Today, Word on Fire blogger Ellyn von Huben shares the unique story of her conversion from a non-religious childhood characterized by a sense of spiritual "longing" to full communion with the Catholic Church.
My Painfully Slow Conversion Story (including detours and reversions)
Flannery O’Connor, in her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, broaches the dilemma of depicting the lives of pious children. She had a polite disdain for little boys who would play-act Mass or girls who dressed up as nuns. And she asked what is to be said of Protestant children who lack those props and must content themselves with other acts of goodness. I know. I was a hybrid of those children. A pious pagan child, unbaptized, unaffiliated who wanted nothing more than to be a nun. Of all the great accessories in my dress-up box, my favorite get-up was my nun’s habit fashioned from a witch’s cape.
I was a “nothing” growing up in ultra Lutheran Wisconsin on a street populated by Catholic playmates. I knew what I wanted; to be like them. I lobbied furiously for my baptism and was thrilled when, at the age of seven, my mother gave in and contacted the closest Lutheran Church.
My mother’s older sister married a seminarian from our hometown’s Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and became a Lutheran herself. So it was natural that I, along with my mother and sister, would be Lutheran. It was a summer evening and I still remember details: The muggy weather. The cool church. The pastor’s hands, so clean and pink against his white garb that they made me think of a butcher’s cold, rosy fingers against his apron. Trips to butcher shops still remind me of my baptism, the baptizer’s fingers and the butcher’s digits inextricably woven in my memory.
Like all other Lutheran kids, I carried my catechism to school with me every Wednesday. We would depart to our assorted congregations to be drilled in prayers, creeds, commandments and specifics of the faith. The Lutheran Church did a better job of catechizing me....as a future Catholic...than our Catholic CCD program has done with my own children. Can my children write out the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds? I’m afraid not. Can they explain the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation? I wouldn’t risk asking. The Lutheran “drill and kill” system was a pain, but it worked!
The capacity to parse the difference between transubstantiation, consubstantiation and the symbolic grape juice and bread symbolism of some other Protestant denominations, on top of the years of indoctrination by my Catholic playmates, left me yearning for more. All the explanations of the reasonability of consubstantiation to the contrary, I felt cheated. If we were to hold up the meaning of the Eucharist to reasonable explanation, why did we need faith? And with faith the reassurance of the presence of our Lord under the appearance of bread and wine became more, rather than less, reasonable than the explanation that the bread and wine coexist as Jesus’ body and blood when consumed only to return to their original unsacred state in the moments after communion. That’s a convolution beyond my grasp. As difficult to deal with as the little thimble-sized glasses I handled while helping my altar-guild mother disassemble the elements after each communion service.
College led me to a small Catholic women’s college in Illinois. Catholic! Nuns! And no required courses outside of one’s major, allowing me the luxury of some time to “explore.” No required courses allowed for dabbling in a variety of subjects. Art history. Religious studies. Good stuff. Fun stuff.
This was not quite the Catholic school that my parents and I were expecting. Few nuns wore habits. (One could hardly describe as “street clothes” the leopard coat, stiletto heels and rhinestone encrusted glasses of one of the sisters.) As for the students, all I need to say is that the college no longer acted ‘ in loco parentis’ and we took that for all it was worth.
Religious studies expanded my spiritual horizons. I learned Transcendental Meditation, astrology, Tarot reading, numerology and a variety of other necessary skills. (Why didn’t somebody warn me that astrology is a frustrating amount of math?) We also did a lot of consciousness raising. My consciousness was raised to a high plateau. Or so I thought. Too bad I wasn’t thinking. Sometime during my freshman year, my church at home had undergone a renovation. I thought they spent lot of money for a superfluous purpose. And I was not content to keep my thoughts to my self. When I was sent my Advent-Dime-A-Day sacrifice folder, I returned it to my church with a letter only slightly shorter than Luther’s 95 theses. I could not possibly support a church that was so wasteful when there was such abounding social injustice crying out for remediation. I no longer wished to be a part of such an unjust, patriarchal bourgeois institution. (Awash in my self-satisfaction I mailed this letter and then headed off to the bars. The bourgeois bars of Chicago’s North Shore. While driving the Mercedes-Benz that my father had given me.)
My mother was a member of the parish council. She was privileged to be present when the pastor read my diatribe aloud. What an awful moment that must have been for her. From that time on, I never went to church. No Christmas. No Easter. Never.
By the age of twenty-one I was engaged and wanted the traditional church wedding with all attendant frills. The only problem was that I didn’t have a church. Pride would not allow me to call the church I had left. But we were fortunate to have the help of a friend of my father’s, the pastor of another Lutheran church.
Knowing how lucky we were to have found a venue for “the happiest day of my life,” my fiancé and I were sure to worship at this church on any weekend that found us visiting my family. It wasn’t easy. I looked down upon those who were not only committed to, but looked forward to, attending church on a weekly basis. Thirty years later the laugh is on me. Now, time and circumstances allowing, I can go to church seven days a week. And find God there, at all times, body, blood, soul and divinity.
Our first daughter was born within the year. By our fourth anniversary we were the parents of three girls. Life had become real. We had promised the pastor who married us that we would continue to attend church. But one thing led to another. First it was morning sickness. Then a new baby. And another. And another. The right Sunday morning never rolled around.
There was the brief detour through several unfulfilling years as Unitarians. But in my heart, I knew where I belonged. It took a while to get my courage up. One morning, between other tasks I looked up the local Catholic parish in the yellow pages and dialed it before I had a chance to second guess myself.
Because of our crazy schedule, the pastor agreed to instruct us individually rather than have us go through the RCIA process. It wound up taking well over a year and it was some year. We were tested. Providential in retrospect, but almost overwhelming at the time. It was to be a time in which we traversed the gamut of reality. And when we became Catholic we were ready.
The summer when we started instruction turned into an awful time. My tiny mother had an unexpected heart attack and died. Somewhere in the nebulous time after her death - in the midst of recovering from shock, grief, a car that just happened to blow up, and the hottest, most miserable summer that we could remember - I was pregnant with our fifth baby. That I could barely stop retching long enough to get the girls off to school in the morning and do one load of laundry was quite an accomplishment. Everything made me sick. The smell of fresh air made me sick. I wore out a holy card with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, clutching it in meditation when I was too sick for words.
Gradually, I felt better. And then the time was right. Filled with energy and optimism at the end of April I had decided that my baby, due on May 19 would be a cradle Catholic. And on May 2, 1989 my childhood desire came to its fruition. I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. My husband became Catholic. Our four little girls and the baby waiting to join them were now Catholic. My life wasn’t what I had planned. But it was precisely what I had always wanted. I was home.
Read the full version of Ellyn's conversion story on her blog, "Oblique House."
In addition, the Word on Fire Blog's Conversion Series is accompanied by the release of a new spiritual study guide based upon Father Barron's Conversion: Following the Call of Christ CD and DVD. Check it out here.