Conversion Takes a Lifetime

Everyone who comes to his or her faith as an adult has to face the Precipice Topic.  Cradle or convert, when you finally decide to embrace your religion on mature terms, you find that one area that makes you dizzy with fear just contemplating it.  It’s like hiking up a mountain, or sitting on a Ferris wheel- there is some aspect of faith that, when you look down, fills you with breathless horror and desperate fear of falling.  Maybe it’s accepting an all-male clergy.  Maybe it’s Church teaching on divorce and remarriage.

For me, it was openness to children.  Coming to the Church as an extremely fertile 30 year old sometimes reduced me to head-between-my-knees panic attacks when I contemplated the next decade as a human Pez dispenser.  And it was really only that aspect of the Church’s understanding of the sanctity of life that troubled me.   I was never a supporter of the death penalty, euthanasia was abhorrent to me, and God had managed to convince me of the error of my pro-choice views fairly painlessly.  No, my fear was pretty much centered on the real possibility of becoming a modern day Old Mother Hubbard.

With constant prayer (many times no more articulate than, “Please God.  Help.”), frequent, desperate reception of the Eucharist, and the amazing witness of a number of large families who all seemed pretty happy with life and no crazier than the average American, I found myself in a place where I could say, “Jesus, I trust in you”, and surrender to God’s will in terms of family size. 

It was a beautiful place to be.  One where I could easily accept that we would welcome any children God wanted to give us, without feeling the need to grab a paper bag to curb my hyperventilation.  The world’s lie that comfort and ease were the greatest good was seen for the deception it is, and I rested easy, knowing that my will was aligned with God’s in this most difficult area for me.  The Precipice Topic had been filled in with God’s grace.

And then one day, it suddenly wasn’t.  One day, I realized that I’d somehow knocked myself out of alignment with God’s will, and now, the thought of another child terrified me again.  I found myself taking a pregnancy test and being too scared to look at the results.  I prayed that I wasn’t pregnant, and I felt immediate, suffocating guilt for it.

When the test came back negative, I felt an ugly combination of relief and shame.  So many people in this world who would sacrifice whatever was required to have a child, and I was selfishly hoping for that one line result.  And beyond concern for my neighbor, there was the looming fact that I was no longer in a place of union with God’s will.  I think our Protestant brothers and sisters call it “backslidden”.  I was suddenly staring at that precipice again, and what did that mean about my spiritual progress?

I spent the next several days in a theological funk.  How did I let that hard-won surrender slip away?  Was it lack of prayer?  Pride?  Apathy?  Did I somehow stop cooperating with God and not realize it?  Had I been fooling myself all along, and had never really been in a place of acceptance?

Yet, in the midst of all this, the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit stirred in me.  I am not an angel, He reminded me, whose intellect is such that a decision once made, can never be unmade.  Human nature is a fluid one, which is both our blessing and our curse.  That nature which can be slowly brought to a greater degree of perfection can also drift away from it, as I was clearly seeing.  But we don’t exist locked in a sort of forward-only amber.  Distinct from the angels, we are able to make a decision, then revisit it over and over again.  Distinct from the angels, we will find ourselves at the precipice even when we thought we’d left it in the dust.

I think there are three responses to finding yourself back there, with a yawning chasm of a Difficult Thing staring at you.  You can become paralyzed with fear or guilt, and spend eternity at that exact spot, gradually cooling into a lukewarm part of the landscape. Convinced that moving forward will only lead you right back to this spot, you will become stunted in your faith.

The second option is to pull an Anne Rice.  When faced with a Precipice Topic once again, you can respond with anger and pride, and decide that there is no way to move past the gap beyond cobbling together your own bridge and turning your back on your faith.  You convince yourself that the very existence of the precipice is the Church’s fault, and by leaving the Church, you banish the problem.  This is a path of bitterness, which does nothing to remove the pitfalls, but you chuck all your safety equipment into the gap, declaring freedom.

The third option is to take a deep breath, realize conversion is a lifelong process, and ask for help again and again and again.  Jesus fell three times on the way to Golgotha, and there is no reason to expect we’ll have a better track record.  The road to heaven is not a place for the faint of heart, it’s not a scenic tour, and we are not in control of the geography.  We get to choose how to respond to the path before us, but we don’t get to dictate the conditions.

So I went back to the beginning.  Constant, if inelegant, prayer, and as reverent reception of the Eucharist as a frazzled mother of many young children can muster.  Gradually my soul returned to a place of peace.

Will I steer clear of this particular chasm for the rest of my life, or will the road take me back here once again?  I don’t know.  Really, it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is knowing that even if I find myself there a hundred times more, God’s goodness will be waiting to carry me across, just as strong as the first time.

image: skyfish /

Cari Donaldson


Cari Donaldson lives on a New England farm with her high school sweetheart, their six kids, and a menagerie of animals of varying usefulness. She is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories, and has a weekly podcast about homesteading at

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  • Ed Snyder

    Candid, courageous, eloquent. Thanks. 🙂

  • bringiton

    I guess Anne Rice read too many of her own books!

  • Manial

    “Human Pez Dispenser” That is one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. On serious note conversion is continuous and Grace is always needed.

  • noelfitz

    Cari Donaldson,

    Thanks for a brilliant inspiring, Catholic article. Catholics and Protestants seem to differ in their idea of conversion, for Protestant’s it is a once only event, with permanent consequences, while here we get a Catholic approach.

    Also Irish Catholics, of which I am one, differ from many in the US, although we
    hold common core values. In American Catholic web sites there seems to be few (relatively) cradle Catholics.

    Your article is beautifully honest and shows how to face problems.

    The key problems usually seem to be about sex, maybe divorce and contraception. Some think the Catholic answers based on annulments and NFF are really fig-leaves. One notes that the Catholic divorce rates differ little from the rest of society and few Catholic
    families have twenty plus children, which would happen often without contraception. Perhaps conscience is the ultimate criterion. We all have to hope in God’s mercy that we will “be in that number when the Saints go marching in”.

    Please reply to this post, especially if you disagree.

  • Lee

    Allowing ourselves to be open to the Holy Spirit guides our conscience of the free will God has given us. When we allow ourselves to turn from what is our gut feelings we usually are turning away from the Will of God designed by Christ Himself to bring ultimate happiness into our lives. Sometimes we just have to take the longer path to our conversion. Praying is what Jesus has always asked us to do; and this is the way to our true conversion.

  • mc47

    I liked your blog. thank you. it hits home with me. im 31 -with 5 (girls).

  • Ronk

    I disagree only with your assertion that “twenty plus children would happen often without contraception”.
    Even in the centuries before effective contraception was invented and when the average age of marriage was in the teens, it was extremely rare for a couple to have anywhere near 20 children, the average would have been 6 or 7 (of whom sadly often only about half survived to adulthood). Today with the average age of marriage over 30, the average couple would have no more than 4 children even without any contraception or NFP. And a couple using NFP (which of course should be done only for morally justified reasons) can easily reduce this to 2, 1 or even no kids if they want.

  • noelfitz

    many thanks for your reply to me. I appreciate that you took the time to send it. I like to get response rather than seem ignored. Perhaps I was being provocative, and hope my statements did not offend you.

    You seem to agree with me that NFF is a way to limit family size by preventing conception while having intercourse and hence is contraception.

  • Tori

    NFP is most definitely not contraception. You say “preventing conception while having intercourse,” implying that intercourse still occurs, but something is done to stop conception resulting from that act of intercourse (contraception). But NFP involves not having intercourse. A couple using NFP does not alter the act of intercourse itself, just chooses when or when not to have it. Thus it is approved by the church, when contraception is not. I hope that helps to clarify.