I was born and raised in the erstwhile Hindu kingdom of Nepal to two very devout Protestant Christian missionaries. In fact, within our mission organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators, my whole extended family is so globally involved that colleagues would often quip, “the ‘Watters’ shall cover the earth.” As a child I was always surrounded by beautiful stories of sacrifice and perseverance to bring the name of Christ to the farthest and most remote reaches of the world, and many of the heroes of these stories were either family members, or were such close friends that I referred to them as ‘uncle,’ and ‘aunt.’ The most heroic of these stories, by the common consensus of all my childhood friends, were the stories of my grandfather and grandmother, who were the first Westerners to make contact with the village of Takashera. They were a pre-literate society, and my grandfather devised an alphabet for them so that he could translate the Scriptures in their language, while, with my grandmother, he raised my father and uncle, up in the beautiful pastures of the Himalayan hinterlands. I was fed from an early age all the beautiful tales of miracles, the fights with obvious diabolical activity, and the martyrs of the Kham church in Takashera. For those villagers whom my grandparents had converted to Christianity, the good news of Jesus Christ changed their lives. They said, “We have been waiting for this our whole lives, we did not know that our language could say such beautiful things. God has remembered even us, at the foot of the snows.”
As for my own family’s immediate story, my father was my hero. He was by far the most linguistically capable of anyone in our organization, and his translation project, which lasted 20 years, was notorious for the ‘curse’ that was upon it. Indeed, for the 50 years before my father had taken up the torch to complete it, everyone involved in the project had died in unexpected, sometimes uncanny ways. I knew, however, with every fiber of my being, that my father was fighting a war against the devil, and doing a work that was dear to the heart of God.
In Nepal, the Christian expatriate community was family to me. I did not grow up with an understanding of Christian denominations. True, I learned about the Reformation in 6th grade (I was taught by a British Anglican), and I had a basic understanding of the Christian denominational taxonomy. I knew that many of our friends, who were from all over the world, identified themselves under different denominational titles, but of course, this was as harmless as being from a different country. In fact, like most Protestants, I believed that denominations only added to the beautifully diverse kaleidoscope that is the Church. To me, the community of missionaries from all over the world, was the Church in its truest essence; a diversely storied group of people whose backgrounds were all so incredibly different, but had a common passion to see the name of Jesus on the lips of the whole world. I had a cursory understanding of Catholicism, and all I knew was that they did worship differently. I have only vague memories of being told by people (not my family) the typical Protestant misunderstandings of Catholic teaching, but all I really remember knowing was that the Medieval Church was corrupt, and Martin Luther had done the necessary deed of fighting the corruption. Looking back, I realize that Catholicism had actually always been present in some way to us. We were surrounded by two Catholic schools, which were the best schools in the valley, and our Protestant church was even allowed to meet in the Catholic church for a time. I remember thinking it was beautiful, but odd. It just didn’t seem to be the Christianity that I knew about, the Christianity of house churches, and clandestine meetings. I didn’t have a concept of what it meant to be a holy place. In fact, the only holy places that I was aware of were the evil Hindu idols that littered the corners of the Nepali streets. If that was what ritual worship, incense, and ‘holiness’ looked like, then I didn’t want much to do with it.
When we moved to the USA, I was sixteen years old, and about to begin junior year in the public high school in Hewitt, TX. The move was incredibly traumatic, a complete uprooting of everything I knew, a loss of identity. My family started going to a local Baptist church, not because my family had affiliated themselves with the Baptist denomination, but because this church had been a faithful supporter of my family’s mission for the entirety of its project. This was the kind of church I was used to seeing when we would come back to the States for furlough, and I knew that it was full of good people who loved God, but could never understand the life that we had lived. What was worse, this church, with its electric worship, inevitable allusions to football in the sermons, and intentionally strict informality, was just so American. I really couldn’t stand it, though my faith never wavered. I had always had a very real love for God, and a sense of His hand on my shoulder. The thing I wanted most in my life, since childhood, has always been to hear my Lord say to me, “well done, good and faithful servant.” This was difficult in the US, though. The public school was filled with very nominal Protestant Christians, and this was strange to me. Growing up in a country where our faith was unwelcome, being a Christian was a source of unity and solidarity that could not be matched. It was something we knew about each other in the deepest part of our hearts, and it formed the entirety of who we were.
My senior year, in the middle of looking for colleges, I had an acute onset of an autoimmune disorder that basically left me incapacitated for about two months. I had planned to go out of state for college, but because of how sick I had become, I needed to stay close to home, and close to the hospital that specializes in diseases like mine. So I started Baylor incredibly sick and broken, weekly consuming a medicine that was used for cancer patients before radiation therapy. Truthfully, though being sick was miserable, it was a grace and a relief. I had spent the last two years in agony over having left Nepal, over a lost identity. My sickness felt like God breaking my body so that my spirit could heal, and it certainly did. Freshman year was the closest I had been to God in years, perhaps ever. I was praying often, and the classes I was taking were opening my eyes to the riches of the Christian tradition. I began to learn about how the early and medieval Church read the Bible, and it was awe-inspiring. I had never thought to ask how Christians had read the Bible before us, or how they had done church. Their interpretation of Scripture seemed so ancient, yet so new. I was also searching for which churches to attend, still very unsure of how any of us were supposed to decide what denomination to belong to. In addition to this, I was meeting Catholics. I can’t say how shocked I was to find that some of the most devout Christians I had met on campus were Catholics. Yes, I was aware of the stereotype, and for some reason, my heart delighted to see young Catholics practicing their faith.
I can’t tell you when it started, some time in the first or second semester of freshman year, but I began to learn about sacraments, and about liturgy. It was a slow process of falling in love with the smallest details of liturgical worship. What a beautiful concept, that we can pray with our whole bodies, and as a Body, moving to the rhythm of the Word of God, confessing with our whole person, “not my will, but Yours!” It was a true acknowledgment of the gift of worship, that it was not something we had to create every week, but something that was given to us, because without that gift of God’s grace that perfects us, worshipping Him in spirit and in truth would be impossible. I began to cross myself when I prayed, and trembling with joy each time I did. It was confessing with my body, not just my mind, that the God to whom I prayed was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Father of Jesus Christ. The first time I saw a Catholic genuflect in the sanctuary I was taken aback, and I started to tear. I wanted to bow before my King too. Then came the sacraments. I read a book by an Anglican theologian about eschatology, and it was the first time that I had even the word, ‘sacrament,’ but it blew me away. True, his sacramental theology was not as high as the Catholic Church’s, but it was high enough for an evangelical Christian to be drawn in by its beauty. The church that I was attending at the time was a contemplative Baptist church that tried its best to incorporate some form of liturgy and sacrament into the service. Though they did not confess any articulated belief in sacraments, I participated in it with joy. I ached to know my God deeper, and to see Him through the gifts that He had given the Church.
At the beginning of sophomore year, a friend told me that she was looking into Catholicism, and then, almost as if the words came out without any forethought or real contemplation, I said, “oh cool, me too!” I don’t really know where this came from. I had been learning much about ancient Christian tradition, but never had I thought about becoming Catholic. If anything, I was just hoping to be more liturgical Protestant. Once I said it though, I thought to myself, “well, I might as well actually investigate it now.” I went to RCIA that week, and it happened to be the day that we learned about saints, angels, and sacramentals. I was really weirded out. I thought that I would let it go. Still, I spent that semester in a class that focused on the beauty of ancient and medieval Christian art and architecture, and was amazed to find the continuity of the Church’s reading of Scripture, and the beauty that it inspired in the devotion of the Church’s art, and then I was horrified to find the ramifications of the Reformation on the art of the Church. I found the early days of the Reformation quite aesthetically bleak, if not sometimes repulsive, and I was enamored by the medieval church. The whole time I was talking to friends, putting them to the test on questions of Catholic belief. I was beyond frustrated that much of what they were saying made sense, but what frustrated me more was their humility before questions they didn’t know the answer to. They would always respond, “I don’t know, but let me see what the Church teaches.” This bothered me, because they seemed like sheep, and like children. Then I realized with a sudden clarity that this is exactly what Christ calls us to be, sheep and children before the mysteries of the faith, with complete trust in Him who cannot deceive.
I could spend a long, long time going through the details of all the exciting things I learned on the way to the Catholic Church, but to summarize, I simply came to accept that the Catholic Church is who it claims to be, though the process was not without its wrestling. In all honesty, I fought hard to not become Catholic when it started to become too real. It frightened me, and it confused me in a context in which I was already traumatized by a loss of an identity that was dear to me. For a long time, I didn’t want Catholicism to be true, because this meant demands on my future, and more frighteningly, it made demands on my past as well. It asked me to leave the identity that I thought I could hold on to forever. This hurt more than anything else. But it is with joy that I speak now, because our God is a God who heals, who longs to give us peace and joy, and who will take us through the valley of the shadow of death, through the desert, so that we may one day enter the New Jerusalem. In fact, the King of the New Jerusalem comes to us every day in the mass, humble and hidden, pledging us His eternal love by the mere fact of His presence. This is the most beautiful story every told, and I pray that by His overwhelming grace God will make me worthy to participate in it.