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!