A few months ago I went to a really interesting young adult event hosted by the Diocese I work in where a former atheist talked about his conversion story from atheism to Catholicism. Not only was the speaker delightfully British (!) he was wonderfully engaging, humble and it was really helpful to get the perspective of someone not raised with any religion in the home.
I was very happy I attended for a number of reasons, but most notably because he said something that stuck with me about how he did not have a definitive moment of conversion. His story wasn’t Pauline with a dramatic conversion where everything changed, which I think is along the lines of what most people imagine when they hear the word conversion. Instead, he mentioned being a university student and a philosophy major and through becoming friends with Dominican friars (something I could relate to from my time in Virginia!) he could “see himself becoming Catholic.” Beyond doctrine and orthodoxy he was drawn in by fellowship, ordinary dinner conversation and prayerful peace and joy exuded by the friars themselves. Before he was drawn into a religion and a deeper relationship with God he was drawn into a group of Catholic friends united in their love for God and neighbor and the common destination of Heaven.
The speaker couldn’t point to one specific instance of conversion, rather it was a series of little moments over time that softened his heart and disposed it toward religion. He essentially went from “religion is for the ignorant” to “maybe it’s not so bad there might be something to Christianity” to “I could see myself becoming Catholic” until finally “I believe God is calling me and I want to become Catholic.”
As I was thinking of this I spoke to a dear friend of mine who is also in the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program. He was raised Catholic but had fallen out of practice and never received the final Sacrament of Initiation (Confirmation). He said something similar to my former atheist speaker where when talking about his motivations to the group he mentioned first his relationship with myself and my family. Not that we did anything special and walk around with a light from heaven brushing our shoulders, we simply live our faith intentionally and from that extremely ordinary witness my friend could “see himself becoming Catholic” and is now in the process of doing just that.
It’s powerful testimony and useful to anyone involved in the New Evangelization to see how the Church that attracted the two new members I mentioned in this article saw not a mere institution but a living body of Christ.
So I had an awkward moment today, not that that’s especially rare for me. After dinner I finished helping my grandma with something and she commented, “you’re very nice.” Her smile was so genuinely sincere that I felt awkward because I’m really not.
I know that sounds bad like I’m fishing for a compliment or have low self esteem but in truth I’m really not a nice person. I had a moment a few years ago that was a profound turning point for me where I saw who I was without God’s grace. And it was ugly. It came at the end of a series of lows both personally and professionally that had taxed me to my absolute limit and that’s what I saw before my eyes that day: limits. I saw a proud young woman who had rejected God thinking she would do things her way and didn’t need the suffering He was giving. And at the end of that ill-fated rebellion came the realization that every gift I had ever been given came directly from God and on my own I had nothing. All the accomplishments I had attributed to my various talents, even the personal things I liked about myself like being kind and having a sense of humor, were beautiful gifts that came as a result of the love that had flowed so freely from God to me and I felt the absence of it, the absence of that union with God the life of love and grace I had been living without realizing it, down to the absolute depths of my soul.
I was tempted to complete despair in my misery and wretchedness and the pride that had been so blind to it, but I was blessed by two wonderful things that saved me by completely turning it around. The first was a consecration to the Blessed Mother who gently guided me like a mother back into life. The second was the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the wellspring of merciful love I found within it which made that life worth living.
I’ve heard it said, regrettably I forget by whom, that “mercy is where love meets misery.” I’ve experienced that to be true and never before had I known a love so selfless and so completely forgiving, but what astounded me the most was how completely unchangeable it was. Jesus loved me as much at my best as He did when I was at my worst and I understood for the first time a little more of what real love was.
So now as you can judge for yourself I’m really not very nice. I’m genuinely nothing at all. But God loves me. And from that love I have life, the abundant life God promised in Scripture. And that life is what my grandma noticed when she told me that “I’m very nice.” I am very nice because God’s grace is stronger than my many many weaknesses and has been so transformative that I feel like a living miracle. I am very nice because the faithful love of God gives me great joy which circumstances cannot take away. I am very nice because the fountain of mercy from the pierced side of Christ on His cross has saved me and I look forward to eternal life in Heaven. I am nice not because of anything I am on my own but because God’s love is so perfect that it’s making me into His image which is not just “nice”, it’s perfect holiness which is an immersion in the perfect Love of the Trinity.
As a result of all this, what I am not good at anymore is accepting compliments because I always feel like the compliment belongs to God and to the love which He reveals by turning sinners into saints.
Believe it or not this fantastic expression was not invented by me but rather the wonderful Mother Angelica. I’ve included a link here where she explains it in detail but in summary, it’s the idea that just as one can overindulge in alcohol and experience a response of pain from the body one can also overindulge in un-Christian feelings from the past or projections of the future and live in a “spiritual hangover” of bitterness, resentment, hatred or fear rather than in the graces God provides in the present moment.
Mother Angelica in her writings always strikes a wonderful balance between an understanding hug and swift kick in the pants and I find on my spiritual walk that I am in need of both those things. I love her metaphor because I find it both funny and convicting. How often do we justify ourselves in our feeling rather than trying to overcome them? Certainly more times than I’d care to admit on my blog…
But rather than share any personal reflection (because I’m sure you’re sick of those!) I wrote this blog post more to share a resource that I think is just great and which I hope gives you something to think about as well as a sincere chuckle.
Hope everyone is having an excellent summer so far! I can’t believe how fast it’s going.