Sohrab Ahmari tells a compellingly modern conversion story
When it comes to Catholic conversion stories, St. Augustine set the bar. Confessions weaves intimate spirituality with serious philosophy, poetic prose with gripping narrative, and the highest joys with the basest sins, in a living work that cuts to the heart of every reader. It would be unfair to compare From Fire By Water to such a standard — it isn’t aiming for that, in any case — but Sohrab Ahmari’s spiritual journey from an Islamic youth in Iran, through a bitter anti-theism in America, and finally to a profound conversion to the one true Church nonetheless rhymes with the Augustinian archetype, and enhances it in at least one sense: its modernity.
Ahmari begins by recounting his childhood in Iran, during which he precociously decided that he wanted to, one day, “be an intellectual.” While the narrative of his family and school life in Tehran and later in the United States is singularly interesting, it is Ahmari’s account of his intellectual journey that makes for some of the book’s most insightful moments. He ties his reading to his emotional state, spiritual longings, and concrete life experiences. Indeed, Ahmari’s journey through the modern intellectual world reminds one of St. Augustine’s intellectual journey through the world of late antiquity.
Having started out with Nietzche and at one point deeply immersed in Marxist intellectual circles, Ahmari’s intellectual conversion — which lays the groundwork for a religious one — is not sparked by reading, but by his experience of teaching in an underfunded school. There, he is impressed with the way one of his fellow teachers managed to get students to thrive, despite less than ideal economic means. It was this fellow teacher’s character and intentionality, not any systemic sociopolitical factor, which allowed him to be a good teacher. “Character and virtue,” Ahmari recalls realizing, “preceded material circumstances; leftist ideology put the cart before the horse. People and their conduct weren’t reducible to language, race, class, and collective identities. There was something more in the virtuous—a capacity to recognize the good and a desire to spread it around them, to bring order where disorder prevailed.”
Order, from that moment on, would become a central theme in Ahmari’s spiritual journey, especially as he grappled with the disorder within his own soul. After years of moral debauchery, Ahmari’s awareness of his own wretchedness and a restless longing for something more prepare his road to God. Indeed, it is after a night of heavy drinking and reckless driving that Ahmari finds himself aimlessly walking around New York City, unable to shut out a voice in his head saying: “When are you going to change?” As he circles the block around Penn Station, it is that little voice which takes him inside a building with a crucifix above the entrance – a Capuchin monastery, where the “Sunday evening Mass was about to begin.”
Without a doubt, the book’s shining moments are those in which Ahmari relates his encounters with the Mass. I was enjoying this book from the comfort of a hammock in my backyard, but the pages related to the Mass had me sitting up and totally immersed. I may have even held a tear or two back. Out of justice to those passages and to my readers here, I’ll refrain from trying to summarize them. Let it suffice to say that, as in the Confessions, it is the heart, not the mind, which ultimately sparks conversion.
From Fire By Water tells a compelling story of conversion now. It is easy for Catholics today to fall into the hopelessness of thinking that the divide between the modern world and Christ’s message is simply too large. In the midst of a libertine culture, a society broadly apathetic to God, an intellectualism that scoffs at piety, a relativistic pluralism, and a homeless political consensus, what hope is there for conversions to the Church? Sohrab Ahmari’s spiritual memoir turns that hopelessness on its head, emphasizing that it is precisely this contrast which allows the Church’s light to shine most brightly.
Nicolas Abouchedid is the Rover’s editor-in-chief emeritus. He is currently taking a gap year from classes at Notre Dame, but will graduate in 2022 with degrees in the Program of Liberal Studies and in Mandarin Chinese. He is originally from, and hopes to one day return to, Caracas, Venezuela.