“This is All True”: The Story of a Conversion, Part 1

Summoned by a Crucifix

A three-inch crucifix pendant loomed large around a woman’s neck in the yellow cinderblock basement that housed my weekly Al-Anon meeting. As stories were shared around the circle, my eyes kept going back to the crucifix and the woman. A stark contradiction – the sadness of Jesus on the Cross and the bright eyes and smile of the woman, whose name, I learned, was Lori. She’s not wearing this to win friends, I thought. She really believes this stuff.

At age 34, I had nothing against Jesus, but had not budged much since my white-gloved, patent-leathered Confirmation at Westminster Presbyterian in Madison, Wisconsin. I knew I didn’t believe it then (but was too timid to say so) and I didn’t get it now, even though I attended a Lutheran church. “Why should I believe in what Jesus says more than some bum in the street?” I would ask my mother. 

But there was something about that crucifix. And something about Lori. I approached her after the meeting for a future lunch. “Sure,” she said. “How about the Shrine next Wednesday?” I gulped. “The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception?” 

The only part of my Presbyterian upbringing I had retained was hatred of the Catholic Church. I saw it as a big power and money grab that sought to intimidate people into submission. Kind of like Marxism, but with better art. 

St. Thérèse strikes again

On the appointed day, I walked up the stone staircase in blowing snow and stopped at the Shrine’s massive entryway. I took a deep breath and went in.

Lori gave me a tour of the many ornate chapels, lingering at the tall bronze statue of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. “Thérèse is something else,” Lori said. “If you ask her for roses, she’ll get you some.” Idolatry and superstition! I knew it! Hoping not to be struck by lightning then and there, I was relieved when we moved on.

Lori suggested I read Thérèse’s Story of a Soul. I ordered it to make her happy and to prove I didn’t need this Catholic nonsense. The next Wednesday when I got home from work, there on the coffee table was the book and a dozen roses from my husband. I called Lori. “I got roses!” She said, “Yes, I asked Thérèse to send you some.”

The next weekend my husband and I were staying at a cabin in West Virginia. I cracked the book on Friday night and did nothing but read it until Sunday morning. Those two nights I had vivid dreams of spiritual things. 

Finishing the book, I closed it and thought this is all true. (I learned later that Edith Stein had thought the same thing after reading Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. Those Theresa’s don’t mess around.)

I knew my life had to change. Of course, I would not become Catholic – that would be ridiculous. But I was being called to something significant, whatever it was.

A few weeks later I was driving up I-270 toward Damascus, Maryland, pondering how many people like Thérèse it would take to save the whole world. Then I got it – it would only take one. The confusion and doubt about “the Christ thing” was lifted all at once. It was as if Thérèse had taken my hand out of hers and put it in another hand: “It’s not me, honey, it’s Jesus.”

Life after Damascus

Okay, so I was a real Christian now. Now what? I continued to meet with Lori every week or so for long afternoons of prayer and conversation at the Shrine. I would get to where I couldn’t stand listening to her Catholic promo anymore and would take a break for a few weeks. But I’d always come back for more.

After a year of Lori’s inspired badgering, I wrote a letter to my Lutheran pastor asking his blessing to get a Catholic spiritual director to help me discern what was going on. Pastor Schneider asked why I was looking at the Catholic Church. I said something like, “I want to be able to sit in the presence of Jesus and let his truth and his love sink into me deeper and deeper – to become that love and that peace and to share his peace with other people.” Pastor said, “What you’re looking for you won’t find here.” 

Grateful for his honesty and his blessing, I scheduled an appointment with a friar at the Dominican House of Studies, a seminary housed in a century-old gothic building across the street from the Shrine. 

Only supernatural help enabled me to cross from the Shrine to the Dominican House that sunny day at the beginning of Lent. As I started across busy Michigan Avenue to begin my Catholic adventure in earnest, I felt as if a strong wind were trying to blow me back – as if a shower of arrows were pouring toward me to discourage and scare me. Fortunately, I had read The Interior Castle by St. Theresa of Avila, St. Faustina’s diary, and other spiritual books, and knew what was happening. It was what I have come to call a GVT: a garden variety temptation – and I brushed it aside. Nice try.

So my adversary tried another trick: I started to fear that when I walked through the doors, the first holy priest who laid eyes on me would cover his eyes and shout, “Sin has entered! Run for your lives!”

The woman at a 20th-century well meets Jesus
But it didn’t happen that way. Deacon Brian Mulcahy met me with a disarming gentleness, escorted me into a parlor, and asked if I’d like something to drink – orange juice? Yes, orange juice would be great. As he closed the oak door behind him, I looked out the window at Michigan Avenue. The whizzing traffic seemed from another planet. I, on the other side of the window now, was inside…inside what? I wasn’t sure, but I began to believe that whatever this was, it was safe, and I would be okay. 

As he walked back in and handed me the juice, I had the distinct knowledge that it was Jesus handing me the drink. I felt the love and acceptance of God flow into me in the gentle way he handed me the glass and looked at me with a kind of eternal acceptance and love. 

Like the woman at the well who met a man who understood her better than she understood herself, I was aware of being looked upon by one who saw me with God’s eyes as a beloved daughter. That afternoon was the beginning of my being able to believe it myself.

Deacon Brian told me that a Dominican priest, Father Norman Fenton, OP, was willing to meet with me. Father ended up instructing me in the faith all spring, summer, and into early fall – putting up with my defensive questions, wrong assumptions, and puzzled silences. 

After he said I was ready to be received, I asked if it could be on October 1, St. Thérèse’s day. But the Archdiocesan paperwork didn’t get cleared in time. Ditto for October 15, St. Teresa of Avila’s day.

I asked Father, “Are there any good saints in November?” He said, “Well, there’s St. Albert on November 15.” Who wants her big day to be St. Albert’s day, I thought. 

But it turned out that St. Albert the Great, Doctor Universalis and teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, had big plans for me. Tune in later this summer for the next chapter of one woman’s Catholic adventure…

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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