Chapter 15 – Sometimes All You Need Is a Change of Parish

Well, I’ve learned my lesson.  I’ve learned not to repost old posts from my other blog without clearly stating when they were written.  I have some very wonderful, loving friends who are now worried about me, and all for naught.  I have recently begun transitioning everything from that blog to this one, and I guess my last post didn’t end on a very positive note.  But that was over a year ago.

One could easily interpret the all discouragement I was feeling as a mark against me becoming Catholic.  I get that.  I think I even interpreted it that way for a while.  The thing is, in the midst of all of my doubt and inner struggle, I was absolutely positive I was being granted a special grace for that time because I was pregnant.

Pregnancy is never a good time to deal with major transitions.  I honestly don’t know how Mary did it.  She got married and moved across the country while traveling super-economy on a donkey.  I sleep on a Sleep Number mattress and go to a chiropractor weekly and still feel like I’m falling apart.  I KNEW God had led me to the Catholic Church even when everything felt so ridiculously hard.  It’s hard to explain a certainty you can have in the very midst of your own intense doubt – which, come to think about it, is a lot like giving birth.  I’ve had two babies naturally, and throughout the entire process, the pain is so intense, and you feel so weak, and as you are shouting to everyone present, “I can’t!  I can’t do it anymore!” you simply are doing it, and you know that in the end, that baby is going to come out, and all you will know is love.  How often we KNOW something without believing it!

So early during my pregnancy, I told the Lord I couldn’t deal with being spiritual – that all I could do for nine months would be to grow my baby.  I told Him that I didn’t know if I could pray, I didn’t know if I could go to Mass, and I didn’t know if I could read His Word, but I would grow my baby, and when that was over, I would deal with everything.  And for the rest of my pregnancy, I felt a quiet grace and peace to do just that.  It was a beautiful time in it’s own way.  I felt sustained on something that had nothing to do with my efforts or responses to God.  I felt God’s gentle patience, I felt Mary’s prayers and encouragement, and I even sensed my own mom’s quiet confidence keeping me steady.

What I hadn’t anticipated was changing parishes during this time.  Our dear friends who had gone through confirmation with us had decided to try another parish where a different priest had just been assigned, and where there were more young families like ours.  I didn’t want to change parishes because I felt like we owed our old parish something for having taken us through such a long process.  But I was in no place to argue with Lukus, and he made the executive decision to change parishes to where our friends were now going.

I had no idea what a difference a parish could make – after all, one body and one faith, right?  But that very first Mass we attended, the priest gave such a rousing homily that for the first time, I felt at home.  At one point, he made the entire congregation repeat a line from an old black Gospel song over and over until they finally mustered some healthy enthusiasm – to which he promptly and jokingly told everyone to settle down because, after all, we were Catholic.  Everyone was laughing.  Except me.  I was crying.  Big tears were streaming down my face because I now knew I was where I belonged.  This place was alive!  The priest was passionate and a good teacher.  The people were friendly and showed more vibrancy of faith.  I had never expected such a difference from one parish to another.  And not many weeks later, the few dear people with whom we had felt connected at our old parish ended up moving to different parishes as well, and any guilt I’d had for abandoning folks was assuaged.

When I gave birth to our son a couple of months after changing parishes, I was ready to deal with any unfinished business with the Church.  What I didn’t know was that God had a couple of surprises in store for me first.

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 14 – Choose Your Own Metaphysical Adventure

Originally posted August 9, 2013 to my Catholic blog “Then Suddenly I Was Catholic”

Apparently, it was all TOO sudden.  Apparently, I wasn’t ready.  According to all known evidence, it appears that I should not have chosen to become Catholic at this time.  But over a lot of big tears spilt on my bathroom floor, I know it couldn’t have gone any other way.  I needed this.  I needed this time of confusion, of doubt, of questioning.  It was going to come either way, so I might as well have plunged myself into the deep end to get it all over with.

You see, I’ve been a Christian my entire conscious life.  It’s all I’ve ever known.  I’ve had the fortune of growing up in California with parents who like to explore and discuss cosmic matters, so I’ve been to Buddhist temples, a New Age Self-Realization Center, I was on the speech team in high school where I spent a lot of travel time with some Wiccan kids, agnostics, homosexuals, atheists, pot heads and one 17-year-old alcoholic who all showed up for my Christmas party.  Breakfast at my house was often a discussion about the possibility of alien-life forms and the metaphysical ramifications if such were true.  I wasn’t exactly sheltered, and yet, my personal world was entirely Christian.  It didn’t mean that I didn’t lie in bed at night asking the cosmos all the biggest questions of Life that my teenage brain could come up with:  What if there is no God?  What if there is a god, but not the one I think it is?  What if my parents are really tricking me and the real answer to 2 + 2 is actually “orange”?  What would happen if I killed myself?  What if this is all a dream?  What would happen if I decided to explore all the things the other kids are doing for a while just to see what it’s like, but then come back to this life?  I’d ask myself every question I could because I wanted to be sure that I really believed what I thought I believed.

Even with all those questions, even when I got stumped for a while debating kids on the speech team about religion, even when I was mad at God for various reasons, I just simply always knew that this is what I believed.  Nothing could shake my core.

Then along came Catholicism.

Somehow, and somewhat ironically, becoming Catholic has been the sledgehammer to my “rock-solid” foundation.  I can’t seem to land on any single reason.  I’ve spent the last few years lightly investigating the Catholic faith, and the last year, intensely studying and pursuing both doctrine and practice.  I can argue with any non-Catholic about why Catholicism is sound in every way, and yet…from that first Sunday after confirmation, my own spirit has been flooded with doubt and confusion, and I don’t really know why.

And it’s not just doubts about Catholicism, it’s doubts about Christianity as a whole, about the existence of God at all.  A couple of weeks ago, I was at a kid’s birthday party with some friends, one of whom has recently decided he’s agnostic.  I’ve always found agnosticism to be the lazy man’s ideology, but my friend is not intellectually lazy.  He wouldn’t come to this decision lightly.  He made the point that there’s no way to prove there’s NOT a god, just like there’s no way to prove there IS a god, so one can only decide what they think is more likely – and he leans strongly in the “nay” category.

The next weekend, I found myself sitting at a funeral last week, a memorial service for a strong woman of faith who had fought breast cancer through medicine, natural methods, and her faith.  The story was profoundly like my own mom’s story with breast cancer.  The entire time, I could literally sense my heart hardening, getting colder with each scripture read, with each worship song played, and I found myself thinking, “This is all bullshit.”  My own thoughts shocked me.
That night, we had the privilege of hosting a concert in our home for one of our favorite singer/songwriters, David Bazan.  If you’ve ever heard David Bazan’s music, you know it’s some of the most melancholy, honest, spiritually raw music out there.  Bazan is a former Christian who no longer believes.  He confronts God and Christianity in his music, not with anger or baggage, but just with honesty, and I found myself relating to this guy more than ever before.  It scared me.  I could sense myself falling off the edge of a cliff at night, plummeting into the unknown, and as emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically exhausted as I’ve been, I knew I had to deal with whatever was going on.
What I’ve come to realize is that I take whatever evidence I can find, I reason through ideas, and then I throw in a big heap of how I feel toward the outcome.  I’m a strange mix of intellectual and emotional (my Myers-Briggs personality test often puts me at XNXX, which isn’t helpful).  Most people tell me not to think too much, while I can tell my husband is dying to yell at me, “Don’t FEEL so much!”  But what else is there to base your beliefs on?  And what do you do when you intellectually conclude that Catholicism is true, but it isn’t FEELING right???  What’s left to do?
It’s funny how a thought can just randomly pop into your head, such a simple thought at an ordinary moment, and you go from free-fall to a quiet, underwhelming landing.  Ironically, it was my friend’s comment that “one cannot prove there’s a God” that became my mental parachute as I drove down the street to our house on an ordinary day.  No, I can’t.  I can’t prove there’s a God, and I can’t prove there’s not, and therefore, the concept of proof becomes irrelevant.  Proof depends on hard data, and there are some things that science cannot prove that we all still accept as true.  We cannot prove the existence of love, of beauty, of joy.  There simply ARE things out there that are outside of hard data.  But I also knew that I couldn’t trust what I feel.  One day, I feel the presence of God, my day is bright, my energy is up, and the next day, I’m calling bullshit on it all.  So I can’t trust in proof, and I can’t trust how I feel.  There’s not a whole lot left.
But there are some things where you simply choose.
I chose to marry my husband not because I had proof that we’d have a happy life together, and I didn’t marry him because of how I felt, because honestly, the year leading up to our wedding was quite a tumultuous one.  I liked the possibility of us, so I made a choice, a choice I still make every day that it’s going to be for life.  My kids wear me to the bone, and I don’t always feel loving toward them, and sometimes, I imagine living in a penthouse by myself designing other penthouses for a glamorous living and spending my spare time traveling the world.  But I choose my children.
And I choose God.  My Calvinist friends are probably pulling their hair out over that statement, but now more than ever, I do believe in choice, and I choose God, though it be a response to Him first choosing me.   I choose Him not because of how He makes me feel, because I get really pissed off with Him sometimes for letting my mom die, or for not making Himself more clearly known.  I don’t choose Him because I have any evidence that He’s real.  I choose God for what may seem like the most superficial, pedestrian reason of all:  I choose Him because I like the possibility of Him.  But that’s really the only honest option there is, isn’t it?  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we believe what we want to believe.  We’re not left with any hard data, and we’re not trustworthy beings if we base things on emotion.  We ultimately believe what we want to believe, and while a lot of people are probably wrestling with deep philosophical questions of Truth, Science, and Faith, whether they acknowledge it or not, they will choose to believe what they want to believe in, because neither reason nor experience get us all the way there.
And I want to believe that life has meaning, that love is unquantifiable, that beauty overwhelmingly exists, that order in the universe is a map to Truth.  I choose to reject nihilism, chaos, the concept that we are essentially machines confined to responding to the chemical stimuli in our brains, or that we are ultimately susceptible to zombie-like passions.  I choose to believe that this all has value somehow.
Just “choosing what I want” seems like a precarious place to land, but for some reason, when these thoughts began to stack up in my head, I just knew, this is the most solid ground there is.  To be in this place feels a little like that old kids’ game Chutes and Ladders – all the climbing up the spiritual ladder I did my whole life, only to land on some random square titled “Catholicism” and it’s a giant slide back down to the square titled “Believes in God.”  But I guess I choose to be okay with that too, because ultimately, we all have to go through these spiritually dark caves, or falling off cliffs of doubt, or sliding down chutes of confusion (choose your own metaphor adventure).  I’ve seen it happen in so many of my friends and even my husband, and I’ve always wondered why I’ve never gone through it before.  I guess I never felt before like I had any right to decide what I wanted to believe.  Things either had to make sense, or they had to feel right all the time.  But simply choosing what you want?  That seems so, so hubristic.  But isn’t it equally hubristic to imagine that we have any capacity to prove the existence of God at all?  Or that He somehow owes it to us to make His presence palpable at all times?  At some point, it eventually comes down to just pulling a trigger in the dark and patiently hoping you hit your mark.
Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 13 – Free Fall

I realize I haven’t posted in a while.  It’s partly because Lukus, the kids, and I were on vacation in Colorado and New Mexico, partly because I’ve been incredibly busy at work, but in all honesty, mostly because I’m in a downward spiral on the whole Catholic thing.  I’m hoping that’s a typical trend among the newly confirmed after going through such an extensive process, and it’s not just my melancholy seeping in (though that’s extremely likely).

From what I can recall, the descent began on our vacation.  I spent my teen years in a beach village north of San Diego.  I revel in Creation, in natural Beauty.  I feel God close to me when I’m in the presence of something magnificent that He’s made.  I used to drive to work along Coast Highway, and there was a hill every morning, that when I got to the top of that hill and looked down into the valley that opened up into the ocean and saw what shade of color the water was that day, and how the clouds cast shadows along the valley, I felt God in my truck with me.  I would smile and sigh, and whisper, “You are incredible, Lord,” and I could sense His happy satisfaction.  Creation has been my sanctuary from which I worship God.

Last week, we were in the mountains – an altogether different scene than those morning drives to work, but no less majestic.  I was using every second to soak up the Beauty, to bask in the faint breeze that whispered, “Look what I made for you.”  I understand how people become New Age pagans.  They are so close to knowing God simply by osmosis via creation, and yet, that small distance is an incomprehensibly wide chasm that will never be bridged without God Himself.  Still, I had very little need of a church at that moment. I felt God everywhere I looked.

But Lukus wanted to go to Mass.  We were on vacation in a different town with very limited down time, plus, we were supposed to drive to New Mexico that day where we’d spend the remainder of our vacation.  The last thing I wanted to do was to go to Mass.  And that’s when it really sunk in.  I HAVE to.  It’s not really optional whether I WANT to go anymore.  If it’s feasible, I’m REQUIRED to go to Mass.  And I resented it.

I resented the fact that my husband had changed so drastically, that the man I knew who was never that thrilled with church when we were at home, suddenly wanted to go to Mass at a new parish WHILE ON VACATION!  I resented the obligation that was expected of me.  I resented that the place where I experienced God (pretty much anywhere He commanded into being) was illegitimate.  I resented that Catholicism had somehow become so all-encompassing, so all-consuming, that one wasn’t allowed to simply “be” for a brief time, but that one had to “be Catholic”.

So I argued with Lukus until he resented me for ruining the opportunity for him.  We didn’t go to Mass.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.

Then it was on to New Mexico – a Catholic bastion for anything west of the Mississippi.  It seemed that the only items sold in the entire state were paintings of Native Americans, and various prayer votives.  Even our rented adobe – built and owned by an anonymous Hollywood t.v. producer – had Catholic iconography throughout the home.  Lukus found it cool.  I found it kitschy.

In Taos, we visited Taos Pueblo, the oldest village in North America that has remained constantly inhabited for 1,300 years.  The tour instructions told us to meet first in the Catholic sanctuary where we would meet up with our guide.  At the forefront of the sanctuary, there was a large statue of Mary, along with some smaller ones of Mary, plus a mural of Mary.  There were numerous other saints represented, and, almost as an afterthought, a mural of Jesus to the side, and a small statue of Jesus.

To all you cradle Catholics out there – THIS is probably THE number one thing that bothers most Protestants.  The veneration of Mary, and the intercessions of the saints *might* not be so off-putting, except that sometimes, it’s so in your face that there’s not room for Christ, or He’s an afterthought.

When the guide came in, he talked us through the various symbolism of the sanctuary, describing how about 90% of the residents of Taos Pueblo were baptized Catholic, but only 30% practiced.  Most practiced their native beliefs.  As a result, Catholicism had been mixed with the native beliefs, and Mary (being the Mother of God) was represented in the middle as a symbol of Mother Nature – who was the source of life in Native American beliefs.  I think I’ve made it pretty clear how much I love nature, but this was a step too far – and this being a functioning parish with an ordained Catholic priest, I stood questioning how that priest (and therefore, the Church at large) just overlooks that.  How can there be all these super specific rites that we go through, and all these obligations, and a very explicit Catechism that defines the most tedious theological stances, and yet, in this case at least, Mary is essentially being conflated with Mother Nature and worshipped as the giver of life?

My cynicism was festering.

On Lukus’ personal list of “must-dos” for the trip was a trek over to Chimayo, a famous Catholic pilgrimage site just an hour and a half away, as well as a drive out to Santa Fe to see the Basilica of St. Francis.  Between our argument over attending Mass, the sanctuary in Taos Pueblo, a visit to Chimayo, AND a visit to St. Francis’ parish, this 6-day vacation (two of which were driving days) was beginning to feel overwhelmingly Catholic.  I tried to stay positive for Lukus’ sake, but inside, all I wanted was to revoke my own Catholic credentials.  It was too much!  Why I couldn’t just be like an excited kid ready to ride every ride in the park like Lukus, I didn’t understand.

And unfortunately, I still don’t, and this post doesn’t have any resolution.  I’m still there.  Still stuck.  It feels just like the time when I was six and my mom and aunt took me to Six Flags.  My mom, the thrill-rider, MADE me stand on my tip-toes so I’d be tall enough for the Free-Fall.  I was terrified and about to pee my pants.  My harness didn’t lock down when we shot into the air.  And then, there I was, suspended above buildings, mountain tops, higher than Pluto, awaiting the moment that I would be plunged into the earth and buried under asphalt – nothing but pure, seering terror.  All I can do is scream my guts out and hold on for dear life hoping this ends well.

 

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 12 – Physics, The Eucharist, And As Nerdy As It Gets

So I want to go ahead and address the whole, “So do you seriously believe that the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ?” question.  Yeah, I do.  It wasn’t easy, lemme tell ya.  A lot of my hang-up was the arrogance of the Catholic Church saying that it only happened in THEIR church (well, and the Orthodox Church), and therefore, I hadn’t really ever received a “real” communion in my whole life.  How insulting!  But it was also grasping the extent to which Catholics believe in the transubstantiation of the elements.  I’ve always believed the bread and the wine REPRESENTED the body and blood of Christ, but jumping from that to they ARE NOW the body and blood of Christ isn’t a single leap.  It’s like there’s several steps in between.  I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but it’s recognizing that the elements are more than representatives, and yet, still not believing they’re the actual thing.  I hung out in the in-between for a long time.

When Lukus was talking to one of his brothers about our confirmation that was coming up, he explained that the biggest significance was going to be that we could partake in the Eucharist for the first time.  We got to talking about what that meant, about the priest consecrating the bread and wine, and at that moment, the elements become the flesh of Christ.  His brother responded that that sounded really hocus-pocus-y.  Which I totally understand.  I was there too.  But when you start to realize how many insanely weird things Jesus did (spitting in mud and sticking it in a guy’s eye to heal his blindness, sending a swarm of demons into a herd of pigs), it ALL sounds pretty hocus-pocus-y if you’re hearing it for the first time.  It’s just that there are some miracles we’re used to and comfortable with, and some, well, they creep us out.

I’m not going to go into a litany of logical, scriptural, or historical reasons as to why the Eucharist is what the Catholic Church claims it to be – there are plenty of blogs, books, lectures and podcasts dedicated to that one subject by far better equipped and knowledgeable people than I.  My intent is to share my own experience, and how I came to process the concept.

First of all, because the Church preceded Scripture, compiled Scripture into the book we have today, and for 400 years before that, practiced and interpreted Scripture, I’ve come to place a pretty heavy weight on what historical traditions and Church practices there were alongside Scripture.  So if for 400 years, the early Christians believed that the bread and wine were ACTUALLY the body and blood of Christ, I have to take that into account.  Lukus flooded me with writings from early Church fathers who wrote very specifically on the subject.  So that was probably Phase 1 of recognizing more than just a representation going on.

Phase 2 had me pondering what communion was really even for.  It always seemed so abstract in the Protestant Church, like it was partly a simple meal of mutual fellowship, and, well, I don’t really know what else.  It was supposed to have an element of transformative or healing power, but that was all kind of up to your faith and how earnestly you received it.  It was kind of up to me about whether I was receiving just bread and wine (or more commonly, grape juice), or if by my faith it somehow was something more.  It was a practice that I’d always enjoyed in church, but it was all so ambiguous – something we did just because disciples of Jesus did this thing.

I felt like there had to be more to it than that.  God’s ways are always deeper and richer than what they appear to be on the surface.  So I prayed about it.

Then God got all science-y on me.  Several years ago, I had done a personal study on the book of Genesis.  If you compare the first verses of John 1 to the first verses of Genesis 1, you’ll see that there are some interesting similarities.  In fact, don’t read Genesis 1 out of the context of John 1, because it’s so much more awesome to read together.  John 1 establishes that Jesus, before He became flesh, was in the beginning with God in the form of “the Word”.  Then God says (through the power of His WORD) “Let there be light.”  John 1 then goes on to describe the incarnate Jesus as “the Light which was the life of men.”  Are you with me?  So Jesus was in the beginning as “the Word”, then God said, “Let there be light” and Jesus was that light.  This is only accentuated by the fact that God had not yet created the sun.  I looked up what the ancient word “light” meant in that verse, and what God actually said was, “Let there be energy and life.”  Brilliant!  So I got carried away, and started to do some self-study about the science of light.  Yeah, I’m a nerd.  A cute nerd, at least.

Obviously, light is a form of energy, and what are we taught in junior year physics about energy?  The Law of the Conservation of Energy (I had a really great physics teacher who used puppets to teach 17 year olds.  Best science class ever!): energy cannot be naturally created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form into another.  What the heck does this have to do with the Eucharist?!  I’m getting there.

So Christ is the Light, the Energy and Life of the universe, literally the One in whom all things are held together (Colossians 1:17).  But energy is constantly being transferred from one thing to another – it never stays put for long.  And did you know, that the more light something absorbs, the more energized it becomes?  So here we have Christ as THE energy, constantly transferring Himself throughout creation in various ways, but His primary intent is to energize us, and the more we absorb who He is, the more energized we become, and the more we share in the works produced by that energy!

When I began to truly recognize that Christ is literally, atomically holding together my bed, my glass bowl, my body, my piece of toast, I began to see that He was surely capable of invigorating ordinary bread and wine with a greater voltage of Himself so that it actually becomes His body and His blood.  And not only that, but that extra stored energy encased in the Eucharist is energy for us to absorb to become more like Him!  Bread is already naturally energy for the body, but through the power of Christ, it becomes energy for the spirit.

For the first time ever, science found a use in my life.  I began to recognize my desperate need for energy in my life; energy to do what’s right, energy to pursue God, energy to do more than survive each day.  And I no longer wanted just ordinary bread and grape juice and their 47 calories worth of energy.  I wanted the power of Christ in my life in a new way.

Maybe the Catholic Church doesn’t go all Mr. Veri (my high school physics teacher) on the Eucharist, but it does have a richer, deeper understanding of what the Eucharist is, what it’s for, and it’s amazing power.  The Catholic Church understands that, just like Christ multiplied the loaves and fishes to be more than enough to feed the crowds, He has more importantly supplied an abundance of Himself, so that, we too, can partake of His divine nature, and be energized with His very life.

I realize that no serious scholar is probably ever going to make this same argument for the transubstantiation, and no serious scientist would accept my argument as any kind of “proof”.  But it’s what God used to speak to me, to help ME wrap my little head around this elusive concept when I couldn’t just take it on faith.  And even though my first experience with the Eucharist was a bit underwhelming, let me just say that I did have an unnatural shot of energy on my second go around.  This last Sunday, I barely made it to church.  I felt miserable, exhausted, and borderline sick.  Throughout the entire Mass, I just wanted to lie down in my pew and go to sleep.  But in the few steps between partaking of the Body and the Blood, and returning to my seat, I felt completely and totally reinvigorated.  It kinda startled me.  But there it was – pure, raw Energy…and it didn’t come from mere bread.

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 11 – Peanut Butter Eucharist

The wedding day has finally come.  The bride has spent months planning her special day, from place cards to her vows, and everything is going exactly as planned.  The event is perfect, the minister says, “Husband and wife”, and the happy couple takes off on their honeymoon.  But the next morning…the next morning the bride wakes up, the biggest event in her life now over, she rolls over to see her snoring husband with bad morning breath and thinks, “What have I done, and what the hell do I do now?”

Which is exactly how I felt immediately following our confirmation.  Holy Week had been full of wonderful experiences – getting my feet washed, kissing the Cross, all those “little gifts” I’d received from God.  And while confirmation was extraordinarily long (3 hours long), it still felt like a happy wedding day of sorts – kind of our marriage to the Church, so to speak.  We got to see our friends get baptized (we’d already been baptized as kids, and any baptism done “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” is considered valid), we were anointed with oil and prayed over, and then the biggest moment of all came: we got to receive the Eucharist for the first time.

I had really struggled with the idea of the Eucharist being THE body and blood of Christ (an issue I’ll address at some point), but I did eventually come to hope and believe in it.  But hoping in something doesn’t mean you automatically connect with it.  I was hoping that I would find some sense of connection in receiving the Eucharist – some sort of internal, defining moment that brought these last four years to their ultimate climax, something that FINALLY made me FEEL Catholic for real.

But then that little wafer of Christ’s body got stuck on the roof of my mouth, and as I approached the blood, I felt like a dog that had just been given a slice of bread with peanut butter smeared on it.  There’s nothing more pitiable than a dog with a slice of peanut butter bread stuck to the roof of it’s mouth – well, except maybe a girl who’s got Christ’s body causing her to choke so that she has to try to gracefully gulp down a big enough swig of the blood to wash it down.  So the closest sense of connection I got to the Eucharist that night was the near-need for the heimlich maneuver.  The experience was disappointingly underwhelming.

Confirmation and after-photos went until about midnight on Easter vigil, so on Sunday morning, I was still fast asleep when Easter Mass began at 10 am.  But I couldn’t imagine not going to church at all on Easter, so I rushed over to a later service at our old church – my beloved, Protestant, former church home.  I saw all my old friends, they played some great songs…and there I was, like a day-old bride, wondering what on earth I’d done.  I missed this place!

I sank low the following week.  I didn’t go to Mass the next Sunday either.  I’ve spent the last 11 days wondering what I’ve gotten myself into, and if my relationship with God will ever be the same again.  Thankfully, our RCIA group is still meeting on Tuesday nights (yep, I’m now blogging in real-time people), and I decided to talk with our director afterwards.

I explained to him how I’ve struggled with my recent decision, how I still wasn’t connecting, how I didn’t know if I could really be Catholic.  We talked for a few moments, but the thing that hit me in talking with him was that he didn’t feel the need to fix me, or try to figure out what the problem was, and he wasn’t unnerved by my newfound doubts.  Catholics aren’t unsettled by struggle.  I have a feeling that this is a thing I’m going to have to learn over and over again in order to rid myself of my Protestant mindset:  embrace the struggle.

What I think is one of the greatest strengths of Protestants over Catholics is that they’re never satisfied.  They want MORE of Jesus, they want MORE outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they want to reach MORE souls – Protestants are spiritually ambitious, whereas Catholics are a lot more laid-back.  This laid-back spirituality has unnerved me and left me frustrated in joining the Church.  How could people NOT want to experience more of the Holy Spirit, and miracles, and people coming to Jesus?  How could Catholics be so passive?  And yet, this strength of Protestants is also their weakness, because when “more” isn’t happening, Protestants tend to interpret that there’s something wrong, there’s somewhere where they’re missing God.  If one is truly walking with the Lord, then there should be nearly constant growth in one’s life, and that person should be hearing from God each day.  If not, then prayer and fasting and a thorough purging of sin and all distractions must take place.  At least, that’s been my experience.

So here I am, a fresh-pressed Catholic with still an ambitious Protestant mindset, getting extremely discouraged and depressed that perhaps I took a wrong turn in my faith because I got peanut butter bread instead of a blissful honeymoon moment with Christ.  Embrace the struggle?  What does that even MEAN?!

I’ll tell you what it means.  It means a whole heck of a lotta peace.  It means one foot in front of the other towards a lifetime  of holiness over a daily marathon in pursuit of either signs and wonders…or severe disappointment.  It means “letting grace have its perfect work so that you may be perfect and complete, not lacking in any good thing.”  It means not trying to coerce God into constantly having to speak and move and offer little gifts, and learning to enjoy the comfort that can be in the silence.  Lord, I never want to become a passive Catholic!….but maybe I can learn to be a less needy and demanding one?  Maybe I can learn to embrace the struggle.  I mean, a dog always struggles with peanut butter bread, but have you ever seen one turn it down because it’s too difficult?  I didn’t think so.

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 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 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 |

Jesus, Drugs, and Mental Health

I’m not one to join the bandwagon on “Awareness” issues.  My mom died of breast cancer and I have yet to wear a pink T-shirt or run in a race.  I get why people do that sort of thing, but I know my mom would be angry if I chose her death to be the catalyst that I responded to to “change the world”.  She would not have wanted to be defined by cancer.

And I don’t really want to be defined by depression either.  But with all of the posts going around on social media regarding mental illness following the suicide of Robin Williams, I can’t seem to stay out of the discussion.

I remember the first time I thought I was depressed.  I was seven years old riding in the backseat of the car with my head pressed against the window.  Nothing particular was going through my head at the moment, but I had an empty feeling inside, and the words came through my head, “I’m depressed.”

I don’t even know how I knew what “depressed” meant at age 7, but I remember that moment as clearly as anything.  About the time I hit 12, the depression seemed to sink in and make a permanent home in my soul.  There were plenty of times that I was genuinely happy, and for months go without a care in the world.  But it always came back.  Inexplicably and without warning.

The funny thing is, I stopped seeing it as a bad thing.  Eventually, it became a part of my sense of identity.  It made me deep and thoughtful.  Melancholies were more artistic and intelligent.  Tortured souls were my heroes – and happy people?  Happy people were just buffoons who chose to live in oblivion rather than embrace the pain that was “authentic”.  I became quite attached to my depression – loving the depression more than I loved myself.  And the more I loved my depression, the more I hated myself, and the more depressed I became.  It was a parasite that I didn’t think I could live without.  I didn’t feel complete without it, and my whole identity was wrapped up in it’s cloak.  It made me witty, mysterious, and above the fray of the shallowlands.  And even when I was happy, I thought I could only appreciate the happiness because I understood the pain on the other side.  I was TRULY happy, whereas others were conjuring up a fraudulent happiness based upon the temporal and meaningless.

I thought about death, but not really any more than a lot of teenagers probably do.  I thought passingly, amusingly, about suicide – just the what ifs.  Thankfully, I had a solid foundation in my faith as well as a stubborn streak from my mother that refused to ever go that route.  But I did know how to wallow, and I wallowed extremely well – spending days on end in bed, faking headaches or nausea so my mom wouldn’t make me go to school.  I think a part of her knew, and yet, for some reason, she chose to trust me.  I would sleep for hours upon hours, waking up to write truly terrible poetry about my pain and sadness, and watching movies that made me cry.

None of this really bothered me until I was in a real relationship with a guy I truly loved.  I would start fights with him and say the most horrible and irrational things to him, shocking even myself.  I started to experience bouts of rage that I had never known before, and God only knows what kept me from some pretty extreme tantrums.

My first clue that I might have some chemical imbalances came when I started on birth control right before that guy decided he was still willing to put up with my crap and marry me.  While on the pill, I would cry inexplicably, daydream of suicide, and be filled with rage that I would just beat the walls until my knuckles bled.  The pain inside was positively unbearable – like a breached baby that won’t come out.  I am so thankful that I recognized that it was the effects of The Pill, and I quit immediately, never to do hormonal birth control again.

But while the rage and suicidal thoughts subsided, the depression never fully went away, and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted it to.  I’d lived with it for so long, I had no idea who I’d be without it.  Treating my depression left me with two paralyzing fears:  1) That it couldn’t be treated, and I’d find out that I was terminal and life was never going to get any better; 2)  That it was treatable, that I could be cured, but that I wouldn’t recognize myself anymore.

Throughout all of this, I blamed everything but chemistry.  I blamed my family and life experiences, I blamed my husband for not loving me enough, I blamed myself for being weak and not spiritual enough, and I blamed God for not accepting my pleas for help by zapping me with joy.  It was when I started resenting my second-born infant daughter that I knew something was more amiss than what I’d been telling myself.  This couldn’t possibly be her fault, so why was I so angry with her?

The strange thing was, my mom was dying by this time, and I felt very little about it.  She was in agony from the cancer that had eaten away at her backbone, and I had very little capacity for compassion for her.  She had been my best friend for my entire life, we had a connection that I held precious, and yet, I felt too empty to deal with her dying.  I will always live with the regret that I did not give her more in those last months, and that she did not feel from me then what I could have given her months later.

But the agony came rushing in the night before her funeral when everyone in my aunt’s house was asleep, and I crept to the dining room alone to weep uncontrollably and shamelessly until I had to clean snot and slobber off the table.  I went home with a pain that I could not bear alone, and combined with my indifference toward my baby, I knew I needed help.

I chose to see a Christian counselor – someone who would pray, but not tell me that my problem was that I needed to pray more.  We talked about everything you would expect – my upbringing, my relationships, my baggage.  And while it helped to sort through those issues that had long been saddlebags ever-present at my side, it wasn’t quite the breakthrough I’d hoped for.

Then a friend told me about a medical doctor who treated with natural supplements that had helped him.  I hadn’t trusted pharmaceuticals since my relationship with The Pill, but several naturopaths seemed like they were just trying to sell enough of their personal favorite vitamins to help them win that vacation rental in Florida.  I decided a medical professional who considered natural means legit might, himself, be legit.

He took my pee, my blood, and my saliva.  It was lovely.  Then he told me to stop going to counseling for a while.  Inside I was calling him a quack, that is, until he told me that going to counseling at that time was like trying to build a house without any tools.  I didn’t have the capacity to deal with my emotional issues when my body was, apparently, completely whack (the medical diagnosis).  I coughed up over $400, took the “vitamins” he prescribed and…

Dammit!  I had lived with depression since I was seven years old, and a few pills a day completely vanquished it.  Not that I haven’t been sad since, or hormonal, or absolutely pissed off, but Depression packed it’s bags and moved away, and I haven’t missed it one bit.

Looking back, I have a mixed view.  There were life circumstances that I feel opened the door to spiritual attack.  At seven years old, I should not have heard a voice in my head telling me “I’m depressed”.  At the same time, prayer, more Bible reading, pleading to the sky for help never worked – it only sank me deeper in fact when I didn’t receive a response.  I certainly had legitimate cause to be angry with certain aspects of my life that only a good counselor was able to help me sort out, but in the end, chemistry GOT it out.

Right now, I’m seeing arguments all over the map that “It’s spiritual – only Jesus can help,” and “It’s physical – we need to treat it like a disease.”  Ladies and gentlemen – it’s both.  We live in a FALLEN world, and some people’s spiritual brokenness manifests itself in depression.  But we also live in a fallen WORLD, where that brokenness alters our bodies, our brains, and every physical aspect of our beings.  Who thinks they can dissect the spirit from the soul from the body?  Who thinks this world is so far removed from that other, unseen world?  To the Believer, has God not created this earth and every physical thing in it?  To the Unbeliever, why has chemistry not helped everyone if we are merely animals that respond to specific stimuli?  To the Believer who thinks that I didn’t pray hard enough to receive my miracle, is a pill that finally worked for ME not a miracle or an answer to prayer?  Do you think I’d trade the healing that came from those pills to continue a more pious alternative?  To the Unbeliever who sees that I used science as a means to healing, simply put: without Jesus, I would not be on this earth anymore – period.

I’m glad we’re having this conversation about depression.  I’m glad people are starting to strip away the shame of this disease and recognize that it’s not something you just choose – that it can’t be cured with platitudes or a little pep talk.  We can’t always pray it away, but it can’t be compared to cancer either.  Cancer is an obvious physical enemy – Depression is a deceitful illusionist that attaches itself to your soul, and strums thoughts onto your neurons like a bad tune that gets stuck in your brain.  It feeds like a parasite, getting bigger and stronger, as you get smaller and weaker, and you are hypnotized by it’s voice.  Sure, you still have a will, you still have the power of choice, but it gets buried under tentacles that wrap tightly around your will until you feel utterly helpless, and all you can do is be still and wait for help to come.

Whatever “we” do as a society, we cannot talk so confidently about what depression is or is not.  It can only be vastly different for every individual, and whether it is treated spiritually, emotionally, or medically, all we really know for sure is that it must be treated individually.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized |

Chapter 7 – The Lady in Pink

* Before I begin this next post, I need to make a quick caveat:  I don’t go around announcing that I periodically have visions, or strange dreams that come true.  It’s not a good way to make friends unless you enjoy the company of meth addicts or patients from the local psyche ward.  Sharing this piece of myself is rather terrifying, but I’m just going to have to trust God with that because it’s true, and I can’t very well leave out the most pivotal moment in my story thus far.  So take it or leave it as you will, but I know what I felt and saw. 

The next rite in our process was the Penitential Rite.  The other rites had taken place on Sundays during Mass, but this rite was a more low-key rite with just our Tuesday night class.  I did NOT want to go to our class that night.  I even picked a fight with Lukus to keep from going.  I had plopped into bed with my pj’s on and some old reruns on-line, and was not going to budge from that spot for the rest of the night.  But something in me wouldn’t let me stay put.  I knew I had to go.  I just knew.  But I was determined I was not going to be happy about it.  I don’t always control my attitude the way I should, but regardless of how I feel about something, if I truly believe it’s the right thing to do, I cannot allow myself to walk away.  My highest value is Truth, and when I know something to be True, I can hate it all I want and put up an immature fuss, but I still know I have to follow where it leads.

So we arrived about 40 minutes late.  Our class typically begins with “Vespers” or an evening prayer time in the chapel, followed by a lecture/discussion in the classroom.  But tonight, the order was swapped, and we’d missed the lecture my own sponsor had given, and everyone took a break before chapel time.  I was not looking forward to the chapel service, or the rite…if anything, I’d hoped we’d skipped that part and had arrived in time for the lecture.  But not so.  I sat hopelessly in my chair, weak-heartedly sang the hymn, and barely uttered the prayers.

But as our RCIA director, Paul, gave his homily on the Transfiguration on the Mount, he mentioned Peter.  He happened to mention that right before the Transfiguration, Jesus had asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”  Oh how that hit me – and I didn’t hear any of the rest of the homily because my mind had taken a tangent onto Peter.

I’ve never particularly related to Peter before.  After all, Peter was outspoken and adventurous and stubborn, three things that…well, we’re not always very self-aware, are we?  But this time, Peter hit me square in the face as being me.  You see, Peter KNEW the truth.  He had been with Jesus for sometime now, he had seen miracles, he was one of the top three of Jesus’ circle of friends.  Peter pretty much thought of himself the way I’ve always thought of myself – one of God’s favorites.  Don’t worry, I’m not delusional enough to think that my boundless humility is going to get me canonized as a saint any time soon.  Hi, I’m Ellany, and I’m a hubristic smarty-pants (not to mention outspoken and stubborn).

But I’m not alone.  Peter proceeds to make an ass of himself.  Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus as he’s praying, and Peter tries to get Moses and Elijah to stay longer by offering to make tents for them (whereas God quickly tells Peter to essentially shut-up and listen).  Peter goes on to do some more stupid things, like cutting off ears to defend Jesus, then turning around and denying him three times because he’s terrified out of his mind.  He knows what’s true, he loves his best friend, and yet, he’s so freaking scared of everything changing that all the life just gets sucked out of him because he doesn’t want to leave what’s familiar and what seems to be working so well.  Peter liked the way things were.  He wasn’t ready for things to change.

I could feel Peter then.  “But being a Protestant is working so well, Jesus!  People are getting saved, miracles are happening, people are seeking you and worshipping you…why should any of that have to change or be done differently when I’m SO feeling this vibe you’ve got going on here, Lord?  Can’t we just keep things the way they are, Jesus?  I’m not feeling you here in the Catholic Church, just like Peter wasn’t feeling that whole “getting beaten and thrown in prison” part.  It just doesn’t seem like this is the direction you meant to go, so why don’t we just stay here and figure out a new plan of what Your Holy Church should look like?”  Yeah, I got Peter then.  I’ve got Christ the Son of God right in front of me, and yet, I’m wanting to put up tents for the apparitions of Moses and Elijah.  Me and Peter?  We prefer the familiar past to the daunting future.

But in spite of his jackassness, Peter knew what was true.  And he couldn’t keep denying it.  After three times of trying to, his heart finally broke, and he just couldn’t keep running away.  And eventually, Peter got his redemption – times three, mind you.

As I sat contemplating all of this, I was pretty sure of what God wanted from me, so I reluctantly decided to submit to what I knew was true, and went up to participate in the rite.

Then I closed my eyes.

And we began to pray.

Then all of a sudden, I got really dizzy, and even though I knew my hands were interlocked in front of me, I couldn’t feel them any longer, and my arms felt like they were beginning to float out at my sides like I was spreading some wings.  I was just sure that I was about to start floating into the air if I didn’t focus really hard on staying on the ground.  Then, above the circle of people gathered, with my eyes closed, I saw a beautiful lady hovering above us, kind of pinkish and yellowish light surrounded her, with her arms spread like wings, and she just stayed there for a while.  I felt that any moment, I would float right up to her – until our Deacon Paul came to me and placed his hands on my head and pushed down.  I still don’t know what he was doing in that moment, so I’ll have to ask him some time.  Yes, my eyes were closed, so I wasn’t seeing with physical eyes, but it was much clearer than my imagination, and I could physically FEEL what was happening.

For the first time since this process began, I felt it.  I felt that other world that I used to feel at my old church.  I felt like I might possibly have a place here, like I had broken through to what I’d been missing all along.  I don’t know if it was Mary, or an angel, or some other saint.  I don’t like to put names on things when names aren’t given.  What I DO know, is that my mind NEVER would have conjured up a female, Moses or Elijah maybe, but not a female, and that in itself confirmed to me that this wasn’t coming from my own imagination.  But I saw her, and she was lovely and peaceful, and I was filled with peace and confidence for the first time.  I couldn’t help but remember the story of Peter, and his three reinstatements from Jesus.  Now, after three terrifying rites, God had granted me this gift, this little sign that He’s guiding this process, and that my time to come into the Church is at hand.  God had already brought the church family together for my heart.  Over time, He had brought doctrine together for my mind.  And now, He had brought this experience to anchor my spirit.

This Saturday night is Easter Vigil, when Lukus and I will be officially confirmed as Catholics, and I have great peace and confidence that God has guided every second of this journey:  from Rome to that pancake breakfast, from who my sponsor has been to the personal revelations I’ve had.  It’s been a hard and scary road, and in the process of it all, I’ve had to explain myself to a lot of baffled Protestants.  It hasn’t been fun, and it hasn’t been easy, but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be worth it.

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 8 – Little Gifts

I knew a girl in high school who was so enamored with Jesus that she seemed to walk in a golden bubble everywhere she went.  Little miracles seemed to follow her around – random strangers at the local burger joint would get healed when she prayed for them.  When her car broke down it was because God had prepared a divine appointment for her at the garage where a mechanic was waiting to hear the gospel she had to share, and the big, tough guy would be in tears by the time she left.  When she was $247 short for her missions trip that would be leaving the next day, she’d get a check in the mail for $247 from someone she’d never met.  Golden.  Bubble.  I envied her.  I envied the little gifts she got from God, but not only that, I envied her unquenchable optimism, her complete trust in Jesus, her persistent faith that oozed out of her day and night.  She thought she was normal, and seemed to kind of think everyone who loved Jesus spent days fasting and praying, studying scripture, and that she was nothing special – that everyone got these little gifts.  To this day, her face seems to glow in spite of the pains she’s been through, and she seems to already be in heaven because she walks so closely with Jesus.

So it’s not fun to confess, but yeah, I envy her.  I’ve had my fair share of little gifts from God, but I want more, and yet, I admit that I haven’t walked with Him as she has.  I want to, I want to be closer to God, but I’m easily distracted and worn out by life, and I guess I just don’t have the same optimistic disposition she was naturally born with.  But I still want the little gifts – those small hints from God that He’s with you, that He’s speaking to you, that He’s happy with you.

Last Thursday night, the Thursday before Easter, all of the RCIA candidates were expected to attend the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which commemorates, obviously, the Lord’s Supper and Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.  At this particular mass, priests in every parish across the globe, following the example of Christ, wash the feet of some of the people in the parish.  Even the Pope takes off his outer garments and washes the feet of the people in whatever place in the world he’s chosen to go to that year.  Lukus and I happen to attend the cathedral of our archdiocese, a “cathedral” essentially being the mother church of a small region, which means that it’s also the home church of the archbishop of that region.  I knew that a couple of my friends in RCIA were going to get their feet washed by the archbishop that night, and while I was excited for them, I was a bit envious – not much, just a little.

We arrived at the Mass and started to sit in our seats when we saw our friends across the aisle and decided to move spots.  As we started to sit next to them (one of whom was pre-planned to have her feet washed), a guy squeezed in to our spot before all of us could fit in, so we were forced to move two rows back.  After moving seats twice, we finally settled into our spots with me sitting in the aisle seat.  When the foot washing ceremony began, it was very moving to see the archbishop remove his outer garments and in a simple, white robe prepare to wash the feet of some of the people.  Then, the lady behind me (who has been involved in RCIA and knows we’re new) leaned forward to inform me that I’d be getting my feet washed.  Oh dear, I wasn’t ready for that!  I hadn’t properly groomed my feet – you know, washing your feet so you can have your feet washed?  I was nervous and not sure if she was totally correct, except then I noticed there was a towel next to my seat.  Well, okay then.

I gotta say, having your feet washed is a combination of awkwardness, humility, and thankfulness.  But more than anything, I knew it was a Little Gift.  It wasn’t necessarily the foot-washing itself that spoke volumes to me, it was more of an “it’s the thought that counts” kinda thing – just a small sign from God that He was thinking of me, that He knew the desires of my heart, and He was meeting me in that moment.  Our little game of musical chairs had led me to a moment I’ll always treasure.

Later that weekend, I received a book from the archbishop about some questions I had asked him a couple of months ago.  It was a simple gesture, but a significant one for someone so busy to remember a conversation he had months ago, and yet still be mindful enough to pass along a book regarding a topic that’s so close to my heart.  The archbishop truly has a pastor’s heart, but I knew, too, that it was God encouraging me to pursue that passion.  Little Gifts.

But even that wasn’t all.  Saturday before Easter was the night of our confirmation into the Catholic Church.  We had a lot of getting ready to do that day, but Lukus stumbled upon a package at our door.  It was from Father Stephen – the seminarian we’d met in Rome (now a priest) with whom we’d reunited and even gotten to visit with in Alabama three years later.  Since reuniting, we’ve been able to keep in touch through Facebook, and he was aware of our upcoming confirmation.  We opened the package, and inside was a lovely wooden box with a beautifully carved cross on the top.  Inside were three necklaces, each with a medallion attached – one for Lukus with Saint Joseph’s image on it (Lukus’ chosen patron saint), and two for me with Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila (my chosen patron saints – I figured I’d need two saints so I wouldn’t wear one out!).  Father Stephen and Father Eric (the other seminarian in Rome) played such a significant role in us even getting interested in Catholicism in the first place, not to mention the miracle of finding them again.  But also, Father Stephen has pastored me through Facebook when I’ve struggled with questions and doubts.  The only thing lacking from our confirmation was that they wouldn’t be there.  And yet, through such a thoughtful and timely gesture, he would be there, which meant so much to us.  Little Gifts.

One of the sponsors in our RCIA group posted on Facebook how she hadn’t had much time to focus on Good Friday and the cross.  She took a moment during the beautiful spring day to go outside, close her eyes, and pray and reflect on the crucifixion.  As she was praying the verse “and darkness covered the face of the earth…” she opened her eyes to discover that the sky had gone from bright and sunny, to cloudy and cool, and the power of that moment was awesome to her.

These Little Gifts are precious.  They keep our hope going.  They remind us that God is with us, that He’s actually paying attention.  He hasn’t forgotten, we’re not on our own just trying to make up for our sins all the time.  We’re in a relationship, where God Himself is acting as a lover wooing His beloved ever closer.  He’s already given us everything – our very existence, His own Son, eternal life, forgiveness…and yet, He is love, and the giving never ends because His love never ends.  We may not all be like my friend from high school, walking through life in a golden bubble.  We may get preoccupied and cynical.  We may not invest enough time in our relationship with God, but He’s still leaving us love notes, and surprises, and Little Gifts all over the place.  If only we pay attention…

Any Little Gifts you’ve gotten from God lately?

Posted in Thriving Spirits |

Chapter 9 – The Theology of Fun

One of the best things about Catholics is that Catholics are fun.  Cool, hipster Protestants are starting to catch up, but it’s a little like inviting freshmen to the senior party.  Catholics are seniors at merrymaking. While the prohibitionists were spewing the evils of alcohol, the Catholics were testifying to its convivial attributes with eloquent, confident, slurred speech.  While the Puritans were making sure their necks and ankles weren’t showing, Michelangelo was sculpting the most magnificent naked man that Channing Tatum wishes he could be.  And well, we all know what Catholics enjoy doing just based on the size of their families.  Not to mention that Catholics have more feast days than you could possibly keep up with.  It was probably a priest that invented the famous joke opening, “A priest, a rabbi, and a penguin walk into a bar…”

Catholics are fun, and this alone testifies to me that they grasp something about God that many others don’t.  They understand what we were intended for in the Garden, what heaven will be like, and that we were made simply to enjoy God and each other.  Life is beautiful.  It’s not a drudgery to endure.  Earth is not toxic to our souls.  What God called “good” is still “good” in the Catholic paradigm – not that sin hasn’t tainted this world, but it makes the good and the beautiful stand out all the more.  Catholics understand how to enjoy this place that God made for us.  And while not everyone may see “fun” as the same holy act that I do, I can’t help but think of all the times Jesus was criticized for basically having too much fun.  Personally?  I want to be like Jesus.

Posted in Thriving Spirits, Uncategorized |

Chapter 10 – Habeo Papa

It’s not surprising that after the floating Lady episode, my internal turbulence has settled into a nice coasting.  I went to my first confession, and while it didn’t feel life-altering, it certainly wasn’t soul-crushing.  I still don’t know our priest very well, but he’s a relaxed and gracious person who made the confession experience pretty easy, and I’m really glad to have it off my chest the time that I stole my friend’s Barbie’s shoe when I was six.

The next Mass we attend, they play one of my favorite hymns (well, it has different words, but the melody is at least familiar, and it’s my favorite melody), and I’m compelled to actually lift my hands during worship.  Nothing too exciting – like I said, a nice coasting.

Then, one day, in spite of having a bunch of kids in my house that needed tending to, I find myself glued to the television after Lukus has just texted me that white smoke has been released from the Vatican, and there’s finally a Latin phrase that I’m familiar with: “Habemus Papam! We have a pope!”  I’ve known very little about Pope Benedict.  Everyone’s loved him, but personally, I just couldn’t find that connection with him.  Even when I was a complete NON-Catholic, I, like many other non-Catholics, still loved Pope John Paul II.  When he died, I felt compelled to seek out a Catholic book store to buy a candle and light it for him – even though Lukus thought I was weird, and I had no idea why Catholics lit candles for dead people.  It just seemed the thing to do.  And during this process, while I trusted that Benedict was a great pope, I just didn’t have the same natural affection for him that I did for John Paul.  I was kind of excited that we would be getting someone new upon our entrance into the Church.

I know the pope thing is a difficult one for Protestants to get over – I was the same way.  I viewed him as someone living like a king, giving orders that the faithful had to obey without ever criticizing.  But I’ve since learned that’s not the case.  The thing is, Catholics understand that the Holy Spirit can still operate through imperfect people, and while the pope is supposed to be a righteous man, the trust is still in God to protect His Church through flawed vessels.  And the pope can be wrong on a lot of things – which I never knew Catholics believed – but it’s when he’s speaking on dogma and doctrine that Catholics believe he’s speaking with the authority of the Holy Spirit.  I’ve also known a lot of Protestants who think that Catholics worship the pope – which maybe some do, but they’d be in error to do so.  The things is, Catholics believe in giving honor to whom honor is due, like children honoring their parents, or honoring the elderly – and the pope is considered an elder and a spiritual father.  And yet, so many Protestants are more willing to honor government leaders that they don’t like or don’t agree with because “it’s the office they respect” before they’re willing to honor spiritual leaders.  That seems a little flip-flopped to me.  It also doesn’t seem fitting that there would be authority structures set up in every other area of life – the family, business, judicially – and yet there be no authority in the Church.  Rejection of proper authority in Jesus’ Church has left us splintered and crippled.

So after much thought and consideration, I came to understand the role of the pope, and I was excited to experience the process of getting a new pope at the very beginning of our journey.  So I watched the t.v. with great anticipation.  I had no idea who Cardinal Bergoglio was when he emerged out onto the balcony.  Upon first impression, he was really underwhelming.  He wasn’t smiling, he didn’t offer up any deep words of wisdom, and his prayer was very simple.  But that underwhelmed feeling quickly gave way to immense joy and excitement as I began to research and hear what kind of man this was.  I was already beginning to feel like he was this wonderful, warm, generous grandpa, full of fun stories, and always available.  I began to think, “How wonderful and blessed we are that we Catholics get to have an earthly father who loves us and looks after us and shows us what our heavenly Father is like toward us!”

We live in a world of broken families, a fatherless generation, a generation that doesn’t understand what honoring your parents even means.  Our earthly fathers have failed us in so many ways, leaving a blank or ugly canvas of what God looks like to us.  But just like God gave the Israelites Moses, then Joshua, then Samuel, to be fathers to a nation in their time, God has given us this earthly father to point back to Himself.  The pope isn’t divine, he’s not perfect, I don’t have to blindly agree with everything he says or does.  But when our personal experience has destroyed the concept of what a father means, we have this loving, patient, forgiving, wise man who can be that spiritual foster-father, showing us what God is truly like.

I already love this pope.  I know I will never meet him, that he doesn’t know my name, but it’s not necessary.  What I learned from those seminarians in Rome, and what it taught me about the saints applies to the pope as well.  We are a family, and space and time don’t matter.  Even knowing each other personally doesn’t matter.  Our spirits know one another through THE Spirit.  The pope knows me.  He doesn’t know my name, but his spirit knows my spirit because we are one in the Spirit of God.  And like all good fathers and grandfathers should do, he inspires me to pursue God, to pursue holiness, to pursue generosity, and love.  Habeo Papa - I have a pope.

Pope Francis was inaugurated on St. Joseph’s feast day – which is exactly four years to the day that we met those seminarians in Rome.  God’s providence is astounding, and I can’t think of a better time to become Catholic.

Posted in Thriving Spirits |