Following is my book page that appears in this week’s print edition of The Catholic Post.
Are you a spiritual trust-fund baby? Bear with me—it really is a “thing.”
If you’ve heard the expression, “there’s nothing like a convert,” you’ll begin to know what I mean. There really is something special in converts and how they look at the faith with fresh eyes and fresh faith. It really is different being a convert, and we longtime Catholics can learn a lot from that energy and passion. That’s why shows like Marcus Grodi’s EWTN’s The Journey Home can be so compelling to watch.
It’s like Richard Cole writes in Catholic by Choice, his expressive memoir about converting to Catholicism, that cradle Catholics are like “spiritual trust-fund babies unbelievably rich with a two-thousand-year-old religious culture stacked on another three thousand years of Hebraic culture.”
And, like a stereotype of trust-fund babies, longtime Catholics can be tempted to take for granted our great wealth. Why is that?
Reading one of three recent new memoirs about the conversion process might help us look at our Catholic faith with a fresh perspective.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare these very different memoirs, so here’s a short review of each story:
Cole offers a wandering, luminous and complex story. The memoir is especially rich since he was older (49 at the time of his conversion) and so his conversion, and how it intersects with his life and the life of his family, is fascinating, gritty and real. Because he’s a poet, there are a lot of memorable and “quotable” quotes.
Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism In Search of Faith with a Future” by Elizabeth Esther. Esther’s book is a harrowing story of growing up in a fundamentalist cult, and gradually, as a young adult, escaping it.
Even though you know these are all conversion stories, I feel like I should write “spoiler alert!”— when I tell you she that she became, however improbably, Catholic. That’s because it is jaw-dropping how Jesus (and His Mother) drew her to the Church. It’s also amazing to read about what being Catholic means to her and her recovery from her abusive childhood.
Fulwiler’s memoir tells the story of how she grew up an atheist and lived a happy materialistic existence until she gradually reasoned her way into the Catholic Church, through the writing of her popular blog, Conversion Diary, and various life circumstances.
Fulwiler is a great story-teller—many local Catholic women will remember her talk at the second Behold Conference in 2011. Her funny and clever voice, as she shares the events that drew her to Catholicism, shines through in this narrative.
As I’ve said, it’s not fair to compare the memoirs, as each person’s conversion is unique as a fingerprint. But several common themes, in addition to how well they are written, emerge:
*There are innumerable ways to be Catholic—and thank God for that. How beautiful that our Catholic —universal—faith has so many ways to be a faithful Catholic. Just as the wide variety of saints, different kinds of holiness, there are many paths to and within the Church. Three cheers for holy diversity.
*Jesus really does pursue each one of us intently, mysteriously, and with whatever people, places, and circumstances are at hand. Each of these three memoirs describes the way a diverse cast of characters and situations led them to being Catholic: blog readers, random priests in confession, quiet spiritual directors, fallen-away Catholics, Mary, severe health issues, breakdowns, and so much more. How can those lead one to communion with him and with his Church? Jesus finds a way, and it’s plain astonishing to behold in these memoirs.
*We are all, convert or cradle Catholics, “spiritual trust-fund babies.” As a result, we need to recognize that fact and always fight against complacency. There is so much richness and depth in our faith, we need to spend it and share it with each other and others, instead of leaving it in a vault.
One particular strength of Cole’s Catholic by Choice is that it was published 10 years after Cole first wrote it, allowing him to look back and share how his conversion has played out in his life. Reading his update on how his life looks as a no-longer new convert makes me wonder and wish that both Esther and Fulwiler would update their memoirs 10 or so years down the road, sharing their experiences and what is different, and the same, about being Catholic.