by Daria Sockey
Protestant friends sometimes ask me when I got saved, was born again, or accepted Jesus as my personal savior. This starts a discussion where we define terms, parse Scripture, and make theological distinctions. But I think next time, I’ll just say, “Pull up a chair … .”
Baptized as a newborn, I was a new person in Christ for six years without knowing it. My parents taught me the Sign of the Cross, the Hail Mary, and grace before meals, but I had no idea what those words meant. “Jesus” was the name of the baby in the manger and the figure on the crucifix — but it was not clear to me that they were both the same person.
My restless fidgeting in church saddened Jesus, my parents said, without explaining why this was. They had not yet gotten the memo about parents being their children’s primary educators in the faith, so these disjointed little snippets of Catholicism were all I got. And frankly, I didn’t find them very interesting.
But at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in September 1965, my world changed forever. Sr. Thomas Gerald, a young Dominican in a long white habit, entered the room where I and 25 other 6-year-olds waited for our first religious education class.
“Close your eyes tight, boys and girls,” she said. “See that darkness? Once upon a time, that’s all there was. No sun, no stars, no earth, no trees, no animals, no people. Just a big, black nothing.
”I shivered. Really? Wow! What happened next?
Above and apart from the nothing, Sr. Thomas continued, there was someone: God — the all-powerful, all-knowing God, who had no beginning. God “always was, and always will be.” We took some time to wrap our minds around the idea of infinity. Then she told us the story of creation. Light! Water! Dry land! Animals! And “our first parents,” Adam and Eve. And yes, God created each one of us, with a body and a soul, for no other reason than that he loved us.
I was delighted. This was amazing. I’ve got to tell Mom and Dad about all this!
Before that first class ended, Sr. Thomas let us in on a secret: We can actually talk to God. He will hear everything we say. Talking to God is called prayer. She polled us on what prayers we already knew and handed out a copied sheet of prayers to start learning, but she also urged us to speak to God in our own words. We said a prayer together, and class was dismissed.
With that, my “personal relationship” with God had begun (on my end, that is. He already had one with me). I raced home to proclaim the first article of the creed to my parents, who were amused and pleased at my recital. The following Wednesday, I pushed the hand of the kitchen clock several minutes ahead to trick Mom into letting me walk to church early, so anxious was I for more divine revelation.
This time Sr. Thomas backtracked from physical creation to tell us about God’s home in heaven and the untold numbers of angels he’d created long before the earth began. We listened wide-eyed as she recounted that battle led by St. Michael with the good angels as they fought the proud, disobedient Lucifer and his minions. Next, she shared the lovely news that God had given each of us a guardian angel. My joy had no bounds. A genuine invisible playmate!
Then came a scary revelation. Until that moment, I’d thought death was something that could result from freak encounters with speeding cars, big bad wolves, or the evil strangers my parents warned me against. Avoid these, I’d thought, and death should not be a problem.
But now Sr. Thomas explained that one day each of us, without exception, would die. Momentarily aghast, I was soon comforted by her description of heaven — our true home, a place of everlasting beauty and happiness where our souls went to live with God. In a matter of minutes, death shrank from huge horror to not so bad. Again I ran home and proclaimed the Good News to my family.
Each succeeding week brought more amazing news. The terrible sin of Adam that closed the gates of heaven. God’s promise of a savior who would one day reopen them. The concepts of sin and grace. Stories of Noah and Moses. (Homework: Memorize the Ten Commandments.) Finally, the angel Gabriel coming to tell Mary that she would be the mother of the promised savior. Sparks of understanding flashed in my mind like a string of Christmas lights. Now those Nativity figures and the bedtime Hail Mary at home made sense!
Classes resumed after Christmas break. Jesus, now all grown up, performed amazing miracles and told sweet stories about a little lost lamb. (That lamb is each of us, Sr. Thomas said, and Jesus is the shepherd.) Then came Jesus’ heartbreaking death that opened the gates of heaven and turned on the fountain of grace that would flood our souls on the day of our Baptisms. Each week, more and greater truths for a little mind to absorb.
Each week, another wordless, fervent, “I believe” rose from my heart. Sunday Mass grew less and less tedious as I began to listen for mentions of the things I was learning from Sr. Thomas.
So, when did I accept Jesus as my savior? Well, continually throughout that wonderful year. (Long after he first accepted me in Baptism.) But the thing is, the accepting didn’t end there. Next came the joyous relief of sacramental confession, the blessed intimacy of holy Eucharist, and the thousand other gifts Jesus kept offering, such as friendship with his mother, the lives of saints, and each little bit of doctrine and tradition that make up the Catholic faith. And I’m still accepting them, every day.
It’s a story never punctuated by “the end,” but rather “to be continued.”