It Took Me By Surprise: Rebellious, Wandering, and Bored

My conversion began in the emergency room of the American Hospital in Paris in the summer of 1957. I had been sitting on the terrace of the Café Select, where I had drunk 13 bottles of Guinness the night before, debating whether I should order a little hair of the dog, when quite suddenly every nerve in my body began twitching. I felt like a giant tuning fork that someone had just struck. A heart attack? I wondered, and my body shifted into high panic. No, it couldn’t be. I was much too young to die, and besides, I had not yet written the great American novel.

“You look terrible.”

It was Eddie Murray, a black-haired, blue-eyed, Irish-American pal with a houseboat in the Seine. I say “in” because the boat had sunk early one morning when too many of us had come aboard for a party. Eddie owned another rarity among American expatriates in Paris, a car.

“I can’t stop shaking,” I said.

Although I had helped to sink his boat, Eddie was not one to bear a grudge, and he drove me, over my protests, to the American Hospital on the Right Bank. Everyone knew what happened to Americans in French hospitals.

As we drove along the lovely, tree-lined boulevards under the warm June sun, I tried to say something memorable during what felt like my last hours on earth, but managed only a feeble paraphrase of Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the bright sunlight.” Eddie helped me into the hospital’s emergency room where I stretched out and waited for the ultimate twitch. Before long, a calm young doctor appeared to take my blood pressure and listen to my heart while I lay rigid, like a statue, trying to suppress the convulsions.

He felt my pulse, stared at me for a second or two and then said, “I can find nothing wrong with you — physically.” He gave me two aspirin, and Eddie drove me back to my one-room apartment on Rue Froidevaux facing the Cimetiere de Montparnasse. I slowly climbed the six flights to my room thinking, “It’s time to go home.”

I had been in Paris for about a year doing all the things that young Americans do in Paris: spending too much time with other Americans, drinking too much Algerian red, pursuing women of varying ages and nationalities, occasionally going to class at the Sorbonne, and writing an all too predictable novel about a sensitive young GI in postwar Western Germany (I had spent 18 beery months in the U.S. Signal Corps in the town of Seckenheim, located midway between the hot jazz spots of Mannheim and the cool tourist traps of Heidelberg).

In my letters, I explained that I was living on the Left Bank because it was the right place to find the real me. But I was careful not to go outside the tiny artificial world I created out of terrace talk, Alsatian beer, Gauloise bleu, countless games of “42,” and less and less writing as rejections continued to flow in. I was, although I would not admit it, living where I did not belong, writing about things I did not understand, trying to be something I was not. The visit to the emergency room had been caused not by a crise de fois, but a crise de foi.

I had been an agnostic since my freshman year at Duke University, where my professor of religion, an ordained Methodist minister, persuaded me that Christianity was really an amalgam of pious myths and unreasonable commandments. As he said one day in class, “If you don’t or can’t believe in the Resurrection, it doesn’t make much sense to be a Christian.” I almost jumped to my feet, applauding. Dead was dead was dead. And Christ’s life was so irrational. Why would the Son of God, I asked myself, go through so horrible a death for me and all the other billions of human beings down through history, most of whom were not worth much more than a nosebleed? The Bible was unquestionably a very special book, filled with beautiful and even inspired writing, but surely one couldn’t be expected to live let alone die by it.

Although I had gone to Sunday school as a child (I remember colored maps of Paul’s journeys throughout the ancient world and a sepia picture of a gently smiling Jesus) and had later sung in the choir of Woodside Methodist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, my faith had never been deeply rooted and I gave it up as easily as one plucks a tuft of grass from sandy soil. My parents played an equivocal role in my religious upbringing, because they, so united in their politics (Republican and conservative), were divided in their religion.

My mother was determinedly Protestant by reason of her mother’s unyielding Lutheranism. Furthermore, as a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago, she had been told by Catholic playmates that she would go to hell because she was not Catholic. Mom made certain I did not join a church that consigned her to eternal damnation. Woodside Methodist was a convenient church, close by our home, and I enjoyed singing in the choir and the occasional operetta and going on winter hayrides where tenors and sopranos practiced duets of a more secular kind. As a child, I was taught to pray for Grandma and Grandpa, but we did not say grace at meals, and I cannot recall either my mother or father ever reading the Bible, although we had many books in the house.

My father was Roman Catholic, but he did not practice his faith while I was growing up. In my mid-teens he came back into the Church, but never explained why. I knew that he was a very heavy drinker, but I did not learn until after my conversion that he had become so addicted to alcohol that he had been fired and told he could not return to his reporting job until he sobered up. After several more bouts with the bottle, all of which he lost, he fell on his knees one day and asked God either to kill him or cure him. From that moment on, he never took another drink and in gratitude returned to the Church. However, he never invited me to accompany him to Mass, conscious that so doing would have grievously wounded my mother. Growing up, the only Catholic I knew was a pretty, plump girl named Margaret, who sang in the Woodside Choir because she was dating George, a bass, and was said to be fast.

A Child of Our Time

Following my easy shedding, at age 17, of what I thought was Christianity, I became over the next seven years of spiritual anarchy self-centered, indulgent, impatient, concupiscent, and increasingly desperate — a perfect child of the 20th century. I did have spiritual thoughts from time to time, once while reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Stephen’s poignant confession to the Capuchin priest haunted me for weeks), and again with The Brothers Karamazov (if someone with Dostoyevsky’s genius took Christianity so seriously, might there not be something to it?), but some more intense if fleeting pleasure would come along, and I would put on my comfortable suit of agnosticism and go about my paganism as before.

It is one of the great regrets of my life that, while living in Europe for almost three years, I did not visit the many churches, shrines, and other holy places of that once proudly Catholic continent. I lived in Paris but went inside Notre Dame only when my mother came visiting, and we talked mostly about gargoyles and hunchbacks. I visited Rome twice but only to admire the remains of the Romans and not the Christians, to marvel at the glorious colors but not the meaning of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I was deaf, dumb, and blind to a spiritual world filled with sound, beauty, and light.

But on the ship sailing home to America, I began seriously to think about God, finally acknowledging the utter futility of trying to center my life around me. Taking stock of myself — and it did not take that long — I saw that I was not brilliant, only clever; not bold but rash; not sensitive but self-centered; and not independent at all, but quite alone. For the first time in my life, I admitted that I needed someone, something, other than myself to give purpose and meaning to my life: in short, I needed God.

Once I had uttered that prayer (although I did not realize it was a prayer), the rest came gradually but naturally. If there was a God, then He had created the world and all within it, including me. I was His creation and had to do my best to live by His laws, not my own. But how could I know what were His laws, His commandments? They were to be found in a book called the Bible that I had once dismissed as irrational and irrelevant. But I now understood (with the help of the Holy Spirit who was delighted to be of service) that God, knowing how easily mankind can get lost, had provided us with a detailed map for our pilgrimage through this life. The map was the Bible, which, if we read it carefully and followed its instructions faithfully, would put us on the road to salvation.

But salvation was possible only through Jesus Christ. You could read the Bible, you could memorize the Bible, but if you did not believe in Jesus Christ, if you did not follow Jesus Christ, you were as a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal signifying nothing. It now made sense to me that God the Father would send His Son to save us. I could not accept the Deist notion that God, having lavished so much care and love in creating the heavens and the earth, would then sit back and let them, and us, spin into oblivion.

Logic drove me on. Did I believe that there was a God who had created the universe? Yes, because I did not believe that the universe had created itself. Did I believe that He had sent His Son to die for our sins and to rise from the dead, thereby giving us the opportunity to have everlasting life? Yes, because I did not believe that Christ was either a liar or a madman but what He said He was, the Son of God. Did I believe that the Bible was the Divine Word, the Holy Gospel, the Good News? Yes, because it came from the Father and the Son. Did I believe that He had established human but divinely-guided institutions, churches, to help us find salvation? Yes, because man was weak, flawed, and fallible, and needed such institutions. Were all churches the same or was there one true church, or at least one true church for me? That, I decided, would require investigation.

I disembarked in New York City on the October day that Sputnik was launched (I shall always remember the U.S. Senator who, when asked what the United States should do about the Soviet satellite, responded crisply, “Do? Shoot the damn thing down!”). I embraced my mother and father warmly, ate a large meal at Mama Leone’s, caught up on all the news (the anti-Communist movement was still mourning Joe McCarthy’s death, but Bill Buckley and his band of merry conservatives at National Review were filling the gap very capably), and resolved to start visiting churches when we got home, which was now in Washington, D.C., barely four blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

Over the next several months, I attended Sunday services at every one of the Protestant churches on Capitol Hill — Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist. In almost every case, the sermons were thoughtful and well-delivered, the singing was spirited, the coffee and cakes in the social hall afterwards were delicious, and the people were kind and friendly. Several times, I was invited to attend a young people’s social. I went twice with my mother to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and once with my grandmother to the Church of the Lutheran Reformation. I enjoyed the services and was touched by the obvious sincerity of clergy and laity alike. I liked all of them, but I did not love any of them.

Deliberately, I resolved not to attend a Catholic Mass until I had given the Protestant churches every possible chance to convince me that their way was my way. I listened and I reflected and I prayed, and all the while I could not get out of my head the indisputable fact that all these good people — Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians — were Protestants, that is, protesting against, reacting to, a church which had been founded by St. Peter nearly 2,000 years before. As a conservative, I believed in tradition, in the vital connection between the past and the present. Wasn’t the Catholic Church, the oldest church in Christendom, the logical church for a conservative?

I knew, of course, that William F. Buckley, Jr. was a Catholic as had been Joseph McCarthy, the tragically flawed Senator from Wisconsin who did so much to arouse the American public to the dangers of communism and who with his rhetorical excesses so seriously damaged the cause of anti-communism. I had heard of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York; Bishop Fulton Sheen, the mesmerizing television preacher; the indomitable Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary, and modern martyrs who had died for the faith in China and other far-off places. But I knew very little of the history or the liturgy of the Church, so I began to read voraciously if haphazardly about Catholicism.

I read Augustine’s Confessions and understood full well his prayer, “Give me chastity and continency — but not yet.” I read Daniel-Rops’s compelling life of Christ; G.K. Chesterton’s deceptively simple biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas (“Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.”); St. Ignatius’s uncompromising Spiritual Exercises (“Each one must realize that he will make progress in all spiritual matters in proportion to his flight from self-love, self-will, and self-interest.”); St. Teresa of Avila’s mystical, lyrical Autobiography (“The beginner must think of himself as of one setting out to make a garden in which the Lord is to take His delight, yet in soil most unfruitful and full of weeds. His Majesty uproots the weeds and will set good plants in their stead.”); and of course The Imitation of Christ, which, however, I found too dark and sin-obsessed for my American optimism. Most of all, I read books by and about converts, from St. Paul to Evelyn Waugh to Thomas Merton, whose exuberant youthful autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had more to do with my becoming a Catholic and thinking about becoming a priest and even a monk (Trappist, of course) than any other work.

Like myself, Merton had been young, in his mid-twenties, when he converted. He too had been an eager sinner but took no less eagerly a vow of celibacy. He also had been a writer but gave up writing, he thought, when he entered the Cistercian abbey of Gethsemani. He had been a restless traveler on several continents, but willingly agreed to spend the rest of his life in backwoods Kentucky as a monk. I readily acknowledge my profound debt to Merton, despite his later experiments with Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religions, his endorsement of almost every liberal cause — particularly the anti-Vietnam war movement — that came marching down the highway, and his near abandonment of his vows in his final years. I was always touched by the paradox of Merton’s seeking solitude and contemplation yet being given an enormously active life as writer, editor, teacher, and lecturer. I, too, was caught up in a world of votes and elections, PACs and polls, special interest groups and special orders, the Washington Post and the New York Times, yet aware all the while that man does not live by bread — or politics —  alone, but by the Word of God.

I studied the history of the Church and marveled at its manifold contributions to Western laws, institutions, customs, literature, art, and architecture until its own indulgences forced Martin Luther and others to rebel and separate. I was not shocked by the excesses of popes, cardinals, abbots and priests, having seen what power can do to even the most principled of men in the political realm, but rather I was amazed, and my faith reinforced by the spirit and determination of the Counter-Reformation, begun by the Council of Trent and sustained by so many saints for the next four centuries.

In the midst of all my reading and listening (I discovered Gregorian chant one afternoon at a record store), I casually told Dad one day when Mom was not present that I would like to go to Mass with him. His smile was as broad as a banner headline. The next Sunday, off we went to St. Peter’s, a small, white-stoned church that stood almost in the shadow of the Library of Congress. It was early spring, and the trees were beginning to bud — like me — and I sat and stood and knelt when Dad did, feeling no strangeness or awkwardness. When he went up to the railing and knelt to receive the Host on his tongue, I felt a little cheated, but remained serene in the knowledge that before very long I would be kneeling beside him.

I resolved to take instructions and, having moved into my own apartment downtown, went looking for a priest at St. Matthew’s. But when I explained that because of my job, I would have to be instructed at night, I was told to try the Catholic Information Center on 15th Street. It was there I met Father Coen, a brilliant, impatient, chain-smoking Redemptorist, with whom I wrestled, intellectually, over the next six months until one morning, I woke up and said to myself, “I must get baptized before Christmas.”

I had many questions, as any potential convert will, but even so six months is a long time. I had not yet read The Screwtape Letters, but I think that a very junior devil was encouraging me to engage in the most tedious kind of scrupulosity. I stretched Fr. Coen’s patience beyond the breaking point, once causing him to declare, while I was pressing him on some obscure point of Scholastic theology (it was almost but not quite as silly as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin), “Lee, are you ever going to stop talking about converting and actually do it?!”

What was taking me so long? I had no serious problem with the tenets of the Church: I accepted all the sacraments, I believed in the Trinity, I agreed that the Holy Father was the true successor of St. Peter, I knew that Christ had died for my sins and that only through Him and His Church could I attain salvation.

But I did question the idea of Heaven, because of something that my father had once said, and I was not comfortable — a throwback to my Methodist days — with the Church’s seeming elevation of Mary to the same level as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In one of our rare religious conversations, Dad had once remarked, “Heaven just seems too good to be true. I might enjoy a hundred or even a thousand years, but how could you stand eternal happiness?” Father Coen explained that there is no time in Heaven. We are always in His presence in the present. There is only the then and now of Heaven. I passed that along to Dad, who smiled and remarked, “You’ve got a good instructor. I hope he’s right.”

The precise role of Our Lady in the Catholic Church was a sticking point for me. My conditional acceptance of Mary as the Blessed Virgin and the Mother of God and of her Immaculate Conception and title as Co-Redemptrix was mixed up with my feelings of guilt about my mother who I knew would be deeply hurt if I became a Catholic. I obediently read what Father Coen gave me (Fulton Sheen was particularly helpful), and I finally came to realize that Our Lady was in no sense equal to Christ, since she herself was redeemed by Christ, but was an effective intercessor with her Son. Years later, I learned how effective she could be when an ugly growth on the eyelid of our youngest daughter suddenly and inexplicably disappeared after my wife’s grandmother offered a novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

At long last, on Saturday afternoon, December 13, 1958, at St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Washington, D.C., with my Godfather L. Brent Bozell, the very red-haired, very traditional Catholic writer, editor, and later ghost writer of The Conscience of a Conservative twenty minutes late as usual, Father Coen baptized me. I then went to my first confession, which was one of the great anti-climaxes of my life, as the priest was singularly unimpressed with my litany of sins. I took communion for the first time the next morning with my father, who noted that on one side of me was a young black boy in his dark blue Sunday suit and on the other an elderly white woman in a worn cloth coat and hat, a visible sign of the Church’s universal appeal.

Converted, But Called, Too?

I was joy-filled with my new, yet very old faith, but wondered, as I continued my reading and praying, whether I was called to be more than a Catholic, whether in fact I was meant to be a priest. And, very much under the influence of Thomas Merton, I reflected that, if one wanted to enter the religious life, he might as well become a monk and a Trappist at that. Therefore, one cold winter day, I waded two miles through hip-high snow to Our Lady of the Holy Cross monastery near Berryville, Virginia, for a first-hand examination of its life of silence and stability as well as poverty, chastity, and obedience — five heavy crosses indeed.

We awakened at 2 a.m. with the monks and sang Vigils in their chapel, calm and lake-still, put on army fatigues and boots to chop wood for the insatiable, flueless fireplace in the small retreat house, celebrated Mass with the community but from behind a wooden screen, ate with the other retreatants while Father Louis, the retreat master, read from the life of one of the saints, came to the chapel in the evening for Compline and the Salva Regina after which Dom Michael with holy water blessed all the monks and us behind the lattice screen. I gratefully went to sleep at 7 p.m. Throughout this unending cycle of ora et labora, I remembered what Merton had been told when he asked why a certain monk was so saintly. “He kept busy,” came the reply. In that case, I thought, all Trappists are sure bets to become saints.

“Why don’t you stay?”

It was Father Stephen, who had welcomed me when I arrived at the monastery.

My answer came without hesitation: “Oh, I have a job I must get back to. They’re expecting me.” In reality, they would not have missed me at the magazine where I was a very junior reporter. But I didn’t stay because standing in the middle of the novices’ room all I was conscious of was the magnificent view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I knew that you didn’t become a Trappist because of blue mountains and rolling hills or the example of the faith, hope, and charity of men united in community or the moving eloquence of poets and saints, but because you were called to that life by God.

God brought me into His Church at 26, and subsequently gave me my wonderful wife, Anne, our two extraordinary children, Elizabeth and Catherine, and a career filled with plenty of excitement in the world of conservative activism, including a stint as press secretary to the man who ignited the modern conservative revolution, Barry Goldwater. God — and a traditional pastor — got me through the aftermath of Vatican II, which was not as much of a trial for me as for many cradle Catholics. I liked hearing the Mass in the vernacular and I enjoyed singing in church. It didn’t bother me whether I received the Host standing or kneeling, on the tongue or in the hand. I was not overly anxious about the fierce battle between Catholic liberals and conservatives over the implementation of Vatican II, because I was confident that the Holy Spirit would lead the right side to victory, though at a time of His, not our, choosing. I had great confidence in, if not great familiarity with, the Holy Spirit, who played a little trick on me by bringing me into the charismatic renewal of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Converted and Charismatic, Too

I never imagined that nearly 20 years after becoming a Catholic I would find myself not only a member but the leader of Living Water Community, a charismatic prayer group at St. Bernadette’s in Silver Spring, Maryland. What with Jimmy Carter in the White House and Ronald Reagan’s loss to Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries the year before, and my losing a couple of clients, 1977 was not a good year. I was nowhere near Job in my trials and tribulations, but I could not help thinking, “Why, Lord, why me?”

Anne mentioned some of our problems to Joe English, our pediatrician, who invited us to attend a Friday night prayer meeting that he and his wife, Rose Marie, led. We knew Joe and Rose Marie to be good solid Catholics, and out of curiosity dropped by a couple of weeks later.

We kept coming back to the prayer group. We became close friends with four other couples who had children, and we shared with each other and helped each other and prayed for each other and even, through God, healed each other (Anne’s chronic winter bronchitis disappeared after one lengthy prayer session with Rose Marie and Sara). We went to their homes and they came to ours, and we had barbecues and picnics and talked about buying a big Victorian house in which we would all live together. Ever the romantic, I talked enthusiastically about creating an extended Christian family, but Anne, ever the pragmatist, wanted particulars about who was going to be responsible for what and made it clear that she would not turn over the raising of her daughters to anyone else. We kept talking about finding the right house, but we never did.

In time, Anne and I were baptized in the Holy Spirit and received the gift of speaking or more properly praying in tongues, about which one may rightly ask: What good are tongues? To which one may reply: To allow us to pray according to the spirit of God. However, as St. Paul said, tongues are the least of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and neither those who can nor those who cannot speak in tongues should make too much of them. Far more important graces of the Holy Spirit are an awareness of God, a hunger for Scripture, the willingness to bear witness to Jesus Christ, a consciousness of sin and the desire to repent of it. I was certainly aware of God and of sin, but the desire to read the Bible and to be more of a witness to Christ was new. Just how powerful the Holy Spirit could be was driven home to me one day when the receptionist at my office said, “Mr. Edwards, you’ve changed.” I had always been impatient, a perfectionist (during the Goldwater campaign, my staff had called me a “benevolent dictator” and given me a bull whip as a joke), but now I found myself being more patient and less demanding of those around me and less demanding of myself, too.

Now, 35 years after converting to Catholicism, I am writing these confessions, as much for my own benefit as for that of the readers of this journal. Among my concluding thoughts would be: (1) I am deeply, nay, eternally grateful to God for giving me the gift of faith — I have never regretted one minute becoming a Catholic; (2) the more I read and study the history of the Church the more I am convinced that it is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit — in no other way could it have survived so many crises, external and internal; (3) I love Our Lady a little more each day, thanks to the Rosary and her many manifestations, current and in the past; (4) the Eucharist is the most important sacrament — without it, we are literally without life; (5) I am running toward the finish line as hard as I can, conscious that cheering me on are all those splendid angels and saints, fiery Augustine and gentle Francis and brilliant Aquinas and mystical John and disciplined Ignatius and humble Therese; (6) I thank God daily for the leadership of Pope John Paul II, who has done so much to preserve those essential parts of the Catholic tradition that radical Catholics and worse have tried to discard.

Looking back, I see clearly that the faith I was given and have kept, by the grace of God, is truly the right one for me in this world — and in the world to come.

  • Lee Edwards

    Lee Edwards (born 1932 in Chicago, Illinois) is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He is considered one of the foremost historians of the conservative movement in America, and he has published more than 15 books, including biographies of President Ronald Reagan, Senator Barry Goldwater, Attorney General Edwin Meese III and William F. Buckley, Jr. He is currently the Chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...