My Conversion

As an adult convert to the faith, I had a long journey into the church, a journey that has spanned a good portion of my life, though for most of that time I was unaware of it.

I was not raised in the Catholic faith, or any other faith for that matter. I was raised as an atheist and for most of my life claimed that as my religious identity (or rather my lack thereof). From an early age I was brought to understand that the fundamental truths of faith that a large segment of the world's population (both past and present) take as guiding principles for their lives are simply misguided myths, fairy stories. My mother, though, helped me to understand that religion wasn't all bad: "It's probably good for the sort of people that need that kind of thing," she used to say. This 'sort of people' are, of course, people who are too afraid or weak-willed to accept the'obvious truth' about the world: that we are nothing more than a dance of subatomic particles, a cosmic accident, and that we aren't going anywhere in particular: we simply live and then we die.

This is not to say that I wasn't raised with any values and ideals. On the contrary, my parents are both what you might call secular humanists. They had a firm belief in the 'golden rule' and dislike for human suffering. If you press them on why they believe that one cloud-of-dancing-particles should do unto another cloud-of-dancing-particles what the first cloud-of-dancing-particles would have done unto him (versus, say, exploiting him or killing him) they are at a loss to explain. For them, it seems to also fall into what they consider 'obvious truths'. To be completely fair, the fact that this whole set of 'obvious truths' taken together appear to be self-contradictory didn't occur to me, either, during my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. It wasn't until later when the evidence seemed to be looking me square in the eye that I had to face up to that fact.

Now my parents, to their great credit, really are good and tolerant people. They continue to have friends and acquaintances from many faiths and they go out of their way not to impose their beliefs on others, however misguided they may consider those others to be. They tried to raise me the same way. Unfortunately as a teenager I, like many others, had more zeal than common courtesy. I was shocked to find that even among the students in my honors classes in high school there were young men and women who, while otherwise intelligent, were laboring under what I considered to be obviously insane delusions about invisible men in the sky. Of course, I considered it my duty to convince them of their errors. I occasionally even attended the weekly lunchtime meetings of the school's Christian Club in order to ask 'hard questions' -- generally the same old atheist saws that you still find in books by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It never occurred to me how much charity and patience they must have had just to put up with me.

Of course, there were people who were willing to argue with me. I had a number of classmates who were practicing Christians, and a few of them were as zealous about their faith as I was about my lack of faith. They were primarily attendees of a few of the local non-denominational evangelical churches and as I look back on our conversations these many years later, it seemed that their zeal was undermined by a real lack of depth in their understanding of the faith.

They had some answers to the standard 'hard questions', but every time the conversation took a serious turn toward the real philosophical problems I had with the concept of God, they seemed to lose their ability to explain further. They would simply insist that I must feel some longing for God, deep down in my heart. When I insisted that I didn't, they weren't sure what to do or say. My insistence on this point was genuine. Of course I see now many years later how that longing for God, that feeling of brokenness and incompleteness, had really been there all along--but my heart was so hardened to this idea, and real knowledge of the things of God were so far from my experience, that I couldn't have recognized that feeling for what it was without help.

I'm sure my classmates saw my own brokenness much better than I did and many of the young men who regularly 'argued religion' with me in the hallways between classes were sincerely motivated by concern for my eternal well being. I remember one day, standing outside our geometry class, I was engaged in a spirited discussion with two friends who were trying every angle they could think of to reach out to me. Finally, after enduring all of what I thought were my 'clever' answers, one of them became exasperated and deeply troubled at my resistance and exclaimed "But aren't you afraid you are going to go to hell?! We care about you and we are trying to help you!"

At that I reached down into my 'bag of tricks' and pulled out the coupe de grace. I turned toward him quite sincerely and said "Listen, if you're right and there is some all powerful God who made me and loves me and knows everything about me then He, of all people, should know why I don't believe in Him. And He also knows what to do to get me to believe. Look, I don't even need to be struck blind like Paul -- a convincing vision like Constantine's would probably be enough. So I'll make a promise to both of you and to your God, if He's here: If He sees fit to break his silence and give me some sign, some reason to believe, then I'll be the best servant He's ever had..." I stopped with a dramatic pause. Of course, no lightning came from the cloudless sky and the Blessed Mother didn't appear with any legions of angels. There was no answer for my friends to give me. They shook their heads and walked away. I had won, or at least so I thought.

In the end, though, they were right. There was a deep hole somewhere inside of me. It is a dark and difficult thing to truly believe that life has no real purpose outside the superficial and (I thought) ultimately pointless activities of daily life. There was so much pointless pain and suffering in the world and it ultimately led nowhere and had no meaning. I tried to develop an existentialist appreciation for the apparent absurdity of all of this, like Albert Camus' Sisyphus, but the arguments failed to really motivate me.

Nowhere among all of my 'clever arguments' was there any good answer to that fundamental question: "Why?" I had plenty to facts and speculations about the related question "How?", but the entire concept of meaning escaped my narrow worldview. In my world of random dancing particles, "Why?" wasn't even a sensible question. It started to become difficult to find motivation to concern myself with studying and grades.

I eventually fell in with a group of friends who had a more practical 'solution' to all of my problems. "Why don't you lighten up and have some beers with us? Have some fun!" There was no reason I could think of to say no. Of course, this really didn't solve any problems, but it provided a distraction. Needless to say, it didn't help my schoolwork either -- and underneath it all, the brokenness was getting worse all the time.

After high school, I was accepted at the university. This was mostly on account of my SAT scores and not my lackluster grades. I had succeeded in keeping my grades just high enough to avoid serious confrontation with my parents. I wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of more school, but my mother had always insisted that both my sister and I would go on to college and it was easier to comply with the expectation than to 'fight city hall'.

On the outside, I appeared to be 'having fun' spending my evenings and weekends partying with my friends. On the inside, I felt more and more detached and empty. I did enjoy some of my studies -- I was majoring in mathematics, a subject that to this day I still have great love for, and many of the classes interested me. However, I began to doubt that it was worth all of the effort. I started to wonder whether dropping out wasn't a more sensible thing to do.

Then, into all this darkness and confusion came a first ray of light, in the form of a young woman. And not just any young woman, but a woman who seemed to share all of my likes and dislikes -- a woman who was like a better version of myself, a missing piece. From the very first, it was like we had known each other our whole lives. We fell deeply in love.

As the Apostle John says in his first letter, "everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God" (1 Jn 4:7b). I now know that my love for this woman, who was soon to become my wife, was part of God's way of introducing himself to me. Once we give ourselves to someone else, once we get outside of ourselves, all of the dead end thinking about our lack of 'meaning and purpose' is revealed for the idleness it is. The meaning and purpose becomes clearly tied to that other, to finding the best for them.

 It would be a long time before I would discover that the true Other that we are meant to give our whole heart and soul to isn't any man or woman, but our Creator Himself and it is only in him that our hearts can truly find their rest. I had, however, unknowingly taken a big step in that direction.

The next step big step came with the birth of our first child. I vividly recall the moment, after nine months of waiting and worry, that I was able to hold my newborn son in the delivery room, just moments after he had come into the world. I realized that my father, who was waiting just outside the delivery room door, had stood in my place some twenty-two years before with me in his arms. It was a moment where I felt a strange sense of continuity, of deep meaning. It is difficult to express, however as I type these words it is as real to me now as it was at that moment. It expanded the sense of 'destiny' I had vaguely felt when I met and fell in love with my wife. It was a new and different kind of love that a felt for this tiny person -- and through it, another tiny glimpse at God.

I couldn't have explained any of these things at the time. I had no frame of reference, intellectually, to describe these experiences. They fell outside of that meager view of the world that I had hung on to since my childhood and still clung to. Somewhere in this period that worldview began to crumble. Gradually I had to admit there had to be 'something more' to the world. A higher reason or purpose, a greater truth. I had no idea what it would turn out to be, but I began seeking after it.

Needless to say, Christianity was furthest from my mind as a possible avenue for my seeking. I turned toward the mystery of eastern religion, reading books about Buddhism and Hindu spiritual practices. Though there were often little things that seemed to ring true, I wasn't satisfied with either of these.

I kept looking. I eventually stumbled into the confused shelves of the New Age books in the local book store -- a thousand and one different spiritual variations to choose from. I read anything that looked vaguely mysterious, hoping eventually to find the 'hidden' truth I was looking for. Eventually I picked up a few books on Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah was becoming all the rage at that time) and was surprised at how much more 'at home' I felt with this worldview than with the eastern mystics.

The biggest shock, however, was that many of these authors (especially the more serious authors from the Hasidic tradition) took the Torah very seriously. The same Old Testament that I had always considered a mere collection of fables, the most obviously childish part of the Bible, was for them a source of wisdom. They saw things there that I had never seen and, while I have come to have differences with most of their interpretations, I am thankful to them for inspiring me to try and see these things as well. I went to the source and opened a book I never thought I would open in my search for truth: the Holy Bible.

I began to read the Torah with great attentiveness. It now seemed to be alive in a way that no other book had ever been. For a while I even toyed with the idea of becoming Jewish. I eventually ventured into the New Testament, re-reading things that had impressed me even as an atheist, like the wisdom of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. I was impressed, and I appreciated the wisdom and beauty of these things I was reading in this new light. But I still didn't really believe, not deeply.

In the midst of this, on one otherwise ordinary night, I had a dream. It was somehow a different sort of dream. I woke up convicted that it really meant something, that it was somehow important. Anyone who has had this experience will certainly understand the difficulty of explaining it. In the dream I was walking through my parents house with a little silver cross on a black cord was hanging around my neck. I had no shirt on, so it was plainly visible and my parents and my sister were laughing at me and mocking me for wearing it.

I remember very clearly looking closely at the little cross. It wasn't even real silver, just cheap die cast silver-colored metal -- you could clearly see the seams around the edges. The arms of the cross were round and came together in a pinched 'x' in the middle. In the dream I gazed at it for what seemed a long time. The strangest part, though, was how I felt. Even with all the laughter trailing on in the background I wasn't disturbed or angry. In fact, I felt a peace and energy that I had never felt before. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a little voice called out: "Keep this close to your heart; it will be your consolation always."

I awoke feeling strangely refreshed.

I didn't know what to do about the dream. Somehow, I couldn't ignore it, but I'm not also inclined to follow superstitious fancies. I cautiously mentioned it to my wife and asked her what she thought I should do. "I don't know", she said. "It was your dream, what do you think you should do?" I made a resolution: if I found this little cross, I would buy it and wear it. It didn't seem like a very brave resolution, but it was the best I could do.

A few weeks later, we took a trip down to Olvera Street in downtown L.A. It was Dia de Los Muertes and we were excited about seeing all of the unique artwork. As we were browsing through one of the many little jewelry stores along the street, I glanced down at one of the cases full of various religious jewelry and my eyes fell on the little silver cross, the exact cross from my dream. I called the shopkeeper over to get it from the case (I had made a resolution, after all).

When he took it out and put it in my hand, a strange thing happened. A long buried memory came back suddenly and vividly to the surface of my mind and replayed, as if it had just happened a few hours or days before. But this memory was a decade old. It was the memory of that day outside my high school geometry class. I could hear my own words echoing in my mind: "...I'll make a promise to both of you and to your God, if He's here: If He sees fit to break his silence and give me some sign, some reason to believe, then I'll be the best servant He's ever had..."

He had answered me.

In an instant something broke loose in my heart as that realization flooded in. I suddenly understood. He hadn't been silent and he hadn't delayed. I had unwittingly said a prayer that day, and He had spent ten years working to answer it. He had known I wasn't ready to hear Him, that my heart was too hard. So he gradually chipped away at it. He had led me and lit my path even when I chose to insult him and spit on him. He loved me enough not to give up even when I was unlovable.

I couldn't express what I was feeling and I didn't really know what to do. I knew that the unthinkable had happened...that I was being called to follow Christ. I had no idea what to do next. I began to read the scripture more diligently and I tried to pray, although I had no experience and wasn't sure how exactly to do it. I knew I needed to find people to help me, and the Gospels were clear that Jesus wanted me to be part of a church.

But what church? It had to be the church that had received Jesus' message and I knew enough history to know that most of the churches in town were a result of the (relatively) recent events of the Reformation. That left the Catholics and the Orthodox. I had known too many Catholics, so I began to study about Orthodoxy as best I could during late nights, mining the internet for good sources of data. Much of what I found made sense and shed light on the things I had read in the scripture. I hesitated though. I didn't feel quite ready to march into the local Greek Orthodox Church and announce that I was there to stay. So I kept reading.

After a few months, I was almost convinced that I was ready to make the leap. It occurred to me, though, that my family would have questions. There would be no way to explain any of this to my parents or my sister, but my wife was raised Catholic and almost all of my in-laws were Catholics. Surely they would have some questions as to why I had chosen the Orthodox Church over their own. I thought that I better find out what their church believed so that I would be capable of explaining myself.

I had only a cursory knowledge of the Catholic Church's main beliefs and I had been to a few Catholic weddings and funerals (my dad's family had been Catholic, too), but that was the limit of my experience. I knew, however, that when my father had gone to Catholic school as a kid they memorized facts about the faith out of a catechism, so I thought this might be a place to start.

I went onto an internet search engine and typed "catholic catechism". The first result in the list was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, hosted on the web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It certainly sounded official enough, so I clicked and started reading the prologue: "FATHER...this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent...." I kept reading, and reading.

I read late into the night and came back the next night and did the same. And the next as well. By the end of the fourth night I had, at least in a cursory way, covered the whole text. I was shocked and amazed -- It seemed to explain everything.

On the fifth night, it was my wife's turn to be shocked. I turned to her and said "I think I want to become a Catholic."

I wondered how she would react. I knew that her church experience as a teenager hadn't been the best. Would she be accepting or uncomfortable? It turned out that the answer was far different. She began to cry: not tears of sorrow but joy.

She hadn't realized how much she had missed her faith until it all came flooding back in that moment. She spent the next day researching parishes and the following Sunday we walked into Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster with our (at the time) two small children. We didn't realize that we were a week away from Easter and that we were walking into the solemn celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion.

Words can't describe how I felt as I experienced the liturgy that day. I knew that I was finally home.

I was in for another surprise, though. I hadn't considered that anyone I knew would see me there. As it turned out, we had chosen the Mass time attended by one of my closest co-workers. I knew that she was Catholic, but I hadn't thought about the possibility of walking right past her at Mass. That next morning at work, she was quick to stop by and tell me how happy she had been to see me at Mass and invite my family to brunch after Easter Mass, if we wanted to attend. It turned out the she was very active in the parish and able to help me understand a little about the RCIA process and introduce me to the deacon that ran the program. I started RCIA in August of that year, already sure who my sponsor should be.

My journey though the RCIA program was an amazing time for me. I met so many people with so many different stories and I had the opportunity to walk with them through the process and see the transformation God was working in their lives. I continued to learn all I could both in and out of class, reading every good book I could get my hands on. One that influenced me the greatly was Saint Augustine's Confessions. Like many thousands of other people before me, when I read Augustine's story I could see echoes of my own. I quickly decided that he would become my confirmation saint.

Around this same time, we enrolled my son in a preschool a few miles from our house that is run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. After they learned that I was coming into the church, they went out of their way to invite us to special events they were having: talks, holy hours, etc. I started attending their conventual mass in the early morning and they taught me how to pray the Divine Office. Most of all, though, it was the sense of joy and peace that they radiated that impressed me and affected me the most. This joy and peace helped carry me through my RCIA journey.

On March 11th of 2005, Briana and I were finally married in the church and on March 26th at the Solemn Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday I died with Christ in the waters of baptism and rose with Him to new life in the Holy Spirit. I was confirmed and received the Lord for the first time in the Holy Eucharist. I became a new creation, and I've tried to live that new life to the best of my ability ever since.

In keeping with the promise I had made so long ago, I tried to discern how God might be calling me to serve Him in the church. After the promptings of people whose opinions I deeply value and much personal prayer, I applied for admission to formation for the Permanent Diaconate...five years later, here I am as a Roman Catholic Deacon. Though I am not sure exactly how I got here, as I look back on my journey to this point I have nothing but trust that the Lord will be taking me exactly where I need to go.

3 comments:

  1. What a wonderful story, Jason! I would be delighted if any of my RCIA men followed in your footsteps.

    As Deacon Greg always says, "Ad multos annos!" And thank you for your response to our Lord for the benefit of our archdiocese!

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    1. Thank you Stefanie! May God bless you in your RCIA ministry...I can testify first-hand how much of an impact a good parish RCIA program has on people's lives.

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  2. Deacon Greg also led me to your blog. What a wonderful conversation story you shared with the world.

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