Saturday, January 10, 2009
My Conversion Story
My Conversion Story by Kevin O'Brien
Here it is, by request ...
Though I was raised in a nominally Lutheran tradition, and though I went to Lutheran grade school and later to a non-observant Catholic Montessori school, my parents were not particularly religious, and at a young age I was soon to become particularly not-religious.
At the age of nine, I saw Madeline Murray O’Hair on TV. She was a strident and public atheist who was typically over-the-top and in-your-face in denying God’s existence. And though her TV appearances were early Jerry Springer-type fiascos, with O’Hair being as inflammatory as possible, goading the audience into boos and cat calls, somehow she made perfect sense to me. “This Christianity is clearly all a fraud!” I remember thinking. “It’s being shoved down our throats for the purposes of controlling us!” The fact that elements of our faith were to be found in earlier pagan myths clinched the deal for me. I decided that Christianity was a myth, a product of wishful thinking at best and political control at worst. And being of a rebellious and freethinking nature, I spent most of my teen years mocking belief and believers.
The Next Stage
However as I approached my twenties, I began to find empirical evidence for a spiritual realm. I was, early on, called to be involved in acting. Much later, I would realize that this was a call – a vocation – that I could not deny. As St. Paul says, “Woe unto me if I do not preach the Gospel,” so I must say, “Woe unto me if I do not appear on stage”. In other words, it is not a career choice or a lifestyle choice for me. There are easier ways of making money, but I was constitutionally unable to do anything else. My love for theater – my near compulsion to do it – was an objective fact with which I had to struggle. There is a mystery to our individual characters, and my entire career is a story of me grappling with a fact, denying it, avoiding it, fudging it, and finally accepting it and all the turmoil that comes with it.
But this was not the evidence that began to convince me of spiritual reality. What moved me was this – throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had never had anything that challenged me; I found I was adept at many things on a superficial level and could skim through life using my wit, my charm, my intelligence – life was a game and one never needed to be fully engaged in it to play it. But in 1978 I began working with a man who was to prove to be a theatrical mentor to me, Jiman H. Duncan, who as a director demanded total commitment to stage work and a kind of raw honesty in acting. And suddenly I discovered that I couldn’t fake my way though something. Good acting, it seemed, demanded one’s entire self – it was a physical, emotional, intellectual exercise, and even that wasn’t enough! You could be in top physical condition, have your lines memorized so that you didn’t have to think about what to say next, have your emotional understanding of your character prepared and ready to go … and yet, if something didn’t “happen” on stage, if a moment didn’t strike you or your acting partners, if you weren’t inspired, then nothing terribly interesting would pass between you, and your scene – your whole play – could lie there rather lifeless and routine, completely “uninspired”.
This was the evidence of something “other”, something beyond me, something greater than me, whose intervention on stage could only be prepared for, but could not be forced. In fact, this inspiration was the result of a kind of sacrifice – this style of acting demanded that lots of valuable work be done up front and then abandoned in the moment of battle. Athletes probably understand this, and so do musicians, writers, and many others. Your training is meant to make you a vessel for something that takes you beyond yourself. Giving up complete control over your performance at the very moment of performance is a kind of losing yourself to find something greater than yourself. It is this 99 percent perspiration that makes the one percent inspiration possible. But that one percent did not fit into my worldview! The hard work may be from within, but that “inspiration” was from without. I had begun to have not only evidence, but regular experience with this “spirit” that inspired, this acting spirit or creative spirit, or what George Bernard Shaw called the “Life Force”.
Almost-Thinking about Almost-God
That’s the closest title I could find for what I had discovered. It was a “Life Force” or an “élan vitale”; it was that element that came from – where? I started reading lots of modern spiritual writers, most of whom were from the school of C. G. Jung. And I spent my years as a young man devoutly but vaguely spiritual. I did not see the irony that while I was congratulating myself for being so original in my thinking and so peculiar in my search for what to believe in, in fact I believed nothing new or original at all. I believed what almost everyone around us believes – that there is something beyond the nuts and bolts of our existence, but whatever this something is, it certainly doesn’t want anything from us – just a kind of benign good will should do. It may make its presence tangibly felt on stage, or in falling in love, or in any moment when you lose yourself, and it may be that force that drives all life, that desire, that motive that pushes us.
It may be such a motivating spirit … but a motive requires a destination, does it not? A desire implies something to satisfy that desire. I had refuted materialism by coming up with a World Spirit that had what I called “intentionality”, that is to say a definite intention for nothing-that-was-definite. And as intellectually vapid as that position was, I had settled there along with millions of New Pagans who hadn’t even thought it out that far.
Opportunity Only Knocks-Upside-the-Head Once
Then, when I was in my early thirties, God came around and knocked me upside the head … literally. I was physically assaulted by my employer at the time. He was a man who had a few “anger issues”, and he broke my nose and would have killed me had he gotten the chance. I suddenly lost my job and found myself a victim of a terrible injustice, with a wife and two kids to support and dozens of bruises to heal. I had some time to mull this over, to reflect upon what had put me in this position (I had, in my own words, “sold my soul” to work for this man), and to do some more reading. The first book I picked up in this emotional foxhole was God in the Dock, an anthology of Christian apologetic essays by C. S. Lewis.
Here was a find! This man could write. Not only that, he was the kind of writer I never knew existed – a Christian who could defend his faith rationally. I had always thought that faith in Christ demanded a sacrifice of reason, and yet this man used his powers of reason and his tremendous skills as a writer to make a very cogent case for something I had long thought was outmoded and ridiculous. I began to read everything by C. S. Lewis that I could get my hands on.
And I began to notice that a certain name kept coming up in Lewis’ writings, G. K. Chesterton, the man whose book The Everlasting Man converted Lewis himself. I checked out a book by Chesterton from our local library. It was called What’s Wrong with the World, and it was delightful! I read the whole thing and said to myself, “This Chesterton character is in some ways a better writer than Lewis, and he’s just as relevant as Lewis is. This book must have been written in Lewis’ day and yet everything in it seems to address the problems and issues of now. Not bad for a book written in what must have been the mid-1950’s.” And then I turned to the title page to see that What’s Wrong with the World was not written in Lewis’ heyday at all. It was written in 1910! “1910,” I thought, “What is this Chesterton – a prophet?”
As Lewis himself said, an atheist can’t be too careful about what he reads. And neither can a Vague Spiritualist. I read Lewis and Chesterton for most of 1997, and by the fall of that year, something was troubling me, stirring me, something that was moving beyond “intentionality”. How can the World Spirit want something unless it wants something in particular? How can any spirit want anything definite unless that spirit is also what we could call a person? Can all of this Trinitarian stuff be true? This Christianity – once explained – is certainly beautiful. Is it also True? If it’s not True, it can’t be called Beautiful. And if it is True, can I afford simply to admire its Beauty?
I recall pondering these things on a warm night walking in a cemetery near our house. The sun was just setting, and only silhouettes could be seen against the reddening sky. The first stars were just beginning to be seen. I was living a life at the time where I could justify anything. I was doing some rather false and awful things, and I knew that though they were dishonest, I felt I needed to do them to survive. “But if I take this Christian religion off the shelf,” I said to myself, “if it becomes more than just something I enjoy reading about … I’m going to have to change. I’m going to have to live out these words that I admire – to live out the Word, Himself. And what has my job always been as an actor? To live out words, to act out belief. But how much of my life will I have to give up – how many of these sins must I turn away from?” Thus I struggled, and thus I came very close to prayer.
Suddenly above my head there passed the shadow of a large flying creature – too big to be a normal bird. I froze in my tracks and watched this gigantic silhouette light upon … of all things … the cross atop the steeple of the cemetery chapel! A moment’s observation showed me what this creature was – an owl! I stood there watching the silhouette of this owl atop the silhouette of the cross with the dying glow of the setting sun behind them both and a bright evening star beginning to glow above the horizon. What does this mean? I asked myself. The owl – the symbol of wisdom – crowns the cross of Christ! Then, for the first time since my childhood, I prayed.
The next day I took some steps to turn away from my most obvious sins, though I knew it would cost me money, and we were having trouble making ends meet. That very day, before I even had a chance to worry about how as an honest Christian I was to provide for my family, before I had a chance to wonder how I was to get people to pay me without my somehow lying to them or fooling them, the telephone rang. A theater in Kansas I had contacted months prior, and which had turned me down at the time, but had kept my number on file, now called to say that they wanted to have me start producing shows there – and this act of Divine Providence coming the very morning I began to repent clinched my conversion.
I told my wife Karen what had happened and we began to go to church with the kids. We went to the nearest church to our house, a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod spot and we even enrolled in their “journey of faith” confirmation preparation program.
Journeys of Faith
One of the great blessings the Lord has given me has been the opportunity to experience a flavor from all ends of the spectrum of religious belief and unbelief. Not only did I journey from atheism through paganism to the Church, but within the Church we went from the right to the left, and finally settled in the middle.
After completing our several month confirmation course, Karen said she wanted to be confirmed in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, but I said I had some misgivings and suggested we talk to the pastor at that church about them. “I get the impression you’re fundamentalists,” I said to him. “Not at all!” he replied. “Don’t you believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture?” I asked. “Certainly,” he answered. “Unless a story is labeled as a parable, it’s literally true.”
“What about six days of creation?” I inquired. “That means six 24-hour days of creation,” he replied. “What about the evidence of the fossil record that disputes such a literal reading?” I pursued. “The fossil record was put there by Satan to deceive us,” he replied, and the case was closed.
From One Extreme to the Other
We then moved on to an Episcopalian church up the road, perhaps three miles away from the Missouri Synod, but light years away in belief. Or non-belief. The Episcopalians, it seemed, took nothing literally – not even the divinity or resurrection of Christ. We had gone from the frying pan to the fire.
I recall during a “journey of faith” confirmation class at the Episcopal church how one parishioner there was talking about how she had knitted or crocheted some sort of gift for her friends when they got married, something that said “Betty and John”, or whatever their names were. She said, “Betty divorced John and then came to me and said, ‘I’m going to marry my Lesbian lover, Judy. Will you take your gift and pull out John’s name and sew in Judy’s?’ And I was surprised that I found myself uncomfortable about this!”
I asked the only logical question, “If she had come to you and said, ‘I’ve divorced John and am marrying Ed. Will you pull out John’s name and sew in Ed’s?’ would you have felt uncomfortable?”
“Not at all,” she smiled, and our rector smiled with her. This is insane, I thought.
Later that same session, our rector handed out the “official Episcopal position on abortion”, which stated – “While the Episcopal Church acknowledges that life begins at conception, we also acknowledge a woman’s right to choose.” What nonsense! This is apparently the famed “via media”, the middle way between right and wrong, which middle way is patently absurd, I told myself.
Again later that same class session, a young Episcopal seminarian was bragging about how the Ten Commandments were of no current effect because they were “historically conditioned”, and how, “Paul’s epistles should be given no more authority than any letters I may write to a bunch of churches.” “First of all,” I said to him, “You could never write that well if you can’t think any better than this. And secondly, you could never hold either position on Shakespeare’s writings in a beginner’s English class on literary criticism. You may be able to get away with this at Eden Theological Seminary, but they’d boot you out of English 101 at the junior college if you tried to pull this on your first semester term paper.”
The class then devolved into a free-for-all (not unlike the Episcopal church itself) and I knew our time with the Episcopal community was at an end. To be fair, the rank and file in the pews that we met while Episcopalian were earnest, kind people who were doing their best to worship God. The leaders who ran the confirmation classes and apparently the entire church in America were convinced that their own esoteric version of quasi-Christianity was the true faith and that it somehow had to be sold to these poor saps who still believed in the more traditional version. The leaders were, in Chesterton’s words, “the supremely guilty section”.
So we then took a few months off from church going, praying, and all the rest. To my wife’s credit, she would not stand for this. “What are we going to do?” she kept nagging me, and I was afraid to tell her what I more and more suspected. I was even willing to keep going to the Episcopal community, but on the condition that we never give them money and fund their anti-christian beliefs. This was not the kind of compromise my wife would accept. “What are we going to do?” she kept asking.
“I think we need to become Catholic,” I finally said.
“I will become Anything But Catholic!” she insisted.
Why? “Because they hate and torment homosexuals,” she responded.
By this time I had been reading Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton’s friend, and I had even gone so far as to have bought a Catechism of the Catholic Church. I opened the Catechism to the section on homosexuality, which states that homosexual acts are disordered (a fact that was common sense before the recent attempts at mind-control on this issue) and also that homosexuals should not be unjustly discriminated against. “Does this sound like hate and torment?” I asked Karen. She admitted that it did not, but still …
But still, thanks to the shepherding of my good friend and fellow Chestertonian, Mark Milburn, we were led to Father John Jay Hughes, a Catholic priest and former Anglican priest, and an Evelyn Waugh fan to boot, who gave us “private instruction”, quelling Karen’s doubts and confirming my desires. We both were received into the Catholic Church on July 30, 2000, which I later learned was 78 years to the day after G. K. Chesterton was received.
This has been, as Maurice Baring said, “the only action in my life that I am quite sure I never regretted.” We have had our share of difficulties once we were in the Church, but as Cardinal Newman said, “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt”.
As a convert, I often find my zeal to be greater than those around me, and this is hard, for sometimes it’s easy to be judgmental about other’s faith and complacent about your own. It’s also clear, however, that the Catholic Church is being undermined from within. Bad architecture and insipid music and subversive homilies are the tip of the iceberg. The feminist infiltration of parish elementary schools is even more serious. And yet the Church keeps dying and coming to life again, as Chesterton pointed out.
And so do we. The thing about The Thing, as Chesterton called it, about seriously seeking conversion to the True Faith, is that Our Lord continues to challenge us. Conversion is a continual death to the old Adam and a rebirth to the new. My conversion story did not end with our reception into the Church (in fact, it really only began there). Our Lord was not content with a momentary mood, for Jesus – and the prayers of Our Lady - continues to free us from sins and bring us closer to Him and his precious body and blood. “Lord, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid. You have loosed my bonds.” And may we all pray for a continued conversion to Christ.
And may we continue the task of Incarnation, of bringing Love into this fallen world through sacrifice – through acts of faith, hope, and charity – both onstage and off.