When I think about my conversion and how very drastically my life and my views changed in a relatively short time, I often try to pinpoint what they key experiences were that kept me on track. I had so many doubts, went through so many spiritual dry spells, had so few emotionally powerful experiences — I sometimes wonder why I didn’t throw in the towel and go back to the comfort of atheism that I’d known all my life.
One big reason is simply that, on a purely intellectual level, I came to believe that God exists and that what the Catholic Church teaches is true. (The details of that are the subject of a different, very long post.) Though this was a critical factor, it wasn’t the biggest reason I stayed on the path to God. The lure of a worldly life and the comfort of selfishness would probably have led me to slip back into functional atheism at some point.
The biggest reason I never gave up is simply because I began to have faith. Rather suddenly, I began to feel God’s presence in my life and the world all around me. What I thought to be true on an intellectual level I now knew to be true from the bottom of my heart. I had prayed and prayed and suffered one long spiritual dry spell after another for two years and then, seemingly out of the blue, my doubts faded away and I was aware of Christ’s presence in a subtle but important way — like being aware of the beating of my heart (to borrow from John C. Wright’s phrase).
So what did it? How did I finally come to believe in my heart after so long of believing only in my mind? I’ve thought a lot about this lately, and I think I finally have the answer: I dusted off the mirror.
After I re-designed the site and was going through the archives to add categories, I came across this post. Little did I know at the time, this would be one of the key turning points in my conversion. When I wrote the post I had recently come across this quote from C.S. Lewis, which was to change my life:
When you come to know God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.
When I read that I realized that I was asking the all-good God to come into my heart…yet it was a heart where envy, resentment, anger, selfishness, and all sorts of other nasty sentiments lived. My philosophy up until that time had been to hold off on doing the “hard stuff” that comes with Christianity like forgiving those who’ve hurt me, serving others selflessly, not indulging in my feelings of wanting to launch a bazooka on cars who cut me off in traffic, etc. until God showed himself to me.
I was basically telling God, “You first.” Prove yourself to me and fill my heart with your presence, and then I’ll start worrying about all that forgiveness and selflessness stuff. Until then, where’s that Eminem CD I was listening to…?
What I totally missed, however, was that this would be like holding up a dirty mirror to the sun, and telling the light, “You first.” The sun cannot reflect off of a mirror caked in dirt, just as the Source of all that is pure and good cannot fill a heart that is already jam packed with self and the world.
When I realized this, I admit that it was a painful process to start living as if I were some devout Christian when I was really very dry spiritually and still had plenty of doubts. (At the time my family was involved in a passive-aggressive suburban version of a Romeo and Juliet type drama involving some neighbors and our Home Owner’s Association. As I said a prayer for the writer of our third threatening certified letter instead of cursing his name as was my custom, I recall gritting my teeth and thinking, “This Christianity stuff had better be true!”)
And yet, an interesting thing started to happen. A sort of snowball effect was put into action, where the more room I made in my heart for God (however reluctantly at first), the more I understood his pure love and goodness, the more I genuinely desired not to sin, the more I felt remorse for those sins that I did commit (even the “little” ones), and the end of this process always left me closer to God than I had been before.
And one day I woke up and realized that I had faith. I believed. Not just on a vague intellectual level, but in my heart and soul. And it all started with taking that first step to make just a little bit of room in my heart for God, dusting off the mirror of my soul so that it could reflect even just a small fraction of his light. You only need to experience that once. I may have bad days and dry spells and doubts in the future, but I know that I’ll always know God is there on a deep, fundamental level. Because once you experience his presence — even if it’s only in the small way of a barely repentant lifelong atheist — you know there’s no going back.