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Confessions of faith: Jennifer Nelson

Unable to pay for her sins even as a nun, one woman finds the peace of the gospel.

Jennifer Nelson

I grew up as a Roman Catholic, but I confess that I did not regularly attend church until my late teens. After my father died unexpectedly when I was ten years old, I allowed my grief to turn into anger against God. I became angrier with God and the world around me as the years passed. I finally hit rock bottom around the age of 17.

A neighbor encouraged me to begin attending church. He also assured me that Jesus died on the cross and paid the ultimate price for all the sins of the world. There was nothing I had to do to earn God’s grace. He invited me to attend church with his family. Instead I went to church with my mother, attending the familiar Catholic services. At first there was a feeling of relief that the pillars of the church did not come down as soon as I walked in!

Becoming a nun

I quickly became immersed in studying the Catholic faith. While taking an adult confirmation course at the age of 19, I had a deep sense that the Lord was calling me into the religious life as a nun. My parish priest was so thrilled that he set up an appointment for me to speak with a religious sister. I spoke to her, but my excitement quickly turned into fear and doubt. I just could not make such a monumental decision at that moment in my life.

Ten years later, I was actively involved in the church, but I also lived a life outside of those walls of which I was ashamed. I hit rock bottom again. I was exhausted. I became so confused! I would be in the confessional on Saturday evening, feeling relieved that I was once again “good to go” for the next week, but I could not turn from my life of sin. I had no peace. I was certain that I would be doing serious time in purgatory in order to clean up the residue all my sins had left on my soul. I wondered if the religious life would help overcome my sins.

Two years later, at the age of 31, I entered a monastery to become a Carmelite nun. I would be “hidden from the world.” The life of a cloistered Carmelite nun is a life of prayer, silence, penance, and sacrifice. I would awake every morning at 5:30 a.m. to gather for our first prayer of the day. We met six other times throughout the day. I had a bed, desk, rocking chair, and a cross hanging above my bed. It was not a crucifix because we were told that we had to wake every morning and put ourselves on the cross.

After a few months of living this life of “sacrifice,” I was still feeling I wasn’t doing enough to erase the sins of my past. I felt that if I lived to be 200 years old, nothing I did would be enough. On top of this, I was having difficulty with the normal everyday activities at the monastery. My novice mistress, who oversaw me, grew frustrated with me and reprimanded me a few times in front of the other nuns. I would go back to my cell and cry myself to sleep.

Then one day my novice mistress, still frustrated with me and angry, said, “Jennifer, do you even want to live this life?” I looked her in the eye and said, “No.”

She avoided me for a couple days, and then she asked me why. I told her I could not make up for my sins or the sins of others. She reminded me that the Lord wanted me to offer up my life as a sacrifice for myself and others. A week after this incident, I decided to leave the monastery.

While it may seem that I had no joy after almost a year of being a nun, I had many joyful moments with the other nuns. Despite those friendships, I was forbidden to say good-bye to anyone. I had to leave discreetly. My mother came for me one day in secret, and I did not look back.

A new life

I felt too embarrassed to go back to my home church where people knew me. So I decided to move to New Mexico where my brother and sister and some other relatives were living.

After moving to New Mexico, I begun working at a machine shop, and there I met my future husband, Rob. We were just friends for the first six months, before we finally went out on a dinner date. We were engaged four months later and married two months after that, exactly one year after we initially met.

Rob is a lifelong WELS Lutheran. At first, I had many questions for Rob that often turned into one-sided arguments because I was determined to get him to become a Catholic. But he always remained patient with me and never pressured me. I would go into our office and study Rob’s Lutheran books and literature. This led to even more questions.

One day during a family dinner my mother-in-law asked me if I truly believed that if I died I would go to heaven. Tears welled in my eyes and quickly I said, “No.”

I told her that according to the Catholic Church, I was living in mortal sin, and I would go to hell, not purgatory. She explained what I had heard once before—that all of the work has already been done by Jesus. I said that it just sounded too simple; it could not be that easy. I have to do something.

I continued to read Rob’s books as well as Forward in Christ—especially the “Confessions of faith” articles. I read several stories about people who had once been Roman Catholic. Those stories really stuck with me. Then one day I asked Rob if we could attend church together. There I heard not just the condemning law but also the saving gospel. After the service, the pastor asked if I wanted him to come to our home and talk a little more. I happily agreed.

Slowly the weight I once carried began to disappear. Even though I had read the Bible before, it was like God’s Word was all new to me. I admit it was hard to let go of the beliefs I had clung to for so long. I still had so many questions. But I also realized that for so many years I had depended on my own works and was not looking to Jesus and the cross. After six months of instruction, with much joy I became a WELS Lutheran.

We now belong to Cross of Christ Lutheran Church, where I am surrounded by Christian people who have become my everyday family. And by God’s grace, without fail, every Sunday I continue to hear law and gospel and the assurance that my sins are forgiven. I finally feel confident—not in myself and the good works I perform—but in what my Savior did for me so undeservedly.

Author: Jennifer Nelson
Volume 106, Number 6
Issue: June 2019

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This entry is part 51 of 68 in the series confessions-of-faith

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