Submerged in the Ocean | David Paul Deavel | Catholic World Report
The challenges in Catholic conversion don’t end at the Church’s door.
“I think more should be written about conversion within the Church. It is a more difficult subject than conversion without.” — Flannery O’Connor
By the time I was received into the Catholic Church 15 years ago I had already read a number of stories of conversions to the faith—Newman’s Apologia, Avery Dulles’ A Testimonial to Grace, Scott Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, and many others in essay or book form. I still love reading conversion stories, not just from people whose background is like mine (Evangelical and Calvinist), but from a wide variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds. Each one reminds me yet again that, in Chesterton’s words, “The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” Yet entering from a hundred gates they all find a welcome since, as Hilaire Belloc put it, the Church is “the natural home of the Human Spirit.”
But conversion stories, with their dramatic conclusions, may by their very genre leave an incomplete impression. The convert has found the gate and entered and is now at home. The story is now over. There is nothing more to be done. In the case of some lives, that may be true. If you enter the Church on your deathbed, there isn’t much to be done but pray and wait for the end—after that a bit of roasting in purgatory, but that’s passive. For most of us who enter the Church, our conversion is not the end of this life, but more like a new beginning. While it is a home, it is also like the stable in Bethlehem: it is bigger on the inside than the out. This discovery is both exhilarating and frightening in equal measures. It requires that the Catholic convert always be a convert, not just in the sense of having that past action a part of his identity, but also that conversion is a lifelong activity. Flannery O’Connor wrote to a friend, “You don’t join the Catholic Church. You become a Catholic.” That process, I’ve discovered, involves more than just the sacraments of initiation and a good first confession. It has its own joys and challenges.
“It felt like being submerged into the ocean.” Former Episcopalian R. R. Reno used this image to explain to a friend what his experience of conversion was. He meant that, like the ocean and unlike his Protestant denomination, he found ultimately that the Catholic Church was beyond any theological theory and needed no theological theory to prop it up. It is, as Reno puts it, “the mother of theologies.” The Church partakes in the infinite mystery of Christ and is thus beyond our comprehension. While many converts can say this, the actual experience of it is something different.