Confessions of a Catholic Convert

Screech….screech….schreech. The old woman’s walker gave an ear-splitting shriek as it dragged across the floor. She slowly made her way into Mass 10 minutes after it began. My husband raised his eyebrows at me and I grinned at him. We were new converts and had just moved back to our hometown and a new parish. The old woman in the house dress and slippers made an appearance at every Mass we’d attended. It didn’t matter which Mass we went to…the Vigil, 8am, 12:15pm, or daily Mass in the morning or evening. I even saw her when I’d go to my early morning holy hour. She was a little mysterious fixture around the church. “Who is she?” we’d ask each other. “Why is she always there?” She would be praying the Rosary in the chapel at odd hours. She never seemed to leave. She certainly seemed devout and emanated what we thought was charming piety, but apart from being a source of pleasant amusement to us, we didn’t think too much about her. We were too pleased with our intellectual knowledge of the faith to be very impressed with simple devotion.

My husband and I converted to Catholicism five years ago. After years of reading and researching about Church history and Catholic doctrine, we realized that despite being somewhat reluctant converts, we had nowhere to go but to the Catholic Church. If it’s true, how could we not want to participate in it? The Easter Vigil when we were received into the Church is one of my favorite memories, but looking back I had so much to learn (and still do).

Some of my failure to understand important truths stemmed from pride, but some of it originated from my misperceptions of the Christian life. I thought that because we knew a lot about our Catholic faith that the Church was really lucky to have us. Because poor catechesis is such a big problem, cradle Catholics and converts alike are often undereducated about their faith. In contrast, our knowledge of Church teaching seemed admirable.  “We’ve read the Church fathers. We can jabber on about St. Augustine’s definition of evil and St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of virtue! We’re winning at this Catholic thing!” I thought. “They must be thrilled to have some Catholics who actually know about the faith!

And you know what? The Catholics we met were thrilled that we were converting. But it wasn’t because we’d taken classes on the Summa. We thought we were doing our faith community a big favor by joining in. But as I grow in the faith I realize that they were happy for us, happy that we had the opportunity to participate in the life of the Church, happy that we could receive the sacraments and have our hearts transformed.

Intellectual knowledge is valuable, of course, and knowing about one’s faith is crucial. It’s disconcerting that we knew more about Catholic doctrine before we converted than many Catholics who have grown up in the Church. But we only understood a piece of the equation. We elevated intellectual knowledge above everything else. It seems so silly now, but I really think we had no sense of what true holiness meant and we didn’t understand the beauty and value of simple devotion.

Coming out of a rigorous academic season of life, my husband and I found much of our worth in what we knew: what books we read, what writers we could quote. Because we idolized the intellectual life we thought our knowledge of the faith made us better than other Catholics. We didn’t understand that while gaining knowledge about our faith can draw us closer to Jesus and help us grow in our spiritual lives, it isn’t a fast track to holiness. God isn’t impressed with how many times we’ve read St. Augustine’s Confessions, but He desires us to know him more deeply and to love him more completely.

We were so wrapped up in ourselves that we didn’t comprehend that the Catholic faith wasn’t just for intellectuals but for everyone. There are saints from every background: academics, illiterate peasants, warriors, queens, mothers, farmers, and hermits. St. Bernadette isn’t less important than St. Augustine because she didn’t share his towering intellect. And St. Therese of Lisieux, a cloistered nun writing about her little way of serving God through the minutiae of daily life is a Doctor of the Church just like St. Thomas Aquinas—possibly the most brilliant man who has ever touched pen to paper.

There is a place for everyone in the Catholic faith. Thank God there was a place for us, where we could learn from the saints and our fellow Catholics in the next pew. As we delved more deeply into life at our new parish, we found out who our mystery walker-screeching Rosary-sayer was. She lived next door to the church and had been the sacristan for 75 years (since she was 14!). She spent a life of quiet service to the church. She never married and offered all her energies to serve our parish and love Jesus. How much we owe to her for her prayers and her decades of devotion! She passed away the same night our third child was born on the feast of St. Joan, her favorite saint, and she is deeply missed by everyone she touched.

I’m embarrassed now to think of my lack of respect for simple piety and my misplaced confidence in my intellectual knowledge. Holiness isn’t a list of books to check off or doctrines to understand. We can’t make ourselves holy through the acquisition of religious knowledge. We need the humility to open ourselves to God and let him work in us. And we can’t acquire holiness in an afternoon. It’s the day-in-day-out submission to Jesus and quiet, daily devotion that changes us. It’s the work of a lifetime. For some of us it’s saying, “yes, Lord” and offering forgiveness when it hurts, waking up with a sick baby when we’re exhausted, or changing what feels like the 5,000th diaper of the day. For others it’s walking across the street to the church everyday and filling your years with quiet acts of love for your parish.

I have a lot to learn. Some of it will be from books I have yet to read and intellectual truths I will encounter. But I think most of it will come not from the knowledge I fill my head with, but rather how faithfully I empty myself so God can transform me into something holy. And some of the lessons will come from the inspiring faith of the old women praying the Rosary in the next pew, whether they’ve read St. Thomas Aquinas or not.

Haley Stewart

By

Haley Stewart lives in the deep south with her bearded husband, three kids, and seven backyard chickens. She went to a Baptist college and surprised herself by coming home Catholic. When she gets a moment to herself, she loves to read Austen, Waugh, and O’Connor with a strong cup of coffee in hand. Haley muses about cultivating a Catholic family through literature, liturgical living, and urban homesteading at her blog Carrots for Michaelmas and just released her first ebook: Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year.

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  • BetterKateThanEver

    As a cradle Catholic, I have to say, this was so inspiring – thanks!

  • Rosie

    Wonderful, as always! I especially loved this line and could really relate with your journey as a convert myself. “Holiness isn’t a list of books to check off or doctrines to understand. We can’t make ourselves holy through the acquisition of religious knowledge. We need the humility to open ourselves to God and let him work in us. And we can’t acquire holiness in an afternoon. It’s the day-in-day-out submission to Jesus and quiet, daily devotion that changes us. It’s the work of a lifetime.”

  • http://carrotsformichaelmas.com/ Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas

    Thanks, Rosie!

  • http://carrotsformichaelmas.com/ Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas

    How exciting about RCIA, Nicole! Thank you so much for your kind words :)

  • Maureen Theresa

    Thanks for this article, but the church IS lucky to have you! It is very much enriched by converts who often have studied more deeply than cradle Catholics. I can always learn from my friends who are converts. By God’s grace I was raised Catholic and always believed and I didn’t have to study my way into the Church. I’m not sure I would have made it by that route!

  • Nermal146

    Great article, welcome to our wonderful Catholic Church, I think it’s the best. Anyone with chickens in the back yard, and Catholic is perfect in my book!

  • Blobee

    I grew up Catholic, and my faith was deeply grounded in the shared piety of Mass and devotions that began for me prior to Vatican II, and I have clung on for dear life in the past 60 years since that tsunami of iconoclasm washed over Catholicism, destroying many of the structures that made us so strong.
    For me, no amount of Thomas Aquinas or Augustine, Teresa of Liseux or Theresa of Avila, or Blessed Mother Theresa, no Encyclical by JPII or any other Pope, will ever compare with the experience of the infused knowledge given at times by the Holy Spirit while living the Catholic life. Because when you learn “about” the faith and assent to it, when you read about God as known by saints and popes, you are only just beginning. But when the Holy Spirit reveals to you, as an individual, an essential truth that is the Truth, and your heart “gets it” in a new way, something you knew in your head to be true is affirmed in your own heart, in your own experience, and it is then you are living the Faith, it is like Pentecost.
    Contemplate the words of the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.”
    Someday the Holy Spirit may reveal to you what this means, in reality, and when He does, the experience will leave you speechless. If fills your soul. You will stop talking.

    Part of what Catholics used to experience together is pious prayer in church but outside Mass. There is nothing like attending a rosary in a packed church, hearing the congregation of a 1000 voices intoning the response to Father’s single voice saying a Haily Mary. There is nothing like being in a church full of people saying the Litany of Loredo, or the Litany of the Sacred Heart (…pray for us. Hear us, O Lord. Graciously hear us, O Lord.”) to make you feel communion with your fellow Catholics in attendance and the Church Triumphant.
    We have lost a lot.
    But we gain wonderful people like you, who assent to the truth, and come to belong, and begin to grow alongside us. You help us to see a depth to our Faith so many of us never got to know. So I hope, I hope one day, you will be like that little old lady sacristan with the walker to some other bright faced hopeful young person watching you take your place in the pew, a war worn but valiant old soldier who had won many battles carrying the weapon of peace, the Rosary, being a silent example of Catholic truth.

  • cestusdei

    Liberals have a similar issue. They pretend to be for the people, but are elitist. They despise devotions and those who practice them. Pope Francis gets very little press for his own devotional practices and you don’t see the cheerleaders on the left consecrating themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Most Catholics need devotions like the rosary. I am well educated, but I need them too. They are tried and true.

  • Patricia Sargent

    That was beautiful Haley.

  • Micha Elyi

    “…infused knowledge…”

    Sadly, that is too often confused with the Sacrament of Holy Osmosis–as if my infused knowledge somehow automatically fulfills my Christian obligation to evangelize others.

  • Micha Elyi

    I feel for you. I’ve seen that Amazing Facts Seventh-Day Adventists preacher on public access cable TV too. After a few minutes with Mr. Judaizer, resisting the temptation to feel smug is hard. But it’s a cross we must bear.

  • PW

    Excellent article….
    I need to good dose of humbleness each day.

  • JohnnyVoxx

    Great article, thank you. As a “brainy” revert I must check myself, before I wriggity-wreck myself. Also, perhaps as a corporal work of mercy you could show that devout lady with the walker how to cut up some tennis balls and put them on the bottom of her walker…

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