I was reared in the pews of a Southern Baptist church. My memories of Irondale Baptist Church, on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, were brought back to me recently when, at a dinner party, my husband and I sang “Softly and Tenderly” for a group of Fordham graduate students. Catholics are often fascinated and sometimes repelled by the ritual of the Southern Baptist altar call, the “invitation.” But our performance that evening has led me to recall how, after those many years of hearing “Softly and Tenderly” alternated with “Just As I Am” at the end of each service, I found my way into the Catholic Church. I was a member of the Irondale Youth Choir (yes, we even cut an album!) and remain in contact with my directors who walked me through those awkward years. Every summer we had an outdoor concert which always included our biggest hit, “Victory in Jesus.” People would come forward at the invitation: some years quite a crowd would come forward, some years only two or three. However, at the age of thirteen I didn’t understand grace or how little I had to do with it being offered. I believed the harder we sang, and more sincerely, the more people would come forward to be saved. It would be many years before I realized that salvation was up to God. It was just my job to sing.
In those days we began each summer with two weeks of Vacation Bible School, an annual adventure in cutting and pasting the stories and characters of the Old and New Testament. I remember my cardboard Moses leading his popsicle-stick followers with a strand of yarn through a desert of beige colored felt. We learned all the Bible stories this way. Years later, I cannot visualize Noah’s Ark without thinking of my shoe-box creation. The constant emphasis on these Bible stories and Sunday School lessons taught me the importance of Scripture. The Bible — we never called it Scripture — was the center of our lives. It was truly the Word of God for us. The two greatest gifts I received from the Baptist Church were reverence for Scripture and the joy of singing. (Are we giving this to our Catholic children?) Baptists did not require talent in singing so much as the ability to turn up the volume — “making a joyful noise” was taken literally. My husband and I still feel as if we’re singing solos at Mass most every time the hymnal opens. He, too, was formerly a Southern Baptist.
My first glimpse into the Catholic way of things occurred abroad. As a senior in high school I took a ten-day trip to Europe during spring break, a cathedral-hopping trek through Germany and France. We took a break for lunch one day in a small town outside Paris; it was hot and I escaped inside a nearby parish church. The church was empty until a woman entered laden with shopping bags, food, and several heavy parcels. She took her time shedding all these things and then knelt on the floor and began to pray. This gesture seemed as natural as breathing to her. It was her daily walk and her private talk with God in His house. I said to myself no service is about to begin, no preacher is rising to address the crowd, but she feels free to converse with God. I felt like an intruder, but no one even noticed me.
I left the church impressed by this simple act in a way that I couldn’t explain then, but I have never forgotten that scene of true submission and reverence in a house of God. Recently I read that Edith Stein had a similar experience before her conversion, and I’m sure there must be many converts who have been stirred by the sight of Catholics silently praying.
The following year I entered Samford University, a Southern Baptist school in Birmingham, and took a Southern literature course where I was confronted with the work of Flannery O’Connor. Thus began my fascination with a writer whose understanding of good and evil in human nature amazed me. Over the next few years I read more of O’Connor’s work, along with The Habit of Being, Sally Fitzgerald’s invaluable compilation of letters which allowed those of us who never knew O’Connor to share in some of her front porch conversations.
By this time I was a graduate student studying Theater and investigating the Episcopal church. I never became an Episcopalian, but its ritual attracted me and became, as for so many, an interim on my journey to Rome. Then I began to prepare a one-woman show to satisfy the requirements of my graduate degree. By then, I knew that Flannery O’Connor would somehow be a part of it. With the help of another student, I began writing a script in which I would portray Flannery O’Connor at home in Andalusia. The idea was a bit daunting but we gave it a try. The script was taken from O’Connor’s fiction, letters, and essays, as well as from conversations that I had with some of her closest friends.
In preparation for the show, I also began to read some of these writers she held in high regard. I read Julien Green, Francois Mauriac, and Jacques Maritain, to name a few. I started reading Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry one night in my apartment. By the end of the night, or early morning, actually, I found the description of creative intuition in the soul of the artist — how intellect, reason, and imagination emanated not from the dark recesses of a Freudian unconscious but from the “preconscious of the spirit.” Jacques Maritain taught me much about myself that evening.
The Baptist church had warned me of the dangers of my own creativity. Being an actor was “of the world.” If I remained a Baptist and an actor I would very likely be trapped in the narrow world, the acceptable world, of Christian drama. Maritain’s explanation verified my own instinct that the Baptists were wrong. The revelation of the self to the artist is a blessing. It becomes a curse only if it shifts from the line of poetry, an interconnection between the self and things, to the line of man’s material individuality and the self-centered ego. It is not the habit of art that is dangerous, but rather, the moral problems in the character of the artist and the audience.
Not all the Baptists I knew suffered from the “Christian drama” problem. Harold Hunt, my department chairman, gave me the opportunity to perform many fine classical works. But it was not enough to rely upon the graces of unusual individuals who transcended the anti-artistic and anti-intellectual sentiment of the Baptist tradition. Those who did not condemn the arts usually did not encourage them. I was looking for the tradition in which my artistry would be ac¬cepted as an expression of my faith. O’Connor and Maritain assured me that I had found it.
After reading Maritain came many nights reading in St. Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who taught me that there was life before the Reformation. From him I learned that faith was an act of the intellect, not something brought on by a spiritual “high” after a good Sunday sermon. I felt a bit cheated when I started reading Aquinas: Why hadn’t someone told me about him before? I remembered in little flashbacks some of the things I had heard about Catholics through the years: They worshipped idols, they worshipped Mary and people called “saints”! But no one was a saint but Jesus! They drank too much, had lots of children, danced, and played bingo! They loved the Pope as much as God. I heard again and again that the Eucharist was just a symbol of Jesus’ love for us and not to be taken literally.
I heard all these things and more but no one ever mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas. He was my final step toward Catholicism. When I finished reading Aquinas, I knew I was a Catholic. I understood the meaning of the scene I had witnessed in the parish church back in Paris. The personal relationship with God that I had heard about all my life, and thought I had, had been only partially realized. My mind was now freed to unite with my emotions. I had been “saved” years before, an experience my intellect had had little to do with; it was time to go a step further.
The remainder of my final year in graduate school was spent on the O’Connor project. I went to the only Catholic church in my neighborhood in Tuscaloosa. I didn’t know the ins-and-outs of the Mass but I began to catch on. I began to appreciate ritual as a means of spiritual discipline for us. If we are given too much leeway we tend to become unruly children looking for the easy way, the unfettered way. Without the intellectual aspect of faith, without the constancy of ritual, I had depended upon others to make me “feel good about God.” I had placed too much responsibility on my preacher to deliver the goods on Sunday morning. I remember an Easter service in my younger years when the family had gathered after church for lunch and someone asked, “Wasn’t that a great sermon this morning?” And another family member answered, “Well, I didn’t understand everything he said but, boy, can he preach!”. Through the Catholic mass I learned that the priest was merely the Celebrant, the stand-in, the vessel through which grace was offered. Mass was the same no matter where I went. I must say, however, that it would serve the Catholic Church well if young priests listened to the beautiful rhetoric and delivery of the Rev. Billy Graham. I have listened to many impressive homilies that may have been missed by some parishioners due to an overly passive presentation.
It took the next couple of years following school for me to actually become a Catholic. I moved to Atlanta and met my husband, Deal, who was a convert as well, and our first date started with conversation about Jacques Maritain. He had been a Catholic for about four years when we met, and his knowledge of the Catholic world inspired me. He helped me understand the details of the Church doctrine, but his greatest contribution was showing me the lives and works of great Catholic writers, great artists in the Church, composers whose music blessed the Mass as well as the concert hall. And in my early months before confirmation he introduced me to the people he held in highest regard — his own spiritual mentors who held his hand when he asked about Mary for the first time: Dr. Arthur Evans, a brilliant scholar and the kindest of men, who showed me my first Georges Rouault painting, and Fr. Richard Lopez, the first priest I knew as a friend, who showed me that priests can be smart and funny at the same time.
Deal surrounded me with people whose lives were exemplary in so many ways. They were intelligent, gifted people who had given their lives in service to God and a Church in which they believed. Deal introduced me to a community which in May of 1987 became our community. I was married in the Catholic Church only six weeks after I was confirmed. Confirmation, eucharist, marriage — it was a long way from Irondale.
It has been almost seven years since then and I am still learning. I will soon be teaching our daughter, Hannah Clare, about the lives of the saints. We will learn about them together. Someday when she asks me why I no longer am in the Baptist church I hope that she will understand that I did not leave out of anger but out of a desire to know more and to believe more deeply.
I just wanted to know the rest of the story.