The Anatomy of Conversion

April 2010By David Mills

David Mills, the deputy editor of First Things, is the author of Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant, 2009) and is writing a companion titled Discovering the Church.

Think of falling in love. You begin by finding this girl's eyes or laugh or kindness attractive, and perhaps not much more attractive than another's, but as you get to know her and share some parts of your lives, one day you realize that you find her attractive in a way you cannot reduce to a liking for the different aspects of her appearance, personality, and character. She changes (to take my own case) from a girl with a heart-melting shy smile and gorgeous blue eyes sitting up front in the choir to Hope.

What you now think of her begins to affect how you see her, especially the aspects of her personality or character that are or might be flaws. What you had taken for impatience you now know to be enthusiasm, and what had seemed a self-centered disregard for others' feelings you now see as single-mindedness.

What really are flaws you understand as the blemishes one invariably has in a fallen world, but you believe that they are, so to speak, accidents and not substance. In this you are not giving her the benefit of the doubt, as if the reality were disputable, but seeing her with a charity that lets you see her real beauty, marred but not erased or covered by her flaws. (If you are blessed, she sees you in the same way.)

But in the middle of this romantic movement from attraction to love, you ask many questions and even offer many objections: Do we agree on the fundamental things? Does she share my commitment to Christ and His Church? Would I care for her if she didn't have that heart-melting smile? Why does she do this? Why in the world does she think that? How could she possibly believe those things?

This is the same movement of mind and heart the average convert experiences on his way into the Catholic Church. People find themselves drawn to the Catholic Church because something in her attracts them, like the order of the liturgy or the depth of the theology. When the romance begins to feel as if it might develop into commitment, they begin to ask questions and pose objections. If they persevere, they come to love the Church, and the way they ask the questions, and the questions they ask, change. They move from debating the Church to discovering the Church.

This description may be of some value to those given the chance to respond to people drawn to the Church. Catholics, and even some converts themselves, do not always understand this movement. They respond as if conversion were a matter of intellectual conviction, and emphasize the superiority of the Catholic case to the Protestant or the secular. The Church does have the better case, but they would often do better to emphasize The Thing itself, rather than what it is not.

When I moved from debate to discovery, I would sometimes ask Catholic friends about the Church and Catholic life, wanting them to explain what it felt like from the inside. They would almost always give me an answer from the apologetic books, which I had already learned. I wanted something like "In confession, I've really had to face…" or "Let me tell you about the time I turned to the Blessed Mother…" or "I love to pray before the Blessed Sacrament because…." I tried to ask more penetrating questions, and was usually answered with a quizzical look and a repetition of the apologetic answer.

I did not find the directly argumentative works very helpful, except at two stages. When I first found myself attracted to the Catholic Church — and "found" is exactly the right word — they helped explain some Catholic beliefs that baffled or bothered me, and helped me justify pursuing the attraction. When I began to turn to the Church, and my affections were changing faster than my convictions, they provided the kind of point-scoring I found reassuring and confirming. "Point-scoring" is not meant dismissively, because there were points to be scored, and value to me in seeing them scored.

As I grew closer to the Church, I began to lose interest in having my questions answered in that way, and, I think, looking back after nine years as a Catholic, that this movement in my thinking was right. Judging the Church by her score would have been like listing my girlfriend's virtues and vices (as I saw them then) and deciding whether to call her again based on the final score. I would have missed the deeper realities, the ones apologetics doesn't touch.

When first attracted to the Church, one naturally notices the areas where she says "no" to one's assumptions and beliefs, the same way the immigrant to a foreign country first notices all the differences and especially the differences that make his time there harder — different ways of queuing up in shops or different relations to time and schedules, for example, or different attitudes toward private property. But the experience ought to lead one to a deeper vision of the whole, in which the questions cease to be so pressing because the beauty and coherence of the whole become more obvious. The immigrant adapts to the differences, and begins to understand and enjoy the culture they express, and eventually to think and feel the way the natives do.

Although, and this is something converts should remember, he will never think and feel exactly as they do because he did not grow up there. What for them is instinct will always be for him to some extent analysis followed by choice. Many practices will always feel awkward and many ideas dubious because he does not know everything they know, even if they don't know all they know. The Thing he loves will always be a mystery.

The particular arguments and answers were important to me, but increasingly so as confirmation of the whole. I was moving from the point where I could think the Church is right about this but wrong about that, so that the decision to join was prudential and comparative — Where can I serve God best? How does it look next to the alternatives? — to the point where I could only believe that the Church was right about everything or reject her, the point where the decision to commit or not had to be total and final.

Here again the process was like falling in love: There comes a time when you must either marry the girl or break up with her. If you don't do one or the other, you will be trifling with her affections, which is an offense not only against charity but against truth. And imprudent for you as well. The longer you trifle with the Church, the easier your unnatural state of suspension becomes, and to the extent it bothers you, the easier it will be to remove the tension by rejecting her. (This may be easier for people from traditions like high Anglicanism that appear Catholic at the level from which the outsider looks at the Catholic Church.)

My own experience of conversion was partly intellectual, but partly and probably mostly affective, in the sense that I came to feel the attraction and beauty of the whole, and that here was a body and a life into which I wanted to — had to — enter. The "converging probabilities" that drew me in, to use John Henry Newman's term, came from all sides, from observation and prolife activism and participation in the liturgy and growing Marian devotion and visiting churches as much as from reading and reflection. This was my own experience, but I'm fairly sure it is also true for all but the most intellectual of converts I've known, and perhaps true of them as well in ways others can't see.

Even the intellectuals appealed to me for reasons other than their arguments. As I continued to read, pray, and reflect, and, to the extent an outsider could, to experience bits and pieces of the Catholic life, I began to feel of several writers that I wanted to be in that body in which this mind could be what it was. I felt this first of Newman and G.K. Chesterton, but then of Ronald Knox and Flan­nery O'Connor and Sigrid Undset and Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene (in his Catholic period) and a whole host of others, and even people like Albert Camus, who reflected the Church even in his atheism. But I was entranced not just by their arguments, or even primarily by their arguments, but by the shape of their minds, their grasp of the world and the life of faith.

I have since read a great deal more, and now feel this way about many more writers, especially the Holy Father. They do answer particular questions I have, but more crucially they teach me more about the Catholic life or mind or imagination or gestalt — about the feel of The Thing.

As I read them, I found that the Catholic answers were always deeper than the questions I was asking. I was asking the obvious questions, the questions of someone new to The Thing and still outside it. I looked to Newman to explain how the Church could assert with authority doctrines not objectively discernable in Scripture (meaning discernable by just any reader), but what I found was that his understanding explained the broader problems of historical existence, particularly the life of an institution through history.

Even the things I read I began to understand more and more from the inside, which made considerable difference in how I read them and what effect they had. To give a simple example, I've always enjoyed reading sermons, and I began to read Catholic sermons with a feeling for how they sounded to the Catholic: how they fit into the whole life, which is a different experience from reading them simply as sermons. Apparently undistinguished sermons revealed depths I hadn't seen and hints of a life I wanted to live.

To give a more substantive example, though the Church's Marian doctrines never bothered me the way they bother many inquirers, I found the arguments for them unconvincing and thin, even stretched. They struck me as later rationalizations of beliefs developed over time for sociological and other reasons, which the Church was then stuck with and found necessary to explain.

But as I grew in understanding The Thing (in this case after I became a Catholic), I saw both how the beliefs were organic and necessary developments of truths seen since the beginning and how they fit into the Catholic vision, particularly how they were at the same time implicit in Scripture and made sense of Scripture. For example, I had to develop a stronger sacramental sense to see, and just as importantly to feel, the holiness of the vessel that contains the Holy to understand the Immaculate Conception's place in the whole (in the Catholic vision) and how it is both foreshadowed in Scripture and helps make sense of Mary's place in Scripture.

The analogy of conversion to falling in love can be carried one step further. Becoming a Catholic is very much like a marriage, not least in the fact that you do not really know what you are getting into until you are in it. You marry or convert because you have moved from debate to discovery, but after the final and permanent commitment you find that you have actually discovered very little, and that as you remain faithful to your vows you continually discover more, and that new knowledge always makes possible yet newer and deeper knowledge. You learn that what you had come to believe is in fact true, but that back then you still didn't know very much, that the truth was more like a pointer to your true home than a map or a picture, and much less than the experience of being there.

My family and I have been Catholics for nine years now, in my case after twenty-some years of reading and reflection and hesitation — no, of trifling with the Church's affections. Even after so short a time, I can see how little I really knew the day I went to the pastor of the local parish and asked to be received. I knew the surface, the blueprints and schematics, the talking points and photo ops, the sales pitch and the fine print, but little of what it feels like to be inside, how one thinks and responds, how the pieces cohere, how things make sense, how it feels to live in a Thing that can never be mastered or encompassed or exhausted.

I know more now, though not as much as, with God's help, I hope to. That is part not of falling but of living in love. There is always more to discover, more than we can ask or imagine. The crucial part of the movement comes after the commitment, after we say "till death do us part." That is the greatest part, the part that turns attraction and romance into marriage and creates a union that bears fruit.

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Sidebar note:

When people exploring the Church ask me for reading recommendations, I usually tell them to jump into the whole experience of being a Catholic, to the extent an outsider can, on the assumption that the experience will shape and form their reading and reflection. They will learn something about the Mass from seeing the priest hold up Our Lord while saying the words, "Behold the Lamb of God," that they will not learn from an intellectual explanation of transubstantiation.

As for reading, though they will naturally want to begin with works that might answer their questions, I suggest they start by reading through the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the major Vatican II documents. Having the big picture will put in context the little pictures (the particular matters that bother them) and may help them better understand the apologist, who is assuming the big picture but might not articulate it. The encounter with the doctrine presented whole will also sometimes answer their questions even if the texts don't address them directly, thus saving them time and energy.

There are any number of good apologetic works of the directly argumentative kind they can read with benefit, but I usually urge them to read much more fiction, biography, autobiography, collected letters, and history than apologetics.

For one thing, all these more deeply convey the reality of the Catholic life than apologetic works alone, in a way that helps the inquirer fall in love with the Church, or at least understand clearly what it is he can't fall in love with, despite its attractions. For another, many converts, like Newman, put their best and most extensive arguments into their autobiographies, arguments that gain in power by being relayed through the story of their effect on a man's life.

I also suggest they read good Catholic biblical studies as well as, and more than, defenses of the Catholic way of reading Scripture or Catholic treatments of particular theological matters or specifically apologetic defenses of Catholic teaching on those matters. Reading Dei Verbum on the intimate relation of Scripture and Tradition is one thing, but seeing the varied and rich insights such a way of reading the Scripture brings is another, and I think more convincing.

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