The Sacred Conversion Story

And how we have cheapened it

I used to not be a Catholic. Now I am a Catholic. This is my conversion story.

Is that the whole thing? Well, no, of course not: but, in another sense, it is, and it would be impossible to improve on the telling from a certain perspective. Conversions are celebrated, as they should be, but with that celebration comes a celebration of conversion stories, about which I feel rather ambivalent.

The conversion story is a baring of the soul, of perhaps the most intimate thing about a person: the relationship between him and God. Hearing it told is something of a voyeuristic act, and no matter how good one’s intentions, the inkling that one is seeing something that one ought not see never quite goes away. As it happens, Augustine’s conversion story, perhaps the most read and most influential of all, is framed as a prayer. Augustine is talking to God and holding nothing back, and the reader overhears what should be private. As Edith Stein said when asked about her reasons for converting, secretum meum mihi—my secret is for me. To hear the secrets of others is not something to be taken lightly.

I am not against the conversion story entirely—if someone wishes to share that secret, I would not prevent it — but it should be taken more seriously. It is not a means by which cradle Catholics may live vicariously and so make a decision they never had the chance to make, nor is it a ready-made conversation-starter. To ask for it lightly should be regarded as impolite at best and quite disrespectful at worst. In response to such queries I deploy the line which begins this piece or the even blunter “no, I won’t tell it.” If I should wish to share my innermost life with you, I will: but that does not mean you should ask me to do so. No one owes this intimacy to anyone else.

All that aside, I have a perhaps even more fundamental objection: who can describe accurately the workings of grace? For every convert who can accurately trace the steps of the intellectual journey, or who know exactly how their emotional experiences led them into the Church, I think there are far more—at least, I am among their number—who are completely incapable of doing so. I cannot describe how the path of my life brought me to Catholicism, and I would not know how to start. It just happened to me, as if I were totally passive, acted upon by forces I did not and could not hope to understand. My conversion story is inexpressible even to myself, at least in words. How much less so it is expressible, then, to anyone else. It is my secret, yes, but a secret so deeply bound up in who I am that I cannot think how to tell it truthfully and accurately. It is the grace of God: words fail me beyond that point. I suspect that this inability to speak is common enough among converts, for nothing at the intersection of the human heart and the wonderful and strange working of God is easy.

Here, then, is a conversion story:

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

It is not mine, but it will do. It is similar enough to mine: it is similar enough to all of them. They all end the same way: “this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Steve Larkin is a sophomore from Maine majoring in mathematics and classics. The only thing he loves more than scratching out his opinions is a good bowl of clam chowder. Steve can be contacted at slarkin@nd.edu.

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