This story of conversion is a story of one who longed for God before she understood what she was longing for, who searched for God and for so long he remained hidden from her, but who continued knocking upon the door and seeking (Matthew 7:7-8) until finally finding God within the fullness of truth. Upon finding that pearl of great price described in Matthew 13:45 she was willing to sell all in order to possess it.
My Pearl of Great Price
My mother likes to say that we were catholic with a small "c" meaning that our religious interests were varied. Although my mother and father were both baptized Christians, my mother converted to Judaism when I was about three years old. My earliest religious memories are of the reverence shown to the Torah as the velvet-covered scrolls were carried through the assembly in the Temple and of the poetic cadence of the Sabbath blessing my mother recited in Hebrew as candles glowed from our dining table. We didn't remain Jewish more than a year or two, but those memories became an anchor in my soul.
My family didn't go to church, but I was brought up to respect both religion and spirituality. My Nana did go to church and she gave me a pretty little booklet of Bible verses that I cherished. I memorized my favorite verse: "God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in he." 1 John 4:16. By fourth grade I was reading my Nana's Guidepost magazines with their stories of faith and miracles, and I knew they were true and that God was real. I wanted what those people in the magazine had, but I didn't know how to get it.
My early childhood was punctuated with traumatic injuries, frequent illnesses, and the divorce of my parents. My mother remarried a man who "used to be" Catholic. We never went to a Catholic church, but when I was about twelve we began attending an Episcopal church. It was so beautiful and it was so nice to belong somewhere, but I still didn't have the type of relationship with God that I had read about, a relationship that brings joy and peace.
In eighth grade I was diagnosed with a spine condition and had to wear a back brace for a year. Many nights I would quietly cry myself to sleep. I would pray and talk to God. "You say 'seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be answered.' Well I am knocking! Why aren't you answering? I am seeking! Where are you?" Even in my loneliness and my longing for a God that didn't seem to be there for me, I felt that my suffering would not be wasted but would someday bring good in a way I didn't yet understand.
In my junior year of high school, my mother, sister and I arrived home from school one day to find a note from my step-father on the refrigerator. He wasn't coming back and he had removed all his belongings. He never said good-bye to me or my sister. This was a huge devastation, but instead of turning to our church for support, we withdrew from our activities there. When the grief had subsided enough to think and search once more for answers, we moved on to New Age spirituality. I read about ESP, out of body experiences, people who channeled spirits, had a few readings done by psychics and visited a New Age temple. There was a spirituality, a call beyond what we see and touch. That appealed to me, but it did not fulfill me. It couldn't give me what I had read about and seen that Christians had. It satisfied my intellectual curiosities but it didn't bring joy or peace.
I still longed to find truth, wrestling with the idea of Christianity. My mother had not been convinced of the divinity of Jesus and neither was I. What was the truth? Searching the New Testament yielded no success in finding verses where Jesus claimed to be the son of God. I could believe that Jesus was a wise man and holy teacher who taught nice things but it seemed to me, in the typical arrogance of blossoming young-adulthood, that Christians for the last 2000 years had been deceived!
In addition to my spiritual struggle, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Impulsively withdrawing from the nursing program at the last minute and entering instead a general education program left me with no goal in sight. A family friend with a party décor business piqued my interest in floral design. I applied for a job at a local flower shop and hired on the spot by the shop owner, contingent upon the approval of her son who was the store manager. He approved and I started working part-time while continuing my college classes.
The family's Catholic faith intrigued me. The owner often spoke about her faith. It was part of her life: the saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, going to Mass. As I had planned my life idealistically thinking of a future husband, I had thought that I would be happiest marrying a man who was Episcopalian, Catholic, or Jewish. It wasn't so much what they believed that interested me as how they worshipped. I wanted a form of worship that had structure and purpose; I wanted a connection to the past. I wanted to belong to something that had deep roots.
Within a year I had dropped out of college to work full-time with flowers and was engaged to the owner's son. I enjoyed going to the Catholic Mass with him. It was very similar to what I experienced in the Episcopal Church, and it felt good being there. My mother-in-law answered patiently and with great enthusiasm the many questions I had about the Catholic Church. She still remembers with joy the day I asked her if she would mind if I became Catholic.
I officially entered the Catholic Church in a private ceremony just before we were married. The priest had very graciously given me private instruction since there wasn't time for me to complete the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program before the wedding, and I longed to have a wedding Mass. My desire for a wedding Mass was far from holy and pure - I did want to receive Holy Communion on my wedding day, but also thought that for all the effort and expense put into the wedding, the ceremony should be more than a quick thirty minutes. Despite my less than pure intentions, I was very anxious to learn whatever I could about the Catholic faith. Raise the kids Catholic? I would love to! Marriage is forever? I already believed it should be. I hated divorce having gone through it twice as a child. I never wanted to go through that pain again.
There were some things Catholics believed that I wasn't quite sure about, but I don't recall them coming up in the private preparation with the priest. In the excitement of the pending wedding, and the chance to belong not only in a family, but also in a church, it was easy to overlook a few details. I did eagerly read each of the books loaned to me by the priest, but despite my enthusiasm for learning, we must not have talked about Jesus and my little problem with who he really was. I do remember thinking that since some of the world's smartest people had been Catholics and studied the teachings and beliefs of the Catholic Church for almost 2000 years, maybe there was a chance that what I thought and believed was wrong and the Catholic faith was correct and true. I decided to be open to learning, even though I couldn't imagine being wrong in my perception of things. It didn't really connect with me that I should agree with everything before becoming Catholic.
Soon after we were married, a friend from high school invited us to join her parish and sing in the choir she directed. The choir members welcomed me into the faith. Listening to them was like seeing into a spiritual world that I could not have imagined. Some choir members spoke about having a friendship with Jesus. They prayed, they talked about God, about the Bible. I wanted that! A choir friend gave me the book Opening to Prayer by Fr. Thomas Green at a Christmas gift exchange. He taught something called "mental prayer" which is simply reading and meditating on - thinking about, considering - scripture. I did what he taught me to do and began to pray every day.
Rosary beads intrigued me and I wanted to learn to pray that traditional Catholic prayer, so I purchased a little book called The Secret of the Rosary by St. Louis De Montfort. I did what it said to do. It taught that the Rosary was both vocal prayer and mental prayer, that we should think about the life, death and resurrection of Christ as we pray the Our Fathers and Hail Mary's and move our fingers along the beads. I learned the mysteries - the specific instances in the life of Christ - and thought about them as I prayed through each bead.
I had been praying for months, yet continued to feel such a separation from God. He did not seem to hear me. One morning I was praying on my daily walk, talking to the Lord and of my desire to know Him. I asked Him if there was something separating me from Him and begged Him that if there was, to please somehow let me know. Then I heard a voice, not outside of me but very distinctly from within, say "Stop taking birth control pills." Well, that was the furthest thing from my mind. The popular women's magazines I had read for years made it pretty clear that no intelligent modern woman would consider natural family planning as a viable alternative in avoiding pregnancy.
During this time I was on medication that necessitated the avoidance of pregnancy. I would never have considered doing anything different from what any smart and responsible woman would do - use the most effective method to prevent harming a child. But I had longed for God for a long time and was willing to give that up for Him, to trust Him. Natural Family Planning instruction was offered through our diocese Respect Life Office and I immediately changed my life. I learned that the effectiveness rate was actually equal or better to the use of birth control pills, and so the choice to stop using birth control pills did not appear to be so foolish after all. It was a good choice for my body and for my soul. It was after this that my relationship with God finally began to blossom; after this that it seemed Mary gently took me by the hand and led me to her son, Jesus.
I read a book about Eucharistic Miracles by Bob and Penny Lord and came to believe that the bread and wine of Holy Communion really are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, as crazy as that had seemed to me. They recount times throughout history that the Host of the Eucharist had become actual human flesh and blood. Photographs were included, scientific research had been conducted and cited; I read and believed - not just believed but recognized the beautiful truth. My heart knew and understood what my mind had been so skeptical about.
During my first few years as a Catholic I learned enough that I was able to assent to the teachings of the Church that I hadn't initially understood. I came to believe everything I had once doubted. It was easy to believe once the theology and reasoning were explained. I dug through Church documents, often using the document library at the EWTN website, or reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It wasn't just a bunch of random rules made up by a few old men on a power trip, as I had heard it was. There were and are beautiful and rich reasons for everything.
Beyond the rules and the doctrine, which I had come to respect, I fell in love with God. A relationship of the heart developed, slowly at first and then in what seemed like a sudden burst into his arms. My relationship with God sustained me through a miscarriage at four months of pregnancy, through times of deep depression and poor health, and through my own divorce a few years ago. My relationship with God has become even stronger and more intimate during the times of great suffering, pain and desolation.
I now live and believe that verse I memorized as a child, "God is love, and he who lives in love lives in God and God in He." I no longer wonder who Jesus is because I know Him so well. I have an intimate relationship with the Good God who loves me. He is the pearl of great price; I searched for him and finally found him. I continue to sell everything in order to possess him.
Visit Amanda's blog Little Steps Along the Way for more on her journey as well as contemplative reflections and inspiritions.
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