Wednesday, January 25, 2017

On the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul: The Story of My (re)Conversion


Here I am, "celebrating" another feast despite not really knowing how (can someone help me out? What are the rules!?). Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, who violently persecuted Christians before meeting the risen Jesus and converting to the faith. He then devoted the rest of his life to spreading the gospel. While he continued to “work out his salvation” despite a “thorn in the flesh,” there was no doubt that his conversion on the road to Damascus was the catalyst that would forever change the course of his life.

It got me thinking about conversion. I find it fascinating to hear witnesses from Christians who have had a profound Damascus Road type conversion, in which all at once they accept Jesus and entirely change course.

However, I think it’s more common (especially for those of us raised in the faith) to experience conversion more similar to Saint Peter, who seemed to always take two steps forward and one step back. Peter was the first apostle to recognize Jesus as the Messiah; he earnestly wanted to prove himself to the Lord. At times his faith is steadfast enough to walk on water with Christ, but then his doubt causes him to sink. Jesus refers to him as one who has “little faith” yet hands him the Keys to the Kingdom. After promising to stand by Jesus through thick and thin, he denies Christ three times. Yet despite all of his wavering, Jesus forgives him and charges him to care for the flock.

Like Peter, many Christians waver in faith at times, yet can be restored through continued repentance.  So to recognize the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, I’m going to share my own (re)conversion, which more closely resembles Saint Peter’s:

 


Nate and I welcomed our first child into the world the spring of 2013. After somewhere around 48 hours of labor and sleeplessness, she finally made her debut on Palm Sunday, not riding on a donkey with palms waving as Jesus had, but rather being wrenched out of me via caesarian section. 
 

At the time, we considered ourselves Christian, but I could’ve just as accurately called myself agnostic. I a.) didn’t understand the Catholic faith of my youth, b.) couldn’t bring my reason-seeking mind to truly believe in what seemed like fantastical claims, and c.) simply didn’t care enough to explore my faith. We lived by the compass of cultural morals, but generally followed our own selfish wills. Although there was a small part of me that wanted my children to learn the faith, I think I would have been perfectly fine going down the agnostic road all the way to atheism.

Well, thanks-be-to-God, He chose the perfect husband for me! After surviving a nearly fatal tractor accident when he was fourteen, Nate had been blessed with a pure, childlike faith and had never questioned God’s existence. On top of that, even though he had grown up Lutheran, he was naturally attracted to the Catholic Church. The traditions, the magisterium, the authority and the ability to trace its history back to Jesus Himself all convinced Nate that our children would be baptized Catholic.

It was also Nate who gave Louisa her middle name: Grace.

 He liked the name. We thought it sounded kind of ‘churchy.’ (It was Palm Sunday, after all), but we didn’t really know what “grace” meant.

In so many ways, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We didn’t know what we had invited into our lives.

A few weeks later we began the process to baptize our little bundle of breastmilk and poop joy. The church strongly recommended that non-Catholic parents consider converting for the sake of family unity. Thus began the process of Nate’s RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) classes, a nine-month process before his confirmation at the Easter Vigil.

At the first class they showed us a print of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” The class leader explained that in the painting, God is reaching out offering grace to Adam. It is Adam’s act of faith to reach back and receive that grace. (Disclaimer: I don’t think this is actually the most common interpretation of this painting, but I'll consider the mis-interpretation divine intervention).



“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”  (Ephesians 2:8)

“Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

Lightbulb! I realized that my brain had been spinning its gears trying to believe without first unwrapping the gift God was trying to offer me. So, for the first time since my childhood, I genuinely prayed. Lord, let me set aside my own ego so I can receive your grace and grow in faith. I didn’t know if my prayer was reaching God’s ear, or if I was babbling into the abyss, but I would soon find out.

Gradually that grace filtered into my heart. With my stubborn ego set aside, I could open my mind up to the lessons we learned each week at RCIA class. I thirsted for more knowledge about the faith, and three other sources become instrumental in my conversion: 1.) Reading the New Testament start to finish. I had undoubtedly heard most of it already as I was brought up in a mass-going family, but reading it in order as an adult was extremely clarifying. 2.) Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s “Rome Sweet Home,” a story of the couple’s conversion to Catholicism. Scott had been a Presbyterian minister and Kimberly had been a theology student in seminary herself. 3.) Relevant Radio, a Catholic radio station which I live-streamed at work and kept me see everyday life through the lens of the faith. Through these sources, I realized that faith and reason are compatible. I grew to understand and embrace the church’s teachings on fides caritate formata (faith formed by charity), the authority of the pope, our Blessed Mother, the biblical basis of the sacraments, and Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist.

I also realized that an error had been made in my faith formation and that of many students in my area in the 1990’s. The order of the sacraments was jumbled, and confession was greatly de-emphasized. We received infant Baptism, First Communion in 3rd Grade, First Confession in 5th Grade, and Confirmation in 11th or 12th Grade. In actuality, we should have repented before First Eucharist to be in the state of grace, and most of us did not repent before Confirmation. In fact, that first confession in fifth grade was the only confession I had ever made. (And, yes, plenty of sins had stained my baptismal gown.)


I know this may seem trivial at first glance, but I now believe that this lack of repentance before receiving sacraments was detrimental to my peers' and my faith formation.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

For years, I ate and drank judgement upon myself.

When I approached the altar at confirmation I was still in a state of sin. In the laying on of hands, I should have become a soldier of Christ and received the seal of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the seal slid off the greasy surface of my sinful soul.

It’s no wonder I had gone astray.

As the Easter Vigil approached, I became more and more eager, not just for Nate’s confirmation, but for the effects of my own to take place. We would go to confession on Holy Saturday. It would be Nate’s First Confession, and my second.

I went first, and the tears poured as I unloaded years worth of selfish sin.

The next day we rejoiced as Nate received the seal of the Holy Spirit, and inwardly my heart sung, as the Holy Spirit had found a clean temple in me as well.




Three years later, we continue to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Too frequently I succumb to the temptations of pride, materialism, impatience, drunkenness. I lose sight of Jesus in the hustle of our lives and noise of secular culture.

But now I know my way back through the mercy of the confessional.

God bless those who have experienced “Damascus Road” conversions and never again faltered in faith, but for those of us weaker vessels, may we be encouraged by the example of Peter’s stumbling conversion.

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Awesome post! I really enjoy reading the things you write about, for one it seems to come so easily for you and just flows (after every post I think, damn that was good!). Secondly, through your humor and track record, you have a way of making faith seem approachable to those without!

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