Stories of Conversion

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the books on which I’m currently working is a book of about conversion, inspired by my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism. (“Currently” is generous – since my priority right now is getting the final manuscript of my book that adapts Tibetan Buddhist analytical meditation for Christians to Oxford University Press by August 1, I haven’t been doing much work lately on the conversion book.) As a result, I find it interesting to read stories chronicling the conversion experiences of others.

I just finished reading Atheist to Catholic: Stories of Conversion, edited by Rebecca Vitz Cherico, sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program. The book contains eleven stories written by converts to Catholicism.

Although the backgrounds of the authors vary and each of the stories is different, their accounts reveal some common themes. One is that God is relentless in trying to draw us closer and uses many methods to try to communicate his love and desire for us. Something we read in a book. A chance comment or encounter. The words of a student. An experience of peace where one is not expecting it.

Another is the gift of spiritual friends, people that both help us along the way to conversion and those who form part of the community we join. Community, as one of the author’s observed is an important part of recognizing Christ’s presence in our lives. Each of the stories speaks of people – lay and religious – who provided support for them on their journey. I smile as I think of some of the people who provided wonderful guidance for me as I struggled with my return to Catholicism from Buddhism.

I found some of the stories to be quite powerful, particularly one written by a professor who journeys from teaching about the Spanish mystics as an academic matter to appreciating that what the mystics were trying to convey cannot be apprehended solely through the intellect. Although it may lose something by being taken out of the context of his story, worth reflecting on is his observation that

living a life in which every act, gesture, and word affirm the faith that can only come from God is different from living in consonance with moral law and the rational truths of theology. It is never at odds with this second, sacramental kind of living, which is the foundation of all spiritual life, but it is nevertheless different from it in the sense that it subsumes it and moves beyond it. Another way of putting it would be that some experience of the sacramental life was a prerequisite for even a superficial understanding of the Spanish mystics or any other mystics.

Some of the stories resonated less strongly with me than others. That may be an inescapable problem when one tries to capture a person’s path to conversion in eight or ten pages. I know myself that when I’ve been asked to write a short article about my conversion or give a 10-15 minutes talk on the subject, it is difficult to do so in a way that does not seem lifeless – that doesn’t cut out so much crucial detail and color as to seem dry and conclusory. As I read a couple of the stories I found myself frustrated at a paragraph of a (dry) sentence or two that either that I knew I would find more satisfactory if I could sit down and hear the author’s story in more detail or that I felt deserved to be challenged in some respect.

Nonetheless, I’m glad to have read the book. At a time when one reads so much about people abandoning their faith, it is good to be reminded of some of the compelling stories of people who have found their way to God.