You first

When I think about my conversion and how very drastically my life and my views changed in a relatively short time, I often try to pinpoint what they key experiences were that kept me on track. I had so many doubts, went through so many spiritual dry spells, had so few emotionally powerful experiences — I sometimes wonder why I didn’t throw in the towel and go back to the comfort of atheism that I’d known all my life.

One big reason is simply that, on a purely intellectual level, I came to believe that God exists and that what the Catholic Church teaches is true. (The details of that are the subject of a different, very long post.) Though this was a critical factor, it wasn’t the biggest reason I stayed on the path to God. The lure of a worldly life and the comfort of selfishness would probably have led me to slip back into functional atheism at some point.

The biggest reason I never gave up is simply because I began to have faith. Rather suddenly, I began to feel God’s presence in my life and the world all around me. What I thought to be true on an intellectual level I now knew to be true from the bottom of my heart. I had prayed and prayed and suffered one long spiritual dry spell after another for two years and then, seemingly out of the blue, my doubts faded away and I was aware of Christ’s presence in a subtle but important way — like being aware of the beating of my heart (to borrow from John C. Wright’s phrase).

So what did it? How did I finally come to believe in my heart after so long of believing only in my mind? I’ve thought a lot about this lately, and I think I finally have the answer: I dusted off the mirror.

After I re-designed the site and was going through the archives to add categories, I came across this post. Little did I know at the time, this would be one of the key turning points in my conversion. When I wrote the post I had recently come across this quote from C.S. Lewis, which was to change my life:

When you come to know God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others — not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.

When I read that I realized that I was asking the all-good God to come into my heart…yet it was a heart where envy, resentment, anger, selfishness, and all sorts of other nasty sentiments lived. My philosophy up until that time had been to hold off on doing the “hard stuff” that comes with Christianity like forgiving those who’ve hurt me, serving others selflessly, not indulging in my feelings of wanting to launch a bazooka on cars who cut me off in traffic, etc. until God showed himself to me.

I was basically telling God, “You first.” Prove yourself to me and fill my heart with your presence, and then I’ll start worrying about all that forgiveness and selflessness stuff. Until then, where’s that Eminem CD I was listening to…?

What I totally missed, however, was that this would be like holding up a dirty mirror to the sun, and telling the light, “You first.” The sun cannot reflect off of a mirror caked in dirt, just as the Source of all that is pure and good cannot fill a heart that is already jam packed with self and the world.

When I realized this, I admit that it was a painful process to start living as if I were some devout Christian when I was really very dry spiritually and still had plenty of doubts. (At the time my family was involved in a passive-aggressive suburban version of a Romeo and Juliet type drama involving some neighbors and our Home Owner’s Association. As I said a prayer for the writer of our third threatening certified letter instead of cursing his name as was my custom, I recall gritting my teeth and thinking, “This Christianity stuff had better be true!”)

And yet, an interesting thing started to happen. A sort of snowball effect was put into action, where the more room I made in my heart for God (however reluctantly at first), the more I understood his pure love and goodness, the more I genuinely desired not to sin, the more I felt remorse for those sins that I did commit (even the “little” ones), and the end of this process always left me closer to God than I had been before.

And one day I woke up and realized that I had faith. I believed. Not just on a vague intellectual level, but in my heart and soul. And it all started with taking that first step to make just a little bit of room in my heart for God, dusting off the mirror of my soul so that it could reflect even just a small fraction of his light. You only need to experience that once. I may have bad days and dry spells and doubts in the future, but I know that I’ll always know God is there on a deep, fundamental level. Because once you experience his presence — even if it’s only in the small way of a barely repentant lifelong atheist — you know there’s no going back.

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10 Responses to “You first”
  1. John Seymour says:

    Et Tu?

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

  2. Sarahndipity says:

    Wow, this is a great post and just what I needed to hear. I’m a “cradle Catholic” but I can relate to so much of what you wrote. I’m going through a spiritual dry spell right now. In fact, in some ways I think I’ve always been spiritually dry. It’s weird because on the one hand I can honestly say I’ve never doubted God’s existence or doubted that the Catholic Church is the One True Church. Sure, I’ve had fleeting “what-if” moments, but no serious doubts. (And I think my faith is totally a gift from God btw – it’s not b/c of anything I did.)

    At the same time, though, aside from a handful of very rare occasions, I can’t say I “feel” God’s presence. When people say things like they’re “on fire” for God, I have no idea what they mean. I’ve been to mass almost every Sunday of my life but to be honest it’s kind of boring. (Although sometimes the homily is interesting.) I try to get to confession often but I have trouble feeling sorry for my sins, even though I know intellectually that they’re wrong. Most of the things I do as a Catholic (like not using birth control, trying not to have impure thoughts, going to mass, saying the rosary, etc.) I do more out of obligation and fear of hell than out of love of God. I don’t know how to change this. I can control my actions but I can’t control my feelings.

    I think I’m guilty of the same thing you are – telling God “you first.” Can you be more specific about how you “dusted off the mirror?” Thanks!

  3. Sarah says:

    Gorgeous, Jen! I’m going to e-mail this to my little brother. The thick layer of dust he has allowed to gather on his mirror has caused him to doubt. His wife is expecting their second in seven or eight months, and I’m praying that God will get a hold of him before then.

  4. Jennifer F. says:

    Sarahndipity -

    It sounds like what you consider being spiritually dry is what I’d consider having great faith. :) You see, back before I “dusted off the mirror”, meaning attempting to live in a Catholic Christian way, I really, on a gut level, had serious doubts about God’s existence. When I say that I “feel” God’s presence, I just mean that I’m finally where you are now — I don’t think I’ll ever seriously questions whether or not he exists again. For me, that’s a HUGE change. All my life I was absolutely certain that God did not exist.

    If I’m on fire for God, it’s not so much because I have big emotions or feel like I “know” Jesus really well or have had powerful religious experiences (in fact Mass is usually one of my more frustrating times of the week with a baby and a toddler in tow), but because I know how what it’s like to live life without God. Even being fairly spiritually dry but knowing that God exists is ecstasy compared to atheism.

    So, sorry for rambling, but all that is to say that we’re probably in a very similar place in our faith. You were just waaaay ahead of me. :)

  5. Amber says:

    A great post, I really know where you’re coming from. I went through something quite similiar in my faith journey as well. When I first converted it was very much an intellectual conversion and there was not that much real change in my life or my perspective. I had somewhat of a crisis of faith and started to doubt this intellectual conversion… then I read some more and thought some more and realized that there had to be more than just intellectual assent. I started to pray every day, and sometimes more often for God to open my heart and show me his way. Day after day after day and then one day – like you describe – I suddenly realized I had faith. Deep down, deeply rooted faith and belief in God that wasn’t just a matter of intellectual conviction. I can look back on that time now and I realize how much I changed during that period, and it was all rooted in wanting to give up my sins and selfishness and to accept and feel God’s love. I finally wanted my heart to be opened, I wanted to change to know God on his terms, not mine. Not that I’m perfect by any means – and I still pray this prayer as part of my morning prayer – but at least I know I am on the right path and I know God is present in my life.

  6. Jeron says:

    Jen, thank you for writing this post. And I got a lot out of your conversation w/*sarahndipity,* too. I so often question if I really have faith b/c I’m not “on fire” like I see others (at least they claim they’re on fire). As an aside, I’ve made it to Mass each day this week so far which is HUGE. Not out of some obligation. Or bet. But because I’ve been sensing the need to do so, and have finally taken the steps to “just go!” I guess that’s my way of dusting off my mirror.

  7. Sarahndipity says:

    Thanks Jen, it’s nice to know someone else is going through the same things I am. I have a 3-year-old so I completely understand how mass is with small children. Recently we’ve been leaving her with the in-laws during mass and exchanging her in the parking lot after mass (they sing in the choir at a later mass). That helps a lot. Jeron, I’ve also been trying to go to mass one day a week aside from Sunday, just b/c I feel like it’s something I should do to get myself out of this spiritual dryness. It sure is comforting knowing that others go through the same things.

  8. yofed says:

    Exactly what I needed to hear today! Thank you so much!

  9. Aelinn says:

    Thank you for pointing this post out to me; it does help!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Shree Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint, said that if a human being thirsts for God for 24 hours the way he/she misses the love of those dearest to him, that human being will have an experience/vision of God. This has been my experience. After years of yearning for God, one day I suddenly cried and begged for His presence like I would someone I loved dearly. I asked Him to send me a path; within the next week, He did, and my life has not been the same since.