I think it's fair to say every Christian has a conversion story. There are big conversions like Jen Fulwiller from Conversion Diary, who through long and patient journey moved from atheism all the way to being a Roman Catholic. Inspiring stuff that. There's other quieter stories of conversion we didn't know were happening until we look back and see a long line of little changes in our heart. Then somewhere in the middle there's me. People love hearing elements of my journey, what with the nunnery, marrying the former monk, and the having of many babies. That's all lovely to share, and seriously I will talk your ear off if you bring it up (you have been warned folks). But that's not really how it all started. This part of my life is the result of a few small choices and one big trip that changed everything for me. I've mentioned it in the past, but I felt it was finally time to tell more about my conversion.
To do that we have to start a ways back. My parents were and are good, Church-going folk. Regular attendees and devoted participants in whatever ministry they could manage over the years. By habit more than by force of desire, I grew up a well-educated, passionate young woman for whom attendance and participation in my Church community was as natural as breathing. I passed seamlessly from Baptism to First Communion to Confirmation (notice I skipped Reconciliation, I actually didn't receive that particular sacrament until I was in my late teens!). I gave the Church my time and passion, as I had the utmost respect for the morals and ethics I heard preached from the altar. I had a near encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, Catholic doctrine, and the Saints. But for my wannabe-Thomistic ways, I had none of the love or faith to make that knowledge useful.
When my Confirmation came about, we were required to do "service" work in our community, and having a love of music, I joyfully joined the choir, fitting in nicely with the all-ages crowd. As I rounded out my first year of service, my choir director let me know about a Church Choir camp. If only to have something to do and to learn some new music, I decided to go for it. Again, participation was one of my strong points. I had seldom had the classic camp experience, y'know, where you have a great time, eat food of variable quality due to its quantity, and then cried as I bid farewell to my new friends for life (which is actually true, I am still close friends with many of them!). I was confused and touched by the somewhat counter-cultural experience of faith I witnessed amongst many of my fellow campers. Kids my own age weren't talking about liturgical correctness and what songs were in the new hymnal (although I guess that would've been weird), they were talking about Jesus and their desire to give themselves to God. They prayed the rosary with our Bishop when he visited with joy and affection for Mary. I had arrived, rosary in hand, with no sweet clue as to how to use it except as a wall decoration (and once, as a necklace, which was quickly rebuked by my Father). The kids seemed to be living in a different world than me, and they were happy about it. Even though I had developed deep friendships with many of them, I felt like I had lost the plot. They were talking all about World Youth Day (what the heck is that I wondered?) and how they were busy fundraising and planning. I came home from camp for the first time aware that I had clearly missed some important piece in the puzzle for what Church was meant to be. So when the notice came out inviting more young people to sign up for a pilgrimage for World Youth Day in 2000 I decided to give it a try. It certainly didn't hurt that it was in Rome, which was on my short list of must see cities. So I started my small fundraising efforts with a tourist's intentions and the seed of curiosity planted in my heart at camp that year.
Suffice it to say my efforts to fundraise were half-hearted. How was I going to raise $5000 all on my own? No one else in my parish was going so I was going to have to be creative. Let's say I wasn't. I was pretty lazy to be honest. The trip sounded fun, but did I want to be stuck on a plane with a bunch of Jesus Freaks? I met a few of them in our preparation and while I liked them, I was again confused and a little put off by how much they talked about Jesus and seemed to worship the Pope. Seriously, why get so excited about an old man who already was having problems talking? Ugh. I was happy to let the fundraising slide and have that be my out. The curiosity from my summer camp had faded in the face of the day to day life of high school. So when I got hit by a car on my 16th birthday and survived with barely a scratch and was then awarded a settlement (against my will as I had no desire to sue the sweet man who accidentally hit me) that was just enough to pay for the trip, I had lost my out. The realization that I almost died fuelled my desire to live out a few of my dreams lest fate came back to finish me off. Sounds silly all these years later, but it was definitely part of my thought process.
So I left my small city for the impossible heat and crushing crowds of Rome with 81 other pilgrims (including a handful of priests and our Bishop) to meet the universal Church face to face. Culture shock doesn't even begin to describe my experience, and I'm not talking about Italy (although c'mon, who doesn't love all things Italian??). Everywhere I went there were roaming crowds of excited chanting young Catholics praising Jesus. In subway cars that made sardine cans look inviting, besides cute panini carts (I can still taste it now!), in the massive lines for the Coliseum, and, so it felt, around every street corner. None was more startling to me than when I met these enthusiastic young people completely silenced in the face of the Eucharist. My fake it 'til you make it Catholicism felt suddenly so empty in the face of their authentic and unencumbered devotion. I could play the part next to them, but I was so afraid of being caught in the lie that my faith was nothing more than the expression of custom and learning outside the context of real caring. I did my best to fit in while giving myself over to living behind the lens of my camera, photographing every building and Church we walked by like a good little photojournalist, with not an ounce of passion for much more than the architecture. I recall getting pretty upset on more than one occasion at a young priest who was in our group who kept taking pictures of me along our travels. I wasn't really part of this group of people. Sure, I'd love to feel the way they all did, but I didn't belong with them because I didn't really believe what they believed. Why document the little vacuum I was feeling with all those pictures and video? (I'm glad he did now of course!)
One of the turning points for me came when one of my new friends, a young man whose cabin was across from mine (he shared his with our photographer priest, another newly minted priest, and another young man), teased me for only taking pictures of places and not people, and especially not myself. He called me to account on the fact that I was willfully separating myself from the action around me, willfully denying that I could be part of the group. I doubt he even knew what that little comment meant in the moment. I had been playing my part well, saying all the right words, but I had held myself back from seeing the possibility of my life as one of these faithful young people. It took a little more coaxing, but one night without much fanfare, as I layed on the cabin's deck in my sleeping bag listening to the new (or dare I say baby?) priest snoring his way through the night, I gave in. I had a quiet chat with God, this stranger who had been persistently knocking at the door of my heart my whole life, but never more than that week. I told Him that if He wanted, He could have my life. That I wanted to have the faith that the people all around me had. That if He gave me even an ounce of their faith, I would hold on to it so tight nothing could take it from it. There was no lightning bolt, no burning bush, just a quiet whisper in my heart. God didn't need to say Yes to me, He'd said that before there was time. He was waiting for me to let Him in, and then gently at first, and then more and more as time went on, God came into my heart. I woke up the next day still confused, but a little more open.
By the time our pilgrimage was over, I had actually been given a pilgrim's heart. I left with a deep sense that God had a plan for my life and began on the long path to figure out what that was. As time went on and I sought to deepen my relationship with Christ, I am so grateful I have always had the backdrop of the Church to encourage and guide me. Every conversion I've had, and I've had so many over the years, has been joyfully in the arms of the Church, through the loving hands of the community God surrounds me with. God continues every day to seek out my empty places, and to fill them with His abundant love, through the grace of the Sacraments given me whenever I seek them out. If it weren't for the community of believers I met first at camp, then at WYD, then again through the Challenge retreats, the Franciscans, and now through my parish, I would never have opened my heart to Christ, and then continued to break open the door in my heart wider and wider.