I was received into the Catholic Church and confirmed when I was 25 years old. Did infant baptism as a Lutheran, and spent five highly formative years in a charismatic fellowship right before crossing the Tiber. My pentecostal friends found it weird that I thought I needed a Catholic sacrament to make the Holy Spirit real in my life.
The weird thing I discovered was what I actually needed to make the sacrament of Confirmation come alive in my life.
My RCIA was, in a word, lame. It was taught as a class and really didn't meet any of my needs or even allow me to discover what my needs were. I was thrilled to become a Catholic, but RCIA was to me mostly a season to be endured.
However, a long time before I got that far, I made an inspired commitment to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was something God stirred up in my heart, I promised Him I would do it "someday," and then the opportunity to do it opened up when I heard John Michael Talbot speak of a group he would lead there. I'm not even sure I knew I would become Catholic when I made the decision to go. But the trip ended up being my "Catholic honeymoon," taking place roughly two weeks after I entered the Church.
Our pilgrimage group met in New York and we bonded rather quickly. My spot in our tour bus was right behind John Michael, and he and the others got to know me as "the brand new Catholic." This was my very first experience of spending any kind of extended time with Catholics with any degree of spiritual exchange. All I had known before this was my own personal prayer, sporadic discussions of theological topics with one or two Catholic friends, and my lame RCIA.
After a few days, these pilgrimage Catholics were freaking me out. I came from a land where everything spiritual was invisible. I was surrounded by people with medals and beads who thought sacramentally about blessings and places and objects and prayers in common. My roommate loved Mary to an extent that made me panic, speaking of her like the Virgin was a part of her life. John Michael gave a talk about the sacramentality of geography, and of seeing the actual places Jesus walked. People couldn't wait to touch things in all the holy places. And I could not take it in at all. My heart and brain were on full tilt.
One night we prayed in the Church of the Garden of Gethsemane. I felt so lonely and frightened that Catholicism -- or at least life among Catholics -- was a terrible mistake. I believed the Church belonged to Jesus and somewhere was hiding rich mystical treasure, but I felt like I was stuck in a dead church where people were caught up in a bunch of stupid, meaningless trappings.
As we left the church that night, our priest companion said to us, "Be sure to come up here and touch the rock before you go" (supposedly the rock where Jesus had prayed). That was the last straw for me. Interiorly I screamed, "Lord, I don't want to touch some stupid, dead rock. I want to touch you!"
The next morning as I trudged to the next holy site from our hotel I prayed a good "agnostic's prayer" about all this. I told God I didn't believe anything about holy places and things having special graces, but if He wanted to prove me wrong, He could go ahead and do it.
Our Mass that day was in the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus, and we used the readings and Mass proper to that place. With the readings I began tearing up, and as the Eucharistic prayer began I was weeping, practically wailing. I had no idea what has happening to me (as everyone around me showered me with tissues), but I remember barely being able to bring myself into the communion procession, so tiny did I feel, so peeled to the core. The words roared through my spirit "He that believes in me, though he were dead, YET SHALL HE LIVE." The Lord was telling me He knew all about my deadness and all about everyone else's deadness, but that He had brought me into the Church and commissioned me that His life would go forth both in me and through me. My mission was clear. Be alive. Bring God's life everywhere I would be sent.
John Michael spoke during the communion meditation about how even though we can come into the Church and receive the sacraments at one point, sometimes it is at another point that the Church and the sacraments "come into" us. I probably didn't realize at the time he was talking to me. And I didn't really realize that my Confirmation, my commissioning by God, was exploding into activation at that moment.
And after I cleared the snot out of me after Mass I sat down to collect myself. I felt the Lord ask me, "Um, Marie, by the way.... where are you?" And then I realized. "Oh. The church of the Tomb of Lazarus. Ok, Lord," I admitted, "I guess holy places do have special graces."
And all of this I was able to realize not only because I was in the Holy Land, but because I was experienced Catholic community. When I was without a lived experience of faith with others, I spared myself a lot of pain, but I also "spared" myself the glory of God revealed. That community experience was as temporary as it was real, but it awakened a hunger and a seeking that has only intensified over the last 21 years.
Let us be brave to face the pain and the glory, and not allow ourselves to be satisfied with our utter dissatisfaction.