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Friday, May 26, 2023

The Miracle of Conversion, A Mystery of God's Grace: Aqua's Story (Part 1)

16th century painting of St. Paul on the road to Dmamascus

Editor's comment: One of my regular readers, Aqua, left a comment about his conversion that intrigued me. So I asked him if he would tell his story. He graciously accepted and I offer it here in two parts. To see God's grace at work reminds us that He, indeed, is our rock and our salvation. May God bring us all to conversion every day and fill us with the joy of living in His presence. Convert us, Lord, and make us Yours.

Aqua's Conversion Story

I was asked to say a few words about my Catholic conversion story, and how it changed me from who I was to who I am. So ... here it is.
I was born the year Vatican II began, 1962. Little did I know at birth that the world had shifted on its underlying axis that year, in those holy halls far away. But the evidence of that shift grew as I grew, though I couldn't understand why until much later.

My family was nominally Protestant, non-denominational Baptist. Like most parents raising small children, mine did their best to instill a Christian faith in me. Church was the focal point of my childhood. Growing up in the '60's and '70's these were the years of "revival", spiritually intense times I recall with very fond memories. Our Church was close-knit and Bible-based. There was much hymn singing, verse memorizing, camp attending, sermon listening, activities participating ... so much fun! I just always assumed I was a Christian because that's all I ever knew. Baptized. Saved. Always saved - never doubt it. I knew there were other religions out there ... but the only true religion was the little Church I attended and all the others just like us - those who had a Bible and believed in it as the inerrant Word of God. I was vaguely aware of Catholics, but only to the extent they were a cult that added and subtracted from the Bible and worshipped God in idolatrous ways. Catholics were dangerous and to be avoided if I wished to keep my faith. Mostly I just never thought about them, except in pity for not knowing the simple, obvious path of salvation.

I was "saved" as a child at a youth camp. I "accepted Jesus into my heart", and then there was no power that could ever take that "salvation" away from me - I belonged to Jesus then and my salvation was an assured certainty; not even my own future sins or unbelief could ever take that salvation away. I was saved, I would always be saved ... "once saved, always saved" as they say. There was nothing we could do to add to God's redemptive act. Our sins were covered, forever. How? Because I accepted the free gift. We could never stop sinning, mind you. THAT was a core teaching of my Protestant faith. But all our sins were forgiven - that was the beauty of it. Others sinned and went to hell. I sinned but was going to heaven. "Accept Jesus into your heart and you will be with Him forever"

The focus was on His gift, not my duty - the saving event was my acceptance of His gift, which was forever.
But with that certainty of salvation came a sense of entitlement, hubris. And as time went by, and career prospects intruded on my carefree days of youth, I stopped thinking about my Christian faith and became consumed with achieving the career I dreamed of with all related successes and adventures. Heaven was for someday, that was in the back of my mind I suppose. The certainty of gaining heaven had the perverse consequence of never thinking about how to get there. Heaven on earth was right now, too. With my "heaven ticket" safely stored away in my spiritual safe deposit box (along with my Bible and my church attendance) , I became a practical atheist. God was very far from me in those young adult days, or rather I was very far from God. I was not required to stop sinning, in fact I was required to stop thinking about sinning - a diabolical plan once you stop and think about it. So I accepted the gift of eternal life and went about my earthly business of career progression without a spiritual thought for quite some time. The saving deed was done - I had my ticket to heaven, tomorrow is taken care of, now get on with today. "Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you are going to heaven": That was my religion in a nutshell.

But a funny thing happened. I started going to Church again (to meet girls, not so much to meet God) and a brand new Pastor there, as his first act of ministry, encouraged the congregation to read the entire Bible, cover to cover in one year. "You can't be fully Christian unless you know your Bible, so read it and know it - all of it". I'd never done that. I'd read all the important passages and knew all the important stories, and memorized many important verses, but never had I read the whole Bible in sequence. The Pastor sold these Bibles at cost, $5, stacks and stacks of Bibles for the entire congregation.

So I brought one home. And the experience changed me forever. The Bible, once I actually read God's Word the way I would later in life find out Catholics read God's Word - as an entire Testament from God to Man - tells a story far different from that presented to me in the carefully selected verses that formed the Protestant theology that left me assured of an eternity with God ... without God. The Bible, read as an entire Testament of God presents God as a consuming fire of Love that demands everything of a soul - *now*, not later; everything, not just a little, but all.

The Bible, presented by the Protestant Pastor as the key to our Christian faith proved to me that my Christian faith was fundamentally deficient. Funny, how God works in those mysterious, small, insignificant and counterintuitive little ways.

What the Bible showed me was that for all its recorded history, the Message of God to Man was that conversion to God meant conversion of heart and a revolutionary change in not just belief but the visible manifestation of such belief - our chosen actions in life. For the first time ... I realized that everything I did mattered, for heaven or hell; in thought, word and deed it mattered a lot. God wanted *everything*, not just a revival salvation experience 20 years ago at age 8, God wanted a revolution inside the soul manifested in a physical revolution outside in every thought, word and deed.

And so began the ever-expanding journey of discovery of what was wrong with the religion I was raised in. Trying to better grasp the true Christian Faith as it was meant to be practiced (still Bible-based Protestant for there was, I then thought, no other), I began the study of Christian history, away from the modern evangelical writers who had all, by now obviously to me, led me far astray - trying to grasp Christianity by returning to its roots (Protestant roots, all I had ever known).

I began what was, in essence, to my ignorant Protestant mind, a study of sacred tradition by reading the - "ancient" - writers - those dating to the early 20th century, and further back to the 19th century evangelists, then even further back to the 18th century and then further back to the Puritans of the 17th and 16th centuries (you need to
understand ... no one ever did this - it was highly irregular to read or listen to anything other than current evangelical bestsellers).

All of it confirmed: the modern Protestant faith I was raised in and believed was distorted by limiting itself to the modern and fashionable, disconnected from the "Fathers" of "Sacred Tradition". *"Sacred Tradition*", (Protestant sacred tradition, there was still no other) of the "ancient writers" was FAR, FAR from what I was taught and was being taught by my modern pastors.

I even wrote a book (for myself) that summarized my Christian beliefs based on all my post-"enlightenment" study of the "ancient writers" of 100-300 years ago. It bore precious little resemblance to modern evangelical Christianity, even less to that of today as it continues to spin itself off into worldly fads and irrelevancy. The book I wrote about my discoveries was a book, in so many ways, *Catholic*, before I was, or ever thought of being, Catholic. The basic Catholic theology was all there in that book I wrote for myself. That book, defining my belief, was a Catholic key waiting for an opportunity door to convert from death to life.

And so, naturally it occurred to me ... why stop at the 16th century? Why not keep going back further? Wasn't there a Christian history prior to Martin Luther (trust me, very few evangelicals thinks about that)? What happened during those even earlier ancient times? What said *those* primordial Church Fathers about the Christian Faith?

"But wait", I said to myself - for the first time faced with the stunning thought and dawning realization of an impending paradigm shift ... "there *was* no Protestantism before Luther. If I go back beyond Luther ... who, then, am I studying? Catholics! And Luther, all of 500 years ago, is a mere moment in time compared to the 1,500 years that preceded him ... all of those years were Catholic; Luther represented a break, a change, something different in the latter days - revolution at the birth of constant revolution ... hmmm".

And from THAT there was no going back. You study the ancient of Christian days and there is pure continuity led by a Pope within united Christendom without a rebellion or differences of individual beliefs; Christendom that endured beyond the Roman Empire; Christendom at the heart of Western civilization - there were Catholics and there were heretics. Period. Church history is Catholic, and there is no mention in it of Non-Denominational Protestants like me, except as footnotes that were burned at the stake ... hmmm.

The disconnect between what WAS through the millenia, and what IS in the present modern moment, was simply overwhelming, powerful, persuasive, stunning. But the Holy Spirit, with the assistance of my Guardian Angel kept gently leading me on. I hadn't found it yet, that Pearl of Great Price, but I could sense I was getting closer.

A huge part of that journey onward toward conversion involved a trip to Italy. I was still pure Protestant at the time - my wife and I went to Italy just for the cultural, historical and culinary experience. A big part of Italy's history and culture are the Cathedrals. Every town had one. Every town was based around a Cathedral - which, btw, indicates a prior Faith currently missing, once you stop and think about it. Everywhere we traveled, there were beautiful, stunning churches that were so much more than Protestant style, efficient, multi-purpose, gymnasium based mega- churches filled with folding chairs on a basketball court before a stage of multi-media mics and amps and drums and lights ... no, these churches were ancient, and reverent and beautiful and extravagant with a history dating back millennia - the visible manifestation of the Constant Magisterium I'd been reading about but didn't yet understand. I noticed, also, my eyes always going up, not forward toward the "stage", and around me at all the people, but up, always up toward the heavens. Hmmmm.

Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels

I will never forget the basilica in Assisi - the beautiful white and blue church in the middle of which is placed the original poor little chapel of St. Francis. The juxtaposition of that ancient and simple Chapel with the grandeur of the Cathedral built around it is stunning. I walked into the back of this little chapel, to check it out, and it is filled to capacity with people ... people on their knees ... people with bowed heads ... people obviously honoring
something ... not quite sure what it is ... something in front of them that looks very beautiful, expensive and important ... people from all over the world united as one, on their knees. 

Portiuncula chapel in the basilical of Assisi 

And I compared this scene quickly in my mind with all the many years of my Protestant past which culminates in a plain box-like gym filled with people drinking coffee and led by a band of loud musicians, men in torn blue jeans and women in tight tops singing the same thing over and over and over and over - where is God in all that noise? I don't know, but I sense Him very strongly in this tiny little silent chapel filled with reverence and a very pleasing smell of incense. I remember thinking very strongly to myself: "I don't know what these people are all doing here, kneeling before that beautiful scene set in front (Altar, Tabernacle), but I intensely admire them, they are Christians, even though Catholic, I don't care what anyone else says - these people are Christian. I don't have what they have but I *want* what they have".

That was a major turning point for me. The "stage" for conversion was set.

The final straw for me was back at my regular Church, at a "Sunday School" class, on the topic of the "Catholic Cultists - how to understand the cult in order to better evangelize lost Catholic souls to the Christian faith". (You better believe Protestants know how to evangelize). There was a fellow in that class I will never forget. He doesn't know it, but he, in a negative way, led me to conversion to the Holy Mother Church; he lit the fuse that was primed over many previous years.

We were discussing in that class a topic near and dear to my heart: Catholic "works based religion". Protestants hate "works" more than sin itself. If you are trying to live a righteous life, rather than depend solely on the salvivic death on the Cross of Jesus our Savior, then by your "works" you are committing blasphemy (taking the glory from God, by working your way to heaven). If you are trying to live without sin by working to avoid committing sin, rather than relying totally on the forgiveness of Jesus on the Cross, you are replacing Jesus with yourself and risking going to hell for working against God's pure saving grace. Stop being so full of yourself by thinking your "works" are anything more than "filthy rags" - (Isaiah 64:6,Romans 3:19-23). By that time, I was disabused of that belief (that personal righteousness is sin - those who try to live holy lives are going to hell) ... convinced against that earlier Protestant belief by my extensive research of the Bible, Christian history and in reference to my personal experience, my conscience and my common sense - those verses were not the only words, or the last words on this subject of "works-based religion". Works, to me now, were an essential element in final salvation. But to my fellow Non-Denoms, "working your way to heaven" meant you were actually dooming yourself to hell.

So I raised, in that class, the most obvious example of that time (early 2,000s) against such belief: Mother Theresa.

I raised my hand. "Yes?" "Surely", I said, "not Mother Theresa; surely you are not trying to say that Mother Theresa is going to hell for serving the poor and spending her life with them in poverty, right?

This man, he who lit the fuse of my conversion, this man looked at me with a bright red face and hate in his eyes and with as much emotion as you might imagine, he said that "yes, she most assuredly will burn in hell for being Catholic and for the sin of unbelief in the Savior who loves all of us just as we are and pays the whole price and doesn't want us intruding on His sacrifice by our participation; her works are filthy rags and her works for the poor in Calcutta are precisely what will damn her to hell" (or words to that effect). And I looked at him as he talked, and as he got angrier and angrier and redder and redder and said to myself "self, you haven't really looked into the Catholic religion ... perhaps it is time to do so ... because something that inspires such an insane emotional and illogical response must be true at some level - you've gone back in time to the old Protestant readings", I said to myself in that moment, "time to investigate the reality, the only Church that is directly connected to those ancient times, the Roman Catholic religion, because this religion, represented by this man and the teacher who allowed it, is crazy and obviously something is very wrong with this Faith that he, and I with him until now, profess. Time to find out what Catholics have to say for themselves."

The more I looked into the Roman Catholic Faith, the more it made sense. I read some of the popular Catholic authors of the early 2,000's; I read Catholicism For Dummies. Once I got outside of the bigotry bubble, and saw the religion of the Ages on its own terms and not through a bigotry filter ... well ... it perfectly represented what I already believed. The groundwork had all been set by years of prior research. It was like puzzle pieces, the many little acts of conscience and intellect I'd compiled over the years, spread around a table that finally found their home - and the picture that I knew existed in the chaos of my disjointed puzzle piece theories began to take shape - and it was beautiful as they kept fitting and fitting and the picture grew and grew. Eureka!

And so, wife and I decided to look into attending an actual Catholic Church. Leave the kids with my parents and check it out for and by ourselves - just to make sure we don't endanger their young and tenuous faith until we know what happens "behind closed doors". That first attendance felt like a covert subversive act.

Long story short: we found a beautiful local Parish. The building was beautiful. It was a very wealthy Parish in a wealthy part of our community. We didn't know what they were doing there, but we were attracted by the beauty of what we saw with our eyes.

We soon went to RCIA. Heh, heh! RCIA. There, we met "Bob". Bob, the ex-monk from the Midwest who was now laicized (we didn't know what that meant) and now a Layman in charge of convert instruction far from his original monastery. He told us to rest easy - that in the old days Protestants and Catholics were divided, but not any more - we are more alike than different. We needn't worry about differences, our beliefs are actually not that far apart.

We were expecting more than that, but ... ok. Then, in RCIA class, we showed up with the best of intentions - brand new fresh notebooks and pens, ready to take notes and be the best Catholic converts ever - Catholic boot camp, bring it on! There, sadly, we didn't learn the Catholic Faith. There we learned Vatican II Faith. There I witnessed a Catholic Nun given the microphone at Mass where she proclaimed that the Dali Lama was holy in the same way that the Pope is holy; Buddhism is holy, just like Catholicism (I assumed the Priest would stop her ... but the Priest nodded his head in happy affirmation, I looked at him aghast ... I almost stood up in Mass and made a scene, except I was just an RCIA newbie - but, I respected the Pope and the Catholic Faith more than he did and I wasn't even Catholic). There in RCIA we learned that our spirits are like animals, and that to channel our inner animal we needed to choose our inner animal and channel the voice of our inner animal - howl at the moon, bark, cluck, meow, etc ... (I wasn't there for that session, or my wife wouldn't have stayed for it). There we learned that moral issues, such as abortion, are not objectively knowable but are instead up to individuals and their personal conscience to decide for themselves - whichever morality they believe is true according to their personal experience, that morality is true for them. And it is gravely important that we jot judge those who make different choices than us in personal decisions like abortion.

Well, that was the end of that.

There, my wife and I led a rebellion of similarly minded Protestants who didn't know anything about Catholicism but knew for a fact that what they were pushing down our throats in their saccharine, oh-so-gentle but very insistent way was bullocks - and we told them so in so many words. We brought that RCIA class to a stop. And then we left, each of us rebels against this moral insanity (I now know the insanity as the pervasive destroyer heresy of Modernism) to go our own way right back out of the Catholic Church the same way we came in ("don't let the door hit you on the way out, bye!"). The RCIA leadership very happy to see us go - "back to the peripheries with you"!

Fortunately, my prior long journey of an ignorant, unformed Protestant conscience, while earnestly trying to form itself under the tutelage of my Guardian Angel, had inoculated me to spiritual error such as this. I knew heresy when I saw it, and had learned through long experience to hate spiritual sickness and death wherever I saw it ... which was pretty much everywhere at this point - major misalignment between what I knew to be true and what I saw in real life.

"If *that* was the Catholic Church, they can stuff it".

And I was done with it. I was so angry, there was little hope, if *this* was the Catholic Church - Church of antiquity, direct line through the Millenia - "killing babies is a matter of personal conscience and choice; Buddhism, equivalent to Christianity" ... and I'm required by the Catholic Church to support it?! No.Way! Done!

Except ... my dear wife wasn't quite prepared to give up quite yet. She looked up "conservative Catholic Churches". Found out in that research, in various discussion forums on the topic locally, that profound disagreements existed

between Catholic Laity and the Priesthood and that a meaningful struggle was in progress for the sake of eternal Truth and against it. What we were exposed to was not "THE" Church, but merely a small front in the ongoing spiritual combat within the Church.

"Oh! Well, that is a whole 'nuther thing; a fight, I am used to and ready for ... as long as there is an identifiable side to join which is aligned with eternal, unchanging T(capitalized)ruth. I think I see what is happening here.

Capitulation is unthinkable. Conflict I understand. Truth is all I care about.

I always thought Catholicism was a military organization in which everyone believed the same thing; in which there was an hierarchy and in which all followed the same Truth from the Pope on down to us wee little converts. God at the Head, an Hierarchy under Him as His living Body. Uniformity and continuity was the rule, in the current day and across the Ages - according to all my readings about Catholicism. What we saw in RCIA was more derelict and lost than anything I ever saw in the worst Protestant Church. God, I now believe, was showing me the nature of the conflict I was about to enter, taking my family with me. He was showing me so that my choice for Him was a free choice, with full knowledge of what it was I was choosing. God was directing me to "count the cost", prior to commitment. "Who do you say that I am?", was essentially God's question to me. "Are you prepared to fight this fight, knowing that spiritual conflict, not peace, is the essence of the age"?

"Just give me Truth", I replied, "I will sell everything if I can only possess that".

We found a conservative little Parish with a highly orthodox Lay RCIA director who, in an introductory interview, gave us the detailed and authoritative scoop on the controversy within the Catholic Church, why there is current division, where it is sourced, how we can protect ourselves, where and what the True Church is and what She is not.

Oh. Ok. That I understand. This is going to bigger and much more complicated than I thought. But: IT IS STILL TRUE!

And the essential pre-requisite assumptions of reality and its conflict of battle have never changed since then - only intensified, especially with the latter unprecedented faux Papal resignation and subsequent election of Bergoglio to the Papal Ministry of Rome - THAT, in a nutshell, is what I saw in that pagan RCIA class: do whatever you want with a will ... Protestantism, in short. The little cauldron I saw at the beginning was a mere sample of the battle that will likely remain in my experience until long after I have passed on to meet my judgement. Two different RCIA directors, clearly representing the spiritual Order Of Battle to come - Catholics tied to Sacred Tradition on one side, Protestant Modernist heretics making everything up on the other,

So, we entered the Church under this faithful Catholic man's RCIA tutelage. Our Confirmation night (Easter vigil) was about the most beautiful experience I think I will ever know on this earth - equivalent to my marriage. The singing, the prayers, I was in the Faith of Ages now, and not out - it was truly like I was reborn, surrounded by this beautiful singing communion of living saints.

Shortly after this, however, our temporary African guest Priests were replaced by a new permanent assigned Priest and everything fell apart quickly. The spirit of laicized heretic RCIA director "Bob" (kind of like the "spirit of Vatican II) came in with this new Priest. All the signs were evident with him from the beginning. The final straw was his new "youth minister", brought in to make the Catholic Faith "relevant" (uh, oh) to the youth (such as my children for whom I am responsible, so this was personal); who chose the Incredible Hulk as his youth connecting icon for the summer - the lessons to be drawn for our youth were to be from this secular cartoon character whose inhuman super-power is based on unrestrained inner anger, rage, the beast within. "Interesting choice, Relevant Man. Bye"!

We went to FSSP, and were formally taught for the next few years by a wonderful, orthodox Priest. THERE, the Catholic picture was made complete - the division within Holy Mother Church between Modernism (which we already knew) and Sacred Tradition (which we were now comprehensively exposed to for the first time). These were to be the battle lines, not peace within the fold and conflict outside, but conflict against wolves inside.

These times were defined by deep friendships with fellow converts. Long, long conversations about matters of deep importance, opening our souls to each other, enjoying friendships and experiences based in mutual love for Christ in the One True Faith - glorious! Learning the intracacies of the Latin Mass - sit, stand, kneel (don't ever be the first, just in case you guess wrong, don't ever, ever sit in front where you can't follow the lead of those more experienced).

There we were catechized by our Priests who gave so much of themselves to us. There we were corrected in our sins through regular access to orthodox Confessions, corrections, advice.

Which takes me to the second, and main point of this little testimony.