So where do I begin? There were many doctrinal questions I had to find the answers to. But what led me to even look for those answers? Up until the late fall of 2014, I had been perfectly content in the Anglican tradition that I had embraced six years before. Having been introduced to a more liturgical tradition in the Lutheran church, just a few years into our marriage, the Anglican church felt like home. Forrest and I were both drawn to the beauty and order of the liturgy, and the importance that we observed being given to the sacraments. We familiarized ourselves with the Book of Common Prayer, and loved the regularity of daily morning and evening prayer, as well as the richness of many written prayers found in the prayer book.
When it came time for Forrest to look into seminary, he was given an option for an "Episcopal seminary in the Catholic tradition," and after visiting it, we were completely sold. It was an amazing place, with an emphasis on living together and worshipping together, and the formation that results. So we moved to Wisconsin and lived on campus along with the whole seminary community for three years while Forrest earned his M.Div. We were incredibly blessed during this time and God provided richly for all our needs, as He always has done. We made many friends, went to many of the daily morning and evening prayers and Eucharistic services, had community meals, and centered our lives around the Church calendar. We even heard the Angelus being rung three times a day, and were taught the Angelus prayer, though typically everyone who said it, said it in silence. We learned, not just through classes, but through living it, the importance of sacraments and of community. Forrest learned so much about church history that really went back to the early days of the Church, and to the fathers, and the reality and importance of apostolic succession. We took a class together on ascetical theology, that is, the discipline of Christian life, that was eye-opening and enriching to our understanding of how to live as Christians, as we read from great saints of ancient through modern times, and how they lived and what they taught. I remember being at first taken aback at learning of the "Three Ways:" that is, the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. I think it just surprised me to see spiritual matters laid out in such a structured way. But as I thought on it, I observed that there was nothing contrary to Scripture about it, but rather, it went right along with the teaching of the Scripture, and was a help and guide to growing in holiness.
God used our time there to form us, to help us to grow in our understanding, and I am so grateful for all the blessings of that time. But we had no intention at that time of "becoming Catholic." If you had asked Forrest and me what we were at that time, we would have identified ourselves as Anglo-Catholic. We really believed ourselves to already be Catholic, so we would never need to become Catholic. We believed in the centrality of sacraments for Christian life--beginning with Baptism and continuing, daily if possible, with the Eucharist. We believed in, as the Nicene Creed states, "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church," firmly believing that unity was very important, and that apostolic succession was an essential mark of the Church. We believed that as Jesus came to be incarnate among us, as the Word made flesh, we are Christ's body in the world--and need to be Christ's body present to the needy world. We embraced Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, about true, self-giving love, when it was introduced to us. It was life changing, in the best and most literal sense. It transformed our marriage and opened us to more abundant life. Literally. A few of us on campus even did a book study on it, in our living room. All these things we still hold dear--in converting, we didn't have to leave any of these vital beliefs behind.
When the three seminary years drew to a close, we packed up and moved to Montana, to work at a church plant. Forrest was ordained in the Anglican church, and we began to put into practice what we came away from seminary with. We had a small group, and in many respects it was a blessed time, but it was a bit lonely and desolate after campus community life. God blessed us with friendships both inside and outside the church plant. Life was very busy too, since Forrest had to be bivocational to make ends meet. One of the most difficult things was realizing that many in the Anglican world, outside of seminary, did not share our love and appreciation for certain things such as the centrality of sacraments in the Christian life, or the importance of apostolic succession. But I still held those things fast, while also truly believing that the Anglican way, as some call it the "via media," or middle way, was to be preferred over other traditions. That the Anglican church held all the essentials of ancient Christian tradition without taking on the unnecessary trappings that the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox did. That we as Anglicans were the most generous, the most welcoming, because we only required verbal confirmation of baptism to be admitted to Holy Communion. So still I had no intention of jumping ship.
In the fall of last year, Forrest quit his second job in order to have more time to devote both to family and to the church plant. We knew there was no way we were going to make the church plant get off the ground if he was tied up at his other job for 30 hours a week on an irregular schedule. We also saw our desperate need for more time together as a family with him. So, we decided to do this for three months, which required financial sacrifice, but was so worth it in the end. I look back and see that as the brightest part of our whole church planting experience. Our family prayed many of the hours together, that is, a version of the Divine Office from ancient times, every day. Forrest was able to make connections with people and was so much more free to minister to people and meet with other pastors in the area, for mutual encouragement. We were even able to go on weekend family outings, which we hadn't had the time for since moving.
Yet, as the three months began to draw to a close, we began to be very unsure what God was calling us to next. We felt like we could keep doing the church plant, if that was God's will and what our small core group desired, but there were a number of factors that made it seem like short of a miracle, it would not be sustainable in the long run. We implored God, throughout our time in Montana, but especially in the last month, for direction, for help with the church plant, that He would help us attract more people and help us find people to minister to; for wisdom and guidance, and that He would draw us closer to Himself.
During this time, God did begin to answer our prayers: we grew as a family, in our love for God, our love for one another, and our desire to learn more about our great God and our faith. Forrest and I were both reading things, listening to things, really hungry for truth, and finding it--often in articles online written by Catholics, or on Catholic radio. This didn't surprise us, because as I mentioned before, we considered ourselves Catholic, just the Anglican "branch" of it, rather than the Roman. I was beginning to realize that it wasn't necessarily typical for an Anglican, though, to hold so many Catholic teachings to be at least true, if not essential. Somehow I began to realize that the Catholics--and if I wanted to be honest, this was the "papist" ones--had the most consistent, most Biblical, most loving answers for so many things. They had won me over already on many issues: now I needed to at least seriously consider the claims they made that I had previously dismissed.
It just happened that I ended up being in the car at the same time of day frequently--when Catholic Answers was on the air. So I started hearing more and more of it, and was impressed. I began podcasting it. This program, and their website, really helped me work through so many issues, because they always dialogued with people in such a winning way, not combative or defensive, and yet articulating their beliefs clearly and unashamedly. It was the welcoming attitude that I heard from Catholics on the radio, that began to make me doubt my previous belief that they just required too much of people, and were too closed in Holy Communion. Maybe that wasn't so--maybe they had the doors wide open, and we just were being too complacent to come and see what it was all about. Maybe we were being unreasonable in our expectations, and maybe it wasn't so bad for the Church to ask us to actually become part of her.
I think one of my biggest hang ups was the Immaculate Conception of Mary. I really knew next to nothing about the history of the dogma, but what I had heard seemed strange and doubtful to me. That a peasant girl in the 19th century claimed that Mary appeared to her and called herself the "Immaculate Conception," was really all I knew. And that this was not declared a dogma until the same century, seemed to me to be dubious. But when I began looking into it, I found out that devotion to Mary, belief in her sinlessness, and many other stories of her appearing to people, were common from early times of the Church and throughout Church history. Maybe this was not as far-fetched, at least in the history that I claimed as mine, as I had suspected. Maybe, even, this was something I would be foolish to dismiss and scoff at so easily.
Still, I wasn't sure about Mary. Catholics tend to give her, I thought, practically an overemphasis, eclipsing Jesus. How I have found this to be a mistaken view! I didn't realize before that the reason Catholics love and honor Mary so much, is because she is the mother of all Christians. When Jesus said to the beloved disciple from the cross, "Behold your mother," I hadn't realized before that those words were for all His beloved disciples, including us. And this is clearly seen in Revelation 12, when the woman gives birth obviously to Jesus, and then the story goes on to tell of the dragon making war on the woman's children (obviously Christians). Who doesn't love his own mother? I have a wonderful mother and I love and respect her a lot. She's one of the most important people in my life. My honor and love for her does not diminish or eclipse my love for Jesus. So also, and even more so, how could my love and honor for my heavenly mother eclipse my love for Jesus--who is her son, whom she loves above all else and is continually showing to the world and telling us to "do whatever He tells you"? Once this clicked, I realized what an amazing blessing and relationship I had been missing out on most of my Christian life!
And yet, I'm getting ahead of myself, because in reality, embracing Mary was not even the last step in the decision to convert, but rather the first step after the decision. I still had to see why it wasn't enough to just remain "Anglo-Catholic." And that came about through a tough disillusionment. I realized that some of the issues that I had always held the traditional line on, could not be side issues. Somehow, though I hadn't seen it before, my eyes were opened to the truth that the Catholic stance on whether women could be ordained to the priesthood, was one that couldn't be tampered with without departing from the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Of course, this made me pretty uncomfortable, because if I admitted that were true, and I couldn't see any way around it, that meant we in our province were not part of the Church. It got me to thinking about other issues that the Catholic Church has been unpopularly uncompromising on: abortion, birth control, marriage, divorce and remarriage. While our province held to some understanding of traditional marriage, and was pro-life in terms of abortion, they had implicitly accepted the more popular, worldly views on birth control and divorce and remarriage. Well, I had known this for a while, but somehow all of a sudden my eyes were opened and I saw clearly how important these matters were. These were literally matters of life and death. And I understood why the Catholic Church has always taken the unpopular stance on these: for love. For love of people. When you love someone, you don't want to see them destroy themselves. God knows that things like birth control and divorce are hurtful, even destructive, to His beloved mankind. He wants what is best for us, so calls us to a higher life, even if that means hardship, even if it means heartbreak, because He knows that holiness doesn't damage us--only sin does.
My story rambles on, but as I began to see with new eyes, I began looking at the truth of the Catholic Church, the holiness of it, the unity within it, and I was awestruck with the beauty. I found myself actually falling in love. It was a romance I had sought for a long time--falling in love with the Divine--because it's Jesus' Church. It's His, and He established it, and He sent His Spirit to guide it into all truth, and declared that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. I was drawn in by Jesus Himself.
The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come."