Cleansing Fire

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Learning what it really means to be “Catholic”

October 27th, 2011, Promulgated by Ben Anderson

This is a guest post by Persis. I was really moved by it. I hope you will be as well.


A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from Ben asking me if I would consider sharing my story of how I went from being a “liberally-minded Catholic” to one who has started to embrace a more “traditional” viewpoint. As I pondered and prayed about whether or not I wanted to share my story here, it became clear to me that it needed to be shared, because I think it is the same story as many Catholics my age ( I am 41), here in the DOR and elsewhere. I do not presume to speak for anyone else. The following reflection is what I have concluded after praying about Ben’s question. I look forward to sharing my story and to any feedback or questions. I want to thank Ben and everyone at CF for this opportunity; it has been a very positive experience for me.

I am a “cradle-Catholic”. My father was non-practicing Episcopalian, my mother an Irish-Italian Catholic. Being Catholic was just part of who we were as a family. It was a given. Looking back now, it was more a case of being “culturally Catholic”. We were a “spiritual” family, but not always “religious”. I attended Mass sporadically as a young child, usually with my maternal grandparents or on Christmas and Easter. I also attended services at my paternal grandparents Episcopal Church.

When I was about 10, we started attending Mass regularly. By the time I was 14, I had received First Eucharist, First Penance (we did it backwards back then) and Confirmation. I then got “lost in the shuffle” because I wanted to be involved and do things, as I was now an “adult member” of the Church. I became a lector and EMHC, and got involved in the Social Ministry Committee. I found that even though I was considered an “adult” member of the Church, the people in charge all looked at me as a kid, who was just too idealistic and unrealistic. It was the early 1980’s and society was changing at a rapid pace. I got very caught up in many liberal causes of the day, including the Feminist movement , nuclear disarmament, “a woman’s right to choose”, etc, etc, etc.

Church and my faith were easily replaced by the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” culture of the time. It was all about me, and what made me feel good. Oh, I tried to be a good person, do unto others, help the less fortunate and live by the “golden rule”, but I never believed that I needed a “building” and a bunch of old men running around in funny clothes to lead me to God. What I realize now is that all of this was due to very poor catechesis. The “communal supper” theology of the Eucharist was all I knew, and confession consisted of bi-annual “general absolution” services. Much of my catechesis was what one could call “feel good”- so long as your heart was in the right place, it didn’t matter what you thought or how you behaved because God would always forgive us.

I had spent most of my adult life away from the Church. That is not to say I did not have a “spiritual life”, I did. I dabbled in many different theories, philosophies and faith traditions, but I was always drawn to Catholicism. It was just part of “who” I was, and even though I didn’t agree with most of what the Church taught, I still identified myself as Catholic- a “CEO & cafeteria Catholic”, but Catholic nonetheless.

About 10 years ago, I had a life-changing experience. I had a very sudden, potentially life-threatening, illness and spent 5 days in the hospital and 31 days recuperating at home, unable to work, stand for long periods of time and generally do anything, but sit on my bum and veg out to the TV. It was in some of these moments of solitude that I started to feel a strange tugging at my heart. God had given me a second chance, what was I going to do with it?

I recovered, went back to work, and soon my life was back to “normal”. I did, however, try to start going back to Church. I attended Mass sporadically, tried the Episcopal Church and a couple of “Community churches” but still was of the mind-set that I didn’t need a “building and set of dogmas” to have faith. In this time, I had lost my job and took a job in an elder care facility. Shortly after I started, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happened. I was amazed at the strength and faith I saw in these elderly people, and how in the midst of this terrible tragedy, they were able to rely on that faith to help them cope. It was then that I decided that I, too, wanted this comfort, and that it was the thing that had been “missing” from my life thus far.

After roaming around for about 2 years, I ended up in a suburban parish that I called home for the next 4 years. I quickly made friends, got involved in lots of activities and committees. I still did not agree with many Church teachings, but it seemed Ok, because most of my friends didn’t either. I still had the mentality that the Church was wrong, on many levels especially that of woman’s ordination and that if I wanted to affect any real change, the only way to do it was from the “inside”. I started to take classes at SBSTM, and there I found even more people who were like me. I was starting to believe that maybe, just maybe, in my life-time, I would see a radical change in the Church and it made me very happy. However, my happiness was short-lived.

Within 2 months, I had lost two of the most important people in my life, my maternal grandfather and my father. Neither was sudden, or even unexpected, but there were many issues that had been left unresolved, especially with my father, and I entered in to a very dark place. I was angry at God, at the Church, and was ready to give it all up again until some of my friends suggested that I talk to a priest friend of theirs. I was not so sure. I had met this priest a couple of times, and he seemed just a bit too rigid for me. My friends kept telling me my perceptions were unfounded and even my pastor said he thought that this particular priest would be a good fit for me, so I took their advice and we set up a casual lunch meeting.

I can honestly say that it was that meeting that changed my life. This priest became my “spiritual director” and started to help me sort out all of my issues. He encouraged me to read the newly printed “United States Catholic Catechism for Adults” and we discussed it. He encouraged me to start graduate studies at SBSTM, and helped me with a different perspective on many of the things I learned there. We discussed Church documents and rules. He was always available to answer my questions and he challenged me with his own. In a particularly interesting discussion about my perceived “call to the priesthood” he asked me this question- “Do you want to be a priest because you feel you are being called by God, or do you want to be a priest because the ‘Institution’ says you can’t?” It felt like he punched me in the stomach! I had never thought about it that way. He then asked me to say the “Our Father”, when I got the line, “Your will be done”, he stopped me. “Who’s will?” he asked. I replied, meekly, “God’s will”. And then he said to me that this is the question I have to ask myself- Whose will am I doing, mine or God’s?

This was the beginning of my “wake-up call”! I started to educate myself in the hows & whys of what the Church did. I started to understand that the “Spirit of VII” was a far cry from what the documents actually said. I started to see all around me that there was more and more of a “what is in it for me” attitude rather than “what is God’s will for me?” It was also in this time that I had found the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, in particular, his Spiritual Exercises. In the Principle & Foundation, St. Ignatius showed me what I was longing for. It states-

Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.
From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.

And so I embarked on the journey that is the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises. I learned to look at my life and my faith in a whole different perspective. That is, to do God’s will and not my own. I started to see that for most of the previous 4 years, I was more wrapped up in what I wanted the Church to be instead of what Jesus and the Holy Spirit had intended. I started to see the importance of rules, rubrics and the expectations of the member of the “body of Christ” as a means to an end, not a stumbling block.

As I thought and prayed about how I would answer Ben’s question, I began to rework the question in my mind. I do not think of myself as one who went from being a “liberal” Catholic to a “traditional” Catholic. I see myself as someone who has learned what it really means to be “Catholic”. Just as with any club or organization, there are minimum requirements to be a member in good standing. I don’t have to like them, or even understand them, but I do have to obey them, or accept the consequences of my disobedience. Do I still believe that the Church is wrong in some things? Yes, I do. And I also know that I have to work through those issues and come to some kind of resolution regarding them. But this is a journey, and the revelations come as the Holy Spirit decides, not how I want them. I just have to be attentive to that voice and live in a way that, in the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

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9 Responses to “Learning what it really means to be “Catholic””

  1. avatar Dr. K says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Persis!

  2. avatar Gen says:

    This is really a beautiful thing, Persis! I echo Dr. K’s sentiments.

  3. avatar brother of penance says:

    “I started to see the importance of rules, rubrics and the expectations of the member of the “body of Christ” as a means to an end, not a stumbling block.”

    May I phrase that a little differently?

    Persis, whether it is from reading the Sacred Scriptures or other official Church documents, the Catholic believer in God’s Son comes away realizing that one’s good relationship with the Savior Jesus Christ is reflected in and dependent upon one’s good relationship with his Body, the Church.

    Can I say I love Jesus Christ and disdain his Body, the Church?
    Can I say I am striving to obey Jesus Christ while disobeying his Body, the Church?

    Christ is the Head of the Church. Christ identifies himself with his bride, his body, his
    Church.

    “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? Who said: Who art thou, Lord? And he: I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”

    Persis, thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for exercising the gift of faith. Thank you very much for being our sibling in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

    The Lord bless you really good!

  4. avatar brother of penance says:

    The Liturgy helped me appreciate the Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith.
    What we pray is what we believe and what we believe is prayed, so to speak.

    To enhance our connectedness with Catholics all over the world, as prayer is offered officially around the clock, try this website. It is extremely edifying.

    Enjoy http://divineoffice.org/

  5. avatar Choir says:

    Persis – That was a very touching and heartfelt story. I would like to hear more, if there is any more that you can say publicly. God bless and your are in my prayers. Oremus pro invicem.

  6. avatar Thinkling says:

    Thank you for sharing this Persis. Your story is an inspiration and very grounding. We all fight the temptation to make things about ME.

    One of the greatest lines ever penned was about this very surrender:

    I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.

    A more contemporary example:

    I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.

    You are in good company. Blessings.

  7. avatar Persis says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments.
    To be completely honest, I was very unsure about sharing my story here,
    and I have to say I am very glad I did. 😀

    @ Choir, I am wiling to share more, do you have a specific question or topic you would like me to address?

  8. avatar Choir says:

    How was your personal life paralleling your religious life, if it was? Don’t answer if it is too personal. Oremus pro invicem.

  9. avatar Persis says:

    Hope this answers you question Choir- if you have anymore, or something specific you would like ask (or anyone else for that matter)feel free to e-mail me at oneofthewomen@gmail.com

    As teen, after I stopped attending Mass, I got involved with “sex, drugs & rock & roll”!
    It was the late 1980’s and that just seemed like the thing to do. I lived a pretty wild life. I lived at home, did not have alot of bills, and pretty much worked just to have partying money, and money for all the “stuff” that I thought would make me happy.

    I met a great guy when I was 18, a Catholic also, but really on the fence about his faith. He attended Mass weekly, because he also lived at home, and that was the “rule”.
    I attnded Mass with him & his family, but when we decided to get married, after some major issues with his pastor, my husband(boyfriend at the time) “washed his hands” of the whole Church thing. We were married by a JP, and from that point on neither of us really practiced our faith.

    We married young (I was barely 21)and have been together ever since. I used artificial birth control from the time I was 16 until I was 25. We always wanted children, but it never happened. In my early 30’s we started to go through infertility testing, and the doctors found nothing wrong with either of us, they just told us to “keep trying”! ;), so who knows what might happen, all things are possible with God, right? 😉

    When I returned to the Church, it was almost 4 years before anyone ever questioned me on the staus of my marriage, and then, it was a “non-issue”. It was not until I fully understood what not being validly married meant, that I started looking into fixing the situation.
    That was probably the hardest thing ever. My husband wanted no part of convalidation, because he did not think that he should have to “re-consent”. To him, he made a promise before God & man at our wedding, and if that was not good enough for the Church,well then too bad. I found, while reading the Code of Canon Law, a provision called “radical sanation”, talked to a couple of priests/canon lawyers I know and started the process, knowing that if the Chruch denied it, I would be giving up the sacraments forever. For me, it was agonizing.

    Fortunately, the Church found in our favor, and 20 years and about 1 month after we were married, the Chruch granted the sanation.
    It felt like a black cloud was removed from my life. I told my spiritual director I now know what grace “feels” like! 😀

    In the words of Jerry Garcia (you can take the girl out of the party, but you can never take the party out of the girl- once a “Deadhead” always a “Deadhead” they say 😉 )
    “….What a long strange trip it’s been…” 😀

    I may have taken “The Long Way Home”, but I finally got here!


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