Grace Upon Grace

Late Have I Loved You Mother Church

by Sharon K. Vander Zyl

I wasn’t born Catholic but I got here as fast as I could. My husband, Rollie and I came to the Catholic Church in 2007 and we came by a circuitous route. As I think about that journey, I am amazed at God’s wisdom in how he brought it about. Sometimes I am tempted to be jealous of cradle Catholics but I see that it was so grace-full of God that He brought me here step by step. I love and affirm ALL Christians but I am IN LOVE with the Catholic Church. I have Rollie’s permission to tell the parts of the story that are also his—many since we were married in 1965.

Even though I didn’t know it, I was born a heretic to a long line of heretics. My ancestors came from the Netherlands to escape what they saw as the oppression of the Catholic Church. They came for religious freedom. They were iconoclasts who destroyed all of the beautiful statues and crucifixes because they thought that they were idolatrous. To this day when you visit Holland, the large churches are topped by a weathervane and few of them are even used for worship, rather they are museums or place for performances.

Our church was the Reformed Church of America (the oldest Protestant denomination in the USA with a continuing history). It is Calvinist in theology—that is it is a follower of the Protestant reformer John Calvin. Father Benedict Groeschel says that Calvin and Zwingli (another big name in the Reformed tradition) were the most anti-Catholic of the Protestant reformers. Our immediate ancestors were sure that Catholics would never be in heaven, that the church was the “Whore of Babylon” and the pope the “Antichrist” both they say mentioned in Revelation. I didn’t know any Catholics until I entered college. My grandmother was very upset when she found out that I was dating a Catholic for a time.

At the time I was growing up, we went to church activities four times on Sunday—Sunday School, Morning Worship, Youth Group and Evening Worship. On Sundays we lived with a lot of no’s and don’ts—no shorts or slacks, no running or playing outside, no washing the car, etc., etc. If you’ve seen Babette’s Feast (movie) the severe Danish folks in the movies were, I think, related to my ancestors. Mid-week we went to Family Night for more worship and education.

So, you can see that we were very devout heretics. Our pastors (who back then were called “Domine”, the Dutch word for “Lord”) preached for 30-45 minutes at each service—the pulpit was central at the front and elevated on a dais. The communion table was on the floor below the dais and communion was offered only quarterly and was considered a symbol only. Sermons often seemed to me to be about sin, hell, damnation. In my earliest memory of church I am five years old and the Domine, with shock of white hair is striding across the dais yelling. I cowered near my Mom and said, “Who’s he mad at?” I was sure it was me. I had no concept of grace back then.

Calvinism is very much an intellectual theology that attempts to explain man’s basis for salvation through the TOTAL sovereignty of God and the TOTAL depravity of man. Man is totally without free will or choice. According to Calvin, God makes ALL choices for man and one of those choices was to make man sin. That sin, corrupted man’s nature, making the entire human race totally deprived of good, wholly inclined to evil and sin. To save man, Calvin argued, God chose only CERTAIN ELECT people to be saved. These people he predestined. These chosen few people cannot resist God’s grace and, therefore, cannot ever be or ever become lost.

As you might imagine, we grew up with a sense of either uneasiness—am I elect? Can I be good enough? Or a sense of “I give up. I can never be good enough.” There was a strong emphasis on looking good because looking good was evidence that you were elect—good health, prayers answered, money, etc. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard “What will people think?” from my parents. An example of how far this was taken—at my father’s visitation someone said to us “It is too bad you didn’t pray for his healing in the right way.”

Predestination extended even to day-to-day events. Whatever happened to you, God meant for it to happen. For example, my mother-in-law fell in the tub and dislocated her shoulder. She actually said, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.” And she further said that God made it happen to her so that she could witness to the woman in the next bed in the hospital.

As a child this made me fearful. I can still remember the little song we were taught, “Oh be careful little hands…” If the Father up above was so loving, why did we have to be afraid. There were a lot of contradictions and discrepancies that troubled me and I remember questioning my catechism teacher a lot. Still, I was a good girl so when the time came I made a profession of faith (we called it “joining church”).

As I think back on these experiences, God does remind me of the good things that I gained from growing up as I did—Baptism, love of Jesus, daily quiet time habit, Bible study and memorization, intercessory prayer are examples.

In High School and College it wasn’t “cool” to be a Christian and yet I didn’t want to drop it altogether (probably a combination of fear and being drawn by God.) So I still went to church (there was no Reformed Church there so I went to a Presbyterian Church) and I still had a quiet time most days and kept a prayer journal. I still have that prayer journal and in it were a lot of intercessory prayers for others. For myself, one prayer dominated—send me a Christian man to be my husband.

I guess God didn’t answer that prayer fast enough for me so I did some “missionary” dating. I was home from the university, where I was studying nursing the summer of 1963 and my sister was dating Rollie’s brother. Rollie’s brother suggested that Rollie ask me out. (Actually, years before, he was my first “date” in 7th grade to a girls-ask-boys square dance. We went to the same school and the same church growing up.) That first date in 1963 led to a summer of fun and soon I was crazy-in-love with this handsome guy. We had many long talks about the meaning of life and about Christianity. And THEN I told him I wouldn’t be able to marry anyone who was not a committed Christian. I figured that would be the end of our relationship, but to my surprise Rollie decided to make a profession of faith in the Reformed Church and we were married a year and a half later. As you’ll see later, that decision wasn’t made for the best reasons. (We were both blinded by love/lust.)

Though we knew that marriage was for life we had no concept of it being a sacrament as the Catholic Church teaches, nor about “openness to life”. The doctor that I saw for my premarital exam asked what form of contraception we would use, assuming that everyone contracepted (and everyone we knew did). So, of course we did too. We stayed in the Reformed Church, helping to charter one in Des Moines, Iowa and then another in Madison, Wisconsin after we moved there in the 70’s. We knew nothing else. For a brief 3 years we attended an Evangelical Free Church because a colleague of Rollie’s invited us. The worship there was very loose and emotional and we were never completely comfortable.

We joke that we spent the first 7-10 years of our marriage trying to make each other in our own image. I don’t think that we were atypical in this. In fact, I think that God has a plan for opposites attracting—when we “rub up against each other with our differences” it is part of an opportunity to become sanctified. A priest of Scott Hahn’s once remarked, “Marriage is not hard, it is just humanly impossible. That is why Christ established it as a sacrament.” Too many people (even devout Christians) give up on marriage way too soon, not relying on the Holy Spirit to help them live out their sacramental vows. Even though we didn’t always know it God’s grace was in us in spite of our mistakes.

In 1974 we moved to Wisconsin and I saw my opportunity to pursue my first professional love, psychiatric nursing. I returned to graduate school to earn a Master’s Degree in Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing and an externship in family therapy. I was happy in my career, serving as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in a Methodist Hospital and I was busy with my second career in the National Guard. Then a bomb fell on my life. My father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, in spite of treatment, he rapidly declined and died within months. I was devastated. My father was my favorite parent—a real gentle-man who loved my mother and his three girls. In our Protestant frame of reference there was no place to put this experience. There was no concept of meaning in suffering, of participating in Christ’s suffering for the world. I’ve already told you about the comment we heard at Dad’s visitation that we didn’t pray for his healing in the right way.

I was ANGRY with God and told him so in no uncertain terms. I can remember going out onto the balcony of our apartment when I couldn’t sleep and shaking my fist at God telling him “I could run this place better than you do!” (I’m not proud of that now. But to my surprise at that time, He didn’t strike me dead..)

I continued to attend church and to do my daily quiet time most days but it was a dark, dry time spiritually. A prayer group of nurses that I was a part of loved me anyway. Their love and support was part of what kept me faithful to God even with all my anger.

We had purchased a home that was miles from the Reformed church we were attending making it hard to get there. Rollie had visited an Episcopal Church in his travels as a pilot and he liked the order and the liturgy. He suggested that we try an Episcopal Church near us, rather than doing the long drive each week. I reluctantly agreed. I’d always heard that Episcopalians were the “frozen chosen.” In the first Eucharist, I remember having the distinct feeling that the liturgy was familiar to me, that I had come home in some way. (Perhaps this was a distant memory encoded in my DNA since I now know that all Protestants were once Catholic). When the priest raised the wafer and broke it I was staring at the crucifix. Suddenly, all the anger and bitterness that I felt toward God melted and I began to weep. It was as if the Lord were saying to me “I didn’t leave your father alone to die, I was suffering with him and with you.” At the end of that service the whole parish sang Amazing Grace holding uplifted hands. So much for my prejudice about the “frozen chosen”.

That week the priest came to visit us in our home. Even after that mystical experience the Sunday before, I told him that the belief about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was something I would have trouble with. He asked me if I believed in the virgin birth and I said I did. “If you can believe that, why is it so hard to believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood. We don’t tell you how it happens like the Catholics do, we just tell you that it does happen.” No one in Protestantism ever mentioned John 6 to us and I don’t ever remember studying it. His explanation, though, was enough for us and we entered the inquirer’s class and became Episcopalians.

Because of my background, I think God knew that he would need to bring me to the Catholic Church in steps. In the Episcopal Church I had my first experience of grace. Grace was so astounding to me that I resisted it. Our priest had me do a scripture search on all the verses that focused on God’s love and pin up the verses around the house and car so that I would internalize that God really did love me.

I loved the liturgy of the Episcopal Church and wanted to learn everything I could about it and about God’s grace. We were soon invited to make a Cursillo weekend. For me it was another powerful experience of grace and of the Agape love of others.

After my Cursillo weekend, I chose a spiritual director who was an Episcopal nun in the diocese of Fond du Lac which was called an “Anglo-CATHOLIC”. (You can see that God is bringing me closer.) Every 6 weeks I would go to see her at The Convent of the Holy Nativity and to do a 2-3 day silent retreat. On one of those retreats, I was awakened in the night by the strong smell of roses coming from the hall outside my room. I walked out to look and saw nothing. Perhaps one of the nuns walked by with hand lotion on, I thought. The next morning when I met with my spiritual director, I told her about it. Her mouth dropped open and she said, “We don’t wear scented hand lotion because of our vow of poverty.” She paused and continued “Why would Mary come to you?” I had to ask her to explain since I had no idea that Mary is often associated with the smell of roses. As a Protestant, I only heard about Mary at Christmas. (Again, the Lord is drawing me closer.) She advised me to thank Mary and to pray a Rosary that day. (Yes, I already had a Rosary and I would pray it when my mind was too “busy” to focus on other prayers.). By this time I was the co-owner of The Center for Christian Counseling and Family Therapy in Madison, WI and a very busy therapist there.

Shortly after that retreat, I found out why Mary had come to me. If you were Satan, how would you attack a marriage and family therapist who is coming closer and closer to Truth? Sure, you’d strike at her marriage, right? And strike Satan did. Rollie told me he didn’t want to be married anymore. He was struggling spiritually and looking at other traditions—Native American spirituality, Buddhism e.g. We separated. It was again a dark time for me. This time, though, I felt held by God and very close to Christ. Now I would say I was also held by the Blessed Mother.

Rollie and I met for counseling during our separation but, even then, our future together looked bleak. Many friends advised me to “Get on with your life.” I made an appointment with a divorce attorney and then two amazing things happened. First, I was on a trip to Washington DC for the Guard staying in the Hampton Inn. I was awakened from a sound sleep by a “presence” in my room—it seemed to be the Lord, Himself. He said to me—“Sharon, I called you into this marriage and I’m not calling you out.” My first response was not one I’m proud of but it does illustrate my humanness. It was, “Oh sh__.” But I immediately apologized to the Lord, went to prayer and felt strengthened. Still, I did not see how our marriage could be healed. I had just read of Oscar Romero’s prayer before his martyrdom in El Salvador: “I can’t, you can. I won’t, you must. I’m yours, show me the way.” I began to pray that prayer over and over.

The second thing happened when I returned from that trip. I received a call from a Catholic colleague of mine asking if she could come over. She had stopped in the middle of making dinner because God told her to bring me a videotape. The videotape was called “Fighting for Your Home” and told the story of a woman whose husband left her with four small children. The Lord told her to “stand” for her marriage. She began to pray scriptures for her husband and after some years of hardness toward her, he returned. After God healed their marriage, they established a ministry to troubled marriages.

I cancelled my appointment with the attorney and began to pray scriptures for Rollie as the videotape suggested. The Lord even gave me a prayer tongue to use during that dark time and it was such a comfort to me though it disappeared later. My spiritual director told me about St. Monica and her prayers for her son for many years. She advised me to bite my tongue when Rollie was talking about his seeking in other directions and just to listen and pray. I was often tempted to comment and I wasn’t always perfectly obedient but I think I did develop calluses on my tongue. ☺ As I listened I learned about other traditions and about this man that I loved. Eventually, he said, “These other traditions aren’t for me. I’m not a Native American, I’m not Buddhist, I’m a Christian.” I believe that Rollie went through a true conversion process that I short circuited with my “missionary dating”. When I finally got out of the way (was forced to) the Holy Spirit could work.

After we reunited, Rollie came back to church with me only once a month a compromise suggested by a therapist. Rollie has always had a better “truth detector” than I have and there were many things in the Episcopal church that troubled him—women priests and bishops, homosexual priests, support for abortion choice. Though I was troubled, I was more compliant and I enjoyed the worship and the friends I’d made. When the ECA voted to confirm a homosexual bishop; that was a BIG stumbling block. It came when we were beginning to plan our retirement.

There were good things that I gained from being Episcopal also—love of the liturgy, an introduction to Real Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, centering prayer, lectio divina, Taize prayer, regular times apart for spiritual retreats—all of these continue to enrich my spiritual life.

In retirement we wanted a cause that we could both get behind. Because of our mutual love for the out of doors we chose National Wildlife Refuges and living full-time in our RV to volunteer at them. We sold everything and went “on the road”. Seeing all our possessions go out the door was very freeing. I can see why so many of the saints embraced poverty.

We enjoyed the learning and work we were doing on the wildlife refuges. We continued to seek out Episcopal churches when we could but God was loosening our connection. Though we loved living on the wildlife refuges, we did not like RV parks in between assignments so we began to look for a home base. Cherokee Village came to mind. We had met a Methodist minister and his wife while in Israel one year and had stayed in touch with them. They had retired to Cherokee Village and invited us to also. We bought our house here in the summer of 2007 but began to live here full time in 2010.

Choosing a new home base gave us an opportunity to choose a new church. I’m embarrassed to say that we still didn’t “get” that the Catholic Church was the church that Christ established. I should certainly have “gotten” it because I had continued to be in spiritual direction (by now with a Franciscan nun) and I had continued to make silent retreats every 6-8 weeks by now at Catholic retreat centers. There I participated in Adoration and in Eucharist and there was NO DOUBT in me that the bread and wine WERE the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. It just didn’t occur to me to take the step to become Catholic, perhaps because of the anti-Catholicism with which I grew up. But the Lord knew where we belonged and He continued to guide us. We talked about where to worship and decided that we would either go forward in history from Anglicanism and attend the Methodist church or we would go back in history and attend the Catholic Church. At that time we didn’t know that John Henry Newman had said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” When we visited the Methodist church we found warm and loving people who were extremely welcoming but the service left us cold. We longed for the liturgy and the Eucharist. The next Sunday we visited St. Michael’s and we knew that we had truly come home. Father’s Tom’s wonderful voice his reading of the gospels the sincere, enthusiastic way that he offered the Mass and the warm welcome he gave us helped us decide to enroll in RCIA and take the final step into the Catholic Church.

And what a wonderful step! Our RCIA instructors—taught us patiently. I began the Scripture Study and learned the clear connections between the Old and New Testament. We watched Fr. Corapi’s tapes on the Catechism, we joined a Why Catholic group and I enrolled in Fr. Hardon’s Basic Catholic Catechist’s Course. As we were learning, it was as if scales fell from my eyes. So much had been kept from us—even huge chunks of the Bible. Each week we were nourished several times by the Body and Blood of our Lord. I KNOW that this spiritual food is changing us to be more and more Christ-like. Just think of it, we are receiving Jesus’s DNA! How can we help but change. At our confirmation, Jim Hill, one of our RCIA instructors said to me, “Sharon, you were always Catholic, you just didn’t know it.”

In confirmation we receive the special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ. To confess the name of Jesus boldly and never be ashamed of the cross. Yet, no one had ever invited me to the Catholic Church or shared with me what it believed. I hope that one of the results of my sharing is that all of us will share the precious Catholic faith every chance that we get.

When I was praying in the Adoration Chapel recently, the Lord gave me a metaphor for my journey to the Catholic Church. The metaphor was based on a portion of John 14 that was read at my mother’s funeral last year, “In my Father’s House are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you also may be…”

Though the context at Mom’s funeral was about heaven, I think the metaphor also works for my journey Home. What the Lord showed me was that being in the Reformed Church growing up was like living in a sub-basement. There were high windows and every once in a while I could see light from them and from some cracks in the floor above. Once a day I could hear the distant sounds of a party from somewhere above me. On bright sunny days I even had enough light to read by and to see clearly but the clouds would move back in quickly. When Rollie brought me to the Episcopal Church it was as if we had climbed the steps to a walk-out basement. The light was clearer and stronger and the sounds of the party were louder each day but still not distinct. When we came to the Catholic Church it was as if the Lord took us by the hand and led us up the stairs into a big, beautiful mansion complete with outdoor gardens and fountains. We are free to explore all of the rooms and we are invited to participate fully in the party that we could only hear before.

Some of the rooms we’re exploring—one that is filled with the grace and mercy of God., one where the party is held each day—what a privilege we have as Catholics to receive the body and blood of Christ, his very DNA, each day if we choose. What a miracle!

One room is for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Before I understood this sacrament I used the old Protestant line—I confess directly to Jesus, I don’t need to go through a man. But as a Protestant I was fooling myself. IF I did confess, I was less than honest with myself and with the Lord. Now when I go to confession, I do a careful examination of conscience and I am as honest as I know how to be and it is another powerful source of grace.

In yet another room is the Blessed Mother. Growing up Protestant, we never spoke of Mary except in the Christmas story As I enter the Mary room of the mansion I meet a strong woman who spoke out against injustice and who prophesied the peaceful revolution her son would bring. She is a wonderful example to me with her “yes” to God and her belief in the miracle of her Son. Particularly now that I’ve lost my earthly mother, she fulfills my need to be in touch with the motherly aspects of God. She always points me to her Son and tells me to do as He says. The Rosary and the Memorare enrich my spiritual life.

The Saints occupy another of the rooms I get to explore. The stories of their faith feed my imagination and inspire me to seek Holiness. The communion of Saints allows me to talk with them and to seek their intercessions. In the Mass I can “see” them around the altar along with all the heavenly hosts worshiping with us. Each day in the Magnificat devotional book a saint is featured. I look forward to reading their stories and to marveling at their devotion to the Lord. The Church Fathers are in this room also and they are ever ready to teach me about the church the Lord founded. I do not see how one could read the Church Fathers without seeing that the Catholic Church is what the Lord intended. We were never exposed to them as Protestants and I can see why!

It is such a comfort to have a room occupied by the pope and the Magisterium of the Church. The pope is a symbol of unity and spiritual authority and along with the Bishops is the source of spiritual leadership. With the Cardinals and Bishops, he settles both spiritual and temporal disputes in the church. In the absence of that authority (and with the absence of the Eucharist) the Protestant church has split and split. There is no unity. Experts tell us that there are well over 38,000 Protestant denominations now and more and more forming each day. (Rollie says most of them are in Arkansas.) Imagine playing a game—say Bingo since we’re in a Catholic church—what if every few people in the game played by their own rules and there was no one who was in charge? It would be chaos, would it not? This is what life in Protestantism is like. It is wonderful not to have to try to be our own “pope” anymore. We can turn to the Pope’s encyclicals, to our Bishop s’ teaching, to Canon law, and to the Catechism for our authority in matters of faith.

There are many more rooms in this wonderful “mansion” the Lord has brought us to. We will be exploring for the remainder of our days here on earth and then we will see all clearly with the Saints in heaven if we persevere in holiness.

Say with me and with St. Paul, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”


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