Sister Mary Discovers Certainty
This is the testimony of a former Roman Catholic nun and how she came to know Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour. ————————————- Can a person be “saved” without knowing it? Since my childhood when I pictured myself cupped within God’s loving Hands and followed by His wise gaze, I knew that nothing could separate […]
This is the testimony of a former Roman Catholic nun and how she came to know Jesus Christ as her personal Saviour.
Can a person be “saved” without knowing it? Since my childhood when I pictured myself cupped within God’s loving Hands and followed by His wise gaze, I knew that nothing could separate me from the love of my Creator. But “saved”? That would happen when I died and would be received into my Father’s home. “Saved” now? Only those highly emotional, entirely subjective, fanatical fundamentalists spoke of being “saved,” as if it were a present tense affair. Such arrogance, to be sure…!
I want to tell you how God overshadowed the life of a little Catholic child and led her to Himself, then how she entered a Franciscan order of Catholic sisters and finally became a fundamental Christian. Since God’s Holy Spirit is really no respecter of our human denominational boundaries, God’s leading a soul to Himself is by far the greatest event in the world. And since I am convinced that some Roman Catholics are truly “saved” just as I was, without knowing it, let me begin with a brief description of a saintly Roman Catholic sister, a School Sister of Notre Dame, and my fourth grade teacher back in pre-Vatican II days. Sister Leonore reigned over forty bundles of eight-year-old energy with calm and peace. She taught us phonics and long division, and she also taught us that God loved us enough to become a human being and give His life for us, suffering the penalty for our sins so that we might live forever in perfect joy with Him in Heaven. This sister, together with the Holy Spirit, made me understand that if I were the only one in need in the whole world, God loved me so much that He would have died just for me alone. In my Catholic school classroom the crucifix occupied a prominent place. In my bedroom at home the crucifix hovered over me as I lay in bed. If I ever doubted that God loved me, I had only to look at the image of the suffering Christ who gave Himself for me, and I believed.
I knew too that I needed an Advocate, for I was surely a sinner. Now the doctrine of original sin and the need for baptismal regeneration was clearly taught by the Catholic church in those days, but I knew that I was a sinner by choice, too, as well as by inheritance. Hadn’t I taken revenge on my next door neighbor with a croquet mallet? And what about shooting out the neighbor’s garage window with a new BB gun? And there were countless playmates whose noses I had bloodied in my frequent rages of temper. Oh, I was a sinner all right, and when Sister Leonore told us that it was for our sins that Christ had suffered the nails in His hands and feet and the thorns in His head, I wept within.
All this while I attended Mass and the sacraments with my classmates en masse as the custom then was, but a few years later I remember wondering about the Mass. “Is Christ really physically present there? Is the Mass really the re-enactment of Calvary during which Christ offers Himself to His heavenly Father as I was taught? “If so,” I thought, “I ought to be there every day. If not, I shouldn’t go at all.” But in any case, I felt that my weekly attendance out of routine and without serious attention was wrong. And I chose to believe what I was taught about the Mass. From my adolescence on, I kept my daily appointment with Christ at Mass bringing a grateful heart for what He had done for me. Still, I did not know that I was “saved.”
Even at this time, however, I used to wonder why many Masses would be offered for a given intention: to aid souls in Purgatory, for suffering people in Hungary or for missionaries. The Mass, like Calvary, was infinite, I was told- unlimited in its blessing. Why, then offer so many Masses for the same person who had died, or for any other intention? Why was one not sufficient? But I put the question aside without attempting to resolve it, an evasion that I was to repeat many times in the years to come, having had no clearer light.
One day as a teenager I stood atop a snow-covered ski trail in central Wisconsin. The countryside glittered in crystalline frost; and the snow underfoot squeaked with the cold, giving promise of a good, fast run down the headwall. My heart was bursting with gratitude to God for the gift of my body with eyes and nose, legs and arms, and then the gift of this physical world which so satisfied and thrilled my senses. This God who had given me life and all else besides deserved all my heart and myself. I belonged to Him by right, and I knew then that my purpose and my greatest joy would come as I freely gave myself back to Him, even though I was already His. And so when I was eighteen I happily and eagerly entered the order of Franciscan Sisters headquartered in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I knew of no better way of using my life.
At that time my days began at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., and were filled with prayer, both recited and private prayer, manual work in the laundry, kitchen and sewing room, and study, study of college courses and study of the duties of a Catholic sister. There was little study of the Bible in those days. Neither was there skiing, swimming, or cruising around town in cars as I had been accustomed to during my high school years, but I gladly embraced the more restricted life. I wanted to pursue a close union with the Giver of these good gifts. How could I prove, even to myself, that I wanted God Himself rather than just His gifts unless I were willing to forego all else but Him? These were my ideals at that time, and as I began feeling stress I remembered how Christ had given His life for me, and the more difficult the new life was, the more determined I was to lose all for Him. I strove inwardly on the challenge, for I was among idealists and was being taught by many wise women who had been faithful to the order for many years. One sister in particular, sister Charlotte, my English teacher, became a spiritual mentor to me and a very influential source of inspiration. She it was who would often describe a basic spiritual need for each sister and Christian. “One must make a fundamental renunciation of self and genuinely yield oneself to Christ,” she would say. Problems arising among people she would often attribute to the absence of this basic decision. Not long before she died in 1978 she announced with twinkling eyes that she did not intend to stop in Purgatory (the place, according to Catholic doctrine, where souls after death are purged through suffering of the effects of their sins before entering heaven). No, she knew that God would take her straight to Heaven. Her Lord had done all that was necessary when He made the supreme and infinite sacrifice of Himself on the Cross. Nothing needed to be added to what He had already done for those who trusted in Him. These were biblical concepts the first of which was clearly evident in the writings of the pre-reformation Catholic saints like Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. But I believe my wise friend arrived at both truths through her own reading of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit. And so, as illustrated by Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). How happy I am for the truth so clearly given in Scripture that salvation does not depend upon church membership of any sort, but only upon simple, trusting faith in Christ. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). That is why I firmly believe that I will someday be reunited with a number of my Catholic sisters and friends in Heaven.
But if this is true; why did I find it necessary to leave Catholicism, to leave my religious order after twenty-two years of membership, and to leave the Catholic college where I had spent the past nine years of my working life? I loved the beauty and drama of the Catholic liturgy; I certainly loved the Franciscan women with whom I lived, and I was very comfortable with my work as English teacher in my own alma mater. But at this time of my life I was sorely in need of spiritual reinvigoration. My faith was just a feeble spark. Oh, I believed in Christ, and I loved Him too, but I often asked myself, “Why do I not speak of Him to others?” He has said “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven”. (Matt. 10:32-33) Why am I so terrified of being labeled a ‘fanatic’ or ‘an old fogey’ or alienating students who need to know clearly that God has a plan for their lives, that they came from Him and are destined to go back to Him for a joyous eternity if they only choose to follow His plan. They need to know that many of the activities which present social standards do not label as immoral are, in fact, directly contrary to God’s will as revealed in Scripture. They need to know that extra-marital sex, drug and alcohol intoxication, abortion, homosexuality, cheating are violations of God’s plan for them and that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). But on what authority did I believe this? Scriptural authority. But what about Scripture?
I had always believed that the Bible was inspired by God and therefore true and inerrant, and that we could know God’s mind in regard to our behavior by a reasonably careful and contextual study of His Word. But the higher critical method of interpretation and the historical approach to Scripture had by the 1960’s become popularized and accepted in my Catholic circles. I found myself increasingly uncertain about everything except the truth of the Great Commandment: to love God and love my neighbor. And yet, Christ is “reported” by John to have said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (plural), (John 14:15). Should I not take seriously all that He is “reported” to have commanded in Scripture? I say “reported” because the contemporary Catholic Scripture scholars whom I was reading contended that much of what Christ is “reported” to have said, He may not really have uttered after all, that the New Testament is simply a record of the faith of the early Christians. Therefore, the writers of the New Testament probably fabricated words and actions of Christ to reflect and support what they believed about the historic figure, Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise, the moral instructions in the Epistles are simply reflections of each writer’s human view of the needs of his time and culture and were never intended by God to apply indiscriminately to our own very different society. And yet, 2 Tim. 3:16 teaches, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:” Of course, the liberals agree that there are many helpful bits of advice which wise men in every age have sifted out of Scripture using their own reasons to separate the wheat from the chaff, the usable and appropriate principles from the irrelevant or outmoded. This is why, in the Catholic view, church tradition is always necessary to interpret Scripture to people in every age. In short, Catholic scholars say that the Bible contains the Word of God, but also the word of fallible and erring men. Fundamental Christians, on the other hand, believe that the Bible is the Word of God and is therefore protected by Divine inspiration from human error. As a Catholic, I was now on shaky ground as I attempted to cite Scriptural authority for God’s will in regard to human behavior. But here were two views which formed two forks in the road of my life.
Why had I come to this crucial junction? Why could I not just camp comfortably at this intersection and wait, forever perhaps? This is what I tried to do. Why not? Who was I to question centuries of scholarship, galleries of saints and the most powerful religious institution in the world? “Yes, I will be an honest agnostic in regard to Scripture and just go on trying to love God and my neighbor,” I thought. And I found myself following, though with dragging feet, church, community, and college leaders as they enjoined me to work against the nuclear arms race, the injustice and chaos in El Salvador, global hunger and other issues such as these, all of which certainly needed attention. And yet, where was Christ in all these programs? There was no mention of sin and Redemption and eternal life in the meetings I attended, and how was I, a Christian, different from my atheistic and agnostic friends who were working for exactly the same goals as I, a better world here and now? What about the myriads of suicides among young people who failed to find a purpose for living in the nuclear freeze movement or the global hunger program? What message did I have for the young men and women sitting before me and starving for a personal relationship with the One who said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10)? The fact of personal sin and the need for personal Redemption seemed to me to be buried and obscured in phrases like “systemic change, liberation theology, and global awareness.” I didn’t understand a great deal of what was happening, but I vaguely sensed that these efforts to change the environment were somehow futile. I only understood later that individual hearts needed to be transformed, reborn, and only then could these regenerated individuals do anything genuine to “feed the hungry,” not just with food but with saving faith, and to “clothe the naked,” not just with garments but with the Gospel of the living God. We were attacking the problems of society just backwards, dealing only with the symptoms and not the cause: sin. In other words, secular humanism was displacing Christ who came not to reform the world, but to transform individual human beings by releasing them from the bonds of their sin. But at this time, I only knew that something was wrong; something was missing, but what? This was the question that would awaken me at night and plague me during the day. “I must be the problem. Why can’t I be content? What’s wrong with me?” I asked. The sense of vague unease intensified, and still I could not put my finger on the trouble spot either in myself or in my environment. I tried to divert myself with the usual methods: I spent a summer working in Mexico; I tried to extract some enjoyment from TV and movies, from light reading, from friends and tennis and plants and music, from plunging into my work. But I also did two other things: I stopped sweeping under the rug my unresolved questions (there were so many crucial ones by now), and I began praying for light.
God promptly answered my prayer, but incognito as it were, without telling me He was answering. If He had told me directly I would never have believed it. In 1979 God directed into my summer school literature class a young woman who, after the first class, told me that she had formerly been a Catholic Josephite Sister, and was now teaching in a local Christian school run by a fundamental, independent Baptist church, a church and school I had never heard of. Of course, I had heard of fundamental Christians before, and though I had never spoken with one, I was confident that I knew just about all there was to know about this narrow-minded sect. But Susan did not fit my stereotype. She was neither arrogant nor anti-intellectual, and my curiosity was roused. After a visit to her church where I heard fluent and well-prepared Scripture teaching, and after asking a few questions, three facts became clear to me: 1) The Bible was central to the faith and practice of these people. 2) The entire Bible was carefully studied there according to sound hermeneutical principles. 3) To my astonishment, I found myself in great spiritual harmony with these non-Catholics. This latter realization gave me great discomfort while at the same time it gladdened my heart. Maybe I wasn’t as odd as I had feared.
Then in October of that year, for the first time in my life I was asked this crucial question: “If you were to die tonight do you know for sure what would happen to you?”
“Why yes, of course,” I said. “God would take me to Himself in heaven.”
“Why?” asked Susan.
“Why, because He loves me. He died for me, and I know that He will care for me at death just as He always has all these years.”
That was when I learned that I was “saved.” Little did I realize then that there are members of many churches and even of religious orders who do not have this assurance. I had always presumed that nearly every member of Christendom felt as I did about God and Christ. I still believe that some do, but I have since met a good number of mainline church members who seem content to “hope for the best,” and who believe that their church membership or their baptism or their reception of the sacraments will earn their way to heaven, but who have no concept of their need simply to trust in Christ alone as their Advocate with the Father. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But what a wonderfully freeing experience it is to place all one’s trust in Christ alone, and then let one’s behavior flow from a heart of gratitude and love for One who has first loved us. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This was saving faith, and as I began taking a closer look at Scripture, I discovered that the terms “salvation” and “saved” appear there in all three tenses: past, present and future. The passage in I John 5:13 took my breath away: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.” Not “will have,” but “have” in the present tense. And John wanted his readers to “know” now that they have eternal life. If Scripture is truly inspired by God, then God wants us to know too that we have eternal life. Sure enough! Why had I not seen or understood this before? Nevertheless, I continued to camp at the crossroads until finally, after three years of alternating study and evasion, prayer and cowardice, I determined that with God’s grace I would do what I had somewhat flippantly and repeatedly advised my students to do: “Pursue the truth no matter where it leads. God is truth. Never be afraid of the truth.” Now I was eating my own words and wondering whether I might ever dare to repeat to others that bit of idealism, and repeat it with an honest heart again.
In 1982, I took a leave of absence and went to live among independent fundamental Christians of Faith Baptist Church in Warren, Michigan. Pastor and Mrs. David L. Cummins and their congregation graciously took me in, answered my questions and put their extensive library at my disposal. At the end of that year I formally withdrew from my teaching position, my religious order and Catholicism. It broke my heart, but it also thrilled my heart that at last I had stopped hedging and taken a stand for the infallibility of Scripture and the absolute truth of Christianity.
Now I am grateful to be back in the classroom again at a fundamental Christian school with some clear answers from God’s Word for my students who need above else to know where they come from, why they are here, and where they are going. Oh, I still have my little collection of unanswered questions, but those which remain are a testimony to God’s infinity and my limitations. I rejoice that God knows the end from the beginning and that Christ is the beginning and end of all questioning. I do not and need not know all the answers. Einstein was right when he said, “That which is incomprehensible is infinitely more important than that which is comprehensible.” Who can comprehend the love of God? How fortunate that we need not comprehend it in order to experience it. Now I pray with John Henry Newman,
“Lead Kindly Light,
amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep thou my feet;
I do not ask to see
The distant scene—
One step enough for me.”
God will lead you too as you trust in Him. “Trust God, see all, nor be afraid.”
If I can be of any help to you, please write:
Mary M. Kraus
312 Dellwood Dr.
Greenville, SC 29609-5017