All Information Highways lead to Rome
By Diane Kamer
A cradle Catholic, I’d spent my early years in an Irish-American ghetto in inner-city Boston. Here, during the pious ’50s, I’d developed an awed fascination with Catholic culture. I loved its mysterious milieu: the statues, votive candles and stained glass…the Latin hymns, May processions and novenas…the dimly-lit churches filled with incense during High Mass and Benediction. I eagerly read Lives of the Saints, borrowed from the public library’s bookmobile. And like many little girls of that era, I dreamed of becoming a nun.
But after we moved to the suburbs when I was eight, the Catholic influence faded. My mom, who’d always inclined toward skepticism, gradually withdrew from parish involvement. By my teens, I too had become a skeptic. I stopped attending Mass and drifted into unreflecting agnosticism. Then, in my late teens, something happened. After a disastrous semester at an “experimental” college, I was living at home, listlessly looking for a job. On weekend nights, my hippie friends and I hung out at a “coffeehouse” sponsored by the local Congregational church. Soon several friends invited me to a Bible study at the home of a local lady who’d helped organize the coffeehouse. I had nothing better to do, so I tagged along. In the weeks that followed, as we plowed through the Synoptic Gospels, I found myself powerfully attracted to Jesus. I argued, balked, objected; but I kept coming back for more. Finally, our hostess took us for an overnight trip to a Christian coffeehouse in western Massachusetts. There, when the youth ministers asked if I was ready to receive Jesus, I surprised myself by saying yes. The next morning, on the trip back home, I felt elated, freed. I knew little about the faith I’d just embraced, but I did know I’d passed a turning point. Everything seemed fresh and new. A few months later, when I returned to college, I discovered that some of my classmates had also “accepted Jesus.” But after flirting with Pentecostalism, these friends had hankered for a richer, more liturgical tradition. Now they were attending a local “high church” Episcopal parish. Under their influence, I too journeyed from Fundamentalism to Anglicanism — and eventually back to Catholicism.
Near the outset of my return to the Catholic Church, I received the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” at a Full Gospel Businessmen’s Meeting. I began praying in tongues, and soon I was involved heavily in the local Catholic charismatic renewal. Unfortunately, my grasp of Catholic spirituality was weak. Although I was studying medieval history, I knew and cared little about prayer traditions that predated Vatican II. Caught up in the post-conciliar spirit, I neglected the Rosary and other age-old devotions in favor of more spontaneous worship. And, hungry for a deeper experience of God, I often focused on “feelings” — what the mystics call “consolations” — rather than on Jesus Himself. After college, back in big, impersonal Boston, I hung onto my faith for a while. But gradually, under the pressure of the sexual revolution, I abandoned both my beliefs and my chastity. I remember once sitting in the passenger seat as a colleague with whom I was carpooling raced helter-skelter down Route 128. “We’re going to crash,” I thought, “and I’m going to die in mortal sin.” The thought scared me — but not enough to drive me back to Confession.
Ironically, I reached a low point during my mid-20s, while I was studying Church history at Harvard Divinity School. I suppose I must have still believed something — otherwise, why study Church history? — but I certainly didn’t live my faith. I spent only a year at Harvard before deciding to rejoin the real world. But the Lord was accomplishing His will in me even then, for at Harvard, I met the man who would eventually become my husband. Steve was working toward his doctorate in Byzantine history at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. We took a class together, then lost touch. A year after I’d left school, we ran into each other outside the subway kiosk in the center of Harvard Square. We exchanged phone numbers, then launched a stormy dating relationship. Some months later, we moved in together and set up house. In fall 1980, while I was working at a well-known Boston publishing house, I became pregnant. At the time, Steve was earning scanty wages as a non-resident tutor at Harvard’s Leverett House. I was making nearly as little at my publishing job. Depressed and anxious about my career, I opted for abortion. Steve accompanied me to the feminist-run clinic and held my hand as I writhed in pain during the agonizing suction procedure. Afterward, I felt no remorse, only relief. It would be years before I would face the consequences of my “choice.”
Still, the Lord refused to give up on me. Even as I persisted in terrible sin, He kept drawing me gently to Himself. A year or so later, I formally joined the Episcopal Church. Here, I thought, I’d find Catholic ritual and richness, without Catholicism’s “rigid” moral strictures. Translation: I could be an Episcopalian in good standing and still live with my boyfriend. In 1982, Steve and I were married in an Episcopalian ceremony at Harvard’s Memorial Church. The following summer, we headed down to rural northwest Louisiana, where Steve had taken a teaching job. Over the next six or seven years, we moved up and down the East Coast: first to north-central Vermont, then to southern Vermont, then back south to North Carolina. Early on, we’d agreed to remain “childless by choice,” and through the years, we consistently practiced birth control — a barrier method, the diaphragm, since I was afraid of the Pill. Off and on, we kept attending Episcopal churches. Sometimes, fed up with politically-correct Anglican theology, we’d wander into the local Catholic church. Yet we always felt like interlopers. Usually I would shuffle down the aisle at Communion time. But I’d make sure to receive the Sacred Host from the lay Eucharistic minister, not from the priest. Superstitiously, I feared that the priest could look into my soul and see my mortal sin — my past abortion and my present contraceptive practices. Despite my outward bravado, I felt inner shame. Even when I curtly told a Catholic friend that her objections to birth control were “hogwash,” deep down inside, I knew I was sinning. By the time we settled down near Winston-Salem, N.C., I knew I couldn’t return to Anglicanism. Steve and I both felt turned off by our Episcopal Church experiences. We were tired of watered-down, left-wing teaching. But where could we go from there?
Steve started exploring Evangelicalism — an easy thing to do here in the Carolina Piedmont, a Southern Baptist stronghold. But while I too felt the lure of Baptist theology — get saved once, and you’re set — I couldn’t be comfortable in a stark, bare church, with no liturgy or tradition. During an illness, Steve experienced a profound conversion to Jesus. He began avidly reading the Bible and listening to Evangelical radio. One day he was struck by Christ’s words, “Whoever receives a little child for My sake, receives Me.” Soon afterward, on New Year’s Day, he announced that we could try to conceive. I was overjoyed. At age 40, I felt none of my earlier aversion to motherhood. Now I yearned for a baby. I was suffering from undiagnosed Graves’ Disease — overactive thyroid — so it took me awhile to get pregnant. But finally, that November, I noticed unmistakable symptoms. Then a home pregnancy test turned out positive. Memories of my abortion flooded my mind and heart. Deeply penitent, I felt unworthy of this precious new gift the Lord had graciously given me. I started longing to go back to Confession. At the time, we were attending a tiny Catholic mission church not too far from our backwoods home. Largely run by its lay members, it was extremely “laid back.” No stained glass, no kneelers. No rigorous moral demands. Just plenty of feel-good fellowship.
During the Advent penance service, I made my first Confession in at least 15 years. Father listened sympathetically as I confessed the abortion. Then I hesitantly brought up the issue of artificial birth control. I knew Steve planned to return to contraception once I’d delivered the baby. How could I honestly confess something I fully intended to keep doing? Father let me off the hook. Natural Family Planning, he said, was the Church’s “ideal,” but we can’t always live up to ideals. Besides, my relationship with Steve was of prime importance. The Lord didn’t want us bickering over birth control. If we honestly couldn’t abstain during fertile times, so be it. Artificial contraception, he implied, was the lesser of two evils, preferable to marital discord. I left Confession convinced I could keep using the diaphragm. Even in retrospect, however, I can’t fully blame Father for this. He had told me what I wanted to hear, but it was my fault for wanting to hear it. Now I was “officially” back in the Catholic Church, but I still didn’t feel at home. My prayer life was a mess. I couldn’t connect with God. My faith seemed to make little or no difference in my life. Why couldn’t I live like a “new creature,” in the joy, peace and freedom of the Lord? This question haunted me. Yet it never occurred to me that the answer was my disobedience. Like so many others, I’d become a cafeteria Catholic. Deep inside, I knew better, but I just couldn’t bring myself to submit wholeheartedly to Church teaching. Unfortunately, Steve felt even more strongly than I that it was okay to pick and choose among Catholic beliefs. He pooh-poohed my suggestion that perhaps we should play by the rules — all the rules — rather than decide for ourselves which ones to obey.
Again, though, I have only myself to blame. Steve’s views suited my own inclinations, so I took the path of least resistance. Our son John Michael was born in July 1992, on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. As soon as my fertility returned, I went back to the diaphragm. But now I was a mother, and what a difference that made. When I rocked my baby in my arms and lost myself in his gaze, I gained a whole new perspective on birth control. Who was I to roadblock the miracle of life? How dare I thwart the Creator? Gradually, I began to believe contraception was wrong. Torn between Steve and God, I started taking secret chances. Sometimes I “forgot” to apply spermicide to the diaphragm. Occasionally, I just plain “forgot” the diaphragm. I figured at my age, the risk of conception was low. Yet 19 months later, I was pregnant again. Our son Paul Stephen was born in October 1994. Once more, I returned to the diaphragm, but this time with strong reluctance. I began to pray that Steve would agree to Natural Family Planning (NFP). Yet I had little hope of this. Every time I broached the subject, he flatly refused. And I do mean flatly!
It was in this context that I began to explore cyberspace. At the time, I was still nursing Paul off and on, although I’d returned to my copywriting job at a local advertising agency. In the evenings, I’d sit at the computer, cradling Paul in one arm as he placidly nursed. With the other hand, I’d bang out e-mail notes and bulletin board messages. Still a Net novice, I started with the easy stuff: America Online’s message boards. Right away, I delved into the Religion and Culture forum, where I discovered Christianity Online. But after a few forays into cyber-Evangelicalism, I gravitated toward the Catholic boards. Even at the time, I felt the Holy Spirit’s powerful pull toward the true Faith. From the start, the Catholic message boards shocked me, for they were crowded with postings from Catholics half my age. Here were these hip Gen-Xers eagerly discussing theology and arguing doctrinal fine points. But that wasn’t the most startling part. No. What really shook me was their orthodoxy. At our little mission church, with its ’60s-redux atmosphere, orthodoxy was considered passe. Yet these youngsters took it for granted. For them, Catholicism was cool. They weren’t talking about cafeteria Catholicism, however, with its tendency to throw out the baby with the post-conciliar bathwater. They meant the genuine article, complete with total loyalty to the Magisterium and absolute submission to Church authority.
Sick of their parents’ compromises, these kids were busy recovering the heritage they’d lost: the ancient devotions and prayers, the Eucharistic and Marian piety. Browsing among their messages, I could feel the Catholic atmosphere of my childhood and sense the awesome mystery of our Faith. Whatever these youngsters had, I wanted it. I craved a strong, sinewy alternative to theological mush. I longed to adore God totally and obey Him unreservedly. With a sense of exultant freedom, I realized I didn’t have to buy into the tepid liberal Catholicism favored by my Baby Boom peers. In fact, the liberal boomers were behind the curve. Orthodoxy was back in style. I began to post messages agreeing with the more orthodox postings. I found myself defending positions I didn’t even know I held — the necessity of both faith and works for salvation; the crucial role of Mary. Yet while I did so, I had a nagging sense that I was an impostor. After all, I myself was not an orthodox Catholic in good standing. What would my cyber-chums say, I wondered, if they knew I still practiced birth control? That’s when I ran smack into Blessed Faustina.
I was browsing through AOL’s Catholic message boards one evening, when one subject line caught my eye: “Divine Mercy.” Well, I certainly needed that. I’d always had a hard time believing God truly loved me. I clicked on the subject line, and the message bloomed open. As I scanned it, I began to breathe faster. Here, allegedly, were the actual words of Jesus, spoken in private revelation to a little Polish nun more than 60 years ago. “I am Love and Mercy itself,” He had reportedly told Blessed Faustina. “Let the weak, sinful soul have no fear to approach Me, for even if it had more sins than there are grains of sand in the world, all would be drowned in the unmeasurable depths of My mercy.” Could it be true? Could Jesus love me so ardently? I knew the Gospel spoke of Our Lord’s endless mercy, but somehow I didn’t believe it. The words were so familiar, they hardly registered. Besides, it seemed different people could interpret them different ways. The local Evangelicals, for instance, often promoted the Calvinist view that God washes His hands of hardened sinners. After all, He has predestined the reprobates to wrath, right?
On the conscious level, I rejected Calvinism, yet this fearful view of God still haunted me. What if it was correct? What if God wasn’t willing to lavish His grace on a persistent sinner like me? Now, suddenly, this fear evaporated. As I re-read the electronic message, I realized God is Love. He yearns to save every soul on earth, and He does everything in His power to draw each one to Himself. It is only we — with our free will — who frustrate Him. We choose hell. As Faustina noted, “God condemns no one.” What a liberating message! Awed, I zinged back an e-mail reply to the young man who’d posted the “Divine Mercy” excerpts: “Wow! Please tell me more!”
Soon the young man and I were corresponding. At his suggestion, I purchased Divine Mercy in My Soul, Blessed Faustina’s diary, recording Our Lord’s words to her. I read it cover to cover and still hungered for more. So I began praying a novena consisting of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. (Recited on ordinary Rosary beads, the Chaplet is comprised of two basic prayers: “Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world,” and “For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”) One of my novena intentions concerned birth control. As always, I figured my husband would never agree to NFP, yet I prayed for it anyway, just on the off chance he would. At the end of the novena, I once again asked Steve if we could switch to NFP. I fully expected another “No.” To my shock, he said “Yes.” Thrilled, I reported this unexpected response to my cyber-acquaintance. In passing, I mentioned that Steve and I had been practicing contraception, with my confessor’s apparent okay. In my own defense, I stressed that I’d merely been “obeying my husband.” It didn’t occur to me that I was not obliged to obey Steve when his demands contravened faith and morals.
My cyber-acquaintance responded promptly. He was glad Steve and I were no longer contracepting. But he picked up on my stunning ignorance of Church teaching. Sin was sin, he said. We must honestly acknowledge our sin in order to receive Divine Mercy. God can’t forgive a sin we insist isn’t even there. Whew! Just a few months before, such a response would have offended and angered me. But now it convicted me. I realized that — despite my novena prayers — I still regarded NFP as an “option,” rather than something that was required. This was wrong. To experience the freedom I longed for, I must renounce mortal sin entirely. So I did. I even cut the diaphragm into ribbons. That was the beginning of my long spiritual journey back into the bosom of the Church — back to the Eucharist and frequent Confession, to the Rosary and Marian devotion. In the process, my prayer life has blossomed, and my relationship with Jesus has deepened. I feel closer than ever before to His Merciful Sacred Heart. And I feel closer to my neighbor, too, since I can finally see every person through the prism of Christ’s boundless love. I have also discovered the power of redemptive suffering — the joy of offering up hurts and annoyances for the salvation of souls. And I have only scratched the surface. Conversion is a continual process, involving frequent setbacks, spiritual warfare, daily repentance and renewal. But I cannot imagine life any other way. And I can never return to the cafeteria Catholicism that trapped me just a few years ago, before I encountered God’s marvelous mercy in cyberspace.