and prayers are the preparation for worship. And I learned, too, that we don’t pray to Mary as we pray to God, with specific requests for her to grant; rather, we request her (and by the way, the saints’) intercession and help, much in the same manner as I’d done countless times when I’ve picked up the telephone and called a friend, “Hey Can you pray for so-and-so?” But because of who Mary is, her prayers, we assume, get special consideration from her Son, just as her request for His assistance at the wedding of Cana received His special consideration. This is why she is known by the Church as Mediatrix.
It all began to make beautiful, glorious sense. There could be no turning back, even though I couldn’t be brought into the Church right away – by having remarried after being divorced, and with Rusty also having been divorced, there would have to be a long process of resolving what the Church recognizes as an invalid marriage.