If you count the time between attending my first Mass and receiving my first sacraments, it took me just over three years to become a Catholic. If you count the time before my official conversion, when I was asking versions of the same questions that led to my baptism in 2016, it took me more like twenty-five years. There was no religion in my household growing up. Had they stopped to give it any thought at all, my Chinese parents would have seen the church as anathema to many of their values—tithing away hard-earned money, confessing sins, contemplating death (and worse, talking openly about it), and spending unpaid time on unproductive activities like prayer. Having endured famine, immigration, exclusion, and the shock and grief of cultural assimilation, they came by their values honestly and so forbade me to speak of death or bad luck, to save anything less than half of what I earned, or to venture out among the strangers who might cheat, lie, or take me for a fool. I realize now just how perfect a teenage rebellion religious conversion would have been.
The summer of 2013, I was pregnant with my second daughter and reading spiritual literature with an almost-hormonal hunger. Conversion stories by Anne Lamott and Mary Karr and the tender gang-rehabilitation narratives of Fr. Gregory Boyle fed my cravings. That my conversion began with storytelling shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. When we first met, my now-husband had been alienated from the church he was born into for over ten years, yet he gave me a copy of The Screwtape Letters for our first Christmas. We read it together, both laughing out loud and falling still before ourselves as reflected in C. S. Lewis’s patient. Long before, I had tagged along to church services with high-school friends, and in college took classes like “The Bible as Literature” and “Christianity and Nonviolence.”
When I look to my childhood for clues, it seems to offer no clear trail to my religious turn. But my parents’ connection to the mysterious is probably what set the dial for my religious attunement. My mother lived with spirits of ancestors, tracing a direct line from our behaviors to their displeasure to our consequences. She appeased, served, and honored the dead we remembered and the dead we could only imagine, ever vigilant of their ceaseless inspection and impossible expectations. Our home was rich with traditions both ancient and adapted to America, all of them liturgical.
My second daughter was born in October 2013. The Sunday she turned four days old, my visiting mother-in-law asked me a question as we sat up together in the early hours, listening to the baby’s rumbling sleep. “So, what do you think about Mass?” I’d pilfered the Anne Lamott books from her shelf during a recent visit, but we hadn’t told her that we were considering, tentatively, registering at our neighborhood parish. When she asked, without agenda, I thought of my C-section incision still inflamed around its stitches, of how I would remain awkwardly seated while everyone else took Communion, of everyone’s sleeplessness and disorientation in this new configuration of life. Still, when I said yes, it was not simply to please her.
My husband, his mother, and I piled around two bulky car seats and headed to Mass, me clutching my Percocet. Maybe it was the music lifting into the high arches of College Church in St. Louis, or my hormone-soaked body, or the fresh newborn and chirpy toddler taking up all of our arms. Or that my body knew it was finished growing babies, that my husband and I were, after a lifetime of ceaseless building, suddenly looking at our completed project. A house, a car, two jobs, and two daughters were running our cups over. I was Simon Peter pulling up nets so full they threatened to capsize the boat. I was reaching for something to hold the largeness of the catch.
Raw and open, I fumbled through the motions of Mass, standing and kneeling a few beats behind everyone else. Normally, I would have felt anxious and desperately self-conscious about my out-of-placeness. But that morning, despite the unfamiliarity that surrounded me—the strangers, the ritual, my own altered body and family—I recognized a calm, steady weight settling around and in me. I felt a sense of plantedness in a place I’d never been before.
I came because despite having a quiet, comfortable life with a job I liked—teaching writing to community-college students—and a steady group of friends in our small midwestern city, there was no other place to hold the conversation about why I’m here and what I am to do. And there was no other place that said quite so clearly that our answers would never lie in more exciting jobs, a bigger home, or moving to a coastal city. We certainly didn’t lack obligation or commitment; we needed a sense of seeking together through, in spite of, and because of deep mystery.
For six years, staying has been challenging for reasons I know challenge many Catholics: the ongoing crises of abuse cover-up, the disenfranchisement of women, clericalism that stands in the way of lay people’s empowerment, the prohibition on birth control, and the troubling treatment of LGBTQ parishioners and priests. Describing why we stay often sounds like an apology or rationalization. Perhaps it is. We stay because of fellow parents in the pews, with whom we share a liturgy of crying, questions, hushing. We stay because we hear lectors and cantors in Côte d’Ivoire French and Burmese. We stay because of the way our choir sings “All Creatures of Our God and King.” And we stay because it is through all this that we see others differently, anew, and more.
A friend asked recently why I don’t choose a church that feeds me spiritually and aligns better with some of my personal values. My response, which surprised me more than my friend, was, “I think it’s because the transubstantiation matters to me.” I came for the faith that daily life is sacramental, that Jesus is present in moments of both holiness and ordinariness, which grow harder to distinguish between the longer I am here. I stay because people I respect—mostly women who are older and wiser, and relentless in their demands for justice—are here, and I have something to learn from them. I stay because the church feels enough like my own that I can say to those guilty of abuse, neglect, and coverup, I won’t let you have it. Maybe the church needs to hit rock bottom, to experience death in order to be resurrected. I’d like to be there when we discover the stone that has been rolled back.