Friday, February 27, 2015

My Conversion Story - Part I

I became Catholic in 2006.  I would say it was mostly an intellectual conversion.  I had been raised in a very fundamentalist, very Calvinistic church in which my dad was the pastor.  While I remember at a young age, I disagreed with my parents, I retained a Christian identity throughout my life (thanks be to God).  In college, I worked hard and partied hard.  I was able to keep it together as far as GPA and outward appearances, although I was playing Russian roulette with my life and my soul.  God protected me anyway.

In 2003, I read the book "Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic," by David Curie.  It chronicled his journey from a fundamentalist background (much like my upbringing) to the Catholic Church.  Curie addressed all the issues that a typical fundamentalist would have with the Church (praying to the saints, sola fide/scriptura, transubstantiation, etc.)  Scales fell off my eyes.  While it would be 3 more years before I became Catholic, I began to regard the Church as Christ's true church.  It was no longer "other" to me, but rather Protestants were "other" to her.  I understood and defended Catholic teachings, but didn't feel the urge to convert.  While I had already rejected much of my parents' faith, I still had some of the same misconceptions about Catholicism as they did.  (Theirs was more right-wing criticism about the Pope being the anti-Christ and liberalism in the Catholic Church, mine was more left-wing criticism about women's rights and birth control.)  I could basically proof text Catholic answers to typical objections after reading that book.  I could at least see that Catholicism made sense and offered equally reasonable answers to theological questions.  I began to attend an Episcopalian church, so that I could receive communion weekly and have the liturgy.  This worked well with my extremely liberal viewpoints at the time, while feeding the beauty and tradition I also loved and longed for.  I had come to see the Eucharist as central to worship.  I loved the reverence of the liturgy - that it didn't depend on the pastor's personality, whims, or charisma.

While I had been raised in a very conservative Protestant/Calvinist home, I rejected it at a young age.  I remember in 2nd grade thinking that something was amiss with our religion.  I dared not speak something like that aloud, but doubts were planted somehow.  To this day, Calvinism doesn't make logical sense to me.  Things didn't make sense if you followed our Calvinist beliefs to their logical conclusions.  By 6th grade, I had a best friend of Hindu persuasion.  It really didn't make sense to me that this beautiful, wonderful person would go to hell by default, and I would not, just because I was raised in Christian home and had "accepted Christ."  By the time I left for college, I was a combination of new-age and Christian beliefs.  I wanted all to go to heaven.  I believed the supernatural was real.  I dabbled intellectually with atheism and agnosticism, but they were too devastating for me.  If God did not exist, I literally saw no meaning in life.  I was (and still am, to an extent) a Christian existentialist.  If it's not true, then why resist suicide?  (Not exaggerating.)  As much as the liberal/new age side of me wished to reject Christianity, there was this pesky Jesus fellow whom I could not shake.  So, I held on to him and loosened my grip on the rest of my conservative Christian background.  

My secret love for Catholicism and my political liberalism worked well in the Episcopal church.  My current priest uses the term "spiritual vomit" to explain that when we have been fed poison or toxic beliefs, we must spit them out and shed them.  It takes a long time after being sick to eat real food again.  I had shed the toxic beliefs of my childhood.  I threw almost everything out with the bath water.  I was letting in a few Christian beliefs, slowly over time.  I could not shake that Christ was an unusual figure in history, whose life and purported resurrection changed the world.  However, there came a day when I was very dissatisfied with the Episcopal church.  Their priest denounced the resurrection from the pulpit one Sunday as being symbolic.  He also said something along the lines of, "when we say the creed, we are putting the "I believe" portion in quotation marks."  Basically, it's not literal belief, we don't have to believe any of this, especially the resurrection.  For someone wracked and plagued with doubts already, this was alarming.  While I longed to be a full-fledged liberal who eschewed religious miracles as either natural phenomenon or spiritual realities only, I could never let go of my belief in the resurrection.  This preaching seemed like the opposite of what a religious leader should say.  I remember thinking, if it's all symbolic, then why bother?  As Flannery O'Connor said about the Eucharist, "if it's just a symbol, then to hell with it."  Why even use the Christian terminology, ritual, gestures, etc.?  Why not just be Unitarian Universalist?  I needed my religious leaders to uphold a standard of belief that challenged me, that asked me to rise to that level, that dared me to believe.  Not one that told me my doubts might be true after all, and what does it matter if it's all wrong anyway?

About a year after that distasteful Sunday, I found myself working in a Catholic Church.  This was perfect, I could be around what I had come to love, but not have to be one of them.  I could outwardly appease my Catholic-hating parents, because I wasn't Catholic, I just worked there.  I could participate (except for communion) in the best this Catholic religion had to offer, but not have to subject myself to the crazy teachings like being pro-life, anti-gay, or Natural Family Planning, etc.

After worshiping with Catholics for about a year, I entered RCIA.  You see, when you are around something, when you see something, when you meditate on it, you begin to become that thing.  I loved the Catholic faith.  And, every week when I saw the host raised with the priest saying, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world..." I believed that it was real.  I could resist no longer.

See parts II, III, and IV of My Conversion Story.

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