Monday, August 08, 2011

A Reader Asks - Part 1: Difficulties

Conversion of St. Paul - Murillo

I always find hearing about other people's faith journeys extremely fascinating. I love hearing about the similarities in thought processes, and also noting the differences. What one person found difficult to understand or accept along the way, another person may not have had a problem with at all. But, more often than not, especially when people are coming from similar backgrounds, there are striking similarities. As such, it can be helpful for those potential converts still in the midst of muddling through Catholic beliefs, trying to make heads and tails of so much new information, to know what it is others struggled with, what helped them and gave clarity along the way, and what they had to just take on faith.

I was recently asked just this by a reader of my blog and forum with whom I've enjoyed a bit of correspondence, and thought it would be a great chance to share it on my blog as well. :-) I'll cover each question in a different post, starting with the first.

The reader writes:
I was wondering what in particular you found the hardest to accept about the catholic faith during that long process
My answer to this probably stems from my "thinking" style personality, because as far as Church teachings went, all the arguments I read were so convincing to me that I simply can't recall being completely unconvinced on any one teaching or struggling to accept it. Once I had been convinced of the huge foundational matter of Magisterial authority, once I accepted that God didn't just write down rules for us to follow but actually gave us a living authority to guide and teach us, accepting what that authority taught almost came with a sense of relief. I didn't have to figure everything out on my own, Christ instituted and left us a guide, protected by the Holy Spirit! Hooray! Even more than that, what this authority taught sounded logical and was clearly steeped in wisdom, and further it opened up scripture to me in ways I'd never dreamt possible. But, that didn't mean my feelings kept up with my head!

For me the hardest part was grappling with residual feelings and gut reactions which I'd had all my life. For instance, one minor belief in the grand scheme of things but one which sticks in my mind as being particularly difficult was the matter of drinking alcohol. I'd been taught my whole life that it was poison, inherently and intrinsically evil. Daily evidence on the news of drunk drivers killing innocent people, drunk husbands beating wives, and college kids dying of alcohol poisoning at parties made it easy to accept that alcohol was indeed an evil, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I can honestly say I was never tempted by friends or circumstance to drink, because it just wasn't a part of my life and from where I stood it was only ever associated with negative outcomes.

Because of this, during the course of my conversion, while I did find the historical, biblical, and theological arguments in favor of alcohol to be logical and convincing, I still just had a mental hangup with it. I mean, obviously I knew that accepting that alcohol wasn't intrinsically evil didn't mean I had to start drinking myself, but it made my stomach churn to even think of having a husband who drank! I just didn't want to be anywhere near the stuff!

What finally helped me move past this knee-jerk reaction was realizing that alcohol ≠ drunkenness.

I was able to see responsible drinking modeled, especially in my not-yet-husband's French family. I could see that for them, appreciating a good wine was just a part of being thankful for God's many gifts, the way they were for the delicious food on the table as well. To this day, I can't say that I've ever seen my husband drunk, and while I generally don't drink much myself (unless something is sugary sweet, I just can't abide the taste, lol), I no longer have those knee jerk reactions. As with anything, moderation is key, and while scripture does condemn drunkenness, and while I still believe that abusing alcohol can and does often have tragic consequences, I have no doubt that alcohol is not the intrinsic evil I once thought it was.

Another quick example of my feelings not keeping up with my head is on the matter of Marian devotion. If you haven't read it, Mark Shea does an EXCELLENT (and often quite humorous) job describing the deep seated gut reactions we converts have against Marian devotions in the third book of his trilogy, Mary, Mother of the Son. I could identify with so much of what he said, it was spot on. While I'd accepted the teachings on Mary, while I was amazed at the beauty of these teachings and how every one of them ultimately pointed back to Christ, seeing the outrageous, too-colorful, too-flowery devotions of Catholics (and especially Catholics from other cultures) just made me want to get up and run away. After being raised in an environment where even a plain cross on the wall was viewed as unacceptable to God for graven image reasons, seeing such blatant and visually overwhelming love-bombs for Mary was a scary thing!

Some of getting over this visceral reaction was just getting used to the aesthetics around me, but some of it was also learning not to judge others' hearts or intentions. I would remind myself that it was not my place to judge whether this person was honoring Mary above God, and even if I wanted to I couldn't see their heart. I reminded myself that nothing I'd read from the Magisterium concerning doctrinal matters on Mary ever came close to elevating her above Christ. And most of all, I gazed at paintings of Mary looking at and pointing to her Son, and reminded myself that even *if* some people were going overboard in their devotion to her, Mary herself would guide them closer to Christ, because that is what she does.

So those stick out in my mind as some of the toughest parts of my conversion, I suppose it is always difficult to undo a lifetime of ingrained knee-jerk reactions and strong feelings. Thanks be to God, I feel that due to the Church's teachings on such things I now have a healthier and more balanced understanding of the reality. It's often easier to forbid something outright than to try and have it in moderation, which requires self-control and temperance. We've all been there...throw all the cookies away, get rid of them!! That typically seems easier than having them there as an option and having to practice self control. But while that may work temporarily, often those who focus on appreciating one good cookie now and then do better in the long run. The cookie isn't evil, but abusing the cookie is. ;-)

So how about you? If you're a convert or perhaps a revert, I'd love to hear what some of the hardest parts about converting were for you. :-)

I'll continue with the next question in my next post, so stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

Hi, Stephanie. I just now realized you've started blogging again. Just wanted to say that my difficulties with the whole Mary issue and any concerns that the Catholic Church placed Mary over Christ pretty much vanished after a few months of being in RCIA and actually being at least somewhat involved in my local parish. Before that, Catholics did seem somehow overly passionate about Mary. But at some point after having gone to Mass and other events several times, I realized that Catholics are pretty much passionate about everything. It's not really like Mary is getting any special treatment, especially when you realize how important the Eucharist is in the Catholic Church.

Matt W
PS, Sorry for not commenting much on the board these days!

Stephanie said...

Hey Matt, good to hear from you! An excellent point, it's hard to compare from the outside when you don't have the Eucharist and know the love people have for it.

And no worries, it's my board and I don't comment much these days either, lol! Just been busy with life. :-)