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On a family's faith.


I grew up in India, where the air itself is religious, perfumed with the incense of millions and millions of prayers, predominantly of Hindus and Muslims, but also of Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, and Jains. My patrimony is Anglican, given that my great-grandfather the Reverend Appaji Trimbak Ramchandran Pathak converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Though he was a Brahmin priest, he became convinced of the truth of Jesus Christ and the one true God, so much so that he gave up his multitude of Hindu gods. I do not know the trials he faced on his way to his priesthood in Christ, but I am grateful for his courage to convert in a largely Hindu nation.

When I was two months old, my parents brought me to be baptized at a Methodist church in Khandwa, the small village in central India where I was born, most likely because the pastor there, Reverend Sham Rao, was a family friend. On the Feast of Saint Patrick, I began my new life in Christ. My earliest memories are of my mother reading to us from the family Bible—in Marathi—and me falling in love with our Lord Jesus, conversing with Him about everything. I belonged to Him, and He was mine, all mine. I’d sit on half a chair, reserving the other half for Jesus, causing me to fall off the chair. I’d fall whether I was sitting on the swing or the steps. I was also very much aware of my guardian angel and had complete confidence in his protection. I lived without any sort of fear. My mother worried greatly because of this foolhardiness and tried to tell me cautionary tales, but to no avail. I also had no fear of death because I knew that then I’d get to be with Jesus forever, with my older brother, who’d died before I was born.

We moved to Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, when I was still an infant and I began formal schooling at the age of four at Saint Joseph’s Convent. I fell in love with the religious sisters. I wanted to be just like them, giving myself completely to Jesus. I loved going to the chapel, dipping my fingers in the font of holy water, and blessing myself. Jesus felt so near to me. I was so proud of my heritage, with my mother a daughter of a priest who became bishop of Nagpur. Her older brother was also a priest. I loved that there had been a priest in the family in every generation. I wondered which one of my cousin or brothers would take that path (sadly, none).

My father was an ambitious man and largely absent from our lives. He went away to Germany to study for his master’s degree, and then to Ohio State University for his Ph.D. in civil engineering, leaving my mother to manage everything on her own and care for my other brother, who had to have several abdominal operations. There was no money, but I saw firsthand my mother’s complete faith in God’s providence. And He did provide. We moved to the United States shortly thereafter, but returned to India a year later with my sister and mother when my parents’ marriage began to fail. My brother remained behind with my father. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this fracture would mean the loss not only of half my family but of my closeness with Jesus.

As I grew older and became aware of the suffering around me, I could not understand how a loving God could permit so much poverty, injustice, and cruelty. The Hindu culture of India was oppressive toward women and those born in a lower caste, and it didn’t blend well with my Judeo-Christian upbringing. I was also a budding feminist and angry when I discovered that in some families female babies were left to die because only male babies had value. I instinctively knew that all babies were to be cared for. “Do something,” I would pray, but my prayers went unanswered. At times the alleviation of suffering seemed to matter only to distant, in some cases deceased figures: Mother Teresa, Damien of Molokai, Albert Schweitzer. But I also noticed my mother’s generosity and kindness toward others, sacrificing her own meager meal of tea and chapatis to give to a beggar, but there were always more. She emphasized that we were to be the hands and feet of Jesus, but I wondered about God’s role. Did He not care for His creation?

When I was ten years old, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and learned of the Holocaust. I was devastated. How could God allow this? And to His chosen people! I pestered my mother for answers, but she had none that made sense. What kind of a Father was He? With my own father absent from our lives, it was easy to project an uncaring view upon our Heavenly Father. My mother told me to keep the faith, that I’d understand everything in Heaven. But I was losing it—both faith and Heaven. By the time I turned twelve, I stopped making space for Jesus in my chair and in my heart. I quit talking to Him. And I cried and cried because I’d lost my best friend.

We moved to Pullman, Washington, home of Washington State University, when I was fourteen years old and joined the community at Saint James Episcopal Church. I went to please my mother and to sing in the choir (music has always been a balm to my aching soul, and with half the music faculty in our church choir, we sang some of the most beautiful pieces ever composed). A year later, my parents divorced. The absence of my father loomed larger than ever even though we were in the same little university town. I knew I had to rely upon myself, become self-sufficient. I threw myself into my studies and dreamed of ministering to the sick, and in my old age writing about the wide-ranging experience I would have had. I wanted to be like A.J. Cronin, author of My Adventures in Two Worlds. As I grew and matured, I was puffed up with myself and missed Jesus less and less, until I gave Him no thought at all.

I broke my poor mother’s heart by being utterly willful and unrepentant. She couldn’t understand how a child of hers chose not to put her faith and trust in Christ Jesus, after all He’d done already. She’d remark on our difficult years in India, how He had always provided, the fact that I was breathing at that very moment, that I was being held up, but nothing could convince me. My heart had hardened against Him. I had fruitless discussions with the pastor at Saint James, but the problem of suffering, especially that of innocents, was one I could not reconcile with the concept of an all-powerful and merciful God. I stayed on the trajectory toward unbelief.

During my senior year at Washington State, my mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and she died just five months later. Although it was a difficult time, it was also a great privilege to accompany her at the end of her life and observe her relinquish herself bit by bit until she gave up all of herself. It was a peaceful death—she often claimed to see her father and firstborn son, who’d preceded her in death, and I believed her.

I was finishing up my studies in microbiology, getting ready for medical school, and practicing two Mass settings for concert choir performances—Verdi’s Requiem and Mozart’s Mass in 
C minor. God, in His great mercy (and humor!) made me pray without my knowing. After my mother’s funeral at Saint James, I never set foot in it. All the joy was gone out of my life, and instead I was filled with fear. Fear of debt. Fear of failure. Fear of myself. When the acceptance from the medical school finally came, I declined. I was utterly alone and desolate.

I chose instead to be practical. After gaining some experience doing different types of laboratory work in Southern California, I pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics at Washington State. Though it was not a calling like medicine, it was intellectually satisfying. I filled my heart with my studies and work, friends and lovers, music and dance, and happily called myself an atheist. Though I was a terrible atheist. The delight I took in science and music often made me think, Oh, how beautiful! There must be a God. Perhaps the little flame of God inside me wasn’t completely extinguished.

The next ten or so years were ones of decadence. I didn’t give a thought to the poor or suffering. Even the good things I did, like playing the piano at an old folks’ home, cooking a meal for my friends, or playing games with the veterans at the hospital, I did for the pleasure they gave me. I lived for myself and pursued happiness, often in all the wrong places. I thank my guardian angel for protecting me because surely had I died in my twenties I’d have ended up in hell. I would’ve rejected God’s mercy because, frankly, I didn’t think I needed it. I’d lost all sense of sin.

Somewhat inexplicably, there were still many blessings. My longtime boyfriend, Michael, and I finally married after ten years of pursuing our own dreams separately. It was the first step in living not just for myself, but for him too. But neither of us really knew the purpose of marriage. I thought I’d given my all to him, but it wasn’t so. I withheld my fertility. Only five years after our marriage did we decide to grow our family. Two children arrived—Max and Dagny—and they taught us how to love even more. My heart expanded. But just as quickly we closed that door in fear, and this time permanently.

I quit working as a research scientist and embraced the life of a homemaker. The old buried dream of writing surfaced. While still pregnant with Dagny, I looked into taking writing classes at the community college. I fell into writing for children because it was the only class that was offered at the local high school, just ten minutes away. I didn’t know the first thing about children’s literature, but I loved it, especially since I was discovering a wealth of it with Max, who adored reading and being read to. I still stepped into a church once in a while—for weddings and funerals—but nothing special ever happened. Writing afforded me the chance to think more deeply about these things.

The children and I led a very sheltered and peaceful life at home. Once they began school, however, Michael and I wondered how to counteract the permissive culture we found ourselves in. I thought about my own childhood and the wonderful assurance that Jesus gave me, but I couldn’t bear to be a hypocrite and send the kids to Sunday school when we did not believe. So we tried our best to love and raise the children with an emphasis on having a sense of right and wrong, which now I realize is indeed written upon our hearts. Still we worried that there was nothing higher than our parental authority. Had we made a grave mistake in not introducing them to the concept of God? What right did we have to deny them something so fundamental? It’s one thing to know God and reject Him as I did. But to not even have the opportunity? What if that emptiness got filled with other ideas—evil ones? It is real and present. I wanted to arm my children with something real and tangible to fight evil, the true cause of suffering. All I knew then is that I wanted my children to have what I had as a child—love in Christ. Even if He was just a fairy tale, I couldn’t deny the power He’d had over me and its effects—complete trust that all will be well, a security that was completely irrational given the state of the world, and a certain resilience that was also unearthly. I didn’t know that what I’d possessed as a child was a peace that came directly from God.

For Christmas that year (2006), I purchased a children’s Bible with beautiful pictures and historical references. Michael, who hadn’t been raised in a religious environment, was so enamored by it, he offered to read the stories to the children. So began a love affair that continued night after night.

As much as we liked the “Jesus and me” theology, we instinctively realized the value of corporate prayer, so the conversation over the next year turned to church. But which one? The number of denominations seemed to have mushroomed since I was a child. There was a regular gathering of non-denominational Christians who met in the school cafeteria, but it seemed so casual. I remembered enough Scripture to know that where two or three are gathered in His Name, He is present, but we wanted a sense of the sacred.

There was a megachurch at the bottom of the hill that advertised “No Weird Stuff.” Whatever did that mean? When I looked to the Anglican Church, it was nothing like the one in India or even Saint James. In October 2008, we stepped into the nearest Catholic Church—Saint Jude—just ten minutes away, near that same high school where I’d taken my first writing class. Somehow I found myself weeping, overcome with the relief of being home. After Mass, I tried to enroll the children in Sunday school, but after the head catechist asked me about their ages (seven and nine years old) and their baptism (never) she told me I needed to speak to the deacon about R.C.I.A. Although I was annoyed by what I thought were hoops we had to jump through, I took my complaints and questions to the deacon, and he was wonderful about explaining everything.

We enrolled in R.C.I.A., which had already begun, and quickly fell into a routine: during morning Mass, Michael and I would be dismissed after the homily to ponder the Gospel while our children stayed with our sponsors for the Canon. After Mass, we’d have our instruction in the faith with our sponsors. I’ll always be grateful to the doughnut ministry that kept our kids sugared up and the Knights of Columbus for watching over them. After a few hours at home, we’d return for evening Mass and the children’s religious instruction. Perhaps our family needed a double dose of the Word for it to work.

The R.C.I.A. team worried about us burning out and suggested we might do this in stages, first the parents, then the children, or vice versa, but I am so grateful we made this journey of faith together. God gave us all the necessary graces. Our Sundays were reserved for worship and Bible study, and our conversations revolved around what we were all learning about the Catholic faith. We questioned so many things—the teaching on marriage and sexuality, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, salvation outside the Church.

It wasn’t smooth sailing, however. My health suffered. Migraines became so frequent and vicious that I might have only one good week out of a month. Yet, it became a school of prayer. I had to reverse every single position I held that went against the faith. It bruised my pride—how could I have been so wrong for more than forty years? But what joy to live in the Truth. It is both good and beautiful, though not always easy. I wonder now if it was due to the powerful prayers at the Rite of Acceptance, when our sponsors crossed our bodies with the following words:

Receive this sign of the cross on your forehead. It is Christ Himself who strengthens you now with His love. Learn to know and follow Him.

Receive the sign of the cross on your ears, that you may hear the voice of the Lord.

Receive the sign of the cross on your eyes, that you may see the glory of God.

Receive the sign of the cross on your lips, that you may respond to the word of God.

Receive the sign of the cross over your heart, that Christ may dwell there by faith.

Receive the sign of the cross on your shoulders, that you may bear the gentle yoke of Christ.

Receive the sign of the cross on your hands, that Christ may be known in the work which you do.

Receive the sign of the cross on your feet, that you may walk in the way of Christ.

I wept. These words and the sensation of having every part of my body from my head down to my toes blessed was overwhelming. I had fallen in love with Jesus all over again, and I knew I never wanted to be parted from Him ever again. That Christmas was packed with meaning. O come let us Adore Him, Christ the Lord.

At any point during the journey, any of us could have dropped out, as two Protestant women in our adult class did. During Lent, there were scrutinies and minor exorcisms. I almost lost it all on Palm Sunday. After reading the Passion narrative during Mass, I felt unworthy. I knew I deserved death, not life. But Jesus drew me to Himself and showered all His tender mercies upon me. I wanted nothing more than to be in the shelter of His Cross, to be washed clean in His Blood. I was the Good Thief on Good Friday as I sang in a voice choking with tears the Taizé chant: “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Our entire family was received into the Holy Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass on the Feast of Saint Gemma Galgani in 2009. I know all Heaven was rejoicing, especially my mother and brother and all our beloved dead. Many friends here on Earth were also praying for us, and I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them.

Years later it seems undeniable that we are no longer the same. We are new creations in Christ. We might look the same, keep the same job, have the same hobbies, the same illnesses, the same conflicts, but we are no longer the same people. More and more, we surrender to His promptings. We could no longer keep on living the same way. Michael and I, after fifteen years of married life, finally discovered the sacramental dimension of marriage and had ours convalidated. We opened it again to new life. We made sacrifices for the children to be able to attend Catholic schools. And thanks to (of all things!) The Godfather, Michael searched out the traditional Mass and discovered the church run by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter in Seattle, where we heard the traditional Latin Mass for the first time on the Feast of Christ the King. Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!

Today we live in Charleston, South Carolina, where we hear the old Mass at Stella Maris Catholic Church. Singing in our little schola has brought us to our true patrimony—I think of the saints of old who sang these same melodies, written in heaven.

Perhaps the greatest blessing of all is that I find myself returning to my childhood state, where I converse with Jesus throughout the day, and when fear rears its head I place myself in His Sacred Heart, trusting in Him wholly. And the fire that was ignited at baptism burns so hot, I want to light the whole world on fire. This is my love story. It has no ending because it will continue through all eternity.

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Vijaya Bodach is the author of more than seventy books for children, including Ten Easter Eggs for the youngest and Bound, a novel for young adults.