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Moonshine Vodka

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Moonshine Vodka

As a young Iraqi immigrant keen on assimilating, I decided to turn away from my parents’ traditional Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox faiths. This went hand-in-hand with the rejection of my heritage and my parents’ attempt to maintain it through an Iraqi subculture forming in the Los Angeles area at that time. Like many first-generation immigrant children I had to live a double life: the Iraqi Luma at home and the American Luma at the public school I attended.

At first I sought to have no Christian faith at all, though I faked one for the sake of my parents. After high school, through a series of events I began attending an evangelical non-denominational church. At that church I was taught to reject tradition and “traditional” churches — especially the Roman Catholic Church, which the pastor mocked from the pulpit at every opportunity. I was taught that the Catholic Church teaches a false Gospel, that Catholics were heretics, and the Church evil. I was taught that Catholics were not real Christians, and so I learned to despise them. I was taught the same thing that the evangelical missionaries we met in Greece taught my father: tradition was not real Christianity and Catholics were not true Christians. The only way to be a true Christian is to be born again, and the way to do that is to “accept Jesus into your heart.” The credo was “Dear Jesus, I ask you to come into my heart, I accept you as my Lord and Savior,” or some variation of this. I am not dismissing the idea behind this — that it is through a vibrant friendship with Jesus Christ that our hearts are increasingly converted, that through Him we grow in holiness. What I oppose is the idea that salvation can be individual, outside the community of the faithful in the Church.

After leaving that church, and after a failed marriage, I told God to go away and leave me alone. I spoke those very words out loud one day while I walked across my college campus. The years that followed were fraught with anxiety as I attempted to live as a godless single mother. Then came a second marriage and years of wandering from one denomination to another. I was an ecclesiastical mutt.

My husband had grown up in a liberal Lutheran church, and if there was one thing he learned there, it was “We are not Catholic!” (His own father had been raised Catholic but left the Church when he married.) My husband underwent his own crisis of faith when he became an agnostic during college and graduate school. And although he went with me to the conservative Lutheran church after we were married, his mind was disengaged until we started reading the Reformed Presbyterian theologian R.C. Sproul, Sr., who taught the Christian faith with depth and rigor. And so we moved to a Presbyterian church.

In January 2013 I released my first book with a tiny evangelical publishing house in Texas. Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News was a book that recounted our time in a Benedict Option-style micro-Presbyterian denomination established by a pastor in Moscow, Idaho, with sister churches in other states. But since I didn’t want to blame all our blindness and foolishness on those who led us into this movement, I didn’t name names in the book. Instead, I took full responsibility for replacing the Gospel with a lifestyle that was meant to save us and our children. After leaving law school to become an at-home mom, driven by fear and overwhelmed by the task of raising godly children within a society actively working to undo our parenting, we yearned for other families striving for the same goals. While seeking reprieve from the debauched culture, we found a community that taught others how to save their families from worldliness, and why it’s imperative to do so. “Simple,” “separate,” and “deliberate” were the watchwords of a ministry that ostensibly taught us how to live for the glory of God, and to raise godly children. We were also taught to look for certain “distinctives” when searching for a church, because worldliness had also crept into Christian churches of all denominations.

A few months after releasing Gospel Amnesia I decided on my next book project. I wanted to write on female identity. At that time I bought Mary Eberstadt’s How the West Really Lost God. I argued with Mary in my head on almost every page of that book. She rankled me! But as God would have it, she converted me. In reality, Mary’s book not only converted me, but through me, my family. “What kind of worldview does this woman have anyway?!” I thought. “Oh of course, she’s a Catholic, what did I expect?!” By the summer of 2013 I had had enough of Mary’s haunting me, nagging me, causing me to question my anthropology, my theology. “Fine, okay, I’ll read that stinking encyclical she keeps going on about!” I muttered to myself. “I’m reading about identity, so why not — watch me plunder those Egyptians, er, Catholics.” In truth, I was tired of Protestants telling me what the Catholic Church taught. I wanted to learn from the Church Herself.

So I read Humanae Vitae. As I read I felt the breath of God rushing into me, filling every part of my being. I was soaked in tears. After that I began reading other encyclicals. I also read Pope John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. I justified it by thinking of it as reading for my book.

My practice for many years was to spend the first part of my morning in Bible reading and prayer. On August 31, 2013, finding myself increasingly drawn to Catholic teaching, and after meditating on the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, I wrote this:

And I, Thinking myself right and righteous, Suffered not those whom I Perceived to sin against me. My rank bitterness, I overlooked. The ways of peace, I forsook Bitterness easily ensnared me, Who looked to myself and my obedience. Hostility was everywhere, Like tar it stuck to us all. Weary in body and soul— Resisting the very chastening which Would bring my peace. The cursed Cross Is the scepter of healing, Drawing me into the city of the living God, And to God, and to the Saints, And to Jesus the mediator, And to a Kingdom, unshakable.

That fall I published my review of Mary’s book, received an invitation to write seven Scripture devotionals and an essay which were published in a women’s study Bible, and began my quest for a new publisher. In December of 2013 I signed a contract (a contract I would later lose following my conversion) with a respected Scottish Reformed publishing house to write Counterfeit Me: A Woman and Her Identity.

Meanwhile the church we had belonged to — one of the churches in that micro-Presbyterian denomination I mentioned above, the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, since then renamed the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches — had deteriorated and dissolved. Because they were on fire for Jesus, we spent some time at a nearby trendy Reformed-Baptist church. This was at the height of the so-called “Young, Restless, and Reformed” Movement. We were not young, but we were restless and Reformed. We attended services for a while there and considered becoming members. The catch was that they did not honor our infant baptisms. If we wanted to join them, we would have to be baptized again. We grappled with this, but since we wanted to have a “church home” for the kids, we decided to go through with it. After all, what’s the use of joining a church if you tell the leadership you won’t abide by its precepts? So in the fall of 2013 we were “baptized” during a church service.

I was internally disquieted, but I suppressed these feelings because I didn’t think I had any other choice at the time. I was plunged into a farm trough full of water on the stage of this church, and as I was lifted out of the water a thick darkness surrounded me and pressed into me. I went about the rest of the day outwardly jovial, but I felt like my soul had sunk in that water trough. I felt empty, dark, confused. I ignored it. I continued to ignore it because I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I had displeased the Lord by complying with this demand. My actions were a denial of my actual baptism, and of God’s grace.

The darkness continued to deepen as we entered into what became one of the most difficult years for our family. My husband’s back had finally given out. Beginning that autumn he was in and out of bed for nine months — mostly in bed and medicated — until he had surgery in the summer of 2014. At some point in early November of 2013 I told my husband that I needed to go to a church to kneel, that I couldn’t take the modern worship service anymore. There was no silence, no time for reflection, only emoting and enthusiasm. My soul screamed for silence. “Where is there a church where one can kneel?” Possibly the local Catholic parish, we thought. My husband said, “You can go any time you want, but please don’t tell the kids because it would confuse them.” I agreed. When people ask me what first drew me to the Catholic Church, I often say that I came in order to kneel. But the Lord has taken that from me. I now have two injured knees, and the only time I kneel now is to receive Holy Communion.

At a low point one Saturday evening — on November 16, 2013 to be exact — my husband was flat on the couch sleeping from the pain medication, the children were upstairs, and I felt that if I didn’t go to the nearby parish that night I would die. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Saturday night vigil Mass. I thought I would just find an unlocked church where I could kneel and pray quietly. I Googled the closest Catholic church, got in the car, and drove nine miles. I walked into what looked like some kind of auditorium. The Mass started and I heard the guitar — again. More John Denveresque worship songs instead of hymns and chants.

I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, so I sat still, waiting for it all to end. Then there was an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a reading from the Gospels. And then I saw the priest walk up to give a sermon. He preached, and my mind startled at his vocabulary and theological depth. And then he asked: “How can we do all these things? We can’t! It is only by God’s grace” — and here he raised his arm up high pointing up to heaven — “that we can do anything.” I wept for the rest of the Mass and stayed on my knees. I didn’t take Communion.

After that Mass I began to wonder whether converting to Catholicism was a possibility. But every time that thought came I pushed it out. I knew one thing, that in spite of the worship music, I had really communed with God, before Whom I stood, quiet and in awe. Once I found out that there was such a thing as daily Mass and that it didn’t have any music, I couldn’t get enough. I went as often as it was possible given my family’s schedule.

At this point we told no one about our spiritual predicament, much less that I was going to Mass. We kept it quiet, even from the kids. My husband had given me his blessing, which was all that mattered. Eventually we agreed to tell someone. One day in December I picked up the phone and called my cousin Sara in California. We knew that she and her husband, Kevin, were devout Catholics, and although they were much younger than us, we knew they would be supportive. I told Sara about my going to Mass, and that we were thinking seriously but cautiously about the Church. She was shocked that her strident Calvinist cousin was entertaining this idea at all. Sara and Kevin offered to help answer our questions. The first thing they did was send us Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. They prayed for us and called to check in.

I mention this because it is a salient fact that many converts and reverts struggle to find Catholics who take their faith seriously and who are ready always to satisfy everyone that asketh a reason of that hope which is in them. Moreover, as we discovered later, even those formally responsible for catechism are not always well catechized themselves. In our case it was a good thing that we did not have to rely upon R.C.I.A. teachers.

In the meantime I continued my work on Counterfeit Me — more reading than writing — the strangeness of which was not lost on me at the time. My husband’s health continued to decline. The bulk of family duties now fell to me as he spent most of his time in bed. This led me to attend Mass more frequently, but I sat in the back — very unlike me — and never spoke to the priest and never went up for Communion.

One day in early March when my anguish was so severe I could hardly lift my eyes up to the altar, I decided to take a chance and talk to the priest after Mass. I found him praying at the end of the row of chairs in which I had been sitting. I scooted quietly until I was a couple of seats away and whispered, “I’m sorry to disturb you, Father.”

He looked up and smiled. “Hi,” he whispered back.

“Hello, Father,” I said. “my name is Luma Simms. I’m not Catholic, I’m just someone who comes here. I’m a Calvinist, but, Father, I’m at a point where the only thing I believe anymore is that God exists. And if Christianity is what I have known and experienced so far and that is all there is, then I don’t think I can be a Christian anymore.” Then I burst into tears. He fixed his eyes on me and abruptly asked:

“Do you renounce Satan?”


“And all his works?”


“And all his empty promises?”

“Yes, Father.”

I wondered whether this was some kind of weird Catholic ritual. I couldn’t remember the last time a Protestant pastor asked me to renounce the devil. I mean, they believed that Satan was real and everything that was said in the Bible about him, but I had never been asked these kinds of questions before.

“Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?” he continued.

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father?”

“Yes,” I said softly, while continuing to cry.

“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?”

“Yes.” At this point I recognized something like the Nicene Creed.

“Good,” he said, making the Sign of the Cross over me and continuing in a cheerful voice, “Now, what do you want to talk about?”

Only later did I realize the significance of that first encounter with Father Muir (a student of Bishop Barron when he taught at Mundelein Seminary). I eventually learned that the questions he asked me that day are from the Renewal of Baptismal Promises at the Easter Vigil, when new communicants often enter the Church. It was a stunning reversal of what I had done months earlier in that Baptist church when I had denied my own baptism.

In the middle of March we told the kids that I was going to a Catholic church and we explained a little bit about it. My husband and I made the decision to go to Mass together on our daughter’s fifteenth birthday. She is our second oldest. I had already prepared the children for the evangelical-style worship music because I didn’t want them to be surprised, as I had been. After Mass as we were leaving, I introduced the family to Father Muir and he gave my daughter a blessing. We then went home to have a nice Sunday meal and talk about this Catholic thing on which we were about to embark. The kids’ response: “We like it!” My husband’s response: “Well, I knew a lot of the liturgy from the Lutheran church I grew up in. But that music, I just don’t know about that.”

The kids knew how my husband and I felt about sacred music as opposed to worship songs. They felt the same way, although they tolerated worship music better. We decided to keep going and see what God would do, especially since we really liked Father Muir.

I investigated Catholic doctrine by reading and by listening to Bishop Barron. In Lent we bought his Catholicism series and watched it together as a family. From Barron I learned about the Catholic faith, the lives of the saints, the intellectual patrimony of the Church, and the beauty and truth of the Catholic tradition. He introduced me to Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, John Henry Newman, and others, and I went off to read them.

As we were already in the Lenten season by this time — our first in a Catholic church — we decided that even though we were not yet Catholic we would still observe the fasts and abstentions. Father Muir came over and prayed for my husband and gave him his first rosary, and talked to us about the Catholic faith. He never pressured us to become Catholic. He was just there when we needed him or when we had questions. Most of the questions at that time had to do with Catholic theology. We had not yet asked him anything resembling “What must we do to become Catholic?” I continued to attend daily Masses, but now I sat in the front. I also started bringing my youngest, who was then four years old.

It was around this time that I went to my first adoration hour. I was very apprehensive, so I returned to the back, either in the very last or the second to last row. I said to God: “Lord, I don’t know about this Blessed Sacrament thing. Is that really you?” And I heard internally: “In your presence there is fullness of joy, in your right hand are pleasures forever more.” And so I sat in His presence.

The canonization of Pope John Paul II was on April 27, 2014. I regret that I spent all the time he was on earth hating the Church. Yet as I learned more about how the Church understands the communion of the saints, I felt as if he had befriended me, awakened me to the Church, and drawn me to his writings. While I was watching the broadcast, a friend called. During our conversation, she said to me at one point: “You do know that you can’t receive Communion, don’t you, because you’re divorced?”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I got married by a Lutheran pastor. I think that’s okay.”

“As far as I know their rules are that if you’re divorced and remarried you can’t receive Communion, but you can check.”

I hung up the phone and kept one eye on the canonization and another on Google searching the question of whether one can take Communion if divorced and remarried, and there was my answer: It was, “No!” In that instant my soul became Catholic; I believed that the Church was exactly who She says She was. And not for the first time I wept.

Why did this one question confirm to me that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ upon Saint Peter to teach, to govern, and to sanctify? Because no merely human institution would hold fast to the Lord’s instructions contra mundum for two thousand years. We had seen people in churches jostling for power. A pastor in Florida will teach one set of “truths,” one in Idaho something very different, one in California yet another, and so on. Likewise pastors down the street from each other. There can be no final arbiter of what is and isn’t “biblical” because anyone can point to some things in Scripture to justify his preferences. The intellectual edifice of Protestantism crumbles in the face of the authority of the pope as the Church’s visible head and the bishops as successors of the Apostles.

In June Father Muir began the practice of exposing the Blessed Sacrament every day after Mass for an hour. From this time I began to attend adoration daily. I read a great deal and was especially grateful for the advice of a friend, himself a Catholic convert from the Reformed tradition, who urged me not to discard those good things that I had taken from my evangelical background. At some point I started going to confession weekly. I stood in line like everyone else, even though I knew that I could not receive absolution. When it was my turn, I went into the confessional and sat opposite Father Muir. His words were always kind: “I know you already know this, Luma, but I need to remind you again that I cannot apply the sacrament to you.” My response was always: “Yes, Father, I understand. Thank you for hearing my confession and praying with me.” And so my faithful priest heard me, gave me spiritual direction, and prayed with me. Even without absolution, the practice of confession awakened me to my own sinfulness. It also reminded me that God is prodigal with His love.

Soon my husband and I began to ask what we would need to do to become Catholic. In our case it meant trying to obtain an annulment, and if that should be granted, having our marriage convalidated. I have written elsewhere of this season in our journey. What I can say is that after we came to truly see our condition through the lens of Familiaris consortio, we attempted — at times imperfectly — to live in continence during the annulment proceedings. I didn’t know how it would all turn out, especially since my case was complicated. I was at the time of my first marriage an evangelical, and I married an atheist in my mother’s Chaldean Catholic church. Submitting ourselves to the annulment process meant that there was no guarantee of anything. But God was merciful to me. The Church granted the annulment. We were received, and our marriage was convalidated.

The best thing that happened to me, my husband, and our children is our conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. But one reason I have hesitated to write about the subject is that, as my bishop taught me, conversion is not a one-and-done project. It is the work of a lifetime. We are every day, little by little, being conformed to the image of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Conversion is a journey we began in the womb. (I am also hesitant even now to discuss intimate spiritual experiences with Christ and Our Lady.)

But every time I read Psalm XL (“I have told the glad news of deliverance”), I feel as if I am being accused of silence, of restraining my lips and my pen, of concealing God’s mercy and faithfulness. With a new decade on the horizon, the months and years of my silence have come to an end.

I once read a memoir that described arak as “moonshine vodka.” This anise spirit has been part of gatherings in the Middle East for far longer than brandy or whiskey have been enjoyed on Western tables. Dismissing it as “moonshine vodka” is petty and arrogant. Il yinker asloo, yinker naphsoo —  “He who renounces his origins renounces himself.” This is an Arab proverb my mother often repeated when I was growing up. I like to think of it now in the context of my conversion. It was a cause of strife between me and my parents when I rejected my Iraqi heritage. Only the tempering of years allowed me to see the wisdom in these words, to understand how grace builds on nature and moonshine becomes a distilled spirit.

Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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