As in many things in my life, how I arrived in the Catholic faith took several twists and turns.
I grew up in the rural south of the United States: the land of cotton fields and iced sweet tea. A place where younger people refer to older with “Miss” or “Mister”, even when followed by a first name, and where men hold the door open for women without anyone getting offended. As a child, my father took me fishing and turkey hunting. I excelled at the former but not so much at the latter.
Neither of my parents, for many years, were practicing Christians. However, from when I was a little girl, they saw the need for my little brother and me to be in church on Sunday. Or, maybe my grandparents insisted. Either way, my grandfather took us to a little Southern Baptist church not far from our home. My earliest memories are evenly divided between playing in the yard and going to church. And from my youngest years, I’ve always been interested in God.
After I discovered a tattered, paperback Bible in a box of my mother’s horror novels, I devoured the Gospels. My young mind latched onto the natural images of Christ’s parables: lilies of the field, sparrows, and a hen wanting to shield her chicks. I picked lilies, watched sparrows, and fed chickens. The imagery made God as real to me as the sunlight I played in because He was in that light. It was a child’s association but it formed my first faith.
Unlike many Southern Baptists of my generation, I received baptism at a young age, at around ten years. Years later, when I attended college and went to the worship sessions at the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, I was shocked to learn that many of my fellows weren’t baptized. They didn’t see the need, either. They went to church, prayed, and believed. Baptism was a merely a symbol. Why take part in an empty symbol when living the life was more important?
At some point in my childhood, I began asking questions about Catholicism. My mother said I must have seen something on the Public Broadcasting Station, which I watched with a near-religious fervor. In my mind, I formed an image of Catholicism as something mystical, full of candles, incense, and mystery. I wanted to know more.
One day, I went with my father to the Veteran’s Hospital in a nearby city. In that hospital were two chapels: one Protestant and one Catholic. The Protestant chapel was a spacious room with pews, hymnals, and Bibles. The Catholic chapel, on the other hand, was little better than a walk-in closet and a crucifix held pride of place. The blood rolling down the body like sweat mesmerized me.
Plain crosses, crowns, doves, and dogwood blossoms comprised my experience of religious iconography. If I saw a picture of Jesus, it showed him guiding sheep, preaching, or walking on water. My grandmother had a creepy portrait of Jesus sitting at a table, staring at the viewer. I called it “Guidance Counselor Jesus” and swore the eyes followed me when I walked past.
Pastors said Jesus was a carpenter’s son and had even worked as one. However, the Christ I saw in pictures looked like he had never done anything strenuous. This made a sharp contrast with the calloused blue-collar men of my childhood. Until I entered that Catholic chapel, I had never even seen a Jesus in pain. This Jesus, bloody and tired, looked more real to me than some soft, pale man in robes. At that moment, I felt the touch of something otherworldly in my heart and I decided I wanted to be Catholic.
Well, the decision of a kid who knows nothing about Catholicism is one thing. Actually doing it is another.
Not long after, I attended a Catholic Mass with a cousin. After what happened in the chapel, one would almost expect an amazing experience. However, I spent the Mass staring at the “pretty pictures on the walls” (the Stations of the Cross) without understanding a thing that was going on. Afterward, I wanted to approach one of the men who led the Mass but I lost my nerve. I also never said anything to my cousin about wanting to be Catholic.
I wandered away from God for a short while in high school. It’s almost a cliché, really. I dabbled in New Age belief, witchcraft, and Tarot. Eventually, I abandoned these things and re-devoted myself to the Southern Baptist faith. By then, I had switched to a different church, which helped me develop a decidedly anti-Catholic attitude.
I came to believe that Catholics weren’t Christians, that the real Christians had been in the catacombs. The Roman Catholic Church was run by the Roman government, hence the name. I honestly thought they worshipped statues and Mary.
An example of how deep this attitude ran: one day, I thought about how Mary watched our Lord die. I thought that it must take a remarkable woman to not only say yes to God but also watch her own son be murdered without getting angry at God. Spontaneously, I prayed, “Lord, make me like your mother.”
I was so utterly horrified at what I prayed, I was convinced I had committed a terrible sin. I immediately corrected myself, hurrying to explain that I didn’t mean it in “that” way. That I only admired Mary as a person.
But I also had a special little secret at the time. My father had given me a bust of Mary. Every time I felt dejected and alone, I would look at the statue of Mary cradling baby Jesus, and feel better for a reason I couldn’t define. As a writer, I know foreshadowing when I see it, but, at the time, I had no idea what God had in store for me.