Sliding into Grace
Attending a Catholic Mass was not far down this unwritten list. So no one was more surprised than me when, at the age of twenty-eight, I found myself sneaking into my first Catholic Mass.
That first clandestine encounter with Catholic liturgy affected me deeply. This too came as a surprise. I had expected pointless pomp and empty ritual, and instead, I came away sensing that I had been in the presence of God Himself. To my eternal delight, God had condescended to meet me in the very last place I ever thought to find Him.
Many of my childhood memories revolve around church life. During difficult times, our family was supported by our close-knit evangelical community. First my sister battled bone cancer, then I was in a car accident that required months of recovery. Both times, our church rallied around us with practical expressions of love. Early on I learned what it means to live by faith, and to trust God especially when life gets hard.
A short time after my car accident, one of my college friends came to visit me, and a deep friendship blossomed. I remember sitting with him one summer evening on the front porch of my house, and telling him that, because of my internal injuries, the doctor had said I might not be able to have children. He was silent for a moment, then gently touched the pin scar on my knee. “Do the scars bother you?” I asked.
“Bother me? Not at all. Without those scars, I would not have you.”
I knew the relationship could not last. First, I was determined to become a missionary to pay God back for sparing my life in the car accident. Second, Andrew was Catholic and he was going to law school. It was unlikely our paths would cross again.
That fall I flew to Minnesota and joined a Christian community that trained, sent, and supported missionaries all over the world. Shortly before I left, Andrew proposed marriage. Mature Christian friends advised me that I could marry Andrew or I could go to heaven, but I could not do both. “The Bible tells us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers,” my mother reminded me. Heartbroken, I ended the friendship. But for years, a question haunted me: What was so bad about the Catholic faith, I wondered, that I had to give up such a gift? Even after Andrew met and married someone else, I found it difficult to move on.
Finding God in the Third World
The third year of Bible training was an overseas internship; eventually I went to teach ESL at a small mission school in Senegal, West Africa. The year I spent in Senegal also tested my faith. I missed my family, and found it difficult to cope with the lepers and other beggars who swarmed my car at every stoplight, begging for alms: “Cadeau? Cadeau?” What did it mean to be a Christian in such a place as this? My Catholic friend, Janet, encouraged me to embrace the experience. “God has something He wants to teach you there,” she wrote.
At the end of the year I returned to the States, finished the training program, then enrolled at Azusa Pacific University, a small Christian liberal arts school in California, for further training. One of the jobs I took to put myself through school was at a small Baptist church in Orange, California, where I was the piano player and choir director.
I had been at this job a little over a year when the pastor announced that he was joining the Catholic Church. A few days later I got in touch with Pastor John to see how he was doing. Over lunch, he gave me a series of tapes by Scott Hahn, and a book entitled Catholicism and Fundamentalism. Eagerly I dug into the materials, curious to find out what had prompted Pastor John’s drastic choice.
I was surprised to find how much the Catholic Church had in common with my own. And as I listened to Hahn’s tapes, heavily laden with Scripture, it was difficult to fault his explanations even for those tenets that bothered me most including, of course, the Church’s teachings on Mary. Confused, I made an appointment with a counselor at my school, who listened in silence to my story until I had spilled it all: the broken romance, the renegade pastor friend, my own theological doubts. Finally, she said softly, “You do realize, don’t you, that those people gave you bad advice? That Catholics really are, in fact, Christians?”
Her words took my breath away. Then I found myself getting angrier and angrier. I had sacrificed the one person I loved most in the world to show God how much I loved Him. And now, to my utter horror and dismay, I realized that God had not asked me to make such a sacrifice.
Days passed, then weeks. Anger and depression wrapped my head like a thick wool blanket, making it hard to focus or even to take a deep breath. Then I received a phone call: My father had suffered a nervous breakdown. I decided to move back home to help, but was unable to find work. It was clear that, once again, I had made a mistake.
Eventually I returned to California, but I could not bring myself to venture inside the large church I had attended at college. The smiles and praise choruses grated on my nerves, for my neatly packaged view of God had been torn apart. I needed something bigger than my own imagination, something more in touch with real life….
And that, dear friends, was when I found myself standing under that palm tree outside Holy Family Catholic Church in South Pasadena, California.
Waiting for the Joy to Come
I’ve often marveled at how God orchestrated my journey to His Church. Looking back, I now can see small and seemingly insignificant details that provided points of light to illuminate my way. Frankly, it is a perfect example of God’s perfect and patient timing. Earlier in my life, I would have argued with or tuned out any Catholic who approached me about joining the fullness of the Catholic faith. God waited until I had a greater hunger than I knew how to fill, to lead me to the Bread of Life.
Of course there were many things I needed to learn, and many things I am learning still. I read everything I could about the faith. When I finally presented myself to the director of religious education, she was surprised to hear how much I had already studied. She seemed to sense that I needed companionship, and she welcomed me into her family and into the life of the parish. The rest she entrusted to God, and encouraged me to do the same. I was officially welcomed into the Church at the Easter Vigil of 1993.
In time, I realized that God had brought Andrew into my life to direct me to the path God had for me, though I had to walk it alone. But through the church of my childhood I had learned that God wants us to entrust Him with every part of our lives, and that His love for us is so great, no teardrop escapes His notice. Even so, I had to move on if my faith was going to grow. Overly subjective faith is devoid of mystery; it tends to cast God in the image of one’s own limited imagination. In order to transcend such limitations, true faith needs something outside itself to provide balance, guidance and permanence. That is what I found in the Catholic Church.
Ultimately, I attribute my interior transformation to two things: The intercession of my sponsor (aided, no doubt, by our Lady herself), and the life-giving graces of the Eucharist. Each time I received the Body and Blood of Christ, He whispered words of love to my stone-cold heart, melting all my fear. Perfect love, the Scriptures tell us, drives out all fear even fear that masquerades as intellectual pride, spiritual prejudice, or emotional resistance. I am living proof.
In the liturgy, a cosmic dance that is her greatest prayer, the Church taps into the Kingdom of God that by faith is both already and yet to come. One day we will comprehend the true splendor of God’s intention, which now we experience only imperfectly. But when earthly images melt away into heavenly reality, we will see the Church in all her splendor as, in that eternal moment, the Bride of Christ dances with her Groom.
Heidi Hess Saxton is the author of With Mary in Prayer (Loyola). She is a graduate student (theology) at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and lives with her husband Craig and two foster children in Milan, Michigan. You may contact Heidi at email@example.com.