Continuing our Conversion Series, the Word on Fire Blog features the compelling story of UC Berkeley doctoral student and devoted friend of the ministry, J.W. Blakely. A self-proclaimed, former "fire-breathing atheist," J.W. chronicles his journey from nihilist atheism, to a hospital bed in NYC, all the way to the Catholic Church.
My conversion from atheism to Catholicism was not sudden. It was not like the flash of light or the voice breaking into the silence that so many wait for in vain because they do not look for the subtler signs of grace. Rather, my conversion was slow and gradual, like the tilting of a planet by degrees from the darkness and cold of winter towards the sun and season of light.
But even though my conversion was slow and gradual—the result of much thinking and changing, of pain and self-scrutiny—nevertheless there was a single defining moment that I remember. That was the exact moment that it became undeniably clear to me that my entire old way of life had failed me, that I was indeed in a dark winter and that spiritually I would have to begin to build again from the bottom up if I was to have a new life. I remember that moment clearly because I was lying on a plastic mattress in an emergency room in a hospital in New York City, quite certain that I would die.
There is no simple explanation as to why I was there. My arrival there was the accumulation of so many smaller, invisible actions that seemed of no consequence within their own time: years of youthful selfishness, years of making myself into the god of my own private universe, years of taking others less seriously than I took myself. And not in dramatic ways—if you had known me then, you would have probably thought me a friendly, “nice” person—but in tiny, mundane ways that are the subterranean stuff of every human life.
What I later came to discover about the state of mind that brought me to that emergency room in New York City is that it was not simply the result of my neglecting my physical health (though it was partly that), nor was it simply the result of my taking my family and loved ones for granted (though it was partly that, too)—rather the breakdown of my physical and psychological health was inextricably tied to how seriously I took my own atheism. For the most discerning atheists (not the kind that are popular in paperback bestsellers today, but profound thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Camus) perceived that without God life becomes absurd — it turns into “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” And whatever else might be said of my spiritual and intellectual condition as I lay on that plastic mattress I at least had the intellectual honesty to see that this was the case.
But grace’s movements are mysterious. For who would have guessed that only in the darkest moment would I begin to perceive the weakest flickering of the truest light? I believe now that it had to become that dark for me to finally see true light. And only when I had realized that it was in fact winter and that I had been living in a cold, desert place confusing it for spring, did I also notice something that had always been there but which had escaped my attention—namely the people I loved and those who loved me.
I had known my girlfriend for many years—since we were eighteen and nearly still children. We grew up in the same small town in Colorado and went to different colleges on the East Coast but remained faithful to each other throughout the four years apart. After school we lived in the same cities, too—Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, New York. We followed each other up and down the Eastern seaboard and her face was so familiar to me that if I tried to remember what it was like to wake up in the mornings and not see her face it would be like trying to remember what it felt like to have the body of a boy instead of a man’s, or what it was like to not be able to count with numbers or to read or write. In short, it was like trying to remember an entirely different way of life.
But this face that had been so familiar to me, of the woman who eventually became my wife, I only began to notice in its full radiance, in the full sense that it was a gift, as she stood by the emergency room mattress holding onto my hand. For hour after hour she stood by me holding my hand as the hospital swirled with the crowds of injured humanity, bleeding and weak, scared and lost. I had not known that suffering had undone so many, and I think I might have spiraled downward further into that whirlpool of lostness and despair that very night if she had not been holding my hand gently but tightly, refusing to let it go. So I began to find God that night—to sense the smallest twitch upon the thread—not because I was near to it, but precisely because I had wandered so far. And I might have easily repeated the words of the poet T. S. Eliot to describe how I felt at that moment not only about the small act of love that was shown to me but also about the dark glass of the universe which hides the face of God: “What is this face, less clear and clearer / The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger … More distant than stars and nearer than the eye?”
Christianity is comprised of the startling claim that in some unexpected, undeserved way the fundamental reality is love—but we must encounter it first. The love that startled the ancient world and has sent shock waves of reverberations through two thousand years of history ever since—the lonely, otherworldly love of God dying on the cross, must find its way into the world through human hands, and human works. The greatest power comes into the world in the frailest and gentlest hands.
But my account now runs ahead of itself and unfortunately there is not the space to tell my full story here. A lifelong conversion consists of many reasons and arguments, much study and discerning. Despite what the modern world tells us, conversions are not simply some irrational process by which we leap blindly and flailing into the dark. They are rather an act of construction, of care and of building, of change and of practice. Like the building of a solid church they are slow and methodical, brought up brick by brick, the cracks patched and kept up through bad weather. But unlike the construction of a church, the building itself is invisible, its materials the extension of our own lives through time.
Although I cannot say I was converted in that single moment, it is still true that like one of Christ’s parables about the kingdom of heaven, the content of my entire conversion could in a sense be condensed to that scene. For it was only then that I finally realized that my life had become a winter and not because it was utterly cold and dark, but precisely because there hidden within it, in the form of a single comforting hand, was the first spark and warmth of light.
Read J.W. Blakely's conversion story in its entirety on his blog, "A Twitch Upon the Thread."
In addition, the Word on Fire Blog's Conversion Series is accompanied by the release of a new spiritual study guide based upon Father Barron's Conversion: Following the Call of Christ CD and DVD. Check it out here.