Connecting the Dots
My imperceptible and awkward conversion
Among the seekers at inquiry sessions and the candidates and catechumens in Sunday RCIA classes, one’s Personal Faith Journey is currency. It is asked for and shared like a business card whenever new faces attend, or even when the old ones feel like hearing it again. Even at the Rite of Acceptance, in front of a thousand people, the priest hands the shaking neophyte a microphone and asks, though not in so many words, What could have possibly brought you here?
My story, frustratingly, changes with each telling. I don’t rehearse it, and so I forget bits, I emphasize or de-emphasize incorrectly, and I’m sure I sound totally incoherent. Looking back (I am 25 now), I can only recall the dots, a few insights here and there, a few quiet moments in church, and it seems impossible to connect them with a simple narrative line. It makes me long for one giant dot, one sudden event, Christ putting his foot out to trip me, saying, “As it so happens I am the Son of God. Now stand up.”
The first event I can remember was in my senior year of high school. After a childhood following the beliefs of my “secular humanist” parents, I decided to dive headlong into a fervent nihilism. If there was such a thing as Nothing in the universe, I was going to find it, rip back its curtain and breathe it. For six months, I conjured up thoughts that smelled like stark facts: there was no objective truth in the world, in reality I was so close to death already the difference was not worth mentioning. I dropped enough of these stark facts onto my chest that I eventually woke up in the middle of the night and vomited for three days.
Over the course of a week in my boarding school infirmary, my nihilism calcified and fell off. Back in my room though, a little wobbly, I did not wake up a Christian. I simply found myself avoiding dark cola. I wanted only Sprite. I didn’t pick up any books with long sentences. Multiple clauses felt unhealthy. I craved and loved simplicity, avoiding anything that might crowd the new-found sense of openness in my chest. I welcomed anything that felt simple, like truth. For a postmodern like me, an acknowledgment of real truth had to come before Jesus Christ, before the concept of God itself.
A much larger reality
During a long backseat ride from North Carolina to college in New York, I opened an anthology of short stories I had to read for my first English class. Somewhere in Virginia I read a story that made me laugh much more than the others. For the first ten pages I thought I had found the funniest story ever written: lovingly, effortlessly funny. And after the last pages — shocking, violent pages with very few laughs —I thought I had found the best story ever written.
I went to the library immediately after unpacking. I wanted to know if this Flannery O’Connor had written anything else, and, if so, anything else as satisfying as “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” What impressed me the most was the way the objects and characters in the story — the cat in the glove compartment, the roaming serial killer — seemed to be carrying with them a much larger reality. Certainly they were cats and serial killers, not empty symbols, but their realness was apparent because of a force behind them, no less real.
The first thing I learned about O’Connor beyond her fiction was that she was Catholic. This meant I had a lot more reading to do. I had to find out what Catholic meant. After a few more nights in the library, I could just piece together that my reaction to the objects in the stories was similar to the things written about the Eucharist — there existed a seamless relationship between the seen and the unseen.
And so I wanted to see it happen myself. I wanted to be in the room where wine was thought to turn into blood. Near midnight on Christmas Eve, I drove to the closest Catholic church I could find. The service was beautiful: the crowd-pleasing candles and music, the padded kneelers, the liturgy every bit as compelling as the O’Connor novel I had just bookmarked. It struck me that this truth I knew existed must have some creative powers, able to make things and to convey itself aesthetically, as if the incense were, like O’Connor’s grotesque characters, God’s fictional flourish.
Ushered into the RCIA
Though I was growing comfortable with the notion of God the Creator, it was only in the autumns, for some reason, that I was reminded of the figure of Jesus Christ. In the spring, with the whole world alive and growing, Christ seemed irrelevant. The route to my first job after college took me by a Catholic church. Most of the time I saw only a parking lot out of my left eye when I drove past the church. But in the autumns I saw the chance for another midnight mass, and an opportunity to become a part of something.
Two autumns ago, I drove to the church, only to get cold feet and drive back home. Last autumn, to test the waters again, I sent an email to the parish priest, asking him for a meeting. Politely, he directed me to an inquiry session, and the next Wednesday, I went. I aired a few theological doubts, which gave way to great lessons in history and philosophy, but I found myself stuck on the Church’s sexual teachings.
“You should know,” I said, “I probably fit the political cliché of a young person living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.” Meaning, I thought: “Please don’t expect me to march in your pro-life rallies. I don’t think homosexual acts are objectively disordered and I’m pretty sure cohabitation is just a good way of cutting down on rent with someone you like.”
Whether or not the code came across, I’m not sure, but no parties were offended and on the second Sunday of Advent I was ushered into the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. A woman sat across the room — a Baptist — and in her Sunday best and Southern accent, she seemed the epitome of the religion I avoided as a child: prayer breakfasts and Jesus bracelets. In the break for refreshments, she told me her story. It began with a trip to the Vatican and ended with a vision of Christ. Her mother had just died, and in the vision, Christ urged her to embrace the Virgin Mary.
“So,” she said, “what’s your story?”
The force and emotion with which she spoke left me a little insecure about my own experience. I wondered if all converts had this kind of story.
Before joining RCIA I was assigned a sponsor, someone in the parish community to serve as a role model. We first met in a Starbucks. Nearly my age, he’s a cradle Catholic, and I wondered how we could relate if he didn’t have his own conversion story to share. Curious, I asked him why he thought Jesus was divine, then laughed at the abruptness of the question. I told him he could take sixty seconds to think about it, and he did. He sat and thought.
“I definitely believe,” he came to say, “but I’ve never had my Damascus moment. It’s something I’ve talked to my priests about.”
The frankness of his admission struck me as forcefully as the Southern Baptist’s vision. They each seemed like conversion stories, one simply more condensed than the other. A conversion could be an arresting vision, or even a set of meandering adolescent years. For my sponsor and I, the moment on the road to Damascus is the road to Damascus itself, a gradual reorientation as imperceptible and awkward to summarize as the process of growing taller.