By Kyle Eller
Ten years ago this month, by God’s grace, I was received into the Catholic Church by Bishop Dennis Schnurr at the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Duluth.
I could never finish counting the blessings God has bestowed on me, his prodigal son, since then. I think back to all the Communions and confessions. God has been present with me in joy and sorrow, faithful even when I haven’t been. He has brought healing and clarity beyond whatever I could expect. He has brought graces to my marriage.
Too many people to name have walked with me and blessed me. I often walk into church events, even if I’m working at them, and feel like I’m at once at the hidden heart of the world and among family.
I was wondering what I could say about this anniversary when I remembered I have never really tried to write my conversion story here. So here goes.
I was baptized and raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, where I first learned about God, first learned to pray, first learned the Bible, first learned to love God. I remember as a little child sitting under a tree near the church parking lot, right on the quiet street where I lived, looking at the beautiful morning and doubting: Did I really believe in this invisible God? The beauty of the blue sky and the clouds convinced me.
I grew into a devout child, but by the time I was deep into high school, a bit angry and troubled, I was already losing my faith. I was “too smart” for all that.
The crisis escalated in college, where I encountered philosophical challenges to faith in a robust way for the first time. I encountered many people who called themselves Christian and said they believed the Bible but held radically different beliefs from mine. I encountered challenges to Scripture itself in Gnostic writings and skeptical scholarship.
I had been taught well what to believe, but not so well why. To be honest, I also didn’t look very hard. Christian moral beliefs were becoming rather inconvenient. I did not want to cast my lot among the “intolerant.”
I never could really bring myself to be an atheist. I still found the world too full of wonder and beauty to imagine it was all meaningless, random chance then then you die.
So I became a spiritual seeker, picking and choosing from various religious traditions what suited me. Out of college and on my own and then married, I finally became, well, a New Age, agnostic, liberal, vegan, pacifist, Buddhist relativist.
I was full of pride. I thought I had all the answers, or soon would. I had what I looked on with a strange sadness as an impregnable fortress of argument against Christianity and did not want to be bothered with it.
I was not the likeliest candidate for conversion. But God had planted seeds all along. Late in high school, losing my faith, I had gone to St. John’s Abbey for a couple of choral events and had a powerful experience of the presence of God as I sat quietly between rehearsals reading a little New Testament I inexplicably brought with me. (I wonder now if the Blessed Sacrament was present.)
The experience lingered and enticed. There was an unknown world of Catholicism. I would even stop in to Mass sometimes in college and after graduating, perhaps hoping.
Maybe that’s why in my spiritual seeking I also picked up the new Catechism of the Catholic Church when it was released. I just glanced at it, took a few things I liked and put it on a shelf.
Then there were my pro-life convictions, which didn’t fit with my relativism or with most of the people who shared my view of life. Yet the harder I looked, the more convinced I was that if abortion is not wrong, nothing is. I could never quite fit anywhere.
Last but certainly not least I had a patient, praying wife.
Conversion happened in a moment. There was no great crisis. Just one day I was convicted with the certainty that what I had been doing was never going to work, was never going to make me happy, was never going to save me. Given my pride, I am convinced this sudden rush of humility could only have come from God.
So I took the catechism from the shelf and read about the evidences for God, just a couple of paragraphs. It summarized whole library shelves worth of philosophy but seemed to have been written in rebuttal to my most central philosophical mistake, the one at the deepest root of my doubts. I watched my whole fortress crumble, and I became a theist in that moment.
From there I literally had to start from scratch. Who is Jesus? Why do people believe the Bible? And if Jesus is God and the Bible is true, which church is the right one?
I began to read a lot, finally getting the other side of the arguments, the ones for faith. Still, which doctrines were true? Which church was the right one? I was drawn to Catholicism, but I worried I was just talking myself into another fad for the sake of being different.
There is so much I could say about that process, but one of the most important moments came with a self-realization in the middle of “church shopping.” I was not a linguist or a great Bible expert or a student of the church fathers and councils or even the arguments of the Reformation. Who was I to decide these thorny doctrinal questions, some of them of critical importance? Hadn’t I got into so much trouble in the first place by prizing my own judgment above all?
As I reflected on it, I realized the problem goes all the way to the bottom. Even if I became a great expert, there would always still be someone equally smart, knowledgeable and sincere who believed the opposite of my conclusions. It became clear why God had entrusted the job of teaching the faith to the church, not just to a book.
There is so much more I could say, but already I have written too long. Thank you to the many of you who have walked with me these last 10 years.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].