I sometimes tell other converts they should have their conversion stories printed on a tablet so they can just tear off a copy and hand it to anyone who asks. Austin Ruse and David Warren both gave fine accounts of their stories last week, which had the twin merits of being fascinating and fitting onto a tablet-sized sheet of paper.
But they reminded me of my envy of those with interesting stories. My own conversion was as extended but much more banal, perhaps appropriate for someone who spent his pre-Catholic life as a military functionary. I’m deeply grateful for the extraordinary experiences I had as a pilot, commander, and teacher – and in various other Air Force positions. But while they were all part of the path, they don’t make for a concise and clear story of entrance into the Roman Catholic Church.
There are common elements between my story and those of Austin and David. As with Austin, my time in Paris played a big role, though I did not smoke any Cuban cigars in cafes. William F. Buckley did not send me any volumes of Chesterton, but his own book, Nearer, My God, was instrumental. Superstar priests were not seeking me out to provide instruction, but a quiet yet firm Jesuit chaplain joined me for dinner one night at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, and some years later a wonderfully orthodox and devout parish priest in Washington offered one-on-one formation with time he did not really have to spare.
As with David, living in England played a big part for me, as did Anglican and Episcopal liturgies. We both spent time in Asia in more youthful years, which has a way of opening Occidentals up to a world outside themselves. Our professional lives were very different, but we entered the Church in the same month – then still years from my knowing of his exceptional autodidacticism and his perceptiveness of what is really going on, of the “scale of the disaster” around us, and of the grace of Christ and the promise of eternal life that “is right off the scale from what is available in the world.”
But enough admiration for my fellow Catholic Thing converts. I raise these similarities and differences because they assure us of the truth of Cardinal Ratzinger’s reply to the question, “How many ways are there to God?” “As many ways as there are people,” he answered, with no prejudice to the truth of the Church.
Some object to the word “convert.” My dictionary gives several senses for the verb, including its religious meaning but also “to change into another form, substance, etc; transform” and “to adapt to a new or different purpose.” So long as we recall the fact that conversion is a lifelong “event,” renewed one day at a time and usually in the ordinary events around us, this works to describe entrance into the Church.
As conversion proceeds over time, another word comes into play: inversion. As a convert, I am often struck by how the answer to the prayer, “Lord, that I may see,” amounts to a turning upside down of our view of things and our expectations.
Scripture is full of inversion. An unlikely people, descendants of a divinely-inspired nomad, and slaves of the Egyptians, is chosen above all others for God’s covenant. David, youngest son and a little guy, defeats the giant and becomes king. Job’s station is inverted from prosperous to poor and back again. Psalm 7: “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and brings forth lies. . . . His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.”
The New Testament can be read almost entirely as an inversion story. God inverts expectations and comes not as a wealthy and powerful political grandee, but as a poor child who will be a servant. The last shall be first. The Beatitudes are a list of inversions: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The earthly positions of Lazarus and the wealthy man are irrevocably inverted in the next life. The lowly publican’s prayers are inversely righteous to those of the high and pietistic Pharisee. The inversions pile up one after another.
Most powerful of all is the inversion of the Cross, from the lowest instrument of ignominious death and defeat to the highest way of eternal life and triumph: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Conversion and inversion thus go together. As one’s conversion develops, one grows more convinced that he had been seeing the world upside down all along, in just about every way.
As a pilot, I would often fly inverted in aerobatics and fighter maneuvers. It was exhilarating at times, but it always a bit of relief to get back to right side up and see clearly. In a way, the inversion of conversion is getting back to right side up, after a long time upside down.
This conversion-inversion seems paradoxical, and as such Chesterton – another notable convert and a master of paradox – explains it best in his biography of St. Francis:
The transition from the good man to the saint is a sort of revolution; by which one for whom all things illustrate and illuminate God becomes one for whom God illustrates and illuminates all things. . . .For one the joy of life is a cause of faith, for the other a result of faith. But one effect of the difference is that the sense of a divine dependence, which for the artist is like the brilliant levin-blaze, for the saint is like the broad daylight.
From upside down to right side up, from the slavish independence of the autonomous self to the joyful dependence of a son of God. So goes the inversion of the convert.
*Image: The First Shall Be Last by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]