Sunday, June 7, 2015

Agonizing Joy: the Conversion Experience

When most people think about conversion, especially folks outside of Christianity, we tend to think of extremes.  We think conversion is typically born out of desperate circumstances like a brush with death or hitting rock bottom in life.  Now I don't doubt that many authentic and inspiring conversions have come about in this way, but these stories are not the only kind of conversion and they tend to give people a very common misconception about conversion: that faith is something people put on like a warm and fuzzy blanket to comfort themselves.  Certainly there is a joyful component to any conversion, but it's not the whole story.  Being a Christian is a lifelong journey, and a rather difficult one at that.  In this post I hope to paint a more accurate picture of what conversion is like.

Speaking From Experience

So the obvious place to start is with my own conversion.  If you haven't read my first post which tells my story you can check it out here to see how my conversion came about, but as I said, that is only the beginning.  It all started with that moment of revelation.  I stared  in bewilderment at the words in front of me pointing out what had eluded me all my life: I had to make a choice about Christ.  His own words declared that He was not just another nice man with some nice advice.  He either is who He says or He's a bad man.  The temptation is always to create the "domesticated Jesus" because the true figure of Christ is a very dangerous one.  The reality of God become man is actually quite terrifying if you think about it.  We want Jesus to be just another wise man in the long history of wise men because if He is who He says He is, we owe our whole life to Him and that is not something easily come to terms with.

It certainly wasn't easy for me.  As I said in my first post, the first book I read after that revelation was C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.  Before reading this and before having any feelings other than disdain for Christianity, I was like most people in that I thought I was a decent person.  In fact, I imagined myself morally superior to Christians because I was being good and kind for the sake of it and not because I was trying to reach some candyland in the sky.  But while the revelation of the existence of God is initially euphoric, it brings with it some other realizations that are not so pleasant.  The beginning of my conversion played out something like this:

"Christ is who He says or He's a bad man.  Hey, nobody ever put it like that before.  I need to think about this a moment.  Um...I'm not sure I like where this is going.  This is just stupid, God become man?  God doesn't exist!  Wait a minute, did she say C.S. Lewis?  I think I have that book...I DO have that book.  I have to go find it!

*days pass as I read the most intelligent, logical argument for God I had never heard in my life*

"I was wrong.  All this time I was wrong.  God does exist...God DOES exist...and He loves me!  He became man and died for me, and rose from the dead, and this is so amazing and ooooooooooooooohhh, dear God I'm a horrible person!!!"

My whole life I thought Christians were a bunch of self-righteous snobs staring down their noses at all of us Godless heathens.  The truth is, when you understand who God is and who Christ is you see how desperately you fall short of His glory and how woefully inadequate and unworthy you are.  The best analogy I've ever heard is one from, you guessed it, Father Robert Barron.  Think of a windshield.  When you are facing away from the light, your windshield looks great, all is as it should be.  But when you are driving toward the sun, you see every last speck and smudge and you see clearly what a mess it really is.  Having realized the truth about God and that Christianity is true, I also had to come to terms with the fact that for all of my adult life I had been spreading lies and leading others astray.  How many souls did I lead away from Christ in that time?  How many people did I convince that what is good is evil and what is evil is good?  I was, and still am, sick at the thought.

Of course all of the above is played out in super warp speed to make a point.  Anyone who has read C.S. Lewis knows it's not exactly leisure reading, and anyone who has converted from Atheism to Catholicism (or Christianity in general) knows how uncomfortable it is.  I can't tell you how many obnoxious remarks I made in my years as an atheist about Christianity, or how many disrespectful arguments I had with Christians.  Imagine for a moment you've been arguing with someone that they took your pen.  For the last seventeen minutes you've laid into them, called them every name in the book, insulted their intelligence and possibly even their mother.  Now imagine you suddenly realized you were wrong and it wasn't actually your pen.  That's right, let that hypothetical feeling of total humiliation sink in a bit.  Now imagine it wasn't seventeen minutes, but years and over something far more important than a pen.  You can now start to imagine how I felt upon realizing the truth about Christ.

And that was only the beginning.  Once the initial shock wore off I had another startling revelation: my new-found faith left me having to reconsider every position, every stance, every decision about everything imaginable.  I realized that I didn't know what I thought about anything.  You see, being a Christian isn't just about where you spend your Sunday morning.  It influences every part of your life.  Some people think that's extreme, but think about it - wouldn't it be worthless if it didn't?  If what you believe about the very nature of our existence, where we came from and why we're here, doesn't have an impact on how you live your life, what good is it?  On the flip side of that you could also say that if you think what you believe about the very nature of our existence doesn't influence how you live your life, you're fooling yourself.  Some people have this silly idea that if we just take religious beliefs out of everything it will solve all the world's problems and disagreements.  The truth is, that's impossible.  What you believe influences everything, even if you claim to believe in nothing.

Next we need to consider that I was not going through this conversion in a vacuum.  I was married with three children when this happened to me.  I still can't imagine how my husband must have felt when his staunchly atheist wife of five years suddenly did an about face and declared she wanted to return to the Catholic Church.  You mean the Catholic Church she previously despised with every fiber of her being?  Yep, that's the one.  Seriously, I owe that man a case of beer and tickets to the Daytona 500 just for not dragging me off to the nuthouse.  That's not to say it all came up roses.  Our discussions about the Faith brought out a side of my husband I had never seen before - an angry side.  We fought pretty much every time I brought it up and there were times I was pretty sure this journey was going to end with our divorce.  I prayed and cried and cried and prayed...and cried.  I realized the pain in my heart was nothing compared to the pain I caused God and offered up my oceans of tears to Him.

And what about our children?  This whole journey came about because of our decision to homeschool them.  There I was, newly committed to my children's education and now this.  What was I to teach them about the Faith?  Would this be another fight?  How do I even begin to teach them all this stuff when I barely understand it myself?  But, as any Christian homeschooler will tell you, when you teach children the Faith, they really end up teaching you in the end.

By and by we figured it out.  The fights turned to serious discussions and heart-felt honesty.  In the end, it was actually our children who brought my husband back to the Church.  But that's his story and I'll let him tell it if he wants.

A Lonely New Existence

The dust settles and your head stops spinning and you wake up in a whole new world.  You get back to your normal life, but it's never the same.  More than once, when discussing the Faith and my conversion with my husband, I described to him the best analogy for conversion I could think of.  Imagine you've been sleeping and when you wake up you're inside a burning building.  You want to run for your life, but you realize that all around you are others who are still sleeping.  You desperately want to wake them up.  You shake them and scream, but they simply won't wake up.

Early in my conversion, I knew that the rest of my life must be dedicated to helping others see the truth.  While I realized that my conversion would come as a shock, I was not prepared for the number of friends I was about to lose and the number of enemies I was about to gain.  Surely, I thought, the words of such an unlikely convert would carry more weight than a so-called cradle Catholic.  I honestly believed my friends would be eager to hear the story of my conversion and perhaps they would want to consider for themselves the case I found so convincing.  Rather I found many people stopped speaking to me without so much as a word, and others stopped speaking to me after a handful of rather harsh words.  More and more I realized I was living in a world that, quite frankly, hated me and everything I stood for.

Among all the books I've read since my conversion, I've read nothing that so perfectly describes how it feels to be Christian these days than the following passage from Michael D. Obrien's Father Elijah:

"These are not easy times, Father Elijah.  One needs the wisdom of Solomon just to get through an ordinary day around here.  Much depends on keeping our wits about us." 
Elijah reached out and traced the letters of Severa's name. 
"I know what you're thinking", said the cardinal.  "You think we should march straight to the Colosseum and tell the guards to turn the lions on us." 
Elijah said nothing. 
"A heroic martyrdom is fast, simple, glorious, isn't it?  Blood washes away all ambiguities.  Death breaks the intolerable tensions.  You would like us to braid a rope and drive the moneychangers from the Temple, then go to the cross.  Correct?" 
"Is that so wrong?  Isn't that the pattern our Savior has shown us?" 
"Indeed it is.  And I tell you that we are going to the cross.  But it is not our right to hasten that day.  We must work while the light lasts.  We must strengthen what remains.  This is the long and lonely martydom.  It is the most difficult of all."

A Little Help From My Friends

If you still don't believe me that conversion is a rather painful and difficult process, let's take a look at some more noteworthy converts shall we?  I'll start with my favorite: Saul.  Now if you're not Christian you're saying, "Saul who?"  You might know him better as in Saint Paul.  You mean the Saint Paul who had his head cut off for love of Christ?  Yep, that's him.  Check this out:

Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.  On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"  He said, "Who are you, sir?"  The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do."  The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.  Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing;  so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus.  For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank. 
There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias."  He answered, "Here I am, Lord."  The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul.  He is there praying, and [in a vision] he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay hands on him, that he may regain his sight."  But Ananias replied, "Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call upon your name."  But the Lord said to him, "Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name."  So Ananias went and entered the house;  laying his hands on him, he said, "Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit."  Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.  He got up and was baptized...He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus, and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.  - Acts 9:1-20

So one moment Saul is riding along uttering murderous threats and heading to bring Christians back to Jerusalem in chains and next thing you know he's proclaiming Christ as the Son of God in the synagogues.  But surely he traded up right?  Surely there was something in it for him.  Oh you be there was:

Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep.
                                                                                                - 2Corinthians 11:24-25

Now doesn't that sound like a swinging time?  Conversion is a blast!  This is not to mention the many times he was thrown in prison and of course, the grand finale of his beheading.  Now you tell me, what is worth all of this?

Let's have one more for good measure, but this one is short and sweet.  C.S. Lewis, if you didn't already know, was not just one of the best modern Christian evangelists, he was also a former atheist.  And just like me, he wanted very little to do with all this God business and especially all this Christianity business.  I mean, wouldn't it be easier to just throw on some deism and say, "Yep, God's there.  He made all this and now he's doing his deity thing out there in the universe somewhere, but he doesn't need me to do anything.  So...thanks for the sweet digs, God!"  The quote from Lewis I'm about to share with you about his conversion is one I didn't discover until a bit later in my conversion, but I loved it then and years later it still makes me laugh every time I read it:

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.   - Surprised by Joy, page 229

Dejected and reluctant?  It sounds like a child who just lost a long and weary struggle with a parent over bedtime doesn't it?  This is not a man who went looking for meaning and happiness wherever it best suited him.  This is a man who fought relentlessly to avoid Truth. He didn't want this and yet he went on to be one of the most renowned Christian writers of our time.  What's more, he did this in the shadow of World War I and held strong to his faith through the horrors of World War II.   A measly pair of rosy colored glasses can't do that, folks.

So what?

You could spend the rest of your life reading conversion stories thanks to the internet, but in the end what is the point?  What does all of this mean?  Do I expect everyone to read this post and fall on their knees repenting?  No.  Perhaps some will.  I pray that even one person would read my story and be converted, but that's not up to me.  Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit alone and can only occur with consent.  What I hope everyone can take away from this is the understanding that there is nothing glamorous about conversion to Christianity.  There never has been and there never will be.  Authentic Christianity is gut-wrenchingly painful at times.  Yes, there is joy.  There is joy beyond all the wonders of this world, but until we leave this world it will always be tempered by suffering.

Now, are there "fake" Christians out there?  Sure.  Are there "bad" Christians out there?  Absolutely, just like there are bad doctors, lawyers, cops, teachers, mothers, and...hey wait, there's a common denominator here: PEOPLE.  Perfection is not to be found in this world.  But look to the ones who point to the Truth.  Look to the ones who point us to God.  How joyfully they suffer!  Why?  What do they know that you don't?  Where else can you find people willing to be beaten, whipped, crucified, burned alive, and beheaded rather than denounce a claim?  Can we posit with a straight face that for some two thousand years people have gone willingly to their horrific deaths for the sake of a delusion, for the sake of a lie?  No, there is more.  There is so much more.

Won't you consider it, my friends?  Won't you wake up, sleepers?

 "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be watchful! Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.  It is like a man traveling abroad.  He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.  Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch!' "   - Mark 13: 32-37