It’s early morning on All Saint’s Day, and I’m driving with my 7-year-old daughter through the rainy dark, having dug her out from under her comforter with the promise of a cinnamon bun and steamed milk after mass. At the red light I roll my neck in a slow circle, cranky from a night of fractured sleep. Our 22-month-old had woke and slept at right angles between us all night. An octopus searching for its keys has long been my favorite metaphor for the sleep habits of the very young, and this particular octopus had stayed up way past bedtime to trail her siblings up and down doorsteps in the pouring rain, exhilarated by the thrilling results of her new phrase: “trick-or-treat.”
Truth be told, the morning after Halloween is a poor one for early rising. All three of my kids are a tired, weepy mess. But I’d determined to counterbalance the commercial holiday, for once, with grounding in its Christian counterpart. So off to mass we go.
Entering the church, we slide into a pew and into the liturgy. Though somewhat familiar, coming from an Episcopal background, the Catholic mass is still new to me. I watch others to see when to stand, kneel, or, most beautifully of all, lift my hands as though catching snowflakes. And my daughter watches me, lifts her hands when I do, and sings along with the unfamiliar songs in the missal. Last year she learned to read, and this year, as a beginning piano student, she is learning to read music. I tear up, watching her put the two together in worship.
I feel deeply grateful to be learning these new traditions together. For a long time, I’d been wanting to bring more of my faith into the rhythms of our family life. But this year has been different. I see now that what I’ve needed to do is to bring more of my faith into the rhythms of my own life.
Last December, with trepidation and caution that seem comical to me now, I’d begun praying the rosary. I even called it the “Anglican rosary,” careful to reassure myself that what was happening within me wasn’t what I thought it was: conversion to the Catholic faith. But in hindsight, I can see that’s exactly what it was.
Though brought up with church (the United Church of Christ, to be precise), I wasn’t exactly raised in church. Though I’m incredibly grateful for my early exposure to the Christian faith, I wouldn’t say I was really raised Christian. Faith was something we largely practiced and left in church on Sundays, attached to a place and a time. I’m not sure why, or if there was a definitive turning point, but some time after I was confirmed at 13, our family stopped attending church together. Sometimes I’d ask to go and my dad would take me, or they’d drive me to youth group functions, but it ceased to be part of our weekly family rhythm.
So now I find myself playing a more intentional, active role in my own children’s faith formation than my parents played in mine, and it can feel a little lonely at times, though my nonreligious husband has always been quietly, patiently supportive. Our Episcopal church has been like family to us since we moved to Portland in 2010, and in some ways it feels like a betrayal to cross over to a Church many in our congregation had fled.
I’m discovering how much unexamined, unspoken anti-Catholicism there has been throughout my formation as a Protestant. It shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it has been, to discover that just as there are huge gradients in the flavors of Protestant Christianity, so too are there many ways of belonging within Catholicism. It shouldn’t be surprising, and yet it has been, to find people within the Church with progressive political views like mine. As author Mary Gordon writes, “…for most people, Catholic means only one of three things: a regrettable tendency to lean right, an appetite for sexual repression, an inborn or early-developed talent for blind obedience.” Of course (of course), this is far from the reality of lived experience for many, many Catholics.
And, though I’ve been surprised over the course of this year to find myself feeling drawn ever more strongly to Catholicism, in some ways I also wonder if I have always been on my way here.
For me, to participate in the liturgy is to experience the physical presence of God. Just as I knew I was home when I first attended an Episcopal church service, and experienced a strongly liturgical tradition for the first time, the Catholic mass just about knocks me over with its beauty. Looking back, I see that just as I have always loved to read and write poetry, I have always loved common or “rote” prayer, particularly the Lord’s Prayer. Learning the rosary was like filling in the missing pieces to a song I have been trying to sing my whole life. In particular, I always look forward to forming the shapes of the words in the Salve Regina– “Hail Holy Queen”– a Marian hymn and the final prayer of the rosary, which I find achingly beautiful.
It’s more than beauty, though. It’s something I don’t have words to articulate, and maybe never will. The Episcopal church is not so far off from the Catholic church; much of what I love about the Catholic mass is true of the Episcopal service, too. But the differences, which on the surface may seem subtle, especially to someone whose conversion to faith is from no faith at all, are also vast.
The Real Presence, sacramental confession, the unity of the Church with the very first, with the Pope at its head, in a direct line from Peter. And Mary. Everything about Mary. These things I found so easy to ignore, while busily shutting my heart to Catholicism, now strike me as massive and undeniable.
Conversion is a journey all Christians travel, over and over again, over the course of a lifetime. Turning and returning to Christ, over and over again, as we shed ever more of our small, false selves and find our true selves revealed in Him, we find our faith ever new. We outgrow the versions of God that serve us for a time, embracing a newer, fuller picture of His love and mercy.
The fog hangs low and heavy as we leave the church, the fluttering of coats and clicking of heels around us muted in the air. On this feast day of the saints, perhaps the air is thick with the presence of those who came before us.
As far as I know, I don’t have any Catholic blood relatives on either side of my family, and so I’m embracing Undset– and by extension, Kristin, her fictional persona– in my personal cloud of witnesses. She joins my chosen Saint Monica– mother of reluctant convert Augustine, wife to a husband who converted only on his deathbed, and patron saint of mothers. How incredible, that words written over a century ago could carry something of Undset’s own conversion, at the time still in-process, and intersect with my own.
Rereading my very first post for this project, I’m struck by my tidy little summary of the novel as I thought I had known it, when I first read it in 2013: “A trilogy now nearly a century old, that brings the 1920s feminist quest for freedom to bear on medieval Norway and Catholicism.” When I read the book as a grad student, I read it as proof of a toxicity I identified with the brutal patriarchal forces of the medieval Church. I may even have assumed Undset agreed with me, given the unflinching way she allows her protagonists to work out their problems on their own. But knowing what I know now about Undset, about her indictments of modern Norwegian secular and Protestant culture, and eventual conversion to Catholicism, my anachronistic feminist reading couldn’t be further from the truth, as Undset intended it.
I’m also struck by the questions I set out to ask: “Is happiness real? Is happiness beside the point?” Kristin does seem to be seeking happiness, of a sort, throughout the novel, and like so many do today, she finds that seeking happiness by way of self-fulfillment leads her further and further away from it.
How far away is your happiness? goes the poem by Malena Morling.
If I answer that question for myself, after this year of the wholly unexpected, it’s not that happiness is beside the point. It’s that the source of happiness is often just beside you, in the one place you weren’t looking. Or, for me, the one place I was trying so hard not to look. So far away, and so close, all at once.
After I finished reading Kristin, I read Undset’s two “modern” conversion novels, Wild Orchid and Burning Bush. I’m now reading the third part of Olav Audunsson, the medieval epic Undset began early on in her writing career, and which she kept in a drawer for over thirty years after it was rejected. It’s possible to say of all of these novels what Aidan Nichols writes about Kristin, in his new biography Sigrid Undset: Reader of Hearts: “In the novel as a whole, but above all in its concluding part, persons are engaged in a supernatural drama inasmuch as their lives and actions have a deeper meaning that they themselves know.”
All of these books are very much about the spiral of consequence of sin, and how the longer we avoid returning to God– repenting or converting, from the Greek metanoia, to fall face-down before God– the further we travel from our deepest selves and our deepest happiness, which are only to be found in God.
As Samantha Stephenson writes in Reclaiming Motherhood, there are two opposing visions of happiness: “The culture’s message: We will be happy when we finally get whatever we want. The Church’s vision: We become happy by being who we were made to be and in union with God.” Kristin spends the majority of the book chasing her lost honor, refusing humility, and imprisoned by pride. It costs her everything. It’s in giving up the need for honor, accepting her sin, and turning in humility to God that she finds freedom, and arguably, happiness.
In so many ways, as so many contributors have described here on the blog this year– in wonderful variety, depth, humor, and creativity– I’ve found myself relating to Kristin again and again over the course of a year’s reading. In this final way, I can say that I can relate as well. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for happiness via self-fulfillment, under the unconscious assumptions that avoiding suffering and seeking control will bring freedom and meaning. Instead I am finding freedom, joy, and a deeper happiness within the mystery of the Church, in relationship with God.
How different are we, really? I asked a year ago. It turns out we are not so very different, Kristin and me. Not so very different at all.
Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.