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Tears For Surprise

On a pilgrimage.


The marble hit hard against my knees. I had knelt—though it could be described as a slight fall—upon the cold floor of this cathedral. I felt compelled to do so, not by anyone in the room but by a recognition of something. I had knelt in front of relics of the cross. I had knelt like a Catholic would kneel before relics. I wasn’t Catholic, not by baptism, not even by faith if I was being honest. Before kneeling, before I had boarded a plane to Rome, before I had walked the silent hills of Assisi, I had wrestled with the Church. But I was not Catholic. I was a Protestant confronted by the deep historicity of the Church, by the internal continuity of Catholic theology, and mostly by Scripture. Before I knelt here, I had acknowledged that I was probably missing something that the Catholic Church possessed. But here before the Cross, that privation struck deeply into me, almost breaking me in half. And I wept. That moment in Rome was not the beginning of a conversion; it was the end. It was the finale to a year and a half of reading and arguing and obsessively asking every priest, pastor, and mentor I could find endless questions. At the beginning it was intellectual—and it still is, by and large. But the power of Christianity is its transcendence. If you approach a mystery, expect to be entranced by it. And that mystery possesses me, which is something I didn’t realize before I hit the marble floor in a side chapel of the Basilica Church of Santa Croce in Jerusalemme. It was the moment when I knew I had not assented to a series of dogmas, although I had, but that these dogmas had ingrained themselves into me. I was Catholic and content to be so.

I have never really loved conversion stories the way others seem to love them. They do not function on an evidentiary basis; they are stories, nothing more. I did not come to understand and appreciate their power until people began to ask me for my own story. It was then that I saw they are more than stories: they are testaments. That is their power and the reason for their attraction. We ask to know how people changed their minds because it tells us that such a thing is possible. So, we ask, how did you become Catholic? I suppose that question has easy answers for some. My answer is not succinct.

I grew up in a staunchly and faithfully Protestant family. It was a living, informed, and deeply prayerful faith. My mother taught me the Scriptures and those words fostered in me a love for Christ. I read His words and loved Him for them. I heard “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” and my soul leaped within me. I read Saint John’s account of the Crucifixion and knew the profound cost of sin. I began praying when I was young and grew in knowledge and love for God. My faith was sustained by the words of Scripture, by the conviction of Lutheran hymnody, and by a deep love for God, to Whom I prayed nightly. While all of this deeply Protestant formation was underway, I was going to Catholic schools.

Despite, or maybe because I went to Catholic schools, I became more and more convinced that Protestantism—specifically Lutheranism—was true. It was biblical, and Scripture was my litmus test for truth. Eventually I found my way to university, and in my first year something quite radical happened: I began to find objections to the Christian narrative that I had never heard. I was meeting atheists who knew what they were talking about; they had read C. S. Lewis and Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, and had remained unconvinced. I had never experienced that before. My conviction faltered. I slowly stopped praying. There was no clear moment at which I became conscious of no longer believing; faith slipped away from me. It is surreal to find oneself living Lewis’s observation that the “safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” And so I walked, without fully noticing, into nowhere.

Atheism settled on me slowly but resolutely. I was content to admit that the faith of my youth had been naïve. I surrounded myself with those who repeated back to me the truisms that nourished my new convictions. God was dead. He had been crushed under the mighty force of reason. My theological questions could be answered with evolutionary science, psychology, and a sprinkling of Nietzsche’s claims about the nature of truth. It was about power. Nothing more, nothing less. I looked back over my shoulder at the history of Christianity and I found ample evidence for these claims. The Church was a vehicle for the powerful to control the weak: cf. Pope Alexander VI. This was enough evidence for me.

And yet sometimes, usually when I was alone, I felt dread, a cosmic and profound loneliness. I would remind myself that before me lay an odd seventy years and then nothing and my heart trembled within me. After some time, I began to ask with the Psalmist: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?” I wondered why the inevitability of oblivion shocked me. If I was the natural result of a series of unguided biological processes, then why would my natural end bother me so deeply? How was it that I could know the difference between purpose and purposelessness? And why did one strike fear into me while the other hinted toward a hope I longed to know once more? Others have answered these same questions throughout the ages: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”; “O supreme and unapproachable light! O whole and blessed truth, how far art thou from me, who am so near to Thee”; “Then you shall call and the Lord will answer, you shall cry and he will say, Here I am.” I began to reconsider the views that had seemed to be so clearly true before.

I asked myself how I knew the distinction between purpose and void. God had put me in a place where I could ask these questions and get real answers; my faith returned. I had answered my objections, but mostly I had crucified my pride. I believed again. But I did not grasp hold of Christ until one evening I will never forget. I went to the Anglican church I had been attending. Prayers were said, hymns were sung, and tears fell. It was in no way a saintly remorse. These were the tears of agony. This was Saint Peter crying until he wore valleys of grief into his very face. I was returning to find that Christ had never left me, when like the Apostles I had abandoned Him. I had turned my back. I asked, begged, that I could just eat the dust off His feet and was welcomed into an embrace that burned with holy love. He had waited for me and I was crushed by it. Saint John of the Cross speaks about experiences like these in his Dark Night of the Soul. He doesn’t, however, mention that feeling—that shame. I had not known it and haven’t known it since. It is something etched into my soul, and I find myself often whispering the comfort, “My grace is sufficient for you.” I wonder whether Saint Peter ever repeated those words to himself, startled awake by a memory, a visage of Christ looking across a crowded square with tears in his eyes: “I do not know him.”

I took up my newfound faith with vigor and excitement. I prayed and worshiped and thought that the pieces had come back together again. I had resurrected Christ within me. I took new objections in stride, confident that an answer existed. I threw in my lot with the mystics. I realized that you probably won’t really know; in fact you can’t. I do not understand God. I cannot conceive of the love of Christ. I do not understand the Incarnation. But I do know that in these mysteries all knowledge and reason is consummated. I am content to love Him though He confounds my attempts to understand Him. That particular admonition, I think, led me to the Catholic Church; without it, I would have found the entire enterprise too bound up in its own mystery.

A university neighbor and I spent late nights discussing Catholicism, politics, liturgy, and similar topics. These conversations became something of a lifeline. I sat up into the small hours of the morning, demanding answers. I interrogated these new ideas, which probably gave the impression that I was interrogating my friend. (Apologies, if you read this. You were patient and I appreciate it.) I pored over every argument, from the centrality of the Eucharist to the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception. I read and reread passages of Scripture that had so long seemed clear. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling no longer seemed like a literary exaggeration. “My flesh is true food and my blood true drink, whoever eats of this food or drinks of this cup shall not perish but shall have eternal life”—suddenly and shockingly this seemed like divine law rather than a complex metaphor. After a fair amount of convincing, I attended Mass. I filed into the pew, made a point not to bow, and sat down. I cooperated easily enough. The Mass was candlelit, dark, quiet. The silence was deafening.

As the Mass began it seemed palpable. There was something hovering above the darkness. As incense billowed up into the black ceiling above, tears fell onto my cheeks. The words my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault rang out. I looked up to the crucifix. The suffering, humble face of Christ looked down on me, and I was shaken by its terrible beauty. With all my arguments, my intellectualism, my confident refutations, I was not expecting this superstitious sect to compel me. Yet it did. Mass continued, beautiful and reverent. I left and returned to my books, especially the Bible. I continued reading. I sought out patristic writers and read every Catholic theologian I could find.

Eventually, I began speaking to priests and pastors. I now remember one of my most trusted spiritual leaders, a Presbyterian clergyman, saying maybe I was called to be Catholic. To me it seemed impossible. When I thought about it, I didn’t feel Catholic. I didn’t see myself swept up by the beauties and mysteries of this Church. I was not a mystic sitting in prayer for endless hours, neither eating nor drinking. I was not enraptured by the sound of polyphonic Latin. I loved Scripture and the Christ Who had become familiar to me, the one spoken of in Lutheran prayers. I felt the impassioned zeal of the Reformation. Marian prayer made me uncomfortable. I felt Protestant. But as I considered and prayed, I begged God to show me which was right. I so desperately didn’t want to believe lies about Him. I made a list in my head, a list of beliefs. If these were true, I would submit to the whole thing.

My list was these: the Blessed Sacrament, Purgatory, Marian devotion, and the Catholic understanding of sanctification. Each of these I came to believe in time. Saint Augustine, Saint Justin Martyr, Benedict XIV, C.S. Lewis, and Sister Fiat (a less famous but equally important friend of mine) contributed slowly to my change in opinion. Mostly, though, it was Christ. He gently guided me, offering answers as I asked questions. It was never forced, and it was graciously, mercifully slow. I then reported my change of heart to my family. It took time, and it was difficult. At times it was very lonely. But now I think they respect it. I love them and am immensely grateful for all the things they have given me, formation in my faith chief among them.

At first I was excited by the novelty of my faith. It felt like I had finally grasped something that had hitherto been beyond my reach. I was comfortable with what the Church taught, but still rejected most of Her practices. I didn’t like sacramentals, relics, rosaries, or much in the way of devotional or penitential practices. So long as the Church did not bind me to practice them, I didn’t. Still, I looked forward to the day of my first Communion. I yearned for it. Afterward it became common for me weep when the time for Communion came at each Mass. I wept with longing. I wept because I knew it was Him, that here in these elements, my Lord had come to meet me. He so ardently loved me that He reached out to be physically intimate with me, to be in my mouth, to be consumed, to be loved. And I couldn’t love Him in this way. Again the Church had answers. So I waited. Eventually the date for my confirmation and first Communion was set. The months passed and I grew in excitement.

In a meeting with the university student program director, he mentioned a pilgrimage to Rome. The timing seemed more than providential. I decided to sign up. When the collection of pilgrims arrived at the airport, I realized something startling: I didn’t know anyone.  My friend who had brought me into this community wasn’t as close as he had once been. As for everyone else, I had either met them once or not at all. Nonetheless, we boarded the plane and I found my seat. As I was getting comfortable, our priest sat down next to me. At the time, priests made me uncomfortable. How do you talk to them? What do they want to talk about? What if I watch something he thinks is inappropriate? Will he notice I’m reading C.S. Lewis? Would he care? Has he read C.S. Lewis? Anyway, I was uncomfortable. Our plane landed and we boarded a bus to Assisi where our pilgrimage would begin. When I think about Assisi, I think about breathing. I think of the way the air seemed to nourish my lungs. It did not simply fill them with the oxygen which is necessary for living—it gave them a new sort of life altogether. It felt as if I were breathing something in and feeling it circulate throughout my body. It felt like peace. My mind was stilled by the air in Assisi’s hills. As I walked, I could almost see the figure of Christ, half hidden by trees. Holiness moved through these woods, caressing the cheeks of the visitors who walked here.

I carried this quietness with me the rest of the day. Evening came, its own silence enveloping the earth, and I sat among my company, listening as they spoke. The conversation was full of memories, questions, the usual things. But then it changed: everyone in the group began to speak about Protestants. They spoke about how flawed the whole system was; how the Protestant movement was ever fractioning into more unrecognizable slivers; even that Protestants could not have the same love for Christ they knew, the same deepening passion to love and know Him. I stared straight ahead, tears welling in my eyes. My throat grasped for air. I choked. As soon as the opportunity arose, I made my escape. I walked down the hall until someone caught up to me and stopped me, a friend of a friend. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. That was a bit rough.” I nodded and, to my embarrassment, I cried. We talked about conversion. We talked about longing for the Eucharist. We talked about feeling Catholic. The conversation finished and I went back to my room. I stood on the balcony, looking over the city, and I asked God what He was doing. He was silent, but He was there.

The trip continued mostly in the same vein. Each massive basilica felt like an overpowering confrontation with some foreign institution. This was not mine to claim. It was not built for me. It was theirs. As I beheld this beauty, I felt unfit even to clean the grime from the walls. We celebrated Mass and I cried. We walked down the streets, and I cried again. (I’ll admit it was slightly melodramatic at this point.) I felt that I had made a grave mistake. Whatever I had thought about theology seemed not to matter. Catholicism could not be embraced in parts. I could not have its theology without its practice or its simplicity without its grandeur. I could not have the hills of Assisi without the columns of Saint Peter’s. Rome and all her majesty pulled me to my knees. As I sat in each marble hall or listened to the ageless litany of every cardinal and king who had been here, I thought about my own churches. I thought about the simple country Protestant churches that had graced my life. I thought about the carpets that I had crawled on, the coffee hours I had served, the choir lofts filled with untalented but committed singers, the long-winded sermons, and I missed it. I finally began to mourn. I mourned the faith that I was leaving behind. These cold marble buildings were so alien in comparison with the comfortable familiar sanctuaries of my old faith.

I began to cling to small recognizable elements of each basilica or holy sight. Every cross I found held immense comfort. It was a familiar symbol. As I found my place in all of this overwhelming beauty, I also found myself reciting prayers. I was saying the rosary; I was certainly falling to my knees before the altar. Something had shifted. The last day of the trip arrived and a small group of us set out for a few last visits. Among them was a visit to the relics of the Holy Cross. The day was enjoyable, light and easy. We walked all across the vast expanse of Rome, finally finding ourselves in the presence of the relics. And here I fell before them. I responded to them as I would respond to Christ Himself. In so doing I realized that Rome had grabbed hold of me. She had challenged, confronted, and entranced me. The rhythms of Her liturgical, mystical Church inhabited my very self. For the first time, I felt Catholic. I felt the patterns of holiness etching themselves into my mind. I saw finally that the Church was much more than Her theology; She is Her art, cathedrals, music, prayers, people, clergy, and devotions. And She cannot be had in parts. To love Christ is to love His Church in Her fullness. I kissed the ground before I stood and smiled; a year ago I would’ve thought that superstitious and a little foolish.

We left the church and the trip continued without much of note. When I returned, I found faithful and kind friends whom I missed. I told them about my pilgrimage and what I had learned, and found their responses full of wisdom. One said, “Of course it would be painful. You’ve thought about being Catholic, but you hadn’t thought it meant you had to stop being Lutheran.” It’s an important point. Catholicism cannot be grafted onto something else. Try as one might, one finds that to be Catholic is to have a singular attitude towards life. It affects everything we do and everything we conceive. I am often surprised that there is a Catholic way to dress, a Catholic way to eat, a Catholic way to rest, a Catholic way to work, a Catholic way to love, etc. It was in Rome that I realized I could not be a Protestant Catholic. I was Protestant and now I am Catholic, and that has fundamental implications for everything I am.

The last month before my reception into the Church passed almost without significance. Late on a weekday evening, I was confirmed and received Communion for the first time. It was an altogether different experience than I had imagined. In my imaginings I would receive the Body of my Savior and be transported to the foot of His Cross. I would weep with the Virgin. I would cling to the bloodstained cross with Saint Mary Magdalene. None of this happened. Instead, I received my Lord on my tongue and began to laugh. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of joy. The small collection of nine friends laughed in the pews. Our priest laughed. After these years of struggle and consternation the Eucharist transported us not to the Cross but into the apostolic joy of heaven.

And here I find an appropriate place to end the story. God has been good to me. His kindness has led me through every question and trial I have yet faced. As I ran the race, my eyes set upon the Author and perfecter of my faith, I have found this road to be altogether more difficult and more joyous than I had imagined. I am Catholic. I am happy to be so. In the end the answer to all my wonderings was found there laughing before the altar. For me the experience of Christ has always been thus. It is never what I expect. Even my recounting of the story ends with another surprise of providence: once again I thought I would find myself weeping, but as I write this, I laugh.

Emma Mutch is pursuing a Ph.D. in animal genetics at the University of Edinburgh.

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