My fifteen-year-old son Benjamin and I were laughing out loud the other day about something my grandson John-Henry did last Thanksgiving. A group of us, including then-two-year-old John-Henry and his mother, Gaby, were walking down a steep hill in the South Carolina mountains. John-Henry, being so two, began charging down the hill with reckless abandon. Meanwhile, I could hear his mother’s voice behind him repeating the mantra: “Don’t run, John-Henry…don’t run!”
All at once the little rascal turned backwards toward his mother with his index finger pointed right at her, and yelled: “No means no, Mama!” No sooner had those words escaped his mouth than he tripped and wiped out on the hill, tumbling face first onto the hard ground. Thankfully, he sustained only minor injuries, and we all laughed heartily at John-Henry’s clear mimicking of his mother’s voice saying “no means no” as he ran headlong into open dissent.
I’ve thought a lot about that incident since then, because it reminds me so much of my own relationship with God. Growing up in the seventies sandpit of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, I considered the word “no” a nuisance and proceeded to do whatever I wished. A four-year stint at a freewheeling Catholic college, where kegs of beer and Zen Buddhism were served up generously, didn’t help matters much. By the time I graduated, I had declared God dead, and screaming “no means no!” while running my own way had become a habit. I finally landed flat on my face, perfectly miserable.
That’s when I found Christ—or I should say Christ found me—in an evangelical Christian church. I discovered that, yes, Virginia, there is a God, and I recalibrated my life to that Reality. I quickly figured out that if I wanted to find happiness, then learning to say “yes” to God needed to become the foremost goal of my life. Five years into my conversion, I thought I had done a decent job of meeting that objective.
It was then that I returned to the Catholic Church—and fully realized that a robust “no” was still alive inside of me. Though I reentered the Church because of my belief in the Eucharist, I wasn’t the least bit interested in the rest of the “stuff” the Catholic Church proposed, especially her “laws” and “rules” concerning the moral life.
“I will never confess my sins to a man!” I pontificated to a friend. “And how dare the Church try to tell me what to do with my sex life!” I declared in defiance of the Church’s prohibition of contraception. “No means no, Mama!” I said as I did what I wanted.
I was stopped dead in my tracks when I learned that the contraceptive pill I was taking acted secondarily as an abortifacient, and that I may have been unknowingly aborting my children for years. As a staunchly pro-life woman, I was stunned and grieved by this revelation, and it turned me around on a dime.
Long story short, God mercifully dismantled my disobedience to the Church’s teachings, and I ultimately became a moral theologian and teacher of the faith. As such, I have taken great joy in communicating the Church’s teachings to others, and in demonstrating that God’s laws, articulated through the Church’s living voice, are not meant to restrict our pleasure, but to protect us from harm. When the Church tells us “no means no,” it’s because we risk running headlong into danger—not because she wishes to put a damper on our fun. The Church’s laws, including its prohibitions, reflect her tender, loving protection for her children, much like Gaby with John-Henry.
It is with heartfelt gratitude that I recall these things the day after the first-ever liturgical celebration of the feast day of St. John Paul II—which happens to be the same day on which John-Henry was baptized. As Pope, John Paul II issued the groundbreaking encyclical The Splendor of Truth, which articulated the Church’s moral teaching with such clarity and beauty that I wept my way through the entire encyclical. It was a healing balm on the wound of my convoluted college experience that left me confused and conformed not to Christ, but to a soul-damaging, godless worldview.
I can honestly say that the greatest day of my life, next to the day that I surrendered myself to Christ, is the day that I finally said a resounding “yes” to all that the Church proposes—even though I did not yet fully understand her ways. Far from finding a bitter, controlling old lady, I found a fresh young Bride, a life-giving Mother and a wise, trustworthy Teacher. She has led me by the hand to true love and authentic happiness, just what I was searching for all along.