My conversion to the Catholic Faith wasn’t a straight line exactly — is it ever? But it also didn’t take me years and years of my life to come to the Truth. I think the Lord in His mercy and infinite goodness knew that I had the potential to go off the rails if I didn’t have an anchor. Thankfully, the trajectory of my faith life was set relatively early, though it would take years for my new-found Catholicism to mature and percolate into authentic orthodox expression.
I tend to think of my life as a Catholic in terms of moving down a funnel, starting very broadly and scaling down enough to fit through that “narrow gate” which leads to life. It started with some fundamental philosophical questions at a time when I had no religious faith to speak of: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there a God? If so, who is He, and how do we come to know Him?
These were the questions I wrestled with and attempted to answer with a Buddhist philosophical framework in high school. I picked it up through reading Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, pieced together the disjointed fragments, and adopted it as a stop-gap religion to plug the holes caused by an urgent existentialism that demanded answers when there didn’t seem to be any. I would meditate under the maple trees in our suburban back yard, sweating in the summer heat on a straw beach mat. Buddhism made sense to me: Life was suffering and dissatisfaction, and that suffering came from desire. It was pragmatically straightforward, radically responsible, and objectively quantifiable. If you didn’t become enlightened and opt out of the wheel of misfortune, you had no one to blame but yourself for not working hard enough to get there.
One thing, though, hung me up about Buddhism. I don’t know where it came from, but an image of a developmentally disabled child uncomfortably lodged itself in my subconscious during this period. Can he be saved? I thought. Who will save him if he cannot free himself from this finger-trap of suffering and desire? Though the image was wholly autonomous, I also saw in myself the fate of that child — not strong enough, devoted enough or developed enough to achieve salvation under my own power, and subsequently being left behind. For though Buddhism made claims of being compassionate, what was lacking seemed to be, quite simply, love — the kind of love a parent has for his child, that ransoms and comes down from its lofty perches to save the most vulnerable and dependent, those who, without it, would be lost.
Something To Live For
So, I had this quasi-philosophical, general religious framework in Buddhism during high school, and I was pretty serious about it, as serious as any high school junior could be. But it was around this time that the Lord started to break through in my searching for answers. I’ll never forget the first time I was caught off guard and filled with the Holy Spirit. It happened in the most unexpected of places.
In the way Augustine, as a young man, had fallen in with the Manichaeans, I was attracted to and adopted the Straight Edge life — a kind of non-religious monastic discipline of the underground hardcore music scene. 1990’s Straight Edge hardcore was a reaction to the intoxicated nihilism of 1980’s punk rock. Its tenants rest on three main pillars: no alcohol, no drugs, no promiscuity — a kind of secular moral code. Adherents marked black X’s on their hands as a sign of their discipline. Music was the religion, and Straight Edge was the praxis. It gave adherents something to live for.
It was 1997, my junior year of high school, and I was at a hardcore show in a church basement. Sets were fast and furious, adrenaline was pumping everywhere, the guttural energy intense. The crowd was drenched in sweat from moshing and panting when a bearded middle aged man came on stage.
He was a preacher. I assumed he was the pastor of the church where we were. He wasn’t lame, and he had a few words to say, though I don’t remember exactly what they were. What I do remember was him extending his hand over the crowd and praying.
I was not expecting this, nor did I sign up for it, but I also wasn’t opposed to it. It’s hard to describe, but as he prayed over the crowd I felt a kind of rush, like a wind or something — not physical, but in my spirit — and a tightening conviction that there was a kind of vague and unnamable void in me. It was Introduction to One’s Own Sinfulness 101. The preacher invited anyone who wanted to learn more about Jesus after the show to talk to him. So I did.
I don’t remember specifically anything he said, but he prayed over me, and tears started to flow, which was weird. I can’t describe it. I just knew I was a “sinner,” like he said, though at the time I didn’t know what sin was, or that recognition of sin was really the foundation to build on, that nothing could really happen without laying down that first stone. I knew I was bad, and unlike in my junior varsity Buddhism, I just knew deep down that I did not have what it took to save myself from this badness. The preacher offered to follow up with me, and I gave him my phone number.
Back home, he did follow up by phone a few days later. By then, I had kind of shaken out of it and said I wasn’t really interested, but thank you anyway. I didn’t want to have to explain any of this to my parents. After a few days, I was back to normal and had forgotten the whole incident. Yet, a few months later, I found myself in the wilderness of upstate Pennsylvania, lost, alone, and calling out to an unknown God for help.
Groaning In The Wilderness
In June of that same year, I set off to test myself in self-sufficiency, training myself in leaving behind civilized society, with all its trappings and social disappointments. I guess I always envisioned a kind of zombie apocalypse happening at some point, when I’d need to know how to be alone and survive in the woods. So I set off to learn how to do it.
Hiking and backpacking was a hobby I had picked up, maybe unconsciously, to counterbalance the time spent indoors with my buddies. It was always the same old same old. I was still listening to hardcore music (though I wasn’t as straight-edge as I was the year before), and I had come across a Hare Krishna band that sang about things like the spiritual realm and higher states of consciousness. These things really took hold of me — not so much the Hare Krishna bit, but just that feeling of “is this all there is?” and wondering if there was more to life than getting drunk in our parents’ basements, shooting pool, and watching reruns of Saturday Night Live.
Looking back, my parents had an admirable degree of trust in me. I asked my dad if he would drive me three hours north to a huge splotch of green on a paper map — state game lands — so I could hike a remote trail I had read about. He agreed to do it (he had convinced my mom, knowingly, that “this is something he has to do”) and dropped me off at the trailhead. I drew an “X” in pencil on the map where to pick me up three days later, and I said I would try to be there around mid-day. This was before cell phones, and even if I had had one, it wouldn’t have worked in this remote part of the state. He drove away, and I set off.
I had packed light, to be able to maximize my mileage. It turned out to be a little too light. My fleece blanket did not provide enough insulation to keep me from shivering all night long in my hammock, and I didn’t pack enough Dinty Moore soup to last all three days, so I was hungry. The fire I started kept away critters and animals … until it went out. Then it was a sleepless night filled with malicious croaks and peeps in the pitch black, waiting for the dawn. I was lonely, hungry, homesick. And strangely, too, I felt an acute sense of my own sinfulness and inadequacy in the ability to save myself from … I didn’t know what. Fate? The world? Myself? Like everything I had experienced at the basement hardcore show, it was vague, but acute, an anonymous indictment for a crime I felt I hadn’t commited and had never lived out. It was just a sense of … smallness. I slept with my tail between my legs, ashamed of my juvenile bravado and misplaced confidence in myself.
The next morning, I set off on the trail. I hadn’t seen another human being the day before, and that day proved to be the same kind of isolation. It was really taxing, mentally, to know there just wasn’t anyone around to talk to or help or provide distraction. It was just me following my map. That is, until I lost it.
I realized the map was gone after a couple of miles, because when I went to pull it out of my rucksack pocket, it wasn’t there. I got a sick dread in the pit of my stomach. This was bad. I retraced my steps. Nothing. I kept walking and looking. I was getting panicky. I thought about the preacher. He prayed. Could I pray? What does that look like? I had a feeling there was a God, but I didn’t know His name. I cried out in desperation, “Please help me!” It was another one of those strange feelings, the kind you can’t put into words without sounding crazy, but I felt a giant hand cup me, shielding and guiding me. I looked down in the brush — and there was my map! A wave of euphoric gratitude washed over me. I felt as if I had been spared from a disastrous fate, given another chance. An unknown God had heard my cry and answered.
I had never been so glad to see my dad as on that Sunday afternoon, right where we had agreed to meet. I had made it out alive, though not without some mental scars. I knew I had been saved from something, by a benevolent Force. By next summer, setting off to hike from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail and facing the same loneliness and isolation, I would learn that Force had a Name, and that someone had written about Him long ago, in a collection of poems known as the Psalms.
From The Pit
Buoyed from surviving my weekend solo backpacking trip upstate, I decided to set loftier goals and hike the Appalachian Trail from Maryland to New Hampshire after graduation. I recruited a friend to come with me for two weeks across Pennsylvania, after which time I would continue on solo.
It was a great adventure, but when the time came for my friend to leave after two weeks on the trail with me, I was right back to the same isolation and loneliness that I had experienced before. One night, homesick and crying quietly in an Adirondack-style shelter where I was spending the night, I took out a small Bible that a friend’s mom had given me before I left. I had never really read the Bible before, but I turned to the Psalms and read:
I waited patiently for the LORD;
He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
And set my feet upon a rock
making my steps secure.
It was comforting to read that the Lord would “hear my cry” and care for me, care about me and what happened to me. I didn’t have much in my pack, since I was traveling light, but that little Bible meant a lot, to have it with me.
I never made it the whole way to New Hampshire, bowing out in New York state and spending the rest of the summer before my freshman year of college at home, embarrassed to admit to my friends that I hadn’t finished what I had set out to accomplish.
The friend who had hiked with me for two weeks was Catholic. He came from a family of nine, and I knew his mother was a devout person. I imagined she was praying for us on the hike, and maybe some of those prayers were for me specifically.
During this time, I was like the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts (8:31), who replies to the deacon Philip, who had asked him if he understood what he was reading, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” I didn’t know any people who were Christians besides my best friend. He was involved with a youth group, and he was someone I could talk to and ask questions. It wasn’t until I got into college at Penn State in 1998 that I would attend my first Mass and take the first steps to becoming Catholic.
I had had a great childhood, growing up in a safe, upper-middle class suburb. My parents loved me and provided for my two brothers and me. There was no abuse, no trauma.
There was also no religious faith or practice handed down to my brothers and me. This was partly because my parents could not decide what to raise us, since my dad was Catholic and my mom was Episcopalian. Neither was especially religious, though they would occasionally attend their respective churches on Sundays while we stayed at home.
I didn’t have much attraction to my mom’s church, St. Paul’s, but every now and then, when I was younger, I would tag along with my dad to the Divine Liturgy at the Ukrainian Catholic church he attended near our home, because I was close to my dad and emulated him in many ways. Inside the gold-domed church, with its intricate iconostasis, was the pungent smell of incense. I didn’t understand the language and had trouble following what was going on, with all the bowing and crossing. It was foreign and exotic, kind of like a museum curiosity — interesting, but not enough so to hold my attention.
One day, I was riding in the car with my dad, and we passed by the Roman Catholic church in town just as Mass was letting out. “Look at all those people,” I said with a touch of sophomoric vitriol, “they’re like sheep.” My dad shot me a glance that said, “Don’t you dare!” That put me in my place. Still, I held my inward contempt for group-think and uniformity. I refused to be a sheep.
This attitude of non-conformity followed me to college. I was surrounded by engineering majors. To me they represented the establishment. I went to class, got good grades without much effort, but really, all I wanted to do was ride the rails and hitchhike across the country like my Beat heroes.
I had not forgotten about that initial rush of the Spirit’s breath at the basement hardcore show; the rescuing from sure disaster in the wilderness by a divine hand; and a God, of whom the psalmist spoke, who “drew him up out of the pit.” I had cried real tears, mingled with sweat, in that basement; I was lost in the woods, and then was found; I knew the pit of which David spoke, for I had been living in its depths for the past few years, immersed in the darkness of depression that would periodically swallow my mind whole. But I had no idea what to do with these experiences, where to lay them down, and where they fit. I’d like to say I wrestled with an angel, like Jacob, or struggled on a precipice of the will, like Augustine, or fell off a horse, like Saul. But the simple truth of the matter is, I wandered into a Mass.
Learning the Ropes
My dad had given me a list of religious services on campus the week before I started classes, “just in case you want to attend.” He didn’t pressure or set any expectation, just offered it as a matter of course, the way one might offer a menu for a local sub shop if you mention to them that you’re hungry and where can you get a bite to eat. I really knew nothing much about churches or Christianity, but I did want to guard the experiences I had and was wary of entrusting them to just anyone, who may be making up truth as they went along. I needed something solid, a hard case for those fragile moments of grace. I didn’t know much about the differences, though my dad did tell me, “All Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholics.” That was about all I knew about the difference between (Protestant) Christians and Catholics.
Wanting to be like my dad, I decided to check out a Catholic Mass. They were celebrated in one of the auditoriums on campus. I picked out some nice clothes from my wardrobe, headed over, and took a seat in one of the theater seats in the back. The only thing I remember is that I was the most dressed up person there, and felt a little awkward because of that.
I approached the priest after Mass. “I want to learn about being Catholic,” I told him. He told me about something called RCIA, but that it had already started. I got the impression from talking with him that it was too late to join. Impatient as I am, I checked around for a “back door” in. In addition to the Roman-rite Masses, there was also a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, celebrated by a local priest on campus every Sunday. I was at least somewhat familiar with this form from going to church occasionally with my dad. I showed up one Sunday, and told the priest there the same thing, that I wanted to learn about Catholicism. He agreed to teach me one-on-one. And so I met with him regularly and learning the basics of the Faith.
In December, just a few months after my instruction, I was received into the Church. Since I was validly baptized in the Episcopal Church, I was confirmed, made my first penance, and received first Holy Communion in a small Byzantine church off campus. A married couple from the church offered to be my sponsors. I remember the day as feeling very special, and very permanent. This was more than just a fad, or something I was interested in for the moment. I had the keen feeling that it was akin to a marriage ceremony. I was being wedded to the Lord for life, and I was very much at peace to be His.
The Reasons For Belief
I regard my journey to Catholicism as a kind of funnel that distilled and refined the reasons for my belief that the Catholic Faith is the fullest and most robust expression of Christian belief, and that the Church truly was instituted by Christ.
It started broadly. By grace and experience, I recognized that life without God and a purpose for living was deeply unsatisfying. By grace, I came to believe there was a God, and that He cared for me in a deeply personal way, even though I did not know His name. As I learned more about Jesus, who was believed by Christians to be the Son of God, I realized that I was indeed in need of a Savior, that I could not save myself or pay the debt myself for my sins.
Why not stop there, pray the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and join a Protestant or Evangelical denomination? There were a couple of reasons.
Although I did not have a strong intellectual background and did not “reason” my way into the Church at the age of 18, I knew that my experiences of grace (the rush of the Holy Spirit in the church basement, the Lord leading me to my map in the wilderness, etc.) were powerful and real. I couldn’t explain them, but I wanted to safeguard them. And this meant that what I was exploring in terms of religion had to be true, unapologetically so.
As I learned about the Catholic Faith during my instruction with the Byzantine priest, it was clear that the Church was apostolic, the deposit of Faith carefully preserved and handed down over the centuries. I hadn’t explored Protestant Christianity too deeply, because I was skeptical when it came to matters of authority in their particular branches of Christianity. It didn’t make sense to me that one local church could claim this and another could claim that, and these statements on matters of morals or doctrine could stand in contradiction, depending on who was interpreting Scripture. Truth being objective by nature, it had to be Truth with a capital T, and there had to be an authority disseminating that Truth.
Jesus had many disciples, but He chose twelve men as Apostles. The magisterial structure of the Church, rather than being off-putting, was a sense of comfort and security for me.
It also struck me that the Catholic Church was truly universal. Unlike many of the Evangelical or Mainline Protestant denominations, you could be traveling in Mozambique or Kansas, and there was a continuity of worship in the Mass. Of course, the liturgy is expressed in an array of diverse ways, depending on where you are in the world, but the Church is truly one.
Finally, I recognized that there was something holy about the Catholic Church. It was set apart, different from the other Christian churches. Of course, it was comprised of fallen and sinful people, but I was not looking to put my faith in people, but in God alone. The saints and martyrs were a tangible example, for me, of what one is capable of achieving with grace and the sacraments. I wanted to be like them. There seemed to be a depth to the Catholic Faith — a historical continuity, a respect for tradition and the tangible expressions of faith in the sacraments, and a divine authority protecting her from error — that I did not see in other Christian traditions, by the nature of their history, having rejected the sacraments and valid authority. This is not to denigrate the deep and sincere faith of the many Protestant Christians I have encountered, but from a doctrinal and spiritual perspective, one could spend his entire lifetime plumbing the depths of what the Catholic Church has to offer and never reach bottom.
My reasons for becoming Catholic were that I believed the Church to be one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic, as expressed and confessed in the Creed of the Apostles, the very twelve men whom Jesus had hand-picked to lead His Church, with Peter as their head. The doctrine of papal infallibility, as I learned more about it, gave me a sense of comfort that I could safely place in this ark my experiences of encountering God, and that this Church, instituted by Christ Himself, would protect those experiences from perversion and mutation. It seems strange to say, but I was such a non-conformist, such a prodigal rebel, that I didn’t even trust myself with these divine experiences. I needed to be under authority, for my own good, and that authority needed to be sound, appointed from the Source. The Catholic Church, by her very nature and ecclesial structure, fit that bill.
20 Years a Catholic
This December, I will be celebrating my twenty-year anniversary of becoming Catholic. I thank God every day for it. Although I would like to say it was a “one-and-done” conversion, the reality is that it took a number of years of “course correction” after my Confirmation to allow God to really bring my life in line with authentic Catholic teaching. I struggled with undiagnosed bipolar disorder in my early years, and with keeping one foot in my worldly “old life” and the other in my “new life” as a Catholic. I had difficulty with finding spiritual support that was faithful to the Magisterium, and I found myself rejecting many of the Church’s teachings that I did not understand and struggled to accept, such as the one on the use of artificial contraception. These issues kept me in a state of sin for years.
But God was so incredibly patient with me, gently leading me to an ever deeper exposure to, and appreciation of, orthodox belief. Although I discerned a monastic vocation for ten years after my conversion, it became clear that marriage was my calling. I love my wife (she, too, had wandered and returned), and I am so grateful to be walking this path with her. Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary via finding — and wearing — a Miraculous Medal, discovering Dr. Janet E. Smith’s “Contraception Why Not?” lecture, meeting faithful and orthodox Catholic friends, and consecrating ourselves to Jesus through Mary, we have found great joy, peace, and freedom from fear through trusting in the Lord, in the many graces He bestowed upon us during this “second conversion.” I have been active in evangelization, religious writing, and prison ministry ever since.
The Lord knows what He is doing; He is trustworthy and only wants what is best for us. It took a while… but I am so glad to be home.
“For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere”