Palm Sunday, 2015. This was the day that my family and I showed up on the doorstep of St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church; I wonder now if I looked composed. Inside, I was a mess, and worried that I might cry. I have written elsewhere about the years, months, weeks, and days that led up to this momentous occasion; I won’t reiterate them here. It’s enough to say that when I walked through those now-beloved doors for the first time, it was as a woman whose spirit felt nearly crushed under the weight of the trials and setbacks we had recently endured both in terms of our church journey and also in terms of Mark’s career and our financial life. The confusion and inner turmoil caused by now questioning long-held beliefs and assumptions, by considering foreign new possibilities, and by the fact that I carried in my arms a three week old child who had nowhere to be baptized were compounded by the still-bleeding wounds inflicted by an ugly conflict with and parting from our former church.
But, there was also a sense of expectation and hope. Here was a new possibility, a hope that we could still find a place to live in peace; this was something I had begun to despair of.
Mass that day was foreign and strange, and I spent most of it flipping hopelessly through the missalette, in a vain attempt to understand what was going on. There is one striking memory from a few weeks later that has stayed with me all year. A gentleman visiting from California sat directly behind me, and I could hear him quite clearly as he participated in the service. His voice was full of sincerity and fervor. I was struck by how deeply he felt his participation in the prayers, and I remember thinking that this was no vain, rote recitation as I had once imagined. As I listened, moved, one phrase leapt out at me, and it was to become my prayer, my anthem for the year to come: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”
And so began the year’s journey. First was a few months of exploration, examining doctrines and objections together as a family. Talking to family and friends. Enduring the expressions of shock, grief, disappointment, anger, betrayal, and scorn that came from some friends and acquaintances. Then came fall, and we signed our kids up for Religious Education and went to RCIA. The first evening that we walked into RCIA, I could not shake the feeling that I was a traitor; I could feel so clearly the dismay and disapproval of many of our friends and previous church leaders. But just as clearly, gently, I could feel the warmth, the tenderness, and the pull of the Church. It seemed I was caught in her gravity, and I began to sense that the Church was older and larger, more comforting and also more imposing than I had imagined, like an ancient mountain that one could be sheltered by, or broken upon, but could never move.
So I felt both drawn and frightened; I could sense Christ here, and I knew that the Church would ask me to stretch and grow in ways I would not have expected of myself. A primary example of this would be Confession. I was utterly terrified by this concept. The knowledge that I would have to go through with it ate away at me all year. I was deeply drawn to the Eucharist, but to get there I would have to come to grips with Confession. As I grappled with this, it felt to me like the last trimester of pregnancy, looking forward with joy and impatience to holding the baby, but knowing that between me and that blessed event stands childbirth. There is no escape, no way to skip that part. It’s a physical reality; baby must exit the womb and there is no easy way to do that.
It felt like a kind of death, walking into the confessional. I had struggled with shame, nerves, difficulty trusting the Seal of Confession, and even what I perceived as spiritual attack on that day as it seemed the entire day conspired to keep me from going. I sat in my car in the parking lot for nearly ten minutes before I could work up the nerve to go in, and I was afraid that I would lose that nerve halfway through and not finish my list. I was probably as nervous as I have ever been in my life! But I finally understood why every Catholic I ever talk to loves Reconciliation. It felt like going to the doctor with a serious and embarrassing problem, and finding kindness and medicine where you expected judgment – in spite of all assurances to the contrary. Even so, it took me a while…weeks afterwards, actually…to really internalize and accept that my confessor (who probably knew who I was regardless of the screen I gladly hid behind) was not going to let anything slip in conversation, and was not going to think less of me forever.
The last few weeks up to Easter were a blur of activity: making sure details of clothing and schedules and paperwork for our big family were attended to, making plans for a proper celebration, and spending time in prayer in preparation for one of the most significant events of our lives. While we were making these final preparations for the Vigil, we also received, considered, and accepted a job offer in another state, the culmination of years of searching and financial distress. (While this was fundamentally good news, it was bittersweet as it would mean saying goodbye to grandparents, our new family at St. Francis, and to places and people that we love.)
How can I describe the Easter Vigil? There are the mundane details, random memories of fatigue, a fussy and at times barely manageable toddler, wailing and demanding to be nursed right there in the entrance procession. Wishing I could pay better attention to the liturgy but consistently distracted by Timothy’s antics. Being hot, but unable to take off my jacket for fear of disturbing a fitfully slumbering toddler. Being torn between the heavenly and the mundane as I struggled to appreciate the candles and also prevent my children from burning the place down. This is the spiritual life of a mother, and I know it’s good in the eyes of God. I know He understands. He was a baby himself, and I bet He distracted Mary from her prayers now and then.
But. The candles. The incense. The Exultet, and the coming on of the lights. Timothy’s baptism, a beautifully fitting culmination of our year of transition that had been touched off by our lack of ability to have him baptized.
Then, Confirmation. This is something I am still trying to put into words. I don’t know what I expected; I didn’t really think much about Confirmation as a thing in itself, but I was more thinking of it as simply a bridge to the Eucharist. I think this was maybe a residual attitude that I retained from my Protestant background. In reality, Confirmation was an experience that I will never, never forget. The memory is uniquely sharp, almost as though I can close my eyes and simply be there, again. I have felt the effects in my interior life in ways that I just haven’t finished processing and can’t really fully describe. I have felt an increase of courage and boldness in talking about faith and the Church – it’s so much easier, anyway, to talk with someone about the Catholic church…this isn’t just my opinion, here, anymore. Also, I have found myself able to move on and let go of the pain and anger that I struggled with in the wake of the conflict with our old Presbyterian church. Really, I just feel considerably more courage in general. I have always been a pretty timid, fearful person. I feel like I understand, finally in my heart and not just my head, that I don’t have to be afraid of all the terrible things that could lurk in my future. If I have joy it will be in Him. If I have pain and sorrow, it will be in union with His suffering, which so far surpassed anything I could experience, and He will be there. Paul’s great secret of contentment is something I have always struggled to understand, and I feel that I am nearer now.
Then, as though that weren’t enough, came Communion. I have felt deeply drawn to the Eucharist since very early in our journey. The idea of the Real Presence is gripping. I very much wish that my schedule permitted me to go to daily Mass – once a week just doesn’t seem like enough. The idea that Jesus is physically present, that I am permitted to not only touch but consume…it’s almost too much. It’s a privilege I hope I never take for granted.
So I seem to have found more than I hoped for this year. I wanted the truth, a place to belong, and a place of rest and refuge. I hoped for time to heal from a really rough few years. More than anything I just wanted to follow my Lord, like Mary Magdalene, my Confirmation saint. I found these things, and so much more. In some ways I feel like Dorothy, whisked away in a whirlwind from her black and white life into a delightful world in full color.