I’ve promised myself the opportunity to write daily beginning with the first Sunday of Advent, and this blog space will be the space for fulfilling the promise. As a proud and unabashed Catholic Christian, I love telling my own faith story. In the coming weeks, I’ll post both new material based on daily experiences with Lectio Divina as well as material from the past couple of years.
This morning, I want to talk about how I got to this point in my life — both my spiritual life and my life in the world God gave us.
My mother went to great lengths to have me baptized a Catholic way back in 1947. Our local parish church was about five miles away; the priest there refused to baptize me, because Mom didn’t have a car and, therefore, he said she could not fulfill her obligation to bring me to Mass. I’m not sure what he thought about my baptized older brothers who also weren’t being taken to Mass. Mom found a ride to East Lansing, some 20 miles away, and she presented the two of us to Father Mac (Msgr. McEachin, then pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish) and told her story.
Fr. Mac was more than happy to baptize me, and I still have the certificate of baptism that my mother brought home with her. Many years later, I had an opportunity to thank Fr. Mac — and even though I was a lapsed Catholic at the time, I know that his generous blessing and his prayer that I would return to the arms of Mother Church when I was ready had a positive impact.
While it was true that we didn’t have a way to get to Mass on Sundays, Mom saw to it that there was never a doubt about our being Catholic. She was proud of it. My earliest memories are of her teaching me the basic prayers of our faith — the Our Father, Hail Mary, Guardian Angel prayer, Glory Be, and Apostles’ Creed. She would say a phrase and have me repeat it, and our nightly sessions resulted in my quickly memorizing the prayers. To this day, I recite these prayers in order as I go to sleep at night, and they are a balm to my mind and soul if I wake up anxious or restless during the night.
When I was about 9 years old, in 1956, one of my older brothers was about to graduate high school and go into the US Army, and the next younger was going into his senior year. Mom had been getting rides to her job in Mason, 8 miles from our home in Dansville, but it was obvious that she needed her own transportation. And so it was that our family purchased a 1949 Chevrolet, and my mother learned to drive.
The first and most important use of the car, though, and a big priority for Mom, was to get the family to Mass on Sundays and to get us children to catechism classes. I remember she and my brothers going to great lengths to transport me out to the little Catholic Church, Sts. Cornelius and Cyprian, in Bunker Hill Township, for two weeks of preparation for my first Holy Communion. Mom took the amazing step of taking me out of public school for these two weeks. I probably will never know what she sacrificed to get my lovely white dress and veil; I still have the tiny white prayerbook she got me. I was then confirmed a year or so later when I was about 12.
We were regular and faithful in our attendance at Mass and at catechism classes over the next couple of years. I attended the local public school, where one of my closest friends was a devout Baptist. We often talked long and deeply about our respective faiths; I suppose, given the tenor of religious teaching at the time, that we tried to convert one another. And so it came about, early in the summer after our freshman year of high school, that we were together one evening having one of our long discussions. And I told her about my feeling that something big was missing in my life, that I wanted to be closer to God but wasn’t sure how to go about it.
Her response changed my life forever, and in ways I’m very sure she never intended.
She told me that the answer to my craving was to turn my life completely over to God. Now, that statement meant something completely different to her Baptist mind than it meant to my Catholic mind. She saw me going up to the altar one Sunday and being “saved,” while to me turning my life completely over to God meant entering the consecrated religious life as a nun.
Her mother arrived to pick her up, and I thanked her profusely, knowing in my heart exactly what I wanted to do. I think she was quite horrified by the direction my response took. I remember that as soon as I closed the door behind her, I turned and told my mother what I wanted to do.
And my mother, whose relationship with me was usually a combination of almost smothering care and almost impossibly high demands and expectations, took the ball and ran with it. Where I expected insurmountable objections, she paved paths and made plans that were entirely out of character for her. Through our parish priest (the same priest my middle older brother used to sit and drink whiskey with while he was still in high school, contributing significantly to his alcoholism), we became acquainted with the Sisters of Christian Charity, an order which had a special high school for girls who wanted to discern and pursue a vocation to the religious life. He put us in touch with the SCC group at St. Mary in Westphalia, where Sister Claracille became my sponsor and guided me into acceptance to Maria Immaculata Academy.
I arrived at the “Aspirancy” on August 26, 1961, and there I remained until June, 1966. My years there were marked by what I now understand as a strong desire and ability to follow the practices and rituals and by a sense that those were what would drive my success. I spent five years living out what I saw as obligations; when I was accepted as a Candidate after high school graduation in 1964, I simply entered upon a new era of compliance with practices and rituals. That lasted through postulancy and into my first year novitiate, until the day that my novice directress, in our regular monthly interview, told me that she felt I needed to “seriously question” whether I belonged in the religious life.
Today, I can look back and understand that she was challenging me to test my vocation; at the time, however, all I felt was that I was being told I didn’t have one. She explained to me the areas in which I was lacking, and the changes I might need to make, and I told her that I felt that doing so would thwart everything that God made in me. Again, all these years later, I have a much better understanding that God indeed calls us to change, change of a deep and continuing kind that overcomes our sinful nature and leads us to be who He calls us to be, not what the material world we live in would make us. Back then, I wasn’t able to see it, and for whatever reason, Sr. Judith wasn’t able to explain it. Our conversation that day ended with a decision that I would leave the community, and by the end of that week, I was back home in Dansville.
There are so many stories I could tell of my slide away from the Church and from God over the next years. Suffice it to say that I walked away from the Church in a fit of stubbornness, about a year after leaving the convent, when a priest told me that I could not marry the man I thought I was in love with. The fact that my mother wasn’t in favor of the marriage made me even more determined to marry him, and I did.
From that brief marriage came my oldest daughter and a new understanding of how helpless we are to change the behavior of other people. I divorced my chronically unemployed alcoholic husband after little more than a year of marriage, and I moved back in with my mother and got a reasonably good job. By the time my divorce was final, I was dating the man who became my second husband, and I had begun attending the local Lutheran church. My mother, who also had left the Catholic Church by then, encouraged me to go and to have my daughter baptized there, even though she wouldn’t attend herself.
In June, 1970, I remarried, and in January, 1972, gave birth to my second daughter.
I remained active and involved in the Lutheran church; I also got a new job with a law firm and began pursuing a degree at the local community college. And it was those two situations that led me down a path that even today, I blush to recall. While my husband and my mother took care of my children so that I could go to night classes, I began going out to clubs with a woman I befriended at work. I met a man at school to whom I was attracted, and had my first affair.
From that point, my life descended into a pit of drinking, affairs, one-night stands, and even an affair with a pastor at church. I don’t like looking back on this period of my life. I failed my husband, my children, and my God so miserably — and all I could think of was continued gratification of my own desires.
I ended the affair with the pastor, and not long after that my marriage ended in a disastrous tangle of false accusations and criminal charges against my husband — a situation I deeply regret but in which, at the time, I had little choice if I was to keep custody of my children. My ex-husband and I have resolved our relationship, and my oldest daughter and I are estranged mainly as a result of these events.
During the period from 1985 until 1992, I floundered through a series of disasters and crises; I often prayed for help, and indeed I received it. Although I was far from the Catholic Church during those years, I continued to be active in one or another Lutheran church until I reached a point where I found no direction and no comfort there, and I stopped attending church altogether.
That is not to say I lost my faith. Somewhere deep inside an ember stayed aglow, and if anyone asked I was quick to say that I was raised Catholic and still considered myself one, even though I didn’t go to Mass.
The late spring and early summer of 1992 was a crazy time. I finally filed bankruptcy, having created a financial mess I couldn’t find any other way to resolve; and I met Tom, who became my third husband and who, without ever intending to do so, led me back to the Church in the end.
When I met Tom, he had been widowed a few months earlier, and I had been single for about seven years. It was the proverbial love at first sight; we were together from the time we met, and we married about a year and a half later. There was no great epiphany of faith here; we had a pretty hedonistic lifestyle which revolved around happy hours and weekend house parties and all the drinking that went with them. One thing that stood out, compared to my previous way of life: We took our marriage very seriously. We were faithful to each other, and we worked at making our relationship a good one.
Tom was diagnosed with lung cancer the day after Christmas, 2003. His treatment options were limited — the tumor was inoperable, and he refused to consider chemotherapy. He underwent a six-week course of radiation treatments with all the side effects and complications that come with it, and I did a lot of praying (albeit very unfocused praying). He survived the radiation treatments and achieved a sort of remission that lasted for eight years.
Then at Thanksgiving 2011, he got sick; five weeks later, we learned that he was terminally ill, the cancer having returned with a vengeance and having spread throughout his chest. A couple of days after Christmas, we learned that he had about six months of life expectancy; treatments that might prolong that prognosis would almost certainly carry a variety of unpleasant side effects and diminish his quality of life. After much discussion, he opted — with my support, even while my heart was breaking — for home hospice care.
He came home from the hospital on January 4, 2012. I worked from home that month so that I could care for him, and I retired at the end of the month, fulfilling a decision we had made back in September before we knew about his illness returning.
After we returned from a trip to Florida at the end of February, and settled into the knowledge that the end of his life was both inevitable and imminent, I found myself turning more and more often to prayer for solace. Tom would not talk about his condition or about his approaching death; we did talk sometimes about faith, and he spoke of believing in Jesus and about what he had learned in Sunday school as a boy. And I began to think more and more about what was going to happen to him, and where he was going, and I began to pray in a different way than ever before.
I began to consider what heaven was going to be like and what it was going to be like for him when he passed from this life to the next. I can remember thinking about heaven as a place where souls praise God constantly. I wondered what that might be like — and I realized that this was what God had created us for, and that it would be, accordingly, exactly what fully satisfied our souls at last.
During this time also, I began to think more and more seriously about how we submit ourselves to God’s will. I prayed — first to have the grace to know and accept God’s will, and then to ask God to show mercy. Tom’s dignity was important to me, and I knew that as he got sicker, it would be so hard on him to be cared for. I was determined and prepared to take care of him at home, as he had expressed that he did not want to be in the hospital again; I told God that I would willingly and lovingly take care of Tom for however long God chose to leave him here, and that at the same time, I wanted God to have mercy and not subject him to prolonged and horrible suffering. And I began to understand what it meant to fully submit myself to God’s will.
We went through some difficult times, and Tom had some very bad days among the better days and even some very good days. We learned to treasure whatever good came from each day.
One day in late June, I’d been talking to my younger daughter, who was dating a Catholic man and who was very enthused about her experiences attending Mass with him. I said to Tom, “You know, I really miss going to Mass.” He responded, “Then I don’t know why you aren’t there.” I had to file that thought away, because a day or so later, Tom’s condition worsened dramatically. He became bedridden on Wednesday; Thursday, hospice brought us a hospital bed; and in the small hours of Sunday morning it became apparent that the end was upon us.
I sat with him and held his hand and talked to him; and then I began talking to God. I told God that I was commending Tom’s soul to Him, and asked that He send angels to guide him to heaven. I kept repeating those prayers out loud, and when Tom took his last breath, at 3:33 a.m. on July 1, 2012, I am very sure that I felt the presence of angels in that room. I was very much at peace with his death, and I expressed my gratitude to God that he did not suffer a prolonged and painful death.
The following Sunday found me at Mass in the local parish church, and I began to feel like the Holy Spirit had simply opened a channel in me. It is hard to describe, but all of the things that used to feel like burdensome obligations to be gotten past when I was younger, now felt like great privileges — I couldn’t get enough of them. I sat with my parish priest and made a full and general confession, received a general absolution for all those misguided and misspent years, and opened my heart more and more fully to the Shepherd who had called me back to His fold.
Over the next few years, I experienced a continuing sense of wonder as I grew in faith, praying for God to lead me and to show me what He wanted me to do. And He did. Through a series of moves, from houses to apartments and finally to the house that I wasn’t even looking for, but which has turned out to be my dream home — and through some trials and difficult times, He has always led me. My life is so very different from anything I might have anticipated when I was in the midst of retiring and taking care of Tom — and so very much in tune with where God leads me.
At one point, I woke up one morning thinking, “There is no reason I’m not attending daily Mass. There is so much more grace to be found, and I want to find it.” And thus I began going to Mass daily, and growing in my prayer life. I believe God has showed me that He calls me to a life of service to others, both in the work of my daily life and by praying for people in their various needs. I try to listen carefully for what are the ways I’m meant to serve; sometimes the call is very clear, and sometimes it is not so clear. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is very hard, and sometimes I have doubts and fears, but always it comes with a sense of peace and joy.
And so, in a few weeks, I will have six dozen years behind me, and if God wills it, I will wake up the next day knowing I am ready to serve Him and that He is not quite done with me yet.