I wasn’t going to stay. It was just going to be through Christmas. Then, through Easter. Then, well, where else was I going to go all summer? Then, in September 2011, I started RCIA classes (Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults), just to see. My husband, bless his heart, came with me, even though he had no intention of converting.

By the way, John Willome (aka John who is Baptist) should get an award for Husband of the Year. Most women who go through a midlife crisis just buy shoes or read trashy novels. I left the entire Protestant world with absolutely no warning.

The classes were both beautiful and hard. Beautiful, because the people — the leaders and participants — were loving, faithful seekers of God. Hard, because Catholicism is more different than I thought. One night (the night on apostolicity and purgatory, if you’re wondering), I ran out at the break, crying.

One of the leaders, a woman who became my sponsor, followed me. “What’s wrong?” she said.

“You don’t know how hard this is,” I told her. “You’re a cradle Catholic. I have no one in my family who is Catholic, except for a couple of people who married in. There is some real prejudice against Catholics in certain corners of my world.”

She didn’t understand, but she didn’t reject me, either.

So, why did I stay?

As often happens in my life, I found my answer on NPR. Specifically, “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.”

I downloaded an interview with Carlos Eire, a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University. He was one of 14,000 children evacuated from Cuba in the Pedro Pan Airlift when Fidel Castro came to power. Eire talked about the graphic nature of the iconography in Cuban Catholic churches — really gruesome stuff. When he came to live in the USA, he found the American Catholic church to be quite different.

“American Catholic churches were kind of cheerful, compared to the Spanish ones. They had a limit on their iconography, not just in terms of the numbers but the types of images that they had, especially in Miami, where everything was new. The fearfulness gradually began to disappear and began to be replaced by an awareness of the fact that it wasn’t religion that was scary; it was life that was scary. It wasn’t those images that were awful; it was life that was full of awful things, and those images were actually there to comfort. And give you some kind of feeling that God has empathy for you.”

—Carlos Eire, “A Cuban American Searches for Roots,” November 22, 2011

Yes, Carlos. That’s it. Life is scary, but when I’m in a Catholic church, I feel that God has empathy for me.

My mom often used words like “overcome,” “victory,” “deliver” and “conquer.” They were words that she found helpful to describe her battle with cancer and her life as a prayer warrior. It’s taken me a long time to realize that as much as I love my mom, our experiences—both spiritual and just life experiences—are very different.

I knew I was doing the right thing one night at RCIA when we talked about the sacrament of anointing of the sick and human suffering. Every person in that room acknowledged some amount of suffering in their lives. Every person had either found comfort in leaning on God or they repented of not leaning on Him.

That’s when I knew for sure I was home.