Six Imperfect Metaphors for Conversion

 
 
A friend’s therapist once suggested that she consider becoming Episcopalian. Wouldn’t that be so much easier than wrestling with all her Catholic angst?
 
This suggestion made me think about the many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding religious faith — and, maybe especially, religious conversion. No metaphor can really capture the wild variety of conversion experiences (and, of course, “cradle Catholics” often have their own conversion stories, their own stories of being shaken and reshuffled by God), but here are six images that may usefully combat some myths of conversion.
 
 


1: Falling in love. Love isn’t chosen. Love can push us past respectability. Love teaches us about ourselves, and about the world. Love is necessary to human existence. Love is humiliating and exalting at the same time. Love is — one hopes — about adoration of the beloved, not the self-image of the lover. Love will break your heart.
 
 
2: Discovering your long-lost mother. In this metaphor you find out new facts about the world, not solely about yourself. You gain information. And yet this information implies obligations. You longed for her, and now she’s here . . . and maybe you have to take her in, or pay her debts, or learn to put up with her querulous tirades. In some way you must sacrifice for her.
 
 
3: Unwanted pregnancy. The “falling in love” metaphor is certainly biblical — His banner over me was love — but it might be too gentle; even the lost-mother metaphor may be too gentle. For many people, Catholic conversion is as shocking and devastating as the moment when that second line appears on the little white plastic test. It’s something that happens to you, not something you choose; it’s even something you’d reject outright if you could.
 
Unwanted pregnancy imposes obligations. It’s generally the result of actions we took, never intending the result. It’s a source of intense suffering and humiliation — and yet, when the child is born, it’s very often a source of joy.
 
It’s something we often think we can’t afford.
 
 
4: Philosophy. The problem with the metaphors that stress the unchosen aspect of conversion is that they can make it sound like what you need to do, if you want to find God, is simply wander around waiting to be struck by lightning. Pray, go to church, but mostly wait for the experience that will dissolve your doubts.
 
But, in fact, if you are “seeking,” you might be best served by doing philosophy. Find a community or a group of friends with whom you can fruitfully argue; take the Symposium, not the Song of Songs, as your guide. Examine the ground you stand on: What do you definitely believe? What are the consequences of those beliefs? Perhaps the most fruitful path is to examine your moral beliefs: What do you believe to be absolutely, unshakably wrong or right? And now, what kind of anthropology would be necessary for those beliefs to be true? What kind of metaphysics would be necessary to support that anthropology? Do not do this alone. Do it with friends. Loving friendship is the irreplaceable foundation of philosophy.
 
Accepting a conclusion of philosophy is not the same as encountering the living God. But it is like that encounter, insofar as it can be the result of philosophical seeking. It is something you can work hard to find, and yet when you find it, it reshapes you. Philosophy, taken seriously, makes you change your life. But it’s easy to understand that philosophy is a practice over the long term, not an unexpected epiphany.
 
Love of God is recognition; it’s homecoming after exile. But I also love the book The Last Unicorn, in which men have lost the ability to recognize unicorns: They see the unicorn, but think only that she’s a white mare. We must be prepared for recognition.
 
 
5: The mask that sinks into the skin. Or, as your mom told you, “Your face’ll freeze that way!”
 
Lots of people convert for inadequate or actively bad reasons. They want security, they want a strange accessory, they want to be like other Catholics, or they want to be unique (or both). Few of us convert for entirely defensible reasons uncolored by familial drama or concern for self-image.
 
I know I don’t stay Catholic for the same reasons that I converted. Most people don’t, I think.
 
And so the people who mock Catholic converts for their (often transparent) desire to be outre, to be extreme, to be right are missing the point. Live with the mask and it will sink into your skin. Don’t wear it if you don’t want your face to change. But also, don’t assume that every mask is just a facade. People choose their masks. If you think a convert has become Catholic solely as a mask, you still should ask yourself: Why did he choose this mask when he could’ve chosen another?
 
 
6: The leap of faith. There are many problems with the “leap” metaphor. It seems to make faith anti-rational and self-chosen, a form of self-expression rather than assent.
 
But I think for many people there does come a moment when we choose to do our doubting and our fussin’ and our fightin’ from within the Church, not from outside. We haven’t settled all our arguments with God yet — but we know we need to harangue Him while kneeling before the altar.
 
How did we make that decision? I expect it varies. For me, it was a matter of trust that I expressed in roughly philosophical terms: I was more sure that the Catholic Church had authority to teach me than I was sure that contraception or gay sex were okay. For others, trust may manifest in different ways: A friend suggested, acutely, that we may become Catholic when we start to see God as “a worthy opponent” — we can fight, but when He beats us, we’ll accept that we got beaten.
 
Every conversion is different, like every saint — like every person. Every conversion is a prism with a hundred facets. Our love of God is always polysemic, and when we try to discuss it, our own experiences shiver out of our hands like a wineglass breaking.
 
And yet we have to try. I hope these images will at least help us combat some fallacies about our love.
 

By

Eve Tushnet was born in 1978 and grew up in Washington, D.C. She was received into the Catholic Church at Yale University in 1998. Her hobbies include sin, confession, and ecstasy. Her writing can be found on her blog http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com and http://evesjournalismandstuff.blogspot.com. She writes a lot about being gay and Catholic. Her patron saint is Elizabeth of Hungary. She has worked full-time for the National Catholic Register and the Manhattan Institute (one year each), and part-time for the Institute on Marriage and Public Policy, the Bible Literacy Project, and the National Organization for Marriage. She has written for publications including Commonweal, the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Weekly Standard. Mostly she writes the art reviews for publications people don't read for the art reviews.

  • Roland Newark

    What’s the old aphorism: ‘Life takes on the shape we give it’.

  • Sue Sims

    It covers so much ground in such a short space – and the ‘unwanted pregnancy’ metaphor hit so hard: my conversion couldn’t have been less welcome or more difficult to cope with.

  • William

    Eve Tushnet: This was mighty interesting reading. Thanks.

  • hilary

    I usually call it coming out of the matrix. (Such a useful movie). And as everyone who comes out of the nice comfortable matrix discovers, The Real really stinks.

    Why the hell didn’t I take the OTHER PILL?!!

  • Mother of Two Sons

    As a cradle Catholic at this point of my spiritual journey I feel like being a Catholic is like being married to the most obnoxious publicly scandalous spouse, no, it is like being born into a family (that you can’t get out of no matter how hard you try) that is schizophrenically preoccupied about everything unimportant, and yet is drawn into the stillest silence from their soul of souls at the Consecration of the Mass only to return to their complete mayhem argumentations and tirades about the music, the furniture, the language, the order as if that would really cure the lack of the 24/7 Union with Christ. Which for the most part never comes up in any conversation or homily….. Yes, I am Catholic because I can’t be anything else…. I walk with Jesus, without Him, everyday in my life, I would not want to live….. but I hand pick the time I spend at any Catholic Church these days…. it is too much work and quite frankly toxic and emotionally draining…. not Jesus’ hope for His Church.

    I am not expecting a re-conversion to the Catholic Church to happen in my lifetime… but I pray for Divine Intervention.

  • Christine

    I am right there with you MOTS!

    I have been experiencing quite a crisis in making sure that the mass I attend isn’t full of angries. Christ is at every Mass and in my weakness I find it difficult to see that at times.

    I shouldn’t be so distracted by them, but I am.

    I pray for you and you pray for me, okay? We are sisters in this…

  • Mother of Two Sons

    I appreciate your promise of prayers and will happily reciprocate! I met a gentleman recently who is participating in RCIA at one of the Parishes and he demonstrated to me that it is all about GRACE and God, Himself, drawing souls to himself. He stated that no one in his family understands this decision of his…. he is not making this decision because he is marrying someone who is Catholic… it is God calling him deeply to Himself… it is not that he agrees with all of the Churches views and he is being completely open about his differing “views” making sure that it is not a barrier to him becoming Catholic. His eyes say it all…. it is definitely a movement of God!

  • MRA

    Your metaphors are each illuminating taken singly, and even more so taken together. Thank you.

  • maiki

    Not necessarily unwanted, but unexpected pregnancy… reminds me of Mary’s “Fiat” as a model for our conversion.

  • georgie-ann

    the “outer” will NEVER compare with (hold a candle to) the “inner,”…be at peace,…God IS our peace,…He is our very personal piece, no matter what anybody else is saying or doing,…”draw nigh unto Him and He will draw nigh unto you,”…

  • georgie-ann

    of course, i meant “our very personal peace!”,….didn’t re-read it until too late!,…

    so, i guess i’ll add that too much noise & confusion, no matter how sincerely OR angrily “well-meant,” is actually an affront to God, in blocking His ability to communicate Himself, which He is quite able to do very well,…even Jesus withdrew regularly “into the desert,”…should we not regularly do the same?,…& don’t let the noisy ones “guilt” you or stop you, btw!,….be your own person, even while having respect for the “totality” of things that have become part of the Church’s situation & problems in the world today,…God calls us, each & every one, to listen to Him and to find His Peace,…how many of us really DO that as a priority, instead of adding directly to the “pile of noise & confusion” our own selves?,…

    i believe that not all problems have humanly findable “perfect answers,”…but we do/”make the best choices” we can based on our best and most sincerely understood comprehension of God’s will, plans, and purposes for Life in general, and our own personal lives,…

    God “makes a Way where there is no way,” (as in opening the Red Sea!),…when the outer confusion is TOO MUCH &/or too frustrating, remember that God’s voice to Elijah was NOT in the wind or other “impressive/imposing” things, but came to him as a still small voice,…

  • John

    Thank you, Miss Tushnet, for the unwanted pregnancy metaphor. It’s the perfect way for me to describe my conversion experience to friends. Having recently experienced the consequences of an indulgent diet and slowing, 40-year old metabolism, I now look roughly seven months pregnant.

    “Conversion to the Catholic Church is like an unwanted pregnancy,” I say, turning sideways and tracing the impressive contour of my belly. “It can be an occasion of intense suffering and humiliation, but in the end, when the Christ in my soul is finally born, He will bring much joy.”

    Of course, all metaphors limp. Truth be told, the baby Jesus, who once brought me much joy as a newborn, now seems to be stuck in the Terrible Twos.

    “How about some spiritual consolation?”
    “No.”
    “Just a little for old times’ sake?”
    “No.”
    “Please?”
    “No.”

  • JP

    Great article!

    I’ve taught RCIA and I’ve seen all sorts of very different reasons for conversion. And some are definitely stronger than others.

    I, too, like the pregnancy metaphor. John, I liked your reply immensely!

    I would say that both the pregnancy metaphor and the ‘leap of faith’ are what is required for assent. You know the Church is true…but you don’t know all the ins and outs as to WHY it is true. But you’ll fight for it anyway.

    With all the scandal we can seem to generate, assent is invaluable…”I know this is the true Church, I know this is the true Church…”

  • Barbara

    I think I see something of my conversion in all of these metaphors. In particular the idea of the mask sinking into the skin. Masks are deeply attuned to the inner psyche of the wearer. Moreso the exposition of something hidden than the hiding of something exposed. My conversion came about as the result of wanting to be like the Catholics I saw around me, especially my fiance who seems so solid and sure in his relationship to God, while I was constantly flailing in the outer badlands of paganism.

    It’s interesting that you bring up unexpected pregnancy as I have just experienced this as well and can understand exactly what you are describing. It is frightening, every moment fraught with a millon questions and no answers coming from any quarter other than the steady rise of my belly and the subtle changes in my skin, breasts and mood. Times when it is surreal, almost unbelievable, as though it were occurring to someone else a half-step away from me, but not me. In my conversion I watched what used to be important things fall away from my identity one by one, replaced by other things, until I felt as though I was looking out of the same body with different skin. With pregnancy it the same type of change, the shift from woman to mother, which occurs not all at once but as a progression of losses and replacements. William James has such a great description of the process in “The Varieties of Religious Experience”…as he puts it:

    What brings such changes about is the way in which emotional excitement alters. Things hot and vital to us to-day are cold to-morrow. It is as if seen from the hot parts of the field that the other parts appear to us, and from these hot parts personal desire and volition make their sallies. They are in short the centres of our dynamic energy, whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent and passive in proportion to their coldness

  • georgie-ann

    returning to the points made about frustration with the anger & dissonance found within the atmosphere of the church: i was reminded of the disciples saying to Jesus–when He asked them if they too would leave Him–”where else would we go?”

    i think that is our situation,…the spiritual “gold” can be found nowhere else,…

  • Ilda Calvert

    I am not just sure when my ‘conversion’ happened, it seems to always have been waiting, sometimes with more acute longing than others. Because I went to “chruch school every Friday with a girlfriend who was Catholic, I leaned about the true faith. My family thought any church was okay, or none at all. My older brother took us to church after he reached about 15, one where a cousin was pastor. Then we moved, and went to another church, and there was no Catholic church in the neighborhood, so after a few years of no church, I married a Baptist at 15, someone with no religion at 19, and a Catholic who attended one mass after we were married at 22.

    We attended one mass on Sunday, sent our children to Catholic schools, but could not do more. About 20 years ago our children decided we should seek to remove the impediments to having our marriage blessed. I got all the paperwork, talked to my surviving ex-spouse, who agreed to assist, because he was also married to a Catholic at the time. The paperwork asked so many questions, was so painful, I could not continue. About that time (early 1970′s) There were so many changes in the church that my husband did not feel that it was the same church. We gradually stopped going.

    We both missed Mass, knew we were not where we should be, and I begin to know that I could die without ever being baptised or receiving the sacrements. I again talked to the parish Priest, my ex, signed up for classes, confessed my status, and obtained permission, over a period of several months, for baptism and communion; That was the happiest day of my life.

    Every time I receive Holy Communion, it is another miracle, a new conversion to be worthy. Finally, at 74 years, I received our Lord for the first time, and am so thankful that I did not die in the state I was in.

  • Bob C

    I have read this 3 separate times.

    It did not take 3 times for it to sink in – it hit me squarely between the eyes the first time (as well as the second, and the third). I just wanted to drop a note because for some reason I feel the need to regurgitate a lot of what others here are saying – mostly in terms of “thanks” and maybe “nice job.”

    Conversion is both deeply personal and an act of community (as is our Catholic Church – so I guess it’s only right). I have thoroughly enjoyed your writing, and I share your work with friends I know will also be made to “think” by it.

    Thank you, again. Peace.

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