You first

October 13, 2008 | 8 comments

I’m back from our exhausting whirlwind family reunion weekend and behind on a writing deadline, so I’m going to take this opportunity to run another post in the Flashback Series. This one was originally posted on June 19, 2007.

When I think about my conversion and how very drastically my life and my views changed in the process, I often try to pinpoint what the 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, much longer 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 more than 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 would 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 then 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 bitterly cursing his name as was my custom, I recall gritting my teeth and thinking, “This Christianity stuff better be true!”)

After a while, 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.

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.


  1. Meredith@MerchantShips

    I just caught up with your last few posts after I realized Bloglines wasn’t working–funny, b/c it picks up your link blog feed.

    Congrats on your baby girl and hope all keeps going well!

  2. Anonymous

    This reflection reminds me of the Interior Castle, wherein Teresa of Avil talks of the way of purgation as the first step in coming to know God, and moving toward mystical union. It is not the true dark night, but a preliminary dissatisfaction with one’s state in the spritual realm–and it motivates the reflective person to seek the answer to the question “why don’t I see God when others obviously do?” What a blessing you have received, both in your ruthlessly inquiring mind, and in the graces God has poured into your heart for the persistent search for truth that He placed in you!

  3. Shelly W

    Wow. Beautiful! I love that CS Lewis quote. Thanks.

  4. eally

    I love following along with your blog…I gave you an award – come check out my blog for more information. 🙂

  5. kabloona

    Where is the C.S. Lewis quote from?

  6. Jennifer F.

    kabloona – good question. I *think* it was from Mere Christianity, but I’ll have to double check.

  7. autumnesf

    Great post.

    We have a lot in common in our lives as I didn’t find God until I was in my 30’s, etc. I love reading your blog and have to smile at the little things we seem to discover about the same time.

    Your writing it a Blessing, keep it up!

  8. Wifers

    Thank you for reposting this today. I was encouraged as I read. My husband is what is termed an ex-Christian agnostic…once he believed and then decided it didn’t make sense anymore. Just recently he told me that he is once again exploring the idea of God. Your analogy of a dusty mirror is very helpful and gives me some fresh ways to pray.

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