Describing the moment of a realization is always difficult, especially when it is a story of a conversion. How can I describe those first times, when I began to meet Christ with the realization that He is real, – not just an idea but a real Person? The feelings that accompany this – surprise, the sudden certainty that comes from faith, followed by amazement that this could REALLY happen, that God is REALLY that loving, and that all this is real… is actually real! And of course the amazing joy and love that’s beyond anything you’ve ever imagined – a love that truly satisfies and makes one thirst for God like the Psalmist who said: “As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42). “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God… For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” (Psalm 84).
I came to university with the same sort of views I had in high school. My faith in God wasn’t very strong – I even wrote an essay against His existence, simply because it was “easier” to argue with the knowledge that I had – something that I’m ashamed of to this day. I took another philosophy course in university, though it had an atheistic emphasis on it. This annoyed me, but I was not strong or knowledgeable enough to counter it. However, I considered myself a Christian, an Eastern Orthodox, though I never considered that fact that I was not practicing. I had not received the Eucharist a second time, after my first Communion, and had only been to Confession once – which afterwards gave me a sudden shock of realization about my sins, which I had mostly hidden from the priest. For the first time in a while, I felt that I was in fact, a sinner, that my sins had gravity and were not as light as I had thought, and this terrified me.
I did not pray much, or at all, and spent most of my time worrying about academics or the fact that I felt very lonely on campus. My belief in God was more in my mind than in my heart, and even in my mind, it was not strong. I went through a time of doubts of God’s existence, which was a real crisis for me and I worried incessantly over it on a vacation day with my family.
As I didn’t have many friends on campus, I had much time to myself. I had been reading CS Lewis’ “Narnia” books, and was delighted to find that the university bookstore had more books by him. They were of course, his apologetic books on Christianity. While reading “Mere Christianity”, I finally understood what the purpose of salvation was – that we were to become “new men”, as he had termed it, that it was a transformation, and I understood that Christianity is not partially true, but is THE Truth, with a capital “T”. He explained it very clearly and I’m thankful for God using these books because it was what I needed. I began reading all the CS Lewis books I could buy and finally the faith made sense to me, and my sense of assurance about it was stronger.
Sometime that year, I was in the student centre and was approached by two girls. They were from the Protestant group on campus called “Campus for Christ” – and they asked if they could ask me some questions. I said yes, somewhat reluctantly, and they asked me about my spiritual background and views. I identified myself as an Orthodox Christian and explained some things I had learned about salvation. The girls invited me to their weekly meeting. I don’t remember what I said… but it stayed in my mind, and I think in the next autumn, I went to my first ‘weekly meeting’ with Campus for Christ.
Here was something new as well. As I did not attend church, I didn’t have much experience of prayer or worship. Faith for me was mostly an intellectual understanding that I agreed with, but I wasn’t sure yet how to put it into practice. I did not pray much, and I still lived in much sin. As I came to the weekly meetings, I saw a new side of it all – here were others who believed in Christ and who seemed so enthusiastic about what they believed in, and they not only prayed and praised God but it seemed to bring them happiness. I was kind of shy, at first, to sing the ‘praise and worship’ songs, or to show any sort of emotion – but the personal element in the words began drawing me more into the more personal side of a relationship with God. Up to this point, I had faith in God and perhaps some personal experience of prayer – but I began to understand more of His love for me. It was like going deeper into the phrase that had so touched my heart as a child – “I love you dearly”.
As I began to encounter Christ more, He became more real, not just as Someone I believed in, but Someone that we could actually know, even delight in. It was a relatively new concept – a two way relationship with God. I could speak to Him, sure… but Him communicating His presence to me? The perceptible presence of His love (what Catholics would call consolation or sweetness in prayer) – was something I didn’t know about. I was again so touched by how much God loves us, and could hardly think of anything else. I still had many faults, and sins, but I began caring about this more. I was also too attached to the consolations, but my love for Christ began to grow.
Even though this happened to me in the context of Protestant worship services, I believe it is simply an experience of coming closer to Christ. This type of grace still came through the Church, unknown to me, and ultimately helped lead me towards the Church. It would be incorrect to say that because it happened at a Protestant event, it means that it is wrong to be Catholic, rather it shows that God was always somehow acting in my life. It would also be incorrect to say that because it happened in a Protestant setting, and not a Catholic one, it served no purpose – because God uses the situation we are in, and although I did not yet have the Sacraments, God helped me to find Him and then lead me further to help me find the Church and the Sacraments when I was ready. I see now how He’s used many things in my life to bring me to Himself and to the fullness of truth. I believe that the Catholic Church is true, yet I do not discount the experiences of God I had as a Protestant. God reaches down to us where we are.
As I consider the experience of a soul encountering Christ, the words of St Augustine come to mind:
“Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for You. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which You created. You were with me, but I was not with You. Created things kept me from You; yet if they had not been in You they would not have been at all. You called, You shouted, and You broke through my deafness. You flashed, You shone, and You dispelled my blindness. You breathed Your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for You. I have tasted You, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace”.
I have wondered about how this happens… ultimately, faith is a gift. The realization that God loves us, is also a gift. He can use various ways to help us realize that. As we read about His love in Scripture and spiritual books, He could use those occasions to reveal His love. As the person realizes this, they respond… the faith becomes more personal, not just an idea of a collection of teachings (which might appear burdensome), but a way to get to know Christ, Who the soul now sees not only as a historical Person who lived 2000 years ago, but as Someone alive today – not only alive, but communicating with us. This is a huge realization and very life changing. I used the songs we sang at those meetings to help me to respond back to Him and tell Him that I love Him, and that I give Him my heart. Now I see that doctrines, correct interpretation of Scripture, is very important – and we shouldn’t forget about these things. Our faith is BOTH a relationship and a religion. Religion is simply how we live out this relationship in our lives. But in order for it to make sense, the relationship needs to be there, because our faith is not primarily about ideas but is about a Person – Jesus did not say that He would only show us the way, He said that He *is* the way.
GK Chesterton put it all very simply: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair”.
If anyone is looking for some inspiration to begin (or continue) relating to Christ in a more personal way, I would highly recommend learning about the Sacred Heart devotion. For example, there is this website, which explains the elements of the devotion and also contains these beautiful poems: http://sacredheartdevotion.com/love-poems/ Sometimes just by reading or hearing such words, our hearts begin to open up more to God’s love, which He so eagerly desires to show to us. From that point, we only need to receive it and respond. Have you thought about this, how much God longs for you? Perhaps this is a new concept, perhaps you’re not sure about it – how could God long for anything? why for us? but His love is much more personal than we had dared to hope… maybe we believe, that God loves humanity – but in a general sort of way. Maybe it’s unclear what His love means *for us*. Yet He loves you as if you were the only person He had created. He waits for you, like how someone would wait for their beloved, only even more than that. If you are not sure, try to ask Him to show this to you. The prayer for more faith is answered if we are ready to receive it and if we seek it.
God is not impersonal. We have a God whose Heart was pierced for us. We have a God who would say “I would create the universe again just to hear you say that you love Me” (words to St Teresa). God is our Treasure and our greatest happiness is to be loved so much by Him.
I also invite anyone to read these beautiful words on how Christ thirsts for us
(image credit: http://holycardheaven.blogspot.ca/