Last week, Shia LaBeouf rocked the Catholic world by announcing that he converted to traditional Catholicism while portraying Padre Pio for an upcoming film.
His arc bears a resemblance to the life of another young convert, also an artist, who was the recipient of Dom Hubert van Zeller’s Letters to a Soul, a collection of correspondence and spiritual direction to a troubled young man who, stricken by grace, earnestly sought to live the Faith.
The eponymous soul, addressed mysteriously as “X” throughout, has reached the plateau of faith that all converts face eventually: once the initial zeal wears off, the business of actually being a Catholic takes hold.
The subject of these letters – and the challenge that Shia and all converts will inevitably face – is the sustainment of a dedicated practice of the Faith in the absence of warm religious feelings. Dom van Zeller expresses this trial strikingly: “The whole point of the prayer of faith is persevering in a knowledge which you do not understand and a love which you do not feel.”
In other words, to quote Shia LaBeouf’s own command in his viral motivational breakdown: “Just do it.”
The Work Begins at Conversion
Conversion, in many ways, represents a finish line: after months or even years of painstaking research and prayer, a decision has been made. The lots have been cast, the Tiber has been swum. It is a moment of victory! But, precisely because of this victory, the devil will redouble his attacks. Doubt, uncertainty, and discouragement will creep in like never before. The comfortable niche the convert previously inhabited in the world will be swept away as if by a storm.
Conversion is really only the beginning. Dom van Zeller frequently addressed the necessity of perseverance in his writings to his spiritual children, emphasizing a daily re-commitment to convictions as more essential to the Catholic life than initial zeal itself.
Shia describes his conversion as an imbued knowledge and subconscious, implicit understanding. This communication came to him largely through the authenticity and beauty of the traditional Latin Mass, the saintly example of Padre Pio, and the act of prayer.
Shia’s experience provides a good description of how God communicates through grace—an implicit understanding, subtle yet strong, accompanied by the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Discovering the Truth is one thing. Following the Truth is another. While the act of converting involves a lot of thinking and feeling, living out the Catholic life consists of lots of daily, often unspectacular doing.
Pope St. Pius X, in his excoriating condemnation of the Modernists, the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, explains that the heretical Modernists base the entire system of supernatural faith on subjective experience of religion, termed “the religious sentiment.” This is an unstable foundation for faith—feelings will inevitably change, cool, and lose their ability to motivate. Any feelings that accompany the practice of religion are secondary and accidental.
Yes, prayer can bring consolation. But not always. Yes, the Mass is beautiful. But it is only beautiful because it is true. Modernists divorce beauty from Truth, foregrounding an ersatz, temporary, experiential beauty over doctrine, Truth, and first things. Beauty divorced from Truth is the creed of Lucifer, and inevitably devolves into pride that mirrors his.
However, God can speak through intuition. The conscience, which Cardinal Newman describes as the “aboriginal Law,” is there to serve us, and the instinct of a well-formed conscience reflects the sensus fidei. It’s the will that solidifies the realities apprehended by the conscience and roots them deeply in the soul.
Conversion Has Consequences
In a seeming paradox, life will often become more difficult and painful after conversion. The greatest gift has been attained, but at a price. The convert has to give up everything in this world, and die to self and sin. Conversion, like baptism, is a death sentence. It’s a dying to sin and a rebirth into Christ’s life. Despite the incomparable spiritual gains, the death to sin and worldliness is still genuinely painful for the convert.
Dom van Zeller’s young correspondent complained that for his conversion, God had only repaid him with hardships: he traded friends, love, and community for loneliness, boredom, and humiliation. “X” expresses shock that his conversion has “set him back” in so many ways in this life. Dom van Zeller’s task throughout the book – we tantalizingly only retain his side of the correspondence – is principally to remind his correspondent of the priceless value of the Faith, and then to carefully guide him through situations of varying complexity that would challenge or betray this perception. He boldly interjects into the convert’s wallowing:
When you accepted the grace of conversion you didn’t haggle. You didn’t say ‘I’ll alter my way of life provided you make it worth my while.’ You cannot strike a bargain with God. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God,’ and to seek first the privileges of belonging to that kingdom is to get the order wrong.
Once the process of conversion was complete, and the initial high had faded, the convert was faced with the temptation to renege on his conversion, to give the grace back. But grace is inescapable.
Dom van Zeller says, flat out:
Listen, you idiot, the grace of faith is like a blood transfusion. You were weak before with the loss of blood, and now you have in you the strength of faith. Whether you like it or not the grace is there. It may condemn you or it may free you, but you cannot get away from it.
He goes on to distinguish the unique temptations of doubt posed to the convert and the cradle Catholic:
Some people (I am one of them) are imprisoned from the start. I cannot escape God. I knew God before I knew anything else. But you are different: you have discovered God. It comes to the same in the end, I suppose, because life for people like us is meaningless without God.
Conversion consists of an acceptance of God’s grace. It is touching and often shocking to hear, in conversion stories, the lengths to which God goes to pluck a soul from the edge of the abyss. The superlative example, of course, is St. Augustine. Dom van Zeller’s correspondents throughout his life included such famous converts as Evelyn Waugh, whose drastic departure from his own pre-conversion life inspires much awe in God’s providence.
God’s grace is freely given. On the soul’s part, this initial influx of grace must be cooperated with. The challenge for the convert is to continually accept these graces, every day, for the rest of his life. Van Zeller highlights the paramount need for cooperation with God’s grace: “From the practical point of view there has to be cooperation. Not even a blood transfusion would be any good if the person to whom it was given were dead.”
You can’t escape grace. You can’t escape truth. You will either serve God as a willing, loving servant, or else as a slave. Even demons, in their rejection of God and subsequent damnation, are enslaved to the correct supernatural order of things. They could not escape it and create heavens and earths for themselves – their pride condemns them to live in metaphysical reality as slaves.
These 55 letters provide an intimate case study of Dom van Zeller’s perennial topic of perseverance in the spiritual life. And his message to his young, reluctant saint? Just do it. Force yourself. Push through the dryness in prayer. Offer up the loneliness. Above all, recognize the gift of faith for the grace that it is, and remain grateful for it.
Distraction: the Enemy of Perseverance
It is obvious that worldly preoccupation is one of the greatest obstacles to sainthood. Dom van Zeller’s letters guide his convert through several particular problems – including an imprudent friendship with a married woman, the company of worldly friends, and lack of inspiration in his work—that were causing doubt in his conversion.
Van Zeller emphasizes the importance of properly ordered love as united to God, Who is love:
I think perhaps the greatest sin is to deprive God of something which He not only contains and owns but which He actually is…Much worse than desecrating nature, breaking laws, questioning His action, is to steal God’s love and put it to unworthy use. Once we understand that God assumes responsible for being love, the lesser love is incorporated into the greater: they are identified. So for a human being to exercise a proprietary right over a human love is to deny not only an attribute of God but God Himself.
All loves and joys of this earth are meant to unite us to the love of God, not to take away from it. If the “love” brings the person further away from God, it is at worst an occasion of grave sin, and at best a vain distraction. Dom van Zeller’s constant reminder throughout his reader’s varied troubles is a sobering recollection on the vanity of the world: “Life is given us for the express purpose of finding God and uniting ourselves with Him, and we avoid developing the essence of life by fooling about with the accidentals of life.”
Pursuing the Interior Life
Shia LaBeouf describes cultivating his ability to pray. Towards the beginning of his journey, prayer felt rote and “meditation felt like self-imposed timeout.” He discusses finding solace in the Rosary as a tactile anchor for prayer.
Similarly, convert “X” struggles with prayer. At the same time, he feels a great calling to the interior life, even going so far as to discern a religious vocation. Much of the book consists of van Zeller’s teaching his convert how to pray well, and to take the leap beyond daily devotions into sustained, habitual mental prayer. While converts (should) have a full intellectual understanding of the precepts of the Faith at the time of their entrance into the Church, the “how-to” of the Faith is a matter of practice and continual support.
Dom van Zeller’s own dedication to his young convert’s spiritual development throughout their communication shows a perseverance on his part that reflects the particular love of the Good Shepherd for the lost sheep. These personal, heartfelt letters read like they were specially intended for each prospective reader.
All converts, especially those in a position in the world like Shia LaBeouf’s, should be equipped with such solid wisdom to prepare for the inevitable discouragement ahead.
As Dom van Zeller holds, “if you are deprived of the consolations of religion you should remember that it was religion and not consolation that was the object of your conversion.”
No one said it would be easy. Padre Pio’s famous words inspire us to “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”
“Just do it – what are you waiting for?”
Letters to a Soul is available now from the Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory.
Photo: Padre Pio celebrating Mass https://caccioppoli.com/