If this is your first time encountering this story of a United Methodist pastor becoming Catholic, please start here: http://www.elisebarrett.com/2016/05/losing-my-religion/
Here is what happened, as plainly as I can tell it.
I was in my office. Last June, in the beautiful symphony building downtown that started its life as one of the city’s premier hotels. I was giving myself a quick break from working through my communications calendar to read an article a friend from Duke had sent me. He was taking an online class through Notre Dame, and had shared an article written by a Jewish scholar, an article that was almost an academic midrash on the story of Joseph (coat of many colors, y’all know the one).
I read it. And it was one of those things where every line shimmers, lights up with meaning.
I’ll back up: during the transplant time, when Chris and I were in Charleston away from the children, I had asked friends to pray that my trust in God, my sense of God’s presence, would be protected. And, in what I consider a miraculous response on God’s part, it was. However, most of the internal structures I’d built to house my understanding of faith and discernment and how God works in our lives had crumbled under the weight of what we were living through. There they all were, the blocks of “providence” and “plan” and “redemption” and “hope,” all lying around my feet, while I had ended up with the sense that life itself was largely chaotic, “ordered” by our broken, invisible needs and wounds rather than by God’s hand. Life would mostly, then, be suffering and unhappiness, through no one’s fault but our own; the best we could do would be to offer acts of love and fidelity, and pray that God would let all of us die swiftly, when our usefulness to those who depended on us was over, so we could finally rest in heaven. I repented of dismissing “pie-in-the-sky” theology in my div school years; what else, after all, is available to those whose temporal lives contain little to no pie?
This is why the article was translucent to hope that day.
Because everything in that story – every one in that story – is broken and compromised, and has no earthly idea why she is doing what she is doing. Jacob – duplicitous from the womb, manipulative, showering favoritism and sowing pain among his sons just as he did between his wives. Joseph, young but full of pride, perhaps not even conscious of his own motives as he parades his dreams and glorious coat before his teeth-gritting brothers. The brothers, jealous and angry and oh-so-hurt. Potiphar, in a complicated and sad marriage; Potiphar’s wife, wreaking her own lonely revenge. Etc., etc., etc.
And it is through – precisely through, not despite – these unconscious, broken motivations for human action, that God brings about salvation for God’s people, Egyptians and Israelites alike. The suffering doesn’t go away; don’t misunderstand;Joseph spends years in prison, fellow prisoners lose their lives, the family system is never quite healed. But the suffering is not meaningless, because through it God brings redemption.
This may be grade-school church learning, but it changed everything for me. It took the bricks lying discarded around my feet and made them into a platform on which I could stand, a foundation that was expansive enough to hold the living we’d done. Almost feeling like tears (which shall not happen in public if one is midwestern), I emailed my friend with a joke to deflect the intensity: That article was amazing. Maybe I should be Jewish. 🙂
He wrote back: Ha. No, you should be Catholic. 🙂
It’s important to realize that we’ve been friends since 2000. He doesn’t proselytize; doesn’t believe in it. It was clearly a joke. I smirked.
But at that moment – this is when I’m so afraid of becoming dramatic – the air in the room changed. It changed so profoundly that I got up to close my office door, because I wasn’t sure what was about to happen.
I tried to describe it to my writer’s group later. I used words like “golden,” and “heavy.”
My skin – golden tingling, hairs lifting. The air – heavy, golden presence filling it. Perspective shifted – when I returned to the office later, I felt as if things weren’t in their right homes, the desk was the wrong size. I wanted it to stop; I wanted it never to stop. As I contemplated going under my desk, I realized that no matter what was happening, I finally knew the difference I’d preached on between “terror” and “awe,” and they were the same thing, except with the pure absence of evil being the variable that distinguished the response.
I saw – not physically, but in my field of vision – red doors opening before me, a clear invitation. Wait, I thought, this CAN’T be about becoming Catholic. Because that would be ridiculous.
I wrenched my eyes to my phone, and realized it was time for a lunch appointment. Gladly, I forcibly regrouped, checked my email, ignored the bizarre tendrils still curling through the air. Well, I’ve had a new kind of panic attack, I thought. No wonder, given the stress and the move and everything.
[It may help to know that to that point, I’d had two legitimate panic attacks, both of which were preceded by throbbing pain in my left arm, one that conveniently happened during one of Chris’s clinic appointments and earned me an afternoon stewing in urgent care while they evaluated the interesting things that had happened to my blood pressure while I was fainting on the table that was SUPPOSED to be for the cancer patients. This felt nothing like those experiences. Down deep, I knew it tasted and smelled and felt of God, of the tiny handful of times God has come to me over my lifetime.]
However, I wasn’t ready to deal with whatever had just happened, be it in my office or in my mind.
So naturally, I walked to Mass Ave and went to a pub. Insistently, the words from The Last Battle chanted in my head, keeping time with my footsteps the whole way there: Further-up-and-further-in-further-up-and-further-in. Stop being crazy, I ordered myself. I did my best to table the whole thing. And I had a lovely beer, and my producer and I talked about Tao Buddhism and folk music and plotted the next album, and we discussed the delightful man who walks downtown Indy with a python coiling around his shoulders and I was intentionally, firmly “normal.” Real life, this stuff was, the beer and the python and the city smell of exhaust and heat and shepherd’s pie.
After lunch, Gabe asked if I wanted a ride to my office. I considered but declined, because I knew I needed space, because whatever the presence was – I sensed it waiting for me. There was unfinished business. I began walking, and the more I walked, the more I was torn between the practicality of getting back to work and my gut-deep sense that I needed a church.
Finally, at the last possible minute, I swung toward the Circle, and ducked into Christ Church, a lovely little Anglican building sharing Indy’s heart with the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, and Circle Theatre, and Chase, and the Columbia Club, where I’d performed a wedding some years before. I stepped into the cool dimness, and sat in the back pew, and bowed my head to pray.
The presence enveloped me again. Awash in the golden terror, I suddenly understood Moses, how he might have pressed himself into the cleft of the rock, dying and desiring all at once. I knew suddenly how domesticated I had made “holiness”: a prim and distant cousin of this wild dismaying glory. And I found my lips, incongruously, startlingly, asking Mary for prayer – and I said, oh no, no, this cannot be what’s happening:
Lord. You know better. Ten years it took for me to be ordained, and you were involved in making that happen even when it seemed like it couldn’t. Div school and loving churches and I’m a woman in ministry and I love celebrating communion, and I’ve been shown some of the most profound wisdom and love of my adulthood by two female pastors who are sacredly and legally married to each other, and I must be misunderstanding, and –
It is hard to describe this next part, how much it mattered. But it felt as if God physically, directly encountered me in my heart and torso, my ribcage prior to my head, no words going through my brain – How could that happen? I asked later – but the question I understood was this:
Do you trust me more than your own understanding, your own logic?
A midwesterner in public during a workday, I burst into tears nonetheless. Yes, yes, I do; if that’s what this is about then yes, a thousand times yes. Because if you are truly leading me, then I will follow you anywhere, because nothing is more important – I want nothing more – than to give myself more and more to this holy and appalling love.
I wept with God in my surrender, and felt more serene and loved and at peace than perhaps I ever have. I remember tearstains on the floor as I gathered myself to leave.
And that was all.
In my next post, I’ll be talking about the discernment process that this chain of events opened. I’m an analytical Wesleyan by training and tendency: experience is well and good (if perhaps to be treated suspiciously), and it is one way God speaks to us; but discernment requires us checking our experience with Scripture, Tradition, and Reason through the community of the Church. (#quadrilateralbaby) It’s not at all a bad approach, and I worked it like the process-loving person I am.
But none of that would have happened had God not shown up, had the dividing line between spirit and material not been exposed suddenly as no line at all, but an artificial separation I’d imagined into being.
A friend just told me that today is the feast day of St. Julian of Norwich. I hesitate to make any connections, no matter how slight, between my brief encounter and her series of rapturous visions, but I cannot forget that here, too, was a woman whose life changed after a mystical encounter, who waited and then wrote about it (her Revelations of Divine Love was the first known book written by a woman in the English language), and who spent the rest of her life living into the taste of God’s presence she had been granted.
(To start learning a bit more about Julian, including a line of hers I used in a song, click here: https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/incontext/article/julian/ – I’m intentionally sending you to Christian History Institute’s site because the managing editor of this excellent magazine is my friend Jennifer Woodruff Tait, and you can find all manner of rich resources on all manner of topics here.)