Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thinking About Conversion

I've been trying to write a more extended account of my conversion and I'm finding that the process leaves me ... speechless.

The psychology of changing belief systems fascinates me, as do all the aspects of a conversion: love of God, emotional attachment, intellectual assent, factors that involve or leave behind family. But when one tries to analyze one's own conversion, I can't help but think there may be a wall one can't leap in order to see the other side, or a facet of the gem that can't be detected from the inside out.

The "why" is critical in a conversion story, but the "why" is what's so often elusive. Why did I want to search for truth? Why did I feel drawn to God and why did I proceed with dramatic changes that brought enormous upheaval to my life? Why me, and not someone else? And, at various times in my life, why someone else and not me? 

The simple answer is grace. It's the answer to everything. But when deconstructing an experience, the simple answer doesn't further the discussion: "Oh, shut up. It's all grace."

Yeah, it is all about grace, but grace isn't a magic charm. God doesn't smack us with the Grace Wand to get us all in line.

Dissecting the ineffable can feel like an experiment in futility. It's not, but it can feel like it. It's worth doing, but there's always a bottom line: certain things have to be accepted before we can move on.

It's a bit like parenting -- there are times when the "Oh, shut up, it's all grace!" attitude seems the only choice.  As a mom, I've had my moments and I've used the "Because I'm the parent," line. But there are still things worth dissecting, digging into, and talking about.

And it's sort of like talking potty training with a younger mom (oh, I can't believe that I'm using this as an example ... bear with me ....)  The younger mom despairs, and sometimes you say, "Oh, relax! They all get trained sooner or later!" Sometimes, it helps her to hear that. But, other times, she needs more -- she needs to hear about your methods and ideas, your failures, the time you screamed at your child and then worried for weeks that you'd psychologically scarred her forever. She needs some practical tips. She needs a cup of coffee and time with her friend.

So, maybe writing a conversion story is like that -- no conversion story will be able to cover everything, and parts of it will sound like, "Shut up and believe."  But, other parts will offer tips and ideas and strategies that worked for someone else, and the combination of those things -- the parental "get on with it' and the compassionate, "this worked for me" stuff will intertwine to become part of someone else's love story with God.

It can all be reduced to love, which, as we all know, can't be reduced. Can I really articulate everything that I love about my husband? The astounding surprises that awaited me in loving a child? The delightful mysteries of finding a kindred spirit in friendship?

I don't know. I'm rambling.

Thanks for listening.

(Painting: The Magdelen Reading, Rogier van der Weyden, from the National Gallery)


Impatient Griselda said...

My favorite Catholic writer thought of his conversion his whole life--it seems like it was always there. I think when you go from falsehood and fantasy and egoism to surrender and humility and faith, you have a profound memento of grace in action. Like grace shrapnel or something (but in a good way!). The beautiful thing about conversion is that it's always unfolding, too, but there's that one moment of realization that you can always go back to.
Good luck! St. Augustine, pray for her!

Karen E. said...

"A profound memento of grace in action" ... and "Grace shrapnel" -- how perfect and beautiful. Thank you.

Melanie B said...

"Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion."

I love reading conversion stories. Good luck and God speed. I'm sure it will eventually come out as it's supposed to.

Karen E. said...

Ah, Melanie ... I talk potty training and you quote Eliot. That's why I love reading your blog and why I'm grateful that you read mine. :) Thank you.

Melanie B said...


I think Eliot would appreciate the conjunction: Eating and drinking. Dung and death. It's all grist for the poetic mill, isn't it? To me a whole life is one in which I move from wiping a bottom to snatching a moment to read a bit of poetry to cooking dinner.

Also, it's gratifying to have friends who recognize my beloved Eliot.

Tertium Quid said...

I understand.

Liz said...

There are moments when looking back it looks like I was enamored with the Catholic Church by the time I was in elementary school. I remember watching TV shows that had stories about saints (fifties television was very different from the current selection), I remember reading my friend's catechism papers, and being fascinated by crucifixes. I recall always crossing myself when I walked by the Catholic Church by myself (but never when I was with anyone else) in junior high school. We had communion at our wedding, when no Protestants were doing that, with a shared chalice no less. And yet, I spent much of my time in high school praying for those poor unsaved Catholics, and time in college trying to talk my one Catholic IVCF friend into leaving the Church, there were guys I was interested in, except that they were Catholic... What sort of a two minded person was I?

Of course ultimately I became Catholic because of all sorts of influences including a tremendously anti-Catholic homeschool history textbook, a tremendously ecumenical mother-in-law who kept preaching to me that Jesus intended his followers to all be one, and a son who read articles by Fulton Sheen in an encyclopedia Americana we got at a library discard sale. Yup, it's flat out all grace.

However, I remember the day I was walking across the street and prayed this prayer of absolute abandonment to God's will. I'm not sure where it came from (obviously grace at work here as well), but it was my free will that was willing to pray that prayer. Grace may have put Orthodoxy and Rome Sweet Home in my path, but I'm the one who picked them up and plunked down the money for them. Why? Curiosity? Dissatisfaction with where I was at? God alone knows.

I just know that I've been told multiple times that someone named Elizabeth Ann at the behest of two Catholic hairdressers who wanted her named after two saints, who was born not only on the Feast of the Annunciation, but also the martyrdom day of St. Margaret Clitheroe was simply destined to convert. All grace, but it was still my choice.

Now if someone can give me potty training type directions for how to inspire my husband, and other family members to make the same choice...

Sarah Reinhard said...

Karen, this explains my own struggle to capture my conversion story too. The other problem I face is the many facets it has in retrospect.

Thanks for sharing this. :)