How to tell this story, that’s the trouble. In one sense, it’s very easy, indeed already accomplished. Here are the facts. But it’s disingenuous to say we read stories of conversion for facts. We think that if we hear the right story, or the right argument, if we can follow all the steps before-during-after, somehow we’ll participate in that whatever-it-was that changed the world for somebody; that everything could change; that the world as you know it could fall away, and a new world take its place. And so one tells a story that is resolved in a single mystical instant—in a garden, on a road, in a church.
None of these stories are ultimately satisfying. The facts—sin, guilt, and all the rest—only tell the context in which my conversion took place, not the conversion itself. That I hold to be inexpressible. When I sent an email inviting a host of people to my reception into the Catholic Church, I headlined the email with secretum meum mihi—that’s my secret. This quip I’d stolen from Edith Stein, who resolved to become Catholic after staying up all night reading Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, and never explained why.
For some people, particularly Protestants, they are not Catholics almost before they are whatever they happen to be. They have a list of reasons for not being Catholic, and if they become Catholic, then they have a similar list of reasons. To me, that would be like having reasons why I didn’t live in Kansas. I was an Episcopalian and that was how it was; seeds grow where they are planted.
It’s true that most of the Catholics I knew were, fond as I was of them in other respects, not great inducements to conversion. Their Catholicism largely seemed to consist of constructing arguments they’d win by default. Something about the whole thing struck me as dishonest; they defined all the terms, admitted only what benefitted them into evidence. They were good people, but I didn’t especially want to be one of them. And the traditional arguments for the Catholic Church—that it was an unchanging rock of moral teaching and so on—rang hollow in the face of the church’s frequent hypocrisy.
The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, couldn’t trick me with promises of divinely ordained succession or sharply define anything that happened in any given sacrament. I appreciated the humility about what we could know and the sense of contingency. Everything could have been different, but this is how things turned out. The Book of Common Prayer was beautiful, its language homely in the most exalted meaning of the term. It was human-sized.
But alongside this humility, there was something else, a kind of stiff-necked quality—attractive at the human scale but less so when applied to the divine. Don’t trouble God, he’s busy and has other things to do; no hysterical weeping, no over-the-top saints, nothing to touch, nothing to consult. Mary, when she’s present, stays decently off to the side. Instead of reaching over the gap toward a God who reaches back to you, you quietly stay in your place.
And if you cross over some bright red line, that’s it. Your sins are yours to bear. There’s nothing else that can be done for you. Assessing what you’ve done and what to do about it are up to you. Up to you to figure out when you’d done enough. But you won’t ever do enough, and you’ll never be forgiven. And why, with all the advantages afforded to you, and with the harm you will always have done, should you be?
Hadewijch, a thirteenth-century mystic, writes that some people must go to God “by the way of hell”:
they can neither believe nor hope that they would ever be able to content Love in her substantial being. They live in the land of debt, and reason penetrates all their veins and invites them to lift themselves up to this divine self-offering and to the height of men who are beloved. They cannot believe what they feel: Thus God stirs in them interiorly a madness without hope.
The experience of love as privation and darkness isn’t Hadewijch’s only theme, but it’s a consistent one. Elsewhere she also proclaims that “hell should be the highest name of love.” For Hadewijch, to trust God meant accepting loss in this life and the agony of the distance between God and man—but accepting this, crucially, without resigning yourself to it. Hell is the highest name of love because it means being engulfed in this loss without consolation.
Well, despair is despair, and love has higher names. But when I read Hadewijch’s words, I did recognize what she was talking about. Being without hope was where I had settled quite some time ago. What, after all, was hope? I was certain I was going to hell; I believed in God but did not believe he loved me. When I managed to go to church the gap between me and God seemed more and more unbridgeable.
Most people are easily put off when you make it clear you don’t want to answer questions. A little unaccommodating body language and a blank stare can go a long way. Some of them, however—your therapist, for instance—are charged with getting you to talk about what you don’t want to talk about. So while I avoided the subject as much as possible in therapy, lightly alluding to my decision in a by-the-way fashion, she took the moment to press me a little. Therapists are, in my experience, uninterested in ecclesiology. But they are very interested in you.
“Well,” I said, “there are so many people there—you walk in and there are all these saints.” I said, “It’s all very literal.” I said, “There’s a place for me.” No, I didn’t expect to feel different. No, no. Feeling different was what therapy was for and held for me a dubious relationship to the truth. If something made me feel worse it was probably right. There was no chance—not a one—that I wanted to become Catholic to be happy.
But I did feel different. When I wasn’t at Mass, I wanted to be there. When I wasn’t buried in devotional reading, I wanted to be reading more of it. When I wasn’t praying, I wanted to be praying. I was happy. I could know this is the blood when I drank from the chalice, walk into spaces filled with saints and holy water, never feel alone. I reached backward into the past toward saints and mystics and felt them reach back to me. When I read Catherine of Siena on the hard heart that shatters under Christ’s blood, I knew I was reading words that were written for me.
But happiness, well—happiness isn’t an argument. At best it’s evidence; it might not even be that. As reasons to do things go, “It makes me happy” surely can’t rate very high. Doesn’t it make our actions and reasons suspect rather than validating them, if it comes down to it? Maybe I wanted to feel something, and I convinced myself I did, and this story is less about encountering God and more about someone who did a bad thing and required some manner of psychic reassurance.
A feeling of presence, a comforting literal-mindedness, the words “I absolve you,” tears during the Eucharist; these are things I can point to. But it’s always possible that I’ve deceived myself, that I needed things to touch and hear, and was desperate enough to believe in them, like people who do crystal therapy when all other treatments for cancer have failed. I have arguments, sure. But who can really say they know the difference between conviction and rationalization? I surely don’t. If the family of the man in my past read this, would they find it impressive, all this handwringing and self-dramatization? No.
It’s no original observation that we moderns are characterized by our skepticism, and that this skepticism has its own history we can follow, criticize, understand, and, indeed, express skepticism about. Descartes took the uncertainty generated by the refraction of light in water and was able to think away the world. To get the world back, Descartes attempts to reason his way to the claim that “God is no deceiver,” and so the world Descartes inhabits is real and understandable. But Descartes’s reasoning on this matter is not very convincing: since he, Descartes, exists, and has a conception of God that involves perfection, and since perfection can’t include lies, God does not lie. Much as Descartes would resent this statement, it’s more an act of trust than an argument. He can reason himself into existence, but he has to trust God to receive the world again. And perhaps trust that did not involve taking a risk would be something else entirely. All I really know is that trust is a decision—a good one or a bad one, but never something we are compelled to.
I chose to trust God: that he loved me, that I was capable of loving him, that he wished what was best for me, that he wanted me to be happy, that he wasn’t going to deceive me or allow me to be deceived if I trusted him, and that he wasn’t actively wishing my damnation. I allowed myself to be lifted out of hell instead of insisting I belonged there. And maybe that’s a story that will transform nobody’s life but mine; but mine is enough for me to give thanks for.
“A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign,” Christ told his disciples. Well, he was right, but I got one anyway. When I went to look Our Lady of Our Sorrows up later, I’d remembered the name wrong. It was Our Lady of Good Help. Inside the chapel are hung many little ships, each giving thanks for a safe homecoming. You can’t see it, but my ship hangs there too. On its sides is written: O Mother of the Word Incarnate, you despised not my petitions; but in your mercy, heard and answered me.
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