Atheism to Catholicism: the true story of tough Church teachings and beautifully imperfect faith
Photo Credits to Enjuley Evers
I grew up “Catholic.” Catholic is in quotes because I’m not sure that the Church would agree that what I was doing (or, more accurately, what I was not doing) was Catholic at all. I received the sacraments and went to mass only because I attended a Catholic school where those things were part of our curriculum. I tried to be a good person. Of course, I got to decide what did and did not constitute a good person.
I ran decisions by my conscience (which, by the way, I spent exactly zero minutes forming in any meaningful way). I decided confession was a nice tool, but that it wasn’t necessary. Since confession wasn’t necessary, I went to communion each time I went to mass, no matter what state my soul was in. I knew that Jesus wasn’t truly present in the wine and bread because it didn’t make sense to me (and if something didn’t make sense to me, it probably wasn’t true). I did not think it was necessary to attend church. I mean, church was good, sure, but I didn’t feel close to God at mass and I thought that Christianity (and my entire life, even) should center around what I thought and what I felt.
In a committed dating relationship, premarital sex just didn’t feel wrong to me and I couldn’t even begin to understand how birth control could be wrong. That seemed like a really outdated and unrealistic Catholic rule. What did the Church expect people to do? Have a million babies? We all know at least one big Catholic family with multiple children and, while that was great for them, that was not what I wanted. I thought it was pretty obvious that Natural Family Planning (NFP) didn’t work. I spent a lot of time shouting from the rooftop (as I tend to do) that Christians were hate-filled and angry. Why did they try to stop people from doing as they pleased? How did this even affect them? Why did they even care?
I don’t think I ever called myself an atheist, but had I stopped to take a long, hard look in the mirror, that’s exactly what I was. I was fairly certain there was no God, or, if by some miracle there was, I got to decide what He was like and what He did and didn’t approve. If I’m being honest, I'd made myself my own god and I hadn't even realized it. I made up my own rules. I would loudly and passive aggressively mock Christians and how “they all think their religion is the right one.” I was lost, but I didn’t know I was lost. I didn’t know because by all accounts I had a great life. I was (and continue to be) in an extremely happy marriage with two healthy and happy kids. My husband had a good job and he was able to provide for all of our needs and most of our wants. We were surrounded by extended family that loved us emphatically. There was nothing missing. Or so I thought.
My husband had suggested we attend mass several times throughout our relationship, and I always told him we could go if he wanted to, but that I didn’t personally feel mass was necessary. I didn’t feel close to God there. To me, it was just a building and I could worship God anywhere (I didn’t, by the way, but I felt I could’ve).
During Lent of that year (2014), he suggested we start a new family tradition. Every Sunday we would attend mass and then go out to lunch. Since there was lunch involved, I was willing. We went to mass every Sunday (and to lunch after–don’t forget the lunch part!). Apart from showing up to mass once a week for one hour, I did nothing to grow closer to Christ. I didn’t spend any amount of time even thinking about Christ, actually. I lived my life exactly as I had before, only now I was going to church. We went to mass every week for a few months.
One day, as we were walking out of mass, I realized that two huge shifts had been happening within my heart. First, I had an inner peace I’d never experienced before in my life. Things that would have usually ruffled my feathers were not a big deal to me. I never felt like my life was turbulent, and I’m not sure it even was, but all of a sudden there was peace- peace that I didn’t even know I was lacking. Secondly, I was beginning to realize just how especially flawed I was. I wondered why I was always so quick to judge everyone else when I was such an imperfect person. I realized for the first time that I was incredibly full of myself and that I'd had a very sanctimonious and entitled attitude my entire life. My eyes were beginning to open to my flaws and I really saw and felt my sinfulness.
I had done nothing to warrant these two changes. I did not pray. I did not even desire to grow closer to Christ (at least not a desire that I was aware of). I did nothing. I showed up to church, sat in a pew, reminded my toddler to whisper, tried to keep my baby from crying and then we left (and went to lunch). The end. I did nothing and yet two pretty big things had changed within me. (I now recognize this was God’s grace working to bring me home, but at the time if someone had suggested that to me, it would’ve made me extremely uncomfortable).
If I could undergo such a serious shift with zero effort and minimum participation, I wondered what would happen within my life if I actually applied myself? I needed to find out.
For the first time, I began learning about the Church from a pretty reliable source: the Church. I read the Catechism. Cover to cover. To my complete surprise, there was pretty much nothing in it that didn’t make sense. I couldn’t believe Catholicism actually made sense. I couldn’t believe religion wasn’t just something that ignorant people did. One thing that I read during this time that really struck me, and has remained with me since, is the notion that there will always be things that you and I cannot (and will never) fully understand.
Learning that I was not supposed to understand everything about God was the catalyst that set the stage for my conversion. What had always seemed to hold me back from a life of faith was my desire to reconcile the mysteries of faith with my intelligence. I was delighted to learn that many faithful Christians did not pretend to have the answers to all of life’s questions and I realized it was prideful of me to assume something wasn’t true simply because I didn’t understand it.
We are human and that means we are flawed. We are not the pinnacle of intelligence. We can’t expect to understand everything and we cannot assume something is a lie simply because it is beyond our understanding. I mean, Quantum Physics is a thing, and I don’t get that.
Because I knew the Church's teaching on birth control would be challenging for me to accept, I purposely avoided it. We weren’t ready to have another baby just yet (and adopting the Church’s teaching meant change and change can be hard) . I “knew” that what the Church taught was in complete contradiction with my heart, so, I avoided that topic and I hoped that God would be patient with me. I read books about Church teaching (skipping over contraception), I began to (try to) pray for the first time in my life, I made my first legitimate confession and I actually participated in mass.
At this point, I was convinced there was probably a God and that I needed Him in my life, but I thought there were many ways to worship Him. I thought the Catholic church was just one way, among many, to grow closer to Christ. It wasn’t necessarily the “right” religion. Such a thing did not exist, I thought. People picked the faith that worked for them–the religion that felt right for them. Until I began reading Scott Hahn‘s books.
The way Hahn explained the mass brought tears to my eyes. I read and read and read and read some more. Someone suggested I read Christoper West’s "Good News About Sex and Marriage." So, not knowing I was about to come face to face with the contraception issue, I did. I learned (for the first time, really) what sex even was. Sex is a physical expression of unitive love between a married man and woman in which the couple is open to the gift of life. So, sex should be unitive and open to life. I learned how man desires to separate sex from it’s procreative aspect. I saw how man desires to have all the feel good parts of sex without the responsibility part of sex. I learned how, since the popularization of birth control, adultery (and by proxy divorce) has been on the rise. In our culture, sex is about feeling good. That’s it. We think sex is about us, but it’s not meant to be only about pleasure (though, that is part of it). It’s meant to be the act of giving yourself fully to your spouse.
It was not easy to change. It was difficult, actually. That’s one thing I’ve learned throughout this process: just because something is right doesn’t mean it’s easy. Being Catholic can be hard. I learned throughout my journey (which I’m still on, and will always be on) that NFP actually does work! God created a woman’s body so that she is only fertile during certain parts of her cycle. It’s amazing how little I, and I’m going to assume a lot of women are this way, knew about my body. Some Catholic families have a lot of kids, yes, but, I know now that, generally, that’s because of their countercultural view of children. A big family is not a sign that NFP doesn’t work, it’s a signpost of being open to God’s love and grace.
I began praying the rosary daily, I took some meaningful time at the end of each day to pray and examine my conscience, and I learned a lot about suffering. I learned how fruitful suffering can be. Confession became something I scheduled in my calendar and my faith grew. When you put your time, love and energy into something it blossoms, and my love for Christ blossomed.
When I started this journey, I had a hard time believing that God even existed. I mean, isn’t that the very center of all things faith? It’s the most central teaching upon which all the other teachings are built and I wasn’t even sure about it. I began to pray that God would increase my faith. Then, after weeks of praying for my faith to increase, I decided that I would make a promise: I would be obedient even if my faith was lacking. I would respect and follow the Church’s teachings even if that’s not what I would do if left to my own devices.
Months passed and then one day I realized that I knew God existed. There wasn’t an explosion and an angel didn’t come to me while I slept. I asked God to increase my faith. I told him I would obey his Church even when I didn’t understand and then one day, just like that, I looked up and my faith had increased.
I realized over time that the Catholic Church has authority and that worship isn’t about how you or I feel. It’s about Him. There is a uniformity that is beautiful and unique to the Church. Our faith isn’t case by case. You can visit a Catholic Church in Louisiana and a Catholic Church in California and in Brazil and in France and the same thing is happening at each of these churches.
Most of these shifts in my faith life happened slowly. The changes within my heart happened so gradually that it wasn’t until I looked up and spent some time reflecting that I realized they had even occurred. It is only with Him and through Him that I have come this far and it is only with Him that I can continue going where He wants me to go.
So, that’s it, the honest, real life story of how a twenty something accidental Atheist came to be a devout Catholic. To God be the glory.
Read more from Diana Vallette on her blog.