Ten years ago, on the Vigil of Pentecost, I received my first three sacraments and became a Roman Catholic. From an eternal standpoint, it was probably the best day of my life. It didn’t feel that way at the time.
It was a dark, broody sort of day, which matched my mood. A small group of friends watched as the priest banished the devil (there are many exorcisms in the Extraordinary Form adult baptismal rite), then rapidly baptized and confirmed me. I received my first Communion at the subsequent Mass. And there I was: citizen of Rome, member of Christ’s Body, enlisted for life in the Church Militant.
Shortly afterwards, a full-on thunderstorm ensued. Someone in the party suggested lightly that the angels were celebrating the return of another Prodigal Daughter. I smiled, but darker interpretations went flitting through my mind. I was trying to feel the gratitude and joy that seemed appropriate to the occasion, but truthfully, I didn’t feel like someone who had just “come home.” I felt more like someone who had been set adrift on the high seas.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Conversion is a challenging topic. As a writer, it seems like I should be well equipped to narrate my own conversion story, but somehow the details never quite add up. I can explain what I was reading at a particular point, or talk about people who influenced me, or describe my emotional states. No subjective account, however, can fully explain the result. Grace weaves its way into our lives in a way that surpasses our understanding. We stand at the Church door requesting sanctuary, and cannot ourselves explain quite how we got there.
What did I think I was doing on that day ten years ago? Why go through with it if I wasn’t enthused? The short answer is: I believed that the Church was what she claimed to be.
It was strange and somewhat disquieting to me that I should not have more feeling about this obviously important revelation. From adolescence I had prayed for real conviction. I read Mere Christianity in high school, and enjoyed the romance of being one of C.S. Lewis’ proverbial vestibule-dwellers, peering into the fog in search of a beacon. Catholicism attracted me almost from my first encounter, and I had none of the common prejudices against her. I wasn’t enamored of progressive liberalism. I wasn’t (in the colloquial sense) living in sin. Abortion? Marriage? Artificial contraceptives? An all-male priesthood? No problem. I was defending the Church on all those fronts, well before I took my plunge into the Tiber.
It turns out, though, that everybody has some kind of baggage. It’s much easier to be a “Catholic enthusiast” than actually to convert, so I spent several years flitting at the fringes of the Church without much real desire to commit. The clarity and coldness of my pre-baptismal conviction was both the product of one, bracing event: the shock therapy of starting graduate school. In an Ivy League doctoral program, I suddenly found myself surrounded by highly intelligent atheists whose good opinion I had every (temporal) reason to court.
Graduate school is in any case a consuming, anxiety-inducing process. Glimpses of prestige and benefit-rich career paths are intermixed with constant reminders that not everyone will make the cut. The goal is to learn the curve, as swiftly and deftly as possible. But the curve, as I quickly surmised, was unlikely to lead me anywhere close to Rome. That was when I realized, to my own profound discomfiture, that my prayers had been answered. I was a believer. One who profoundly needed some help, lest I be crushed like a bug before my Christian life had even begun.
What options did I have at that point? They don’t sell sacramental graces in the university bookstore. Once my resolve had hardened, however, I felt very little accompanying joy, which made me think that I’d make a sorry sort of Catholic. I ruefully reminded myself (as G.K. Chesterton points out) that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
In retrospect, I suspect that my conversion experience is reasonably common among the incurably egg-headed. We have a bad habit of approaching the Lord’s table with a dessert-first mentality. We gobble the delicious bits, and then find to our discomfort that we are intellectually “caught” and must trudge through the sticky personal details of actual conversion.
This makes for an unpleasant entry-point to Catholic life as such. What starts as an intellectual flirtation, ends with some very awkward telephone conversations and a longish drive to Scranton, PA on a muggy May afternoon. Baptism itself feels more like an end than a beginning, because the things we leave behind seem at that moment very precious, while the future is ominously ill-defined.
After all that, it turns out that the joke was on me. A broody, joyless conversion process opened out into a very wonderful Catholic life. My path has in no sense been that of the martyr. Admittedly I never climbed far up the ladder towards secular scholastic stardom, but it would be ludicrous to complain about that when my life is so rich and enjoyable. Would I trade my many blessings (happy marriage, healthy sons, valued friendships, stimulating writing projects) for a chair at Princeton? Don’t be ridiculous. And that assumes a wildly optimistic projection of the academic career I might have had.
Of course there are no guarantees. Worldly joys are all ephemeral, and the next ten years might be much grimmer. Given the state of the world today, I often still have that daunting sense that powerful forces have aligned to extinguish the feeble flicker of my faith. Reflecting back on my conversion, though, I can at least appreciate that spiritual progress need not be accompanied by any sense of confidence or general well-being. Whatever else happens, the Sacraments will still be there. Be not afraid.
When I think about it, the most remarkable gift of the past decade is the only one I explicitly requested on the day of my baptism. On the Vigil of Pentecost, 2005, I became a Catholic because I believed. Ten years later, I still believe. What more could a person ask?
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Baptism of Christ” by Andrea del Verrocchio painted between 1472 and 1475.