His Presence in Each Step by Janette Howe – A story of re-conversion to the Catholic Church.
a story of re-conversion to the Catholic Church
by Janette Howe
I would suppose that the snapshots of my life could fit comfortably in a no-frills, medium-sized scrapbook. Yet as I have taken hold of God’s grace to examine them, a deeper reality presents. In hindsight I have become keenly aware of God’s Presence – in the peaks or valleys, during spiritual aridity or fruitfulness, in the impressive or common moments of life. Even in the seasons of distraction and disinterest, He remains, ready to guide, actively protecting. It is my hope that my story will serve to recount God’s faithfulness and grace which has brought me to sweetly recognize His Hand and Sacred Heart extended to me – in every step. And may you so recognize it in your own life. Through His touch an ordinary life indeed glows in a radiant noteworthiness. His love is an everlasting, abiding love – then and now and tomorrow. Aware or not, responded to or not, His love is unfailing and I find no rest until I find it in Him (Augustine).
God’s choice was to introduce me to the world – and to Him – through a beautiful family of six in rural Illinois. In the late 1940s my adventuresome father, Cuban-born and raised, bought a medical practice from a retiring physician. My mother, far from retirement as the nurse/receptionist, became part of the package. And, well, one might say, that dad’s initial investment had rich, multifaceted dividends.
It was the best of worlds – a small town upbringing coupled with parents who not only had a terrific marriage and chose to love and ride the waves with their spirited lot of children, but loved to travel – and to take us with! We were exposed to many cultures and early on our sense of a world outside ourselves and homestead was a valued part of the fabric of our lives – and our faith. We were taught to look beyond ourselves – up and outward to a God who loved us, and alongside – to others whom God chose to put there.
My parents were devout Catholics, in the midst of a town predominantly Catholic, living sacramental lives and passing along these values to their children through virtuous example and enrollment in the local parochial school. Mom attended daily Mass and had a 45 minute private daily prayer time that she often announced before closing the bedroom door. This meant DO NOT DISTURB. My father’s medical practice was well-respected and noted among his peers as exemplary for tireless, ethically-sound practice. Diligent in the pro-life movement, he actively helped to expose and shut down illegal abortion clinics in the Chicago area. In the 1960s he and I toured the county area with a pro-life slide show. I was not want for healthy roots.
My ‘wonder years’ were plump with scenes that Rockwell would have found good subject. We didn’t lock doors, walked home from school for lunch, ran with the fireflies at night, and addressed everyone in town by Mr-or-Mrs.-such-and-such because we knew everyone. We were on a first name basis with their cats and dogs too. When tragedies wove in and through lives, the townspeople each applied a share of healing balm in their own ways. Community.
I held a fascination for the nuns at school, longing to be privy to secrets like the color of their hair and if they ever wore swimsuits. Each Saturday after Mass I set up the vestments and hosts for Sunday, dusted and cleaned that place of mystery where only the altar boys tread, and just plain hung out with Sr. Patrice who carried a deep, attractive joy like no other. Those sparkling blue eyes were windows to an alive and abundant place. She freely gave and I freely received. Sister attended to my earthly longings too, obliging my curiosity by revealing quite a bit of classified nun information. I reciprocated by permitting her to ride my pink bike, Rosie, down the alley. There was covenant between us deeper than I understood at the time.
In high school I was in every activity – as was everyone else in my class of 33 (22 boys, 11 girls). The busy-ness curbed opportunities to fall prey to lesser goods, and besides, word got around if “Doc’s” kids acted up. It was the way it was. I counted offerings after both Masses with a classmate, taught Sunday school classes, was chosen May crowning queen (like my mother before and my sister after) and held all these things as privilege. I graduated in 1971 – a confusing, illusory time for teens, a disquieting time for parents, a surreal time overall.
I ventured off to the University with a thick, black braid trailing down my back, butterscotch and navy-striped luggage, and a zealous idealism helplessly entwined with naiveté. I pledged a sorority – amenities furnished, including instant, tight friendships. I moved with a group of moderates, but occasionally fell to the example of more liberal co-eds. It was the time. All things considered, I suppose, I staved off a fair amount of the usual temptations afforded in the first semester of college in the 70s. However, self-absorption insidiously nibbled away and clouded deeper intentions of my heart. I grew emotionally fat with external satisfactions of great friends, grades, and a ‘good’ life. Certainly God could see my position, I rationalized when I abandoned attending Mass. Certainly He was excusing me, just as He was most certainly excusing my equally complacent Christian sorority sisters. Wide smiles and embraces, successful study reports and good health filled the snapshots of life at that time, but inside spiritual anorexia was following its course with its grin, stellar reports, and charm. God ‘showed up’ for the all-nighter exam-crams, but His presence in the daily moments was tragically ignored. The discipline of my parents’ prayers kept me afloat, no doubt, and mother’s six sisters also prayed daily for every niece and nephew. It was impossible to escape the shower of these prayers. Grace.
My favorite recreation was engaging in verbal volleyball at the student union. It was the fuel of my spiritual indifference, the tutor of an increasing fluency in sarcasm and derisive talk, and a meeting place always packed with like-hearted, starving souls. I remained diligent in my studies and devoted to my academic goals, but viewed any spiritual activity as an extra, time permitting. Again – certainly God could not expect that ‘extra’ with the weight of studies constantly looming large.
The summer following Junior year I was accepted into a program at Duke University. I was thrilled, as only 30 nursing students were accepted from across the US. By this time I was spiritually bankrupt, going through motions only to appease my parents. I was strangely distanced from any sense of my own spirituality but, at the same time, strangely unaware of the distance. My time at Duke presented with new influences, not so much because it was Duke, but because of my station of self interest and lack of discipline. Feeling capable and able and wise, I chose to travel some less-than-virtuous paths. Then while bicycling one weekend, I incurred a back injury, necessitating complete bed rest and the threat of ‘permanent damage’. I cried out for God to preserve my health and nursing career. He answered. How sorrowful that I shunned the opportunity to cry out for renewed relationship and truth.
After graduation in ’75 I headed for the Twin Cities – with a broken heart from a relationship that made a U-turn that summer. I nursed my wounds with a grandiose heap of activism and idealism toward preventative health care. To the world my energy and drive was understood as confidence and assurance, desirable, ‘with it’. But in this shell of seeming-strength I carried the best part of me as a fragile, fractured spiritual life. Hoping to secure a job in Public Health, I received the disappointing news that I needed two years experience. Next stop – U of M Hospitals. My assignment in surgical ICU seemed mismatched, ludicrous. My confidence was challenged, but still I did not call out to the Lord. Instead I volunteered for double shifts in hopes of becoming more proficient ‘on my own’. Working and sleeping defined me, my zealous self-determination supporting the pattern. I rose to charge nurse quickly, then station instructor. I took all credit for my hard work and effort. I had conquered. Hear me roar. I lost all sense of divine providence.
In 1978 I made a surprise visit home for Mother’s Day. Friday night held a delightful dinner with my parents, then dad and I watched Les Miserables on TV. Mom woke me with a startle at 5a.m., saying dad was confused. Entering the bedroom, my father was having a seizure. His brother, also a physician, was called. Upon arrival, dad had a respiratory arrest. My uncle and I resuscitated him. Five days later dad died at age 63. We were numb. The timing seemed awful. Dad had a sound marriage, a vibrant medical practice, and moving into a time when all of his children would be graduated from college. I harbored deep pain at his passing and watered a root of anger along the way. Although I rested in a peace that my godly father was in heaven, I broiled with an unrest in the sovereignty of God to allow this course. I was shaken to the roots. Where was God in this whirlwind of feelings? I poured it all out – but unlike Jeremiah and Hannah I didn’t abide for the counsel and wisdom that follows such an outpouring. My heart was chilled. I shunned another opportunity for the Lord’s comfort and guidance.
Later that same year, at age 24, I bought a home. Between the myriad of repairs, hospital duty, and continued grieving, I emptied myself – literally and figuratively. Yet as I reminisce about friends, co-workers, neighbors during these turbulent times, I can now boast that God’s provision and presence through them never forsook me, despite my distraction and hardness of hearing and heart.
In the course of having changed jobs, I met a bright, handsome, witty, young man in the operating room one day. Within a year and a half a proposal of marriage bloomed forth. Jeff mentioned he was raised in the Unitarian church. I knew little of it, but wanted a marriage in the Catholic church despite my apostasy. He agreed without hesitation. We enrolled in pre-nuptial classes and a Catholic Engaged Encounter. The impact of these experiences began to awaken the flicker of flame within, but my spiritual muscles were atrophied, stiffened, and awkward after such a long slumber.
We conceived three weeks post wedding, and in 1983 a daughter, Kelsa, now defined us as the family Howe. She was baptized in the Church, again arousing my heart to desire a higher place. This newfound love softened and stretched and challenged the tenderness of my inner places. La Leche League (breastfeeding group) connected me with others who too had fallen head-over-heels in love with a precious babe in arms. The group was filled with beautiful, gracious models of responsive mothering. I was moved by their candidness, and thirsty to discover the depth of a mother’s heart. The purposes of one’s heart are deep waters, but one of understanding draws them out. (Proverbs 20:5) I was attracted to the Christian moms most especially, and thus, more importantly, to the Light and ways of Jesus. I could sense an inner softening. They no doubt recognized the spiritual paleness I bore. Again – God’s Hand, voice, and provision in such precious packages and sweet graciousness. These women became my closest friends.
Within 3 years, son Spencer was born and then baptized in the Catholic church. Jeff supported my attendance at church but had little desire to go himself. His work was grueling, I rationalized, and he needed rest. One day a colorful kite went up on the wall behind the altar. Where was the crucifix? On the side. Why? I was horrified, but asked nothing. Besides, it began to seem too difficult to attend Mass with both children anyway. Soon I again reasoned my position as one which God would understand. I quit attending Mass.
One day, while at Jean’s home, a LLLeague friend, I noticed a pottery plate on her kitchen counter. Around its edge was inscribed – It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Gal 5:1) What did it mean? For two hours we explored its mystery. I seemed to go round and round in circles in its thought, but eventually broke free of its constraints and sensed an inner freedom in my own self. It was exhilarating. There was much to ponder. In a few days I had more questions. Another friend joined us. Each carried a stack of books, among them a Bible for me. In my starvation I couldn’t get enough. I gobbled and digested and gobbled some more. My appetite was voracious. We prayed, cried, laughed, and prayed some more. I beseeched God – to fan the flame in me that I now clearly sensed was but an ember for Him. I appealed to Him for mercy and asked Him to teach me to pray. I was desperate for Him. It was simple, heartfelt, sincere, transforming.
I enthusiastically joined (my choice) my friends at their charismatic Lutheran (ELCA) church. It was Fall 1989. Each Sunday I sensed a new level of liberty. I longed for Sundays. The children too. I was blessed by so many things, but mostly by the opportunity for individual prayer offered each service. It resonated with my own heart, destined and determined for prayer. God used that time for a precious formation of that heart. My calendar became dotted with bible studies, conferences, and classes. Christian titles piled high on my nightstand.
At one of the earliest bible studies I met Barb. She had a radiance and an unusual peace about her. I was bewildered when she disclosed that she had recently made a decision to convert to Catholicism. It was her biggest act of faith, she added. I hoped she didn’t go to the church with the kite on the wall. I didn’t bring it up.
At Jean’s encouragement, I became involved in a pioneering group for a women’s ministry at the Lutheran church and eventually leadership in a group with an intercessory/healing prayer focus. Jean served to encourage, s-t-r-e-t-c-h, and love me in my faith. I learned to do the same. Interestingly, it was through the intercessory prayer ministry that eventually I was drawn to read books outside the standard reads like Richard Foster, A.W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, Oswald Chambers. I was sweetly drawn to read Abandonment to Divine Providence, Fire Within, Imitation of Christ, and works by Augustine, Theresa of Avila (Interior Castle), John of the Cross and everything about Mother Theresa. I became consumed with stories of the lives of the saints, desiring a kinship of heart. I was reminded of my confirmation name of Bernadette and resurrected her stories in my heart. My desires to pray for healing so resonated with her heart. Yet it seemed I could but only glimpse and grasp at such a passion for Jesus. I prayed often and loudly in pursuit of Truth, soaking many bookmarks with tears along the way. A ladle of love and grace was dipping deep into the waters of my heart.
During this same time I was drafted to be a charter member of a state team for Moms in Touch ministry (prayer for schools). Among the other three women called was Barb. As we lived near one another, we often drove to the prayer times together, sharing our places of the heart and soul. It was with her that I could talk freely of the family of saints – and she would understand. We had glorious conversations and as I came to know Barb more, I sensed the same fire burned within her.
My children were thriving in our church environment – with friends, involvement, learning. Jeff had not joined us. I pressed in with prayer. It was the toughest classroom of intercessory prayer I have yet been called to. After a series of events Jeff had a beautiful encounter with our Lord and was baptized. I couldn’t keep up!
In 1997 our family was presented with a critical decision. Our children attended a private, secular school, whose vision had become increasingly distorted. No longer willing to support its efforts, we prayed and fasted seeking God’s desire. The lead for Kelsa seemed to be an all girls’ Catholic school. We were pleased with the single gender classrooms, the academic strength, and were confident that we could dissuade her of any false Christian teaching she would receive! Further, the twin sons of my friend, Barb, were Seniors that year at the brother school. She led the Moms in Touch prayer group for the two schools. Again, God had chosen to weave us together in the strength of this weekly fabric of prayer. I applauded His wisdom and love to do this.
Within a few months a huge issue presented itself at the school. Many parents rallied. I joined visible and invisible (prayer) ranks in regard to the situation, and alongside was given a bit of a mouse-in-the-corner view of how these fervent, devoted Catholic parents and staff took action. Splendid to witness, friendships and prayer teams were first fruits of the efforts. A special relationship developed with Sr Jane de Chantal who steadfastly stood close to the Truth, and in the most turbulent of times walked in a heart ruled by Peace. I ached for that discipline and grace. We began to meet regularly.
Gathering in Illinois for Easter the following Spring, during an afternoon hiatus, my sister popped in a video of the Passion, arranged by the group, Radix. Very moving. I tucked the phone number in my billfold to order a copy. Life rushed on.
Pentecost weekend was approaching and I learned there was an author/speaker I enjoyed coming to Minneapolis – to a Catholic Charismatic Conference. The family and calendar both said yes. Friday night was opened by a retired bishop from Sioux Falls, Bishop Paul Dudley. A shower of refreshing, living water bubbled right out! He held such a tenderness and vibrancy of love toward our Lord. He simply shared from the overflow. Beautiful. The next day I was equally blessed by the other speakers. I collected a mittful of pamphlets, not planning to return for the remainder of the conference, as I was scheduled to pray at my church on Sunday.
During the night I became restless and arose to pray. I had a strong sense I was to return. With my husband’s approval, I did . After Mass there was a scheduled time for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr Faricy (Rome) brought the monstrance out toward the altar. In respect to those around me, I bowed my head and closed my eyes.
Within a minute or two my heart was filled with an intense warmth. In my mind’s eye I saw a swollen heart that was not beating very efficiently. A circle of thorns appeared on the top of the heart and one thorn fell off, tearing a small opening in the outer covering of the heart. Fluid trickled out – and at the same time tears trickled down my cheeks. I was graced with a newfound stillness of heart. The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing (Zeph 3:17). An immensity of the love of Jesus filled my mind, soul, heart, body. His Presence in a special way – so very real, irrefutable. I could not turn from the significance of this experience – and on Pentecost Sunday, no less.
I used the summer months to press in through prayer and consider these things. I was perfectly happy in the church to which I belonged. The ministries in which I was involved were very alive and fruitful. I witnessed many healings through prayer. I too had experienced much healing along the way. My family had many deep relationships. My prayer life was in a fertile place. I was not searching for this. What did this mean? It was difficult to explain these things to my family and friends. Certainly God would not separate me from them.
A thorough billfold cleaning exposed the phone number for the Radix video. I ordered. Curiously a free audio tape accompanied – a testimony of a Presbyterian pastor converting to Catholicism. The subject intrigued me. I took my daughter to her cello lesson. With an hour wait, I slipped in the tape. “…and those that left the Catholic Church didn’t know it to begin with…,” I heard through the car speakers. It pierced. I distinctly remember stopping the tape, putting my hands to my hips and saying aloud in disdain, “OK, Scott Hahn, whoever you are, you’re on!” I finished the tape and took up the challenge. I borrowed two grocery sacks full of tapes and books from a friend I knew who had recently reconciled to the Faith. I began talking to pastors and priests and comparing. Mr. Hahn was right about one thing – this investigative story was turning into a nightmare. Could I have been duped and, as Scott intimated, not really known the Church I had left?
One afternoon that Fall Barb called, starting with “You may think this far out, but…” Seems like in prayer for me she had gotten a sense that I should contact Bishop Paul Dudley. Did I know him? I sat down, pressing the receiver closer. Was I wrestling with anything he might be able to unravel? I explained I heard him speak in May, but didn’t know him. Apparently he had retired to a town an hour from us. I prayed for two days, sensed no flags, called. His invitation was for a meeting – “this Thursday”. I phoned Barb, asking her to accompany me. She lamented that her upcoming week was packed. Only opening – Thursday.
My four hours with Bishop were woven with tough questions, wise counsel, prayer, and Kleenex. In the course of conversation he asked what my maiden name was. Santos Puentes – holy bridge. Could God be asking me to be a bridge for the ‘other’ side – the Catholic side? Curious. I left with a Catechism. It had grown since I held a Baltimore version. Bishop assured me of his prayer. As he escorted me to the door, he commented that I sure reminded him of Jeff Cavins. I smiled, yet not knowing.
Joining Barb in the car, I was quieted by the ensuing deluge of grace, love, and wisdom. I was beautifully reminded of the segment of Elijah’s journey (I Kings 17) where he was fed bread and meat from ravens and drank from a brook nearby. After the brook dried up he was guided to the home of a starving widow and her son. In one sense I looked at the Catholic Church this way, impoverished. The story continues to reveal, however, that the larder of the widow and son held flour that would not be used up and oil that did not run dry. There was food every day for Elijah and the woman and her family.
Some 10 miles out, Barb entered the silence, “I brought along some tapes you might be interested in. They’re from a speaker who did a Lenten Mission earlier this year in St Paul – Jeff Cavins.” She also had a Catechism in the car for me – just in case. God is so very good!
Within a week I received an email invitation to a dinner at a Church in South St Paul. The speaker – Jeff Cavins. How could I say no? The gathering was casual. I decided to introduce myself. Never seeing Life on the Rock, I hoped he wouldn’t ask. I began with our only commonality – Bishop Dudley. He asked if I was reconciled to the church. He assured me of his prayers. I welcomed them. He didn’t ask about the show.
A friend at church came across some good deals on satellite dishes and offered our family one. We had successfully curbed TV appetites in our home, but access to Christian channels was enticing. Merry Christmas. Installation was in January. Enter EWTN. So that’s Scott Hahn. And Life on the Rock. I missed few episodes of Journey Home. My heart began to open to some deep places. Psalm 51 reminds Surely You desire truth in the inner parts; You teach me wisdom in the inmost place (v 6). I was now ironing clothes, chopping vegies for dinner, and sorting files near the TV. I was a hungry eaglet waiting for another morsel and another. My wings were growing. My husband, Jeff, knew I was in a serious place of discernment and concerned I might fly from the aerie. We prayed often about it. I assured him that I would not reconcile with the Church without first telling him, and further that I would continue to come to service with him on Sundays. Big breath.
I received notice of the ’99 Catholic Charismatic Conference in March at a Lutheran college in St Paul. I registered. Friday night was beautiful. I was awakened to consider reconciliation with the Church. I talked and prayed with Jeff that night, gained his full support and prayer coverage for Saturday. I spent considerable time in Eucharistic adoration. When the invitation for confessions was made I joined the long line in obedience. I sensed a special grace of the Presence of the Trinity. After reconciliation, I received the Eucharist at Mass later that evening, never feeling the ground upon which my human feet must have trod. It was the eve of the first day of Spring, and later I recognized the significance of reconciling with the Church on the eve of her Springtime and Jubilee – and at a Lutheran college, no less.
Passing through this threshold, I sensed that I passed a point of ever turning around and returning- not to a depraved place in Protestantism but certainly to a lesser place. I am grateful for the awakening and nurturing I experienced there, but my heart had been enlivened to the real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist – body, soul, blood and divinity. This is something I could never be offered there. The Lord has called me from a precious and good place to a more precious and better place in the Catholic Church.
He proved near to me in every good thing along the way. He is the Way. He is the threshold of each scenario. Drawing nigh to Him, He draws nigh unto me – and most especially in the Holy Eucharist. This Truth cannot be denied. The splendor of His beauty is made evident. To Him I turn. There is fullness of joy in His Presence. His Hand and Heart genuinely guide my steps, making straight my path, enlivening the pursuit of Truth, Truth in its splendor and fullness.
Go with Him, as His inseparable companion, to the wedding feast of Cana, and drink of the wine of His blessing. Let you have ever before you the Face of the Lord, and look upon His beauty, and let your earnest gaze turn nowhere away from his most sweet countenance. Go before Him into a desert place and see the wonder of His works, where He multiplied in His own Holy Hands the bread that sufficed the great multitude. Go, my brother, go forward, and with all the love of your soul follow Christ wherever He may go…And lovingly behold Him as taking bread into His hands, he blesses it, and breaks it, as the outward form of his own Immaculate Body; and the chalice which He blessed as the outward form of His Precious Blood, and gave to His Disciples; and be you also a partaker of His sacraments. (St. Ephrem of Syria)