“Why did you become a Catholic?”
That’s a question every convert hears and it gets harder to answer year by year. The many reasons anyone has for converting are numerous and can be as innocuous as being married into it to a radical change in heart after one event. Indeed, I’d almost like to respond, “Well, why wouldn’t I be one?”
I, like most, could fill an entire book with why I became a Roman Catholic and remain in the embrace of the Church. Such a book, I think, would still be a poor defence of the faith and was probably better said by Bl John Henry Newman or G.K. Chesterton. So, I will give two reasons for my own conversion, the first being summed up by Chesterton, “To get rid of my sins.” The second reason is the much-more complicated truth about the Incarnation, a fact that I’m reminded of as we approach Christmas.
I can still remember my first confession with the esteemable Fr. Reginald Martin. He was a stout Dominican priest with a commanding presence and a jovial laugh, when you could tell just the right joke. I felt all kinds of anxiety going to find him to hear my confession. I even wrote notes of what I had done. The journey to this moment was a long one, but a joyful one when I look back.
I was raised an Evangelical and my family was highly involved in a megachurch. The preaching was good, filled with the Biblical literacy that is often missing in today’s preaching. I would say it was mostly a positive experience, but with one small mark. You see, my reader, I had and still have what is now known as Major Depression Disorder, commonly called clinical depression. This caused me to have some rather frightening moods and I have been on medication for it here and there. To put it bluntly, most American faiths do not know how to cope with it. Through no fault of their own, and with the best of intentions, most pastors and spiritual leaders would tell me to “pray against it” or to just resolve to be happy. For most of my life, I considered it a personal failure that I couldn’t just be joyful or cure myself and that feeling eventually turned to resentment and an eventual turning away from the faith.
I mostly considered myself an agnostic, but I still had the seed of faith. After extensive reading, especially of GK Chesterton and Thomas Aquinas, I resolved to try again. So it was that I attended my first Mass since my grandmother’s funeral. At Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder, CO I experienced a Good Friday liturgy. I was so unfamiliar with the practices, and I was unsure how everyone but me knew when to sit, stand or kneel. Everything about the service was alien, but it was also familiar as if I had gone back to a house from my childhood. It was also the first time that I knew the feelings of guilt and shame, but not in the oppressive caricature that society makes it out to be.
It was in that moment, as the Cross was being venerated that I knew what I had been, that God knew what I had been, and that I knew He knew. Yet I was not feeling beaten down as much as I felt as if I had injured a good friend and all I desired was to make it right.
After RCIA and struggling with some theological issues, I was told when I would be confirmed and a made a member of the Church. I was also informed that I needed to first receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation by having my confession heard. There were a lot of pitfalls I had to overcome in this process, too many to get into. I struggled with the idea of the Eucharist, I was in a committed relationship with an atheist, and I was just too prideful about my own brilliance.
My first task was to go to the parish garden and find Fr. Reginald, which struck me as a burdensome task. It reminded me far too much of when my parents made me go to the convenience store to apologize for being rude in their establishment. However, the good priest took me to his office and we began the process of remembering. As I said, I had a small notebook of each sin I had committed from my baptism at age 11 to that very moment. It seemed daunting and yet we made it through each item.
Finally, Father prayed the words and we made the sign of the cross. I shook his hand, thanked him for taking the time to hear me and walked back to my car. The feeling of relief was overwhelming, it was almost euphoric. Even if you are not a Catholic, if you have ever wronged someone then you know how much it can eat at you. If you have also then apologized to that person and they have not only forgiven, but have given you assurance that all is right then you can begin to understand that feeling of relief.
As we continue the season of Advent and look forward to Christmas, trying to dodge all the different commercial trappings of our culture, I think back to how many times the idea of the Incarnation has brought me from my own dark night.
The word incarnation is from the Latin incarno, to be made into flesh. So, in as simple terms as I can put it, the event of the Incarnation is the taking on of flesh by our Lord. This idea was new to me, even if I had heard it before. The idea that God was born of a virgin, taking on flesh, and being fully God while yet fully human was not just exciting, it was also scandalous to me when I stopped to think about it.
We sing every Christmas, “remember Christ our saviour was born on Christmas day,” but how is it that those words are a comfort? How does anyone wrap their mind around such a strange notion of Christ, our Lord, being in flesh and walking among us. I have heard that we are too comfortable staring at the crucifix, but how much more so should we be so uninterested and unmoved by the idea of God in the flesh of a baby, laying in manger in some cave?
Chesterton summed up this shocking paradox when he beautifully noted,
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded.
No matter what dark periods my mind will enter, no matter my struggle, this has always brought me back. It was what made me want to be Catholic and keeps me in the Church. While it is not a cure all, and I often forget this matter, there is much comfort for those of us who know that Christ came in the flesh and dwelt among us; that there is a God whose love for us is so powerful that he will take on our nature in order to redeem it.
It has not always been easy, I still stumble and have many sins to atone for. My depression is far from being cured, but the Church offers comfort and examples of how to remain holy despite my own propensity for self-destruction and doubt.
image: Apse Mosaic, Cappella Palatina, Palermo, Sicila/ Shutterstock