This month marks the seventh anniversary of my decision to seek full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. That decision was both easy and very difficult. On one hand it was a choice between admittance to the Blessed Sacrament or a life without the Eucharist. An easy choice, to be sure. However, on the other hand, I was choosing between remaining in the community of believers in which I had been raised or leaving that community for one in which I knew almost nobody. And more than that, choosing to become Catholic would upset some people in my life.
In the weeks and months that followed my decision, I struggled with the language to use to describe what I was doing. The big question that kept presenting itself was, Am I converting to Catholicism? Was my movement out of the Evangelical Protestant fold and into the Catholic Church a conversion? I found it difficult and somewhat awkward to use alternative terminology, and most people I knew were using that word — convert.
Even still, I did not feel like a convert. I had heard hundreds of “conversion stories” about people turning from lives of sin to come to a relationship with Jesus Christ. How, I wondered, could a move from a relationship with Christ to a deeper, more profound relationship with Christ possibly be considered a conversion? After all, that idea already had a name — sanctification.
So, for a long time I avoided referring to myself as a convert, or to my journey as a conversion. That word just seemed to put too much of a gulf between where I was and where I went. Recently, however, I have made another decision. I have decided that I was wrong to deny the application of conversion to my story.
No, this has nothing to do with the idea that we are called to lifelong conversion or anything of that sort. Besides, that terminology is awful. One does not constantly turn around in order to grow nearer to God. Circles leave you in one place. Rather, we are called to a conversion, which is a turning away from the path we walked in order to head in the right direction.
Now, in one sense, the right direction is the one that leads us nearer to God, but in the fullest sense, the right direction is the path that leads us to the very heart of God. My conversion was not a 180° turn; far from it. Yet, I was on a path that I had to admit was not leading me to the fullness of the faith and grace that God was offering. If I believed otherwise, I would have had no reason to depart from it.
I am a convert. I had been on a path that brought me nearer to God, but it was a path that might be said to have been running parallel to the one I now walk. Not to imply the application of a Scriptural reference, but it was a broad path. Theologically, there were dozens of strong currents, and it made for a difficult journey. Where the currents flowed together, one felt secure and confident. There was a wonderful sense of certainty about the New Testament canon, the divinity of Christ, and all other points of contact. But wherever the divides occurred, it was much like a large stone in the middle of a river, dividing the waters and creating incredible turbulence.
In practice, this made the process of sanctification much like trying to build a house with a toolset of only a hammer and a couple of screwdrivers. Even as progress was made, one never had the confidence that the house would stand. Sure, the foundation was strong, but all those points of contention — the efficacy of baptism, the role of free will, the effects of justification, the necessity of “works” — one could not trust his own conclusions about those issues in the manner that he trusted in Christ’s divinity.
So, I think that is why I identify my crossing of the Tiber as a conversion. My life is not what it was. My future is not what it was. I am more fully equipped for this earthly sojourn than I was seven years ago. By virtue of the sacraments, grace flows through me in a way for which I was indisposed all those years ago. I have a confidence, now, that what I am building will not be burned up. I thank God for this, because there is one point of contact that is a fundamental truth that served as an introduction to the Catholic life: the initiative is always God’s.
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