At 18 years old, I couldn’t wait to get away to university. I was enthusiastic and idealistic, and looking forward to embracing the full university experience 10 hours from home, at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada.
I had romantic dreams of deep intellectual discussions of art, and Shakespeare and Chaucer; and expectations of friendships, relationships, experiences and accomplishments that would fulfill me and launch me confidently into the life I was beginning to shape for myself.
I studied education with an English literature major and a history minor, and dived in to some the most beautiful written art the language has. My plan was to move to France and teach English after graduation. The motto of the University of Alberta intrigued me, Quaecumque vera (Whatsoever things are true). I had no idea that it was a quote from a letter of St. Paul, but it resonated. I was a seeker of truth and experience, of truth and beauty.
The two years of this adventure exposed me to new people and new ideas, in myself, and in others, and in history. I dove into everything that life was offering me at university. I was challenged intellectually, I enjoyed many new friends, some exciting relationships, and unending parties. I firmly believed I was living life deeply.
Part way through my sophomore year, I recognized a new, quietly persistent truth. This “deeply-lived life” that promised fulfillment was having an increasingly hard-to-ignore effect on me. It was leaving me empty. What promised to enrich and fulfill and empower was quietly decaying me inside, and the echo of that decay was increasingly loud, forcing me to acknowledge it. I realized that I had bought a lie, or rather, that I had sold myself to one.
I had grown up as what I called a ‘Catholic in Name Only’ (CINO?). I was baptized, went to the Catholic school in the quiet Canadian city I grew up in, and received my first sacraments. I remember those as moments of grace and resonant depth, but truly considered Catholicism as my heritage more than my faith. It certainly had no impact on my definition of self.
Somehow though, at 19, confronting this unexpected empty reality inside me, I had a simple sense that God wanted more for me than this. That how I was living wasn’t making him happy, or me happy, and that he was pursuing me.
The interior disillusionment I was experiencing made me realize God was too strong to stop pursuing me, and I was too weak to run from Him; and where would I run anyways, since my own ideas and ideals had disappointed me so badly? I now attribute this to the effects of baptismal grace, or more affectionately, the pursuit of the “Hound of Heaven”. Remember, I was an English major.
“Quaecumque vera, whatsoever things are true” the motto, expanded in my mind, to include it’s source: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil 4:8) and I began to realize that in seeking truth and beauty, I had really been seeking God, mistakenly thinking I would find him in experiences and learning that paled in light of the truth and beauty that only He is.
I decided to turn to God, to search for him. But not in the Catholic Church, because of course, that was where I grew up and it ‘never fed me’. I distanced myself from unhealthy relationships, and sought out new Christian friends where I could find them (not easy). I stopped spending as much time at parties. I visited many of my new friends’ churches, Lutheran, Pentecostal, non-denominational, Anglican… and had many moments of discovering aspects of God.
But my desire for truth drove me to want to know why all of my different friends’ churches had different and contradictory teachings. One evening I sat down with a few of them and asked them about this. One non-chalantly shrugged his shoulders and said it was no big deal, and that if he disagreed with his pastor, he would just go find another church.
This threw me into panic. On no. not me. I am finding the right Church with the real truth, and once I find it, I’m not leaving.
Being a student, I decided this would take more research. If I was leaving the Catholic Church I had to know what I was leaving so I could decide where I was going. I bought a copy of the recently released Catechism of the Catholic Church (thank you St. John Paul II) and one Saturday morning, after a late night out with friends, I made a cup of coffee and sat down alone in my apartment to read it.
Sitting on my couch, I cracked it open with scholarly intent. Turning to Chapter 1, “We Believe,” I read the first sentence:
The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for:
The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.1
I literally lost my breath, felt my heart start to pound, and realized that I was reading a mirror of what was happening in my soul.
But it couldn’t be. This was Catholic Church teaching, and that never fed me. I kept reading, amazed, confused, and falling deeper and deeper in love. I realized that the treasure I had been seeking my whole life was already mine. That it was buried beneath my eyes, and deeply in my heart, and that I had finally found it.
I am pretty sure I am the only 19 year old who had a complete hot mess, sobbing, crying conversion back to her never-before-lived Catholic faith alone on my couch with a copy of the Catechism. But that was the moment. That changed my life.
Like a toddler learning to walk on shaky legs, I continued to learn and try to live what I was discovering. One day, instead of going out with my friends to a bar to celebrate the end of midterms, I walked into St Joseph’s Basilica (where Wayne Gretzky was married- fun fact) during Holy Week and sat down. It was Good Friday.
I came face to face with Crucified Mercy, that Hound of Heaven, and never looked back.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter…
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.
Excerpts from “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thomson