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Atheist/AgnosticReverts to the Catholic Faith

Why Did Peter Sink?

Peter Flies
August 24, 2021 No Comments

Midway through my life’s journey, I saw the lights of a police car in my rear view mirror. I managed to get to the side of the road and go through a proper arrest. I recall refusing the sobriety test, not because I wanted to contest the policeman’s assessment in court, but because I could barely stand up. I had been driving 35 miles per hour on a 65 mile-per-hour highway, at 4 AM, with no shirt and no shoes. I was taken to detox, then to jail. It was the best day of my life.

How I Got There

I was raised Catholic, but lost faith when I discovered drinking. I was into sports and church, but those interests shifted over to drinking and books.

While I went to church often, I was simultaneously learning a great deal of science and math. Moreover, the idea of “questioning everything” became a prominent point in education. To search and explore questions about the natural world is a moral good. But science was slowly undermining my faith — not by its own fault, because science is a search for truth, just like faith, but on a different level. I recall a major “Easter” moment, when I asked an adult about the rock being rolled back at Jesus’s tomb. Surely, if someone rolled the rock in front of the tomb to close it, then a person or persons also could have rolled the rock away from the tomb. Even if the tomb was sealed, metal tools could have unsealed it just as easily. The respected elder person told me: “Don’t ask questions, just believe it.”

That comment caused an earthquake in me. Science seemed to question and correct itself, but the faithful appeared to not want any arguments or have a need to explain itself. Even in its wild tangents throughout history, given enough time, science did seem to right the ship if the findings changed. The response of “don’t ask questions” shook me, because prior to that I had been coming to faith like a child — because I was a child. In school, having been in “gifted” programs (still not sure how I was selected into these programs), we read books critically and asked questions. The same notions of reading seemed applicable to the weekly readings at Church, but being rebuffed in such a fashion, I started to doubt and even secretly laugh at some of the stories. Along with the rock at the tomb, I had many other questions, but if they could not be discussed or took a long time for me to explore, I didn’t have time or interest enough for the pursuit. I was of a generation that got a “lite” version of understanding faith; hence the major drift of unaffiliated people today. With my lack of deep understanding, it was sports, school, and parties that filled the vacuum.

So I moved on to other things. To smoke and drink at every opportunity seemed like freedom. That’s what I thought I enjoyed, or at least sought for escape. There was something of the “killing ourselves to live” mentality in the 1990s, and we really disliked authority, which seems a common attitude to all generations of teens and twenty-somethings.

A few other things happened that made a big difference. After the Soviets closed shop, our shared national fear of atheistic Communism started looking for a new scapegoat, and the overtly religious in our own country suddenly seemed suspect. Then, of course, the 9/11 attack happened, and the zealotry of it painted all religions with the same brush. Add to that the endless information on the internet, and I was streaking into atheism, alcohol, and being mostly anti-everything. Science, I thought, had all the answers, and religion was the enemy of progress. Politics and religion merged in a way that I thought cheapened faith, and I began to focus on Christians behaving badly and conflate them all as one big group of hypocrites.

Over my drinking years, my sense of right and wrong dwindled to a vague sense of “truth,” because my vice required a loose allowance toward mistakes. I could forgive others for their mistakes somewhat easily, because I needed to allow my own errors to happen and be excused. This circular logic permitted anything and celebrated my errors, making me the decider of all that was good or bad in the world. The main rule I adhered to could be summed up as “Leave me alone! I have my own rules.”

The Street Light God

Several years before the arrest for drunk driving, I had tried to quit drinking, doing a 28-day outpatient program, to fix myself and address the question of “What is wrong with me?” The propensity to drink and make a mess of life ate at me enough that I had decided to get help. I nearly walked out on the first day when I read the 12 steps on the wall. The first step required capitulation to a Higher Power. Nevertheless, I stayed. I had to start very small in terms of faith to even begin the process. I remember that after one meeting, a man told me to make the street light my Higher Power.

“For now, just give thanks to that Street Light for everything in your life.”

I laughed. “Seems a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

“Ask the Street Light for help every day when you get on your knees. Street Light is greater than you are.”

“Uh, ok.”

As stupid as it sounds, this was a starting place. I am quite certain there is no organized religion in the world that would suggest this, but I know from my own experience and that of various other doubters that choosing something simple works — a stapler, a plant, a lawnmower … or a street light. If you play this game and allow some object to be your Higher Power, really praying to it for strength and direction, that street light will amaze you. Comical and ridiculous? Absolutely. But so are human beings, and sometimes laughing about it helps kickstart ideas. I recall praying: “Street Light, please help me today. Help me to not drink, and to be nice to people and not be the idiot that I usually am. Help to be a better father and husband and son and co-worker instead of my typical narcissistic self. And maybe I could try to swear less, too. Thank you, Street Light. Amen.”

If it sounds like I’m making light of establishing a Higher Power or finding God, I am not. Not all people can easily return to believing in God once they have fallen away or become agnostic or atheist. Once I lost my faith during my late teenage years, I lost the ability to believe or even find a reason to pray. Devoted religious people seem to be unwavering in their faith, to the point that they cannot even fathom how someone could doubt.

This was the beginning of my return, but I had a long way to go.

So to Jail

A few years later, in 2016, I was right back in the loop of drinking to excess and wondering why I couldn’t help myself. Being arrested and jailed brought an awareness of my powerlessness, not just in my physical state, but also in my mental state. The “Big Empty” in my heart, of living without faith and feeling no meaning, had set in through the hours of detox. The handcuffs were a physical reminder of my lack of control while I rode in the police car. I had no choices. No media, no snacks, no smartphone. Possibly, for the first time, I understood what freedom actually meant, since in losing these things, it was only then that I realized the unbridled freedom my entire life had been. I had been born in the most “free” time in history, with the fewest personal struggles — no war, no disease, no death — yet I had invented my own struggles and even felt depressed most of the time. I had been taking depression medication for years.

In talking with other jailbirds, I could see that their flaws, and mine mirrored theirs. Yet I still thought I was not like them. My aim exceeded theirs, my thoughts went deeper, my personhood was somehow imbued with specialness. My life meant more, and they were fools. Yet here I was, in the same place with them.

Higher Power, Part II

By court order and a firm resolve to quit drinking for good, I resumed attending AA meetings and sought prayer, not from the Street Light god, but from the real God.

I remember one of the first times that prayer proved to me that it had a power like no other. A friend had asked me to go see a movie, Transformers 2, and since I had enjoyed the toy as a kid, I agreed, thinking that a night out would be fun. But the Transformers movie proved so horrible, and so unnecessarily long, that I felt I would writhe out of my skin. The non-drinking and the stress of trying to keep my depression under control came to a climax in that movie theater, spurred on by the absurdity of the movie. So bad was it that I said the Our Father about ten times, just to outlast the cinematic torture and avoid insulting my friend, who loved the movie. I realize this is a ridiculous anecdote about the power of prayer. Watching a movie is not a hardship, but in the moments when we discover things about ourselves, it’s not always poetic.

I tried an Evangelical church for a while, but I just couldn’t appreciate the concert format of the service. I loved the people but, frankly, I didn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and so long as that doubt remained, I knew I couldn’t be a Christian of any flavor. St. Paul had said it himself: that if the resurrection didn’t happen, why would we even talk about Jesus? It all came down to the resurrection, and I didn’t believe in miracles.

A New Idol Called Fitness

Having lost my driver’s license, I started riding my bicycle around the city, and I came to realize that I actually enjoyed riding a bike. Then I started running, realizing that with drinking removed from my life, my body was actually quite healthy. I had told myself lies for 20 years about my bad knees, when it was addiction and blindness that was the actual problem. I kept a small space for a Higher Power, for God, in my mind and heart, but the goal had shifted toward feats of fitness. I had joined the Church of Iron, where weights and treadmills were the focus.

When I realized that I could run 13 miles, the next goal became the full marathon. After that, I ran more marathons. These goals became fixations.

But there was one problem. I developed a pattern of anticipation leading up to the event; then afterward, there was a kind of bottoming-out. The race prep held excitement and wonder, and the race itself felt like a purging of pent-up time and energy. But then, the day after a race, perhaps partially from soreness or from the depletion of nutrients, an ennui toward life took hold. A dysphoria followed the euphoria of the race, and I finally realized that this low feeling was prompting me to start searching for the next race to run, so that I could get back to where I wanted to be. In essence, the races were like being drunk. The highs and the lows still followed my life; it did not matter whether I was in shape or not, sober or drunk. The restlessness and anxiety could return at any time, and the worst days, those “black dog days” of dysfunction and hopelessness, could arrive without so much as a stubbed toe to blame.

So I signed up for the 50K and ran it. I guess it wasn’t enough mileage, it didn’t cure anything.

I signed up for full Ironman for the coming summer. Surely the Ironman competition would cure me. This was the real thing. So I trained for the next year, teaching myself to swim.

As I came toward the finish line of the Ironman race, I heard the announcer saying, “You are an Ironman.” The mission was complete. I now had over three years of sobriety under my belt, a multitude of marathons for proof of change, and the label of Ironman to boot. I had proved I could change my life.

For a few days, I basked in the glory of that achievement. But within a week, I started inspecting my bike and shopping for new shoes. I started checking race schedules, to find the next challenge. After a week, the euphoria faded and flat-lined. The “Big Empty” was back. Once again I was depressed and wondering: “Now what?” A restless spirit and a hungry heart gnawed at me.

The Great Realization

I realized that I already had everything. Everything this world has to offer, I had experienced or obtained it, and still the restlessness and the wandering mind scanned for something more or new or different. There was literally nothing more in the world that I wanted beyond what I already had. I had a family. I had a loving wife, Denise, to whom I had been married since 2003. I had a good job, two healthy children in elementary school, a nice house, a reliable car, respect from my peers, an excess of energy from exercise, and I had my health. Still, I felt unhappy much of the time. I was stunned to find out that reading St. Augustine’s pre-conversion life in his Confessions was like staring into a mirror.

I had scribbled down a quote from an author named Chris Stefanick that I felt related to me: “Life is more than comfort. Life is more than a list of accomplishments and activities. While such a list might help you fill out a college or job application, it does not fill up your heart.”

The obvious truth became apparent: I could not find fulfillment in materialism, mindfulness, knowledge, or even charity work and volunteering. The journey was leading me to one place, and that was back to where I started — to God. This is very hard to admit for a stubborn person. The funny part is that this was my hidden fear. With all my swagger and anti-God talk for years, instead of everyone else looking like hypocrites, I was the hypocrite!

Around this time, I felt the tug to return to church, and I started attending Holy Spirit parish in Rochester, MN, slipping into the back rows. When one of my children wanted to be baptized, we said yes. And it was only then that I started to rediscover and realize just how little I actually knew about the Church, despite my many years of growing up in the faith.

I started listening to and reading books from Word on Fire, after a tip from a friend. The Word on Fire Bible and its commentaries on the Gospels literally changed my view on many things. There was a voice in Bishop Robert Barron that I had never heard nor expected to come from a priest, as I had written off the Church a long time ago. But he cut through the noise, getting to the heart of the Christian message. Not long after that, I picked up a Catechism of the Catholic Church. At that point, I realized that I didn’t know much of anything about Catholicism. So I had a lot of work to do to catch up.

I did not become a believer overnight. However, I began to ask, seek, and knock on the door. I found that if I kept doing those three things, I gained understanding in the areas where I had struggled. Everything began to change for me. Having walled myself off from God, I had walled myself in … to isolation and a total loss of wonder.

I used to say, “Churchgoers are just using God as a crutch.” Now I think, “Wow, this is such a terrific crutch, I should have been using it all along, instead of those other ones!” Asking for help and praying to God is so much better than the crutches of TV, beer, sex, celebrities, and constant seeking of others’ approval. The escapism of my past was really the ultimate crutch, and a weak one at that. Now, when I hear the “crutch” argument, I can’t help laughing.

But Who Moved the Stone?

I felt exactly like St. Augustine, who said some 1700 years ago: “I was being killed by the Old Testament passages when I took them literally.” Once I read his Confessions, I soon stumbled upon someone that spelled out the difference between “literally” and “literarily.” One syllable, a few letters. But it makes all the difference in the world.

The Catholic approach to Scripture is different from the Fundamentalist view, which reads Scripture in a literalistic way. To discern the truth that God put into Scripture, we have to interpret the Bible literarily, remembering that God speaks to us in a human way. This means that we examine the context and intent of the author for any given passage (gleaned from Symbolon, session 3).

The power of one syllable is stunning. Literally versus literarily makes a world of difference, and for me, was a major stepping stone to faith. This powerful syllable punched a hole in my wall to allow me to approach the Bible again, and the Word on Fire Bible, with its commentaries, ignited my faith as I gained insights to the Gospels as if I had never read them before.

Good Without God?

There is much chatter in recent decades about being “good without God.” Sure, you can be “good” without God. But the hollowness of that state crumbles under duress. And as someone has pointed out, yes, people can be good without God, but the more important question was: could I? And the Catechism spelled out the truth that I knew from my heart: “What Revelation makes known to us is confirmed by our own experience. For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 401).

I know all too well that when I turn my focus away from God, I will soon start to scowl and stew, to distrust people and hate them for their foibles. When I keep myself in prayer and hope, when I turn toward God, I can love my neighbor and expect nothing in return. My story is like that of Peter being invited out of the boat to walk on the water. As Fulton Sheen said, Peter was “courageous in the boat, but timid on the waters.” I now know why Peter started to sink. He looked away from Jesus when he became scared of the danger. He focused on himself and was instantly lost in fear. When we look away from God, we sink.

I was getting closer to faith all the time. But as I already knew, Christian faith all comes down to the resurrection of Jesus.

Asking Questions, This Time Finding Answers

Every miracle and parable, every clever comeback and turning of the cheek are not the most important thing. If the resurrection does not occur, then the whole New Testament is a fairy tale and loses its power. If there’s no resurrection, then Jesus was just a crazy, even if insightful, teacher.

I came across a used book in a Goodwill thrift store called Who Moved the Stone? which struck at my doubts, one after another, and brought down the last of the wall blocking my faith.

I cannot fathom the immense drive and spirit of the Apostles, who tended to waffle, quibble, and argue. The flaws and frailties of these men make them clearly human, not fiction. And they went from cardboard to steel alloy in conviction and boldness. Their message never wavered in the aftermath of that event. To me, the only explanation is that they did indeed experience and confirm the resurrection of Jesus. All of the apostles were fearful and had fled to hiding places during and after the crucifixion, but once the resurrection happened, they became bold and fearless, willing to suffer any amount of pain to tell the world what happened.

These first Christians didn’t give their lives for a philosophical system … they died to uphold what they knew because they had seen it with their own eyes. Had it been a lie, then why die for it? One after another, these eyewitnesses gave up their lives defending the truth they had seen: Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead (Stefanick, The Search, p. 119).

Something happened for these people, something profound, mysterious, impossible and life-changing. Robert Barron says it best:

That this dejected band would spontaneously generate the faith that would send them careening around the world with the message of Resurrection strains credulity. What is undeniably clear is that something had happened to Jesus — something so strange that those who witnessed it had no category to describe it. (Word On Fire Bible, p. 280).

Through daily readings, I have come to believe. My faith has come by effort and truly needs continual conversion to stay strong. I did not fall off a horse, like Paul did. It was a slow burning understanding, reading, asking questions, reflecting, praying and taking that leap toward belief. I formally returned to the Catholic Church in 2019.

I cannot explain how resurrection can occur, but I now believe that events can happen that are beyond our comprehension. Science, for all its wonderful contributions, does not and will not ever explain everything. Even if life is discovered on other planets, if our physicists take us to the depths of the quantum world, if biology cures the last disease, if psychologists can prescribe effective solutions for all mental ailments, none of that can replace the need for God in my heart. I have followed it all the way down to the end of the line, and I know that the answer to all questions is through faith, by surrendering my will and intellect to belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

The flaw of humanity is real, and I find nothing more convincing than the resurrection of Jesus as the cure, for the forgiveness of me and my enemies. This is the only way to live in the world, holding on to each other for the promise of the next. The empires of today will fall away, like every other empire before it, but the truth of the Christian faith will endure. People have in the past, and will again in the future, use, abuse, and twist the Faith to make it a tool of worldly power, but the center will hold, because love and forgiveness shine through to the end. Straying from faith cannot go on forever, because the truth is written on our hearts, and we cannot help but come back to the truth. I have looked everywhere for something better. There is nothing better on offer, nothing like resurrection and the forgiveness of sins — nothing above it, nothing with more truth, and nothing more satisfying to the heart. Once you believe, only then will you understand.


Peter Flies

Peter Flies lives in Rochester, MN with his family. He writes about wayward ways, endurance sports, conversion, and Catholicism on his website at https://whydidpetersink.substack.com/about. He is the author of the novel A Town Called Immaculate. 


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