The winter of 2015-16 was one of the strangest seasons of my life. Jeremy was halfway through his fourth and final year at seminary, and the end of seven long years of studying was finally within sight. Up to that point, everything had led us to believe that Jeremy would make a good pastor, and he was being contacted by various churches who were interested in calling him when he completed his Master of Divinity. We were looking forward to some stability in life: a steady income, knowing where we’d be living for the next five years, and getting to know the congregation Jeremy would be pastoring.
But by the end of 2015 that vision of the future had crumbled. Rather than discussing questions like, “Which of these calling committee inquiries sounds more interesting?” and “Would you ever consider moving to Australia?” I was wondering, “Can I really believe in Purgatory? If I become Catholic, will I lose my love of Scripture? Will my kids fall away from the Lord if we start attending the Catholic Church?” Questions that only a few months earlier during Jeremy’s summer practicum were unthinkable, were now plaguing my thinking.
This dramatic change had begun in September when Jeremy had happened upon a YouTube video by Peter Kreeft, a Catholic theologian, detailing why he’d left the Christian Reformed church of his youth for the Catholic Church. Jeremy had been troubled by the question of whether the early church was closer to the Reformed or Catholic church of today. “I feel like the bottom has fallen out of my world, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same,” Jeremy said to me afterwards. “I think I’ve taken the first step to becoming Catholic.”
That’s a surprising statement to hear from your husband who’s been studying Reformed theology for three years. But as unexpected as it was, I wasn’t entirely unnerved by it. In fact, I had begun to wonder about the Catholic faith myself. This had begun about a year earlier when I’d come across several blogs on books, homeschooling and motherhood. Well, it turns out these blogs had a fourth thing in common I wasn’t aware of straight away: they were also Catholic. And looking back, what first began to change my mind about the Catholic Church was regularly reading the writing of Catholic bloggers.
The first of these blogs was Joyous Lessons, Celeste Cruz’s homeschooling blog. We are using the same curriculum she is, Ambleside Online, and when I realized how organized and detailed Celeste was, I knew I didn’t want to miss a thing. So I began with her first blog post and slowly read through to the present day. She is a devout Catholic, but she grew up Protestant and is soundly grounded in the Scriptures. It was reading her blog that made me realize that the stereotype about Catholics (they don’t know their Bibles and are Christians in culture rather than in practice) are not necessarily true. There are Catholic women who know their Bibles, who love the Lord passionately – and who have chosen to be Catholic rather than Protestant! That was quite a revelation to me.
Haley’s blog on homeschooling, Jane Austen, art and excellent children’s literature was another blog I’d been reading. I was intrigued by how closely the life of her family was tied to the church year, and realized this wasn’t the case for me. A couple years ago, I’d been chatting with a doctor at work and, when he learned I was a Christian, he’d said, “Oh, this must have been a big week for you then!” (Easter had just passed.) Honestly, it hadn’t been. Aside from Christmas, my life was not anchored to the church calendar, and I wondered why.
And a third blog I’d been reading was Mama Needs Coffee. You know how the Scriptures speak of creation groaning in travail? The next verse says, “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Jenny’s blog reminds me of this . . . the way motherhood is a path to holiness, and there’s a whole lot of dying to selfishness along the way. I was intrigued by a series she wrote on why the Catholic church tells believers not to use contraception or birth control, and how separating sex and children is never a good thing for a married couple. Her comment that, prior to the 1930s, every single church forbade the use of contraception and birth control – well, that was stunning. Really? I wondered. What happened?
So, because I’d been reading these blogs, Jeremy’s confession about having taken the first step to becoming Catholic didn’t alarm me as much as it might have. Some further questions about Catholicism I had included the following . . .
We all know that our culture is completely messed up when it comes to sex. It praises disordered sex, sex outside of marriage, etc. And it also praises separating having sex and having children – you can have the pleasure of sex without the inconvenience of children. Is it possible that our culture’s thoughts about sex have been seeping into the church? If it is true that up until the 1930s all churches opposed the use of birth control and contraception, why do so many Christians today consider birth control a given? “We’re getting married, but we’re not ready to have children yet” is the norm, it seems. “We’ll use protection till we’re really ready for kids.” And, seeing as I’m in my mid-30s, the latest thing I’ve been hearing is, “My husband got ‘snipped’ because our family is complete” or, “We’re done having children.” Why is the Roman Catholic Church the only church opposed to birth control, contraception and sterilization today?
More questions popped up while I was working through a Bible study on the book of 1 Peter with some friends. We came across a remarkable verse that says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, [i.e., the flood] now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (3:21). I wondered, does baptism literally save us by the washing away of our sins, like the Catholic Church teaches? Or was Peter speaking figuratively? And when there are two or three possible interpretations, how do I know which is true? Do I go with the argument that most compels me? Or is there a higher authority that can define Christian beliefs for me?
This verse from Peter’s letter made me wonder about other Bible verses Catholics interpret literally. Like Jesus saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (John 6:53-54). Why did so many of Jesus’s disciples abandon him when they heard this teaching? Did they leave because Jesus was talking about people eating/drinking a symbol of his body and blood, or because he was talking about them actually eating his body and blood? What about the verses at the end of the gospel of John, where Jesus breathes on his disciples and gives them the power to forgive sins? Did the disciples really possess that power? Was that a little tidbit we ought to ignore, or explain away? What if transubstantiation and the work of the priest in the confessional was actually true and scriptural?
One of the best things about seminary was that we got a chance to talk about all the things Jeremy was learning about over lunch together. It was like having my own personal theology instructor. I loved it! And when Jeremy began seriously diving into Catholic theology, we talked about that even more than usual. He did the bulk of the research, while I acted as more of a sounding board. (Our little children were 4 years old (James), 1 year old (June) and newly born (Alice) at the time, so I didn’t have lots of energy or free time for deep reading.) We talked about sola scriptura and church authority. We talked about the early church fathers and whether a Reformed or Catholic person would feel more at home in the ancient church. I bought a DVD by Wes Callihan on the church fathers and read through the writings of men like St. Ignatius and St. Clement who lived just after the time of the apostles. We talked about Douglas Wilson’s book on why he’s not Catholic, Papa Don’t Pope, which, unfortunately, was far less helpful than either of us was expecting. And we began to think about apostolic succession, the Catholic belief that Jesus gave teaching authority to the apostles, which was handed down to the next generation of church leaders, and so on and so forth throughout the history of the church.
And what emerged from all these hours spent reading and discussing were two questions: How can sola scriptura be true, if the Bible itself doesn’t teach it? And, is the Catholic Church the church that Christ founded, as it claims to be? (Or, to put it differently, do I decide what I believe the Bible teaches, and then find a church that agrees with me? Or do I find the Church, and then side with her?)
In November 2015, my parents flew out from BC for a visit. Those visits with family during our years in Ontario were so precious; they were golden days, absolutely treasured! We sat down with my parents and explained what was going on in our hearts and minds. They were surprised, but promised to pray for us – and have done so, without ceasing, to this day. We appreciate those prayers for our spiritual wellbeing so much! What better way to care for people you love than to lift them up in prayer before the Father? It was a relief to be able to share some of these thoughts that were crowding our minds.
On the day my parents were returning home, James came bounding up from the basement with a what appeared to be a necklace clutched in his hands. We asked him what he was holding and where he’d found it, and he showed it to us. It was a small, pale rosary and he explained he’d found it hanging at eye level on a nail in the workshop downstairs. Jeremy and I had been in that workshop countless times and had never seen a rosary there. We both wondered at the timing of a Catholic devotional aid appearing out of nowhere just as we were looking more deeply into The Catholic Question. And looking back, I’m reminded of Jesus coming into the world without a trace of pomp or splendor, but instead wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. So Catholicism did not come into our lives with an ornate, hand-crafted wooden rosary, to which Jeremy and I would both have been instinctively attracted, but with a flimsy, plastic glow-in-the-dark rosary. Seems entirely appropriate, doesn’t it? 🙂
Late that autumn, we invited a local Catholic priest to our home. There were many particulars about the Catholic Church we had questions about: parish life, purgatory, Catholic schools and justification by faith alone, and it seemed we needed a real live Catholic person with whom we could discuss these matters. Father Adam happened to have a blog, so Jeremy emailed him and he agreed to meet with us. I think we were all rather nervous that evening, but Father Adam answered our questions plainly and honestly. Parish life varies from church to church. Avoid sending your children to a Catholic school in Ontario. Yes, Catholics believe in Purgatory and they believe their sins are fully forgiven by Christ. The two are not mutually exclusive.
And justification by faith alone. Martin Luther’s analogy of being made right with God was that of snow covering a dunghill: God clothes the dunghill (the sinner) with righteousness (the snow). You’re still a dunghill, but now God sees the snow. This reminded me of an old friend who had attended a Reformed Church once and had heard a sermon on justification that had contained a similar metaphor. It had mystified him. Why would I want God to see Jesus instead of me, he wondered. Isn’t that a lie? That question had lain around in the back of my mind for years. Father Adam said Luther’s analogy is not what Catholics believe. Catholics teach that you are baptized and believe in Jesus, and your dunghill-ness is turned to snow. God doesn’t just cover you so you appear clean and fresh and white, but you are actually made clean.
This reminded me of something Jeremy’s dogmatics professor had said: Anytime you encounter false teaching, the question you ought to ask is, What does this say about Jesus and his work of salvation? On reflection, it seemed that Jesus transforming dung into snow was a much greater work than Jesus simply covering dung with snow. And I wondered, Could it be that the Catholic understanding of salvation actually gives greater glory to God?
It was refreshing to meet a Catholic in real life and to speak face to face, rather than face to book. Speaking of books, Father Adam gave us a copy of Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn at that first meeting and I read it quickly over the next few days while I nursed Alice. In it, the Hahns share their story of becoming Catholic. It’s a dramatic story, as Dr. Hahn had been a Presbyterian pastor with a passion for converting Catholics to Protestantism when he first began to investigate Catholicism. Dr. Hahn also has a deep love for Scripture, and his conversion to Catholicism happened because of Scripture, not despite Scripture as some might suppose.
Another thing Father Adam did was to introduce us to a young Catholic family who lived down the road from us. They were friendly and interested in our situation, and very open to answering all the questions we came up with. Mike had been in seminary to become a priest, and Elena was well versed in Catholic theology, too. Emotionally, it was an immense relief to be able to speak openly about the turmoil we were in with people who were sympathetic to our plight. Jeremy had spoken to his seminary mentor about these matters, but we were not sure it would be wise to share widely our misgivings about the Reformed faith given that Jeremy still harboured a small hope of becoming a Reformed pastor. What if this were a phase, or something that led us to cling even more strongly to our Reformed faith in the end?
Jeremy attended Mass once or twice with Mike, and I went to Mass once with Elena. Although I’d visited Catholic cathedrals on past trips to Europe, I couldn’t remember having been at a Catholic service before. The building was large and austere, and I was struck by reverence of the service. There was a silence in the church that was profound, and before church members received the Eucharist, they knelt or bowed deeply at the waist. I found it quite fascinating how physical Catholic worship was, and was reminded of this lovely line in Scott Hahn’s memoir: “Now I know why God gave me a body: to worship the Lord with his people in liturgy.” One didn’t simply hear the Word, but one also touched holy water, made the sign of the cross, knelt in prayer, and showed reverence to the Body of Christ by bowing or kneeling.
The school year marched on, and in January of 2016 Jeremy quit preaching and teaching catechism classes. The Catholic Question had grown large enough that he no longer felt he could preach or teach in good conscience. He got through the final semester of school with a heavy burden on his heart. This last stretch of seminary was a peculiar time for me, one in which I felt quite alone. I remember one night in particular. I had joined the other ‘seminary wives’ for an evening out, and we’d been talking about the next stage in our lives. They were looking forward to classis exams, their husbands getting calls to various churches, and becoming pastors’ wives; we were even reading a book on this topic, You Can Still Wear Cute Shoes, at our monthly get-togethers. They were gearing up for a busy, exciting summer filled with possibility. I’d been fairly reserved that night, as Jeremy wanted to keep things quiet till he’d finished his studies. At the close of the evening, I headed in one direction towards my van while everyone else walked in another direction, gaily chatting and laughing. It seemed like a perfect picture of our lives. They were all headed towards a future of security and of supporting their husbands in the ministry, while I was alone and discouraged, with only broken dreams of the future.
Seminary finally came to an end, and Jeremy wrote his final exams and shared his growing attraction to Catholicism with his professors and classmates. This was an enormous relief to me, as I was tired of wrestling with these deep questions in silence. A friend from church later told me she’d assumed I’d been suffering from postpartum depression. She was right about the suffering, but wrong about the cause – it wasn’t postpartum depression, it was these question about Catholicism plaguing my soul.
I’d been praying desperately over the past months. Prayers of frustration. Why did these questions pop up at the last minute? How unfair! After seven years of school! And just when we were beginning to imagine what our future could look like! Why now, Lord? And prayers for truth. I recognized that Satan hates it when good men graduate from seminary and go on to preach the good news, and I did not want to be led astray by the father of lies. Lord, if the Catholic Church is in error, make that plain to us! Keep us in Your truth. How can we know which way you want us to go? And desperate prayers for our souls and for the souls of our children. I was terrified of straying away from the Lord, and of leading my children away from Him. The line from the Heidelberg Catechism about the Mass being an ‘accursed idolatry’ pinged around in my mind as a grave warning. I wondered if our children wouldn’t be better off in the Canadian Reformed Church. There seemed to be fewer people rejecting their faith there than in the Catholic church – maybe we could just ignore these doubts and suffer them for the sake of our children’s future. And yet, I found great peace in the belief that if the Catholic Church was who she said she was, then I could know that submitting to her was the same thing as submitting to Christ.
An interesting verse in this regard is found in one of Paul’s letters to Timothy. He refers, almost in passing, to the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” When you read that quote, what do you think he’s talking about? What would you say is the pillar and foundation of the truth? As a Reformed person, I would have said the Scriptures, of course! But read what Paul writes: “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Paul actually calls the church the pillar and foundation of the truth. Isn’t that fascinating?
After seminary was out, we shared our thoughts about Catholicism with our elder as well. We wished to withdraw from our Reformed church then and there, because, while we weren’t ready to be Catholic yet, we were quite sure we done being Reformed. But our elder advised a cautious course with room for dialogue, and we agreed to that.
And then we had to decide what to do with our lives: should we stay or should we go? We could either remain in Ontario long-term, as Jeremy had been offered a decent job in woodworking, or we could move back to BC where I could work as a nurse. I was not able to work as a nurse in Ontario, as I hadn’t worked for four years, but I was able to work in BC where the requirements are slightly more lenient. My working for a year would give us some more time to decide what sort of career Jeremy should pursue, and it would mean we’d be much closer to our families. We thought about it and prayed about it, and decided to move to BC. Within two weeks we had moved across the country.
I wish we had been able to leave in a more leisurely fashion, though work requirements didn’t allow for this. We would have welcomed the opportunity to meet with our elder several times over a period of a few months, rather than sharing our concerns and leaving a week later. That wasn’t ideal. And it wasn’t ideal in terms of our friendships and relationships, either. We told our friends and some fellow church members we were seriously considering becoming Catholic, and then we relocated before we could really talk things through. But, for us as a family and for our mental health, it was a good choice. Once we settled in to our new home in the little village of Fruitvale, Jeremy began smiling and laughing again, something that had been sorely lacking during the last few months in Hamilton.
After we settled into our home in Fruitvale, we began to look around for a church to attend. We weren’t sure about immediately going to a Catholic church (we did still have many questions to sort through), so on our first Sunday in the Kootenays we attended an Alliance church. On the drive home, James declared that church had been “fun!” It certainly had been a casual experience. What I remember most is the way the members of the congregation were always looking around, instead of paying attention to the songs being sung, the sermon being preached, etc. There was an unappealing restlessness at the core of the church, kind of like hanging out with a person who is constantly checking her phone.
So, on our second Sunday in Fruitvale we began attending the Catholic Church. It was a small congregation of mostly seniors, and our young family stood out. Plus, if you’ve ever been to Mass, you’ll know that there is a lot of standing and sitting and praying, and the first time you go you don’t really know what is going on. But there was a reverence to be found there, something that gave one an inkling that something profound was occurring.
And so we kept coming. After a few months, we asked about starting RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). This is an introduction to Catholicism that usually involves weekly meetings from September to April; newcomers are then received into the Catholic Church on the Easter vigil service. Our parish was a small one, so we were the only people in RCIA; and our parish was flexible, too, so our RCIA classes were held at our home. We worked our way through Father Barron’s Catholicism DVD series and peppered our RCIA leaders with many questions. And we did lots of reading on the side. I read parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (it’s a whopping 825 pages long, so it takes way longer to get through than the Heidelberg Catechism!), On Being Catholic by Thomas Howard, The Lamb’s Supper by Scott Hahn, quite a few blog articles by Leila Miller, the occasional article by Called to Communion (I think Jeremy’s read their entire website from top to bottom), and watched Catholic Answers videos by Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist (who was formerly a Protestant – it seems some of the best Catholic apologists out there used to be Protestant!).
When we started RCIA, we withdrew from our church in Hamilton. The elders encouraged the congregation to correspond with us and to pray for us, and many people sent us little notes letting us know that we were in their prayers. We appreciated these prayers on our behalf tremendously, as well as the notes of encouragement. They demonstrated a heartfelt concern for our spiritual wellbeing, and we were very grateful for that.
A tiny number of people emailed to ask us why we wanted to become Catholic (I’m still grateful for those genuine questions), and a larger number emailed to tell us of specific concerns they had with the Catholic Church. Some people felt very reluctant to email because of Jeremy’s background in theology (what could I possibly say to change your mind?) but still chose to correspond because of a conviction that it was the right thing to do. We were very touched by that effort.
The concerns raised included the following points, and I’ll include a brief response to each one.
– Catholics venerate relics.
Yes, they do. If you think of the Church as a family, the saints are the family members known for their extraordinary holiness and devotion to God. And relics are physical, tangible reminders of these holy people that turn our hearts to God, to the beautiful work he accomplishes in the lives of his people. And when you read the Scriptures and note that a dead body that touched Elisha’s bones was raised from the dead, and that handkerchiefs handled by the Apostle Paul healed the sick and exorcized demons you can see why believers throughout history have held on to relics of the holy. It is also worth noting that venerating and worshiping are two distinct things. We can show respect to someone or something (we’d all bow or curtsy in the presence of the Queen, for instance) without worshiping the person or object.
– Catholics worship saints.
No, they don’t. They venerate saints, that is, they show them honour, but they worship God alone. You could compare it to how you’d act if a great hockey player like Pavel Bure walked into the room. You might stand up, shake his hand and offer him a good seat and something delicious to drink. Likewise, Catholics show deference to the men and women throughout history who have lived holy lives. Certainly Catholics distinguish between the Creator and the creature. They don’t worship saints; they recognize that the godly lives of saints point us to God.
– Catholics think saints can intercede for us.
Yes, they do. Catholics don’t believe that the communion of the saints is only for the living. They believe that all members of the Body of Christ, whether their bodies have perished or not, are part of the communion of saints. So Catholics believe that a soul in heaven, enjoying the full presence of God, is able and willing to pray for believers still alive. A lovely picture of this is found in the book of Revelation, where the living creatures and elders are holding bowls of incense, “which are the prayers of God’s people,” before the throne of God.
– Praying to saints is not biblical.
What ‘prayer to saints’ means is that you are asking a holy person to pray to God on your behalf. I love to ask holy people to pray for me! For example, I regularly ask my dad to pray for me and I find it very comforting to know he’s doing so, for as the Apostle James says, “the prayer of a righteous man avails much.” There’s no reason to think that believers in heaven don’t care about our troubles; for example, you may recall the rich man interceding for his wayward brothers on earth in one of Jesus’s parables.
– The Catholic Church gives you lots of ways for you to earn bonus credit before God.
Catholics believe that salvation is a gift of grace, not something you earn. So, no, there is no ‘bonus credit’ before God. What does ‘bonus credit’ even mean in a family relationship of love? Do you ever think of your children as earning ‘bonus credit’ with you when they hug you or draw you a picture? Of course not. That being said, Catholics do believe that God rewards our good works, as Jesus taught repeatedly, and as the apostles reiterate in the New Testament. The reward that we receive, though, is more of God himself. Contemplating more of His majesty and more of His glory is the prize, which means that the only thing that can motivate us to earn these rewards is our love for God.
– The Catholic Church has troubling traditions, such as venerating Mary and believing in Purgatory.
Yes, the Catholic Church does think highly of Mary (or, as Wordsworth called her, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”). If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, I’d recommend Jeremy’s blog post, Fragrant Mary on the North Wind. And yes, the Catholic Church does believe in Purgatory. I’ll touch more on this later, as Purgatory is something I struggled with before becoming Catholic.
– You’re leaving our church and not joining another one, but you need the sacraments to remain strong in your faith.
There was a gap between us leaving the Canadian Reformed Church (around October 2016) and us joining the Catholic Church (in April 2017), but we were enrolled in RCIA during that time. I certainly did hunger for the sacraments during that time!
– You must think you need to earn God’s favour if you’re considering becoming Catholic.
No, I don’t think I need to earn God’s favour.
– Salvation should only be sought in Jesus.
Yes, the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is found in Christ alone.
– I hope that you will not sever all ties with the Canadian Reformed churches and your friends and family within it.
It was never our plan to sever all ties. We are profoundly thankful for the way our parents raised us, and we are grateful, too, for all that we have learned and the many ways in which we have loved and been loved within the CanRef church. We did not leave because of bitterness or disappointment or resentment. (We were perfectly happy there, until The Catholic Question hit us!) We have simply come to see that Christ is to be found in His church, the Catholic church, and so are following Him there.
– I’m sorry if you have had a bad experience in our churches, or were hurt by our churches.
Neither is the case. We didn’t leave because of a bad experience, or because we were hurt. We left because we realized the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ.
These email conversations gave us a lot to think and pray about. My one disappointment in this regard was that so many conversations ended after the other person had made his or her point. Very few people took the time to really engage with our questions. Then again, I think we could have put more effort into our relationships in Hamilton; had we done that, I imagine those conversations would have been more robust!
It was a lot of changes in a short time period. Aside from leaving our church family and moving across the country, I was also returning to work and getting used to being away from our children for tiring 12 hour days. At first I coped by getting wrapped up in a murder mystery series on Acorn TV (like Netflix, but with British television shows). I sent an email to a friend around that time saying, I’d expected to lean on God more during this difficult transition in our life, but instead I’m just drowning myself in distraction! Sending the email was enough to effect a change. I began to pray again, and to seek God.
I came across a beautiful hymn, “O Jesus Thou the Beauty Art,” that really spoke to me. The lyrics say,
O Jesus, Thou the Beauty art
Of angel worlds above!
Thy Name is music to the heart
Enchanting it with love.
O my sweet Jesu
Hear the sighs
Which unto Thee I send!
To Thee my inmost spirit cries,
My being’s hope and end!
I thought about those words a lot: the beauty of Christ, Jesus listening to my sighing, Jesus being both the hope and end of my life. Months later I spent several hours chatting with a work colleague (we had no patients that day) about my experience so far in the Catholic church. She was intensely interested. What would you say is the greatest difference you’ve noticed so far, having moved from a Protestant church to the Catholic Church? she asked. It sounds so cheesy, but what I’d noticed was a profound appreciation for the love of God. God looks on me, his child, with love! That same love that I have for each one of my children, only magnified because He’s God and He’s thoroughly and completely good and selfless. That love boggled my mind, and drove away insecurities I’d always had.
By February of 2017 Jeremy was ready to join the Church, but there was still a holdout in my heart. Even though I mentally understood that Christ had founded the Catholic Church, that he had passed His authority to that Church, and that she was His beloved bride, there was still some part of me that was dragging my heels, not quite committed.
One of my hang-ups was about Purgatory. I’d read Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, that epic Norwegian Catholic novel set in the medieval era, and was troubled by the scene in which Kristin’s father, Lavrans, dies. He was a good man, a man pained by his sins, faithful to God, generous to those who had less than him.
Lavrans now spoke often of the purgatory fire, which he expected to enter soon, but he showed no sign of fear. He hoped for great solace from the prayers of intercession offered by his friends and the priests; and he consoled himself that Saint Olav and Saint Thomas would give him strength for the last trial, as he felt they had given him strength here in life. He had always heard that the person who firmly believed would never for a moment lose sight of the salvation toward which the soul was moving, through the fiery blaze.
Kristin thinks Lavrans is anticipating Purgatory like a soldier “eager for battle and adventure.” This was a very different way of thinking about what happens after death, and I worried about how to console a dying person. I remembered very clearly the death of my step-grandmother, how she’d held on to life for nearly two weeks after we’d begun to anticipate her death. My family had encouraged her to let go and to enter heaven. Reflecting on this, it seemed we had been asking my step-grandmother to lay down her weapons and enter a time of rest. My uncle had also recently died, and this refrain of rest and peace had sounded again. How could I encourage a person to let go their last grip on life when it meant facing yet another hurdle before heaven? What joy or consolation was there in death that was not an immediate entrance to heaven, but an entrance to flames and suffering? Should I be praying for the soul of my uncle? Was he in heaven, or was he in purgatory with no Catholics to pray for him?
Personally, I think CS Lewis’s explanation about purgatory makes a lot of sense. (That really has been my experience with becoming Catholic; that for every question I’ve had, there has always been an answer that just makes sense.) Lewis writes,
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’?
Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’
‘It may hurt, you know.’
‘Even so, sir.’
I suppose it is not so common these days for us to think of ourselves as having smelly breath and being dressed in muddy rags. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, you may remember the part of the story where Sam and Frodo are being led by Gollum to Mount Doom. Gollum is ravenously hungry and Frodo shares some of his lembas (elven bread) with him. Gollum, whose soul has been twisted by the evil ring so that he has lost most of his hobbit-ness, can’t eat the bread that tastes of honey. It chokes him. I think that’s a great picture of what sin does to us. It makes goodness and the things of God unbearable to us. And sanctification is God changing us so that we begin to stomach, and eventually to love, the things of God. In Catholic teaching, most people aren’t totally healed from that twistedness in this life (that is, made fully perfect or holy) – and Purgatory is what finishes the healing, what makes us open to the fullness of God’s love. It’s not a pleasant process, but it is for our good – so that we can fully enjoy Him.
Lewis continues, “I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition, partly because most real good that has been done me in life has involved it. But I don’t think suffering is the purpose of purgation” (Prayer: Letters to Malcolm). My problem with purgatory was the question of its purpose; certainly, a purgatory that is all about punishment would drive us farther away from God and would be a torment as we lay dying. But Purgatory is meant to draw us closer to God. Catherine of Genoa said purgatory is “incomparably painful because we see all the horror of our own sins, yet it is incomparably joyful because God is there, and we are learning to endure his truth, his light.” What a beautiful thing, for our hearts to be wholly open to God!
About this time, some friends we made through Called to Communion sent us two packages of books in the mail. Shipping from New Zealand is not cheap; I think they spent around $150 sending us these lovely treasures! This Catholic couple had also been Reformed once upon a time, and had received books in the mail from overseas friends when they were investigating Catholicism, and so they felt compelled to do the same for us. Amongst these books was one by Peter Kreeft with the title Catholic Christianity. It really is a gem of a book, and I highly recommend it. If you are at all interested in what the Catholic Church teaches, this is the book to read. I wish it had been used as the basis of our RCIA instruction. It carefully goes through the teachings of the Church, and explains them in the most straightforward and delightful way. It is grounded in Scripture, and it is a rich feast for the mind. It answered more questions I didn’t know I had, and the remaining reservations I held washed away after reading this book.
I remember traveling about Europe with two friends and coming across a lovely old church in Bled, Slovenia, that had marvelous paintings illustrating the Lord’s prayer. The church was quiet, in a rich and full sort of way. When I remember that church, I think – why are many Catholic churches so beautiful? What is it about them that makes your soul quiet and reverent? And conversely, why are most modern churches so dull and uninspiring? There is a newly built church in Abbotsford that Jeremy compared to a dentist’s office, and unfortunately, he was bang on. Peter Kreeft answers those questions, saying,
The greatest works of architecture were built to glorify the Architect of the universe: to house the incarnate Eucharistic Christ. These were the cathedrals, miraculous “sermons in stone” that made rock and glass seem to take wing and fly like angels. Many of the world’s greatest paintings and statues were made for churches, and much of the greatest music was composed for Masses. For what happens within that sacred time and place is the most beautiful work of art ever conceived: God’s work of redeeming man from eternal darkness into heavenly light by enduring hellish darkness in man’s place on the Cross.
And in answer to my question of why our lives should be tied to the church calendar:
Liturgy sanctifies all times by its special sacred times . . . Easter is not simply one feast among others, but the ‘Feast of feasts,’ the ‘Solemnity of solemnities’; just as the Eucharist is the ‘Sacrament of sacraments.’
On April 2nd, Jeremy and I joined the Catholic Church. I mentioned Rome Sweet Home earlier in this post. In that book, Scott writes about how his wife, Kimberley, remained Presbyterian for another five years before also joining the Church. Their marriage suffered a lot of strain because of their division in the faith. When Jeremy and I got married, we didn’t spend much time choosing our wedding text. If I remember correctly, I flipped through my Bible for a while, suggested Philippians 2:1-2, Jeremy agreed to the selection, and that was the end of the matter. Our wedding text ends with the words, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” And despite our lackadaisical approach to choosing a text, I am convinced that God has answered the prayer within it by graciously leading us down the path to Catholicism at the same time. And my heart is full of gratitude for this extraordinary mercy God has shown us. We were confirmed that day, and rather than waiting till the Easter vigil service for our first communion, our priest waved us on up for our first communion then, too.
One of my favourite parts of the Mass happens just before members of the congregation walk up to the front of church to receive the Eucharist. The congregation says in unison, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8). Isn’t that such a beautiful picture of the gospel right there? Our Lord, who humbled himself to become man, and who humbled himself to die by a criminal’s death on the cross, daily humbles himself to become bread for us, too. In one of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels, she mentions three three-word prayers that sum up the Christian life:
Lord, have mercy.
Into thy hands.
Thee I adore.
Eating communion nearly always brings those last three words to mind. Thee I adore! How astounding to receive by faith a Saviour so great beyond comprehension, and yet so humble as to become our daily bread!