Saved by Love Alone: A Seminary Wife’s JourneyJan 26th, 2014 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
My conversion story begins with the fruitful evangelization efforts of my brother, and my pursuit of baptism at the hands of an Episcopal priest. It continues through a persistent question by my non-religious sister, and a very dark time for my faith and my relationship with the Lord. It ends with my confidence in my husband, along with his humility, and the blessed reception of that which I had so long desired: union with my Lord, body and soul.
I was the youngest of four children, and grew up in an intact, non-religious, loving home near Washington, D.C. When I was in middle school, my brother came home from college a changed man. Suddenly, he was seeking out my company where he had seemed disinterested in it before. He spoke of God with reverence. He prayed before meals. I wrote a story about the remarkable change I noticed in his behavior, and how it had made me believe in God, too. I shyly gave the story to him as a gift for Christmas my freshman year of high school. The night he read it, he came to me, smiled kindly, and told me about Jesus. To give you a sense of how clueless I was about religion at this time in my life: I was not even certain how belief in God and this man by the name of Jesus were even related! The cross, as a popular symbol, held no meaning for me. Honestly, this all sounded very strange. But I put my confidence in the word my brother spoke to me about Him and in the change I had witnessed in my brother’s life.
A year later, I sought baptism at a local church. I had picked that church because I could walk there. I was unable to drive, and my parents did not attend church on Sundays. It was an Episcopal church, and I learned a lot simply by attending to the words of the liturgical prayers and hymns. I recognized my weakness and dependency upon God. During Lent before I was baptized, I read the Gospels for the first time with great delight. The week before Easter in 2000, my sophomore year of high school, I was granted an intense longing to be united to Him in the sacrament of baptism. I remember the occasion – attended by my brother, my father, and a few Catholic friends – very well.
I had many Catholic friends during this time in my life. I always considered them allies in the pursuit of the truth, the effort to live well, and other matters of faith. These friends included a boyfriend and his former girlfriend, as well as a good friend and classmate. I recognized that there was something common about the efforts of Protestants and Catholics, and there was a true and lively devotion to be found among both. I wanted to stand as a bridge between them.
After my baptism, I quickly learned a lot about the differences between living and thinking as a Christian or as a non-Christian. My sisters conversed with my brother and me, very often to the point of tears and frustration. We argued about the authority of the Bible, the necessity of religion (or lack thereof?) to live a moral life, and the existence of God. One question my sister continually asked me really influenced the rest of my journey: “If the Bible is the definitive word on morality and salvation, and yet people come up with such different interpretations of it, how do you know which interpretation to follow?” She was referring primarily to the wide variety of Protestant denominations, and the distinctions between them. I had no answer, and remained skittish about affiliating myself with any particular denomination for a long time. In fact, I refused confirmation and accepted only baptism from the Episcopal Church for that very reason. I was not yet ready to sacramentally commit myself to any particular Christian community without a firm understanding of the differences between them.
When I came to the University of Virginia, I immediately sought out the Anglican Church where my brother’s faith was born and nourished. But ultimately, I worshipped at many different places on Sundays: non-denominational churches, Acts 2 churches, rural bible churches, Assemblies of God churches, liberal Episcopal churches, black Baptist churches, white Baptist churches. I also attended campus ministries of all kinds: Chi Alpha, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Chinese Christian Fellowship, Impact, and RUF. Ultimately, I found myself engaged in a bit of missionary dating with my future husband, Barrett. He chose to go to the local PCA church and RUF, and I chose to go with him, imagining that my presence might encourage him to keep going to meetings and to pursue God.
I did, however, avoid the Catholic Church and its campus ministries. I knew I was not welcome at their eucharistic table, and I knew there was a lot about being Catholic that I simply didn’t understand. I had also begun to absorb something new from my devout Protestant friends: anti-Catholic rhetoric and prejudice. I found myself thus isolated from, and suspicious of, Catholic doctrine, practice, and people. The suggestion that Catholics were not “real” Christians – while I confessed with my lips that it was false – held real influence over me through the power of fear.
Barrett grew in his faith, and we both learned more together about the Reformed tradition. Barrett became more and more convinced, and though I tried very hard, I became more and more confused. What I seemed to hear from many a sermon and lecture on the topic was: “Nothing you do is ever good enough to even bring a smile to God’s face. You are culpable for all your sins, but God is responsible for all your good deeds. Everything good that appears to come from you is, in fact, something bad dressed up to look good. In fact, God is so disgusted by you and your sin that He placed Jesus in front of you, like a curtain, to avoid having to even look at you (*or maybe not, if you are not one of the elect, in which case His angry gaze is upon you still).” Yet I also heard that God loved me, and that I was not to abandon myself to despair. For some reason, I was even still supposed to try to live a moral life, despite the fact that utter failure was inevitable and it wouldn’t matter to my salvation anyway. Only God’s election could save me and no word I spoke with my lips, no good deed I worked with my hands, and nowhere I could go with my feet would affect my salvation one bit.
These things seemed contradictory to me. If the sins I committed were capable of destroying my salvation, surely there was something I could do that would restore the relationship? I longed to know whether I was living well, and I longed to be urged not only to trust in Christ in the face of my failures, but also to take up good works. I only ever heard that my failure was overwhelming and inevitable, and I could not bring anything close to good enough to the Father I loved so much.
I languished under these spiritual conditions. I developed a permanent sense that God was angry with me for my sin, that I was constantly in danger of committing a sin, and that I was not capable of pleasing Him with my life in any way. The Father may have chosen, before time, to cross my name off the list of the damned and stand Christ between me and Him so I wouldn’t be so terribly offensive to His sight…or perhaps He hadn’t. I could trust that I was among the chosen, I was told, because I desired it. But what if, at some point in the future, I no longer had the desire to be close to Him? What if, at some point, I was going through the motions simply in the hope that my affection would return and prove my favor with Him? Was God’s salvation still upon me in the dark days when religion could only be a work of my hands because my affections were so far from Him? These days were, I feared, already upon me.
I was depressed. I was anxious. I sought counseling and psychiatric medication. My journal entries from this time period are tortured. I was told that it must be a “family of origin” problem, and my parents were to blame. But days, weeks, and months of reflection led me to the conclusion that it was either the theological system whose message I was hearing week after week, or a failure to truly understand it. I assumed it was the latter, and continued to try to wrap my mind around God’s love.
Barrett proposed marriage to me in September of 2005. Shortly after that, he decided to go to Covenant Seminary. As odd as this turn of events may seem to some readers, I actually found myself relieved and somewhat enthusiastic about accompanying my soon-to-be husband on this journey. I had come to a point where my understanding of Reformed theology had led me down a very dark path. Now, I would be married to an expert! Surely, through the rest of our lives, he would be able to explain the mysteries of the Scriptures as read rightly by the Reformed tradition. Failing that, as a Christian wife, I would be bound to trust the judgment of my husband and spiritual head, even when I didn’t understand all of it. Besides, so many good men that I trusted put forth this interpretation to me as the correct one: my brother, my first and dearest Christian witness; my pastors, whose lives were full of kindness and goodness towards me and the other students; and my husband, who was studying it and would continue to study it thoroughly. The Reformers’ interpretation of the Bible, transmitted through my husband, thus became my magisterium. I became like a little child, and was at peace once more. I wasn’t certain that I would ever be able to teach a Bible study as a pastor’s wife, but I at least trusted that God would lead me, through my husband, to the truth.
My ecumenical Christian beginnings and my desire to find harmony with the Catholic Church, however, did not go quietly. One night during our engagement, Barrett and I discussed the immaculate conception of Mary. I asserted that nothing in the doctrine directly contradicted the Bible, and it therefore could not definitively be stated false without extra-Biblical evidence. Barrett sputtered in disbelief, not sure he wanted to marry me any more. In an effort to resolve the crisis, we called an Anglican priest who had been meeting with us for premarital counseling. He suggested that we should proceed with the wedding, go to the seminary, ask these questions together and find the answers. He somehow managed to convince Barrett that I would change my mind. He also reassured me that if four years passed and I was not comfortable being a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, I wouldn’t be. Our marriage and my spiritual welfare would always come before an individual calling Barrett might sense to be a pastor. So we were comforted by these words, but shaken by the conflict. The conversation had brought up some painful insecurities I had about the Reformed tradition. I was still frightened to commit to it because of how my understanding of it – or my misunderstanding of it, I wasn’t sure which – had fractured my relationship with my heavenly Father.
That night, I took a huge risk. Perhaps it was a feminist-studies streak in me (I had briefly considered a major in this area) which caused me to seek out some unique form of feminine participation in salvation. Perhaps it was a female saints class I took, in which women so wise, so good, and so in love with the Lord spoke about the Blessed Mother with such tenderness and faith. Perhaps it was because I was weary of seeking help from a God I believed continually and thoroughly displeased with me, no matter what I did. Whatever it was, I prayed to Mary that night:
“God, if I am committing a sin, please forgive me. As I understand it, you certainly would if I were among the elect anyway.
Mary, I’m not sure if you can hear me. I think you are highly underrated by Protestants. Please help if you can.
If Calvinism is true, let me not be afraid. If Catholicism is true, let Barrett not be afraid.”
It was the first time in months that I had prayed without coming away angry or crying. It was over within seconds. By the time I woke in the morning, I had completely forgotten about it and never told a soul.
Barrett and I were married, at the same small Episcopal church where I had been baptized, in July of 2006. Our RUF pastor presided. Two of my bridesmaids – Catholics – stood at my side, along with my sisters, who claimed no religion at all. Barrett was attended by young men from his college small group. Two weeks after our honeymoon, we packed our belongings into a U-Haul and departed for Saint Louis, Missouri, so that Barrett could attend Covenant Seminary. We made wonderful friends with whom we shared the difficult first year of marriage, as well as the difficult times of pregnancy and raising your first child. We were welcomed like family to a local PCA church. I worked a couple of jobs, and Barrett studied hard. We would occasionally talk theology at the dinner table or with our seminarian friends and their wives. I attended two counseling classes and a bioethics seminar. We participated in a small group through our church.
In many ways, however, I consider this time a period of sleep for my soul. I was no longer clinically depressed and anxious, but prayer was still a great struggle. My trust in God was very weak, and my fear of Him remained more fierce than my love. So I largely avoided prayer, except at church on Sundays. I don’t recall a lot of soul growth occurring during this period, but God does a great deal of which we are not always consciously aware. I patiently waited for the theological system through which my pastors, my husband and his friends were reading the Bible to come together in my mind. I trusted that God would work through my husband’s study of the Scriptures to reveal His goodness and His love to me. But the more I read them on my own, and could not make sense of the interpretation being held out to me as the correct one, the more confused I became. The joy and delight which had been mine upon my first reading of the Gospels, before my baptism, had given way to pain and fear.
Thus I waited for about two years. At that point, in the summer of 2008, Barrett began asking questions and saying things at the dinner table that raised my gaze towards the mysteries of the faith once more. I understood the new questions he asked. They wakened in me some of my own confusion about Reformed theology. I began to walk more closely next to him in his study. We learned we were expecting our first child, and we had many questions about the efficacy of the baptism we planned to seek on his behalf. I wondered: what does baptism do for a child who is not elect? It seemed that the answer from the Westminster Confession was “nothing.” Baptism could not add to his election if he were elect, but it also did not seem to accomplish any relational purpose with respect to God if he were not elect. Then why baptize children, as was the tradition of the Church for centuries and, seemingly, biblical? Bryan and Carol Cross, local converts themselves, clarified the differences between Reformed theology and Catholic doctrine. Barrett pulled the Catechism of the Catholic Church down off our bookshelf, where it had been collecting dust for several years. He opened it and read it alongside the Westminster Confession and the Bible. More questions popped up. He talked to his seminary professors and classmates.
In April of 2009, a few short weeks before our son Symeon was born, we met with the Crosses at their house for dinner. Dr. Larry Feingold, a local Catholic theologian, and his wife, Marsha, were also present. Barrett asked his questions, and Dr. Feingold gave answers. As I listened to the questions and the answers, my heart burned within me, and my understanding of God’s love was opened. My confusion began to lift.
The good things I do are pleasing to God! It’s not only the bad things that make Him angry and affect our relationship. The good things I do please Him, and are actually the manner in which faith saves me! The faith that begins as a seed in my soul must necessarily flower fully in good works. Faith is a gift, but inseparable from the good work God commands. These flowers bear fruit for the life of the world, and these same good works are necessary fruit to sustain the life He graciously bestowed upon me.
God is not looking at Christ between us because He can’t stand to look at me, He actually looks at me with great pleasure! He longs to see my life and my good works, not simply Christ’s works instead of mine!
My son’s baptism would not only be an expression of our hope that he was eternally counted among the elect of God. Baptism was not just a sign, but was itself a gift of God’s grace. God humbly promised His friendship to all who approached its cleansing waters! Original sin in children was real and frightening, but so was God’s saving, life-giving remedy in baptism!
Mary’s sinlessness was first a gift of God, but also a free and faithful response from the woman who said “yes” where Eve said “no.” To honor her took nothing from God, but was another way to admire His great work of salvation!
The night began to feel sacred and holy, and the faith that I had placed in my husband’s guidance was now accompanied by the hope that salvation in Christ was near at hand, found most fully in the sacraments and other mysteries taught to us by the Catholic Church. At the end of the evening, Barrett inquired about RCIA, and a quiet joy filled my soul.
We began RCIA in September of that year. We also began to attend mass, and regretfully stopped attending the PCA church where we had been so tenderly embraced. My continued full-time work at a local law firm and the care of our newborn son consumed me, but we continued to walk dutifully towards and through the mysteries God laid before us. We told our friends. Some rejoiced with us, some identified with our questions but maintained objections to the Catholic Church, some were puzzled and asked why, and some warned us that this posed great danger to our souls. Barrett continued his study of relevant Scripture passages and doctrines, following their questions and his own. My non-religious sister, the one whose question about biblical interpretation had nagged at me for so long, even commended our decision. She told me that she had always found the Catholic Church to be the most consistent among Christian denominations.
One day, as Barrett and I were discussing these matters together, Barrett was pondering aloud his doubts, his fears, and his questions. Barrett became frustrated with me, perceiving that my attitude was too laissez-faire, and that I was not sufficiently committed to one course of action or another. He asked: “Are you going to become Catholic at Easter or not? What if I don’t?”
I was puzzled by the question. Honestly, since that night in April with the Crosses and the Feingolds, it had never occurred to me that Barrett wouldn’t become Catholic. This process had seemed, to my trusting faith, the way in which God was revealing the great mystery of His love to me. I had entrusted the care of my soul to my husband, and it was beginning to come more and more alive as we came closer to the Catholic Church. I was simply following him. My soul was reverberating with joy as we approached the sacraments of the Church, through which God would communicate His grace to us. I guess I had wrongly assumed that my husband’s soul and mine were in harmony on this point.
At that moment, sitting in our small dining room, I became acutely aware of Barrett’s agony and uncertainty. For one terrifying moment, I realized that I might actually lose my spiritual companion in this earthly life. But at the same moment, I was freed to make my own confession of faith in Christ, and where His Church could authoritatively be found on earth. I had been immeasurably aided and guided by my husband’s pursuit of the truth, but now I was standing upon Our Lord’s gift of faith to me, personally. For the first time in four years, I supplanted the magisterium of my husband’s understanding of the Scriptures with that of the Church.
“Yes. Yes, I will become Catholic at Easter either way. But I hope that doesn’t happen, and I don’t think it will!” Thanks be to God, within a few weeks, Barrett was similarly ready to make this confession of faith.
Right before Lent began, I committed to learn more about the rosary and how to pray it. It was one of those Catholic practices that I approached hesitantly, but I trusted the Church and was firmly committed to understanding my mother’s instruction. After a couple of weeks praying like this, a gentle voice brought to mind the prayer I had made four years earlier: “Mary, I don’t know if you can hear me. Please help if you can ….” The memory of kneeling on the carpet at the side of the bunk bed I shared with my roommate in our two-bedroom college apartment came gently back. I remembered the words I had said almost exactly, and how I had meant them with all my heart. The Lord now wanted me to honor His mother, because she had helped me in my time of need. She had asked, on my behalf, during those two sleepy years when I could barely pray: “My Son, show her your love and your truth, and where she can go to find it.” She had prayed for Barrett, that his search would be earnest, thorough, and humble, so that he could guide us both to the feet of Christ, united as man and wife. And slowly, patiently, at His mother’s tender request, Christ drew us to Himself.
We found Him most perfectly and most preciously in His body and blood, the Holy Eucharist, the night of the Easter vigil in 2010. It is difficult to describe the longing with which I arrived at that mass, and the pure joy of receiving His life in my body and my soul. I’m not sure words will ever be enough to describe the perfection of that gift! God had loved me, saved me, and drawn me, eternally and always. I was finally responding, as He intended, with my whole self: physically coming to the sacraments He prepared for us, presenting myself as a gift to Him at His altar, opening my mouth to receive His flesh, the bread from heaven, and opening my heart to all the ways in which He desired my hands and feet to be His on earth.
The Reformed tradition had made me think that this mouth, these hands, my feet, and everything else I did with my body was never enough, and ultimately displeasing to God. The Catholic Church taught me that Christ actually cares so deeply about what I do with my body, and He finds it so beautiful, that He took on its flesh in Mary’s womb, He washes it in baptism, and He unites Himself to it in holy communion. So although I do believe the Reformed tradition to be lacking, I did not leave primarily for that. I left primarily because the Lord opened up the great mystery of His love for all of me, body and soul, in the Catholic Church. I pray you may find it, too!