Taking the Back Road to Rome - My Journey to the Catholic Church

 Dear Henry,

While I was in Orlando, at the Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, I decided to enjoy the luxury of the hot tub and ended up hanging out with quite a crowd. Of course, "What brought you to Orlando?" came up. While I had a feeling my answer, that I had come to visit the shrine, would throw a wet blanket on the party, I was unprepared for a shocked "You're Catholic, and you admit it?" from a guy in the far corner of the pool. 

"Uh, yes. I don't know why I wouldn't," was all I could think of saying (I also made a mental note to work on my evangelical skills, especially when I'm on the spot). It turns out so was he, but because of the recent negative press, he was uneasy admitting it.

But, yes, Henry, I am a Catholic, and what's more, I'm a convert to the faith. 

I get asked why a lot. So many people are currently rethinking the need for religion with all of its rules and restrictions. Honestly, there have been quite a few examples of "wanna-be Christians behaving badly" to ruin many people's appetite for any religion, particularly one as conservative as Catholicism. My background didn't lend itself to traditional, liturgical worship either. My parents worshiped in the spirit of Dionysus. If the God of Abraham was mentioned, He was described as a surly, punishing fellow,  sort of a cross between Zeus and a peeping tom. Jesus was spoken of less often, maybe around Christmas and Easter, and all I knew, outside of a general "he said to love everyone," was that he was the son of God, but like we all were, only he came first, an explanation that made no sense, even then. My extended family was all members of a Christian restoration movement, and I was raised on the movement's fringes. My parents were (very publicly) far too outside that church's teachings for any type of acceptance within that community.

I will admit growing up believed that all religious people were mean and judgmental. 

After the accident, my youngest son's birth, and the financial fallout accompanying such events, Fish and I realized we didn't have the resources or the resilience for any of this. We also learned how fundamentally flawed our family dynamics were and how harsh the religious community surrounding us was. Because of pronounced physical and emotional limitations, we could not provide the care and support that both of our families required in exchange for their affection. What little familial support we had before the accident evaporated. Also, because we still acted as the people we were raised to be, the religion of our families considered us to be "undeserving" of help, despite obvious financial difficulties (which included food scarcity for two young children and an infant). The tiny community "love everyone" church I had been attending simply lit candles on our behalf.

The only person who stood up for us during this period was a fierce, little, Benedictine nun named Sister Stephanie, who had a small office in the hospital where my youngest son was still staying. She intervened, buying us time with the mortgage company and utility companies and ensuring we had enough food for the boys. She was also incredibly irritated when I tried to thank her. She found it insulting that I would think that she would do anything else as a Christian. It was during that period I swore that if I ever joined another religion, it would be the Catholic church. 

Still, Sister Stephanie was one small beacon in a sea of "Wanna-Be Christians Behaving Badly," and while it was ultimately enough, it took me far too long to see that light.

Plus, I wasn't focused on finding religion, not at this point. Nor, really, was I even looking for God (although I did find Him - read about that journey here). Mostly, I was trying to figure out how to survive. There are many things doctors won't tell you when they bring you back from the dead and make you live again. That the event was painful and traumatic, no one denies. That it will ALWAYS be painful and traumatic, somedays unbearably so, everyone glosses over. In my struggle with pain management, I recalled the images of Thích Quảng Đức, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon in protest of the Vietnam War, and I wanted to know how he coped with the pain. Learning Buddhist meditation techniques has been a great lifesaver and one I still use during prayer. 

I also researched the lives of the survivors of nearly fatal events; honestly, it is pretty bleak reading. Self-destruction, either through deliberate acts or accidental overdoses and reckless behaviors, is a very likely outcome for those who survive near-fatal traumas. Far too likely. A great many survivors die within the first ten years this way. Those living longer often suffer from the long-term effects of regular, heavy alcohol consumption and/or other systemic health issues accompanying long-term pharmaceutical use. Few survivors live out natural life spans. 

A few means there was at least one, which gave me hope. I desperately want to be proud of how I lived and died, and I've never wanted to crawl across the finish line whining that it was too complicated and that I had no choice, or worse, quit before I got there. 

The few that did survive an average life span had a couple of common threads; they were disciplined, people who exercised regularly, ate simply, and avoided all but the most conservative medical (including pharmacological) treatments. In addition, they lived quiet, aesthetic lives (although several were well-known in their time), and, as a rule, they all had consistent and devout religious practices.

I emulated everything but the religion; there was far too much baggage there, and I was a stoic who was skilled in Buddhist meditative techniques. I most certainly did not need to subject myself to the rigors of "Wanna-Be Christians Behaving Badly."

At least I didn't need it until I did.

The change was gradual, but I realized that trying to meditate on some inner light was not enough. The combined traumas of my parents' behaviors and the accident had all but blown my inner light out. Instead, I found I could gain some peace by contemplating the idea of a benevolent Creator and the works He created  - how I discovered that God was benevolent and not the angry, mean "god" of my youth is a topic for another time - and it was through those mediations, I found some peace. And in those mediations, I began to realize I did, in fact, need the structure and community of religion.

And, finally, I found myself circling back to the beacon of that fierce little nun and the only religious community who had helped us and the only one who has, so far, valued my family and me just a little, just as we are. 

It still took several years between that realization and the actual rumpled and tearful walk down the aisle to get my ashes that Wednesday and the start of RCIA.

So, Henry,  my reasons for turning to religious life are simple, I want to live my life in a way that I am proud of and to be able to say, in the end, "I competed well, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."

And I became a Catholic because one fierce little nun acted like a Christian and didn't behave badly.

xoxo a.d. elliott

(P.S. The story continues here with the posts "Finding God in Gomorrah" and "The First Ashes")


a.d. elliott is a wanderer, writer, and photographer currently living in Salem, Virginia. 

In addition to the travel writings at www.takethebackroads.com, you can also read her book reviews at www.riteoffancy.com and US military biographies at www.everydaypatriot.com

Her online photography gallery can be found at shop.takethebackroads.com


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