Chapter 6 – Kicking & Screaming

So I’ve noticed a trend occurring:  whenever we have a rite coming up, immediately beforehand, I have a mini-crisis.  I haven’t shared much of my personal struggles with becoming Catholic to anyone outside of our RCIA class because honestly, six days of the week, I feel like a full-blown Catholic, and it’s only one day of the week that I really struggle.  But now, I confess that as strong a supporter of Catholicism as I’ve been on Facebook and talking with other friends, it’s been a lot harder than it’s seemed.

If one wants to become Catholic, one must first attend RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), which is a 9-12 month long class about the Catholic faith.  There are also several little “ceremonies” or rites that prepare you for the Big Event: confirmation.  But for each rite so far, I’ve had a little freak-out fest that leaves everyone wondering if I’m going to require smelling salts or medication.

Our first rite that we went through was the Rite of Welcoming, of which I had nightmares all the night before, and the only thing that got me there was just sheer determination.  I was nervous, but it turned out to be a lovely experience.  We were asked several questions in front of the congregation about our profession of faith, and then we were prayed over and blessed.  Our sponsors anointed our heads, eyes, ears, mouths, hearts, shoulders, hands, and feet, then placed a pretty, carved wooden cross around our necks.  It was the official beginning of the whole parish seeing who we were so they could pray for us throughout this process.  It was beautiful.

Then there was the Rite of Sending (the ceremony at which the parish sends you forth to the archbishop to participate in the Rite of Election).  I hadn’t thought much about the rite until we were actually in the sanctuary, and I began to feel almost sick inside at the nature of what I was about to do.  When we were called to sign our names in the Book of the Elect (which forever memorializes the names of new converts), I was so terrified, I couldn’t even feel the pen in my hands.  For all I know, my signature could read “Big Bird”.  I wanted to run screaming from the building, but I somehow managed to hold it together because I knew that I didn’t want to pull out unless I KNEW it wasn’t the right thing for me, and I didn’t KNOW that.  I’m sure a lot of people would interpret my internal turmoil as a testament that perhaps this is not the right path for me, and I have had experiences where I’ve been about to do something, gotten so sick inside that I’ve almost thrown up, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to do what I was about to do.  I experienced that when I almost enrolled in community college after high school.  Instead, I got sick before I could even ask for the paper work.  A few months later, I was at a four-year college meeting the love of my life and some forever friends.

But something in me knew this feeling wasn’t the same.  I don’t know how to explain the difference between one kind of nervous nausea and another, but I kind of felt like I was being tested, and rather than turn and run, I needed to push through.  So I did.

That evening, we returned to the cathedral for The Rite of Election in which we are presented individually to the archbishop.  That experience wasn’t too bad except my sponsor didn’t show up, and I was starting to build that up in my head as a bad omen.  Fortunately, our RCIA director (who’s gotten to know me pretty well too) stood in for my sponsor, and distracted my nervousness with hilarious cynical quips (cynical being my favorite kind of quips).  When I approached the archbishop to shake his hand, I extended my hand but was still a good distance from him.  He took my hand and gave me a good, hard tug so that I had to take a step closer.  I chuckled to myself, “So this is how it’s gonna be, huh, Lord?  You’re going to tug me in, kicking and screaming, aren’t you?”

As Lukus has watched all of my inner (and outer) turmoil, he’s told me that there’s no rush, there’s no need for me to become Catholic THIS YEAR.  I can take my time.  Everyone has reminded me of that, in fact.  No one wants you to become Catholic if you’re not ready.  Unlike in Protestantism when you have that “moment of decision”, there’s zero pressure from Catholics to join the Church.  But something deep inside me has known, from the day we started this process, was that it was now or never for me.  My decision must be made because I can’t remain in “no man’s land” any longer.  I want to know where I belong.  I want to have a Home.  I need to choose, and I am NOT going to let fear make my decision.  I’d rather a floating lady do that for me…

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 5 – From Puppy Love to Culture Shock

So one year after Rome, and two short years after we started attending our new church, Lukus had finished up his master’s degree, had completed a political campaign, and we had a lot more free time on our hands – so we decided we finally had enough time to look into the process of becoming Catholic.  Three years is a long time to toy with an idea, but it’s still a pretty big deal to take the plunge.  We talked with our pastors and let them know that we were ready to move along into Catholicism, and while they expressed some mild concern, I guess they figured that we were still going to love Jesus either way, and they graciously let us go.

But I didn’t want to go.  Not really.

I’ve missed my old church.  I miss the worship music, I miss the teaching, I miss the prayer times and the classes on prophecy, and I miss the people.  If we had decided to become Catholic before we’d found that church, it probably wouldn’t have been so hard, but now, it’s become the most painful part of the process.

For three years, I had thought I wanted to be Catholic.  There were a few doctrinal hurdles to get through, but over all, it wasn’t that hard – once you’ve delved enough into the realm of faith to believe in God at all, Catholic reasoning is very thorough.  So once the doctrinal issues were taken care of, I was already in love with this idea of a global family, a truly historical church.  The relational part was what attracted me most, the fact being that my own family life has never been that great, and since my mom died two and a half years ago, my family has all but disintegrated.  So those two areas were covered – doctrine, and, what shall I call it?  The global, historical family of saints.

All that was left was the actual practice of being a Catholic – and oh lord, I understand why so many Protestants looking in would think of it as “dead religion” (especially those Protestants of less “formal” denominations or non-denominations).  EVERYTHING has a special name; from the podium or pulpit being called the “ambo”, and certain articles of clothing having special names, specific colors being worn at certain times of year, feast days, special prayers…it’s like wedding crashing a ceremony in Kazakhstan where you don’t speak the language and everyone’s eating food that looks like it contains eyeballs, and you wonder how in the world you ended up in such a strange place, and oh crap, you just ate pot roast on a Friday during Lent!  Catholicism is complicated (which is partly why a nine-month class called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA, is required for anyone wishing to become Catholic).  Catholicism is weird and hard to get used to – at least for me it is.

In your typical Protestant church, you find your seat, stand when the music starts and you sing along with all those familiar favorites, then you put something in the offering plate, then sit quietly and listen while the pastor speaks, after which you hang-out with your friends in the sanctuary while deciding where you will all go for lunch.  Simple.  Plenty of room for your personality to express your heart’s worship to God because there’s not a whole lot of serious structure.  And if you want to become a church member, it typically just requires a few hours one Saturday morning and you fill out a form stating that you generally agree with the basic beliefs of that church.  Very simple.

Not so in the Catholic church.  You need a program guide for how to respond to the greetings and salutations.  There are certain songs you sing along with, and certain songs you only sing one line of while a cantor sings the rest.  You have to know what year of the cycle you’re on (A, B, or C) so you can follow along with the correct readings provided in the missal (also, you have to know what a missal is).  You have to know when to say, “Thanks be to God,” on the Bible readings, and when to say, “Glory to You, Lord Jesus Christ,” when to simply cross yourself, and when to cross your head, mouth, and heart, when to sit, stand, kneel, genuflect, bow, and the list goes on.  That’s just not me.  I’m sort of a gypsy-type who believes you shouldn’t need a guide for your every move just to worship God.  And while I can appreciate the concept that the external senses are stimulated toward God (via incense, sacred music, specific postures and movements, etc.), I’m a deeply imaginative person, and the external modes seem to distract me from sensing that internal feeling of God with and in me.  So yeah, I’ve struggled.

But it’s not even so much of all the stuff that’s done, so much as the stuff that I feel like is missing.  For instance, in the Catholic Church, sermons seem to be far less of a focal point.  The homilies (what I used to call “sermons”) are short and sweet, and seldom as deep as what I experienced in the Protestant church.  Man, how I miss the dissecting of the Word into rich and meaningful insights that cause you to see the Bible, and God and life in a whole new way!  I’ve had a difficult time figuring out what the role of a priest is if he’s not going to dig deeply into God’s Word and doctrine on a weekly basis.  Whenever I ask Lukus about this, he looks at me like I’ve just defiled a statue of Mary, because wondering what a priest is for if he’s not going to preach is obviously very misguided and almost profane.  Lukus has tried to explain the roles of a priest, but I guess the preaching aspect stands as a weightier role for me.

There’s no invitation for prayer at the end of Mass for anyone who has needs (something that’s really important to me).  And I miss modern worship music that has some passion and familiarity so that I can just sing along rather than having to read every word and every note (which go ALL over the place in extremely complex melodies), and I’m so focused on keeping up that I can’t raise my hands or take in the moment (not that I ever feel much like doing that at Mass anyway).  Yeah, I know, I’m starting to sound like a jerk.  A spoiled jerk.  But in all sincerity, I just haven’t been feeling it.  In fact, I’ve been miserable.  I like Catholic doctrine, I like the Catholic claims to historicity, but I don’t like Mass, and I don’t like the way Catholics practice the faith.

And I’ve made that abundantly clear – to my RCIA sponsor, to the RCIA leader, to Lukus, to our dear friends who are joining the Church with us, to my former pastor (who I thought would try harder to talk me back into being Protestant, but is actually too gracious for that)…they ALL know how much poor Ellany doesn’t like becoming a Catholic.  I, quite frankly, don’t know how they put up with me.  But then they go and tell me things like, “Don’t think about it so much,” which only irritates me more, because I’m a thinker, and I like to think about things, and thinking too much isn’t even really my problem.  My problem has really been about finding out where I fit in in the Catholic Church, and how to get what I miss in Protestantism as a Catholic?  Am I really not supposed to think about that?  When you’re used to attending intercessory prayer meetings, and leading Bible studies, and being available to pray for others after church, are you really just supposed to forget about all of that?

I get that Catholics are not opposed to any of those ideas, but it’s been incredibly difficult to find Catholics who speak that language and even know what I’m talking about.  To have to explain the particulars of an intercessory prayer group to a priest is a bit disheartening.  To explain that one of the reasons you miss your old worship services is because they were so powerful that you had visions on a semi-regular basis is not generally something you lead with unless you’re prepared to be written off as a whack-job.

So yeah, I miss my old church – a lot.  I know that God is moving there, people’s lives are being changed, and I enjoyed witnessing that.  Catholicism has been complete culture shock.  But I can’t escape what God is leading me into either.  I can’t deny the miraculous acts He’s done to get me to this place.  The fact that Lukus and I are both in this together is nothing short of miraculous…the fact that our dearest friends in the world are joining the Church with us…the answered prayers to finding those seminarians again…it’s hard to deny…

…But apparently, I’m going to try my best to deny it anyway…

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 4 – The Economy of Brotherly Love

We left the church that had told me to be thankful for my mom’s cancer, and had just started attending a fairly new, non-denominational church. We’d only gone a couple of times when my mom died. Our oldest daughter was four, and our second daughter was only one, and my hormones were still all over the place. My mom had been my best friend. She and I had lived on our own out in California away from the rest of our family for most of my upbringing, and there were huge portions of my life that only she had been present for. Now she was gone, I was a young mom, and I was struggling with all the internal guilt of the ways that I had failed her. My salvation came in the form of this new church we’d started attending with our friends.

The first Sunday after my mom’s funeral, the pastor had already found out somehow and approached me with such love and compassion – and he never once told me to be thankful about my mom’s death. The worship was full of life, the pastor was excellent at breaking down the Word, but always, ALWAYS, bringing it back to Jesus. The community was close-knit and passionate, and there were plenty of places to get involved. Where had this place been all my life?! It was the first time since our church back in college that I actually felt like getting up on Sunday mornings to go to church.

But before we had found this place, we had already started looking further into Catholicism. We had a brief interest in the Orthodox Church…until we attended…and we knew it just wasn’t for us. But this new church, it was phenomenal – it just wasn’t Catholic. Through lots of reading and study, Lukus had become convinced that Catholicism was true, but in all honesty, between my mom’s death, Lukus doing school full-time, and moving to a new house, we just didn’t have the energy to go through a nine-month class to convert. So we started this new church with Lukus already convinced of Catholicism, and me just wanting to get swallowed in the warm, healing presence of this new, spiritual family. We let our pastor know of our inclinations toward Catholicism, and he was completely cool about it. They even let us lead a small group, which was much more open-minded than what we had experienced from others.

It was here that I learned to grow in my prayer life. I went to classes on prophecy that were uncomfortably challenging, but well-balanced and not wonky. I began to see images or visions during worship that only took me deeper in prayer and worship. Our small group was growing, and people began connecting in greater intimacy, sharing their insights, confessing their sins, and asking for prayer for hard things. Our marriage had never been better, our friendships felt rich, and life just felt like spring time. Well…for me it did.

Lukus was fine. But only fine. His passion is for truth, and once he’d studied Catholicism, it was where his heart was. He’d found a treasure that Protestantism just didn’t possess, and he grew more and more disenchanted as time went by. But he knew I was still too fragile to move. Every day was a small step toward healing, but he knew I wasn’t ready to take any big leaps yet.

Oddly enough, it was at an economics conference that started stirring up that old desire in me again. Lukus was getting his master’s in economics and decided to attend a libertarian economics conference held at the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. I’ll go anywhere to get out of town, so I tagged along with him, attending a couple of lectures, but spending most of my time exploring the small town of Auburn. We got to each lunch with some of Lukus’ personal heroes, like Tom Woods, Lew Rockwell, and Jeff Tucker – all libertarian thinkers and historians who also happen to be Catholic. But the greatest impression made on me was by Dr. Gerard Casey, an Irish Catholic/anarchist/professor/gentleman.

Dr. Casey had lectured on how his faith aligns with anarchism – a fascinating and entertaining lecture – and we asked him to have drinks afterwards. We told him about our newfound interest in Catholicism, our visit to Rome, our conversations with Andrew, and our studies. Like the seminarians, the thing that stood out to me most about Dr. Casey, was his obvious and overflowing love for Jesus. Everything he said was centered around Christ, and his eyes were lit with joy. It had made sense with the seminarians, but I hadn’t met enough “average” Catholics to get a good guage on how they relate to Jesus.

But at this conference, I met Catholic after Catholic after Catholic who loved to talk about the Church, who knew scripture, and who loved Jesus most of all. What stood out to me even more was their love for one another. These total strangers were coming together for an economics conference, making new friends amongst Protestants, atheists, and Buddhists, but as soon as they discovered another Catholic next to them, there was an instant bond. I’d never seen this in Protestantism, it may exist among those who attend the same church, or a few friends you make along the way, but nothing like this. This was almost miraculous, and I watched silently in awe. These people knew each other on a level that typically takes years to develop, and yet, the scripture that played over and over in my mind that whole week as I observed them was, “They will know you by your love for one another.” THIS was what Jesus’ Church was supposed to look like! Bonded in unity, loving one another through Christ, and savoring that fellowship. Dr. Casey never really said anything about faith that blew me away – it was he himself, simply being a good witness of love for one’s brother and for Christ, and I will never forget him.

Again, those wistful thoughts began to reemerge – in spite of how much I was loving our new church, I wished we were Catholic.

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 3 – How to Shock a Protestant

“I don’t care what the Scripture says.”

“What?!  How can you SAY that?”  I thought I was going to fall over from shock when our friend Andrew said he didn’t care what the Bible said.  We were, after all, having a spiritual discussion.  He was, after all, a Catholic, and Catholics are at least supposed to believe what the Bible says.  The seminarians from Rome had given us a new respect and interest in Catholicism (though not enough to consider converting yet), and here Andrew was blowing up that newly formed mental image of Catholicism.

Andrew and Jennifer were our first, honest to goodness, Catholic friends.  We’d met them through political activities, and along with a few other couples, we shared a deep, philosophical and political bond.  But since we generally agreed on politics, sometimes we’d venture into other taboo subjects, like sex, whether or not South Park has any comedic value (it doesn’t), and religion.  This group of friends consisted of four Protestant couples, and one Catholic couple, and since Protestants rarely agree even with each other, throw a Catholic into the mix and you’ve got quite a recipe for interesting discussion.

I have no idea what we were discussing, but I do remember feeling almost like Andrew had uttered a blasphemy, and I wanted to scoot my chair away.

“I don’t care what the scripture says because there’s a dozen different ways to interpret that scripture and you guys can’t even agree on what it means.”

He was right about that.  We were all taking a different angle, even Lukus and I didn’t agree.  It was the first time I’d ever heard the phrase “Sola Scriptura” (only Scripture”) even though “Sola Scriptura” was what I essentially practiced.  I believed the Bible – how could any Christian argue with the Bible?  But it’s not that Christians were arguing with the Bible, we were arguing about the Bible.  We all claimed that the Bible was all one needed, and yet no one could agree about what the Bible meant in any given passage.  I generally trusted my spiritual instincts.  It had never occurred to me that a historical, traditional, faithful interpretation was necessary (or even available) to examine the Bible properly because, clearly, each of our spiritual instincts were disagreeing with one another.

Andrew then presented an entirely new concept to me: Scripture AND Tradition.  He went into how the Church existed before the official canonization of the Bible as we know it – about 360 years before.  The Church preceded Scripture, interpreted Scripture, and canonized Scripture.  Had God just left the Church without His Spirit or His Word for 360 years?  If we trust the Holy Scriptures, can we not also trust the entity that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, preserved and canonized the Scriptures?  Both Scripture AND Tradition had upheld the Church for 100′s of years.  My mind was officially blown.  Andrew had knocked out our arguments in a single blow, leaving us perplexed and stuttering.  And in case you were wondering, yes, it was extremely painful to realize how ignorant I was.

Suddenly, it began to make sense why there were so many denominations out there and why the Catholic Church still stood as the same, 2,000 year old institution.  It began to make sense why Lukus and I could never fit in anywhere, never find a place that seemed to share all the same beliefs we did.  Shouldn’t Christians be able to have the same, consistent spiritual foundation of solid doctrine the way we shared with our friends that solid, consistent political doctrine?  It was through libertarian thought and the Non-Agression Principle that we came to find a basic philosophical foundation for political thought.  Outside of libertarian thought were holes and inconsistencies and contradictions galore.  But now, it was like we had discovered a map that made the whole world make sense.  Shouldn’t Christianity, if it’s THE Truth, be the same way?

And yet, there we were, attending a church that we were in agreement with only about 70% of the time.  It seemed like the best we could find, and we dragged ourselves there each week trying to find some way to make ourselves fit.  I found myself biting my tongue every Sunday and resisting the urge to argue theology with my pastor.  He was a brilliant theologian, and who was I to think I could even begin to debate him?  And yet, one night at a supper, I couldn’t help but bring up a point about free will, which he countered, to which I then made a point that made him completely stop in his tracks.  He was a well-published author on this subject, and yet, he had no rebuttal.  Surely it couldn’t be this easy?  Surely the peg upon which one holds all of their theology should not be so easily knocked down by the likes of me!

Not long after that mini-debate with my pastor, my mom got really sick from her 7-year battle with cancer, and I was a wreck.  With as much love and grace that one can possibly have to say such a horrific thing, my pastor emailed me to encourage me to “be thankful for the gift of cancer that God had given my mom.”  I loved this man, but what he had written made me want to throw up.  That wasn’t the God I served!  How could so many Christians who read the same Bible and prayed to the same Jesus have such drastically different views of who God is?  We affectionately left that church and began searching for a new one.

But that experience was the first time the question really hit home for me, “How do we know that what we believe is true?”  I knew I believed in God, I knew Jesus was the only way, but beyond that, how did I know that who I perceived God to be was the right perception?  How could I trust the Bible when I was the one reading it?  Was Andrew right, and Tradition was necessary in order to interpret the Scriptures?  This question would linger as I washed dishes and did laundry, but we quickly discovered a new church in the area that our best friends wanted to check out, and somehow those thoughts got pushed to the back of my mind for another couple of years.  But they never went away.

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 2 – Pancakes, Moustaches, and The Family of God

Lukus is loving this process of becoming Catholic, which totally annoys me, because he hadn’t been interested in God for years, and all of a sudden, he’s taking off like a rocket ship into new heights of spiritual enlightenment.  Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement, but seriously, he’s not even confirmed yet, and most of the time, our RCIA leaders don’t even need to respond to questions on our Facebook page because they know Lukus will answer it thoroughly and eloquently.  I love my husband, and I’m proud of him, but I must say that we’ve always been a bit competitive with each other, and he’s using big words that I don’t know, and reading books I’ve never heard of, he knows how to pray the Rosary, and, well, it just gets annoying.  And yes, I’m fully aware of the contradictions inherent in competitive spirituality.

But dammit!  I started this whole process!  I was the one who turned to Lukus one day as we were driving down the road, and somewhat randomly stated, “I wish we were Catholic.”  I was the one who wanted to go to Rome.  I was the one who stopped those seminarians at the Vatican.  I was the one who said we needed to go back and eat the pancakes, and well…maybe I need to back up…

Rome:  March 2009  Lukus and I are standing in Saint Peter’s Square.  He holds the video camera as I attempt to recount a story we overheard from one of the tour guides.  I’ve gotten the facts of the story wrong.  We are politely interrupted by two young men dressed entirely in black with white collars.  One has a distinctive handle-bar mustache, the other a kind face.  They’ve come over to correct my inaccuracies.  Forty-five minutes later, we are shaking their hands good-bye, never imagining what would come of it.

Oklahoma City:  July 2012  Taytem and Eisley are hungry after the service, and going to the pancake breakfast might be a good way to meet people and see if we like this church.  Lukus and I find a table across from two old men and one young man.  The young man introduces himself.  One of the old men explains that the young seminarian is just helping out for the summer before returning to Rome. We tell him that it was two young seminarians like himself that had sparked our interest in the Church while in Rome.  He asks their names.  Sadly, we do not know.  All we remember is that handlebar moustache.

—–

Three years ago, Lukus and I took a vacation to Italy – our first ever overseas trip for either of us, and with one two-year-old and a five-month-old belly, we knew it would be a long time before we’d see Europe again.  We had changed our plans from my dream of seeing France to Italy.  My weird OCD obsession with doing things “in order” meant that if I wanted to learn history in order (skipping ancient times) then we should travel the world “in order”, beginning with the center of the Roman Empire and the origins of the Christian faith.

When we gave my parents our itinerary, my dad was baffled as to why we’d want to visit the Vatican.  Because it’s the Vatican, one of the biggest tourist sites in the world, the center of the Christian faith for at least a millennium, the location of the infamous Sistine Chapel ceiling, and it’s the freaking Vatican!  In my family, we were Christians – NOT Catholics.

Italy was a dream come true: from the historical sights of Rome, to the artistic treasures of Florence, to the mystery and romance of the canals of Venice, it was more than we had even hoped for.  And yet, out of all that Italy had to offer, it was one brief conversation with two strangers that changed our lives.

We were disappointed that we had picked the wrong day to visit the Vatican.  It was St. Joseph’s Feast Day (whatever THAT was), and the Sistine Chapel was closed for the occasion.  We weren’t going to get to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and we were hugely disappointed.  We toured St. Peter’s Basilica anyway, wandered among the graves of the former popes below, and stood for a last few minutes in the Square before heading back to the city.  I was trying to get my story straight for our video camera, when two young seminarians approached us.  They were American, and for all my love of trying to live authentically in foreign lands and exercise my language skills, it was simply nice to meet some Americans after a few days of wrestling with broken Italian.  They’d overheard my story and came to correct me.  They asked what had brought us to St. Peter’s, and we explained that we were non-denominational Christians, but we appreciated the Catholic Church, and wanted to see the origins of our faith.

After a few more pleasantries, the conversation stalled, and yet, I wasn’t ready to leave.  Blunt-and-curious-me decided to just go for it, and ask these young priests-to-be why Catholics are so weird.  After all, these guys were intentionally spending their day in the Square to help out English-speaking tourists – I figured they must be prepared for these kinds of things.

“Can I ask you guys some blunt questions about Catholic beliefs?”

“Sure, we’d love to answer them if we can.”

“Why do you pray to saints?”

They grinned.  Apparently, my questions were pretty typical – probably boring.

“Well, we don’t actually pray to saints in the sense that we’d pray to God.  The Bible says that God is the god of the living, not the dead, so if we believe that those who have persevered in their faith are now with God, and they are even more alive than you or I, and that they are witnessing our lives on Earth, then just like you might ask me to pray for you to God, then we often ask the saints to pray to God for us as well.”

“Hm.”

It was a good answer.  A very good answer.  So were their answers about Mary, the infallibility of the Pope, their approach to Scripture, and on and on.  They were patient with us, we had a few laughs, and at the end of it all, they asked if they could pray for us before we left.  Of course we said yes.  And we prayed for them.  And we said goodbye…without getting their last names or any kind of contact info, which we would regret many times over the years to come.

From that moment on, our curiosity regarding Catholicism increased to hunger for knowledge and truth, and eventually, the desire to actually become Catholic.  It took 3 years from that day in Rome, and along the way, we met other Catholics that were a strong testament to their faith and love for Christ, and not only that, but their genuine love for one another.  The words of Jesus replayed over and over in my head as I witnessed the fellowship of Catholics, “They will know you by your love for one another.”

We researched, prayed, debated with others, and simply remained open to whatever God had for us.  In the meantime, those two young men were always a part of our story, our reason for getting interested.  They were the fork in the road for us, and we often thought and spoke of them, regretting that we did not get their information, and couldn’t even remember their first names.  I remember praying a couple of times that somehow, somehow, God would make a way for us to cross their paths again so we could tell them thank you.  Of all the absurd things to actually pray for!  But I did, nevertheless.

It was time – time for us to make the leap.  I’d been telling Lukus for the last 3 years that I wished we were Catholic.  But amidst that desire, we’d found a church we loved, we were small group leaders, we had a community that we belonged to.  But in our hearts, we were already Catholic, we only lacked the initiation into the Catholic Church.

We attended Mass a couple of times in the suburbs because we had friends there, but decided it wasn’t for us.  We were city people, and wanted to find a parish in the city.  On our first visit to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, we really enjoyed it, and they were offering a pancake breakfast fund-raiser after Mass.  We were actually in the car leaving the parking lot, when I decided it would be a lot easier to just feed the girls lunch at the church, so we re-parked the car and went back for pancakes.

As we sat down next to Chris, the young seminarian from Rome, and told him how our faith journey included two young seminarians from Rome, we never could have expected the results:  Chris actually knew the guy with the handlebar moustache!  He didn’t just know him, he had his e-mail address!  An amputee could have grown a leg right in front of us and it would have had no more affect on us than the miracle of finding a guy in Rome from three years ago through a guy in Oklahoma City based on a moustache.  Had God really just answered one of the most absurd prayers I’d ever prayed (God seems to PREFER answering my absurd prayers more than my legitimate prayers, I’m tellin’ ya!)?

We had one name and e-mail address out of the two, and I immediately went home and wrote an e-mail describing who we were and recounting the event in case the guy (now I knew his name was Father Stephen) had trouble remembering us.  I included a picture of myself and Lukus while in Rome.  Lukus was worried I was being too forward in my first e-mail, just in case it was the wrong person, or that he wouldn’t remember at all and might think we’re weird.  Silly Lukus!  Doesn’t he know by now that I don’t give two cents what any stranger thinks of me?  I sent it anyway.

This was the response I received the very same day – just wait for the “Holy Cow!” moment:

Ellany and Lukus:

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” 

I vaguely remember the encounter you describe…I think.  The picture helped…I think.  We talked to so many people over such a long period of time.  It’s hard to tell.  Doubtless it was me – the moustache truly was unique.  I think I remember having the audacity to correct someone’s video narration, but I fear my mind may be constructing that memory based on your description.  Does that footage still exist?

I appreciate you contacting me.  It’s very rare that God gives us glimpses of how he can cause the seeds we plant to grow.  Your story is remarkable, and I’m glad to have been part of it.  I’m also glad that over the years meeting pilgrims and tourists at St. Peter’s, I developed the courage to be able to approach people I’d never met before and witness to our faith.  (I say OUR faith, quite deliberately, since we now have it in common, thanks be to God.)  I was not always as capable as when I met y’all that day.  I dreaded going out there and having to put myself out in front of people.  God was definitely planning that meeting between the four of us well in advance, because when I first arrived in Rome, I never ever would have been able to talk to you.  

I really can’t be sure of who was working with me that day – we changed up the pairs pretty often.  What month and year were you there?  I might be able to figure it out.  It couldn’t have been any more recent than the spring of 2010, because that was the last semester I was working in the Square.  Do you remember what he looked like?

As you know, I’m now a priest in the Archdiocese of Mobile.  I was ordained in June of 2011.  I live my life completely assured that I am doing what God has called me to do.  I love being a priest.  I love people.  I love the sacraments.  

I ask you for your prayers.  It is no accident that your email came at this time.  After a year of being a priest, the stresses and difficulties have really set in, and it is sometimes a struggle to keep up and keep healthy (though I love it all no less for that).  Your email was very uplifting and reaffirming.  That God would use me as his instrument, as weak and flawed as I am, is a strange thing to consider.  You just happened to go to that pancake breakfast and happened to sit next to Chris, all in time for you to get in touch with me to remind me right now, at this point in time, that what I do matters a great deal – the Lord is in control.

Keep me abreast of your progress through RCIA, and if there are ever any questions you want to shoot my way, we can always continue that conversation we started.  Among my favorite ministries last year was teaching RCIA.  I ran half of the sessions, and it was a life-giving experience.

And of course, if you ever come down to the Deep South, you’ve got a friend down here.

HOLY COW – it just hit me, and I’m not going to change anything I just wrote above (partly out of laziness, but I guess I just want you to imagine this moment of realization).  I remember you now.  I remember your names.  I used to pray for you BY NAME.  (regrettably I stopped, I don’t know why)  It’s the name Ellany that sticks out – as unique (in my experience at least) as the moustache I used to wear!  We would keep a record of how many people we met each time we went out, what materials we passed out, etc., all to report back to the group, just to see what all was going on.  And usually, we’d jot down people’s names in case there was anyone in particular we wanted to pray for.  The reason I’ve suddenly recalled is that I remember not knowing how to spell Ellany, in fact, I remember thinking I must have heard you wrong when you said it!  Brilliant!  But anyway, the point is that there was a period of time where I was praying for Ellany and Lukus everyday.  HOW COOL IS THAT!?  And now, I’ll pick up where I left off and start praying for you again–sorry I ceased.

Thomas Merton once wrote:  “I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.  As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are.  And if only everybody could realize this!  But it cannot be explained.  There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

There were times in Rome, particularly in Piazza Navona, that I would ponder those words, look around at the crowds of people and think, “one day, I will see these people in the Kingdom, and I will tell them: I remember being with you that day, seeing your smile, seeing you pass by, wondering what joys or sadness you were then enmeshed in, and I’m glad to be here with you now.”  You, Ellany and Lukus – I guess I had the spelling of both your names wrong! – you have just given me a taste of that hope that I have.  There are no chance meetings.  There is no insignificant part of our lives.  There is nothing that God will not use to his advantage.  No matter what lies we’ve heard or even the ones we believe, the deck is stacked against Satan.  God is in control.  With Paul we should all shout: “If God is for us, who can be against us!?”

I’m totally blown away by this.  Awestruck before the God who knows me and the two of you and everyone else so completely.  He’s so preoccupied by us, thinking of us all the time.  He just sits around thinking of new and different ways to remind us that he’s there with us, carrying us all the way.

I’ve really begun to write something substantial…was this what it was like when you were talking to me?  I remember your names, and I think your faces, but I still don’t really remember the conversation.

Whatever.  It is so providential that we met that day and that we’ve come back into contact.  Thanks for writing.  I found y’all on facebook, but I couldn’t friend you…

Lukus and I both teared up upon reading this response – okay, I did a little more than just “tear up”.  To know that he remembered us, prayed for us by name, and that we were finally able to say “Thank you!” meant so much to us.  But those words are so small.  What it really felt like was a brief glimpse into eternity – the revelation that time and distance does not separate the family of God.  And it reminds me of their answer in Rome as to why they “pray to saints.”  Why would we not?  When we are all held together in God’s hand, time and distance are not the only obstacles overcome by the Children of God, but death itself cannot even separate us.  We are part of something so much bigger than we could ever comprehend, and in the midst of this big, lonely world where we pass in and out of people’s lives every day, we live unaware that we are weaving ourselves together in intricate and purposeful ways.  God takes each choice we make, whether to grow a funky moustache, or eat a pancake breakfast; he takes our odd little eccentricities, whether it’s an OCD obsession with doing things “in order”, or an inability to pass by without asking those gnawing awkward questions of someone; he uses the accidents, like feast days that alter your plans, or the story you misheard, or forgetting to get the contact info of some new friends – and He actively responds and maneuvers and works until it all comes together as something our untrained eyes can finally recognize as masterful.

After offering Stephen a description of the other seminarian and the date, he was able to figure out that it was Eric, and he wrote to him.  I wrote to him as well, but this time, it took a full seven days to hear back.

Ellany,

Fr. Stephen did ask me if I remember having met you and this was my reply to him:

Steve,

Thank you for sharing this. This has made my day! This is truly a prayer answered. Absolutely. I remember them very well and I have thought about them often over the past 3 years. In fact, they are one of the few people I do remember. We went to the square on St. Joseph’s day 2009 and on our part we realized when we got there that it was not strategically the best day to go because the Vatican and St. Peter’s were closed and there were very few people there. You and I were standing there and we saw this couple filming/photographing the Holy Father’s apartment. From what we heard them saying they did not know exactly what they were looking at and I remember you saying something to the effect, “Let’s go and see if we can help them out with what they are seeing.” We had exchanged pleasantries and told them what they were seeing. We told them who we were. They told us they were Non-Denominational Christian and then…I remember like it was yesterday. We were at an awkward pause in the conversation (It seemed like they were about done with us) Ellany was looking at what presumably was the Holy Father’s apartment (or at something across the other side of the piazza) and she said to us, “Can I ask you a few blunt/honest (some word to that effect) about what Catholics believe. I remember you saying something like “Sure, we’d love to.” She proceeded to ask us every single Protestant question about Catholic practices (saints, Mary, Scripture…). By the end of it it was at least 45 minutes if not an hour that we were talking. I remember them being so direct with their questions and open/hungry to hearing our answers. At the end of it all they both proceeded to tell us how they had come to Rome in order to see where the Church was first living. I think (if I am remembering correctly) that Ellany told us that they had left their child (who I think was two) with their parents during their travels. She told us about the conversation that she had with one of their fathers as he was dropping them off at the airport and how he asked why they wanted to go to see the Catholic Churches. At end they thanked us for answering those questions and she even admitted then that she had received some biased/wrong information about what Catholics believe. I remember sensing that we had just been a part of their faith journey in a very real way.

That is so great to hear how they have been so open to the Holy Spirit for so long and are now planning to start RCIA! I would love to send off a hello and let them know that I am praying for them. Perhaps, you can let her know that you found the other guy and let her know that I will be sending an e-mail? (I just want to make sure that when she sees a random e-mail from me she does not think it to be spam mail) If you could reply to this and let me know that you have contacted her I would greatly appreciate it.

It is truly a joy to hear from you again. I am sorry to hear about the loss of your mother. What is her name? As you know there are often people in our life that have influenced our life in some way and we lose touch with them. In being in contact with you again and hearing how God has been working in your and Lukus’ life, God has been so generous! I remember that day we talked very clearly and it has left an impression on me. It is one of the few interactions I remember having in St. Peter’s Square and I believe that the reason I go back to it is that it is one of those instances that I can remember the presence of the Holy Spirit strengthening my faith in Christ and helping me to share that with others who are desiring to know and love the Lord. I am so grateful for you having made the effort to get in touch with me for two reasons. 1) It is a privilege to hear how the Lord has been molding your hearts. How you have come to know Him better and the act of faith you have made in response to His grace. 2) To thank you for being docile to God’s will and asking those questions that day. It was a memorable moment from my time in Rome as it was another moment in which God was shaping my heart to be His servant.

As for me, you already know the big change that God has brought about in my life in making me His priest. I was ordained on June 23rd of this year and I have been in a parish in South Boston since then. I love being a priest and it is an absolute privilege to serve the people of God as a priest of Jesus Christ. There is so much to say about these couple of months but the most present word on my lips is the great devotion that people have to follow Christ. Day after day I am humbled with the opportunity to witness the faith of God’s people, which in turn calls me forth to give more of myself as one of his sons and as a priest to serve Him more perfectly so that His love might be known more present to the world.

I will be going back to Rome in September and will be there till next June. The archbishop has asked me to return to Rome for one more year in order to complete the Licentiate degree (Master’s-like) in moral theology that I starter last year. After June 2013, I will be in Boston full time.

You mentioned that you started RCIA last week. Am I correct in assuming that you and Lukus plan on entering the Church this Easter? Through the intercession of St. Joseph (I am almost positive that it was on his feast day that we met) please be assured of my prayers for both of you as you run this next leg of your pilgrimage here on earth. May you know His love for you through His Church and in knowing this love, through His grace, may you respond with generous hearts. I hope that we can stay in contact and, if it is God’s providence, that we might see one another again in the future. If you have any questions about anything at all, be just as bold as you were that day in 2009 and fire away!

In Christ,

Fr. Eric Bennett

P.S. If you find yourselves in Rome in the next 10 months…I will be there!

Is that not COMPLETELY insane?!  Three years later and on another continent, and we meet a guy who knows the guy…ridiculous!

But what’s truly incredible are the extraordinary lengths God will go to to draw us near to Him, to show us that He loves us enough to answer silly prayers and the deepest cries of our hearts alike.  The love of God astounds me, and this family He is at work to create – for all it’s flaws and inadequacies in this life– is absolutely beautiful.  This is our hope for eternity – that our love for one another would be made complete and perfect, that we would be united in perfect harmony with one another; a family of total acceptance, of joyful interaction, of complete appreciation of how we all fit together, and with strange and fascinating stories to tell.  This is the Family of God, and it is miraculous!

Mobile, Alabama: August 2012 – Lukus and I are sitting in an oyster shack sharing fried green tomatoes with Father Stephen, the one who had had the handlebar moustache.  There’s no handlebar moustache anymore, but a full beard instead.  We were on our way back from a convention in Florida, and the route home just “happened” to go right through Mobile, where Father Stephen now serves as priest.  We have never been to Mobile, and have never had a reason to go there.  And yet, only a couple of weeks of being back in contact with that seminarian from Rome, and we are driving right through his hometown.  As he lays his hands on our shoulders to give us his blessing before we depart, I can’t help but begin to weep at the beauty and the blatant display of God’s hand at work, and the beauty of His family.

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And I’m embarrassed that I’ve somehow managed to make this process significantly more complicated by comparing my journey with Lukus’, rather than stand utterly astounded by this near miraculous journey of faith.  And yet, that’s a lot harder than it sounds…

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