The Word Among Us

Lent 2015 Issue

Baby Steps to the Altar

The Story of a Slow but Steady Conversion

By: Betsy L. Cavnar

Baby Steps to the Altar: The Story of a Slow but Steady Conversion by Betsy L. Cavnar

Have you ever felt the Holy Spirit leading you to do something that seemed ridiculous? That happened to me one day as I sat in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. I sensed an inner prodding that I have come to recognize as the way God speaks to me. He seemed to be saying, “I want to bring this doctor to myself. I will work through her, and she will do great things for me.”

This was not what I wanted to hear, especially since it was my first appointment with her. “Oh no, Lord,” I thought,” slumping in my chair. “You’re asking me to make a fool of myself—and with a complete stranger!”

I was still protesting when the doctor called me into the exam room. My heart was pounding so hard from anxiety that I thought it was going to jump out of my chest.

“I can’t understand why you have such a rapid heartbeat,” said the doctor. Then I blurted out something about my Christian faith and how important it was to me, especially in dealing with the Crohn’s disease that I was consulting her about. She listened politely, and my appointment came to an end.

After a few more appointments, I was doing so well that the doctor said she didn’t need to keep seeing me. “Now what?” I asked the Lord. “How can I share more about you when I have no more appointments?”

A friend made a wise suggestion: #8220;We’ll just pray for God to open a door.”

Seeking Entry. God provided that opportunity about six months after my first appointment. The friend who was praying with me for an “open door” had just run into that doctor. “She told me that her house cleaner had a major stroke and is in critical condition,” my friend reported. “I think she’d really appreciate some help with the cleaning.”

I’m a nurse by profession, and cleaning houses is hardly my preferred activity. But that weekend, after much prayer and struggle, I looked up the doctor’s home address. Then, gathering my courage, my mop, and my broom, I knocked on her front door to offer my services.

Well, God does have quite a sense of humor. My friend’s information had been only partially correct, as I discovered when the doctor invited me in and explained the actual situation. It was her housemate—I’ll call her Helen—who had the stroke; now she was in the hospital, partially paralyzed and unable to speak.

Somewhat embarrassed at the misunderstanding, I didn’t know what to say. But then came that familiar prodding: “Open your mouth, and I will give you the words.” So I said, “Could I go and pray over her at the hospital?”

The doctor looked suddenly uncomfortable, and I was sure I had ruined my evangelistic opportunity. Finally, after what seemed like hours, she replied, “You are most welcome to try, but I don’t think she will let you pray with her.”

She went on to tell me that Helen had once belonged to a semi-cloistered religious order. During that time she had developed a number of serious, painful physical problems but had been denied medical treatment. Feeling that God had abandoned her, Helen applied to Rome for a dispensation from her vows, thus abandoning her lifelong dream of being a Catholic nun. Abandonment turned to anger. Anger towards her religious superiors soon turned to anger at God.

Love Never Fails. My first attempt to pray with Helen went well—because she was in a coma. At my second attempt, however, she banged the bed rails and yelled one of the two words she had relearned since the stroke: “No, no, no!” (I’d rather have heard her other word: “yes”!) Hearing the commotion, a flock of nurses ran into the room. I somehow managed to reassure them that everything was all right.

I went home in tears, unable to see any way of breaking through all the anger Helen was holding. “This is too difficult for me,” I told the Lord. “I don’t know what to do.” And again I sensed that all I had to do was speak the words he would give me.

I began visiting Helen daily, sometimes more than once. I would talk about her anger and about how it was human beings and not God who had hurt her. I read her Scripture passages that zeroed in on anger, forgiveness, and love. I told her that God loved her and had allowed her to survive the stroke so that she could return to him.

Slowly, Helen began to change. Every day brought her a little closer to the Lord and a little more forgiving towards those who had hurt her. And every day brought me to a deeper love and commitment to Helen. In the end, I believe it was this love God gave me that softened her heart the most. I’m convinced that we have to truly love someone with God’s love before we can preach to them about it.

Baby Steps. A month passed, and Helen started joining me in prayers that she had learned long before. (Stroke victims can often remember and recite things they memorized in the past, even when their speech has been impaired.) The next month, she allowed me to take her into the hospital chapel—but only just inside the door. From then on, day by day, we took baby steps farther and farther in.

One night we went all the way to the altar. Kneeling beside Helen and sensing the change taking place in her heart, I prayed, “We’re almost there, Lord. What more do you want me to say?” Then I was reminded of a well-known poem, Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” It’s about God’s loving pursuit of each one of us who tries to run away from him. I read it to Helen on my next visit, and she began to cry:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years . . .

“See, Helen,” I told her when I finished, “God didn’t abandon you. He is giving you a second chance. You have run and hidden, but he has pursued you and will continue to pursue you until you come back to him. Are you ready?” Then came the answer I had been waiting and praying for, these long four months. “Yes, yes, yes!” she said.

Double Miracle. On Easter Sunday, Helen went to Confession. Then a priest said Mass in her hospital room, and she and I received the Eucharist together.

After that God gave Helen back the vocation she thought she had lost. Her bedroom became her cloister, the place where she lived out her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. God restored her ability to speak the three most important words in the English language: “I love you.” What more do you need to say to God and to others?

Helen spent the remaining twenty-eight years of her earthly life as a cloistered nun would, praying to God and interceding for people. More and more people found they could bring her their prayer requests. Sister Helen, as she was now called, could still read, so all requests were written on index cards that she prayed over many times a day. She suffered physically every day but bore her pain with courage and forbearance, offering it to God for the good of others. She was a prayer warrior for us all.

And the doctor who started all this? After witnessing the miracle of conversion in Helen’s life, she gave her life to the Lord and entered the Catholic Church.

But that’s another story.

Betsy Cavnar lives in Florida with her husband, Jim.