Oh, Love That Will Not Let Me Go: On My Conversion to Catholicism
I started craving this stability even more when I was laid off from my job during the recession. Inconveniently, my husband was in graduate school, changing careers. We had to put a long-awaited adoption on hold. Our finances were pure chaos. We tried to stay afloat while David finished school, but it was dicey. We often wondered where we would find the money for groceries, or how we'd pay the mortgage. And we questioned if we would ever become parents. It was a time I found that I doubted God really loved me, or if there even was a God.
I knew I needed to find my way back to faith. I was a lot like my daughter back then. Fighting against the love that God wanted to give me. Doubting that anyone loved me. Crazy with the fear of not having dreams fulfilled. Wondering if I was worthy. Feeling like I belonged nowhere and that I'd never find a spiritual home.
Then one day I stepped into the oldest public building in Chicago, a Catholic church built by working-class Irish immigrants in the 1850s. It had century-old stained glass, and had survived the Great Chicago Fire. The walls were intricately painted in Celtic designs in pastel colors, and the steps to the altar were marble. The beauty of this place is worthy of my faith, I thought.
As my husband and I started attending Mass every week, I participated in the ancient rhythm of the liturgy. I said the Nicene Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, and listened to the scripture readings and homily, and shyly made the Sign of the Cross for the first time. I gazed up at the icons of the saints that lined the walls.
I didn't know it until then, but at that point in my life and faith, I needed concrete reminders of God. I needed tactile signposts that pointed me to the Divine when I had doubts that he was even there. I needed the Eucharist, and Confession, and the Passing of the Peace, and the structure of the ancient liturgy to shore up my faith until I could grieve my losses, and feel God's love again.
So I continued to go to Mass. I made the Sign of the Cross even when I didn't believe. I kept saying the Nicene Creed and at least for that one moment, when the words were coming out of my mouth, I believed, and felt a twinge of hope. I participated in the Passing of the Peace even when I wasn't sure I belonged in that community. I prayed to Mary when I was skeptical that she would hear me.
Then one day I realized that I had stopped fighting against it. That the liturgy had become a part of me. I could barely get through a week without going to Mass.
One Good Friday, I watched worshippers line up in the aisle to walk up and kiss a wooden cross as a sign of reverence and love for Christ. I had never seen this before.
I saw young and old, rich and poor, black and white, people from all walks of life who were carrying who knows what kind of sorrows and burdens, make their way down the marble aisle to the cross, kneel down, and gently kiss the rough wood that symbolized Christ's suffering. It reminded me of the end of Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation," where the main character, Mrs. Turpin, sees a vision of a "vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven..."
It was such a simple scene but it tore my soul in two. A woman sitting next to me, whom I barely knew, reached over and put her arms around me. Another woman in the pew in front of me gave me a tissue.
I continued to watch as the vast hordes of souls kissed the cross. I looked around the venerable old church, drinking in the beauty. I felt my neighbor's arms around my shoulders. "There is love here," I heard. "There is love here. Let it hold you tightly until you believe."
Karen Beattie is the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God's Abundance When All Seems Lost (now featured in the Patheos Book Club). She has been a writer for more than twenty years and been published in several publications including Moody, Christianity Today, and Midwest Living. She recently became a Catholic, and she and her husband are members who attend Old St. Patrick's in Chicago, Illinois.