The grandeur of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was inspiring enough. I sat in the hardwood pews with my friend, Chris. It was bright and grand, a magnificent contrast to the Protestant churches I had grown up in. My identity had always been in my faith but now I found myself drawn to the Catholic church, as I had married a Catholic. Each Sunday my husband simply left for Mass whether I was in tow or not. As I began to attend Mass with him, it fed a need for structure, solitude and stability that I rarely felt in the traditions I had passed around.
When the Eucharist was to be given, about a dozen small nuns came out from behind the altar. I hadn’t seen them earlier so it added to the mystery of the whole endeavor. Chris went up for the Eucharist and I followed for a blessing. The tiniest of the nuns was at the head of my line. When I reached her, I leaned down a little since I was a good foot taller than her. She unexpectedly reached up and grabbed my face with her free hand and said, “You are precious!” This startled me, my friend and everyone around us, until surprise turned into a glow among us, and we smiled as if we shared a secret.
What those around me did not know was that I was contemplating converting to Catholicism, and in that moment I felt welcome.
In some ways, I felt like I was cheating on the God I knew and loved by flirting with the Catholic church. In the variety of Protestant traditions I had been a part of growing up, I never felt like I fit in. I wasn’t emotive enough for one church, too emotive in another. Too liberal in one, too conservative in another. Wherever I went, I felt the one thing in common was that I did not speak the language. The right words never seemed to roll off my tongue as quickly or as authentically as it did for those around me.
But it was more than that.
The Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen wrote:
Not being welcome is your greatest fear. ..Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. Every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.
I sat back in the pew, still feeling the warmth of the smiles of those around me and her hand on my cheek, and prayed. I could find a home here.
A few years later, I converted at St. James Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. After my Confirmation, parishioners came up to me to welcome me. They all commented on how large my smile was up around the altar.
Occasionally, there are moments during which I still don’t feel welcome. My old insecurities lurk about or I imagine myself not quite Christian enough. Then I remember the words of Nouwen, and the words of Christ spoken through that nun at St. Patrick’s. I look around St. James and I see faces of those who look like me and faces who don’t. I see parishioners who wear their inner battles painfully on their face and others who shine with God’s peace. I see brothers and sisters who feel they are too little or too much. I know that those who feel unwelcome are often the ones best suited to making others feel welcome. I know I have a place with God’s precious people.