Freelance artist Holly Rodriguez had been an atheist all her life and never thought about God or considered joining a religion or even going to church, but one day…
It was December of 2016, I had woken up one winter morning wanting nothing more than my usual cup of coffee. I had been an atheist all of my life. I had never thought about God and certainly never considered joining a religion or going to church. However on that day, for no reason at all, I felt a sudden desire to go to church. There was nothing unusual going on in my life to bring about this sudden change of heart. I had been living a fairly normal, quiet life as a freelance artist in a small seaside town in Kent, England.
I searched for the closest church that was open that day and found a Roman Catholic church within walking distance. That was a surprise.Although I had passed that area many times, I had never noticed a church there before. It’s amazing how blind we are to the presence of God, and how near He is to us, when we walk the path of life with a closed heart.
I phoned the church and a kind lady answered the phone.She introduced herself as the parish secretary and I asked her some questions which she was happy to answer. She told me the church was Catholic and that she would let the priest know I had phoned and we said our goodbyes. I was shy and didn’t know what to expect. I’ve always been one of those people who likes to know everything about a situation before making a decision. I didn’t know what a Catholic Church was, and had never met a priest before. I decided to take the day off work and learn about the Catholic faith, so did a lot of reading on Wikipedia for a few hours.
Then my phone rang.On the other line was a kind voice—a priest who introduced himself as Father Mark. He was very friendly and enthusiastic which came as a shock to me. I had never in my life met someone so eager to meet me and welcome me. We scheduled a time for me to visit the church the next day. When I had arrived, Father Mark was there in his cassock to greet me. It was the first time I’d seen a priest in person and I remember being really fascinated by his cassock. I guess I’d never thought about what a priest looks like. I had only seen the Pope briefly on the television news occasionally, but never anything beyond that.
Father Mark sat with me and we talked for a couple of hours, then he invited me to join the “RCIA” classes. He also suggested that it was a good idea to start going to Mass right away, so I did. I can recall the first Mass I ever went to. It was Gaudete Sunday and I sat in the very front pew, absolutely clueless to the etiquette. Everyone around me was standing and then sitting and then standing again and sometimes kneeling, and reciting the creed and other prayers. I was new and found this a bit intimidating, but also fascinating and intriguing. I followed what everyone else was doing to the best of my ability. The priest was wearing a beautiful rose vestment that looked very ornate and delicate. He chanted at the altar and I watched and listened closely as incense filled the chapel. It was a very beautiful English Mass, and from then on I knew I’d come back.
I liked it so much that I kept going back every weekend and even started attending daily Mass. My love for Jesus grew at every encounter. During my first Christmas Eve Mass, the priest tenderly carried the Christ Child statue, wrapped in his ivory satin cope the way that priests hold a monstrance.As he processed around the chapel with the Infant Christ to the crib, accompanied by the chanting of prayers, I was moved to tears. I thought that was so lovely. Never in my life had I seen anything like it before.
As I prepared to be received into the Catholic Church, I spent a lot of time reading at home, especially from the catechism given to me by the priests of the parish. A week before my baptism that I was told I’d need to choose a Saint for my confirmation. There were thousands of Saints however, and didn’t know how I’d choose from them all. I knew nothing about them except for Saint Philomena because the priest did a homily on her one Sunday morning. By divine providence I came across a fascinating book, “Interior Castles” while I was volunteering in the parish café. It was written by a Spanish Saint I’d never even heard of before—the Carmelite nun, Saint Teresa of Avila. Since my family is of Spanish heritage, I chose her as my patron although I didn’t know much else about her.
Finally, during the Easter vigil Mass on April 15th 2017, I was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. I was so excited that I could now receive the Blessed Sacrament at the altar rail, instead of a blessing that I was up bright and early on Easter Sunday to sing with the choir at the main Mass. Soon after, I joined the Legion of Mary and began praying the Rosary, making Rosaries and doing mission work around the town to bring the lapsed Catholics back to Mass and pray the Rosary with people at home.
Saint Teresa remained a guiding influence in my life, teaching me to love Jesus more and more, but I had no idea who the Carmelites were until I joined our parish on a day pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Simon Stock at Aylesford Priory, a historic home of the Carmelite friars.
Years later, I would stumble upon another Spaniard, Saint Josemaria Escriva who also had a great love for Saint Teresa of Avila and the Carmelites. He was the founder of Opus Dei, a prelature within the Catholic Church, which I joined as a co-operator, with a mission to pray for the members and priests. I felt God calling me to a deeper commitment, but didn’t know if that was with Opus Dei, or in religious life as a nun.A priest friend told me that I had to make up my mind and choose which path to take, that I couldn’t stay suspended in uncertainty forever. He was right, so I began to pray and fast, listening to God’s call. My life had gone through a lot of changes in a short period of time and I suffered a dark night of the soul.
My Cross felt very heavy, but I knew that if I kept persevering in my faith, all would be well. I had to let go of the need for total control, allow God to lead the way and stop fighting against His will.I had been too caught up in my own ego and desires to really listen to Him. When that epiphany came, I decided to let go and live each day as it came to me, as a gift from God and to let Him lead the way. I adopted the philosophy that God places us where we are in life because that is where He needs us at that specific time. I made myself an instrument to His divine will. When I abandoned myself to Him, God showed me that everything had happened that way because He was calling me from the very start.
I kept receiving gifts from the Saints which were leading me to Carmel. One day, I was entranced by a bright pink rose growing out of the cement. Later I discovered that it was the birthday of Saint Thèrése of Lisieux who said that she would send people roses as a sign from Heaven. That same day, I was in a secular incense shop when I came across a box of pretty rose scented incense sticks with an image of St Thèrése of Lisieux on the box. These little signs helped plant seeds of vocation and seeds of faith.
As I write this, I am about to celebrate my 6th anniversary as a Catholic and preparing to enter the sacred garden of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Accepting this vocation to be a cloistered nun, if God wills it to be so, I spend my life praying for the Church, for the world, and for priests. It has been a long journey, and I have met so many wonderful people along the way.
Saint Thèrése of Lisieux referred to Carmel as her desert where Our Lord spent forty days in contemplation and prayer, but for me it is the garden of Gethsemane where Our Lord sat among the olive trees in agony. I join Him in His agony with unbridled love, and walk with Him on the Via Dolorosa. Together we suffer for souls and offer the world our love.
Holly Rodriguez is an artist and author of “Loving Christ through St. Josemaria Escriva and “The Sentinel of the Soul.” Currently she is in California, preparing to join the Carmelites as a cloistered nun. Her life story exemplifies that God doesn’t need anybody to reach out to you. He simply knocked at the door of her heart and she welcomed Him.
A few months ago, during a conversation about a “difficult” colleague, my immediate superior remarked: “If I am not able to be a source of solace to such people in my team, then all my spirituality is in vain.” It was a wake-up-call; I had often been in the habit of judging this colleague, so this left me in shame. I realized how badly I had failed to be a true witness to my faith, at my workplace. All of us are surrounded by difficult people, maybe in the form of a nagging spouse, an envious neighbor, an irritating colleague, or a domineering boss. In fact, Jesus dealt with difficult people on a daily basis, giving us the perfect example of compassion. This Lent, let’s be thankful to God for all these difficult people in our lives. Instead of judging and avoiding them, let’s try to be like Jesus. Let’s do to them what Jesus would have done for them if He was in our place. And let’s not forget that it’s not the good people but the difficult people who purify us.
There is a regrettable interpretation of the Cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath. But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”(3:16) John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather, God is a parent who burns with compassion for His children who have wandered into danger. Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus, God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right. Saint Anselm, the great medieval theologian who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off. In so doing, of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion. Jesus said that any disciple of His must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Q: My Protestant friends say that Catholics believe we need to earn our salvation. They say that salvation is by faith alone and that we can’t add to anything that Jesus already did for us on the Cross. But don’t we have to do good works to make it to Heaven? A: This is a pretty big misunderstanding for both Protestants and Catholics. It may seem to be theological minutiae, but it actually has a huge consequence in our spiritual life. The truth is this: We are saved by living faith—our belief in Jesus Christ that is lived out in our words and actions. We must be clear—we do not need to earn our salvation, as if salvation was a prize if we reach a certain level of good deeds. Consider this: who was the first one to be saved? According to Jesus, it was the Good Thief. While he was being rightly crucified for his evil deeds, he cried out to Jesus for mercy, and the Lord promised him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) So, salvation consists in that radical faith, trust, and surrender to what Jesus did on the Cross to purchase mercy. Why is this important? Because many Catholics think that all we have to do to be saved is ‘be a good person’—even if the person doesn’t actually have a living relationship with the Lord. I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me something like: “Oh, my uncle never went to Mass or prayed, but he was a nice man who did many good things in his life, so I know he’s in Heaven.” While we certainly hope that the uncle is saved by God’s mercy, it isn’t our kindness or good works that save us, but the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. What would happen if a criminal was put on trial for a crime, but he said to the judge, “Your Honor, I did commit the crime, but look at all the other good things I did in my life!” Would the judge let him off? No—he would still have to pay for the crime he committed. Likewise, our sins had a cost—and Jesus Christ had to pay for them. This payment of the debt of sin is applied to our souls through faith. But, faith is not just an intellectual exercise. It must be lived out. As Saint James writes: “Faith without works is dead” (2:24). It’s not enough just to say: “Well, I believe in Jesus, so I can now sin as much as I want.” On the contrary, precisely because we have been forgiven and become heirs to the Kingdom, we must then act like Kingdom-heirs, like sons and daughters of the King. This is very different than trying to earn our salvation. We don’t do good works because we hope to be forgiven—we do good works because we are already forgiven. Our good deeds are a sign that His forgiveness is alive and active in our lives. After all, Jesus tells us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) If a husband loves his wife, he will seek concrete ways to bless her—giving her flowers, doing the dishes, writing her a love note. He would never say: “Well, we’re married, and she knows I love her, so I can now do whatever I want.” Likewise, a soul that has known the merciful love of Jesus will naturally want to please Him. So, to answer your question, Catholics and Protestants are actually much closer on this issue than they know! We both believe that we are saved by faith—by a living faith, which is expressed in a life of good works as a sign of thanksgiving for the lavish, free gift of salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) Do you remember hearing these words as a child? They seemed simple enough—just go to your room, close the door, and pray. I remember hearing them and being confused. Simple words, yes, but it just didn’t make sense that we could only say prayers, in our room, by ourselves. But my child-like faith told me to believe these words. As I grew, so did my faith and understanding of this Scripture. I came to realize these beautiful, profound words meant I could go into my room, turn my heart to the Lord, anytime, anywhere. My prayer life blossomed. How wonderful to spend quiet time with our Father and receive His love. Every time I hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I appreciate the Lenten season even more. It’s a reminder of God’s love and how much He desires our friendship. Love heals. For me, that’s the reward when I go into my room and pray.
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