Lessons from Missouri parishioner's journey to faith find expression in new children's book

Students at All Saints Catholic School in Manassas, Va., in the Diocese of Arlington, display a book by Laura Theissen, "Cuthbert: The Eagle Who Found His Wings" during a Feb. 1, 2024, visit by Laura and her son, Lucas. The author donated a copy of the book to each classroom in the school, where Lucas was once a student. (OSV News photo/All Saints Catholic School Facebook page)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (OSV News) – Children's book author Laura Theissen was taking a French test at the University of Missouri when she found out that terrorists had flown commercial airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

"That day shaped my life forever," she said of 9/11. "Because I knew more than ever that I wanted to serve my country and give something back."

That conviction led to a 17-year career as a counterterrorism officer with the CIA. It also launched her into a faith odyssey toward a level of communion with God that she never imagined possible.

"I tell people that God literally led me through the desert to bring me home to himself," said Theissen, author of "Cuthbert: The Eagle Who Found His Wings" (Christian Faith Publishing).

Modeled on the life of St. Cuthbert, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon saint, the book stemmed from a project to name the mascot of her son's Catholic grade school in Virginia, where the family was living at the time, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Cuthbert is the tale of a majestic American bald eagle who loves to swoop and fly above the clouds until one day, his life changes," Theissen told The Cath stated. "Through adversity, he learns the power of God's love and grace and what it really means to soar."

The first copies of the book arrived at her home in Columbia in October.

"All the glory goes to God!" she told The Catholic Missourian, newspaper of the Diocese of Jefferson City. "There's just no other way to explain the miraculous things that have transpired for me and my family."

Theissen was born into a devout Christian family in Jefferson City and lived for eight years in a home overlooking the Missouri River, where she watched eagles soar.

Her family moved to St. Peters near St. Louis when Laura was in second grade, and her father began work as an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. After high school, she went to the University of Missouri in Columbia to study political science and international affairs, with a minor in French.

She met her now-husband, Andy Theissen, at a student government event they helped organize for children of international students. They talked for hours, started dating and eventually married at St. George Church in Hermann, where Andy had grown up as a parishioner.

Laura Theissen was working for the Institute of Public Policy at the University of Missouri in 2005 when her application to the CIA was accepted.

Two years after their son was born, they moved from Missouri, living in Washington and later overseas – Theissen is still not allowed to say where.

"I felt very proud to be able to do my part for the country and help keep people safe," she said. "But that kind of work is hard on you mentally and hard on your family."

Both husband and wife drifted away from their faith.

"There were definitely a lot of years that I not only put my light under a basket, I covered it with dirt and buried it and did everything I could to tamp down my relationship with God at work," said Theissen.

Upon returning to the United States, she wanted her family to get right with God.

She and her husband went to a Sunday service at a nondenominational church but it didn't feel right. "I want to go to a Catholic church," her husband told her.

Laura Theissen said she'd try it, although as a counterterrorism officer with secrets to keep, as a non-Catholic wife of an inactive Catholic, and as a mother of a 7-year-old who was being raised with no faith, she worried about being judged.

But the pastor of the church where they went to Mass was a military chaplain and understood her completely.

The couple were making arrangements to have their son baptized just before his eighth birthday when the director of religious education said to Laura Theissen, "And what about you?"

She entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults a week after Lucas' baptism, with her husband as her sponsor.

"And you know, through those classes, not only did I fall in love with the Catholic Church, but Andy fell in love with it again," she said. She received the sacraments of initiation the following Easter.

The Theissens became active parishioners and enrolled their son in All Saints Catholic School in Manassas, Virginia, in the Diocese of Arlington.

The school went to virtual learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020.

To raise spirits and preserve a sense of community, school administrators had a contest to choose a name for the school's bald eagle mascot.

Mom and son researched saints associated with eagles and found St. Cuthbert, known for protecting birds as well as praying to ward off plagues.

Fellow students liked the suggestion, and Cuthbert became the eagle's new name.

One day in Lent, while Theissen was reading her daily devotional, she started thinking about St. Cuthbert, in light of all the turmoil that was going on in the world, with children feeling sad and frightened about the pandemic and being separated from friends and loved ones.

She started writing the story of Cuthbert the Eagle.

"I wanted to write a story that we would have wanted to read to him back then," she said. "The message that even in hard times, God's light will shine through. No matter what happens, your spirit will always soar in the love of God. Embrace his grace. Look for the helping spirit in others. There are good people out there."

She wrote the whole in about an hour, which she attributes to "inspiration from the Holy Spirit." She included an afterword about the life of St. Cuthbert and submitted the manuscript to a handful of publishers.

Months later, she got a voicemail from Christian Faith Publishing. They liked the book and wanted to get it into print. That process, including editing and illustrating, took about a year.

She called it "really surreal" and "an incredible blessing," adding, "I hope the book can be a blessing to others."

Last year, the Theissens moved back to Missouri. Laura and Andy both work at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

She hasn't forgotten what it felt like to not have God in her life.

"I knew he was walking beside me, but not to be holding his hand was awful," she said. "Now, I know what it's like to walk with him hand-in-hand. It's wonderful!"

"Cuthbert: The Eagle Who Found His Wings" ($14.95) can be ordered at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.


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