The Catholic Thing
Glimpses of Conversion Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 03 May 2013

The snotty assistant professor stood in front of his political science class ragging on religion. Thirty-five years later, I still bristle.

I thought how dare he so easily dismiss the thing that has occupied the greatest minds of all time. I think the same thing today, but with gratitude, too. This comment led me into a search, not for God but for religion.

I believed in God but was a fallen-away Methodist. I spent my college years ghosting my way through classes, chasing girls, dabbling in politics. Religion? No thanks. This stupid comment, though, was the beginning of my search for Catholicism.

Dodging coursework as usual, I discovered the novels of Anthony Burgess and found that Burgess was Church-haunted. Many of his books, particularly A Clockwork Orange are about free will and the argument between St. Augustine and the heretical British Monk Pelagius. Did the Methodists know about this? At a book-signing Burgess told me my name was derived from Augustine.

One college summer I was playing golf in my hometown of St. Charles, Missouri. On a day easily close to 100 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky nor a whiff of air, I noticed a man dressed all in black, slumped against a tree, his pathetic bag lying crippled beside him. He was an elderly priest, dressed in clericals, playing golf on the hottest day of the year. I drove Father John home. He invited me to stay and talk and I am still ashamed that I didn’t. I never saw him again, but have never forgotten what I saw as an encounter with Christ.

Some years later, laying on my back near the Carousel on the National Mall in Washington DC, I watched clouds scud across the sky and listened to the Carousel’s music, Laura’s Theme from “Dr. Zhivago.” At that moment I had an interior vision of old-me looking at young-me and young-me looking back at old-me and this was a vision of eternity.

Years later still, I sat in the living room of a dusty old house on Long Island, a summer house my friends called the Duck Farm. Sitting on the floor and leafing through the Sunday Times, Erica DeMane spoke to her husband Fred Allen about the review of a new book by a man named Mott, a biography of someone named Thomas Merton. I read the review, bought the book and read it like electricity coursing through copper wire.

Not long after, I sat an outdoor café near the Louvre smoking a Cuban cigar, drinking scotch, and reading the Seven Storey Mountain. After years of consideration and study, I decided finally in that instant at long last to find a priest and join the Catholic Church.

          Conversion by Egon Schiele, 1912

A woman I knew in New York recommended a young and brilliant priest to me but I was waiting to get a recommendation from Bill Buckley to whom I had written about Catholicism. I heard he answered his mail, particularly about Catholicism. He sent me Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and much else. I asked him for a priest but he had not yet written back.

Waiting for Buckley, one Sunday I watched “Firing Line.” Buckley had two priests on talking about liberation theology, Father William Smith of Dunwoodie (St. Josephs Seminary) in New York and Father George Rutler, who simply blew me away with how smart and holy he was. I decided then and there he would be the one to bring me in. Here’s the providential thing. Turns out he was the same priest my friend had recommended many months before.

All through these years I tried to find my way into the Church. I knew I could not knock on the any parish door and get the straight stuff. I knew there was heterodoxy in the air. So I spent years in reading, which was not easy since how do you know what to read? Still, all along there were these moments, these tugs upon the line.

Any convert can look back upon his journey and see the tugs even if he didnt notice them at the time. Converts lovingly remember and talk about the times that God called out to them. They talk about that conversation, that time they laid upon the grass, the time they met a priest, that errant comment by a stupid professor. Each of these is God calling out to follow Him.

Scripture is full of instant conversions. He said, “Come follow me” and they dropped everything and followed him. The most famous instant conversion has to be Saul’s struck down , spoken to by God, blinded, converted. But did he get the tugs before that?

Did Saul first get the tug of conversion at the stoning of Stephen? Did he look Stephen in his forgiving eyes and feel the prick of conscience? Did he consider whether this thing might be true particularly in those willing to die for it? Did he have a conversation with any of them? Christians proselytize. Some of them must have talked to him. Did he at any time have that fleeting notion that maybe he should be among them? Did he later tell his fellows, I felt the tug many times before God struck me down on the way to Damascus?

I do not believe that God works in instants, at least upon the human heart. He does not force us. He respects our freedom. I believe he works in tugs and winks and only rarely dramatic moments. Sitting around the fire late at night after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection the Apostles told their conversion stories. They traced their own tugs upon the line and in loving detail. How do I know? Because I am a convert and that is what we do.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (18)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, May 03, 2013
As regards the name “Austin,” it is one of the many anglicised forms of saint’s names. In Britain, they remained popular, particularly among Remnant Catholics.

Other examples include Audrey for St Etheldreda, Bennet for St Benedict, Foster for St Vedast (Gaston in French), Giles for St Aegidius, Nancy for St Anne and many more.
written by Bangwell Putt, May 03, 2013
Austin Ruse's story is true for life-long Catholics as well, at least it certainly was for me. Baptism begins the process; one is "indelibly marked" for Christ. Then the difficult, arduous journey to become what one has been freely given begins.
written by Dan Deeny, May 03, 2013
Very interesting. Thank you.
I'll take this opportunity to make a request. Could you read Broken Justice by Dr. Kenneth Edelin and give us a report? He has an interesting history, perhaps typical of the Black American elite.
Thank you.
written by Briana, May 03, 2013
Seven Storey Mountain is one of my favorite books! I'm a cradle Catholic, but a convert friend of mine recommended it to me and I loved it! :)
written by Ben Finiti, May 03, 2013
A beautiful meditation. As one who is still seeking faith (without success), it gives me hope; and hope without faith is mighty hard to come by.

So thanks.

written by Deacon Ed Peitler, May 03, 2013
This is a captivating story that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Some years back, my wife and I conducted our parish's RCIA program. The payoff for me was always in hearing those coming into the Church respond to my question: "What prompted you to make this move?" I was never satisfactorily sated by the answers; I always wanted to hear more.
I would like someone to write a book about the various paths by which the Holy Spirit operated in people's lives that ultimately led them to Christ's Catholic Church. It would make for some great biographical reading. In the spirit of the New Evangelization, perhaps I will take on my own assignment.
written by debby, May 03, 2013
how true! what GREAT HOPE is inflamed in the story of each CONVERSION!
and how this revelation of Himself is always Love - Love that woos, and heals, and restores, and beckons, calling my name with a tone of voice i have been longing to hear since the Garden, so irresistible that i can no longer hide myself from Him...whispered, sung, a holy siren

Grace, falling like rain,
"like the dew-fall"
as the Priest prays in Mass
sometimes gently,
sometimes a torrent from His pierced side.
Grace won by Her Fiat and Magnificat,
prayed and lived, giving me the courage to
open that locked door of my heart...

did not Her Fiat and Magnificat meet the call of the Father, "Where are you?" and unlock that door of Paradise for each of us?!

on this First Friday in Mary's Month of May, may we all offer Her a little penitential bouquet, as She asked us do to at Fatima, so that "poor sinners (would not) fall into Hell...."
so that His Grace is welcomed by those sinners who don't even know what they are looking for.

it could be that the penance i offer Her today wins the grace of conversion for that one soul you have been asking our Lord to go and seek and save....and yours, the soul i am in Hope for.
thank you so much, austin, for this wonderful inspiration today.
and yes, deacon ed, start now on that book!
written by Teresa, May 03, 2013
@Ben... I will pray, as I am sure others who read this will pray, that you will find faith, but along with the tugs and winks that Austin describes, I think, there is also desire, longing, curiosity, etc, and at some point, you succumb--sometimes it's a resignation; sometimes it is a joyous leap. The fact that you come to this site proves your curiosity, now it's a question of time before you get the call. God bless.
written by Andrew, May 03, 2013
Thank you, Mr. Ruse for a great article. I too enjoyed reading of your testimony of coming to faith in Jesus. Testimonies are powerful because they are your personal stories. If I may encourage Ben Finiti for a moment. You have more faith than you realize. You don't have to know everything to accept His Faith. I like the account in Matthew 16:13-17 which says:"When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. Ben, the Holy Spirit has revealed Jesus to you already! Now, make the decision to receive Him into your heart. Romans 10:9-10 says, "That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."

And, if you have any doubt that you have had that conversion that Mr. Ruse discussed then remind that person in your mind of Romans 10:9-10 and stand on those words of your personal testimony.
written by Achilles, May 03, 2013
Mr. Ruse,
Excellent story! My conversion took a long time before I could say that I am 100% committed Catholic, and now it seems like it is just beginning because there is so far to go. It is a great glory! Fr. Rutler is one who reigned me in, not personally, but from a great distance. Well done!
written by Antonia, May 03, 2013
Beautiful account of your conversion! I'm a convert from atheism, and I thank God for my rescue every day.

BEN FINITI - my conversion took many years, so don't lose hope! My only regret is that I didn't work hard enough to understand the issues that were keeping me away...I would read lazily about one thing or the other but not systematically, so the whole process kept me away from God (and His beautiful love and peace) for much too long. My advice is to not let the issues float around in your head. Approach the Logos, the Truth (Christ), in an ordered way - *write down* all your problems with the faith, starting with the one most important to you. Then actively investigate them one by one. I recommend the Catholic Answers website, Peter Kreeft books & website, Bible Christian Society website, Our Catholic Faith website, and a great book by Art Lindsley called C.S. Lewis's Case for Christ. God is *most certainly* calling you, if you're seeking Him. It's not that God is "on our radar" -- we are on HIS radar! Put on your cleats and RUN to Him!
written by Gregg the Obscure, May 04, 2013
When I was about nine years old, one day I rode my bike behind the back of the Catholic church down the street. I knew that my parents, and even moreso my grandparents, didn't care for Catholics. I thought their church looked funny compared to our more staid Lutheran building. I felt an indescribable presence in that building - a presence that both attracted and scared me. For years thereafter I'd go out of my way to ride down that street instead of my own street. When I was old enough to drive, I went out of my way to drive by the east side of the building. I later learned that the east side of the building was where the tabernacle was.

It took me until age 37 to enter the Church, but the unseen tabernacle started to draw me in many years before.
written by Liti DeMane, May 06, 2013
Hello Austin,I am Erica's sister.I remember having a conversation about Thomas Merton out at the Duck farm.Fred and Erica gave me the Mott book for Christmas that year.I hope you are doing well.I am Catholic and still get "tugs".It is a lifelong process. sincerely ,Liti DeMane
written by Shirley Dunnells, May 08, 2013
I am a very recent convert (in my old age) and your account is genuine and lovely. My road was a long and twisted one, and I am immensely grateful that God persisted in the tugs and pushes. I have barely passed the threshold of Grace, and I am amazed at the vastness of the beautiful world before me.
written by dafsdf, May 11, 2013
What happens when I feel "tugs" that Legion of Christ and Opus Dei are filled with wicked, greedy people who fulfill there narcissism?

written by Edward, July 15, 2013
Then, Dafsdf, if you read this, or if you don't for that matter, you should help them. When I was still on my journey to the church 2 years ago The RCIA was a intergenerational bilingual affair taught by a well-meaning but very old nun. The class seemed pretty much pointless to me, as I felt that I already knew much more than was being taught. We were using coloring book pages.... And we didnt even have anything to color with! It was that bad. What complex things were covered had to be translated through a bilingual 5 year old to his parents, who were themselves totally ignorant of Catholicism or any kind of Christianity. It was awful. So I decided to skip it and go smoke weed instead, putting of my commitment to Christ yet again. When I look back I realize just how badly I failed. Sister Martha could have used my help so much, and I had at my disposal literally dozens of bilingual Catholics working under me as housekeepers at the hotel I worked at—any one of them would have been thrilled to help, had they known about it. I could have gone and helped the poor sister, the children, and the adults in that class, the Spanish and the English-speaking ones alike. Go to The Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ and help them. Say, "Here I am Lord, choose me!", and help them, if they are wicked or greedy as you say. Who will help them if you don't? And get some humility as well. I have no experience with either organisation as they are not active in my parish and I just got confirmed this Easter, but it may well be that you are in fact the one in the wrong for judging their members themselves, rather than their alleged wicked thoughts and deeds. They may put you in your place for that. And I am sure that were you to go to them with your concerns they might feel convicted about the error of their ways as well. Mercy not righteousness, truth and wisdom not speculation, and love above all my friend.
written by Tracy Doyle, May 24, 2014
My husband and I heard you speak in Buffalo this week and were moved by your talk. I thought you might be a convert. After searching google I found this article. Thank you for your witness. My husband and I had tears in our eyes picturing the old priest in his clericals slumped by the tree. Certainly an encounter with Christ. My husband is also a convert. He had a similar experience with a poor man begging outside of his office in the wee hours of the morning and later felt he turned his back on Christ. Ironically, this led him to the Catholic Church and he has been trying to make repairs ever since. Thomas Merton and his book " No Man is an Island" led me to "Seven Story Mountain" which led me to " The Story of a Soul" and the journey continues.
written by Austin Ruse, May 24, 2014
Tracy...i wish i had been able to give the whole talk, which is really entitled No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic. They told me the crowd was too evangelical. I had to talk out a whole section about how the world is obsessed with the Church and how the last ten years in the Church have been the most remarkable, marked by, in order, the Long Lent, the Passion of the Christ, the candidacy of John Kerry and the Eucharist entering into a global debate, the suffering and death and burial of JPII and the elevation of Benedict. The world has watched the Church intently, almost breathlessly..

So glad you liked the talk. Wish i could have stayed in Buffalo longer!

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