Conversion Story: Hell and Oyster Crackers

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Sam Rocha and Katrina Fernandez, aka, The Crescat, got together for a Facebook interview.

When those two get together, you just know the result is going to be interesting.

And it was.

There’s lots to read, and you can find it here. I want to focus on one aspect of that free-ranging discussion: Katrina’s conversion story.

Kat came to Jesus by way of art. Imagine this: A seven-year-old who spends a lot of time in museums (already it’s getting unusual) spies Memling’s painting, The Last judgement. She’s small enough that her eye-view is of the bottom of the painting. She’s nose to canvas with the lost souls in hell. The prospect convinced her that hell was real.

Sam’s response, “You found God in hell?”

That sounds like a reasonable question to those of us who’ve never been converted by art. I mean, how does that track?

Here, according to Kat herself is how:

If Hell is real then it stands to reason that God was real. Simple as that.
Why do atheist struggle so? Their arrogance to dismiss their first instinct… that child voice plainly stating a fact as fact. There’s nothing intellectual about “well, duh!” which is what happened when I saw Hell. Well, duh! God is real.

She goes on to add, “Landscapes showed me God is kind.”

Weyden Beaune Last Judgment Altarpiece opened

Katrina is not the only person I know of who was converted by art. Peter Hitchens related an almost identical conversion experience in his book The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith (which I recommend) and then later in this interview. Peter Hitchens, who is the brother of the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, found God by studying Rogier van der Weyden’s The Last Judgement.  

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Hitchens was an adult at the time of his conversion. He described it this way: 

… I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of hell.  These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation … They were me, and people I knew. 

Do you recognize the Power at work in both these stories?  Hint: It’s not the power of great art, although the power of great art is certainly real. 

This is the Holy Spirit, at work in two souls, calling them to Jesus.  These stories illustrate the single most powerful truth of conversion that I know: God meets us where we are. He is not too proud to accept us through any route to Him we find. In the Person of the Holy Spirit, He will call to us and reach out to us along any path that we will walk to Him. 

The fact that God meets us where we are has other facets to it besides His willingness to come to us through a painting or a sermon or the guilt we feel for our sins.

One of these facets is that He does not ask us to get perfect first. Too many times, people who are trying to bring people to God focus on the other person’s need to change. 

The truth is, you don’t need to change to come to God.   All you need to do is say “yes” to Him. The changing part comes later, and it will be through a changed heart and converted spirit. As I’ve said, God doesn’t change what you do. He changes what you want to do. 

But at the beginning, all you have to do is open your heart — or in the case of Katrina Fernandez and Peter Hitchens and others like them, their eyes — and say yes to what is right in front of you.  There is no one right way to come to Jesus. Jesus Himself is the Right way. 

Kat and I both experienced another, second, conversion. This one was to the Catholic Church. In the usual Kat fashion, her experience was sudden, a bit defiant and absolute. Mine was gentle and insistent. But despite the differences, it was the same for both of us. 

Kat attended a communion service in a church where they offered communion, which I would wager they regarded as a “symbol,” in the form of grape juice and oyster crackers. Kat, being Kat, rebelled. She knew. Knew right then without any dissembling that this was not the real deal. She also knew that there was a real deal out there somewhere and that she wanted it. Here’s how she describes it:

It was Easter Sunday 
and the pastor wanted to “do communion” and wanted to try something a little different 
so he had us all line up to come to the “altar” and receive a shot glass containing grape juice and a packet of oyster crackers.









 And God said “NO!” I immediately knew this aping display was not the real thing. I grabbed my son under my arm and got up and left.

She was, in short, called to the Church by the Eucharist. 

Welcome home Kat, so was I. Only for me it was an almost constant call from Christ in the Eucharist. He called me for years to Himself in the Eucharist. When I finally found Him there, I experienced the healing of the woman who reached out and touched His garment.

That same healing is there for anyone, anytime, in all the Catholic Churches of all the world.  Conversion, real conversion, is a one-way street. Once you’ve found it, you know it’s real and you can never walk away from it. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is real. Life in Christ is a living reality. 

I love conversion stories when they’re told by people with authentic hearts. Every single one of them exposes a truth of God’s love for us and His simplicity in dealing with us. 

Conversion stories are always elemental stories of birth. They relate the dynamics of how a soul is born from eternal death into eternal life. And just like that first biological birth, they happen to each one of us individually. Because we are each unique and wonderful enough that the God Who made everything, everywhere, accepts us as the old hymn says, Just as We Are.   


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Missing Your Blessing

I’ve refrained from answering comments about my post on liturgical abuse because I wanted to see what people would say.

It’s been a sad sort of education. Evidently, all that’s necessary for a person to be labelled self-righteous, heretical and told to leave the Church is to say that the Real Presence and healing graces of the mass are more important than liturgical irregularities.

Before I go further with this post, I want to make something clear. Those who say that I am not worthy to be a Catholic are correct. I am not worthy. And I know it. But I don’t think I’m unworthy because I refuse to boil my pastor in oil for allowing applause during the after-mass announcements for the people who put up Christmas decorations.

I am unfit for far more substantial reasons than that. In truth, I never walk into a Catholic Church that I don’t feel just how unworthy I am. Even after all these years, I am grateful — and astonished — that anybody ever let me in. So, if this debate is going to devolve down to me and my sinful, unworthy-to-be-Catholic state, I will short-circuit it by telling you right up front that you are right. I have no business standing in the presence of God. None.

I can only do it because of the Catholic Church and its forgiveness. I am here by the grace of God working through the totally unwarranted kindness that a priest extended to me once upon a time. He just opened the doors and let me in, something I’m sure the liturgy cops would want him punished or censured for doing.

I understand that the Church (not you; not me; but the Church) is responsible for keeping the liturgy whole and handing it forward intact to future generations. I know that conformity to the rubrics is part of this. I’m not arguing with that. I just don’t think it’s the laity’s job to police the liturgy.

I also think that some of the articles I’ve read about this are mean-spirited and hateful (as were a couple of the comments on this blog) and that our priests do not deserve this kind of treatment. I don’t look for mistakes in how my priest says the mass, just as I don’t ask to stay awake during surgery so I can birddog my surgeon.

The mass as it is actually said in parishes all over the world is bound to be imperfect because human beings are imperfect. That is how things are, and how they will continue to be until we share in the banquet of the Great High Priest in Heaven. There is no amount of criticism or angry denouncing that can change this.

People who stand before the miracle of the love of Christ and only see the faults and failings of the priest who has given his life to bring Christ to them in the sacraments confound me. They are blinding themselves to the miracle.

The mass is a living re-enactment of Calvary. It is heaven come down to earth, so that we can be in communion with heaven while we are still here on earth and experience the healing power of the living Christ in the Eucharist. In my opinion, standing before the throne of God and engaging in a petty snipe-fest about this or that “abuse” is itself an abuse.

We cannot experience the miracle of Christ in front of us and indulge our angry obsessions over the faults we see in the liturgy both at the same time. Our brains just aren’t made that way. We will do one. Or we will do the other. Worship Christ, or critique the priest: That is the choice. Those who critique the priest are missing their blessing.

I don’t honestly know if this over-concern with the real and imagined faults of our priests is a genuine concern for the liturgy and a miss-placed attempt at devotion or if it’s an expression of anger over other things. What I do know is that we can trust the Church to do this job of defending the liturgy. The Holy Spirit is going to protect the Church from failing in this regard.

I also know that this is not my job, and it’s not yours. Our job as laity is to worship Christ at the mass; to let the love that is there heal us, and then to go out from there to change the world. We are God’s great change agents for a suffering world. When we indulge these obsessions with what we think the priest is doing wrong, we block ourselves from receiving the graces that are there for us in the mass and unfit ourselves for the battle we were made to fight.

If you walk out of mass seething and angry rather than loved and healed, then you’ve done something wrong while you were there.

I’ve often said that if people were the ones who decided who would go to heaven, then none of us would go. We would all judge one another and send each other to hell. I’m going to amend that to say that if the liturgy cops were the ones who determined who goes to heaven, the rest of us wouldn’t want to go there. These people remind me of the Puritans who first settled this country and who, I’ve read, used to walk up and down during church services with sticks so they could jab anyone who dozed off.

I am not fit to stand before God under any circumstance. And yet I do stand before Him and receive Him in the Eucharist as a free and totally undeserved gift of grace. The Catholic Church makes that possible; the real Catholic Church that is full of imperfect priests who sometimes commit errors while ministering to the confused and imperfect people who sit in the pews.

We are all of us standing before the cross in the solidarity of our sins and lostness. If that isn’t true, then why do we even need the Eucharist? Perfect people have no need of the sacraments or a Church to preserve those sacraments. Perfect people don’t need any Savior but themselves.

If you spend your time in mass looking for faults and picking things apart, then you’re impoverishing yourself with a second rate experience. You’re like a child who refuses to open his present because the bow is crooked.

Do you have any idea what is happening in the world? Do you understand that Christianity is under attack, that the world is a butcher shop, and that these priests bring us the only hope there is? Priests are human beings. I’ve sometimes gotten exasperated with one or another of them, as, I assure you, they have with me. I’ve had disagreements, and rather heated ones, with priests I know. But not over their advice to me about spiritual things.

I have never felt anything but awe when one of these very human men looks down at that wafer and says “This is My body,” and by saying that, makes it so. They bring us Christ in the Eucharist, and, my experience has been, when you’re in trouble and you call them, they come.

When I talk about the people who were at the Christmas Eve mass, I am talking about living miracles of grace. The pillars of the community, illegal immigrants, the gay man, the transsexual, the gabbling ladies, the cop who was supposed to never walk again, and, yes, incredible as it is to say, me. We are all miracles.

The only reason I can say that I am Catholic is because of the love of Christ and the kindness of a priest who helped me when I needed it badly.

This dear priest is also one of the most quick-tempered, sometimes difficult people that I know a big part of the time. But he is God’s man and he, like most of his other brother priests, does his best. I’ve seen God reach right through these men and into suffering people, have experienced it myself, again and again.

They are my brothers in Christ. We, all of us, owe them a debt of gratitude.

 

 

Jesus was There

I attended mass on Christmas Eve.

There may have been liturgical abuses, were, in fact, according to several articles I’ve read this week by prominent Catholics.

These people evidently bring a spreadsheet to mass so they can tally all the disrupting liturgical abuses they find there. I don’t know how they have time to worship during all the liturgical-abuse minding they must do. I would imagine that a priest, on seeing one of these folks enter his church, must feel the same anxiety that a young bride feels when her mother-in-law comes to call.

It would be difficult to get on the right side of parishioners like these. One of the sadnesses of these articles is that they find such a ready audience among people who evidently go to mass to carp rather than to pray.

Let my tell you what I found at my church on Christmas Eve.

I saw a church that was packed to overflowing with people of every description. There was the rail-thin gay man who almost certainly is suffering with HIV, the odd-looking transexual whose bulging forearms belie the surgeon’s work, the families with screaming babies, the elderly ladies who sat behind me and gabbled their way through the mass, the deaf man who sat next to me and watched intently but never spoke, the young man with gang insignia on his arms, the young police officer who was injured in the line of duty and was never supposed to walk again but who walked, albeit slowly, into church that night. There were pillars of the community and illegal immigrants, packed into the pews together. Last, but not least, there was me and mine.

We (shudder) held hands during the our father, (gasp) applauded the folks who’d spent hours decorating the church and (can you believe this) got up after mass and talked to one another on our way out of the sanctuary.

It was enough to make a liturgical abuse cop foam at the mouth and fall over in a dead faint.

But do you know who else was there?

Jesus was there.

He was there in the eucharist. He was there in the tired, screaming babies, the gabbling ladies, the odd-looking transsexual, the deaf man who couldn’t hear the mass but felt it anyway, the sad, tired HIV sufferer, the miraculously walking police officer and all the chitter-chattering celebrants as they exited to the Narthex. He was there in the priest whose lunch I once interrupted with a call when my mother was ill, and who came immediately to the hospital.

He was there when we held hands during the Our Father, during the applause and the Christmas carols. He was there in the faith and trust of people who don’t give a care about liturgical abuses but who left their homes on a blustery Christmas Eve to go be together before the Lord because they know He is real, He is present and when they enter that sanctuary, He is there.

These are people who have followed Jesus across the rocky landscapes of their rocky lives. They’ve walked with Him through death, life and everything in between. Some of them had walked right over drug addiction, sexual disorders, terrible injuries, loneliness and fear to be there with Him. We are all riddled with sins, failings, weaknesses and shame. That is our condition. And that is why when we walk into a Catholic Church, we are not searching for liturgical abuses and laundry lists of petty crimes and misdemeanors to assure ourselves of our righteousness. We know that our righteousness resides behind that altar, in the tabernacle, because He is there.

I went to mass Christmas Eve. I didn’t go in search of liturgical perfection. I also didn’t go in search of abuses that I could call out and feel self-righteous about. I went because Jesus is there, and He alone has the words that lead to eternal life. I went to be with my Lord.

And I found Him. Because He was there.


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