It was at this point, at the very end of the Church year, inspired by a tremulous confidence and the irresistible attraction of first love, that I established the habit of going to daily Mass. Every day at noon when the bells of St. Mary’s were ringing out the Angelus over New Haven, I drove into town, parked near the church, and went in with the others, who were also arriving from different directions—mostly solitary, purposeful individuals who climbed the steep steps and took up their places inside, at a little distance from one another, leaving large pillars and discreet spaces in between.
Then a small sacristy bell rang and a priest came out into the sanctuary—small and far away, alone or with an acolyte—kissed the freestanding altar, and turned the pages of a book. And the liturgy began, with the confiteor, or general confession:
I confess to Almighty God
And to you my brothers and sisters
That I have sinned through my own fault . . .
And as I learned this and began to speak it out loud with the others—
And I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
All the angels and saints
And you my brothers and sisters
To pray for me to the Lord our God—
every day my voice broke and tears ran down my cheeks, as every day the prayer released me and called down the mercy of God.
Sometimes I came early and sat in a pew and waited. Sometimes I stayed late, while a small group prayed the Rosary near the St. Joseph altar, or an individual lit a candle at the Shrine of the Infant of Prague. All around me in this traditional church there were unfamiliar devotions and rich food for the eyes: real candles and curtained confessionals, traditional statuary and an architecture that oriented me to the new life I had chosen, so I had only to come into the building to be catechized, in a half-conscious, incalculable way.
St. Mary’s was Gothic, like the chapel at Yale where the International Church and later the messengers met, but there the similarity ended. Whereas Dwight Chapel was intensely vertical, St. Mary’s was almost as wide as she was high, as if the same architectural plan—the pillars and vaulted roofs, arches and side aisles—had been restricted in one case and dramatically expanded in the other. Moreover, whereas in Dwight there was a seemingly unbridgeable distance between the dirty floor where we worshiped and two indecipherable windows far above, in St. Mary’s sixteen massive stained-glass windows were set almost at the level of the pews—one window for each mystery of the Rosary, with one to spare—even as the congregation was subtly elevated by the rosewood floor of the nave.
It would be difficult to overemphasize the difference these architectural differences made to my development, as I found myself, every day, in this generous, elevated space, where the congregation in its street clothes was silhouetted against the life-sized tableaus of the windows, as if the church had been a meeting place between heaven and earth.
Again, whereas Dwight Chapel had been colorless and dark, in St. Mary’s a soft natural light was continually in play, washing sequentially through the saturated membranes of the windows. Furthermore, everything was painted in St. Mary’s, saving the pews and the floor. The walls in those days were a drab yellow, and the high pentagonal apse behind the altar was an English red, which in turn was figured over, like wallpaper, with a shimmering, gold-leaf pattern of fleur-de-lis. The tall pillars in the nave were the color of algae and the vaulted roof overhead was an azure canopy, fastened up with powder-blue filaments and gold medallions. Add to all of this polychrome statues of saints—statues that, like the windows, were brought down within reach—and intricately painted and gilded bas-relief Stations of the Cross, and the colorful exuberance of the whole sounds almost too much on paper, yet it worked in the church, in the dim recesses around the altar especially, where the reds that were almost orange and the greens that were almost blue were at once resplendent and fugitive, overstated and vanishing, like the iridescent plumage of a tropical bird.
At night, in the RCIA class, all of this was thrown into shadow. But then the Catechism—the new Catechism that had been completed shortly before I came in—opened up its treasure house for me. Paragraph after paragraph in this prodigious, serenely comprehensive work shone in the darkness of my mind, as if window after window were opening interiorly, or as if stone after stone were being laid in an invisible edifice. Just as the visible wealth of the Church flooded my senses by day, so the wealth of the Catechism illuminated my understanding at night. And whether at church or at home, where I read far past the assignments, my response was the same—Where did they get all this?—which was the response of Jesus’s contemporaries to Jesus himself, when he opened his mouth and disclosed unanticipated depths.
Everything was there—the teachings of the Councils, Scripture almost in its entirety, the insights of the saints and the mystics—but it was as if these had been great icebergs drifting past at a certain depth, dissolving quietly into the serene text of the surface. The footnotes on every page were the visible tips of these icebergs, and the quiet authority of the text itself was the mysterious proof of what fed it—proof of how great and irreplaceable is the conversation between the Word and the Church, a conversation I had never even imagined as a Protestant. Sometimes in my reading I came across one of my messengers sermons, summed up in a brief paragraph or a parenthesis. Insights I had been particularly proud of, which I thought had originated with me, the Church, it turned out, had explained definitively centuries before. And again I felt afraid, or some combination of fear and bliss. I remembered the expression on my children’s faces when I lowered them into their baths as babies, as I felt myself disappearing into this Church that was terrifyingly complete without me—this Church in which I would always be more or less anonymous and small, as if I were passing over, in spirit, into the great crowds on the hills in Palestine.
It was Advent by now, a penitential season in Catholicism. Over the altar the bronze crucifix suspended by invisible wires loomed larger in the bare sanctuary, and the mood of expectation habitual to St. Mary’s intensified. Sitting in my pew one Saturday after what turned out to be the last Mass in Ordinary Time, I felt the Spirit radiating, looked up, and saw Father Keller and an acolyte changing the cloth on the altar, from bright green to the dramatic purple of Advent. And I felt the shift in the world at large as they changed the cloth. I experienced for the first time the astonishing dynamism of the liturgical gesture—its actual correspondence to what it represented—as they removed the old cloth and deliberately unfolded the new, and a new season swept in with the change.
In class, at night, I watched Father Keller with different eyes, sometimes reminded of my earlier impressions but having to acknowledge, even then, that there was more to his attitude to me than I had first supposed. For example, he didn’t ask about my husband. Whatever his attitude to me personally, he never questioned my solitude, or my right to be there by myself. In every evangelical experiment in my experience—excepting the messengers but even including My Father’s House, a charismatic outpost of Catholicism—I had encountered a palpable anxiety if I tried to stand on my own, and then a flurry of activity designed to provide me with cover or legitimacy, as when the Episcopal minister hurriedly confirmed Charles in East Haven, or Hugh and Siafa dressed him up in a little authority.
But here at St. Mary’s no one seemed uncomfortable with Charles’s absence. There was no rush to include him, or to confirm him prematurely. I was interested in converting and my husband wasn’t, and no one pretended otherwise. Almost for the first time in my Christian life I didn’t feel that I had to prop up a fiction, and no one was deceived. My husband’s ambivalence, which bordered on hostility, encountered an impartiality that bordered on indifference, as for the first time in Christendom I was received as myself, as a person, whose legitimacy depended on no one else.
And so a weight began to fall from me, which I had hardly realized was there, and from Karen, who was Jewish and initially terrified of her family’s finding out what she was doing, and from Adrianna, who was black and going against certain African-American traditions. There was also Joanne, who was divorced and finding her own way at St. Mary’s, and Helen, a psychologist, who was returning to the Church with her teenage children but without her husband. And there was Christopher, a Southern Yale student whose parents were vehemently opposed to his conversion, and Rebecca, his blonde friend, who had always wanted to be Catholic but had waited until she came to New Haven to take this unprecedented step away from her family. And every one of us Father Keller received on a different footing than we were used to, so there was considerable anxiety in the beginning, almost as if we had been entering a different world.
Yes, it was almost as if Father Keller were two people, I sometimes thought, watching him surreptitiously as he went about his business in the Church: holding sway in the street on Sundays, or sitting alone in the sanctuary with his white hood pulled over his ears. He could still, at times, be so moody and vested, so entertaining and upsetting! But then again, in a crisis, I found him disconcertingly dispassionate and firm, like a rock that one encounters unexpectedly, when the mists and accidents of personality clear away.
Put another way, insofar as I regarded him simply as another human being, I still didn’t trust him terribly far. But I was learning to trust him absolutely as a priest, and never more so than when he was on the altar, holding up the host, as he held it up that decisive day in August when I slipped into St. Mary’s in my sins. Because he was the priest—I put it together finally—who gave me the Eucharist that day. He was the one who blessed me in spite of himself, when I came in like Jacob, searching for the birthright that had been denied me, and passed myself, illegitimately, under his anointed hands.
And then Afterward, in the fall, when the others went up to receive the Eucharist without me, I didn’t feel excluded or upset, as I had expected I would beforehand. On the contrary I felt included, in some way that I couldn’t describe, and more, to my surprise, I found this period of watching and waiting in the Church to be a time of grace so great that I actually feared its coming to an end, as I began to apprehend Jesus under these circumstances as someone substantially apart from myself and not simply as an interior character in a private drama.
God on the altar! And not only human pastors, with their inevitable limitations and biases. Someone dispassionate and pure; a measure against which I could measure myself; a peaceful, objective presence that everything else in the Church strove to emulate, from the statues with their far gazes to the ethereal music on Sundays, from the rigorous discipline of the altar to the measured responses of the people in the pews. It was an objectivity that turned out to be the antidote to everything I had suffered in evangelical Protestantism—the Church’s answer to subjectivism and grandiosity, equivocal love and prophecies uncomfortably cut with the self. On Fridays, after the noon Mass, the priest even placed a single consecrated host in a Eucharistic vessel called a monstrance, turned the monstrance toward the congregation, and left it on the altar all afternoon, flanked by lit candelabra and silence. And in the light pouring from this golden monstrance, which was a combination of a standing cross and a sunburst, with a round opening at the center for the Eucharist, I can tell you that there was no darkness at all . . .
Coming in one Friday when this radiant conflagration was on the altar, flooding the pews with its terrifying impartiality as the incense spiraling from the censer invaded every nook and alcove, I broke down completely on my kneeler and laughed on the floor as Thomas Merton laughed at his ordination with his mouth in the dust; laughed as I laughed at the Vineyard services in Toronto, at the miracle that I was here, where I was supposed to be, that the thread had run out and I was out of the labyrinth at last, through no foresight or stratagems of my own.
It was also true, in those days, that I couldn’t get too close to the monstrance. I could come just so close to it and no closer, as if an invisible barrier intervened. And as I was pondering this barrier, and trying to understand what it meant, I picked up a book from a book truck one afternoon in the Guilford library—The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day—and read Day’s unflinching account of her youthful sexual sins and subsequent conversion. And reading this, in Day’s company, I finally saw my past as it really was; I saw the connection between sin and suffering; I grasped the law of sin and death.
Meanwhile, in class, Father Keller was preparing us for our first Confession: explaining what actually went on behind the heavy velvet curtain, advising us how we should dispose ourselves and the kinds of things we might say. And although it was still true that at every Mass the general confession brought tears to my eyes, as my sense of sin grew more specific, so did my need for a more specific absolution. Watching the people in the rear of the church lining up for the sacrament, I began to imagine myself among them. Pondering my past, I felt my mood grow gradually more congruent with the mood of the Church, where peace is inseparable from watchfulness and bliss from holy fear, as Jesus and I confronted one another with a new seriousness across this distance I had still to cross.
Christmas came, and the scenery changed again in the church. The Advent wreath, like a great wheel, disappeared from the sanctuary, and trees and poinsettias took its place—a bristling understory of poinsettias and trees the size of grown men raised onto the roofs of the choir stalls alongside the altar—a display that for sheer scale rivaled the scale of the Church itself, and fairly ravished my heart, as it hearkened back to an earlier time. A year later, with Father Jones firmly in charge and the finances of the church under scrutiny, the outlay for decorations was more modest. But I was always grateful that the year I came in, I saw something different, and grasped the point of the difference, which is that nothing is too good for the Bride.
I was sick over Christmas, and missed the Church’s celebrations. Propped up in my small bedroom, wedged in with pillows, with snow outside, I pored over the one book I had asked for as a present, a book called Inside Catholicism: Rituals and Symbols Revealed, which was a picture book, essentially, for a new child in the Church, filled with mesmerizing, richly colored photographs of vested priests in procession, First Communicants in white dresses, holy water fonts and ciboria, open tabernacles and Easter fires. There were photographs of a baby being baptized, his small held head splashed with blue water and tears, and one of a chalice filled with cream-colored hosts, the camera peering in at the jumble of gold-lit, cross-stamped wafers.
And every one of these photographs, in this season of the Incarnation, seemed to me mysteriously lit from within. They had a power over me that I couldn’t explain, a resonance that struck a deep chord. The closer the camera came to its subject, the more it uncovered a mystery, in the palm crosses and embroidered stoles, the penitential processions and nuns in choir. I opened the book and was transported in space and time, almost as if I had found again, in middle age, a book that I had treasured in childhood.
When I was better, in January, the Christmas season had ended and we were back in Ordinary Time. Coming again into St. Mary’s, I found the sanctuary clean and bare, with only a few poinsettias lingering in dark masses on either side of the altar. The cloth on the altar was cream-colored; the mood calm and refreshed. And still the Church went on offering Mass every day—indeed three times a day at St. Mary’s—without a break or a vacation, in a show of faithfulness and perseverance that I knew from experience was simply unthinkable for man alone.
How long, for example, had the Vineyard Fellowship met daily in Toronto? For as long as the Spirit was being poured out. When the outpouring ended, so did the daily gatherings, it not being in man’s nature to do something for nothing for long.
Yet the Church, I realized now, had been meeting every day for millennia. Every day on her altars around the world she had been offering the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, under the momentum of the same Spirit, under the silent, mysterious appearances of bread and wine. The fidelity I had looked for in vain in Protestantism I found in the end in the Church, whose unbroken record of obedience is understandable only as a response to an uninterrupted availability of Jesus Christ, in the Church Luigi Guissanni has called the Host of the Absolute through time.
For almost two months that winter, it snowed every few days. I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter to my daughter, and at night, after reading to her, I dreamed of snow, and of trying to outbrave or outlast storms that were ready-made metaphors for my past, and sometimes of carrying my daughter through landscapes thick with the same ancestral symbolism. In my dreams about having to cross water in order to get home, the water turned to snow or ice, and there was a new note of urgency and even violence in these dreams. For example, I am in a snowy wood, approaching a rushing stream. There is no bridge that I can see and the water is choppy with ice, but I pass over anyway in my car, which I drive very fast, with momentum, so I essentially fly.
In another dream I am on a beach with my daughter, near my maternal grandmother’s cottage. It starts to rain, and I pick her up to take her home. But it is a long and roundabout route we end up taking, and as we travel, the rain turns to snow. The air is dark and blowing, and in wind caverns on either side I see shapes of animals menacing us—a lynx and a bear—but it is as if they were in blurry cages, behind wavering bars, and they don’t harm us as we pass. I hold my daughter tighter, we press on, and they fade away.
But my favorite dream from that winter is a dream about my family of origin. In this dream I am in a field in Maine where I grew up, playing with my brothers and sisters, when suddenly out of the sky comes this tremendous ball of snow—like another world, or a comet, or a total eclipse of the sun—that falls on us like an avalanche and buries us completely, so it is no longer summer but winter, and snow stretches to the horizon.
And then miraculously, in this unrelieved landscape, I break the surface of the snow. My head and then my hands are free, and I begin to dig myself out. Packing the snow into footholds, I climb up out of a deep trench or gully, much as I came up, that winter, out of a family in which my mother’s childhood Catholicism had been obliterated when she married a Snow. Breaking free of the past—shaking the snow out of my clothing in the dream and breathing the clear air in relief—I entered the family of the Church, which began to come into focus around me where I had felt myself alone in the fall.
I noticed this first in the class. In the fall, members of the class barely spoke to one another, almost as if there had been a prohibition against it. Each of us was intensely oriented to the priest and the Church, and everything else was almost an irritant, or an unwelcome distraction. But in January, this changed. In January, each in his period of isolation having made his difficult decision alone, the prohibition came down and a new community began to be born, as if a horizontal began to be hung on the secure vertical of a large cross.
This new community included Karen and Adrianna, Helen and Joanne, the last of whom lived near me in Foxon and became one of my closest friends. And then Helen, it turned out, had a singular friend named Marie, an enchanting blonde woman from Australia who was a regular communicant at St. Mary’s.
By late January, I had asked this Marie to be my baptismal sponsor, or godmother, and taking her role seriously, she invited Helen and me regularly to lunch at the Graduate Club, where we ate popovers off white tablecloths and enjoyed ourselves into the afternoons. Marie was affable and stylish, the sort of beautiful woman who wears hats, and Helen was subtle and droll, and I sat between them, fascinated. Sometimes we ate in Marie’s high-ceilinged Victorian house on St. Ronan Street, off bone china, in unheated rooms. And endlessly we talked, about the Church and everything related to her, and in their company I learned things I could never have learned from books.
There was also Father Jones, who became a lifelong friend and counselor. Taking time from his busy schedule, he would sit with me in one of the priory parlors, and after I shared with him what was troubling me he would lift his long arm and point—it was one of his gestures—in the direction I needed to go. A former Episcopalian like me, he cleared away my remaining questions about that communion, and an alumnus of Yale, again like myself, he challenged my negative view of that institution simply by virtue of the fact that he had been there, too. Moreover, though he was only a few years older than I was, his peaceful authority in the pulpit and his outlook of bemused patience—the impression he gave of always being privately amused—reminded me so much of my paternal grandfather, it was as if my grandfather had been reincarnated for me in the Church, in virtuous form. And as sometimes happened when I was with Marie, when her indulgent generosity brought my maternal grandmother poignantly to mind, I understood that in putting together this new community for me, God wasn’t limiting himself to what was novel, but was plundering my whole past and everything even potential in it, like the householder who brings out of his storehouses both what is new and what is old.
Finally, in February, in an example of a straightforward restoration, I received a telephone call from Flora Che, a close friend I hadn’t heard from since the messengers dissolved, and she told me that she also had decided to become a Catholic, and was attending an RCIA class in West Haven.
And before I had time to recover from this announcement, and just as I was beginning to compare notes with Flora, someone else reappeared from even further back in my past—a woman named Lisa who had been my closest friend at Yale, who had shared my early bewilderment and my groping after theological answers, in an environment decidedly hostile, which threw us too much together.
After Yale, Lisa and I had drifted apart. There was a reaction, after graduation, to the intensity and isolation of the friendship. And then our marriages, which were very different, divided us further. But now she reappeared, and our friendship resumed. There was a phone call and I learned that she, too, was converting to Catholicism and would be confirmed in a Chicago suburb at Easter. And immediately our friendship, which had faltered in the world, blossomed with a new vigor in the different air of Catholicism. Indeed, the problems Lisa and I had had in the past simply disappeared in the Church, a community generated by different laws, whose members have individually washed their robes.
And all of this, for me, amounted to the hundredfold of the gospel. It was the windfall, and the overflowing measure. It was the concrete realization of the promise: “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now, in this time . . . and in the age to come eternal life.”
Coming into St. Mary’s on one of the darkest days of the year, when it was sleeting and miserable outside and the congregation at the five o’clock Mass was one indistinguishable mass of dark overcoats, I saw the anointing over the weary congregation, as if it had been incense, or the vapor from the melting snow. I saw the Body, I mean to say, that I had been looking for since Grace; the Body with the same DNA as the Head; the Body that is the concrete prolongation of the physical presence of Christ in this world.
In late February, when Ordinary Time was almost over and Lent was about to begin, my husband and the children and I drove down to New York City to see St. Patrick’s Cathedral and an exhibit of Brontë memorabilia at the Morgan Library. Since Christmas, my family had been attending Sunday Mass with me. In my husband’s case, thinly veiled hostility had given way to cautious curiosity. But for the children, and for my daughter especially, the Church was simply a world they entered: The door opened and they went in, and the Church received them. I remember Jeanne standing on tiptoe to light her first candle, dipping enthusiastically into the holy water, standing and kneeling and making the sign of the cross.
For Ross, who was fifteen, there were elements of self-consciousness to overcome. But for him, too, there was something almost effortless about the transition, as his natural reserve found itself immediately at home in the liturgy, which sets strict bounds between individuals and throws a rich veil over the emotions, so different from the confessional requirements of evangelical Protestantism.
How Ross had resisted that side of Protestantism as a child! Grace he had loved, but from a distance, as if she had been in another world. He had loved the crowds and the comforting anonymity of her services, their dream-like atmosphere and the beautiful woman whose powerful anointing he could participate in from afar. But everything that came after grated on him more or less. The Episcopal church in East Haven he tolerated, though I think he had doubts about Episcopalianism before I did. The Toronto Vineyard alarmed him. Gateway he hated. The International Church and the messengers he bore with, I think, for the sake of his mother, but like someone biding his time, holding himself in reserve for something else.
Then I came to the Church, and he followed me in relief. And I realized, as I watched this, that the Church already had a claim on my son, that she had entered his consciousness through his reading and exerted an attraction that I had overlooked, preoccupied as I had been with my own concerns.
So we drove down to New York City, to hear Mass at the big cathedral. It had snowed again the previous week and the Hudson was still white to the shores, but there was a wet wind off the water and wan sunlight between the buildings, and an impression of winter breaking. We found St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue, like a child’s sand-castle or an architect’s model, wedged between taller buildings.
Inside, the impression was of something vast and tumultuous. There were aisles of shrines and tourists surging on the periphery, groups struggling to get through and guards holding back velvet ropes. Swept along with the others we had to split up at the last, to get close to the altar, which seemed floating in the distance in infinite space.
It was like St. Mary’s, I thought, when we were finally settled, only more so: the great number and variety of parishioners; families and solitaries; the pious and the matter-of-fact. There were as many men as women, as many young people as old. There were Africans in ceremonial robes, college students in sweatpants. There were people from every tribe and tongue, every people and nation, and all of us were crowded together in vast grids of perfectly diminutive pews, in which I was astonished to find myself at ease, as if I were finally—finally!—small enough to become a Catholic.
Then Mass began, and everyone stood up together. And the power of this—the sheer magnitude of the action, and its heartrending demonstration of solidarity—almost made me weep. Someone said to me once that he could never become a Catholic because he couldn’t bear to share a pew with people who were lukewarm, but there was nothing lukewarm about this. This was about presence and faithfulness, breathtaking solidarity and strength. It was about leaving oneself and one’s small spiritual interests behind. It was about living with others, and not just one or two, or a small circle of congenial friends.
Then the confiteor began, the familiar:
And I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
All the angels and saints
And you my brothers and sisters—
and again, there was an expansion that left me physically far behind. There was an impression of worlds overlapping, as if someone had leaned down from a window.
I don’t remember much after that, except that at the consecration, when the priest held up the host on the altar, I felt myself—as I would feel myself at every consecration in every Catholic church in the years to come—at the very center of the world.
Then it was over and we went out into strong sunlight and the sound of water rushing in the culverts, as if it were an overflow from the Mass, sacramentalizing the rest of the day. And everywhere we went in the city that day, and everything we did, flowed from the same center and fell into place in relation to it. Which is a way of saying that in finding my footing in the Church, I found my footing in the world as well. By gaining access to the Church, I gained access to everything else, as if I had squeezed through a narrow opening and found myself suddenly in a broad place, as the Church taught me how to be small—as small as the Brontës’ handwriting, and even smaller!—so as to enable me to be part of something definitively great.
On the drive home, as Ordinary Time came to an end and I gathered up the graces I had received, in a mood of repletion and reverie I remembered something Ingrid Trobisch had written, quoting her late husband, Walter: “It’s true, after we have been born on this earth we have to be born again, from the natural man to the spiritual man. But God isn’t finished with us. He wants us to be born a third time, back from the spiritual to just being human again.”
Patricia Snow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.
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