Through the hazy fog of partially-lost memory, I squint to see my past.
As the mist gently lifts, I see her – the five-year-old version of myself – walking beside my best childhood friend, Janet Maloney. There we were, like two little ducks, scurrying after Janet’s mother as she led us through two huge, heavy doors. Our feet clicked loudly as we tapped our way into the barren chapel. The church felt empty. Abandoned. The ceilings seemed so far away, as if they were suspended from the sky. Creatures had been carved into dark wooden walls that stretched upwards to hold hands with heaven. Everything looked big and dark and reeked of something I had only smelled after rain. This new world around me seemed immense and unknowable, sterile yet smothered in supernatural secrecy. And, as a child who was never taken to church, it was scary. Ominous enough to silence two rambunctious young girls, which as any parent would understand, is a miracle in itself. A strange woman approached us as we loitered behind long rows of benches. Her wardrobe was drab and colorless, just like the rest of this place.
“Hi, Sister,” Jane’s mother said to the woman. Her voice was saturated with something that wasn’t herself. Sorrow, I thought. Or perhaps exhaustion. Later, I learned it was the sound of divorce.
“Hi, Sue,” the woman replied through eyes of pity. She waved her hand, suggesting we follow her into another room. So, we trailed behind as her long garments swept the path before us.
I don’t remember uttering a single sound during my first visit to the Catholic Church, but when the invisible gag in my mouth disintegrated, I gushed about my adventure.
“Mom! Mom!” I shouted with my typical childish excitement. “Did you know that Mrs. Maloney’s sister works at the church?”
I obviously had much to learn about the faith.
So, I spent my high school years at a private institution in my hometown of St. Louis, the Catholic capital of our country. Yet it wasn’t until college when I became aware of the difference between claiming to be a Christian and living a Christ-like life. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had resorted to the former and then wondered why I was unfulfilled. Upon seeing this vacancy in my life, I pressed in to find more about God. Eventually, despite chilling winds and turbulent waves, I steered my life in His direction. For years I floated freely between protestant denominations in hopes of finding one that would dig into my soul and grow my faith.
My search came up empty.
It wasn’t until I met and fell in love with an Irish Catholic boy that I truly decided to explore the doctrine of the Church. His energy in life and passion for faith inspired me to want to know more. So, 20 years after I first tiptoed into a Catholic church, I found myself once again seeking answers behind its doors. Yet, this time, instead of accompanying a woman whose marriage was dissolving, I accompanied the man who put a diamond ring on my finger.
When I was a child, the immensity of the Church had overwhelmed me. Even then, I could sense great meaning and mystery etched into every crevice. As an adult, those feelings remained. The enormity of the Church made me feel small. Intimidated almost. But I was there to investigate, discern and discover the treasure of those mysteries for myself.
I spent the next year participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a process where new seekers learn about the faith before being initiated into the Church. With each passing week, I felt the foothold of my faith gain traction. I quickly realized that by joining the Catholic Church, I did not have to relinquish any of my Christian beliefs, but rather those beliefs would be enhanced. Enriched. Enlivened.
Like a treasure hunter, I had spent years questing after a fortune that had only been mentioned to me in fables and nighttime stories. Each new thing I discovered about the Catholic Church was a clue encouraging me to continue my search – to prove that fairy tales can come true after all. And, on the day I was confirmed as a Catholic, I threw back the lid of the treasure chest and gazed with awe at the splendor before me. I had finally found what I spent years searching for: a perpetual depth, a universal reality, a community of family. The Church.