Friday, February 26, 2010

My Conversion Journey: Gabriella

Thérèse and I grew up in what I like to call a nondenominational Christian home. Our father had been raised Catholic but had stopped practicing as soon as he left home and our mother grew up Mormon, sometimes. And as we grew up, we attended several different churches, usually places that friends attended; so to me, church was more of a social gathering than anything. When we moved to Crestline, Thérèse and I would sometimes attend a Lutheran church with our neighbors, usually me more than Thérèse. But none of this was done regularly, just enough that I believed that Jesus was the son of God and he had died for our sins. And that was about the breadth of my knowledge of the Christian belief.

Coming from such a background, it really isn’t a surprise that when I started attending the University of Redlands in 2008 I signed up for a World Religions course. When people asked why I picked the class I would state that it is important that any student serious about learning the ins and outs of the international community have some understanding of different religions. In reality, I had been hoping that I would fine a religion that “felt right” to me. My professor was a rather eccentric woman who emphasized our learning of eastern religions and Hindu religions like Sanatana Dharma. Seeing the range of beliefs in Sikhs, Jians, Buddhists, and other religions, I was solidified in my belief about a single god, one creator of the universe. While I found worthwhile ideas in all the religions we studied, something in me told me that I wasn’t going to find the answers I sought in any religion but the Abrahamics. This was my God; I just had to see which religion fit me.

After my class ended, I did some light studying on my own. It didn’t take long before I had completely disregarded Islam – there were just areas of the Quran that I couldn’t agree with and I would find myself strangely affected every time there was a jab at Christianity. That, more than anything, told me that there was no way I could turn my back on Jesus. I didn’t quite know his role in my life but I knew that he had a spot there. This was where my self-discovery took a brief hiatus. I now knew that in my core, I was Christian. But the exposure I had with Christianity wasn’t very appealing. The Lutheran church I had gone to had seemed vague about the meaning of the Bible and really seemed to be a projection of one person’s opinions on God and the friends I had known, who I was very close to, had always seemed ostentatious with their beliefs. These friends had never really listened to what I had to say and a lot of my beliefs were considered wrong by them and there was no explanation or attempt to understand what I was saying. Maybe my parents had it right, believe in the divinity of Christ and let it go at that. I was unhappy with this decision but could see no other real option.

In May 2009, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. My German professor had suggested that I look into his May-term course to Germany. The class would be three weeks in Germany researching the Holocaust. The class was rather inexpensive and I was in love with Germany. Even now, I can’t really explain how I was able to convince my family to let me go but they ended up supporting my decision and I found myself in Germany. I visited Dachau, the very first concentration camp, I stood inside the gas chambers, and I saw the mass graves. That one trip shook my faith. How could a country of Christians do such horrible things? Where was the love and acceptance I had always been taught was essential to Christianity? That night I went to sleep wondering if there even was a God. Before we left Munich, our prof decided to show us the most beautiful churches in Munich. We toured Asamkirche, Peterskirche, and Frauenkirche (Asam’s Church, the Church of St. Peter, and The Church of Our Lady). We spent an hour in the Frauenkirche. I sat in a pew looking up at Jesus on the cross, I looked up to the saints depicted on the stain glass windows and I felt safe. Not the safe where I wasn’t obsessively looking around for pickpockets (although I did feel safe in that way as well) but I stopped worrying; I lost the weight that had been on my shoulders and I felt like myself again. As I left, I stopped by the small shop outside the Frauenkirche to buy Thérèse a rosary as a gift (even before our foray into Catholicism she collected them) and was talked into buying one for myself by the shop lady (German women are very pushy).

At first, I didn’t think much of that day – it seemed natural that God would answer my yearnings in a church whether I was there religiously or not – but I found myself making excuses to visit every Catholic church I could. And when I returned home at the end of May, I found myself thinking of those churches and the peace that I had found in there. So I began researching the places I visited and the different features of each church – what the tabernacle was, what holy water was used for, etc. And the more I learned about Catholic beliefs, the more I realized that “hey, that’s what I believe!” By the end of summer I was practicing Catholic prayers and looking into how to become part of the official church.

My decision was made and there was only one left to do, tell the person I rely on the most – my big sister. So, as we were driving home from our aunt’s house one night I took the plunge.

“Don’t laugh at me,” I began.

“Why?” I could already tell that she was just gathering her breath, waiting to laugh. After all, our relationship is built on our ability to laugh at each other.

“I think I want to become Catholic…”

My Conversion Journey: Thérèse

"There are in truth three states of the converted: the beginning, the middle, and the perfection."
-Pope Gregory

My adventure toward Catholicism began several months ago while riding in the car with my smaller sister. "Don’t laugh at me," she began.

"Huh? Why not laugh at you? What are you doing?" I replied – in general she follows these phrases with something that I can’t help laughing at; the last time we had this conversation, she informed me that she had joined her university’s Quidditch team.

"I think I want to become Catholic."

I was surprised to say the least. Not so much that my non-denominational sister would make such a decision, but because for the past several months I had been considering the same thing. The two of us had been raised in a moderate Christian family. When we attended services, it was just to whatever church was close, and we lived under the assumption that all of these churches were generally the same. And for the most part they were, we went to Sunday school at a Nazarene church for several years, but it was nearly impossible to tell the difference between those services and the ones we would later attend at the local Lutheran church. (Except of course that when I was younger they preached to us though hand puppets.) A brief foray into the Mormon Church quickly helped me realize that the Latter-day Saints were not for me. I went to an after school program held there with a friend for about a year, but after being invited to come baptize the dead, I had to withdraw.

Up until that point, the extent of my Catholic knowledge began and ended in my public school history classes. In hindsight, our lessons were almost humorously anti-Catholic. Teachers portrayed the Reformation as an advancement akin to the America Civil Rights Movement; Martin Luther was a hero, never a heretic; and we only ever read of his 95 Theses, never his anti-Semitic writings. As a student, I had always pictured the Catholic Church as a mysterious force, steeped in corruption, where people were encouraged to worship Mary and the saints under the control of some type of religious monarchy. Most prominent though was my belief the church was not accessible; that it was out of reach for the common person – especially for me.

My opinion of the church began to change a few years ago when I moved out of my parents’ home and into a small apartment closer to work. I moved into my new home with nothing but an inflatable mattress and a refrigerator, and I found that for the first time in my life, I was lonely. I craved the sense of community I had felt while growing up. I had come from a small town where I lived within walking distance of my friends, and now they we were a thirty-minute drive away. It was a depressing time while trying to find equilibrium between my newfound independence and my desire for my old community.

By stroke of luck – or maybe the influence of the Holy Spirit? – I had chosen an apartment complex that was wedged in between a large Chinese Seventh Day Adventist Church and a very small Catholic Church. Day after day I would drive by, and after a while I began to notice a marked difference in the laity of each church. I noticed that the Adventist Church was enormous - the building placed away from the street with an impressive expanse of grass to the front – but I never saw any of the people coming or going. The Catholic Church on the other hand was full of people - in the mornings, in the evenings, before and after services, there were always people swarming the small grounds, and they always seemed so happy.

I began to get interested, what was the Catholic Church anyway? What was with these saint-people? Why all these pictures of Mary? With these questions pulling at my little brain I started my research at the obvious place: Google. I read whatever I could find, "Catholicism for Dummies," "10 Steps to Becoming Catholic," "What to do at a Catholic Mass." For all that I’ve learned now, it was a pretty superficial look at a beautifully complex religion, nevertheless it was enough to pique my interest.

But I am now, and forever have been, a terrible procrastinator. I can’t help it any more than I can the color of my eyes; I cannot do something today if I can just as easily put it off for tomorrow. And so I drove by that church every single day for months on end, each time thinking, "Oh, I should stop by and talk to somebody there…." This went on and on, until I think my guardian angel just got sick to death and arranged the aforementioned powwow with my sister.

Even after we realized we had been experiencing the same desires, it would take the two of us a number of months to get our acts together and go talk to a priest. She had been attending masses at her school and wanted to talk to her priest after she returned from summer break. It turned out that her priest was just a visiting Father from another local church, and was somewhat dismissive of her request that he help her "be Catholic." I think he was more surprised that anything, not very many people seem to come to the church alone; and we had no sponsors, no godparents to guide us. All we had was each other, and a feeling that our attraction to the church was more than just a passing interest.

We attended our first mass at the church by my house on a Tuesday night. We waited in the parking lot until we could follow someone else inside, and we sat in the back… we followed everyone else as they stood up, sat down, stood up, and then kneeled. We mumbled along with prayers that we didn’t know or understand, and sat quietly and curiously while everyone else went up to take the Eucharist. Then the next week we came back again.

After a while we made an appointment with the Father, who advised us that we were just in time to catch the first week of RCIA classes. We were overjoyed and eager to enter into the church as catechumen. We approached our lessons with gusto, eating up everything we were taught. We’re now approaching our baptisms at the Easter Vigil and we look ever forward to continuing to learn and grow in our newfound faith.