March 14, 2011
On the day I arrived on the St. Helen campus for the first RCIA class, I was thinking about idolatry.
The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist had been on my mind since the Emmaus Walk retreat I’d attended a week or two before. I knew I’d be an idolater if I worshipped “a cookie” like some of the internet anti-catholics asserted.
But. . . What if that “cookie” wasn’t a “cookie” at all? What if the Catholics were right, and what looked like a “cookie” was really, somehow, in a supernatural, God-directed way, the Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Well, then, that’s something completely different.
And therefore, it’s not idolatry.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1374
“The mode of Christ's presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as "the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all sacraments tend." In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained." "This presence is called 'real' - by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be 'real' too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present."
I went back to the Baptist church in Bertram for a time in the fall of 2005. I helped direct a children’s musical called, “Angel Alert.” I had a great time working on that musical, even though I didn’t attend Sunday morning services at all. I felt unsettled about that, but nobody seemed to notice.
I had put off RCIA to work on this musical. One of my co-workers was acquainted with the people who led RCIA at St. Helen Church, and she was the one who put me in touch with the teacher. When I didn’t join the class in 2005, I started to feel uncomfortable around her. Not because of any arm-twisting on her part, but because of some residual co-dependency issues on mine. Anyway, I told her I was putting off RCIA, that I hadn’t forgotten about it, but that I wasn’t ready. She raised a finger to my face to make her point and gave me one piece of advice. She said, “If you’re thinking about becoming Catholic, you gotta believe in the Real Presence.” That’s it. That was the extent of her advice to me. Simple.
I’d read a little about what it meant to be Catholic, but what I’d read were mostly things about superficial practices and traditions, (with a small “t”). I still didn’t know about the Real Presence.
After she told me that term, I did what I always do to find out information about things I don’t understand. . .I googled it.
And, yes, I’d agree, as a Catholic, you gotta believe in the Real Presence.
I didn’t know where to go to church. I’d been stuck for months.
By the spring of 2005, I was one of those people who call themselves Christian but live secular lives.
Until one day. I was fed up. I was angry. At God. At the Baptist minister. At my father. At myself. At nobody in particular.
Something happened as I was driving home from work on a Friday afternoon in March of 2005. I was trying to decide where to got to church on Sunday. This was my usual routine, but I never had an answer. I was stuck.
I remember shaking my fist at God while I was driving and saying out loud, maybe to God, “I just want more of Jesus.”
That’s all. I felt I’d already done every bible study, every retreat, every home group, every conference, blah, blah, blah.
I just wanted more of Jesus. I didn’t know where to go to get any more of Jesus than I already had. I was embarrassed to call myself a Christian, yet still be experiencing this feeling of lack.
Immediately I heard a voice in my spirit saying, “You know, if you were Catholic, you could (potentially) have Jesus every day.”
I knew that voice. I recognized the voice. It was the Holy Spirit. God. He didn’t repeat himself. That’s how I knew. And I also knew enough about the Catholic church by this time, because of conversations with some of my Catholic friends, to know that they had mass in some churches every day, and that the priest would not be the judge as to whether or not I was disposed to receive communion.
I almost had to pull the car over. At first I thought, “O Crap! I have to be Catholic, now? Are you kidding me?” That’s how I talk to God. Then, after a moment. . .”Wow. . .now I have an excuse to be Catholic. . .Cool!”
I started to plan, still making my way home. I thought, “I’ll just jump through all their little hoops, but I won’t really have to change the way I believe, will I?” It hadn’t occurred to me yet that at some point I’d have to say, “Amen” in order to receive communion. And I only had a vague sense then that in order to become Catholic, at some point, they would probably ask me to make some kind of oath. (God has been so patient with me.)
The next week, I started looking up things on the internet like, “How to become Catholic.” That’s how I found out the acronym RCIA, although I still didn’t understand what it was, exactly. I called the closest Catholic church, St. Helen in Georgetown, to find out how to join this “RCIA.” In 2005 the RCIA classes didn’t start until August, but by then the Baptist church in Bertram had called me back to service to direct a children’s musical for Christmas. I wanted to do it, and it was on the same night, Wednesday, as RCIA, so it also gave me an excuse to put off Catholic formation for a while longer.
Apparently, I wasn’t ready for more of Jesus. At least not yet.
For about two years before I became Catholic, I tried to decide where to go to church. After I knew I didn’t fit in with the Baptists, I made a mental list of all the denominations in my town and considered each one. Logical, right?
I’d been a Presbyterian in high school, but the Presbyterian church in Bertram was a different kind of Presbyterian than I’d known, because of a split way back when. They were actually kinda like the Baptists where I’d already been, except they used a hymnbook I wasn’t as familiar with, so I didn’t see point in even considering them. (I admit maybe that was just an excuse.) All those people were friends so why couldn’t they all go to the same church anyway?
I’d been singing with the Grace Notes, my trio, for awhile, and one of the ladies was Methodist. There was a Methodist church in Bertram, and they were very “open” with their communion like Riverbend had been, so I did consider them. At that time though, they had a lady preacher who was kind of odd. She called everybody “Friend” whether you knew her or not. Also, one day I drove into Georgetown to visit one of the Methodist churches there. The minister was preaching on how proud he was to be a Methodist. Honestly, it didn’t sound very inspiring to me. From what I could gather, the basis for his pride was the fact that the Methodists had 350 years of history, and some of these “‘new’ churches springing up everywhere, well, what did they have to offer with only 1 or 2 or 10 years of history behind them?” Immediately I wanted to laugh, wondering what the Catholics might think of that speech. I wasn’t Catholic at the time, but I always saw the Catholic church as the “Mother” ship, even if I would have also said she took on too much water and went adrift sometime in the 15th century.
I’d been watching TV pentecostals for some time, since the mid-1990’s at least, and I tried to talk myself into driving to a large charismatic Christian fellowship, called Shoreline, in north Austin. However, I thought if I was going to drive all the way to Shoreline, then I might as well drive all the way back to Riverbend. I knew I was too lazy for either. And, I reasoned, I could always watch the pentecostals on TV anyway.
Then it occurred to me to use a different criteria than I’d used before. I thought about my ethnic heritage. I’d been adopted through the Lutheran Social Service. My birth father’s family, it turns out, were from the town where Martin Luther was born, and where he ultimately died, Eisleben. If you look on the internet, Eisleben has a website where they proudly advertise this claim to fame. I’d known a very nice lady who attended the Lutheran church in Burnet, the next town over, but I knew my connection to Lutheranism was the weakest of all. I’d never even been to a Lutheran church. And I didn’t really owe my birth father’s family any kind of ethnic allegiance anyway.
So I was stuck. Again.
Every Friday I’d be driving home from work, rehearsing in my mind all the choices I had for church. I’d try to decide and make my plan for which church to attend that weekend. And every Sunday, I’d sleep late and stay home. It was ridiculous.
I thought, what if I were a pagan? An unchurched heathen who had experienced a touch from the Holy Spirit? Where would I go to church? How would I decide? Would it be confusing for me? If it was confusing for a person like me who was already Christian, and had already been a member of a church, then I’m thinking it would be confusing for someone with little church experience, too. I’m certain that Jesus does not want things to be so confusing.
I stayed in this rut for part of 2004, all of 2005, and part of 2006, a very long time, it seemed to me.
The only thing that got me out of the rut was the voice of God.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church
261 The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life. God alone can make it known to us by revealing himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
265 By the grace of Baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit", we are called to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity, here on earth in the obscurity of faith, and after death in eternal light (cf. Paul VI, CPG § 9).
When I was approaching my 40th birthday, I knew I had already entered a minor mid-life crisis. Even taking up oil painting to satisfy a long held desire to do art did not completely quiet my unease.
By 2003, at the age of 38, I had cut-off communication with my father, simply by not calling him, realizing that if I didn’t call, we’d lose contact. This had been a superficial, problematic, and somewhat hurtful relationship for me since my parent’s divorce when I was 11, and I was ready to get honest and just let it go.
I had no family. I wasn’t married, nor did I ever expect to be. Fall-out again from the trauma of my parents divorce and from my adoption at age two. I’m not angry about any of it anymore, but I was trying to find a way to respect myself and honor both (all!) my parents at the same time, when I broke off contact with my dad.
I don’t have brothers or sisters close by. And the brothers and sisters I do have, I didn’t grow up with. I’ve never really been able to take any of my relationships for granted. I have to work at all of them. The ones I work at the most, turn out the best, usually.
Since my mother died, I’ve had no automatic place to spend Christmas. I’ve had no automatic birthday gift or Valentine’s day card.
One of the most functional (and fun) sections of my family, headed by an elderly cousin of mine in Dallas, has welcomed me into her extended fold for Christmas, and I try to respond as gratefully as I can. I try to keep up with their lives through phone calls and Facebook. (Thank goodness for Facebook.) And I want the relationships to continue as long as I live. Still, I can’t easily assemble a big group of close relatives around me. My family is made of up many parts, and most of the parts don’t know each other well. If you have a big family of nosy relatives, you are probably thinking, “What is her problem? This sounds great!”
So, when I realized that my mother’s death was going to change so many dynamics in my life, I sought some counsel. The pastor at the Baptist church I was attending at the time put me in touch with a man who did spiritual direction/counseling for free as an offering to the Lord and to the church.
I talked to this gentleman a handful of times about the changes in my life, at mid-life no less. I talked to him about not having a family and what that felt like. I wanted to know how God’s plan for me could possibly include such a great amount of loneliness and “aloneness.”
One day he wagged his finger in my face, (thoughtfully), and said, “Judi, you are your own family.”
At the time, I thought, “Wow! That’s brilliant! Wise and meaningful.” I knew what he meant. He meant that I needed to take care of myself as a mother or a father would take care of a child. Sometimes I should be the child, sometimes the mother, and sometimes the father. And I should have respect for myself like I would for a family member. I got it. I thought.
In time, I decided that this position, though good, was really not complete. The only entity that is his own family is God. That is, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit make a family. God is all about “family.”
But my desire for a family could not be satisfied by somehow “being my own” family. My desire for a family could only be satisfied by joining a family.
At the same time I had the conversation with the counselor, I was having doubts about my ability to fit in with the Baptists. I was already desiring to find another church “family.” It was a very hard time for me as I reached the age of 40.
In my life I’d had lots of experience with having to fit in with existing families. I’d had to fit in with my adoptive family. I’d had to fit in with the fractured parts of my father’s family. I’d had to fit in with my step-father’s family after my mother remarried. I’d had to fit in with my birth-mother’s family after I found her. I knew I had the skills to fit in somewhere again, but I didn’t know if I had the energy to find another family and have it fail. What church family should I join? I couldn’t pick a church on the basis of what kind of choir they had. I’d already done that. I really didn’t know what criteria to use to pick a church.
I didn’t know the answer for a long time.
One night, when I was in RCIA, we talked about the Trinity and the subject of families came up. The teacher talked about how everything Catholic is Trinitarian and familial. There’s a reason why Catholics call priests “Father” and consecrated religious “Sisters,” “Brothers,” and even, “Mothers.” The whole church is a huge family. God himself is part of a family. The Holy Spirit reveals the love between God and Jesus. And that love completes the Trinity, which is a family. The Holy Trinity is God’s family.
So, really, I am not “my own” family. Not Exactly. However, I am part of God’s family, if I choose to be.
And the one place I never feel lonely, ever, is at a Catholic Mass.
As a young child I was taught about Jesus at a non-denominational church called Joppa Community Church that happened to use the Baptist Hymnal. When I was nine, I was baptized in Bertram, Texas at the nearest Baptist Church because Joppa didn’t have a baptismal font. However, I didn’t actually rub shoulders with other Baptist believers, as an attender of a Southern Baptist church, until much later in my life.
Right before I entered formation to become Catholic in 2006, I spent roughly 3-4 years attending that same conservative Baptist church in Bertram where I’d been baptized at age nine. Here is the reason I chose to attend there: I had been attending Joppa Church, the small country church of my youth, right after my mother died in a car accident. I had moved back to the country, and was too lazy to drive all the way down to Austin every Sunday for church. Joppa was quite a change from the mega-church I had been attending in the city. Riverbend had thousands of people coming on their campus each weekend, and the Chorale, of which I was a part, could draw 200 singers. Joppa considered 30 people in the pews a good day, and they had a piano player and a song leader on their music “team.”
For awhile this change was fine. But after a time, I started missing singing in a choir. And although I started feeling drawn to sing again, I didn’t want to lead songs at Joppa. I wanted to sing harmony in a choir, or better yet, a small ensemble or trio.
I chose to go to the Baptist church in Bertram because they had the biggest choir. That was my reasoning. Can you believe it? At the time, the quality and nature of the music seemed quite a reasonable basis upon which to choose a church.
The Baptist church choir was about 20 folk strong. I sat beside a woman who had, in her youth, sung with her two sisters in a gospel trio. She used to say, Judi, I’ll take the “low,” you take the “middle,” and Kim, (another soprano), you take the “high.” She was talking about chord parts for harmony, but I had no idea what she was talking about for the longest time. She sang by ear, and she was trying to get me to sing by ear, too. It was good for my singing to sit by her, although it was torture at first, to flounder around listening for the right note. It does take time to develop an ear for chords, and mine is still developing.
The choir was the highlight of my time there. During the time I sang there, I was invited to sing “special” music several times. It was also during this time that I sought out friendship with the ladies who would end up forming the trio I still occasionally sing with, called the Grace Notes. And, it was another Baptist lady in my bible study at the time who helped me brainstorm our name.
So, the singing was good with the Baptists.
However, over time, I realized I really didn’t read the bible as literally as they did. And I didn’t believe in the rapture. And I wasn’t as overtly anti-Catholic. (Although I certainly did have a few secret prejudices toward the Catholics I knew.)
Further, I missed communion. My plan back then was that I would attend the Baptist church three Sunday’s out of the month, but go back to Joppa for communion. You see, I was vaguely aware, even from the beginning, that I wasn’t fully committed to First Baptist Church of Bertram. Still, I hardly ever made it back to Joppa for communion either.
After about two years like this, I suddenly realized I had only received communion twice in two years.
This was a problem for me, particularly because of some of the teaching I’d received while I was at Riverbend about the importance of communion. I’d been able to receive the Lord’s Supper once a month there. And Joppa had communion once a month too. That’s what I expected.
So I started asking when was communion in this Baptist church. It took a long time to get a straight answer. I don’t think they had a regular time to celebrate. Some people told me it was quarterly, but I knew that wasn’t true. Then finally, after asking repeatedly, someone said it was “whenever the pastor thinks we’re ready.”
I just about flipped when I heard THAT! The person who told me didn’t seem to be too happy about it either. I mean, HOW would the pastor KNOW whether each individual was READY or not? How?
Later I realized that even a Catholic priest would not necessarily KNOW if each individual communicant was READY to partake. It would have been the responsibility of the communicant to know whether he or she was eligible (or disposed) to approach the altar specifically for communion. I wasn’t Catholic, but I knew that much. Suddenly, the Catholic church seemed much more free than the Baptist church although I resisted that notion a while longer.
And if the bread is a symbol, then how can eating a piece of bread be dangerous for your soul anyway?
So, at this point all sorts of questions and problems with communion started entering my brain. The bottom line was, I missed taking communion, so I knew, no matter how great the singing was, I’d have to find some place else to go on Sunday morning. I learned that good music, as wonderful as it is, is not always the best basis upon which to choose a church. Satan was a musician before he got kicked out of heaven after all.
The question is: If communion is the basis upon which to choose a church, what makes communion? What creates “unity” in the body of Christ?
My understanding of communion and unity was so superficial, so elementary, so minimal, then. I didn’t realize it, but my desire for communion, percolating under the surface, would, in fact, be the thing that would eventually lead me to the Catholic Church.
From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
960 The Church is a "communion of saints": this expression refers first to the "holy things" (sancta), above all the Eucharist, by which "the unity of believers, who form one body in Christ, is both represented and brought about" (LG 3).
961 The term "communion of saints" refers also to the communion of "holy persons" (sancti) in Christ who "died for all," so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all.
962 "We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers" (Paul VI, CPG # 30).
I used to have a conflict in my mind about the Communion of Saints. I thought that the Catholic Communion of Saints was a Christianization of pagan mythological gods.
Remember studying the Roman and Greek gods in school? There was a god for every aspect of life. And it seemed to me that there was a Catholic saint for everything. (I still think there’s a saint for everything!)
Also, I never saw the need to pray “to” a “saint.” It would not have ever occurred to me to do that.
Then, on January 18, 2000, my mother, Joann Ater Alvis, died suddenly in a car accident.
On the day of her funeral I was trying to find the iron so I could press my step-dad’s shirt. We were on a tight schedule, and he’d had to go out on an errand. I was trying to save some time and do something for him that under other circumstances, my mother would have done.
I could not find the iron. This seemed so strange to me. All the laundry and clothes-care items were stored neatly in the laundry room. All except for the iron.
My mother was a very tidy and organized person. I couldn’t think where she would have put the iron. I was so angry that I couldn’t just ask her.
So then, I decided to ask her.
And she, or someone, told me where the iron was. I had an idea, somehow, in my brain, that came from outside of me. The idea was, to look in a bedroom closet. There was the iron, sitting on top of a large cardboard box, underneath some coats.
I don’t know how I got that idea in my mind. I’d looked in all the other logical places. That bedroom closet was not a place I would have thought to look. The ironing board was in the laundry room, for goodness sake.
I had the feeling for many days after my mother’s death that she was so close to me. I felt she was very near, but that there was a screen, or a veil between us so that we couldn’t talk in the usual way. I had a distinct sensation that she was, in fact, alive. As a Christian, I believed she was in heaven, but I didn’t know where that was. Heaven always seemed very far away. But now, faced with the reality of my mother’s death, heaven, seemed very close. I wanted to know more about heaven and where it was and how it worked.
I do have faith in the grace of God, that my mother is in heaven.
And in the last 10 years, I have accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church about the communion of saints. When I take communion at mass, I believe I’m taking communion with all the believers who have ever lived, and died in friendship with God, since the beginning of time, which group I believe includes my mom. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that my mother Joann, and my Blessed Mother Mary, might’ve been in cahoots in heaven, pleading my case before God, to send his Holy Spirit to keep “hounding” me until I joined His catholic church. (My mom pushed me down the aisle to get baptized. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when I die, I find out that she and Mary pushed me down the aisle to get confirmed, as well. LOL.)
The saints can communicate with us, and we can communicate with them. The communication is not the same as communication between two people sitting beside each other on the couch, or two people traveling together in a car, but that’s because our earthly senses are not perfected yet.
They root for us.
They pray for us.
In heaven, the saints are exactly what God created them to be, more fully alive than they ever were when they lived on Earth.
The Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant are all one, unified, Church.
"When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. I means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart."
"Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me."