Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Reader Asks - Part 3: Taking it on Faith

The Ecstasy of St. Paul - Poussin

This is the third and final question I was asked by a reader about my conversion.

A reader asks:
[I was wondering] what things, if any, you still wrestled with when you decided to take the plunge, and just entrusted to faith and time.
I think I have a boring and very typical-of-converts answer to this one, lol. I definitely still had some Mary-and-the-saints type issues (mostly just those residual feelings). As I said in answer to the first question, intellectually the theological and doctrinal arguments made total sense to me. They lined up with history and scripture when explained well, they even made a lot more sense of some parts of scripture! But...well...still some of the prayers just frankly rubbed me the wrong way. I'd bristle upon hearing such prayers, and that little voice in my head would say, "Um...are you sure about this?" Lol! But, with time and exposure to people who prayed these prayers devoutly, it became obvious that these prayers were somehow bringing them closer to Christ, through Mary. The Mother points us to the Son, always, and really what are the chances you're going to start loving Jesus' mom more than He does? I'd wager they're pretty slim!

Other than that, a fairly big issue for me was interpretation of scripture. I'd been raised with a strictly literal interpretation of scripture, being told our "interpretation" was so literal that it wasn't even an interpretation...we were just reading the words on the page and taking them at face value, no interpretation necessary! I saw scripture mainly as a blueprint, a rulebook, dictated by God and meant to be read as a manual, memorizing scriptural bullet points for each potential life issue to be spewed whenever necessary.

So, it was difficult at times to readjust my understanding of scripture, to acknowledge the human element of the authors, to realize that while they were inspired and always wrote truth and while the Church maintains that scripture is inerrant, they still wrote it through the lens of their own human time and culture. I came to understand that they did not write history then the way we tend to write history now, and that the Bible is not one book, but a library which includes poetry, allegory, parable, history, theology, etc. I had to come to terms with the fact that "true" is not limited to "strictly literal." Once again, I was wrongly associating two ideas and it was difficult for me to separate them in my mind.

Now, don't misunderstand, there are some scholars who go so far as to say Jesus didn't really perform miracles and they basically want to take the supernatural out of the scriptures. That's not what I was trying to believe myself. I was just so extremely literally-minded that even the idea that the Great Flood may not have actually covered the entire world, but just the entire part of the world the writers knew of was difficult to wrap my head around, just because of my flawed association of "strictly literal" with "true."

But, at the end of the day I was convinced that the Church was our Teaching Authority, that she compiled scripture, and thus she was the best interpreter of scripture, and I acknowledged that much of my approach to scripture had been flawed. So even though at first I still bristled and creased my brow at some new-to-me interpretations, over time I've come to appreciate the Church's explanations of scripture, especially those times when she acknowledges there is more than one way to understand many things in scripture. I do not feel the veracity or inerrancy of scripture is in any way threatened by this more flexible approach, in fact I see now that it is strengthened by it the way a large flexible branch is stronger than a rigid twig ready to snap.

One thing I have seen over and over again from converts who struggled with something and yet took it on faith is how great the virtue of obedience makes humility grow! I often find myself in awe of the humility I see in others who bow their will in submission to that of the Church's, and thus to God's will. It certainly reminds me how far I have to go myself!

I am also reminded of the wisdom of St. Augustine's famous quote:
"Seek not to understand so that you may believe, but believe so that you may understand."
It really is astounding how often something doesn't make sense until you accept it on faith and live it.

Thanks so much to the reader who asked these questions! To those readers who are themselves converts, I'd love to hear your own answers as well. :-)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Reader Asks - Part 2: Eye-Openers

The Conversion of St. Paul - Parmigianino

We'll continue on with the next question I received about my conversion from a reader, concerning ways in which I was helped to come to a better understanding of the faith.

The reader asks:

[I was wondering] what things in particular (of course, prayer and faith are givens!) you found to be the key to an "aha!" moment?
I think there are several different phases within my faith journey, and the answer probably changes depending on where I was.

At the earliest and very initial stages, the biggest aha moments I had - and this is going to probably sound ridiculously obvious - were when I truly listened to and considered the other side's argument.

Prior to this I had the awful habit of what I'd call offensive listening. I wasn't really listening to hear what the other person was saying, I was listening only to find my next point of attack. There wasn't really any need to genuinely understand the point, because, very simply, I already knew they were wrong.

But something - undoubtedly God's grace - nudged me to actually listen to and consider the other points. To me, it was like taking off the CoC pair of glasses through which I'd always viewed the world, and tentatively peeking through Catholic glasses. It was playing "What If" and in doing so, being suddenly able to see pieces of the puzzle falling into place all around me which hadn't made sense in my former world view.

Once I made this more of a habit, and really began considering views other than my own, most of my aha moments came just from reading well-written books about the faith. So often, some basic point would be made, some simple reference to scripture tied to some Catholic belief, the simplicity and clarity of which would almost make me gasp in awe.

Yet another way my eyes were opened suddenly was through looking at history. Seeing descriptions from the earliest centuries of mass, and especially discussions about the Eucharist made me understand very clearly Bl. John Cardinal Newman's wise words, "To be steeped in history is to cease to be protestant."

As I progressed and began tentatively participating in Catholic life, seeing the beliefs I'd been devouring through the written word actually come to life around me in the mass and other devotions was very often an eye-opening experience. It helped me realize that there really is something humanly necessary about incarnating our beliefs in action, about doing rather than just mentally assenting to or holding a belief. Even more poignant than seeing others do such things around me was doing them myself. Talking about kneeling if Jesus were here in front of you is nice, but actually lowering yourself to kneel in front of Jesus in the Eucharist is humbling in a way like no other. Sometimes, when you don't understand something from the outside, you have to just jump in and DO, and then no words are necessary, understanding comes.

Even now, I continue to have such moments where things just click and I understand a long-held belief in a new way, and most of these probably happen through either participating in some liturgical action or through reading since that is my preferred way of learning new things! But yes, constant prayer is certainly important as well, specifically asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit. I think that's probably one of those prayers God always says yes to. ;-)

Was there anything in particular that helped to give you sudden clarity? Do share!

We'll cover the final question in the next post, so come back soon!

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!