I came from a loving, stable home. My parents had a strong marriage. My childhood was happy, and family ties were solid. Sundays were set apart for quality time together. We had all the markers of a family and home life that very well could have been steeped in Christian virtue. And yet, organized religion, and most especially Christianity, was never an option.
My father came from a large Catholic family, on the younger side of ten children. My mother was the middle of five girls and reportedly only went to church to see which of her friends were in the pews that Sunday. As soon as either of them could get away from the Faith, they did, and while begrudgingly acquiescing to a Catholic wedding, by the time I was born, baptism was out of the question. It was all, according to my father, nonsense.
So while I felt a natural sort of tug towards the supernatural throughout my younger years, and in my innocence, simply believed in God without knowing much about Him besides what I learned by watching Charlton Heston talk to a burning bush each Easter week on television and what my best friend, who happened to be Catholic, mentioned in passing, the topic of organized religion was a nonstarter. But as time went on, that simple, uncomplicated pull that I felt towards God became cluttered by the push and pull of the outside world, and my belief system scattered itself across a variety of spiritual disciplines from Eastern to New Age to atheism and anything in between.
When I was six years old, my parents, who were born and raised New Yorkers, flipped a coin and moved from California to North Carolina. As I matured out of the dream world of my earliest years and became aware of my surroundings, I was put in the position of being stretched between two very different worlds. On the one hand, there were pig-pickin’s, Confederate flags, and businesses still closed on Sundays. On the other, with my northern relatives, there was fast talking, really good bagels, and a cosmopolitan way of thinking. My parents, both of whom had by now long since given up on the Catholicism of their youth, taught, whether explicitly or implicitly, that organized religion was, at best, an unnecessary belief system that kept people intellectually sedated, and at worst, the root cause of most, if not all, the atrocities in human history. And yet, in moving to a place inhabited by a great number of rapture-believing Christians, they exposed me to a worldview heavily steeped in faith, but while strong, that faith was based on theology that was deeply erroneous and greatly contradicted what was being taught in our home. There wasn’t really a middle ground: there was religion, and there was intelligence, and you couldn’t have both.
This seemed especially true after having dealt with a number of friends and enemies over the years. Neighbors we didn’t get along with too well, who made a big deal out of being Christian, wouldn’t let an African-American boy play in their yard. Another neighborhood family whose mother told mine that I was on my way to hell, all the while completely ignoring the sex and drug-riddled trouble her own children were getting into. How Christians were supposed to live — or at least, how I’d heard they were supposed to live — and how they actually did, just didn’t line up.
Many times throughout my childhood and teenage years, I would be asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” My response would be a quick no, but my underlying opinion of Christians was that they were judgmental, arrogant, and hypocritical and I wouldn’t accept Jesus if it meant being lumped in with people like that.
My anti-Christian sentiments were solidified at a seventh grade slumber party. Two of the girls there, including one whose house it was we were at, were devout Baptists. Then there was me, and one other girl, who while raised in America, hailed from Hong Kong and held to a more Confucian belief system. I can’t say exactly how we got onto religion, but as the night wore on, the topic turned to hell, the rapture, and the inevitability that non-Baptists, my friend and I included, would be Satan’s slaves for a thousand years.
“Just imagine,” one girl said, “You’re on an airplane and the rapture happens. Half the passengers suddenly vanish, you don’t know what’s going on, and then … hell on earth.”
As it happened, my Chinese-American friend was flying to Asia the following week on a family trip, and at the thought of being abandoned to the devil on an airplane proved too much. She started shaking and crying. And I, feeling like she was being bullied, told the other girls to stop. They wouldn’t. A shouting match ensued and got to be so loud and so passionate the host mother told us she would have to call our parents to come pick us up if we didn’t pipe down. We didn’t, and the other girl was so frightened she was more than happy to cut the slumber party short and go home and spend time with her parents now that she wasn’t so sure The End was not nigh.
I hated all of it. If there was a god, like these girls said there was, I couldn’t believe He would be so cruel to bring a nice girl like my friend to tears. But they were so confident, so sure in their beliefs, I had to ask myself “is this what Christianity was all about?” I had a few Mormon and Catholic and Jewish friends, but by and large, the loudest, surest ones were those who seemed to want only to tell you about Jesus just so you’d know what you were missing out on once you got to hell.
Around this same time, two interesting things happened. I started having dreams that seemed to come true, both from a personal level, such as what would happen a few days later, and on a global scale, such as Bill Clinton’s affair and impeachment. I also began a close friendship with a girl who seemed spiritually attuned and shared many of the same teleological interests and questions I was beginning to have. She was also promiscuous and left unsupervised most of the time but also welcoming and genuine. In all, she was an amiable but a bad influence.
One afternoon, the two of us fooled around with a Ouija board on her bedroom floor. The messages we received that day were fascinating. The board told us about the death of a classmate, which years later, actually did happen, as well as an impending natural disaster, spelled out, even, with a particular date. Thrilled by the information we were receiving, we pressed on.
“How many spirits are here with us in the room”?
“Seven” was spelled out one letter at a time.
We were floored. To think, we were so important, so attuned to the spiritual world, that not one, not two but seven spirits were reaching out to us! It wouldn’t be until I was deep into my Catholic conversion that I realized how naive we had been; we never thought to ask if these spirits were good or bad. The assumption was that surely, because our desires were borne from innocent curiosity, the otherworldly beings who came to answer us would be as innocent. How foolish of us! How dangerous.
The devil must have been quite pleased. Between the dreams and the Ouija board, I began to think I was quite special, that I was privy to exclusive information. There must be something different and magical about me that I was able to slip behind the veil and see the truth that regular people, including girls who proclaimed their frightful rapture to unsuspecting friends at slumber parties, didn’t have access to. It went to my head.
My spirituality defined me in such a way that instead of being good, helpful, giving, and charitable, I sat atop an ivory tower of my own making, nose lifted high in the air, a beautiful goddess and the rest of the world, dim, gray, and filled with fools who had no idea of the truth, below. And what, exactly, was the truth? Well, depending on the year or season, the truth — my truth — changed, or as I would’ve probably said back then, “refined.” Reincarnation played heavily, and dangerously, into my beliefs. But it wasn’t the usual reincarnation where one was immediately reborn as something else. Rather, after death, one could decide when to come back and as who and with whom. Spirits would band together and decide to go through the next life together, taking on different roles and learning new things from one another. One would take the role of father, another mother. Siblings, close friends, spouses, even a fleeting but key person here or there. And if we didn’t learn what we were supposed to or what we had agreed upon, well, that was okay. There were always more chances, more time to get it right. Better luck next time.
The implications of this belief system make it truly idiotic but also highly dangerous. It places spirits inside bodies, like water poured into a vessel, so that the body becomes a mere vehicle to use, misuse, or abuse however we wish in a given life, and with such low stakes and the ability to come back to earth (or, if we get really woo-woo spiritual, to another planet with highly intelligent lifeforms), the subjectivity of what is good for me, what lessons I need to learn, become a moving target that ultimately leaves a wake of hurt feelings, sinful behavior, and destruction. If I enjoyed a boyfriend for a short time and then suddenly and inexplicably broke up with him? He was simply playing his part and I mine. If I failed to show up for a job that I was being counted on to do? I learned what I needed to from that experience, but now it was time to move on; had my supervising manager been more spiritually advanced, she would have known that and not been so angry.
Are there others who now believe exactly as I once did? I’m not sure, but the particulars of these beliefs aren’t so important. It’s that they are so highly subjective. There was no one truth, just a hodgepodge collection of what I wanted to believe, which could have changed at any time, to fit any whim or to avoid any moral discomfort. And so, in believing that I had chosen this life — and the people around me had done the same, each of us placed into the role we were to play that we set prior to being born, the general rules of the world, a great many of them set forth through the Judeo-Christian tradition, did not pertain to me; I was on the path to something greater. It was easy and, in all actuality, necessary to make justifications for my behavior. Otherwise I’d be forced to really pay attention to everything I was doing and realize how very wrong it was. I’d often say “I don’t believe in mistakes; mistakes only happen if you don’t learn anything from them. I’ve learned from lying (and getting caught)/cheating/being promiscuous/quitting jobs without notice/hurting my friends and family, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” Rightfully, it happened more than once that someone would accuse me of having a holier-than-thou attitude. No I don’t, I’d retort, but if I did it would be understandable. I’ve seen things. I know things.
The height of this subjective spiritual belief system, or perhaps I should say its low, came at the beginning of my senior year of high school, when I became pregnant. I apologized to the baby inside me but rationalized that we were both just playing the parts in our lives that we had previously agreed to when we were still in our spirit state, when we could see how this event would lead us ultimately to being more advanced beings. What was the body anyways, I’d say, but the trappings of our spiritual prison? I was freeing this little soul before it encountered too much pain and suffering, and perhaps we’d see each other again in the spirit realm and we could talk all this over and everything would be processed and forgiven.
But even in my state of deep rationalization and my belief at the time in mercy killings, I knew that it was wrong to kill, or agree to have killed, an innocent human being — why else then would I have apologized to that baby at all? — but agree I did, and an abortion soon followed. Afterwards, I wanted to be left alone. This was my journey, no one else’s, and so I was downright mean when my then-boyfriend wanted to talk and process what had happened together. I became increasingly insular and so it was no wonder that we broke up soon after. I spiraled into a depression filled with marijuana, alcohol, and casual sex. I barely remember the last half of my senior year of high school because I was high most of the time. One day I came home sober and I had no idea how to act walking inside the house. It must have looked so abnormal that my mother asked if I was drunk. During this time, I said it was the breakup that caused my antics, but it wasn’t. It was guilt over the abortion, and it was consuming me.
Several months later, I saw a fellow high school girl who had become pregnant, but not chosen death like I had. She was a Christian, I remember, and when I saw her, it was summertime. She wore a long flowing white maternity dress, and she looked radiant. And I felt so crumpled up and dirty. I wished that I could have been as brave as her.
Later on, I decided to quit all the bad behavior cold turkey. I gave up many of the friends whom I had accumulated along the way. I didn’t date for six months. I read a lot of Eastern religious literature and started eating well and staying far away from drugs and alcohol. I delayed going to college for the first semester so I could get myself in order. One day, during all of this healing, my mother told me that I looked like I was glowing. At the time, I still had a very active dream life and many of them still seemed to be coming true and I was journaling a lot so I attributed this comment and my feelings of newness to the fact that I must be closing in on enlightenment. But it was all fleeting. Anxiety over my future crept in, and the luster faded. Breaking free of this cycle of suffering had slipped out of my fingers, and I was back to the same old, same old, minus the bulk of the destructive behavior, in a matter of months.
Throughout college and after, I retreated to where I was most comfortable — trying desperately to hide how scared I was of mediocrity. At the time, I was all wings and no roots, and the reason for this was twofold: if I really was some important spiritual being, given a look backstage at what and who we humans really are, then I had better not waste it and so I needed to collect a lot of different experiences — people, places, things. This meant I couldn’t stay long in any one place, situation, job, experience, and so on. I needed to keep moving if I was ever to accomplish all I decided to do when I was still in the spirit realm before this particular life started. But the other reason was more egotistical. The less time I stuck around, the more enigmatic I could seem. I craved the mystery, the coolness of someone who flitted in and out, the girl who had thirty some odd jobs by the time she was twenty five. If I stayed too long in one spot, I was petrified I might be found out — that I wasn’t as cool or as enigmatic as I wanted people to think. It was all flash and fireworks with no substance underneath. I had no self-worth beyond the person I made myself out to be, and the more spiritually advanced I thought I was, the more shallow I actually became.
My opinions on Christianity were a mixed bag — at some points in college it became an interesting anthropological aspect of human history, something to be studied but not believed. I still held to the belief that most modern Christians were judgmental and hypocritical, and if Christ did anything, He only pointed to a great, universal truth that this organized religion, like many, alluded to but couldn’t quite hit the mark on. I became increasingly interested in Judaism during these years, as it seemed to offer God without the distraction of Jesus, but I studied the religion of Abraham and Moses only on the surface, never bothering to go much deeper than a semester in a religious studies class would allow.
Besides my belief in reincarnation, I also ascribed to a point of view in which God was probably real but more of the Creator and Sustainer of a universal dualism — equal parts light and dark that pushed against each other. One day the light would win, I was sure, and all the advanced spiritual beings would enjoy an eternity of bliss, while the bad ones would be set in what amounted to a cryogenically frozen state until they had worked through their evil thoughts and desires and were ready to join the good guys.
But over the course of my young adult years, as I gathered more life under my belt and the dreams I had, the feelings of spiritual importance seemed to be drying up, I began to worry. Without those, who was I? And the world seemed so awful. From the September 11th attacks to my cousin’s suicide to a dear friend dying in a car accident on the way to his own wedding, I began to wonder if maybe God had abandoned me, us, all of it. Where I had once been so confident in my beliefs because I was constantly being fed — or reading into — certain experiences that affirmed them, without these, it seemed that maybe I had got it wrong, either the darkness in the universe was stronger than the good or maybe there weren’t opposing forces at all, maybe there was nothing. And slowly, my ideas of reincarnation, the spiritual journey I was on, my moral subjectivity began to waver.
In the midst of these growing doubts, I had gotten pregnant, given birth, and about a year later, married my husband, Pat, whom I have always found to be an intelligent person. His abilities to reason through things clearly and quickly have always astounded me, and so when he expressed such confidence that God does not exist and when my own convictions were in the midst of crumbling, it was easy to start to leave my old beliefs behind. Between feeling very mediocre, stuck at a boring desk job with no real, interesting plans for the future, no dreams or spiritual Easter eggs to sustain me, despair crept in. I remember sitting on the edge of our bed one day, puzzling through all my thoughts and beliefs, looking back on the years that I felt I had wasted believing in God or the universe. I wasn’t a naive youth any longer. I was reasonable and smart. It was now time to put aside my childish ideas. And so for the first time, I formed the words in my mind. Tentatively I said them aloud:
“I don’t believe in God.”
It felt as strange and forbidden as the first time I yelled a curse word at my brother when we were kids. But as I spent more time with these new thoughts, the more accustomed to them I became. It wasn’t long before I was teasing my Catholic coworkers with a slice of pepperoni pizza on Fridays during Lent or joking with some atheist friends about the superstitious beliefs that simple-minded Christians held. “It must be nice to be so naive that you can believe all that stuff.” The superiority I had once felt as an advanced spiritual so-and-so was replaced by the superiority that I now felt as a more sophisticated atheist. The sin of pride factored heavily into both ends of the spectrum.
I was miserable. I had resigned myself to the idea that the world is just a haphazard collection of atoms with no overarching purpose, that we are each ultimately meaningless and forgotten cogs in the unfeeling machine of evolution.
I had a son, Roan. Not knowing anything about the power of motherhood, before his birth, I had assumed that I would love him in a similar fashion as I loved my dog, but when I first held him, I fell madly in love. It was unlike anything I had ever felt or experienced before. I poured my heart and all my time and energy into him.
And so while I was bogged down in a deepening existential depression, I held on to a desperate hope that maybe there was something more. Because here was this beautiful baby with big blue eyes and the best laugh in the whole world, and if my atheism was true, it meant that all the time I spent caring for him, reading to him, nursing him, bathing him, making him giggle, meant nothing. In one hundred years, we’d both be food for worms. The love, the time, the energy would have disappeared into nothingness. This conclusion devastated me.
To temper my feelings of despair, I shut out my husband in a lot of ways, wanting only to soak up this short time I had with my precious baby while it lasted. I drank a lot, with friends and without them. I spent a lot of time watching television. In general, I did what I could to numb a lot of emotional pain without doing anything too extreme.
It took a tremendous toll on my marriage. I was selfish and withholding. Pat was going through his own stuff at the time, neither of us was very present for each other. There were days when the bags were packed and one of us was going to move out. There were nasty comments and fights. Divorce was put on the table a number of times. But the fights ended, apologies were given, and we would commit to doing better. Things between us were good a lot of the time, but I was getting explosively angry a lot, Pat wasn’t as quick to forgive as he used to be, and the baseline of our day-to-day lives descended a little more with each fight.
As an extrovert, Pat maintained that one thing that would help us in our own relationship was if we expanded our social circle, found more friends, and did more socializing. Me, as an introvert, was horrified at the idea, but I felt bad about always telling him no to this sort of thing so I asked him where he thought we could find new friends as no one we knew had kids like we did and we didn’t want to revolve our lives around watching sports.
“Church?” my husband suggested.
“We can’t just join a church to get friends,” I said. “We have to actually, you know, believe in all that nonsense.”
He kind of laughed at that, but let it go. Months went by without the subject coming up again, but my very reasonable, rational, intelligent husband had begun to do some reading that seemed quite odd to me. He was exploring Buddhism and Taoism. He was curious about my old spiritual beliefs, which, while I no longer ascribed to them, I did think that if there was any transcendent truth to the universe, what I had once believed was probably still the closest to being correct (egotistical habits die hard apparently). Until one day, on a walk, he asked me, “Do you know much about Jesus?”
I looked at him like he was insane. “Um, yeah of course. I did my research, and I made up my mind a long time ago. Pretty interesting but not for me.”
Pat’s cheeks were flushed and he was getting more excited. “Yeah but do you know what He did? Who He claimed to be?”
I snorted. “He isn’t my ‘personal Lord and Savior’ if that’s what you’re getting at. I got enough of that crap when I was growing up. If people are weak enough to need a sort of middle man to God or whatever, then I guess He’s good for that.”
But Pat wasn’t really listening. I could see him working things through in his mind but didn’t know the extent to which he’s already bought into Christianity. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when he brought up the idea of going to church again.
“No,” I said.
“Why not? I think we should try it out.”
“But I don’t believe in this stuff. I can’t just go. I’m not gonna be a fake.” I was getting so angry. Pat had solidified my atheism, and now he was leaving me down there in that dark, dank pit alone? He was becoming kinder, a better father and husband, and yet, I was furious with him for it because it meant he was changing and leaving me behind, and so I kept pushing against his newfound desire to go to church.
But at this point, our house was collecting quite a few religious books. At first, they had been of the new age and spiritual slant, then Eastern, and now, it was hard not to notice, distinctly Christian.
“Will you at least read this one book,” he asked, handing me a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. “I think you’ll like it. It’s about an investigative journalist who’s an atheist and starts researching who Jesus was from a historical perspective.”
History? Journalism? Atheism? These were things I was already interested in so I reluctantly agreed to read it, but I told Pat, I would not become Christian, no way no how. I just couldn’t get past the negative memories I had from my youth of friends and strangers alike trying to convince me that I was fundamentally flawed and that Jesus had died to save me and because of it, I owed Him something in return.
But as I began to read, as Jesus was presented to me a way that I hadn’t really heard before — that He wasn’t just some spiritual teacher or a man-made legend but that He was God Made Man simply because He loves us so much — the hard outer shell I had constructed around my heart over the years as concerned Jesus cracked a little, and I realized later, it was all He needed.
By the time I got to the part of the book that explained Original Sin and that, yes, we actually did have red in our collective human ledger that only God could wipe out, all the suffering I had experienced over the years, all the love and the goodness, my devotion to my children, why my flaws never could be completely conquered — it all clicked together.
And so I shut the book and sat very still and very quiet and in the same spot in my room where I had once tentatively said I didn’t believe in God, I was saying a new and utterly terrifying and exhilarating set of words:
“I’m a Christian. I am a Christian.”
I believed in Christ, the actual, historical Person of Jesus, not some legend or mass hallucination, but true God and true Man who, with true love, came to wipe our slates clean. There was good, historical evidence from intelligent scholars to affirm all of this. It wasn’t just the wishful thinking of the naive as I had once thought. But within moments, other words came to mind: now what?
Thanks to an advertisement that I kept popping up on my Facebook feed leading up to this moment, I already knew. What the ad was marketing, I’m not quite sure, but the phrase stuck in my mind: “what if for thirty days, you just believed?” What if I did? What would that look like? I decided on a sort of faith challenge. For thirty days, I’d read the Bible and I’d go to church and I’d even wear a cross necklace and if anyone asks if I was a Christian, I’d say yes.
I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be a Christian, but I was now, quite suddenly, open to finding out. The cracks in the shell around my heart grew bigger, more structural, and as it turned out, I didn’t even need a full thirty days. Within a week, I had bought in completely. But I wasn’t yet a Catholic. In fact, when I had finally, shyly, admitted to my husband that I was now willing to go to church, I offered up nearly every Christian denomination, “but,” I said, “There’s no way in hell I’ll ever become a Catholic.” Joke’s on me.
We began going to a Lutheran church, as I had known a few Lutherans when I was younger, and I figured if we were going to be Christian, we should find a place where the worship was reverent, no mood lighting or PowerPoint presentations but also not so superfluous, like the pomp and circumstance that seemed to clutter the way to God as in a Catholic Mass. All of these requirements were met at the local Lutheran congregation.
But my husband still felt pulled in a different direction: Catholicism, a place I vowed never to go. As he wanted to learn more, I got sucked into learning more, too. Together, we watched Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series. In one episode, Bishop Barron explained the Eucharist, how elements of bread and wine weren’t just mere symbols pointing to Jesus, but became Jesus Himself. And suddenly I understood; the incense and music and stained glass windows and ornate altars and the motions and bowing and gesturing of the priests, all of these things worked to elevate our hearts and minds upward and to prepare those who were partaking in the Eucharist for what they were about to consume.
A few days later, Pat invited me to come to daily Mass with him. If I hadn’t already been on my knees when the bells rang three times, proclaiming the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, I would’ve fallen to them. I understood, and I knew it wasn’t enough just to be Christian. I needed to go all in. I was Catholic.
There were logistical things to tend to over the coming weeks: Withdrawing from the Lutheran church we had been attending, meeting with the religious sister in charge of adult faith formation, signing up for RCIA, completing paperwork, etc. But while some of the tasks weren’t terribly exciting, it felt so good and right to be on my way to the one, true Church. At the start of each RCIA meeting, the group would read and discuss the Gospel reading for the coming Sunday. One particular week, it was Matthew chapter 18, and as we came to verse 20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” chills ran over me. Jesus was here with us. It was a better and more complete feeling than anything that I’d felt as an anti-religious, spiritual so-and-so. All the cravings I’d ever had to be close to some universal love or truth … it was right there, and always had been there, in the Catholic Church.
In the wake of my conversion, everything has improved. It’s not that my life is any easier or that my daily sufferings are gone. Indeed, in many ways my life has gotten harder; I’m called to holiness and that means putting aside, in many cases, what is comfortable and doing what God asks of me instead, which can be quite uncomfortable, challenging, or even downright painful. But the quality of my life has changed. The despair that once consumed me is just an old memory. I am kinder, gentler, more patient. My marriage is lived out as a sacrament in a really beautiful way. I am a better mother, wife, daughter, and friend. I care more deeply about others and their suffering. Christ took the old, crumpled, worn me and fashioned someone completely new, and once I opened up even the tiniest bit to Him, He blasted away the hardness of my heart and made very quick work of me, and I, quite literally, thank God every day for not giving up on me, even though I had ignored, abused, and given up on Him for so many years.