“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.