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Divorce, then an unlikely conversion to Catholicism

A change of heart

The author, Bo Caldwell. “You have a history,” Dad said, “of being strongly influenced by whatever guy you happen to be dating. You took up macrame. You wore Earth Shoes. You — ”
  • The author, Bo Caldwell. “You have a history,” Dad said, “of being strongly influenced by whatever guy you happen to be dating. You took up macrame. You wore Earth Shoes. You — ”
  • Image by George Saakestad

I was in first grade, my mom told me that I ’d been invited to play at Jenny’s house and that after school I should take the bus as usual but get off with Jenny. I wasn’t cra/y about the idea. Jenny was from Someplace Else — where didn’t matter in first grade — and lived with her grandmother. She was a little too good and a little too nice, and I didn’t see that we had much in common.

But I took the bus, as Mom told me to. I even sat next to Jenny and tried to talk to her, and I understood that it was going to be a difficult afternoon. She had long wavy hair and short bangs and looked like a doll, and my feelings about how different she was were confirmed.

Then the bus stopped and someone at the front of the bus called my name and I looked up and Jenny Buchanan, beautiful, popular Jenny Buchanan, who wore calico jumpers and her auburn hair cut short, was standing next to the bus driver saying, “Come on. Bo, this is my house.” And instantly I saw that I’d misunderstood: It was Jenny Buchanan who’d invited me over, the fun one, the one everyone liked. I stood and hurried down the aisle, feeling as though I’d won a prize, amazed at my good luck.

On Wednesday, January 31, at the age of almost 41,1 was received into the Catholic Church, and what’s led up to that decision has been like hearing Jenny Buchanan call my name. It turns out that God isn’t at all who I thought He was, and somehow the view through the window called Catholicism has changed everything. I’ve been continually surprised at who it is that is really calling, beckoning me to come with Him. He is far more wonderful than I ever expected, and once again, 1 am amazed.

And I find myself in a place I never expected to be, shaking my head at what’s transpired: How did this happen? As with any great change that comes upon one slowly, my conversion feels at once like the most surprising and the most natural turn of events. I can’t help but try to retrace my steps, looking for the seeds, whether scattered or sown, that brought me here.

I am an unlikely Catholic. I grew up in a small affluent suburb of Los Angeles that was, when I was in high school, the home of the western headquarters of the John Birch Society. San Marino was known for its good schools, its beautiful homes, the Huntington Library, and its conservative politics. It was not known for its Catholic population, and while there were probably more Catholics than I realized, I couldn’t have named any, with the exception of my cousins, who lived next door. My glimpses of Catholicism, as brief and fleeting as catching sight of those four cousins following my uncle to their station wagon on Sunday mornings, made the Catholic Church as appealingly exotic as my uncle’s cigars. Catholics had a lot of stuff: the missal, catechism. Confession, the pope, Lent, Mass, the rosary. It was a very accessorized religion. Going to Mass seemed like going to another country, and I was wistful as I watched my cousins head toward their car.

I’m unlikely not only in terms of geography of place, but of faith as well. I’m the granddaughter of Nazarene missionaries on my mom’s side and Sunday-school-teaching Nazarenes on my dad’s. My mom and her sisters and brothers grew up in China, where my grandparents spent most of their adult lives establishing churches, and my parents’ faith — and their parents’ — was a given of my childhood. It was my heritage. Church was not merely an option; it seemed that belief in God was hard-wired within me, never to be discarded.

As young adults, my parents “moved left,” as my dad says, and found that where they were comfortable was the evangelical Presbyterian Church, which was my religious home growing up. I sang in the choir and went to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School and church camps, where I was told the Good News: that God loved me and that His Son had died for my sins. I understood that God had a plan for my life, and I never doubted God’s love or the truth of anything 1 was told.

What I undersUxxd of my faith, but never could have articulated, was that God was someone separate from and outside of me, a being almost as different and far away as my missionary grandfather. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts” was putting it lightly, His logic was not my logic either. As I understood it, the essence of the Christian story was that humanity had separated itself from God by sin, but God, through His plan for us, had fixed things by sending us His Son, and Christ had redeemed us by dying in a horrible way. It made no sense to me — what did Christ’s death have to do with me, now? — but I figured that this was a place where faith came in.

I presumed God loved me, though He had little knowledge of who I really was (if He only knew!), mostly because I was very careful about how I talked to Him. He was like the maid: It was best to tidy up a bit before you let Him in, which I did, and my prayers were tidy as well, polite as guest-manners: Dear God, please God, thank you, God, I’m sorry, God. And what God wanted of me — what it meant to follow Christ — was to be good. My guess was that He wanted me to be like Nancy Drew: honest and kind, with high morals and solid judgment.

So I tried to be good, and it wasn't that hard. In junior high, I was timid and self-conscious.

I wasn’t one of the kids who made out under the pews of the Presbyterian church (which was always left conveniently unlocked) after school. I studied and helped run the church’s youth group, even when there were only four of us. Freshman year in high school I was 4 feet 11V* inches tall, weighed 90 pounds, and could be depended upon to get my homework done. My belief in God was lodged firmly in my center, and I felt I had a personal relationship with Jesus, who watched over me and was happy when I followed Him but was disappointed and sad when I ignored Him or strayed by being angry or selfish. Being good was made easier by the fact that I looked closer to 10 than 13; it wasn't as though temptation was lurking at every turn.

But then it got harder.

During the last two years of high school I drank a little, I had a boyfriend, and I was doing a few things I didn’t want God to know about. I began to turn away, figuring that if I couldn’t see Him, He couldn’t see me. No anger, just distance, like losing touch with a friend.

Since I didn’t see any way to follow Jesus and still do what I wanted, I adopted an all-or-nothing philosophy and would alternate between following Jesus and denying my desires, and following my desires and ignoring my faith. In the “on” periods, I was extreme. I worked at Christian camps, where I gave my testimony and prayed that my friends would accept Christ. When I was 16,1 went to hear a fundamentalist speaker who told us emphatically that “Christians should not date non-Christians," and I found myself breaking up with a perfectly good boyfriend, for no reason that I really understood or believed in. When I was 18, I came home from camp and threw out all my makeup, because it had been revealed to me that it was wrong to alter what God had created. But eventually I’d get tired of being oh-so-virtuous, just worn down by the effort it took to repress bad thoughts and feelings, and I’d call it quits. It was like going off a diet: enough God, enough Jesus. I just wanted to be myself. I’d still go to church, but with my defenses up, just putting in the time. Hey, God, I’d think, don’t worry about me for a while. In fact, don’t even look. Thanks for all your help, but I’ll handle things from here.

And soinehow, because of the distance, God becanx' like a close family friend on the other side of the country who sent me so many gifts that after a while I hardly noticed them. While I didn't doubt His love, it never felt real to me because He didn’t know me. I was careful to hide those parts of myself that might upset Him, not because I was afraid of Him, but because I didn’t want to disappoint Him; He had such high hopes for me. So I used good manners. I didn’t complain. I was grateful for everything He gave me. I was unfailingly proper. I didn’t tell Him about the things that hurt, or how 1 sometimes hated the wayT looked, or how lonely I was, even with family and friends who loved me. I simply accepted that distant friend’s gifts and tried to deserve them by being good.

I met my husband-to-be a year after I graduated from college. I was just coming out of a very “off’ period and was ready to settle down. We married a few years later, and a few months after our wedding, my husband suggested that we find a church. We chose a very liberal Presbyterian one, where I found, to my shock, that the Christian faith wasn’t necessarily filled with the sort of How-are-you-doing-with-the-Lord? stuff that I’d grown up with. I found I could have an association with God and not sacrifice my whole self. But my kids were small, and I was working part-time and was often exhausted. Everything felt like a laundry list, including any attempt at prayer. I’d try to pray in the morning or evening, but it wasn’t remotely spiritual. It was more like God and me checking our plans for the day, deciding who would do what: I’d take care of my kids, He would watch over us on the big stuff.

And then I fell into one of those times when it seemed as though I heard of someone having cancer just about every day — and three of those people were close to me. Okay, God, I thought, here’s Your chance. A lot of people are watching. Do something! And when, one by one, those people died, God lost His power for me. We became no more than coworkers in the same building. I understood that He commiserated with me and that He shared my grief, but that was about it.

Our Presbyterian church became more and more focused on social justice, and everything began to seem watered down. When I went to church I came out depressed rather than nurtured or encouraged. There was so much to do! More letters to write, more congressmen to call, another rally to attend. The kids didn’t like it, and Sunday mornings became a battle. We stopped going

One thing from my childhood faith that remained was guilt. When 1 failed, I felt bad. I imagined God shaking His head sadly, disappointed even if He knew I’d done my best. We had this in common: We both wished I could do a little better. It was like the message in a fortune cookie you always get at the wrong time: He doesn’t love you enough, but he loves you as much as he can. Only in this case it was, She does the best she can, but it cannot ever be enough.

When I looked inside myself, I saw someone loved by God as best He could, given who she was.

And then my marriage hit the skids.

In March of 1993, I moved myself and my two kids out of the house I had shared with my husband for ten years. In preparation for the move, I packed late at night, after the kids and my husband were asleep. We hadn’t told the kids about the coming separation yet, and I was trying, in sometimes mixed-up ways and with, at best, varying degrees of success, to make the separation “easier” on my husband. I’ve always hated the being-left sight of someone packing, and I figured I’d spare everyone that. So late, late at night. I’d take the few things 1 thought I’d need and fill the trunk of my car, then while the kids were at school, I’d drive to the cottage I’d rented and begin to unpack. I took a few plates, some flat-ware, a few pots and pans, some sheets and towels, and the clothes I wore most. We were calling this a trial separation, though in my heart, I really didn’t see moving back to that house. But because of the kids, who were six and eight at the time, I wasn’t ready to say that yet, so I just took what I needed and loved the most and left everything else behind. I left the crystal, most of the pots and pans and plates, most of the books and photographs. I left the clothes from Talbots; the separation brought out the adolescent in me, and I’d grown to dislike anything that hinted of a suburban housewife. And I very intentionally left my faith. If I’d left my husband, I obviously wasn’t going to be good for a while, so I crossed faith off my list until further notice. When I thought of God, it was in an apologetic way; I’m sorry, I know You don’t like this, but I’m going to do it anyway — which, coincidentally, was pretty much what I was telling my husband. I assumed God would disapprove entirely, and I figured I had enough to do without convincing Him.

But the real fear was that if I listened to God, He would talk me back into the marriage, just as He’d talked me into breaking up with that non-Christian boyfriend, and I knew I didn’t want that. Let God get His foot in the door and there was no telling what might happen. Before I knew it. I’d find myself wearing Laura Ashley clothes and writing Christian novels and denying my sexuality, my shadow, and my very self.

Six months passed, fall, then winter, and I began to calm down. I started going to bed at midnight instead of 3:00 a.m. I stopped letting the dog drink beer. I just sat now and then, instead of always doing something around the house. And in the stillness, I began to feel a hunger, for what I didn’t know—but I wanted to satisfy it.

I knew what not to do. Church was out — I was fairly certain about what God thought. So I began to meditate. In truth, I began reading about meditating far more than actually meditating, but even so, it helped. The books were calming and made me feel hopeful. There was a Buddhist temple nearby, and I thought about stopping in there sometime, and even though I wasn’t really doing anything other than reading, there was the feeling of some doors opening. I began to sense — and more importantly, to be willing to sense — someone nearby. And as I grew quieter inside, I began to miss God and, little by little — poco a poco — to want to find my way back, not retracing my steps, but, like the wise men, going home by another way.

First came the Quakers. Around the corner from the Buddhist temple was a Friends Meeting House, and the service was exactly what I needed: just some quiet, and an acknowledgment of a presence.

That was in January 1994, and at the end of the month I fell in love, the head-over-heels, everything’s-different kind. Falling in love had often seemed to solve things in my life before, and now was no exception. All I could think about was him, and all that spiritual hunger got shelved because it didn’t matter anymore.

But around March, the new love began backing off a bit, trying to examine just what it was we had here. And while that turned out to be a good thing, it felt like a turning away from me, and I didn’t want to back away. I liked not being able to think about anything else.

I liked all that adrenaline. I liked having the attention span of a five-year-old. And so, as he tried to get his bearings, to see where all this might lead, I found myself at sea, as though I’d been right in the middle of a great party, and the party left. Now what?

Did I mention that he’s Catholic?

We’re talking serious Catholic daily Mass, educated by the Jesuits. He’s a believer, all right, and through his belief— which was passionate and real and ran right down his center — I began to glimpse the giver of that belief, and it was not the God I’d known, or thought I’d known, all those years. More than that: Through this sweet man’s eyes, I began to see not only that my being good wasn’t God’s chief concern, but that, in an entirely different way, God was good. Not good as in behave yourself, but good. Like pizza and beer for dinner when you’re tired and hungry. Like a hot bath, or a great day, or holding your kids: that kind of good. And I wanted more of Him.

I went to the Friends Meeting House a few more times, but soon it wasn’t enough — that hunger again—and I fell in with the Episcopalians. I liked the music, the incense, the ritual in the service, and I liked receiving Communion every week, instead of once a month in the Presbyterian church. But soon Sundays weren’t enough. Between lingering divorce fallout and falling in love, I needed more. I looked in the Yellow Pages and found that an Episcopal church nearby had Morning Prayer on weekdays, with Holy Eucharist on Friday mornings. So, most days, after taking my kids to school. I’d drive over and, sometimes with only the two priests and the sexton, be there for Morning Prayer at 8:45. On Fridays there were a few of us — maybe three, sometimes more — with the priest for Holy Eucharist. I found that that time in church sustained me and that I always came away feeling fed. I began to feel pursued, as if someone had found me and would not let me out of his sight.

I bought a new Bible — the old one had little penciled-in notes that reminded me of my old self, and I wanted to read with new eyes — and I started reading the Psalms. Then I just browsed around in the Old Testament, looking for something helpful. And I found it. The descriptions in Deuteronomy of God bringing His people to a new land resonated with what was happening to me. I felt I, too, was being brought somewhere new, a place where I would be whole. I often felt discouraged — two steps forward, one step back — but Deuteronomy told me over and over again that it would happen, though it would not happen overnight. Do not be

afraid, I read again and again, and my fears eased. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might, I read, a verse I’d known since childhood. Only now I didn’t see it as a command but as a promise: I was beginning to want to love this God, and that verse seemed to tell me that I would learn how. I read Ezekiel and Isaiah and the Song of Songs, and something began to stir in me.

Jesus was more of a problem. He was so heavily clothed in Vacation Bible School — with connotations of no fun, be good, and act like a doormat — that I still didn’t want to have much to do with Him. He was like the boy in high school who liked you too much and was just always there; wherever you went, there he was, watching you with a sort of sorrowful expression. No thanks. And so, for a while, I avoided the New Testament; that was simple enough.

That went on for a year. I went to Holy Eucharist at two different Episcopal churches three or four times a week. And, now and then, I’d go to Mass with the boyfriend. We didn’t talk about it much, apart from the fact that I was always ama/ed afterward. I found the Mass beautiful and powerful, and the presence I sensed there was so different from who I’d thought God was. It was as though I'd had everything upside down: At Mass, God was a mystery, and it seemed that we were called not to figure Him out but simply to experience Him. We didn’t go to please Him; we went to feed ourselves. I came out of Mass in awe, shaking my head. That’s what You’re like? That was You? And there was a passion and intimacy I hadn’t known, as though that distant family friend I’d imagined wasn’t just a friend, but a lover, a case of mistaken identity. I felt I was being not called so much, but beckoned, a hard-to-resist and provocative Come over here. Come here. Come. And I began to feel loved.

Then, on a Saturday afternoon in late February, I got out the Yellow Pages again and found that the Catholic church nearby had Mass at five o’clock. It was close but not in the same town, so I wouldn’t know anyone, which was what I wanted. The few times I’d gone to Mass, I’d received Communion, though I wasn’t supposed to, not being Catholic. But I believed that Christ was present in the bread and wine — it was not merely symbolic — and I needed that presence. And when I walked into church that afternoon, the First time I’d gone to Mass by myself, what I felt was: at home.

And soon I was going to Mass every day. I’d take my kids to school and go at nine o’clock, or, if I ran late. I’d go to another church at 12:15. Or to yet another at 5:30. Each time I came out of Mass, I felt embraced, and I began to see that I’d misread a lot of things. I’d been wrong. He didn’t want me to be good. He just wanted me.

A few weeks before Easter, I called the church office and asked about its RCIA program — Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults — and was told that the meetings were on Wednesday night and that I was welcome to attend. And I began to be certain that I wanted to convert, though I wasn’t at all sure that the Church would take me.

This began a frustrating time. When I told friends that I was converting, I got mixed reactions, from both Catholics and non-Catholics. A Catholic friend paused, then leaned close. “The Church,” she said in a low voice, “is a very difficult place for a woman.” A non-Catholic friend who had considered converting said, “You should really think about it.” And while the issues these friends alluded to — the Church’s stance on abortion, contraception, homosexuality, the inclusion of women — were points of disagreement for me, they were also secondary. The heart of the Church was the Mass, in which I felt loved and blessed — and which seemed to be of God. Other aspects seemed to be human-inspired, and asking perfection of an institution like the Church seemed as unrealistic as asking it of a spouse.

So I began the journey to make things official. I started going to RCIA meetings last spring and continued in September because, as the priest I met with explained, going through RCIA was the only way to be received into the Church. I went, all right, gritting my teeth. The 20 people in the room came from radically different backgrounds, and the RCIA people had an impossible task, as though they’d been asked to teach a class of kindergarten through high school. Some of the participants were converting from Judaism, some from Protestantism, some came with no religious affiliation at all, but there we all were. And while I knew that I had a tremendous amount to learn about the Catholic Church, I did know how to look things up in the Bible. I knew the difference between the Resurrection and the Ascension. And when I came out of those two-hour meetings, I knew that while the RCIA process was intended to feel like an engagement, to me it felt like boot camp, and I hated it.

My family was cautious at the start, wondering if this Catholic thing might be a phase. My daughter would walk into my bedroom and find me reading Teresa of Avila or the Encyclopedia of Catholicism and ask what it was. “It’s about God,” I’d say, and she’d roll her eyes. “Another Catholic book?” As my kids became aware of my going to daily Mass, they’d say, “You went again? Mom, you just went yesterday,” as though it must have slipped my mind. But they didn’t say more than that, good or bad, and I had the feeling they’d adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Let’s see if it lasts, their expressions said.

With my parents and my brother, it was trickier. I wanted to tell them what was happening to me, but how? This kind of thing doesn’t exactly come up in conversation, and as I became more certain that I wanted to convert, I felt as though I were secretly engaged, because what those two transitions have in common — engagement and conversion — is leaving home. As much as conversion is about moving toward something, it’s also about moving away from something else, leaving something else behind.

So I tried to tell them gradually, starting with my mom, who’d hoped that I’d become involved with a church again and who has probably prayed for me most days of my life. She went to weekday Holy

Eucharist at the Episcopal church with me when I visited (my dad said he’d always wanted to be Episcopalian but had never had enough money), and in June, when I went on a silent retreat at a Franciscan retreat center, she quickly offered to take care of my kids.

When I saw my parents after the retreat, my dad said, “I’ve been sniffing the wind, and I think you’re becoming Catholic”

“I’m thinking about it," I said, and then we talked about the Presbyterian Church — he was just curious why it didn’t appeal to me—and about the Catholic Church — he was curious why it did. Then he and my mom said that if this path brought me closer to Christ, so be it. But the conversation, while a relief, was also difficult, for me at least, and while they didn’t do or say anything to let me know that the subject was difficult for them as well, it was in the air.

In the fall, my dad finally told me on the phone what he and my mom had been wondering. “You have a history,” he said, “of being strongly influenced by whatever guy you happen to be dating. You know what I mean?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do I need to go on?” “No,” I said, “true enough.” “Like Boyfriend Four,” he said (except he used the name, but it didn’t really matter).

“You took up macrame. You wore Earth Shoes. You — ” “Dad,” I said, “I said yes.” “Okay,” he said, and then he asked whether all of this was about the Catholic boyfriend.

“No,” I said, because I’d examined this one carefully, making sure, turning things over and over in my heart, trying to be clear. Why was I doing these things? And over and over again, the answer was

Because it’s what you want.

Late in the fall, in the midst of my RCIA angst, I met l>eo— Father Rock — a Jesuit who was helping someone through RCIA individually and who agreed to do the same with me. I liked him immediately, and during our times together, 1 began, through Leo, to unravel some of the knots in my faith. I began to be convinced that God wasn’t disappointed with me when I failed; that He didn’t wish I were someone else; that He wasn’t waiting for me to be perfect. And I began to feel His kindness, a tenderness that made me let my breath out in relief.

After a few months of weekly meetings with Leo, I told him I wanted very much to be received into the Church and that I wondered if I could do that before Lent. He understood and said yes, and we set a date, the 31st of January, and inside I thought, I really get to do this? That morning I called my parents. I hadn’t told them yet that I was making things official, and while I knew I should have given them more warning and that I was springing it on them, at least telling them that morning was still telling them before and was, I hoped, better than telling them after.

Mom wasn’t home; Dad and I talked for a few minutes, and then he said, “Tell me what’s new with Bo.”

Deep breath. “Well, there is something new, Dad," I said. “I’m going to be received into the Catholic Church today." Then a long pause that told me, You weren’t imagining this; it’s like saying. Well, Dad, I’ve decided to go ahead and grow that third eye. My dad said, “Okay,” in a grim sort of way, not as in. Okay, that’s fine, but as in. Okay, I’m trying - let’s have the rest of it.

“It feels very right," I said hesitantly, and I began explaining the logistics — working with Leo individually instead of proceeding through the parish RCIA process, that I’d known for some time that I wanted to become Catholic, that it was going to be a small Mass that afternoon.

Dad took all this in and said that it was his feeling that I was closer to Christ there, in the Catholic Church, than I had been at the Presbyterian church I’d attended years ago. And then he voiced some of his feelings about the Presbyterian Church and told me about his divergence from the Nazarene Church. I told him how I loved the Mass and got so much out of it. I could picture him nodding, listening, trying to understand.

“When I come out of Mass each morning,” I said, “I can’t believe that I get to do that every day. 1 can’t believe it’s free, that I can just go.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “That won’t last,” he said. “They’ll fix that in a hurry, trust me,” implying that I’d soon be asked to tithe. We talked for a bit longer, and then he said, “Well, you have my blessing, whatever that’s worth.”

The ceremony—my swearing in, the Catholic boyfriend called it — was small. Leo and I had set the time — Wednesday at three o’clock — and he had suggested the place: the chapel in the Jesuit residence where he lives. I invited six people, which felt like a lot. I knew that the more people who watched, the more nervous I’d be. Four came: the Catholic boyfriend; my best friend as a grownup; my sponsor from my stint at RCIA; and the wife of an early writing teacher who had herself become a good friend — and who happened to have been a nun. I sat in the middle of these four friends, and Leo said the Mass, and it was during the homily that he gave me a gift.

“Mementos that mark special occasions are important for us,” he started, and then he went on to give us an example, telling us that when a novice takes his vows, he is given a crucifix. It’s called his vow crucifix, and usually these crucifixes came from Rome, where they were made. When Leo took his vows, it was after the war— 1947 — and it was not possible to get crucifixes from Rome. But the father of one of the novices owned an ironworks, and he made the crucifixes for all of them.

All this time, Leo was holding a crucifix — it had been on the altar until then — and it became clear that it was his vow crucifix. It was around eight inches king, made of wood and brass. “And so,” he said, “because of all this, my vow crucifix is very heavy, because of where it was made.”

He looked at me then and said, “The time has come to pass it on.” I watched him closely, sure that I was misunderstanding. “Many people see the crucifix as a sign of suffering, a symbol of great sadness. But it’s not. It’s a sign of great love.” He said that he hoped I would always see it that way. And then he gave me his crucifix.

After Mass, when my friend who’d been a nun hugged me, she whispered that her vow crucifix hangs by her bed and that she wasn’t giving it to anyone, not ever.

Conversion is a dangerous word, and a risky thing to talk about: In my growing up it had the connotation of something done once and for all, and it seemed to imply that people would be watching you to see if it took. Is it real? Will it last? Is it for good? In the environment I grew up in, a lot of people could give you — and did so gladly — the date and place and circumstances of their acceptance of Jesus as their Lord and Savior, no less definite and specific and real than birthdays and anniversaries. I’d tried that, growing up. I kept trying to accept Jesus into my heart, and I kept thinking, “Maybe this will be it. Maybe this time it will take.” Because I never had that certainty that other people did. I’d tried to feel something, starting with Bible camp at eight. I was told that you weren’t born a Christian; you had to make a decision, to ask Jesus into your heart. You had to be born again.

But one Sunday at the Episcopal church, the priest said that we were continually called to conversion. Continually? Over and over again? Yes. We were called to turn away from some things and toward others. That, she said, was conversion: a process, not a moment. And so, while I can tell you the date and time of my conversion to Catholicism, real conversion — metanoia in Greek, a “change of heart” — is gradual. A blind man is brought to Jesus. Jesus takes his hand and leads him outside the village, where He then puts spittle on the blind man’s eyes and lays his hands on the blind man and says, “Can you see anything?” The man opens his eyes and says, “I can see people, but they are like trees walking.” Jesus lays his hands on the man again, and it’s only then that he can see clearly.

Conversion doesn’t happen all at once. My old images of God are still there, though they’re receding. They don’t go away overnight just because you’ve exposed them. They’re foundations, in a way, and you have to do some work to replace them. When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes have to remind myself: He’s not like that, He’s like this, the way, if you moved, you might have to remind yourself of where you lived those first few mornings in your new surroundings.

If before I felt found, now I feel claimed. Leo’s vow crucifix hangs next to my bed, and while it startled me there those first few days, I’m beginning to think of it as mine. The day after my “swearing in” my brother called and serenaded me with “Ave Maria” and told me how happy he was for me. My parents were moved by Leo’s gift; they’ve made peace with my decision, and I feel their blessing. When I told my daughter that I was about to be “really Catholic,” she smiled and said, “Congratulations.” My kids go to Mass with me on Sunday evenings, and they’re even picking up the lingo. A few weeks ago as we left the church, the Irish priest eyed them and said, “Those two should be acolytes." As we walked to the car, my son asked what he meant. I explained that the priest wanted him to be an altar boy, and I added that you had to be Catholic to do that. And my son said, “How long does it take?”

On Christmas Eve, I went to Mass with my Catholic uncle, the one I’d see on his way to Mass when I was a kid. He’s gone the other way—he attends a Protestant church these days — and it was his first time at Mass in a long time, but as we received the body and blood together, I felt joined to him. That Catholic boyfriend is my husband now. He is a gift so unexpected and so astonishing that I cannot quite fathom it, and yet he is exactly what I’ve always wanted, and I find myself thinking, how did You know?

And Jesus?

Years pass and you run into that boy from high school who liked you too much. But things are different now, and you see that what you took for weakness was compassion; and what you took for sternness was strength. And you see that he’s been there all along — he’s never once left you — and that he loves you dearly, down to your very soul. What does he want? To give you the desires of your heart.

Because as it turns out the Christian story is unabashedly and unashamedly a love story. It’s the story of someone being head over heels in love with us and the story of us falling in love with Him. And the question I hear at Mass every morning is simple in that love: Will you be mine? He asks. By receiving Him I answer. Yes, and when I look into the window of my soul, God and I are dancing.

— Bo Caldwell

Bo Caldwell's nonfiction appears frequently in the Washington Post magazine. Her stories have appeared in Story, Plowshares, Epic, and other journals. She is a Stegner Fellow and has taught at Stanford University.

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