I remember being totally confused as a little girl, when I heard my uncle talking about a barn he had converted. Had the barn undergone some kind of religious experience?
I left the Protestant church I was brought up in and searched for some alternative belief system or set of experiences which would bring meaning to my life. From time to time, I came across people who convinced me that I needed to be converted. It never came to anything. A few days later, after the euphoria died down, I remained the same messed-up self that I was before.
After trying it several times, I gave up and shrunk away from anything which smacked of conversion. I wouldn’t have said that my life wasn’t in need of improvement, but I didn’t feel that I could change according to a formula. I stopped going to church altogether, and would have described myself as an agnostic who leant towards a belief in God.
Conversion is a very personal thing. You can’t force it on anyone. A human being might look at the barn and decide that it needs to be converted into a studio flat. From the cow’s point of view, however, conversion would be a disaster. It would turn the barn into something totally useless.
Caught in the end
For various reasons, I started attending the Catholic church. Despite my aversion to conversion, I was caught in the end. I can remember exactly where I was sitting in the church and what the priest was saying. He was telling a story about someone who asked him if he expected to make any conversions to Catholicism. He paused, and I waited, knowing that if he told us that he expected to make converts, then I would be out of that church as fast as my legs could carry me, and probably never come back. I hated the trapped feeling I got when someone didn’t accept me as I was, but just saw me as a potential proselyte.
“I leave conversions to God”, was what the priest actually said. Instead of feeling relief – I was let off the hook, wasn’t I? – I experienced disappointment. Until that moment, I had not realised that I actually wanted to become Catholic. I found out that I actually wanted someone to convince me that there were good reasons for me to convert.
The thought was so daring and so strange for someone brought up strict Protestant, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I hugged it to myself like a joyful secret, reasoning that if it was from me, it would fade away, but if it was from God then I wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. After six months, the thought still hadn’t disappeared and I realised that I would have to do something about it.
No-one cheers you on
On my journey to becoming a Catholic, I was by turns frustrated, disappointed and relieved that I received little encouragement. Catholic friends were politely interested. The priest made himself available to discuss things, but left it up to me to decide if I wanted to return with more questions.
After making a decision to be received into the church, things seemed to get even harder. I wouldn’t go quite so far as to say that I was so discouraged, but it felt disappointing. If I was planning on joining a Protestant church, I would have been the centre of attention. People would have been solicitously cooing and clucking over me, like a newborn baby. As a wannabee Catholic, I felt that I had to give each door a hard shove before it opened.
I realise now, of course, that people were giving me space. They didn’t want to put me under any kind of pressure and were keeping their distance, so that I could back away with dignity if I felt it wasn’t for me. They knew that if what was pulling me into the church was from God, then it wouldn’t be snuffed out by a draught of cold air.
That loaded word conversion
A while ago, I took part in a survey of religious converts, to or from any kind of religion, being carried out by Leeds Beckett University. If anyone is interested, the survey is open until 30th June 2016. Their initial findings show that about two thirds of converts experience a ‘light bulb’ moment when they realise that they have to change their belief system, just as I did. However, this moment of decision doesn’t come out of the blue, but after extensive reading about the new belief system.
So where does that leave me with that loaded word conversion? It speaks of dusty things from the past being ripped out and replaced with squeaky clean surfaces, sparkling bathrooms and smooth floors. I couldn’t live up to that image, and in the end, didn’t want to even try.
A change of direction may creep up on us gradually. In my case, there was a definite moment, an instant, in which I recognised that change of direction. However, a change of heart is a slow, lifelong process. I have to be patient with himself.