And why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask about it
In his piece, “The Sacred Conversion Story,” Steve Larkin argues that “the conversion story is a baring of the soul, of perhaps the most intimate thing about a person,” and hearing it told is “something of a voyeuristic act.” Well if hearing a conversion story is a voyeuristic act, then it is a voyeurism which the world needs. Converts are not examples of saints, but of people who take truth seriously. We live in a world which tries to turn our heads in every direction except towards the Divine. To the extent religion is recognized at all, it is a personal thing––a matter of custom, culture or taste. The convert, by his conversion, says to the world, “No! This is not just a cultural thing! Catholicism is true, and important, and should change how we live our lives.” I am sure that to many readers of the Rover claims like this are obvious, but to the wider world, they are not.
Catholics are called to convert the world, but how many people out there have thought about conversion at all? More than once when I have told people of my conversion they assumed that I did it to get married. That someone would change religions for the sole reason that one was true and the other false is not an idea which comes readily to the modern mind. At its best, the conversion story can awaken Catholics and non-Catholics alike out of this complacency, reminding us that, whatever our conclusions, the questions of religion are the most important questions of all, the ones whose answers should shake the foundation of our lives.
Sometimes just knowing a convert helps people realize, “Oh yeah, religious conversion is an option.” One high school classmate of mine is in RCIA at Benedictine College right now. I can never know all the promptings and motions by which the Holy Spirit brought about her conversion, but I believe that knowing about my conversion was one of the first things to make her step back and realize that becoming a Catholic was even possible. I have another friend, in the Navy, who is interested in Catholicism; he knows about my conversion, and as a result, we’ve discussed how RCIA works and I’ve been able to encourage him to take concrete steps towards entering the Church. Perhaps if I had hidden my light and had been more private about my conversion, he would not come to me with his questions and musings.
Larkin’s second observation about conversion narratives is more fundamental. He writes: “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.” He is exactly right, and indeed I would argue he doesn’t go far enough. Any convert who can give a clear point-by-point description of her conversion is either oversimplifying or is disregarding the inexplicable machinations of grace.
As far as conversion stories go, mine is relatively intellectual and bloodless. I could discuss my evangelical phase, the Catholic Answers articles I read, or the damning incoherence of sola scriptura. But this is by no means a full account of my conversion. The prayers of Mary, Joseph, and all the saints have been present with me from birth, as they are for each of us. There is no telling how the Holy Spirit has led me to the Church by nudges and shoves. We are among grace like we are among air; it is everywhere surrounding and sustaining us, but it is only noticed when it starts to blow most powerfully.
Yes, conversions are mystical, intimate, and mysterious. Do you know what else was even more mystical, intimate, and mysterious? The Annunciation to Mary and the Incarnation of Christ, which are not only publicly recorded but proclaimed with every Angelus and Ave. If Paul can tell his conversion story, I can tell my (rather more mundane) conversion story. The Catholic Faith is infinitely mystical, intimate, and mysterious, but we are still called to proclaim it to the whole world, to shout it from street corners and belfries. We converts can never share the fullness of what made us Catholic, but that does not mean that we should not try.
Of course, Larkin (or any other convert) has the right to politely refuse to share their story. I know nothing about Larkin’s conversion, but I do know that conversions come from pain, sorrow, and difficulty just as easily as they come from Scott Hahn apologetics tracts, with the former being much harder to discuss than the latter. Many conversions are the result of mystical experiences of which it would be improper (not to mention futile) to sum up with words.
But all the same, when one is silent or dismissive on these matters, he misses a powerful opportunity to witness to the infinite luminous roads by which God leads us home.
William Gentry is a freshman CS major who crossed the Tiber last December and is still drying off. For inquiries regarding Moloch, the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, or eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cries, he can be contacted at email@example.com.