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. Joseph’s 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 didn’t 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.