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Two Conversions

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Today, I’d like to share two conversion stories: my friend’s, and my husband-to-be’s.

I first met Emily on a sweaty, late August day during the chaos of freshman move-in. Dressed in a red RA t-shirt, she calmly fielded mothers’ questions and fathers’ jokes while shouldering suitcase after suitcase up the stairs for her future residents. 

Evidently, she was unruffled by the hectic energy of the day. I admired her cool and comfortable demeanor instantly.

As I got to know her, my admiration only increased. A junior, two years older than I was, she evidently had college figured out. She was eating right, exercising enough, and beloved by her professors. Her demeanor was open, unpretentious, and personable. She really looked at you when you spoke and remembered the details of what you said. It was plain enough to see that underlying this was a palpable and steady faith. Her relationship with the Lord was present in her many activities: it was what she spoke about in the dorm to underclassmen, it had guided her last summer on a trip to Israel, it governed her research on the linguistics of Luke and Acts, and it directed her vocation as co-leader of InterVarsity, an on-campus evangelical ministry for undergraduate students. Her boyfriend was the other leader.

I was only mildly surprised when, the following year, I spotted her at a daily mass. Ecumenism, right?

Wrong. She had all kinds of questions for me about Catholicism as we walked out afterward—enough to spill over into the ride home and a subsequent dinner date. Oddly, though, the confident demeanor I remembered from my freshman year had evaporated. There was a shyness in her questions, almost as though she was embarrassed that I had seen her at mass. “Don’t tell my fiancé that you saw me here,” she said.

She was right to be anxious. My junior year, when Emily next appeared in my life, she was working for the college as director of a dorm. She was edgier than before, gaunt, and . . . single. Yes. Her fiancé had broken off their engagement when he learned of her impending conversion. Now when she spoke to you her eyes burned with conviction and her voice betrayed the rawness of a person who had suffered. Through our many conversations that year, I admired Emily’s courage—the courage to listen to her conscience even when it called her to abandon her fiancé, her job at InterVarsity, and the friends she knew. Good things. She had called upon God for help and He delivered, even to the point of receiving her into His Church, just two weeks after her breakup.

Emily’s story fulfilled my expectations of a conversion. It depicted a marked change, a point after which nothing could be the same. A brilliant and terrible light seemed to have pierced her life, leveled her plans, and rebuilt her from the ground up. Even the way she spoke had changed. Surely as life-changing a decision as choosing Catholicism as an adult would have this visible effect on anyone.

So it was with great interest that I watched Dalton, my fiancé, embark upon a conversion of his own two years later. When Dalton decided that he would be Catholic, he methodically initiated the steps of being received. Sometimes he seemed to drag his heels in reluctance. Many times he was frustrated and confused by the way the Catechism explains various teachings of the Church. I will admit that I was almost disappointed. Where was his ardor? Where the spectacle of his epiphany? I wondered if he would be converting right now if he were single. Could he be doing it only for my sake?

On the fridge at home, my mom has taped a quote that reads, “Tall oaks from little acorns grow.” Like an oak tree, Dalton’s Catholicism began as an acorn. Every day it germinates a little more. And what a precious responsibility I have, to ensure that it does indeed reach its destined height. Who knows how long Emily had been pondering before I ran into her at mass? My future husband and I will have the joy of cultivating his conversion together.

Once again, these two stories remind me of the dangers of comparison. Who knows if I see and understand someone else’s conversion correctly? And even if I do perceive a greater conviction in someone else, may it serve as a reminder that conversions come in as many different forms and speeds as the people in whom they work.

A quote by John Henry Newman feels appropriate in closing. Whether in the case of Emily’s beautiful, painful conversion, or of the slow and patient shifting of Dalton’s heart, Newman says: “The planting of Christ's Cross in the heart is sharp and trying; but the stately tree rears itself aloft, and has fair branches and rich fruit, and is good to look upon.”

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