My journey to the Catholic Church began three decades ago with a discovery between the pages of a book. The book wasn’t a Bible or a Missal, but a National Geographic volume titled Men, Ships, and the Sea. My mom bought it at a garage sale not knowing what the previous owner had left inside.
When I opened the book, a picture of Jesus slipped out. As a Protestant, I didn’t recognize the image as the Sacred Heart, but something about it spoke to me, saying “Here I am.” I hung the picture up that day, a single tack piercing the spot labeled “If you wish to hang up this picture make a hole here,” and it has hung at my bedside ever since.
Looking back, I see how the Lord nudged me toward the Catholic Church. In college I majored in music and learned the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin through my history classes. Singing in choirs exposed me to a wealth of liturgical music: masses, motets, requiems, and settings of traditional Catholic prayers, including Ave Maria and Salve Regina. Through my study of composition, I discovered the music of Olivier Messiaen, a French Catholic composer of the last century. When I heard his most famous chamber work, The Quartet for the End of Time, performed live, I experienced an image of the Lord in sound as striking as the most beautiful icon. In my heart, I heard the words again—”Here I am”—but brushed them aside as a reaction to the music.
When I left San Diego to go to graduate school my Sacred Heart picture moved with me, first to Long Beach and then to Eugene, Oregon. There I met a Catholic woman who would become my wife. Julia was serious about her faith; it had helped her through a difficult time in her life. Inspired by her, I returned to the church of my youth: The Episcopal Church.
Once back in church, I began praying the Morning and Evening Offices. Through my practice of daily prayer, the Lord led me to Benedictine spirituality. I studied the Rule of St. Benedict and took annual retreats to Mount Angel Abbey. There in the abbey church, immersed within the chants of the Liturgy of the Hours and kneeling before an icon of Christ mounted above the Tabernacle, I heard the words once more: “Here I am.” I broke into tears overwhelmed by his presence.
In my ten years as a church-going Episcopalian I came as close as I could to being Catholic outside of communion with Rome. Something was missing, though, and the picture hanging at my bedside was a constant reminder of what that something was. I would never be home until I came all the way home.
On the first evening that I attended Saint Mary’s RCIA course we visited the Adoration Chapel. As I genuflected before the Sacrament I felt a wave of electricity course through me. “Here I am,” the voice said, “the One that placed the picture in that book twenty-eight years ago and guided you on the path that lead you to this place; to this day.”
All I could say in reply is “Here I am, Lord.”
An edited version of this essay appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Catholic Digest as an Open Door feature under the title “A garage-sale treasure brought me to the church.” I’m posting the original here today on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I’ve had my Sacred Heart picture for over thirty years now, and it still hangs by my bedside.