The people who knew me best in my younger days would describe my personality as callous and obsessive. My mom, dad, sister, friends, and others knew that I was not someone who could express sympathy or empathy in any authentic way. They also knew that when I became interested in something, there was no stopping me; nothing could distract me from a topic that piqued my interest or from acquiring a skill that would lead to public success. These two traits would be the cause of my darkest times, but also bring about my conversion to the Catholic faith.
When Cradle Catholicism Breaks Down
I was born into a Catholic family, but we were not serious in our practice of that faith. My sister and I received the sacraments, but we stopped going to church when I was about twelve years old. The reason my parents stopped going was partly because of my constant protests and partly because they, too, were uninterested. My parents came from families that would send their kids to church on Sundays, but the parents would stay home to do their own thing. Bottom line: We called ourselves Catholic, but that’s where our relationship with Christ and His Church stopped.
My sister was born with a brain tumor that caused her to go blind at the age of four. She is my only sibling and three years older than me. For much of my life, my sister was the only person for whom I might go out of my way, and even those instances were few. The strain that my sister’s cancer put on my family is another reason why my parents did not offer much resistance when I protested going to church. My mom had a hard time accepting the fact that my sister was put through so much in her young life, and it was easy to blame God for her troubles.
Despite all that, my parents had strong family values and were great in many aspects of parenthood. But I used their strained relationship with the Almighty to my own advantage.
Pride and Atheism
As I made my way through high school, I did well in both sports and academics. I always wanted to be the person with the best grades, the best player on the basketball team, and the strongest guy in the weight room. It was all very much ego driven and pushed me ever more towards atheism. My thought was that the only people who needed the mushy feel-good nonsense of religion were those who were not winners. A ridiculous notion, I know, but that is how my high-school-aged mind worked.
In spite of the fact that I was successful in my sport of choice (basketball) and in my schooling, I was never content, never happy, always looking for yet another way to show other people I was better than they. This is a miserable way to live, but I convinced myself that I wasn’t miserable and just had to achieve more and have greater success in order to be happy. But when I received more praise and awards, I was still miserable.
I started college in 2010 with a nice academic scholarship. It was a small private school called Florida Southern College, located about an hour from where I grew up in the town of Bradenton, Florida. I wasn’t overly thrilled about attending FSC because I was there on an academic scholarship and not on a basketball scholarship to a larger D1 level school. I chose not to try out for the team at FSC because I figured if you aren’t going to play with the best and be the best, then it’s all just a waste of time. I did eventually play for the team my senior year, just to satisfy my pride and ego. Some people thought I wasn’t good enough, so I had to prove them wrong. It is a common story. The one who is idolized in sports enjoys short-lived highs and many spiritual-emotional lows.
“I will make him a helper fit for him.”
A condition of my scholarship was that I had to get a work-study job on campus. Someone suggested I work for the men’s basketball team, but I couldn’t stomach being around a team that I could play for and not actually play, so I talked to the women’s basketball coach, and he offered me a job as student coach, given my background in the sport. This is when I met Taylor. Taylor was the freshmen point guard for the team, and we both came across a little rude and off-putting in our first interaction with each other. She asked me why I was there (at practice), and I told her in a snarky fashion, “Because they pay me to be here.”
We didn’t talk much our first year, but the second year the head coach gave me a job to do. I had to turn Taylor into a more dominant scorer because the team had lost their two leading point-getters the previous year. Taylor and I played one-on-one and trained almost daily. Our working relationship eventually turned into a romantic relationship, which I think my boss/her coach had in mind all along. Taylor was a cradle Catholic, and I did not think much about her faith initially. I just figured she would outgrow it after hanging out with me for a while.
Taylor did not outgrow her faith, and my gnosticism/atheism (depending on the day) was a huge point of conflict in our relationship. We stayed together through college, through graduate school, and through the numerous arguments about morals and religion.
I thought pornography, crude humor, bad television, and the relentless pursuit of money were all in good fun and even life necessities. Taylor, of course, did not agree, but through the grace of God, we stayed together and continued to argue. I often think about why Taylor stayed with such a godless person. The only possible reason is divine providence, and through the grace that came of that, it was heading toward a marital venue.
Eventually, I had enough of arguing. I decided that I was going to intellectually destroy her faith. Not being concerned about shattering the world view of the woman I claimed to love, I set out on a mission to prove, not only that Catholicism was wrong, but that all organized religion was wrong. My only motive was proving I was right! In my head, I had the clear-cut advantage in our arguments. I knew I had the willpower to do the research, to find the answers and prove her wrong!
I read everything I could get my hands on: New Atheist writings (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennet), Immanuel Kant (I know, not an atheist, but some of his writings leaned that way), Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Graham Oppy, and many others. Yet I had to know where the enemy was coming from as well. This led me to read Aquinas, Augustine, C.S. Lewis, William Lane Craig, Chesterton — and yes even the Bible. I eventually read the tenets of Buddhism, the Quran, and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
All this reading led me to some problems:
- I understood maybe two percent of what I was reading. I considered myself smart until I started reading deep thinkers like the ones mentioned above. This was a major and much needed blow to my ego.
- I wanted the atheistic thinkers to be right, but then started thinking more about what I called the “T” word.… Truth! I had never actually cared about the truth; I just wanted to have other people think I was right. But I couldn’t get the question, What is true? out of my head.
- My obsessive nature kicked into overdrive. I couldn’t stop reading, listening to debates, or thinking about these topics. I was completely consumed with the world of religion and philosophy to the exclusion of all else.
The biggest problem I faced in all of this was that, the more I thought about it, and the more I used that “T” word, the more I became convinced of theism. I couldn’t explain away the brilliance of Aquinas, the historical evidence for Christ, the logical philosophy that leads to an omniscient and omnipotent creator, nor could I ignore the obvious logical fallacies in the reasonings of prominent atheists.
Eventually, I found myself getting angry at people when they would criticize Christianity or theistic philosophy. On a number of occasions, I had to stop myself and say, “Wait, what is my objective here?” I was not in sync at all. One part of me would get angry when people mischaracterized or ridiculed a theistic idea, and the other part of me still wanted to convince my girlfriend that Catholicism and theism were false.
Theism or Atheism, and the Day of Decision
During this time of study and research, I graduated from college with undergraduate and graduate degrees in business management and finance and moved to Pennsylvania so Taylor could be closer to her parents and seven siblings. This was, perhaps, my first move towards compassion for another human being — or maybe I just knew the northeast paid better than Florida. I started working as a financial analyst for a health care organization and then landed a dream job at the National Basketball Association (NBA) in their business operations department. I also started actively investing on my own in the stock market and made some good financial moves. I say all this to paint the picture of where I am in life. One’s environment plays a big role in that person’s world view.
At this point, I was well versed in philosophy, religion, and theology. I had admitted to myself that I was intellectually a Christian. The main intellectual nail in my atheistic coffin came from the argument of extreme skepticism, which purports that one must not believe anything that does not flow from reason alone.
I knew that an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-good God exists, and that God cared about his creation. For this reason, God shared with His creation something of Who He is. The only world views that fit this framework were Christianity and maybe Islam, but after reading the Quran and the Bible, the choice was clear. Christianity had to be the truth.
Being convinced that Christianity is the truth did not excite me. I did not begin skipping down the street, whistling and smiling at everyone. My conversion was purely intellectual, and there were no spiritual roots. I was still prideful and did not want to admit that I had been so catastrophically wrong for so long. I realized with horror that an admission that God is real would mean that I would have to live as a Christian.
I was at the crossroads of believing in Christ intellectually, but not wanting to give my life over to this Truth. I was twisted up in knots for what felt like an eternity; in reality, it was a very short time. But the day finally came when I decided to pray. I had prayed before, but I never engaged in authentic prayer — you know, that prayer where you’re vulnerable, open, and genuine with God. I simply prayed for His will to be done, and the floodgates opened. I was hit with a rush of joy and conviction. I became on fire for the Lord and could not shake the truth that Christ is King, and my life is His. I no longer cared about being wrong. My pride was minimized, and I attempted to fully embrace my newfound convictions.
Now I was Christian, but was I Catholic? For much of my life, I thought all religion was feel-good gobbledygook. I never spent the time comparing the different denominations of Christianity. For all I knew, the Mormons or the Jehovah Witnesses were the ones who had got it right. Did this mean more hours of study? My mind was fried at this point. I was on fire for the Lord, but Taylor and I were married (yes, we got married in the Catholic Church, which was a choice of convenience on my part because I didn’t know anything else). I had a full-time job, and our first child was on the way.
How was I going to put time into studying the thousands of denominations? I had spent all that time researching when I was an atheist, but my true conversion did not happen until the day I first prayed authentically. Prayer is the superpower, and it became the key to unlocking the door that propelled me in the right direction! I prayed and asked God to show me where I should be.
To my dismay, praying to know the one true Church did not yield a quick answer or a rush of confidence as it did when I prayed about conversion to Christianity. Instead, God gave me hints at the truth and encouraged me to explore. I originally thought I did not have time to explore this topic, but God was telling me that I most certainly did have time. He was teaching me lessons about how to spend my time and how to seek Him. I had to allocate time to Him that I was using for more illicit things — selfish pursuits of money, time in the gym to feed my ego, terrible movies and television, and time with friends who were not conducive to my newly found Christianity.
All in all, my journey to find the one true Church was much easier and less stressful than my pursuit to find the truth about God. It came easier because it was not fueled by ego or bias, but by prayer. The reason for this, I believe, was my atheistic past and my callousness. You see, the only emotions I ever really experienced were anger and embarrassment. I never had a deep connection with things or people. My only connections were with my own pride.
That pride fueled everything I did, even my dive into philosophy and religion. But when I converted from atheism to Christianity, my pride was shattered. I learned that I was not the smartest person in the room; I was often the dumbest or the most blinded. My entire life, I lived to express my dominance over others through my achievements, but the truly wise saw right through me and just pitied me. The thing that dictated my entire life was shattered beyond repair, thanks to the grace of God. This is not to say that I do not struggle with pride to this day, but it is nothing like it used to be. Since God destroyed my main barrier to pursuing truth, the search for the true Church of Christ was, in a sense, easy. I was no longer married to any preconceived notions or ideas. Once I realized that I was so amazingly wrong about something, it gave me a certain mental flexibility that turned out to be advantageous in pursuing truth.
Every new theological issue I weighed had Catholicism coming out on top. Purgatory seemed logical, the Papacy seemed absolutely necessary, the Catholic view of Mary was utterly beautiful to me (which was a real shocker considering my personality), and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a no-brainer after studying Scripture. With all the hot button issues in the Protestant-Catholic debate, I did not really have a problem siding with the Catholic view. This was a tremendous surprise, because for so long I had viewed the Catholic Church as Public Enemy Number One.
The Gift of Mary’s Grace-filled Presence
The teaching that really took me aback was that of Mary. You see my wife, Taylor, was with me every step of the way. She started out as my adversary, then eventually became my spiritual, emotional, and intellectual confidant. However, I inflicted a lot of damage on her on an emotional and spiritual level due to my prideful and unsympathetic ways. I engaged in activities and conducted conversations that wrecked our relationship during my pursuit of the true faith. All this and other things from her past led my wife to struggle with Christ as a male figure — an all-too-common emotional issue in our fallen world.
Mary has been there to wrap her mantle around my wife and me and clean up the mess of our brokenness and lead us to her Son Jesus Christ in a very profound way. Mary’s intercession was a huge grace. Seeing the spiritual fruits that led to a repair in my relationship with my wife and knowing that it could be traced back to Mary healed me and opened the door for growth in compassion and a new openness to more grace, more truth, more virtue, and less vice. Thanks to the love of God and intercession of the Blessed Mother, the callousness of my younger days has been washed away.
The Healing Power of Christ and His Church
God has used the Catholic Church and its traditions, teachings, and saints to help me live with and even to an extent conquer my biggest flaws and turn them into strengths. Christ has given me the ability to love another human being deeply. The sacraments have provided me with the tools to be contented and to purge the harmful sides of my obsessive nature. I am now able to use my single-minded determination for the good of my growing family.
My flaws are many, and my life is constantly requiring many graces, but God and His Church have truly transformed me. God continued to work in my life, especially when I abandoned my 17-year-old self’s dream, that of working for the NBA. I liquidated all my investments and started a mission-driven Christian business because God let me know in a not-so-subtle way that Christian convictions must not end on Sunday night or be relegated to home life. They must find a place in every aspect of your life.
At the time of my conversion — or technically speaking, reversion — my family was doing well financially through my career at the NBA and my investments, but the ways I made money were not in alignment with the Christian life. Catholic social teaching helped me reorder this part of my life. One quote, often contributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, that disrupted my whole world was this: “Whenever you invest in something, that means you want that something to grow in power and influence.” I realized that I was investing time into the NBA, and money and time into all kinds of things that my Christian conscience would never want to see grow in power and influence.
Then came the moment when my conversion reached a level of discernment regarding my employment. Before I left my “dream job,” and before I liquidated my security blanket, I was able to say the right things, but I rarely put those words into action. It left me empty and my words and convictions fruitless.
My family was growing, and we relied heavily on our streams of income. We were perhaps too comfortable in our lives. My wife was pregnant with our third child in three years, we had just bought a house in the last 12 months, and I had just decided to quit my job, which was the only consistent source of income we had. To add to all this uncertainty, God indicated to me that I was to provide the services I was called to offer for free. I knew what God wanted me to do. There were more signs than I could count pointing me to the path I was supposed to take, but I argued with our Lord:
Haven’t I done enough? I converted from atheism, I discerned and chose the Catholic Church based on Your guidance, I changed my callous and obsessive ways, I let You destroy my ego and wreck my sheltered little world, and I left my childhood dream job for love of You. Now, You also want me to start a business that does not even have the ability to provide for my growing family?
But it all comes back to the prayer. I had prayed: Lord, Your will be done. I had made the commitment to follow Him wherever He leads. The transitions in my life have not been easy, but they have always been good. God provided in ways that I did not think possible, and He provided things that I did not even know I needed. In the same manner, He took things away that I did not need but thought I did.
Initially, I stood in opposition to God and wanted nothing more than for the Catholic faith to be false. When I perceived the truth about the Catholic Church, I joyfully chose the Catholic faith and learned to obey Christ.
Like many converts, I wonder to myself why I ever resisted in the first place. Now, I have taken my place in the journey toward holiness and perfection. I submit to the process of saying Yes to each grace. When I fail Him, I do not turn away from His voice, but rather, I turn toward that voice in affirmation of its authority.
The One I once denied, the One I once rejected, He is now my armor, my joy, my peace and the builder and protector of my family and the Church. And now, if I am to boast at all, it is in the power of Christ, His victory over sin and death, and the life of grace He has given to my family and me once we found our true home.