Followers

Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Conversion Story

















I spent the first five-plus decades of my life as a confirmed atheist. It was not that I had never heard about God. I simply did not think God existed, and I felt sorry for those I considered deluded into thinking that there was a divinity that they could lean on in hard times. I prided myself on my ability to handle many different kinds of challenges -- financial crises, abusive childhood, disabled children, educational barriers -- without having to "dream up" a divinity for support.

Boy, was I in for a surprise, and I did not see it coming! So, without further ado, here is the story, quite compressed.


Part I. Saying Grace

I had just moved back to the USA from Jordan, after all opportunities for staying over there evaporated, something that I have come to believe was God's way of shepherding me into His fold. One of my employees, rather a low-ranking one, whom I will call Jean, was working on a special project that required overtime work once a week. I took to staying to help, to provide some support, since I considered the project quite important. Because we worked through dinner, we went out to dinner after we called it quits for the evening.

The first week we went out, Jean announced that she would like to say grace. I explained that I was an atheist, but that she was welcome to say grace for herself. I patiently waited for her to do that. The second week, the same thing happened. The third week, she announced that it was my turn to say grace. Flabbergasted, I told her that atheists do not say grace. She insisted, and I continued to refuse. She refused to eat unless I did. I thought that this was pretty pushy for an employee. Later Jean told me that she, too, thought it was pushy but that she seemed to have no control over the situation: she had no idea why she said why she said what she did; the words tumbled out by themselves and surprised even her.

Well, with supper getting cold, and Jean quite adamant about not eating until grace was said, I figured that the easiest way out of this dilemma was to say something. What harm could a few words do?

I suppose it was the words I chose that sealed the direction my life would subsequently take. A bit indignant about the situation I had found myself in, I decided to say something irreverent for Jean's benefit, pulling together bits and pieces of what I thought belonged in a grace, along with words that I thought would "prove" to Jean that she was deluded in her faith. I will never forget the words I chose: "Dear God, bless this food, and if You exist, bless us with Your presence."

So, grace over, I reached for a piece of pizza, and so did Jean. But neither of us took even one bite because we suddenly had Presence! I am so glad I was not alone. First, God gave me a witness (Jean) to this most extraordinary contact. Second, I found the experience overwhelming and unnerving (and it takes a lot to overwhelm and unnerve me); I was happy not to be alone with it.

Jean and I did not eat dinner that night. We talked in rambling sentences until the restaurant closed, and we had to leave. Then we walked along the beach until 1:00 in the morning, still talking in rambling sentences, still feeling very much that we were walking as a threesome. Neither of us remembers a word of what we said. I tried to ignore the Presence the whole evening. Jean later told me that she had the opposite reaction: she reveled in it. I cannot remember when my discomfort level has been higher. I did not want to be alone. I did not want to leave Jean, who did not seem to be wigging out the way I was doing inside and trying hard not to let Jean know. However, by the wee hours of the morning, we both realized that we had to go home so that we could get up in the morning to go to work.

The problem was that the sense of God's presence (which I would not admit as really God's presence) did not leave me for the next two weeks. I do not remember anything I did at work during those two weeks. I was totally preoccupied with this sense of presence and wanting to run away from it, but there it was at every turn. I turned to the Bible, not to learn anything from it but to fight. I tried to find all kinds of reasons that the texts in the Bible were wrong. I wrote long enotes to Jean on a daily basis -- long, incoherent, ranting enotes about the delusions of everyone and everything that had any hint of spirituality. She later told me that it was like I was having an electronic temper tantrum.

Jean was not the only one who heard from me during this two-week period. I questioned God. I argued with God. I accused God of bad things. But, fortunately, He was patient with me. I felt like I was caught in a cosmic nutcracker that kept gently and insistently trying to open me up.

Then, at the end of two weeks something remarkable happened.


Part II. Finding Grace

At the end of two weeks, I was pretty beat. At wit's end. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to be me again. I wanted to go back to thinking about the normal, everyday kinds of things that I always thought about (although my life has been anything but ordinary). Most especially, I wanted to be alone. I had had two weeks of "company" with a spiritual presence (God?) that I did not want to believe existed, that I had on many occasions pointed out to others could not possibly exist. And here we were: God and I. Now what?

Some people call me fearless, but I am not. It is probably because of a life time of traveling the world, taking risks, trying new things, going where few if any Americans (or women) have gone before, but I always have had a sense of caution even when no one else saw it. But now, after two weeks of being squeezed by this cosmic nutcracker, I wanted out, and I became fearless. Well, you judge whether I was fearless.

Driving to work, still unable to concentrate on anything other than this unseen Presence that was there with me wherever I went, I decided to go for broke. "Look, God," I said, "if it is really You who has me caught in this nutcracker, I need some proof. I am a skeptic and a thinker (not a feeler), and I am just not going to trust my feelings. So, here is what I want. There is an employee at work whose wife and children live 4 hours away because she has not been able to find closer work and the family cannot live on one salary. My networking has failed, and even though I have put her on the job lists for my division, the hiring panels won't take her because she is not qualified for anything we do. After 6 months of effort, I have been unable to help her. So, if you exist, find her a job."

After saying this, I had a second thought, a rather fateful one: "And, by the way, so-and-so, another employee, has been missing 2-3 days of work a week because of a back problem, and this has been going on for 6 months, too. Heal so-and-so, and I will be in church every week." Now that was a promise I was sure I would not have to keep!

Having said all this, I felt better, certain that I had clarified THAT and could get back to my old, comfortable life. After 20 minutes, I reached my work place, parked the car, and went into my office. I opened my email. Doesn't everyone start and finish the day with email nowadays?

And there I saw it. A note from a senior manager in another division with the name of the wife for whom I was trying to find a job in the subject line. A little shaken, I opened the note, and there was an incredible message. "One of my employees sat on a hiring panel for you as an outside expert recently and noticed that one of the candidates could not possibly ever hold a position in your division because she does not have the right qualifications. However, we have just opened a new unit and need people with exactly her qualifications. We could hire her today. Will you release her name to us?"

I was so startled, overwhelmed, and, yeah, a bit scared, too, that I slipped to the floor. "My Lord and my God!" were the first words that came to mind. (I guess I had been a lot like Doubting Thomas -- even scads worse.) Okay, so the Presence was real. And in that moment, the most comforting feeling came over me, but also the feeling of getting to know someone -- God -- for the first time. A wonderful feeling, not a bad, annoying, frustrating feeling anymore. And any desire to fight was gone. I just wanted to get to know this Shepherd that had cared enough to come and pull me out of the bramble bushes where I was happily frolicking, unaware that I was detached from the rest of the flock and in not the best of territory.

And just about then, I remember the promise about attending church if God healed so-and-so. Oh, oh! I thought. One does not bribe God or bargain with God. Now that I knew God was real and not a projection of personal insanity, I became a little afraid of what I had demanded for so-and-so. "Ah, God, I want to amend that demand to a request, and, uh, I will go to church first and just trust you to heal so-and-so."

So, now, I had to find a church. But God took care of that, too. I will describe that in Part III (the last part of my conversion story).

And, I know you want to know what happened to so-and-so. So-and-so worked in our division for another 9 months before moving on to a new job and, while with us, NEVER missed another day of work for health reasons!!!!

PART III. Acknowledging Grace

So, now I had a promise to keep -- church! That was a scary thought. The question of which church, though, was pretty clear. When I had made the promise, the picture of our local mission flashed through my mind. Perhaps it was a divine inspiration. Perhaps it was because it was local. Perhaps it was because the mission is beautiful; who would be opposed to a mass there if one were planning to attend mass? I suppose I will never know the source of the picture, but I was pretty convinced that God either wanted me, or would accept me, at our mission church in this tiny 6-street-by-8-street town in which I live (the mission is the center of life here -- and it was likely no accident that here was where I found the first place to rent after returning from two years of work in Jordan).

Alright, then, I found out mass times. Then, on Saturday at 5:00 as I tugged at the heavy, 200-year-old wooden door, I heard singing coming from inside. Oh, no! I was a minute or two late. There was no way I was going to walk in late. I was not ready to walk in at all! But late!! Uh-uh! But there was that promise. I sat down on a bench in the near-by rose garden, pondering my dilemma and watching a family (of tourists, I assumed) smelling and photographing the roses. Then, they straightened up and marched off toward the church. As they went in the door, June, the mother (yes, they were not tourists; they are very active members of the congregation, and I have never seen them be late since that one time), held the door open for me. In I was going, like it or not.

I slinked through the door and searched in the dark for an inconspicuous place to sit. Ah, hah! There was a pew right beside the door and well apart from the rest of the pews. I sat down cautiously. I did not understand much of what I heard even though it was in English. (I had chosen the English rather than the Spanish or Latin mass times although now I tend to go to the English on Saturday and the Spanish on Sunday.) This was terra incognita, but I did recognize the fact that I had stumbled into a Catholic church. Wondering if I was in the right place, I asked, "God, do you really want me in a Catholic church?" I could see my little rebellious self in a Protestant setting. Heck, even the root of the appellation, protest, appeals to me. Certainly, I am not conservative, obedient, traditional, or any of the other labels that people stereotypically hang on Catholics.

I got my answer, and it was yes. As soon as I asked, I felt the Presence that was still spending day and night with me grow in strength and cover me with a warm blanket of love. Okay, Lord, I thought, if this is where You want me, here I will be!

To make a long story a tad shorter: Here I am. I completed the RCIA and was confirmed the following Easter. Now I have been a catechist for going on three years. Yes, Lord, here I am! What more is there to say?

(As I was writing this, I received a Skype call from Fr. Julio in Colombia, who blessed me before hanging up. So typical of what happens in my life these days! Why would I have ever fought this? Silly me!)

P.S. In the event that not everyone reads comments, here is the answer to one question: Who was my sponsor at Confirmation? Quite surprisingly, it was my daughter-in-law, Lemony. Hispanic by birth and Catholic, she had put aside church-going when she married into our atheist family. She seemed very pleased to be asked, and now we talk about things that we never used to!

57 comments:

  1. Isn't that something, Elizabeth, the Presence in the present.

    He's with me tonight, as he's been with me since the earliest of ages. I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't know he was real and ever-present in my life.

    Thanks for stopping by the blog and your encouraging words. I need more optimism in my life!

    I live my life outloud and on paper most days. What I write about, is what I'm dealing with. This "walk-about" of faith is a beautiful journey of grace and understanding that has afforded me many moments of clarity along the way. I'm shaped by my experiences and am willing to bend to the teaching. The "letting go's" in my life will, perhaps, be my perfection in the end.

    I look forward to reading part 2! By the way, are you familiar with Alicia Chole and her book, "finding an unseen God"? She has a simliar background and is a phenomenal writer with an incredible story to tell.

    peace~elaine

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  2. This is an amazing story. Thanks for sharing it.

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  3. Hi - I came here to check for an update on Nikolina. I'm glad I did. This is an amazing experience. So looking forward to part 2

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  4. What a wonderful experience, thank you for sharing that. I feel sort of jealous like the good brother of the prodigal son. But I know I should not be. I am a cradle Catholic, my faith is stronger these days. But sometimes the thought does come to me - that new converts seem to have a closer connection to God, a bit like favouring the youngest child (typical human insecurity). I am Happy for you.

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  5. Thanks to all of you for your comments.

    Elaine, I am happy to hear that you share some of my experiences. It seems that not everyone does.

    Grace & Peace, thanks for checking on Nikolina. I update the Blest Atheist blog every day with her status. She is doing well -- so happy that she seems to have had no nerve loss from the surgery and hoping that she has not developed a post-surgical infection. She is in good hands, anyway, at Stanford.

    Mothers Always -- Both converts and cradle Catholics have special attributes. I teach catechism with a cradle Catholic, and thank God I have her. She knows so much. I know so little. I do know how to teach, and teaching is not her specialty, so I can help out in ways to keep the kids involved, the discussions on track with 20+ active teenagers, and the learning happening. She is the one who truly makes the class work, though, because she has the content and the experience. Don't downplay your own importance to God or the faith community. I think that is what happened with the older son. He saw only what the prodigal son was receiving. He did not realize the value of the father's confidence and trust that he had. That, to me, is very special and should never be underestimated. I think that is part of the message of the father to the older son, along with the fact that God loves all His children and since they are all different, He loves them differently. (In teaching, we know that to treat all children the same is not equivalent to treating them equally because they have differing needs, talents, and ways of learning best. Treating them equally means catering in equal amounts to these differences and hence treating them differently. It's a hard concept even for good teachers to grasp, but it is an important one.)

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  6. Oh Elizabeth! What an amazingly beautiful conversion story! I,too, had a miraculous conversion and I love to hear how the Lord works in peoples' lives. Thank you for sharing this!

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  7. I read your story, Mary, and there were, for certain, similarities. Blessings!

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  8. My goodness gracious, I got God bumps the entire time I read this..I too am a catechist ..I WAS Roman Catholic, but left the church for many years. Than the Lord called me back,,,I on the other hand, like you, liked the word 'protest'..lol. I kicked up a tantrum a bit, prayed A LOT and God kept confirming this is where He wanted me. It's been 13 years this August that I have come back to the faith...

    I was just telling the church secretary yesterday how AMAZED I am when people convert to Catholicism...I shared I was born into a Roman Catholic family, so I raised that way,,but for others to DESIRE just amazes me, and actually gives me SUCH an encouragement within my spirit that God IS in the Catholic Church! Some Christians have a HUGE problem with the Catholic Church and believe we are not true followers of Christ...whatever!!!! lol

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  9. Elizabeth, what a beautiful story! It made me cry in a joyful way, leading me to praise and thank our Good Shepherd!

    And have been a Catechist for 3 years now? I am proud of you. I am praising God even more.

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  10. "Wow" what an awesome Testimony Elizabeth just to good!!!! So glad I found you through an old post of mind where you commented.Have a wonderful day Elizabeth Love ya.

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  11. Elizabeth,

    You have quite an awesome testimony! God is so good.

    My pastor and his wife play table tennis every week, and recently a fellow-player (and atheist) attended church to see what it was all about. She has no intention of giving up her atheism, but wants to know more about what her dear friends believe.

    You and I both know that this is no accident. Please pray for this woman, whose name I am ashamed to admit that I cannot remember, but God most certainly knows who she is... I have been praying for her since the pastor and his wife mentioned her visit to me.

    Have a beautiful day, and thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment at Glass House Ministries!

    God bless you,
    Cheri

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  12. Of course, I will pray for her. Agree - I doubt that it is an accident.

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  13. I love reading conversion stories especially ones like yours! Thanks for sharing!

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  14. This is a wonderful story - in its truth and its happy ending which of course is really a beginning!

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  15. Thanks, Angela and Veritas. I am glad you enjoyed reading my story. I can't say "enjoy" would be the word I would choose to describe it from my side, but now, later, I am grateful.

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  16. It's absolutely amazing what will happen when you give God an invitation to show you what He's all about. I tell people all the time that they don't have to believe at first, just ask God to show them and He will. What a great story! Thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday.

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  17. I have to say when I first saw the word "atheist" I thought oh no. But you see I missed the "blessed" part. I had to come and read your story; at least the short version for now.

    I love to read stories like yours. God meets us where we are and draws us to Himself. He used Jean as a vessel for His purposes. Isn't it amazing that the God who created the universe loves each one of us and desires to be in a personal relationship with us? I find that incredible! And I'm humbled by that.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I may need to read the full version too. I have many loved ones who have not yet surrendered to the grace and mercy of our Savior. Many still depend on self reliance instead of receiving the gift of life that is so freely given by our Lord.

    I also want to thank you for visiting Heart Choices and commenting. I always love to meet new blogging friends.

    Blessings,
    Debbie

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  18. Wow! Thank you for visiting my Bible studies. You have blessed me with your story here, and I hope to share this link with some friends if I may.

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  19. Kristin, you are right. Although I did not really mean it, obviously God took me at my word (not caring that I did not really mean it). Just open that door a crack...you're correct.

    Debbie, thanks for your comment, and I enjoy Heart Choices. I will comment more now that I am feeling better.

    Sheila, thanks. Of course, you are welcome to share.

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  20. Thank you for sharing your conversion story here. I am so blessed to have read it. I can identify with much of what you wrote. I too am a thinker, not a feeler. Yet, God's presence is something I simply cannot deny. (There have been more than few times I wished I could.) But He is real. Your story is inspiring.

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  21. Just found your blog today...don't even remember how, but glad I found this! What an incredible converstion story...thank you for sharing!

    Mary B

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  22. Denise and Mary, thank you for dropping by and for your comments. I am glad you found something in my story to which you could relate.

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  23. Thank you Elizabeth...I'm so happy that you kept your promise to God:)
    I'm dying to know...was Jean your Confirmation sponsor? (Sorry for that intrusion...it just seemed like such a perfect ending!)
    ~Judy~

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  24. No, Judy, even better. Jean attends a church in a different town; she does not live in my town but works where I work, which is a half-way away from San Ignatio. I attend the Old Mission Church in San Juan Bautista; both town and church are predominately Hispanic. My son, who lives in a nearby town, married a Latina. She is Catholic (most are) but had stopped going to church when she married into my atheist family. She was my sponsor -- and so happy to do that and be able to talk to me about things that she thought she had been forever silenced about. (Perhaps I should have included that here and in the book, but I did not think to do that. Ah, a sequel!)

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  25. What an amazing testimony! I could picture the restaurant scene in my mind and just watched in awe at the glory of God...

    Having been "raised in the church", I can't remember a time of not believing in God...knowing Him came later...what a difference!

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  26. I, too, am a converted atheist-after forty two years of atheism, with God's grace I came back home and am so, so glad!!
    God Bless You,
    Bill

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  27. Thanks, Karen. I just caught your comment. I think a lot of people I know from church are believers who don't "know" God. Interesting. I came in the door from the opposite direction.

    God bless you, too, Bill. Glad you made it "home"!

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  28. Thank you for joining in with Bible reading. I've found your conversion experience such a blessing simply to read, it must have been truly awesome to experience. It is truly awesome the manner in which God answers our prayers -- it never ceases to amaze me! May He continue to bless your ministry in sharing His will and His love.

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  29. Thanks, Grammy Blick. I am glad you found my experience (a true blessing to me) to be a blessing to you as well!

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  30. A-mazing!!! Your story gave me goosebumps, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for sharing it!

    God is so good. :D

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  31. Yes, indeed, God is good, KC, although for the life of me I don't know why He bothered with me. Thanks for stopping by.

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  32. Thank you for leaving a comment at Power Up Love.

    Would you allow me to re-post this blog post at PowerUpLove.com?

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  33. Elizabeth,

    Would you allow me to re-post your blog post titled, My Conversion Story at PowerUpLove.com.

    When I read your story I cried because I know that this is just the way God works. We operate in the natural and He operates in the supernatural. I can't explain it, but I know it when I hear and see it.

    May God Bless
    Joe

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  34. Dear Joe,

    How sweet! I have had some parallels since then, and I have heard some other powerful conversion stories. So, I know that God works in this way even though I, too, cannot explain it.

    Yes, of course, you may re-post it if you think it will be of interest/use to your readers. (It's not my story, anyway; it's God's.)

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  35. Thank-you so much for visiting my blog this weekend. Our Priest spoke about taking time to let our souls catch up with our bodies as we live in this fast past world. Thank-you for this story, as a Cradle Catholic who recently experienced a reversion, reading your story has certainly allowed me to do just that.

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  36. Thank you for your kind words, Rebecca.

    It was quite an experience, Granny!

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  37. What a wonderful wonderful wonderful miracle. sandie

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  38. A truly awesome story Elizabeth! Thank you for sharing it.

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  39. Sandie, I just caught your comment. Don't know how I missed it. Thank you!

    George, thanks for taking the time to read through it.

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  40. I found this link through George Sipe's blog. Your story is quite amazing, Elizabeth!

    Although I've always been a believer and a Catholic, I think I'm also a convert in the metanoia sense.

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  41. Thanks, Ruth Ann, and welcome. I think conversion is a lifelong, ongoing process that continues to deepen if we let it.

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  42. Indeed, Micey! Thanks for taking the time to read it.

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  43. Wow, what an incredible experience. I'm so glad I had the privilege of reading your wonderful story.
    Blessings,
    Charlotte

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  44. Thank you, Charlotte. Never in my life could I have predicted something like this! Had anyone told me, I would have laughed. But life is stranger than fiction, and God surprises us.

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  45. WE SERVE AN AMAZING GOD ......IT IS TESTIMONY AS YOURS THAT CONFIRMS HIS NAME ....THE GREAT I AM .....PRAISE OUR LORD ....HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY !!

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  46. Summer, indeed we do! Thank you for your comment! You have a wonderful day, too!

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  47. I'm glad I clicked the link that took me to this great story, and thank you for sharing it!

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  48. Thanks, Holly! Wishing you a restful Memorial Day!

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  49. My breath is a little taken away by this conversion story. There is someone on my mind that fits this description, "Certainly, I am not conservative, obedient, traditional, or any of the other labels that people stereotypically hang on Catholics." I hope she feels the Presence of God too, and that this too is her experience, "And in that moment, the most comforting feeling came over me, but also the feeling of getting to know someone -- God -- for the first time. A wonderful feeling, not a bad, annoying, frustrating feeling anymore. And any desire to fight was gone. I just wanted to get to know this Shepherd that had cared enough to come and pull me out of the bramble bushes where I was happily frolicking, unaware that I was detached from the rest of the flock and in not the best of territory."

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  50. Hi Colleen, I, too, hope that your friend will be touched by God.

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  51. I thought your testimony was precious. God bless.

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  52. Thank you, Eltopia! God bless you, too.

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  53. Nice read- I always say,it stakes a lot of faith to be an atheist. I am glad that you are now a transformed being. God is more real that the air we breath.

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  54. The Grace of God is both amazing and beautiful in your conversion story. I have been encouraging one of my friends to sit inside her local Catholic church and have a talk with God much like you did and ask Him to show her His Presence. Thank you for sharing your story.

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