When you grow up in a place like Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, seeing a Polish Capuchin monk is a bit like seeing the Sasquatch—an exotic, rare, somewhat terrifying being whose habits are both foreign and fascinating. If you’re a nondenominational Protestant whose main experience of men of the cloth comes from camp meetings, Bible studies, and altar calls, the sight is even stranger.
I don’t think I had ever seen a Catholic priest in person when, in eleventh grade, I saw Father Norbert—wearing a coarse brown robe and sandals, carrying a tattered Bible—walk past the door of my European history classroom. Older friends who’d heard him lecture in our school said his name in the same hushed tone they used for rock bands like Depeche Mode or U2. This guy in the robe? He was cool. There were a few other priests like him, I’d heard, at St. Anne’s parish down the street, men who lived in community and wore ropes around their waists and preached long, difficult sermons. I’d even heard that one of them grew bitter herbs in his garden, which he ate throughout the year as a sort of mortification. A few of the smartest guys in our high school would meet with Fr. Norbert from time to time to discuss the work of someone named Thomas Aquinas. They’d talk with him for hours, then go out and mow the grass around the church. It sounded pretty cool, in its way.
In fact, it sounded more than cool. It sounded like these people understood something different about God than I had ever understood, like they lived in God in a way I never had. And I was ready to live in God again. I just had no idea how to start.
As is often the way with brainy, moody teenagers, I had come to believe in the gospel according to Jack Kerouac, Dizzy Gillespie, and a hodgepodge of Japanese poets, absurdist playwrights, and existentialist philosophers whose works I’d found on adjacent shelves on the second floor of the public library. My mother worried that such devotion to these notorious hedonists, depressives, and live-fast-die-young types would lead me to drugs or worse, but there was little risk of that. Mine had to be a fairly ascetical Beat Generationism, since my real religion was the daily discipline of ballet. I had studied dance seriously since the age of five, and by junior high it consumed nearly twenty hours of my time per week, sometimes more during the performance season of the Tulsa Ballet, with which I danced as a member of the corps de ballet. I worked hard, both in and out of school, and my desire to do well at everything shielded me from the profligate influences of my extracurricular reading. But something else was shielding me, too.
My parents and I had not been members of a church for a long time. Our excuse was that, because of my demanding schedule and that of my father, who owned his own remodeling business, we simply didn’t have time. The deeper reason, I think, was that we had not found a denomination we could call home. My father, Wayne Mosier, raised Lutheran, and my mother, Suzanne, raised Presbyterian, had been born again shortly before I was born. Deeply involved in the charismatic revival that swept the midwest in the late 1970s, they moved from Nebraska to Oklahoma to be part of the burgeoning “Faith Movement.” While still in Nebraska, we traveled to nursing homes and community centers singing gospel songs, with mom at the piano and three-year-old me taking the harmony part. We went to revivals, where people beyond number would “go out under the power,” falling to the floor under what seemed to be the influence of the Holy Spirit. We read the Bible constantly.
And there were miracles. One afternoon, when I was about four, I came into the kitchen to find mom sitting immobile at the table, in the grip of what she would later describe as “a black cloud, a satanic fog.” I began to speak in tongues, and the cloud disappeared, as did the anorexia from which she had suffered for years. At a healing service around the same time, our minister laid his hands on my left leg, which curved in at the ankle and required me to wear a special heavy shoe, and as he prayed I watched my leg straighten out before my eyes. Being a dancer would never have been possible without that healing. Most of all, we prayed as a family, whenever there was something that needed praying about. We prayed in the words of St. Paul: we were washed in the blood of the Lamb, putting on the armor of Christ, treading on serpents and scorpions, believing that we might receive. We laid hands on each other and agreed that by his stripes we were healed. Jesus was as much a part of our family as any of us; in fact, he was its center, since everything that happened to us came from him.
Before long, though, my parents became concerned about what they were seeing in the charismatic movement. The churches in which we worshiped kept breaking into factions over everything from doctrine to finances. Members could not agree on what to preach, how to pray, how to interpret Scripture rightly, and finally there would be a split, usually a bitter one. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The “faith message” said that you could have anything you wanted—even a new car or a bigger salary—if only you believed enough. When our friend Greg got pneumonia, he was urged not to see a doctor but rather simply to declare himself healed. If he had enough faith, the church said, his health would be restored; going to a doctor would demonstrate, in fact, a lack of faith. Greg died soon thereafter, a martyr to what my parents began to see as an increasingly suspect and even blasphemous gospel.
Shaken and disillusioned, my parents abandoned the charismatic church, and during my later elementary school years we shuttled between Lutheran and Methodist churches, finally settling for prayer at home as schedules grew busier and church worship less fulfilling. “Settling” is the wrong word, perhaps, for my parents continued to be deeply devout, and we prayed together about everything; however, our lack of a faith community affected all of us. We had questions about the faith, but there was no one to answer them. I simply stopped asking. While I never stopped believing in God, He became for me just someone to talk to, someone whose help and guidance I took for granted—more a school counselor than the Alpha and Omega.
It was around this time, age fourteen or fifteen, that I began to be attracted to the writers and thinkers who described the world as a fundamentally meaningless, if more or less benign, place. I read up on Buddhism, finding its depiction of “nothingness” appealing. A common thread throughout these writings—existentialist, Buddhist, and “beat” alike—was that joy was possible despite the absence of a source for that joy, that good could be done even though no such thing as “the good” existed. I wanted to believe it. I wanted to love life, but I didn’t want God interfering to tell me how or what to love. It would soon become clear that what I wanted was, very simply, a lie.
One summer afternoon, my two closest friends came to my house to tell me that our friend Rachel—the free spirit of our group, the smartest and funniest and most creative person we knew, though also the most troubled—had driven her car far out onto a rural road, climbed a hill, and shot herself in the mouth.
None of us knew how to handle this: the shock of her death, the way it happened, the loss, even how to relate to each other now. At her memorial service, which we all knew she would have hated, the minister had no idea who she was, and there were prayers in the service at which, in her sly way, she would have smirked. But as we prayed the Our Father that day, tears came to my eyes, not just for Rachel but for the emptiness that was in all our hearts. For many in our group of friends, whose homes were broken or filled with abuse and sadness, who had not grown up in the Church, the very idea of a loving Father was an absurdity. I knew that He existed, that He loved me. I grieved that Rachel hadn’t lived to know it. Nothingness was now very concrete to me and my friends. It wasn’t freedom. It was hell.
Truth, trust, community: much later John Paul II’s trinomial would teach me what was missing. True community can’t exist without trust, which in turn can’t exist without a foundation in the truth. That trinomial’s mirror image—untruth, fear, solitude—was the very definition of my experience in those years. I didn’t know where to go, how to get out, how to return to a life that had . . . life. Suddenly, though, a path began to break.
My advanced placement English class had me reading stories and novels by that brilliant Catholic apostate, James Joyce. They were full of words I’d never heard before: chasuble, monsignor, transubstantiation. For help in understanding Joyce’s points of reference I went to my friend Emily, a devout Catholic and, as it happened, a member of Fr. Norbert’s parish. An after-school talk about definitions turned swiftly into a probing conversation about the Church, in which Emily described what happened during Mass. She was calm and thorough, but when she arrived at the Canon, her voice grew intense. Her eyes shone when she said: “The whole Mass culminates in what happens here, in the Eucharist, when Christ becomes present.” As she explained what Catholics believed about the Eucharist, something stirred in me, as well. “Christ becomes present.” I didn’t know quite what that meant, or how it happened, but I knew it was him I wanted to see. Emily invited me to join her at Mass, purportedly to get a firsthand look at all those chasubles and things. The next Sunday I found myself kneeling next to her near the altar at St. Anne’s.
I’d long had an amateur’s interest in things Catholic. Having discovered Gregorian chants and books of icons at the library, I had wondered at the purity and variety of the liturgies and the richness of the art. Studying the aesthetics of the Church, however, had not prepared me for this experience of the Church in the flesh.
My mind was in chaos in the midst of this strange ceremony. As I knelt before the stone table, covered with an intricate lace cloth, and gazed at the mother-of-pearl icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa and the huge gold tabernacle—while Fr. Norbert sang the antiphons and censed the sanctuary—I felt as though I was moving about in a dark room where strange figures brushed up against my shoulders, and strange voices guided me along. I was lost, but not afraid, and when the bell rang after the words of consecration—when I looked up to see Fr. Norbert holding the white Host above his head—I wasn’t even lost. It was Jesus. And I was home.
After Mass, Emily introduced me to Fr. Norbert. He grasped my hand and looked into my eyes, and I felt the Holy Spirit’s power coming into my heart. It was the same steady, physically palpable force I had felt when that preacher laid his hands on my leg so many years before. Before long, I told him that I would like to enter the Catholic Church. “Well, come and see,” he said with a gentle smile, and he told me to be at the religious education building on a Tuesday night a few weeks later, when RCIA classes would begin.
Like many Protestants of their generation, my parents had been raised with a mild form of anti-Catholicism; they weren’t allowed to date Catholics, for instance, and as kids they heard the usual warnings about statue-worship. My dad had a strong religious formation in his youth, and he held firmly Lutheran views on things such as the priesthood of all believers and salvation by grace through faith. Neither he nor mom, however, had ever expressed any antipathy toward the Church, so I was fairly sure they wouldn’t react negatively when I began to visit St. Anne’s. To be honest, I didn’t give much thought to how they would respond, and it was thanks to them that my decision could be made so freely. I knew they were confident I had absorbed what they had taught me about listening to the Lord, testing the spirits, and praying to be in God’s will.
It was clear that they trusted me to do that, even if the Church was strange to them. They never raised an eyebrow, at least around me. In fact, their comments when I would leave the house on Sunday mornings were amazingly nonchalant: “Oh, have a good time!” “Say ‘hi’ to Emily!” They weren’t sure what it was all about, but they saw that something was happening to me in that parish down the street. Mom said: “You have a different look when you come home from there. A good look. Peaceful. I don’t know why, but you’re different.” They asked few questions; they simply let me go.
They were actually more surprised when I told them I wanted to stop dancing. Ballet had become a sort of religion for me, an all-encompassing way of life that required a single-minded devotion I was no longer willing to give. I’d had some injuries, so the likelihood of a professional career was no longer as strong as it had once been. I wanted to go to college, which would be impossible if I continued to pursue ballet full time. But what worried me most was that dance had become my whole identity. It defined not just my schedule, but my sense of self; I hardly knew who I was without it and the recognition it brought. My ballet teacher worried that I was throwing away a God-given gift. I knew it was a gift, one which, once given up, could never be retrieved. Yet God was calling me—not as a dancer, or a student, but simply as me—and I knew this was a break I had to make. In the first few weeks of not going to ballet class, I had a sense of peace I had not felt in many years. Body and soul, it was a tremendous liberation.
Plus, it left me free in the evenings to attend Fr. Norbert’s RCIA classes. There were about twenty of us: young and old, couples and singles, workers and students. We gathered once a week in a bland little room and, with somewhat cautious looks, gave ourselves to Fr. Norbert’s care. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of us were a little frightened of him. He had done his dissertation on Aquinas at the Catholic University of Lublin, John Paul II’s alma mater. He spoke many languages, could read Hebrew, and quoted as easily from St. Athanasius as from the Sermon on the Mount. But it wasn’t just his knowledge that made him intimidating. He had spent many years in Guatemala serving the poorest of the poor. He had lived under communism in Poland. He was a Capuchin, which meant a life of asceticism and poverty. He was young, perhaps in his early forties, but his face bore the signs of great suffering; his voice was low but forceful, especially when he preached about the culture of death. He was quite clearly a man who had intimate knowledge of the Cross.
His RCIA classes were, to put it mildly, unorthodox, and by “unorthodox” I mean (in contrast to many RCIA programs I’ve heard about since) very, very orthodox. Fr. Norbert had no interest in making Catholicism palatable to us. He was simply there to teach us what the Church taught, to answer our questions, and to enable us to decide whether to say “yes” or “no.” He began that first night by discussing a single Latin word he had written on the blackboard: latria, worship. Over the next eight months, he took us through the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, the virtues, the doctrines of original sin, atonement, infallibility, the role of Mary, and on and on through the entirety of Catholic history, life, and thought. At all times, his big Jerusalem Bible sat before him on the table, more dog-eared even than the Catechism that sat beside it. These classes were overwhelming and not a little over my head, but they were also exhilarating. It was a blessing, in a way, that I came in knowing so little theology, because I was free to absorb the Church’s teachings without an intellectual struggle. Some teachings didn’t quite make sense to me, but that didn’t worry me; they would make sense in time. The more Fr. Norbert explained how the Church understood both God and human beings, the stronger my commitment became to the “body” in which the Body of Christ had been made present on the altar. The Church had me at “hello,” to paraphrase a line from the movie Jerry Maguire. As I began to know her more intimately—to learn what she thought, how she expressed herself, why she wore green on some days and purple on others—I grew more and more in love with her.
On Good Friday Fr. Norbert asked me to meet with him one last time before the Easter Vigil. He asked if I had any final questions. He had taught us so well that most questions about doctrine had already been answered, but one thing did come to my mind. “I’m not sure I really understand humility,” I said. “I know I don’t have it. How can I get it?” His response astounded me. “Humility is simply telling the truth,” he said, “about yourself, about others, and about who God is.” Then he asked if I had chosen a patron saint for my confirmation name. I hadn’t, so he said: “Think about Thérèse, the Little Flower. I think she would be a good friend for you.” Thérèse it was. And so that Saturday night, April 2, 1994, I became Alicia Thérèse, a daughter of the Church. My parents came with joy to the Vigil and sat in the front pew, where right out of the gate Fr. Norbert drenched my dad with a suspiciously well-aimed splash of holy water.
That same night at Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa, my boyfriend, Steven Chesser, was also received into the Church. He was among that group of young men who had met with Fr. Norbert to discuss theology during high school, and he was now in his first year of studies in philosophy at the University of Tulsa.
His journey to the Church was completely independent from mine and very different. (He had many more, and more intelligent, questions about the faith than I did, for one thing.) Steve had not grown up in any church at all, though his mother, a Baptist, was and is a woman of great faith. In the summer of 1993, he and his family took a road trip through the Western states, and for the journey, I gave him copies of St. Augustine’s City of God and Confessions, thinking he might find them interesting, but never imagining their dramatic influence on him. By the time he came home, he was convinced that the Church of which Augustine was part was where he wanted to be, too. Now we were together in “the Catholic thing,” and even something so basic as attending Mass together brought new depth to our love.
I started at the University of Tulsa that fall, joining Steve in the philosophy department, with a second major in English. We sat on the student interview committee that would help choose a new member of the philosophy faculty, and we were thrilled one day to find ourselves interviewing Professor Russell Hittinger, an eminent natural law theorist who had taught at Fordham, Princeton, and the Catholic University of America. Professor Hittinger was hired, and in the next two years I took every course he offered, from “Aquinas’ Treatise on Law” to “The Philosophy of Religion.” We read Spinoza and John Dewey, James Madison and Justice Frankfurter, St. Francis and Gregory the Great. He became a treasured mentor, not only as a teacher of Catholic theology and religiously informed political thought, but also as a friend who unselfishly gave his time in conversation marked by singular shrewdness, prudence, wit, and zeal.
In the summer of 1997, Prof. Hittinger called me up with a typically bold and unexpected idea: “You should go to Poland!” What in the world would I do that for, I wondered? He explained that every summer in Krakow the Polish Dominicans hosted a three-week seminar in which George Weigel, Michael Novak, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Fr. Maciej Zieba, OP, Hittinger himself, and others gave lectures on Catholic social thought to two dozen senior undergraduate and graduate students from America and Eastern Europe. In addition to the lectures, there would be discussion groups, tours of Krakow and Czestochowa and many other places, even outings to the mountains. The students would stay at the thirteenth-century Dominican priory while the brothers took a brief holiday; Mass would be said each day in the priory’s chapter room. All expenses were paid except for plane fare. How could I say no? I applied, was accepted, and soon boarded a plane that would take me out of the country for the first time, and into a world that would change my life in ways I could never have expected.
The lectures at the “Tertio Millennio and Free Society Seminar” were challenging and inspiring. The setting was breathtakingly beautiful and the outings were a delight. But it wasn’t the trips or the discussions that made those three weeks so powerful. It was the daily Mass—intimate and unadorned, uniting our little group in trust—and the astonishing richness of this Church-infused culture. Everything, even the poetry of an atheist or the music of a hard rock band, seemed to exist within the sensibility of the Church. For the Poles I met, there was nothing “forbidden” about the modern world; their faith, while always ready to turn away from evil, never seemed prim or defensive. In other words, they were the first “John Paul II Catholics” I’d ever encountered: they were not afraid, of modernity or of Christ, and their confidence drew all of us to them. This was a Christianity I’d never experienced before, and it was exhilarating.
It wasn’t easy to come back home. For three weeks, I had been in an environment of such abundant grace, in a culture that was so thoroughly, vibrantly Christian, that returning to a world of shopping malls and artificially intimate liturgies was a real shock. Our American Church and culture seemed impoverished by comparison. The lack of a genuinely Catholic culture was almost physically painful in the first few weeks I was back.
Little did I know what waited at home. My parents had been struck by my descriptions of the Church in Poland, but perhaps just as much by how much I had changed since becoming Catholic. Soon the number of questions they were asking about Catholicism began to increase dramatically, both in number and in difficulty. I began studying my Catechism before going home on the weekends, so I’d be prepared to answer them. Every visit brought a new query from my father. There were questions about the papacy and apostolic succession, about sin and grace, about the authority of Scripture and tradition. I wanted to give the best answers I could, because I saw that something was happening in my parents, and I knew that if I stayed out of the way and just repeated what the Church said, its truth and beauty would draw them in.
My mom didn’t ask as many theological questions, but something was happening in her as well. One day, a couple of months after I returned from Poland, we were sitting in the living room talking about this and that; I think I was telling her something about the saints, whom she had begun to find fascinating. Suddenly, she turned to me and said: “Would you teach me how to pray the Rosary?” Heart pounding, I wrote down the prayers and took her through the mysteries. A few weeks later she called with words that took my breath away: “I think your father and I are going to go and see about those RCIA classes up at the Cathedral.” On April 10, 1999, I was blessed to sponsor my parents as the bishop laid his hands on their heads, and they were confirmed.
To say that being with my parents in the Church has been an adventure would be an understatement. Faith has been so important to our family for so long. Now that we’ve found what we hold to be faith in its fullness, we are closer than ever, and it is a never-ending pleasure to explore the Church with them. Despite being supplemented by some like-minded magazines, First Things continues to be the journal of choice at the Mosier house, in part because from 1998 to 2003 (thanks to a strong recommendation from Russell Hittinger) it employed the Mosier daughter on its editorial staff. Working with Fr. Neuhaus—my teacher in Krakow and boss, landlord, and friend in New York—and the wildly varied group of philosophers, theologians, priests, poets, and raconteurs who surround the magazine, was a joyous experience of the Church Catholic.
My parents got to share the experience in several visits to New York and, most dramatically, in a trip to Rome at the turn of the millennium, where they joined me at a grand reunion of the Krakow seminar alumni—and where, just eight months after entering the Church, in the Clementine room off St. Peter’s Basilica, they got to meet the Holy Father. (My dad’s words when greeting the Pope have become legendary in our First Things community. He knelt at the Pope’s feet, took his hand, and said, “God bless you, heavenly father!” We’ve tried not to let that story get out to our Protestant family members, lest it confirm their worst suspicions about what Catholics really believe.)
There is an old French proverb which says that a coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous. Many things in this story seem like coincidences: that I happened to get interested in James Joyce and ask my Catholic friend about chasubles; that I and my boyfriend Steve, now my husband, happened to meet the same Polish Capuchin in little Broken Arrow; that the priest who prepared us for marriage ten years later happened to be a Polish Dominican from the priory in which the Krakow seminar was held; that Prof. Russell Hittinger happened to come to Tulsa, which led me to Poland and to First Things, all of which played a part in bringing my parents into the Church.
Looking back, it does not seem that God was anonymous at all in these events. He was always there—His extravagant, exuberant grace available at every moment. My childhood experience of a personal relationship with Him opened my heart to the fullness of that relationship in the Catholic Church. In the writings and the witness of Pope John Paul II, the Church has reasserted her ancient awareness that a person stands at her center. This is not just any person, but the one who, as the Second Vatican Council put it, both reveals God to man and reveals man to himself. After all, what is at the center of the Mass but Jesus’ body and blood? What is at the heart of our prayer, but the man who by his death and resurrection draws us into the conversation of the Trinity? What is the beginning of the Apostolic Succession but Peter’s realization of who this Jesus actually is?
It’s not too much to say that my charismatic upbringing trained my eyes to see all this. In the rituals of the Catholic Church, in the saints, in the papacy, and in the sacraments, I was able to recognize a drawing near to the person of Christ—in large part because another tradition taught me to recognize him in the first place. I continue to invoke the Holy Spirit; I rely on the Word. In the confessional, there is a powerful sense of Jesus’ healing mercy and my own radical dependence on it. All of this, all learned from the faith of my parents, converges with and deepens my experience of the Church. I have traveled very far, and there is far to go. Through it all, I know Christ will keep leading me home.
Alicia Chesser was until recently the Managing Editor of First Things and a freelance writer and dance critic in New York City. Her work has appeared in First Things, re:generation quarterly, Dance Insider, and Pointe Magazine, among others. She and her husband, Steve, live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This article is adapted from a chapter in The Catholic Mystique: Fourteen Women Find Fulfillment in the Catholic Church, scheduled for publication in March 2004 by Our Sunday Visitor Press.