In Thanksgiving for Converts1
July 13, 2014 by lucieromarin
Every cradle Catholic loves a conversion story, because conversion stories contain all the best elements of adventure and romance. There’s discovery and detection, the obstacles to be overcome, struggles interior and exterior, a brave movement of decision and commitment, and joy at the end, and peace, and hope. The cradle Catholic is like one born and raised in a castle; sure, it’s a blessing, but ‘I was born here’ doesn’t make a terribly interesting story or sound particularly admirable. No wonder, then, when travellers knock at the door, staggering in out of the howling winds, their cloaks whipped about them and their faces stung red, the children of the castle like nothing more than to hear about their adventures on their journey home.
These stories are particularly helpful for persons struggling to feel content in their inherited home. For a start, the convert can, in many ways, give you the truest report of the Outside. Perhaps your castle chaplain has never really seen the Outside, so you wonder where his information’s coming from. At the same time, the propaganda pamphlets that get dropped in your courtyard once a week from an enemy plane are characterised by some carefully omitted truths, but it’s hard to see this, sometimes, when you’re feeling tired or constrained. Sometimes, your best defence against the Lures of the World is not simply to shut the window and redouble your old-fashioned prayers, but to listen to the people who’ve actually been there, and who can tell you exactly what the propaganda pamphlets are leaving out.
It’s interesting that a great number of modern (or modern-ish) converts were characters who would once have been described as ‘public sinners’ or ‘devoted to lives of sin.’ These converts weren’t just clean-living Protestants turning into clean-living Catholics after some Bible study and academic quibble about justification. They were wealthy, famous, talented, irreligious or anti-religious, anti-authoritarian, addicted, and promiscuous. They drank, took drugs, gambled, took lovers, and occasionally became Satanist priests. They had every freedom that people say we lack, but it turned out that the one thing they wanted was the thing we take for granted. Never mind whether or not the world listens to what they have to say; we should be listening to them, because they have something to teach us.
I’m not saying that a convert is necessarily a better theologian or a holier person than a cradle Catholic. (I’ve heard some well-intentioned theological disasters come out of the mouths of converts!) I am saying, however, that they can return your attention to rooms and furnishings in your castle which may have become dusty with over-familiarity and neglect. Similarly, if you’ve started to doubt the value of some of your inherited treasures, the convert can jolt you back into a proper awareness, as she approaches your mantelpiece and exclaims, “Limoges! Do you have any idea how valuable that is these days?”
Converts don’t just have the ability to trigger a renewed appreciation for your faith. They can, in fact, show you a new way of exercising that faith. Conversion doesn’t mean that your past life experiences, knowledge, or concerns simply vanish, replace with a sort of religious clone version of yourself. It is true that converts may accidentally import a bug which takes the native immune system by surprise (coughglossalaliacough); at the same time, they haven’t inherited our own subcultural bugs, and, as such can apply the inheritance in new and interesting ways. Social justice? Convert. Convert. Convert. Convert. Convert.Philosophy? Convert. Er, also, convert, and convert, and convert, convert, and convert. Religious life? Convert. Convert. Convert.Healing? Convert. Chastity advice you just have to take seriously? Convert.
Obviously I’m not saying every achievement on the planet is the work of a convert. Some of our greatest works are collaborations, such as between a convert and an experienced spiritual director. (And am I the only person who didn’t know that Sister Nirmala was a convert?) I’m just saying that sometimes the convert is like an artist who joins a workshop, looks at the clay, and says, “Oh, have you ever tried this?” while the resident artisans look on, stunned, because, of course, they haven’t. In other words, if you’re unhappy in your homeland, one of the best things you can do is listen to the stories of the migrants. They’ve come from war-torn countries with no electricity, no running water, and no medicine, and many of them have endured bullets and adversity to get here. They can remind you of your blessings … and they can take the vanilla paste and the rose water you’ve left ignored in your pantry, and show how you to turn it into a fragrant and delicious dessert.
Doesn’t the expression ‘the zeal of the convert’ cover this? – meaning a slightly crazed devotion to their new toy and a decidedly warped and probably angry view of ‘outside’. I would highly recommend foreign travel to a range of countries for anyone who wants to know what life is like outside their homeland, not to mention talking to and listening to their inhabitants, rather than seeking out the lurid tales of grateful migrants from war-torn cities, which are only going to pander to the chauvinism of your homeland. Unless, of course, the latter is what you are after…