Guy Meets God
My journey from atheism to belief
A few days before heading out of town, I called my parents in Vermont to tell them I would be away for the weekend. My Dad had a stroke in 1996 so I like them to know when I’ll be away from my home base in New York City , in case there’s a medical emergency. They both answered the phone.
Nathaniel: “I’m going on a retreat.”
Mom: “What kind of retreat?”
Nathaniel: “A religious retreat.”
Dad: “What denomination?”
Mom: “They persecuted my people.”
Nathaniel: “They’re my people too.”
Mom: “If you become a Catholic, I will stop being your mother.”
She sounded somewhat serious. I can understand why my mother reacted so vehemently against my growing interest in Catholicism. I grew up in a non-religious household. My mother’s family is Jewish. Her Omaha, Nebraska upbringing was somewhat Orthodox, and included Hebrew school, a kosher kitchen and staying home on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. In her teens she rejected Judaism.
Her mother was a negative person who lived to criticize. Her father was kind but passive so Grandma dominated the house and my mother’s life. Though she never admitted it, I believe Mom may have abandoned Judaism because she associated it with her mother. The fact of the matter is, she not only rejected Judaism, she also rejected God. Most of her life Mom has been an atheist, seeing religion as a superstitious force for division, manipulation and suffering. Even though she is non-religious, she especially identifies with the Catholic Church’s sinful involvement in persecuting Jews over the centuries.
My father is a Boston WASP who can trace some ancestors to the Mayflower. He was raised mildly, socially Episcopalian. When my parents wed, both families were upset. His father considered skipping the wedding because Mom was Jewish. For most of his life, Dad was an agnostic. But in 1995 he had a religious experience and is now a devout Episcopalian. By that time though I was no longer living at home, so my exposure to religion was in academic conversations with my parents (both are academics – Dad is an economist and Mom is an art historian), not as part of my upbringing.
I too was a staunch atheist for my first 22 years. I believed there was no God. Believing in something without proof seemed stupid. It was unclear to me why so many people, especially otherwise intelligent people, were so foolish. That changed for me in the summer of 1999.
I had just graduated from college and stayed on to help edit the alumni magazine. I became good friends with John who was entering his senior year and spending his summer doing psychology research. John was a Catholic and we talked a lot about religion. Given my atheism, I would have ignored general statements about belief. But John was articulate and specific about his vision of God and faith. He wasn’t proselytizing. He was just telling me where he was coming from religiously. Gradually I realized I was no longer certain that there was no God. I had entered into my “I don’t know” phase. I was open to there being God. I was open to there being no God. I just didn’t know.
To my surprise, my next important religious influence was Aun, a Pakistani Muslim with whom I established an Iraq-related research project to underpin the advocacy to lift economic sanctions. I moved to Boston and began working on the project full-time. Because there was no funding, I lived rent-free in the living room of Aun’s one-bedroom apartment.
Aun and I became best friends. Aside from sports, movies, and Iraq , religion was our favorite conversation topic. Like John, Aun never proselytized. We talked about all three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In Islam, he told me, Jesus is one of the greatest prophets and both Christians and Jews have special status as “people of the Book” who received divine scriptural revelation. Aun was a big fan of Jesus and would often say that the Sermon on the Mount was perhaps his favorite all-time teaching.
One of the things that struck me most was Islam’s long-standing emphasis on faith underpinning every aspect of life. I heard that same stress on faith as a way of life through another Muslim, Seema who was an intern at an organization I later worked for in New York. An American of Indian descent, she was devout. Her goals were submitting to God, incorporating God into everything she thought, spoke and did, simplifying her life and crushing her ego.
As with Aun, we became good friends and talked about religion all the time. Seema kept telling me that one day the “veil of ignorance” would be lifted from my eyes and I would see God. I replied that I was unsure whether that would happen. I was still unsure whether there was a God. I also said that if I did begin to believe, it would happen for a reason other than a winning argument. In that respect I turned out to be right.
I’d gone to my hometown, Montpelier, Vermont , in December 2001 to visit my parents. I’ve been a long distance runner since college and on December 23rd I went on an eight mile run along the local river. I was enjoying the clean snow and the break from the New York City scenery. I was not thinking about God.
Suddenly I had an epiphany: I realized there was a God. I saw that Jesus had lived, preached and died for God’s message. The Father and Jesus were as real as they had been unreal for my previous 25 years. I could see them as clearly as the river that was running alongside me. It felt as though I was finally able to recognize a reality that I had been staring at all along; almost as if I finally noticed a piece of furniture that had been in my living room forever. Of course the Father and Jesus had been reaching out to me for years but until that December day I’d refused to acknowledge them. Perhaps I’d pretended that I saw no one. Perhaps I’d given secular explanations for their embrace. Not any longer though; I saw and I believed.
Instead of Paul on the road to Damascus , I was Nathaniel on the road to Montpelier . Paul had fallen to the ground but I kept running. I no longer felt in control of my legs. It was as if God was taking over my body so that I could focus on Him. Since God had started the conversation, I replied “Hello. How are you? I’m sorry for ignoring you all these years. Thank you for continuing to have faith in me, even when I failed to have faith in you.” The conversation has continued ever since.
When I got back to my parents’ house, I told my Dad. He was thrilled. Mom thought it was ridiculous and made some scathing comments but I was so excited that I ignored them. My excitement didn’t lessen when I returned to New York.
I started attending a large Episcopalian church in mid-town Manhattan every Sunday. My worship time was the 11 o’clock formal service. Thinking it was important to dress formally in church, I always wore a suit. It was in a suit that I was baptized on Easter Vigil 2002.
Shortly after, I began my first serious relationship. It was about as successful as the voyage of the Titanic. After the third, and final, time that I ended the relationship, I re-evaluated myself and my faith. It was clear that I had been a passive Christian. I had thought that going to church and listening to solid sermons would magically change me. I had missed that I had to do the changing, with God’s help.
For the next two years I avoided church. I wanted to work on myself independently. The point was to make God the center of my life, not church. I was able to make some radical changes. Rather than treating faith as a heady, intellectual exercise I began putting my faith at the center of my relationships with my parents and friends to God and those relationships became much deeper. Professionally I flourished. Then, unexpectedly, on Good Friday 2004, God appeared in a different way.
My good friend Joe, a Catholic, had mentioned the lay Catholic community Communion and
Liberation’s annual Way of the Cross walk. It sounded intriguing and so I went. We began in Brooklyn and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, staging several Stations of the Cross along the way. Joe joined me mid-bridge. After a few minutes he said he had something he’d been waiting to give me. It was a simple wooden and metal crucifix that he’d gotten in a monastery on Mount Sinai , where God reportedly gave Moses the 10 Commandments.
I immediately put it around my neck. Joe had spent much of his life personally and professionally working for peace in the Holy Land, the Middle East. To me, the crucifix represented Joe’s sacrifices and life, a life spent living Jesus’ words “blessed are the peacemakers.” Joe’s gift also honored Jesus’ life and death. His gift along with the Stations of the Cross challenged me.
For the first time in my life as a Christian, I responded physically and emotionally to Good Friday. I kept thinking that Jesus had been told to give up his ministry or die. He continued to minister. Both his torture and death were bloody and agonizing. On Ash Wednesday I’d seen The Passion of the Christ and so the images of what he might have experienced seemed real. I asked myself, “Am I also willing to suffer and die for God by serving others even when threatened? How serious am I about following Jesus’ example and teachings?” On the next night, Holy Saturday, the challenge continued.
Two of my good friends, Eli and Jaime, had been telling me about their Catholic parish for months, the Church of the Ascension. They raved about the pastor Father Duffell, the parish community and the 6 pm Sunday jazz mass. They also plugged Ascension’s monthly “Martini Night,” a monthly potluck that featured parishioners’ food and beverages. So on Good Friday I decided to join them for Easter Vigil. I wanted to celebrate the evening with friends. This was a change.
For the year when I’d gone to the Episcopal Church I had set myself apart, even though I joined others every Sunday for worship. I had seen myself as different and my life and struggles as a believer as unique. It was me alone with God. I had wanted to benefit from a community without actually joining it. Mass is all about community and on Easter Vigil I finally opened myself to becoming part of a community.
Ascension was packed and the service was lengthy. The parish has many Hispanic and non-Hispanic parishioners. Throughout the service Father Duffell switched back and forth between English and Spanish, so that he could welcome and connect with all the parishioners. It reminded me of the breadth of Jesus’ body, the community of Christians. Father Duffell conveyed Jesus’ message with seriousness and humor in both languages. It was good to join other believers praying, singing, confessing, renewing, anticipating and laughing. People seemed excited about God. I felt an electric current, especially when I watched the baptisms of those adults entering the Church.
As the baptismal candidates received the water, and the congregants renewed their baptismal vows, I thought about my own baptism. It symbolized that I had begun my new life as a Christian. I began to think that I wanted to rededicate myself to that life, this time as part of both the larger community of believers and a smaller, local one. The thought continued when I returned the next day, Easter Sunday, and my upcoming career shift provided an opportunity to fulfill it.
I began going to the 6 o’clock Sunday jazz mass every week. It felt different. I felt different. Mom asked “is this a slippery slope to Catholicism?” I said “I don’t know. All I know is that I like the church.” There were so many things that were appealing. It began with the emphasis on kneeling. I loved watching and doing it. It represented submission to God and God’s will. After all, God loves and knows far more than any of us. It also symbolized humility and letting go of pride. It was liberating to acknowledge the greatness of God and my own limitations.
Prayer was part of the holistic approach to faith that really attracted me to Catholicism. Catholicism rejects compartmentalization. Faith isn’t something to just do in church. It isn’t something to lock in a box whenever I leave my apartment. It isn’t something to just feel. I want faith to inform my thoughts, including driving me to think critically – the call is to fully use both heart AND head. Most importantly, my words and actions should be inseparable from my faith. On Sunday and throughout the week, Catholicism challenges and pushes me to live my faith in my private moments and in relationships and interactions with family, friends, colleagues, strangers and others.
Social justice was also a key attraction. Jesus spent his life responding to the needs of the weak, vulnerable, disadvantaged and disenfranchised. As in other areas, I hear him calling me to follow him. Helping to meet basic needs is important and so is asking tough questions in a hostile environment. Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara once commented during the Cold War, “When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the poor have no food, they call you a communist.”
Continuing to question, and press for effective change with principled pragmatism, is part of my efforts to personally and professionally serve. The Catholic Church’s social teachings, and related clerical and lay advocacy efforts, are among the most important reasons why I was also drawn to Catholicism. The Church’s Vatican II approach to sin is another.
I am human. I sin, many times a day. It’s important to reflect on and identify the when, where, why and how. The key is to practice reflection and avoid rumination. One of my favorite phrases is “rumination is ruination.” Rumination is often a form of self-inflicted beating – based on speculation rather than evidence – and is almost always counterproductive. It can include wallowing in a sense of being beyond forgiveness. This is understandable but also seems un-Christian. Jesus made it clear that God’s limitless capacity for grace and forgiveness is available to even the people who sin most often and terribly. Reflection on the other hand enables me to ask God and those against whom I’ve sinned for forgiveness.
Some may believe that my attraction to Catholicism is an infatuation fueled by the fact that it is so new to me, but I’m actually all too aware of the Church’s failings and sins down through the ages. In spite of all that I still believe the Catholic Church—warts and all–is a good representation of Christ on earth.
During this past Easter Vigil I became a Catholic. I was confirmed and received my first communion. Though my parents didn’t attend, they have gradually been able to accept my choice and it no longer seems to be the stumbling block between us that it once was.
On the Saturday that I was received into the Church, the walk from my apartment to my parish took all of five minutes; but my journey to the Catholic faith has taken 28 years. That it happened at all is, to me, a minor miracle.