Conversion Story

Read enough Catholic conversion stories and you begin to see the same names repeatedly woven in and out of them, showing how deftly God reaches for us through other people: Scott Hahn, John Henry Newman, Saint Augustine. It seems the recesses of our faith and reason can be fertilized long before we're aware of what has taken root.  My experience includes many of the same threads and seeds, as well as a necessary detour. The detour bears familiar names, too. These are guys who may lack ecclesial pedigree but have also earned their status as titans of souls. I'm talking about Jack Daniels and the Hells Angels.

I grew up attending a friendly and warm Presbyterian church on an island in Southeast Alaska. As a kid, my best friend was Catholic and I often went to Sunday mass with her family. Her church was equally welcoming although it felt more organized --- formal, even. Instead of my jubilant, mustachioed pastor strumming an acoustic guitar, the local pharmacist's wife played the organ and everyone seemed to know a lot of prayers. Both of my parents had been raised in the Church during the Fifties and Sixties. To their great credit, I never heard a negative word about being Catholic. My mom remained active in the St. Vincent de Paul ministry, organizing outreach and rummage sales with our neighbor. My dad supported my curiosity by giving me a Christmas gift I asked for at age thirteen: a leatherbound Bible, displayed for sale in the foyer of this same little church, which I would be married in just nine years later.

The highlight of my young summers was an Evangelical Bible camp in Juneau, where our days were filled with idyllic camp adventures. At night the cabins would become a group confessional, with well-intentioned college kids scaring us witless by warning of the damnation we (and our parents) faced, unless we said certain things about Jesus. I really loved that camp and the freedom of travelling with a dozen girlfriends, but that's when any vestiges of Christian identity in me began to fade away. Not just because of this talk of 'being saved', but the setting and the tactics were a factor. It just didn't make sense to me.

{  Then I was drunk for a few years.

Sometimes on a motorcycle.  } 

Sober alcoholics are practically governed by a sense of peace with Divine acceptance of our fumbling attempts at pleasing Him. We've colossally screwed things up, yes. But in our willingness to heal spiritually, we're healed physically of the desire to sabotage our lives. It's that simple. Now that I'm familiar with an Act of Perfect Contrition, I cherish that it defines this willingness as being based in love rather than fear. I later recognized this same peace  in Catholic fellowship and liturgy. It felt real. The saccharine disposition and hysterical language of my childhood camp leaders had been replaced by dignified voices and relevant, ancient rituals. It made sense.

My husband (to-be) casually proposed after a sunny hike to a garnet mine in my hometown, and added that it would please his very recently deceased father if we were married in a Catholic church. (I still fawn at him over the fated beauty of this gesture, which set the foundation for what is now the central force of our lives. He shrugs and says he was probably trying to sound poetic and courtly. It worked.) We attended marriage preparation classes for just over a year, meeting weekly with the Jesuit priest who eventually witnessed our marriage. The sacraments began to take on a personal significance, if only intellectually. I had no intention of becoming a Catholic. We never attended a single mass during our engagement, despite the priest's polite acknowledgment of that fact. At our wedding in 1999, my husband (the cradle Catholic) vowed that any children God willed to give us would be raised in this faith. Enter grace. My sincerity was truly matched by my cluelessness.

Five years later, the first baby came. On March 26, 2005 she was baptized and we were both confirmed. We have since welcomed three more precious children.

Those who find our faith as adults often have specific and massive doctrinal issues that they overcome with prayer and study (e.g. Mary, Scriptural adherence, the Eucharist). I had none. Similarly, many addicts have painful associations with religion in their past, which they must work to set aside or forgive in order to 'get clean'. I did not. My arrogance and oblivion are best summarized by quoting a gruff old Alaskan logger who used to say, "I always believed in God, but get six tall cans of beer in me and He didn't impress me much."

It would be too ironic to claim that God has now sufficiently impressed me; that's hardly the point. But He does have my attention. I have been the recipient of tangible graces. The authority of two thousand years of sacred Tradition, instituted by Christ, has guided and comforted my family during times of confusion. Our earthly joys have been transformed into abiding hope. The names of my favorite thinkers now include Chesterton, Catherine of Siena and countless others --- a host of real live brothers and sisters who share this road and whatever it brings. My prayers today begin with gratitude, especially that God continues to reach for us in mysterious ways.