Wednesday, April 21, 2010

David Mills: Anatomy of a Conversion

Over at The New Oxford Review, my friend David Mills has published an essay on his conversion to Catholicism. Here are some excerpts:

When I moved from debate to discovery, I would sometimes ask Catholic friends about the Church and Catholic life, wanting them to explain what it felt like from the inside. They would almost always give me an answer from the apologetic books, which I had already learned. I wanted something like "In confession, I've really had to face…" or "Let me tell you about the time I turned to the Blessed Mother…" or "I love to pray before the Blessed Sacrament because…." I tried to ask more penetrating questions, and was usually answered with a quizzical look and a repetition of the apologetic answer.
I did not find the directly argumentative works very helpful, except at two stages. When I first found myself attracted to the Catholic Church — and "found" is exactly the right word — they helped explain some Catholic beliefs that baffled or bothered me, and helped me justify pursuing the attraction. When I began to turn to the Church, and my affections were changing faster than my convictions, they provided the kind of point-scoring I found reassuring and confirming. "Point-scoring" is not meant dismissively, because there were points to be scored, and value to me in seeing them scored.
As I grew closer to the Church, I began to lose interest in having my questions answered in that way, and, I think, looking back after nine years as a Catholic, that this movement in my thinking was right. Judging the Church by her score would have been like listing my girlfriend's virtues and vices (as I saw them then) and deciding whether to call her again based on the final score. I would have missed the deeper realities, the ones apologetics doesn't touch....

My own experience of conversion was partly intellectual, but partly and probably mostly affective, in the sense that I came to feel the attraction and beauty of the whole, and that here was a body and a life into which I wanted to — had to — enter. The "converging probabilities" that drew me in, to use John Henry Newman's term, came from all sides, from observation and prolife activism and participation in the liturgy and growing Marian devotion and visiting churches as much as from reading and reflection. This was my own experience, but I'm fairly sure it is also true for all but the most intellectual of converts I've known, and perhaps true of them as well in ways others can't see.
Even the intellectuals appealed to me for reasons other than their arguments. As I continued to read, pray, and reflect, and, to the extent an outsider could, to experience bits and pieces of the Catholic life, I began to feel of several writers that I wanted to be in that body in which this mind could be what it was. I felt this first of Newman and G.K. Chesterton, but then of Ronald Knox and Flan nery O'Connor and Sigrid Undset and Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene (in his Catholic period) and a whole host of others, and even people like Albert Camus, who reflected the Church even in his atheism. But I was entranced not just by their arguments, or even primarily by their arguments, but by the shape of their minds, their grasp of the world and the life of faith.

You may read the whole thing here.


kkollwitz said...

What a winsome article. I'm reminded of my good fortune to be a Cradle Catholic: I have a Catholic imagination, and didn't have to labor to get it.

Christopher Lake said...

Dr. Beckwith,

Thank you sharing this story with us. Even though I have not returned to Mass (yet), as one who definitely has an intellectual bent, this account deeply resonates with me.

I apologize for the length of this comment, but I am sincerely and urgently seeking your wisdom for where I am now spiritually. I'll share my story (for context), and then a question.

I am a former Catholic convert (from agnosticism). I was catechized (so to speak), in the mid-1990s, by a priest who thought that because people were "leaving the Church," she "needed to change." He also taught me that it is the laity, in the Church, who decides what they, as Catholics, believe, and that this "consensus" then works it way up to the Pope, who ultimately affirms it. (Just try to tell that to Pope Paul VI, author of Humana Vitae!)

Due to my poor catechesis, and for other sinful reasons of my own fault, I ultimately ended up leaving the Church and plunging into a life of sin. Years later, when I finally returned to God, it was through the Baptist, and later, Reformed Baptist, tradition. I bought completely into the Reformed Baptist theology and ecclesiology, vocally repudiated my former Catholicism as a "false gospel," and shared my new Calvinist, anti-Catholic outlook with many people, both Christian and non-Christian.

Well, approximately eight months ago, God began bringing to my mind long-ago memories of orthodox Catholic authors whom I read (obviously, not often or deeply enough though) years ago as a Catholic convert. One example is Peter Kreeft. I began to experience a slight dissonance within in my mind and heart, wondering, "How could such Godly authors not even know Christ (if the strongly Reformed view of Catholicism is correct)?"

I began to go back and read Kreeft's work, and then I read and listened to the works and thoughts of so many other Catholics... Pope Benedict XVI, Scott Hahn, Steve Ray, Johnette Benkovic, Donald Currie, Thomas Howard, Tim Staples, and you!

At first, I was just surprised, and then happy, to find my Reformed Baptist world widening, as I realized that I could, indeed, accept Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ and learn from the Catholic theological and philosophical tradition. Fairly quickly though, my Catholic reading became deeply intellectually challenging to my Reformed Baptist views. I had trouble refuting what I was reading and began to meet with an elder from my church to talk through Catholic/Reformed issues.

That was several months ago now-- and the more that I read and think, I don't see how I can remain a Protestant for much longer. For the first time in my life (even as a former Catholic convert!), I an seeing the great Biblical sense of Catholicism, its theological and philosophical consistency, and the serious, inherent inconsistencies of the Protestant framework.

In addition to becoming intellectually convinced of the truth of Catholicism, I am also being *drawn* to the Church, in much the same way as the author of this post describes. It is a visceral experience. It is actually becoming mentally and emotionally painful for me *not* to return to the Church.

However (and not that this will ultimately stop me), I know that if or when I do return, I will almost certainly lose many (if not most) of my current Reformed friends. Moreover, as a single, unmarried male, I am currently sharing a house with a brother in Christ who is ex-Catholic, anti-Catholic, Reformed, and not even *willing* to reconsider Catholicism. I can't afford to move into my own place, but returning to the Church is going to create serious tension between us (much more for him than for me).

How do you recommend that I navigate this situation with my roommate and other friends from my church? Thank you for taking the time to read this. God bless you, my brother in Christ.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Christopher - I will pray for you at Mass today. I became a Christian out of - well, not even agnosticism - out of "God? What's that?"-ism. Fairly quickly became a hotshot member of a Reformed Church (in the Dutch Reformed, infant baptist line rather than Reformed Baptist, but very Calvinist). I was received into the Catholic Church in 1995 and despite poor catechesis, was protected by all the reading I had done of orthodox Catholic and near-Catholic (e.g. C. S. Lewis) writers.

God be with you and draw you to the Eucharist!


Christopher Lake said...

Thank you so much for your prayers, John. They are appreciated.