Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Conversion without Lightning Bolts

I’ve never liked the story of Saul’s conversion. Or really, how the story is used. It set a standard of conversion stories that never clicked with my experiences. I grew up in the church, surrounded by adults who grew up in the church. Few people I knew experienced a radical moment of conversion. The Road to Damascus sounds as distant as the Parting of the Red Sea.

But through peers at school and a few youth conferences, I got the impression that the Road to Damascus was the standard of conversion stories. Conversion is presented a clear step-by-step process:
1. You were bad.
2. A Christian friend invites you to church/youth group.
3. You realize how bad you are.You want to change.
4. You cry a lot, say a short prayer, and get baptized right away.
5. Life is freakin’ great.

Here are the problems I have with these steps:
1. It’s always something really bad: stealing, sex, drugs, drinking, radical atheism. No one in these stories is a good non-Christian. And if they were raised in the church but doing bad things, well, then they weren’t “real” Christians. Where is the room for the conversion story of someone who was doing fine before belief and still found God?

2. It’s always one friend, one event. This part is the most plausible to me, but it’s not my story. My conversion was prompted solely by me (via the Holy Spirit). I’ve never had someone try to convert me to Catholicism. And at the same time, I’ve had invitations from the likes of Athanasius, Francis de Sales, and Catherine of Genoa, as well as my church families old and new and my friends encouraging me. This difference is hard for me to describe. The most basic way to say it is that it’s the difference in hearing, “Come in here,” and “Go forth out there.” I was invited to seek, not conform. And in my seeking, I found the biggest institution and chose to conform.

3. This is the guilt-inducing step. I’m supposed to realize that I’m doing stuff wrong and want to change that. I’m always doing stuff wrong. I always want to change and improve. That doesn't end with conversion. The worst part of Reconciliation is realizing how clean you can be and how fast you know you’ll mess up again. I don’t like the use of guilt to convert someone. A person shouldn’t convert because of an emotional low. A conversion should be about belief and a yearning for God.Sometimes the yearning comes out of a low place, but a guilt trip isn't the same as humility and it isn't a prerequisite for accepting Christ.

4. The Road to Damascus conversion is all very sudden, very fast, and very emotional. Conversion is a serious decision, and I think in most cases should be handled with patient reverence. Joining the Catholic Church is the biggest commitment I’ve ever made in my life; it’s not something I wanted to rush into. Even though I spent a year thinking about it and went through months of RCIA, I still feel like it happened very quickly, like some whirlwind romance. Again, instant conversion seems more like an emotional trigger response than sincere to me. How can you go from not believing, to suddenly believing, repenting, committing to major life changes, and accepting tenets of faith all in one alter call? This might be a step, but it’s not a full process. 

5. Life always sounds so great in these stories. No more stealing, sex, drugs, drinking, or doubt. Instantly repaired relationships. Dissolved depression. Speaking gigs. Anytime a conversion story ends with a hunky-dory ending, I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong: loving Jesus feels awesome. But conversion doesn’t cure problems. Sometimes it creates them because you realize stuff you really like doing is the stuff you need to stop doing. C.S. Lewis didn’t convert to feel better; he converted because of overwhelming belief. 

"You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" -C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 

I personally spent most of last fall praying to God to not make me do this. Just teach me whatever lesson I’m supposed to get from this, but don’t make me actually become Catholic. Because being Catholic is hard, and Catholicism is foreign, and I wasn’t keen in actually making such a big commitment. And while I am happy now, and I do experience more joy than ever, promising that conversion makes life good is just false advertising and a corny ending to a story.

And so I look at the Road to Damascus culture within Christianity that demands that “true” conversion is an instant moment of repeating and prayer. You can turn your life around in a weekend. And it feels false to me. My conversion has been teeny, tiny steps over years. I can’t find one moment where my faith changed. Was it when I was confirmed into the Catholic Church? Or when I began to believe in transubstantiation four years ago? Or when I started crossing myself when I prayed when I was 15? Or when I wanted to study Latin in high school? Or when I developed a strong interest in medieval religious art in middle school? 

If it really goes back that far, I've been Catholic half my life. Did I even convert, or was I Catholic all along? Sometimes, I think I was predestined to become Catholic, which puts me back in Calvinist thinking, which makes it all very circular. 

But I remember that it doesn't matter. I don't need exact dates and clear moments. The progression of my faith is one of increments. Some days I’m super into theology. Some days I’m more into Star Trek marathons. Some days I feel like fundamentally, logically defending canon. And some days I feel particularly touchy-feely, tremble-when-I-receive-the-Eucharist mystic. Some days the idea of the Immaculate Conception would seem like weirdest thing the Church has ever come up with. And then out of the blue one day, I realized I’m at peace with it.

My confirmation is always going to be a defining point in my life. Things will be described in pre- and post- confirmation terms. But I don’t think my conversion began there. Nor did it end there. Faith is a road. We travel at different speeds and take different routes, but in this lifetime, we don’t reach the destination. We just keep traveling. And just because I didn’t get struck blind doesn’t mean I’m not heading to Damascus.

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