Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Whole World Changed--or Was it Me?

A few posts ago I began the story of my Catechism with Fr. B., a young Traditional Catholic priest who immediately took me in and began teaching me after so many had discouraged me. At our first meeting, I began studying the excellent book, "My Catholic Faith," reading chapters for homework, reading Papal Encyclicals and other assigned articles and, every few sessions, taking tests, either written or oral, to verify the depth of my slowly accumulating knowledge. At home, I used the Baltimore Catechism books as quick study guides, and every time Father B. announced a "little quiz" coming up, I'd spend hours studying as if I were suddenly a young girl preparing for her first Holy Communion. With every page of homework, with every meeting with Father B., I began to see the world around me change.

At our third or perhaps fourth meeting, Father B. greeted me, we prayed, and then before he sat down he walked to the library window. It looked out on a rolling lawn that led on one side to a lake and on another to a path that meandered down to the huge white Church. Near the window, close to the priory, a yellow tarp flapped and lifted in the autumn wind, revealing a stack of newly cut wood. Father B. and the other priests had been busily preparing for the winter.

"Does the world around you seem to look different now?" Father B. asked me, turning back from the window. I was surprised. Had he read my mind? "Yes," I said. "And it's a very uncomfortable feeling." After only a few lessons, I felt as if blinders had been removed from my eyes, allowing me to see the world not from my accustomed secular vantage but from a new place, one that considered God before all other created things. Suddenly I was aware of how people spoke, acted and dressed, with little regard for God or for themselves; how television and magazines encouraged the worship of money, possessions and "what was right for me"; and how I myself failed to honor God in so many ways in the course of a day. Seeing "through the eyes of Christ" was an awesome and disturbing thing. I wondered if St. Paul, going about his business of persecuting Christians, was also shocked when he suddenly saw with this new clarity. Like St. Paul, I now felt called upon to change course, to make pleasing God--and not simply "fitting in" with the world or the people around me--my final destination. I knew, in my heart and soul, that becoming a good person would not be an easy task. I understood, for the first time, that the gate we must pass through to reach God is indeed narrow. And yet, at the same time, it is open to all.

Slowly, slowly, I began to change my life. Thanks be to God for Father B.

Because I want to move now more quickly to the present, because I want this blog to be not just the story of my conversions but also the story of how I am trying, day by day, to be as holy as I can be, with all my limitations, I'll summarize in a few sentences my "adventures in becoming Catholic." As my friend M. said, "You'd think the Church would be so eager for converts that they'd give you a trip to Italy and a matched set of Libby glasses!" Ah, not so! But anything worthwhile is worth waiting

After my nine-month Catechism with Fr. B., he was transferred to another Church in another state. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to become a Catholic and so had to take the next step, enlisting a priest to help me straighten out my marital situation with the intervention of the Catholic Tribunal. I attended, in the meantime, an RCIA program with other adults awaiting conversion. But at the last minute I learned I couldn't join them as they were welcomed into the Church on the Easter Vigil--my paperwork had not been completed, and wouldn't be for another 8 months. All in all, my conversion--from the time I was called to Catholicism to the moment of my First Holy Communion, Confirmation and the blessing of my marriage in January of 2007--encompassed more than than five years.

At last I am, happily, at home.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Yom Kippur

Today is Yom Kippur, the most solemn of the Jewish High Holy Days, the one day a year when I feel most poignantly the fact that I am, in the eyes of my husband and in the eyes of Judaism, an apostate Jew. This morning I ate breakfast as my husband fasted. He dressed in his best suit while I threw on some cutoffs and a T-shirt, ready to do my Saturday rounds of grocery shopping, plant watering and email-answering. In the past, before my conversion to Catholicism, this was the day that my husband and I would sit together in Synagogue, holding hands as the sun came through the stained glass windows. I imagined that all those worshippers around me were content, secure in the religion that had either sustained them from childhood or called them as adults. Already, I had begun my search for a way to return to Christianity, but I had not told my husband of this longing; I had not yet met Father B. and begun my Catechism. For years, I sat through the magnificent and somber Yom Kippur services, all the time feeling that something was missing. It was lovely being together with my husband, being close, but while we were praying I was forever waiting for the hand of the Holy Spirit to pierce the Temple walls to accuse me--or perhaps to elect me. Recently I wrote a poem, a memory of that time:

Sitting in the Synagogue

Sitting in synagogue by the stained glass windows
where we sat every Yom Kippur morning,
a seat I chose, the brown wood
warmed by the sun as it angled over the parking lot,
its beam narrowed by the property of glass
to a round yellow light that I hoped might shine on me
as if I were the pot of gold or a saint in the church I left behind,
I pretended that God might redeem me,
the light falling upon me, a miracle that everyone would see,
whispering to their neighbors until even the rabbi was hushed and waiting.
What would I do then, I asked myself—
stand and speak in tongues, words poured through me
like my granddaughter pours sand to spin her plastic windmill?
By 10-O’-clock the sun was hot, the prayer book’s pages
fragrant and warm, the wooden pew almost melting.
Still, no finger touched me, the hand of God

did not reach down and seize me.

Why should this burning ignited in childhood

take so long to burst into flame?

And so today I go about my tasks and wait for my husband to return. Later, we will go to a friend's house for dinner where he will break his fast. Tomorrow, I will go to Mass and, on my knees, thank God for the chance to worship Him once again. I have also thanked God for my years in Judasim; I know at some deep level that had I not converted to Judaism I might never have been led to Catholicism. Like Mary, I truly did find Jesus in the Temple.

More about that on another day: my Catechism with Father B. and how I came to see the world around me in a new and wonderful way.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Meeting Father B.: What Is the Destiny of Man?

After converting to Judaism, after discovering in my heart and soul that I must return to Christianity and, specifically, to Catholicism, I spent many years searching: I searched my heart, I searched the Bible, I met with many priests and laypersons, all the time trying to find the door, the narrow door, though which I might pass. Some of my call to Catholic conversion was intellectual. After studying the Bible I saw clearly that the Catholic Church was the true Church. I read the works of C. S. Lewis and others whose calls to conversion, like mine, were unexpected and arrived at inconvenient times. And for all those years, I seemed to run, again and again, into closed doors.

One was the closed door of secrecy. I lived for years as a rarely-practicing Jew, afraid either to offend or alienate my husband and our Jewish friends but, at the same time, feeling like a stranger in the Synagogue. I ran into the closed door of self doubt. I'd been fascinated with Judaism and had found much to admire in that religion. Was I now simply looking for a new challenge, something else to learn? On top of everything, it seemed as if I would never find a priest who would talk with me and bless my journey. But in spite of my questionings, I felt increasingly drawn forward by that ever-present, sometimes close and sometimes distant Presence. Looking back, I recognize the twofold blessing of this long wait. When I did find such a priest, I was able to patiently enter into my studies and to allow God's will to work in me. And, during this wait, I came to understand that in order to move forward I had to own and proclaim my desires. I had to let my husband, my family, my husband's family and our friends know of my decision to seek entrance into the Catholic Church. These conversations were difficult. I felt our Jewish friends withdraw, ever so slightly, from me. I felt both my husband's loving support and his sorrow. I was choosing to leave the religion he loved, and therefore it must have seemed as if a part of me was leaving him as well. But I had no choice. I continued to knock at the Church's door, and it was Father B. who at last opened it for me.

I'd made the appointment to meet with him at my daughter's suggestion. When the day and hour arrived, I drove to his church wearing an outfit I thought (then) appropriate for the event: lovely billowing pants that I'd purchased at Martha's Vineyard, a navy T-shirt, short sleeved for the warm September day, and long dangling earrings. I entered the Church office, greeted the secretary and then sat, as she asked me, to wait for Father. The office was dim. Only the sunlight from one open window lit the room. Religious statues looked down at me from their wall niches. I could hear the distant tick of a clock, and then the chiming of the hour. Otherwise, everything was silent. Sitting for five, then ten, then fifteen minutes, I began to relax. Something in the air, in the half-light, in the serenity, felt right.

Then Father B. arrived. Young, dressed in a long black cassock that swished and swirled about him, he walked into the room neither hurrying nor delaying. Although I was not accustomed to rising when men walked into a room, I was propelled to my feet; something about him required respect and even awe. He smiled, nodded, and stepped aside to let me pass before him into the next room, where tables, set for a meal, were lined up before a central podium. A grandfather clock stood in the corner. A crucifix was the focal point, looming above the fireplace and mantle. We crossed the room and Father B. directed me to the library, a smaller room lined with shelves, the shelves filled with books, large and leather bound, Bibles and missals, tomes in Latin and Greek, their gold-lettered titles worn from years of use. The large dark wood table in the center of the library was already arranged for our meeting: at the head of the table, by his chair, sat a pile of books and papers. A chair three spaces away from his was already pulled out, as if to let me know where I was to sit. Closing the door behind us, Father B. said, "Before we talk, we'll pray." He indicated a crucifix on the wall, and I turned to it. He stood behind me. "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," he said. Out of the corner of my eye I watched as he crossed himself, and I did the same. "Amen" I said. I waited until he sat, and then I went to my chair and did the same.

"How can I help you," he said, smiling. The windows in the library were open; a breeze stirred the papers before him and the sweet smell of end-of-summer grass filled the room. "A beautiful day," he added. Taking a deep breath, my heart pounding so hard I was sure my voice would shake with equal violence, I said that I wanted to explore becoming a Catholic. That my daughter had recommended him to me. He nodded and passed me a large red book, sliding it along the polished table. He asked me to turn to page two, chapter one. I did. "Please read the chapter out loud," he said. For a moment I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly. Read out loud? I looked up. He said, "Please read," and rested his elbows on the table, his face both serious and pleasant.

I took a breath, clasped my hands in my lap to stop their trembling, and in my best voice, reading slowly and carefully, began my journey into the book entitled "My Catholic Faith": "What is the destiny of man?" I began--was I finally to learn the answer?--and when I'd finished the chapter, Father B. asked me to recall what I'd read. "Why did God make us," he asked. And I knew the answer: "To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him."

For the rest of the hour, we talked. I was given a copy of the book, and homework, Papal Encyclicals to study. We set up a meeting time for the following week, and he encouraged me to bring him any questions, any doubts, any insights. Before we ended our session, we stood again facing the Crucifix, and Father B. began to teach me how to pray.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Call to Conversion: Take Two

During my studies with the Rabbi prior to my conversion to Judaism, I was required to read several books about the history of Judaism and Jewish holidays and to learn to read enough Hebrew to follow the prayers during services. My husband and our friends joked: "You're learning more about Judaism than we know--and we were born into the religion!" Their comments made me realize that, as a Christian, I had known very little about Christianity. Other than my Sunday School warm and fuzzy feelings about Jesus, the man with open arms Who welcomed children to His knee, I had no true understanding of who Jesus was or why Christians throughout the ages were willing to become, for His sake, martyrs. Within months of my conversion, a brand-new Jew, I began reading everything I could get my hands on about Christianity. Unfortunately, I time and again picked authors who only wanted to put forth theories about the Historical Jesus, the real man, not the God man. I poured over books that told me Christ was a great human being who probably didn't really rise from the dead but was so esteemed that resurrection stories naturally appeared after his death. I read books that stressed Gnosticism or doubt, that focused on all that was earthly, on all that might be proven but very little on Faith or the supernatural. That mysterious Presence seemed to draw ever farther away.

My curiosity about and longing for this Presence existed within me, day after day. I carried this longing to work and to the movies; it sat with me in the company of family and friends. The more I read about Jesus the more I was filled with confusion and sadness. He was, to me, the ultimate mystery. I decided that I was a Jew whose lot it was to struggle with the concept of Christ, and so began reading literature written for "Jews for Jesus." I found in these books the first hint of comfort, of transcendence. I hid these books from my husband; I never mentioned a word to my friends. I continued to pray the Lord's Prayer, and I became ever alert to the mention of Christ's name--in conversations, in the news, on the radio. I wondered if Christ was the Presence lingering, waiting.

One Sunday morning when my husband was out of town, I felt drawn to attend a local church, one I'd visited a few times previously with my friend T., a nun. This church was Catholic; at least it seemed Catholic to me, a nominal Jew who was now more used to occasional Temple services than to Christian worship. I drove over alone; walked in and sat in the very back. When Communion was offered, I sat unmoving. "It's for everyone," the usher whispered. I wondered what would happen if I walked forward to receive? Would I die? Would the church collapse around me? Terrified, I fled before the Mass was over.

This Christian cat-and-mouse game went on for months. I would go to this church, lurk in the back and stand, trying to be invisible. The priest eventually found me out and invited me to talk. "What are you looking for," he asked. I told him I wanted to know Jesus, but all I could find was the human, the man in the books who was called "Historical." I was looking for the other One. I was looking for a blessing. The priest and I talked for hours, about art and life, about the recent exciting investigations into the "real" life of the man Jesus. We debated the idea of the "real presence." After several meetings with this lovely, learned gentleman, this man who welcomed all to his Communion table, who was willing to give me, a Jew, Communion and to welcome me into his Church, I understood I was not yet in the right place. I knew little about the Catholic Church, only what I recalled from my children's few years in Catholic school, but I didn't want becoming a Christian again to be too easy. I had slipped effortlessly into Judaism without incorporating any of that religion's true essence or belief. I didn't want to be the same sort of Christian. And more and more, I knew I wanted to be a Christian. Not an Episcopalian or a Congregationalist, not a Protestant or a Jew for Jesus. I wanted to be a Catholic, a capitol "C" Catholic. This feeling came to me as an imperative. It came out of the blue.

And so began several years of wandering. I called my friend, T., who introduced me to a priest she knew who, she thought, might help me. I sat across from him in his office as he, dressed in a shirt and casual sweater, crossed his legs and asked what he could do for me. When I told him I thought I wanted to become a Catholic, he frowned. After a few minutes conversation he told me I should practice discernment. Maybe I would really be happier as a Jew. Maybe I should go to Temple on a regular basis, take up all the Jewish traditions and immerse myself in the religion. I asked him how one "discerns," and he told me that I should pay attention to what "feels good" and what "feels bad." When he stood, I thought for a moment he might give me a blessing. But all he did was shake my hand, check his watch and tell me good luck. That made me feel really bad.

I decided to get to work on my own. I read a Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible in order to avoid any "Christianizing" of the text; I wanted to see if the Old Testament really did tell of the coming of the Christ. I read a second Jewish translation: both of them pointed, like an arrow, to the events of the New Testament. I read the New Testament. I reread the Gospels. I bought a Crucifix and hid it in my dresser drawer. The Presence moved closer, not quite close enough to touch.

Finally, I confessed to my Catholic daughter that I was really being drawn to the Church, but I seemed to be discouraged at every turn. She and her family attended, still attend, a Traditional Church, one that adhered to the Latin Mass in spite of the wide-spread changes that followed Vatican II. "See Fr. B.," she suggested. I called her church and made an appointment, saying that I simply wanted to speak to a priest. Half expecting the same sort of meeting--one that intellectualized the Historical Jesus or one that seemed more therapy session than prayer session--I marked the date on my calendar. Little did I know that this meeting would change my life.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Call to Conversion: Take One

A funny thing happened to me on my way through life, though my years as a wife, mother and nurse practitioner: I was called to the Catholic Church. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Born during the final months of World War II, in the middle of a thunder storm, to a devoutly religious but non-practicing mother and a non-religious but spiritual father, I was baptised in the Episcopal Church. Sunday school is a blur of sunny days and pictures of Jesus, arms open, children gathering around Him. What follows is nothingness--no church, no religious instruction, no mention of God, although God was ever present. I saw evidence of Him everywhere.

When I was a teenager, I joined the local Congregational Church for two reasons: it was within walking distance of my home, and all my friends belonged to the church youth group. Soon I was an active member of the junior congregation, attending retreats and Sunday night meetings and finally electing to be Confirmed at age sixteen. My parents weren't sure what came over me. "Better late than never," I told them. At the moment I was Confirmed, I felt myself filled with the Holy Ghost. At the reception, my boyfriend said, "You looked as if you were crying or something." He thought I was turning into a softy or, even worse, a nun.

Jump ahead several years. My boyfriend and I are married by a Justice of the Peace. We have two children. After five years of marriage, we divorce. I'm left with a baby and a toddler, the rent and no car. Working as a nurse's aid, I'm desperate for money. While I work, my children attend a Catholic pre-school and Kindergarten where they are looked after and loved by the nuns of Our Lady of Grace. A friend convinces me I should have the children baptised, and so they are received into the Catholic Church. Better late than never.

What follows are more years of nothingness: no religious education for my children, no church for me. Another marriage, again by a Justice of the Peace. All this time, although there is no evidence of this either in my life or in my actions, I feel the Presence with me constantly. Waiting. Giving me freedom of choice. Ever patient.

By now I'm a registered nurse, working with the very sickest patients, the injured and the dying. In my work, I feel even more strongly this Presence, this odd and puzzling call to something, to someone. If I have any religious leanings, they are played out in my ministrations to patients. In my other life, the one in which I am not a nurse, I make one bad decision after another, seeking neither minister nor priest. It's the seventies: we all want what we want; we all want to be the center of the world, a world of our own making.

Feminism explodes onto the scene. I attend writing workshops for women in which I learn that not only can I write, but I can write about anything! My body is my own! No one can tell me what to do! I am woman! Like so many women of this era, I think I can stand on my own, shouting my own name, doing my own thing. My second husband and I are divorced.

My writing explodes onto the scene too and, prodded by some publishing success, I learn to write the confessional poem, never thinking about who that poem might injure, what might be revealed in writing that perhaps should be kept private. In quieter moments, I ask myself why, if I'm so open, so free, how come I don't feel at peace? And what about that unknown and undefined Presence, the something that is still with me but seems now farther away?

Continuing to work in nursing, now as a nurse practitioner, and still writing, not only about my life but also about my work, I meet a Jewish man, attend Temple with him, agree to convert to Judaism, a religion I find fascinating, in order to marry him. I study for a year with the Rabbi; I learn about the Hebrew Bible, although I don't read it; I go to the Mikvah, where I am immersed in water, washing off all traces of my quasi-Christian past. My husband and I are married in the Synagogue on a Friday night. At the moment the Rabbi places his hand on my head, pronouncing me a Jew, there is a huge crash of thunder and flashes of lightning that illuminate the room.

I'm not a good Jew. I don't light candles, I don't fast, and in Temple I don't feel the presence of God. Even if He is there, I don't acknowledge Him. When I have to go to the Emergency Room for an unexpected illness, I write "Protestant" on the line that says: religion? For years, I stop praying, because I believe that if I'm Jewish I don't have the right to say the Our Father. The mysterious Presence moves farther away, and without it, whatever it is, I'm bereft. I find my way to an Episcopal Church and to a female friend, a poet, who has become a priest. Sitting on her office sofa and crying, I ask her permission to say the Lord's Prayer. I confess to her that I don't feel Jewish, that I feel untethered and lost. I don't tell her, because I can't yet articulate this, that I also feel that much in my life is wrong. It looks pretty good on the outside. But on the inside, I feel called to something greater, something that I can't identify or define. And I don't know where to find it.

And so I live for many years, Jewish by conversion, Christian by birth, a nurse who finds religion in caring for patients, a woman who, at last, begins to pray again. Not the Hebrew prayers I learn in Temple but only the Our Father. I talk to God all the time. I ask Him, what do You want from me? I don't say anything to my husband who would be, I imagine, devastated by my confusion.

Enough for now. For another day, "Conversion: Take Two," when I stumble my way to the Catholic Church.