“So would you be willing to tell your conversion story to the ladies in the parish?” I could hear my friend and our bible study coordinator, asking over the phone. Uggggghhhhh. Here it is, I thought. I had imagined this moment in my mind – I sort of knew it was coming. I knew that I had to say yes. This was a request from God. I had recently come into the Catholic church at the tender age 43, and many of my friends knew that I had been in recovery, and had some issues but that was about it. Nobody in our relatively affluent, slightly Truman-show-like community knew the whole deal. Connecting the dots on my 20 year-long conversion journey wouldn’t be easy or tidy or flattering. But God knew that my story could be used for good – He knew, as I did, that stories can turn the lights on for someone else who is lost in their darkness. And even if I wanted to say no,I learned in my first church, the church basements where I went to my first 12 step meetings, that being of service is healing and you don’t say know when asked to be of service. being“Ok, I’ll do it,” I told my friend.
In the weeks before “OK I’ll do it” and the talk itself, I was lost – lost in my own story, parts of which are painful to revisit, lost in fear of revealing myself, lost in anxiety that I didn’t know what God wanted me to share in the talk. My story is long and I had a lot to say but what was going to be the light? Could I do it without revealing too much about myself? Could I do it and still look people in my tight-knit community in the eye afterwards?
“You know, Paige, you don’t really have to tell all the gory details,” a well-meaning friend suggested. But the gory details are my story. I wish I could tell people that I met Mother Teresa in fourth grade and she touched my hand, or that I had turned to God of my own free will, in my troubles, but those are not my stories. My story is that I ran away from God. I didn’t believe in God. I hated God. Was I even a Christian? Who knew and who cared? I would only accept the help from a completely anonymous, amorphous, churchless, story-less God of my own design. That is the person God came to heal nonetheless. And He has given me more and more courage to tell the truth but this would be a very revealing talk. I would have to talk about ravaging my body with self-destructive eating, starving, drinking, prescription-drug-taking, self-harm, abusive relationships. I had to paint the picture of what it looked like when I depended on myself, when I tried to answer my longings and my profound hunger for God with everything but God Himself. I had to talk about what it was like when I did everything I could to fill a God-sized hole.
I imagined what the room would be that night: rows and rows of perfect women. Perfectly small, perfectly put together, perfectly Catholic. They would come and cross their legs and raise their eyebrows and think, “wow.” They would be embarrassed for me. I would ugly cry through my story of surviving an eating disorder and almost drinking myself to death and it would be like a bad Lifetime movie. In preparing for this talk, I saw this scene over and over again. I also became convinced I was a fraud, that my suffering wasn’t real suffering, even that I hadn’t really been healed, that my story was bullshit, that I had no place in the church, that no one cared or would listen. God, why have you asked me to do this?
One day, I saw a quote by St. Augustine as I scrolled through Instagram.
“Lord, in my deepest wound I saw your glory, and it dazzled me.”
Those words changed me. My deepest wound, the wound of addiction, compulsion, self-destruction, rendered me unable to go on without God’s help. A surrender to Him and a path forward, with Him, was my only way out. It has not been easy, and for decades it was a secret way, but I was now asked to share it. Maybe it could help make a way for someone else.
Finally, the night of the talk arrived. My friend Julie, who had asked me to do the talk, sent me to the Adoration Chapel as soon as I got there. She either saw the look of terror on my face or could hear my heart beating inside my chest. “Please Lord, speak through me. Please calm my heart.” I thought of my favorite church hymn, “Here I am Lord.” I will go Lord, if you lead me….
A lot of beautiful and very perfect women did come that night. Friends and strangers, neighbors, my sister in law, my kids’ teachers. I can remember the room filling up and women gathering more chairs from another room, women coming in late and women waiting patiently for me to speak. More and more women.I kept speaking to the Lord, asking him to carry me and speak through me. I started out by telling everyone that I would rather be at the gynecologist or stick my hand in the garbage disposal than do what I was about to do – which was true, and I thought about running out of the room, hurtling myself over some of those beautiful women, and i told them that too, but soon the words flowed and I found myself unbound to the podium and quite free in telling my story. I was able to experience the extraordinary grace in telling a story about a dark time that is well behind me. In many ways I delighted in my own story, as I had rediscovered it. I did tell some ugly details of my very humbling lows like what happens when you’re balancing the demands of bulimia and binge drinking – that I’ve been a million sizes, that my body was both confused and injured and would sometimes vomit without my consent, even mid-sentence, that I still suffer from the same brokeness, I just have better tools and a relationship with God to walk through it without hurting myself.
But then I got to talk about how God led me to healing in the only way I would have said yes to Him – in a very slow, very anonymous and gentle way. Then how He revealed His Son to me in the most uncanny and patient ways, over the following two decades. God had written my story so well – I really appreciated that as I told it, and I experienced waves of gratitude for God’s healing – of course it cannot be a secret. How I came into the church is equally entertaining and a true testament to the fact that God is pursuing us all the time.
About a year into recovery, God sent me a lapsed catholic boyfriend, Francis, who happened to be from a devout family, who I later married. I spent years thinking Francis’ family was very weird. Now, I consider my in-laws to be some of my greatest teachers. My husband & I share a love of adventuring, and we found ourselves, randomly, in Medjugorje. On an adventure to Croatia, we stumbled upon one of the most famous Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. Yeah, what a random circumstance.
I would then, by chance, find Father Robert Barron–before he became a bishop– and his earth shattering Catholicism series, in the middle of the night on PBS, no less, while breastfeeding my babies. Bishop Barron was the first person to actually educate me about the person of Jesus, and my mind was blown. Then just a few years later, I heard Sister Miriam James Heidland tell her story of 12-step recovery and healing the feminine genius at my own parish and I ugly cried the whole time. I soon knew that my conversion was a living breathing thing and I could no longer ignore it.
As I worked through preparation for my talk, I found myself quite moved in another truth that came to the surface. That God was in fact asking me to do this very tough thing, because he wanted me to be of service, yes. That I could bring the light to others, yes. But there was something else. He knew where I was spiritually, at the time of asking. He knew that in telling my story, I would put my eyes back on where I had been, on my brokeness which still plagued me, and I would realize the work I still have to do. He knew I had to go back to 12 step meetings, somehow, which I had left in the business of raising my four children, thinking, “I don’t need those any more.” Yes, you do, hon, He said. As only the most loving Father could know, He knew I needed the tools He created for me as much today as I did twenty-plus years ago. He also wanted me to trust the path I was on, by looking closely at my journey with Him.
My talk cemented for me that I have a rightful place in the pew not because I try not to miss mass, or because I completed the year-long RCIA program or because I send my kids to Catholic school. I’m Catholic because I need God desperately, in the most deep and profound way – and I can never turn my back on that need again. That is the lesson of my brokenness, and the life source of my faith – a clear understanding of my weakness, which is reiterated and relearned for me in every mass and every 12 step meeting. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. I wait for the Centurion’s words at every mass. They are my words, and I feel myself laying down my weakness and absorbing some of God’s goodness precisely when those words are said. Nothing is impossible for God, the gospel says, but also, nothing I have now would have been possible, without God, and a complete dependence on Him. That is why I am catholic. That’s why I did the talk and I will continue to say yes if asked again to share my story. “God with skin on” is a term we use in 12-step meetings often to describe people who lead and guide because of their openness about their faith and their own journeys. God is now asking me to do this for others. I heard you Lord, OK, I’ll do it and I know you’ll guide me.
Paige Rien is a designer, former HGTV-host, author, speaker, mother to four, and convert to the Catholic faith, not necessarily in that order. She is chiefly interested in the intersection of the home and our personal path to holiness. Her first book, Love the House You’re In, (Roost Books, March 2016) encouraged readers to treat their homes as sacred spaces to express who they really are and nourish their families. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Francis, and their children. She can be found on Instagram @paigerien and on Facebook.com/lovethehouseyourein.