I just realized that since I came into the Church on the Easter Vigil in 1999 that today actually marks my tenth year anniversary as a Catholic. The anniversary date I had on my sidebar was for the date of Easter that year. So at the age of 50 I have now spent 1/5th of my life as a Catholic and the Church has survived even my entrance into it. It is hard to imagine for me that it has actually been ten years since it hardly seems that long ago since I came into the Church and was confirmed and received the Eucharist for the first time licitly.
It is an interesting point of time to reflect on my time as a Catholic as compared to most of my life spent as an atheist. It is quite a contrast to go from a total denial of God and feeling of superiority over religious believers to faith and love of God and gratitude for my Catholic faith.
One thing I have reflected on is progress in the spiritual life. I guess by now I had hoped I would be levitating and receiving locutions, though seriously I am not exactlly a prayer warrior – more like a prayer cub scout. During my initial conversion God really did wonders in my life in helping me to turn away from sins and patterns of behavior that I pretty much had given up on ever overcoming in my wannabe Spock/stoic days. God has continuously taught me that I can do nothing without him, and unfortunately this is a lesson that I am constantly in need of relearning. For me it was miraculous that some sins were totally taken from me and that I have not been tempted to fall back into them. This was quite a mercy God gave me since I am so weak and I know that this was none of my doing. Just because I got rid of some sins though it certainly did not mean that I am then ready to be declared a saint. Sometimes when you pick up a big rock you find underneath it lots of crawling and slimy things that you did not realize were there. That is what I discovered about myself that when some major habitually sins were gone that there was still quite a lot underneath that had to be addressed with the grace of God. Be holy as your heavenly father is holy does not give you any room to stop and kick back on your laurels.
When I was in my discovery phrase before entering the Church and I would read some of the saints I though it was a false humility when they would berate themselves for their sinfulness. From my point of view at the time I thought it was a bit of hyperbole considering the lives of holiness they were living. It was only later that I realized the simple and obvious observation that the saints don’t compare themselves to others, they compare themselves to Jesus. No wonder Jesus had to tell the parable about the publican and the pharisee and how the path of feeling good about comparing yourself to others leads to everything but holiness.
Conversion is a real heady experience and it is quite easy to go to extremes. Going from reading Ayn Rand to St. Teresa of Avila, from unbelief to belief, it it is a temptation to follow every devotion or spiritual practice that comes your way. Converts can be quite exuberant and I can certainly put myself in that category. Instead of sticking with a devotion that might appeal to you and to be steady with it you can try to do a bit of everything without really achieving anything. As an atheist coming into the Church I was like a starving man who finds himself in an all-you-can-eat buffet and tries to eat everything.
One of the difficulties as an atheist coming into the Church is that you have to really learn everything for the first time. The spiritual life just does not come naturally to me since I had never had the habit of prayer before in my life. Any habit of prayer I have now is rather forced and not a reflex. My faith is rather more along the theoretical level than deeply lived. I intellectually accept all that the Church has to teach, this does not automatically lead to living the faith in a wholly consistent way and reacting based on what I totally accept and believe. Again I just have to keep relearning what I already intellectually knew. I understand what joining my suffering with the suffering of Christ means, but actually offering something up and not complaining about it is not usually my first reaction. I believe in the Communion of the Saints, but remembering to ask for their intercession is another matter. Though the assault on my pride is quite needed thing and while I can humbly admit the progress I have made (not on my own) in the last ten years I know it is like the marathoner who has just begun the race. Or in my case like a couch potato attempting a marathon.
The other day I had joked on Twitter that “Sometimes I am overwhelmed with gratitude to God, and I don’t know what is wrong with me the rest of the time.” As a jest though it rather accurately states what I feel. I am overwhelmed with gratitude to God and my eyes still tear up at times during the Mass. Though I think the gift of those tears is a reminder to me of the spiritual reality that I am witnessing even when my mind is often elsewhere muddled in a thousand distractions.
So on this milestone for me, please pray for me that I might persevere to the end and that I help those around me to do the same.