Thursday, April 3, 2008

Conversion to Orthodox Catholicism

I've always wanted to write this down, so here it is. I am the oldest daughter of 4 children, in an atheist family. At the age of 30, I converted to orthodox Catholicism. This is the story of my journey.

My parents are atheists. My father, an engineer who has won awards for satellite design, was brought up Methodist in rural Washington. My mother, an extremely lively and adaptable woman, was brought up Catholic in Stockton, but repudiated it. I grew up in the metropolitan Bay Area of California, sharing with my entire family a feeling that we were superior to most other people - especially people who were stupid enough to believe in God under any religion.

As I grew into my teen years, I recognized that there was something wrong with my parents' point of view. They talked a lot about high moral standards, but it was easy to see that their moral point of reference bent and changed, according to circumstances or popular culture. Worse, it was easy to see that if God did not exist, then there was nothing truly wrong with any particular action aside from the fear of the consequences of being caught.

Sometime during my teens I became aware that despite my parents' point of view, I did believe in God. I had had several vivid and unexplainable dreams about Jesus as a very young child, although no one had ever told me about Jesus and I should not have even had any idea what He looked like. But I believed that God was my enemy, and that He hated me. It satisfied me to disobey His commands whenever it seemed like a good idea to do so, although I did not see at the time how much many of my behaviours were destroying my life.

I did not really care about my life being destroyed, as I gradually became so troubled and unhappy that I did not at all care if I made it into my 30's. Meanwhile, although my parents had little idea what was going on with their children, one of my sisters was becoming catastrophically addicted to drugs. She became suicidal, and my parents checked her into a suicide ward against her will after my Mom came home one early afternoon in response to an urgent intuition and found her cutting her wrists in the upstairs bathroom.

The memory of this time is extremely clear for me. I went with my sister one afternoon to Eastridge, at the time the largest shopping center in the Bay Area. Later, I found out that ambulance personnel had been following us all around the mall, asking storekeepers if they had seen us, so that they could kidnap my sister and check her into a suicide ward. The mall was too big, and they never caught up with us. But they did catch up with my sister a few days later, and she was in and out of the suicide ward for two years.

I remember driving down the freeway to visit her one night. I was a California teen, on my way to visit my drug-addicted sister in the suicide unit. I thought that was so dramatic and cool. At the time, I was fascinated by people who were in trouble, and I was well on my deliberately orchestrated personal path to becoming one of them. I thought that having a messed-up life was glamourous and interesting.

Later, I found out that having a messed-up life is just messed up. But that realization took a long time to hit. In the meantime, not just my sister but nearly my whole family was suicidal. I did not find this out til much later. I and my siblings and even my mother and father were all concealing inner despair, while we dealt with the obvious and immediate issue of my sister's condition. I felt jealous of my sister, and I suspect my brother and other sister did too. All of us were courting death in one way or another, but my sister was getting the glory for being most obvious. It was a dark, sick point of view, but it was very real.

I was in college during most of this period, and was irritated to find myself still alive at graduation, when I received a B.A. in History from UCLA. The edge had worn off of my troubled phase, and the parts of my life I had successfully messed up were now just messed up parts of my life, no longer glamorous or emotionally interesting. I wasn't angry enough any more at God or myself to want to die. I was upset at God for forcing me to keep on going. I was bored.

Trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life and working kept me more or less out of trouble for the next two or three years. I was a smart and good worker who learned fast, and my career took leap after leap until I landed in a corporate job that caused a sudden change. In California at that time, corporations responded to fluctuations on Wall Street by laying off employees every time the stock took a drop. All of the people I worked with, mostly people in their mid-20's, were enduring inhuman expectations for overtime and performance. Hardly anyone went home before 8:00 p.m., although we came in at 8:00 a.m. I burned out.

One day, against stern warnings that I was ruining my career, my future and my life (which I still didn't care much about), I gave notice. At lunch, I got a passport and bought airline tickets to Scotland. My short-term plan was to become an illegal immigrant. I had no long-term plan because I still expected to die relatively young, only now I expected it to be from a car accident or a random crime instead of anything I was doing to live dangerously. I really wasn't living very dangerously right then. I was too burned out from work.

To my surprise, it was not any easier to immigrate illegally to Europe than it is for an unauthorized person to immigrate illegally here, to the United States. So, after six weeks, I came back. I landed in Sacramento.

But now it was much harder to get a job. After three months of searching, and coming very close to running out of funds, a temporary agency hesitantly asked me if I would accept a position with the Sacramento Diocese. The position was way beneath my skillset, but I accepted gladly. I was getting worried about being hungry. I remember making a comment to the recruiter. I said, "It will be just like an excursion into a Medieval institution!" My interest in history was piqued, and my family is historically Irish Catholic. I thought it would be neat to observe those quaint people who still held onto something so ridiculously outmoded.

The Diocese really was fun. Everyone was so nice, and it amused me that they seemed to keep on trying to gently prod my sturdily atheist exterior. I had an intelligent, superior, correct and properly referenced answer for every question. I became puzzled that my arguments didn't seem to pierce their belief.

One day I was tremendously startled. On a feast day, the entire Diocesan staff celebrated with lunch and a prayer by the Bishop. The Bishop urged his Catholic staff to not lose focus. He said, "We are not like the company across the parking lot, and we are not like the DMV across the street. We serve a higher purpose. We are working for God."

The words sent a shock down my spine.

Let no Christian ever wonder if his or her words are wasted. Some soul is listening, even if it is not the one you are addressing.

That is the point that I call the beginning. But a lot more was going on.

My job with the Diocese was so easy, I had a lot of time to think. I wasn't thinking about God, but I was thinking about my life. I didn't like it, and didn't want it, but I was clearly stuck with it.

I was having terrifying dreams. I would be walking somewhere, and out of nowhere a terrifying force of malevolent sentience would identify me from the sky and would rush forward to annihilate me. There is no way to adequately describe the shocking terror this inspired. The force wanted to destroy me personally, and the destruction would be far worse than just death. In one dream, I was forced to run toward an axe murderer in an empty parking lot, who was actually holding an axe, because regular ordinary death at the hands of an axe murderer was welcome in comparison to the alternative.

I was also becoming aware of some very disturbing trends in American culture and media. One day I thought, "This can't be random. It's deliberate. Someone is intelligently directing and controlling popular media and popular thought." But I realized that no one person could control so many things - television, commentary, newspapers, magazines, movies, music, university intelligentsia, and all the many threads that tie our cultural consciousness together. However, it was unsettling to note how intelligently it seemed to be coordinated, and how unerringly it seemed orchestrated to compel human beings to sacrifice any real or lasting happiness for instant gratification.

The realization gelled into a sudden, startling thought. It was all completely, sinuously, like a terrible trick - the substitution of bad for good made deceptively, even irresistably attractive - and all completely opposed to any command God had ever made. I remember thinking with a touch of humour, "If anyone is controlling it, since it can't be one or even a lot of humans, it has to be the evil one. It's all a lie, it's all opposed to God, and it's a brilliant campaign of hate towards human beings."

I laughed the thought off, but I couldn't make it go away. Every time it entered my mind, it brought the corresponding thought, "If there is such a being as Christians believe, then not only is there God, but maybe God is as Christians believe too." Maybe God wasn't someone Who hated me. Maybe if one thing the Bible said was true, other things were, too. I let the thought settle, but I had just gotten a new job. Now I was distracted with an upcoming move, to South Carolina.

A tiny firm there had hired me. Just in case, I gave thanks to God in a prayer in the sanctuary at the Diocese before I left. I arrived in South Carolina and discovered myself surrounded by co-workers who were almost unanimously Southern Baptist protestants.

I was starting to suspect that God was framing me!

He was. A bunch of things happened at once. I missed my Diocesan friends and went to a Mass, just to check it out. I came away tremendously impressed with the stunningly faithful and powerful priest who delivered the homily. Then I had an argument with my Baptist supervisor that I technically won. But my popular idea, which was that "all faith is just like a light shining through different panes of stained glass, where all reflect with equal value even though the colors are different" was revealed to me as an obvious and total sham. All faiths can't be equally true - and what isn't true, isn't valuable.

Even my History major, with its underlying emphasis on analysis and critique of original sources, was beginning to seem like part of God's frame. When I actually read criticisms of the Bible's validity, I was stunned to find they were stuffed with fallacious arguments, unbelievably biased presentation of historical documents, and openly prejudicial premises.

I now believed that God both existed and wasn't my enemy, and I was becoming curiously regular at Mass. But I didn't want to be Catholic. Almost no other religion, except perhaps orthodox Judaism, is so strict.

But as a History major, I knew very well that no serious historian questions that the the community and structure founded by Jesus absolutely is the Catholic Church and no other. Furthermore, there were certain points in the New Testament relating to the doctrine of the Body and the Blood that could only be denied with serious intellectual dishonesty. Only the Catholic Church offered the trans-substantiated Host, the Body and Blood explicitly defined by Christ.

I read a stack of books taller than myself, desperately hoping to find an honest argument to refute what I was beginning to think might be true. At the same time, in my most secret moments, I hoped with more hope than I had ever felt about anything that it was true. That it might all be true! God might love me. He might have created me on purpose, out of love. My life might mean something. He might really even have done the things He said He did in His Bible... He might hear my prayers. Maybe He even knew how awful and upset I felt all the time. Maybe He cared that I was basically pretty lost.

One day a miracle happened. I had dropped my watch, a beautiful gold heirloom that had belonged to my grandmother, in the parking lot during a Carolina storm without noticing. The next day I searched all over without finding it, although I saw a river of water pouring into a sewer drain close to where I thought it might have fallen.

So I said a prayer to God. It was my first real prayer, because I had never believed before then that God would do anything to help instead of hurt me, or that He would truly be listening. My prayer went something like, "Okay God... I know You are there. I also know it was stupid of me to be so careless with my watch, and that I've been careless with it at least a million other times. But I've never lost it before, and I really want it back. You're God and You can give it back, and You say You hear our prayers. Will you give it back to me, please?"

The funny thing about prayer is how stunned you can be when it's answered. I really didn't expect God to give my watch back. That would be so definite and besides, I really had been careless. I was pretty sure it had gone right down the sewer, and I had definitely checked very carefully not only in the parking area, but in and under my car, in the bushes and in my apartment, too. I had checked once again before I prayed.

But when I opened my car door that night when I got home from work, I glanced down. My watch was right next to my foot. The car tire should have nailed it. I felt a shock run down my spine, a second time.

Some people will say it wasn't a miracle. But I think $700 gold heirloom watches don't disappear in huge rainstorms and appear again right next to your foot. Sure, an animal could have found it or maybe it got hung up under the car where I couldn't see it. But God knew about it, however it happened. He gave it back.

I could write a good bit more about many other miracles since, some very dramatic and supernatural ( like the walls of the Church in Charleston melting into light at a consecration of priests ), and some very ordinary ( like getting a job two days after a sudden move to Texas ). Or perhaps the most important miracle, my parents and family welcoming me back after repudiating me for six years due to their hostility towards Christianity and Catholicism. Or I could write about some defining moments of growth in a faith that is constantly deepening. But that all has to do with my journey after the conversion, which is really pretty much told now.

My life is very different now. I'm glad I'm alive. It's both scary and a thrill to be Catholic every day in a culture that is not only opposed but is furiously hostile towards faith, as I've found since becoming Catholic. I wouldn't trade it though. It's hard to end this narrative because faith is a story that doesn't end. I hope somewhere in here are words that will help someone in their journey.
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  1. I just came across your post today and can't describe how moving it was to read it. I am a cradle Catholic who drifted far from the righteous path for a shameful number of years and I am always humbled when I read conversion stories like yours.
    May God continue to bless you and guide you.

  2. Praise the Lord for your conversion! Your story shows how atheism is such a dead-end road. I was raised a Protestant, strayed far from my Christian roots and from morality in general, and then returned and became a Catholic 14 years ago, right after my son was born. The Lord is merciful, and yes, I learned the hard way that there is also a devil. I had some genuinely malevolent beings around me as a result of my association with one particular very sinful "friend". Thank God that that is way in the past.

  3. Hi! Reading this made me want to cry for my husband who is still struggling with the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, I may be the one who helped push him away. I have gone through a rough period in my life where I've been angry with many things and took this out on my husband, instead of being responsible for my own feelings. Now he is hiding from the faith. He is afraid of anything and everything religious. In his own words he says he can't stand to see religious objects or have discussions pertaining to anything religious. He is also highly intellectual and very intelligent, although with many fears. He stopped going to church with me after walking out on a homily given on evolution that he vehemently didn't agree with. His story is similar to yours. Please pray for J for a full coversion and to uphold our marriage vows. Thankyou and God bless you!

  4. kh, yes, I will pray for your husband right now.