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Seven Things That Are (Way) Better as a Catholic

Having spent most of my life as an atheist (I converted just 13 years ago), I have a good basis of comparison for the difference between Catholic and non-Catholic life. And without a doubt, these seven things are WAY better now that I’m Catholic!

1. WEEKENDS

7thingschristmas
Christmas is just fuller when you get the presents, the decorations, the dinner AND the Incarnation!

My husband and I spent three years as a childless married couple. Weekends weren’t terribly special other than the reprieve they provided from our jobs. Sure, we’d spend Saturday and Sunday sleeping in, but those days were really about trying to finish all the household chores and projects we couldn’t get to during the week. Now, Sunday is a day my whole family looks forward to, because it’s a day of togetherness and REST. In Dr. Timothy Gray’s talk on keeping the Sabbath (which I highly recommend), he talks about how the Lord’s Day is a gift that’s spiritually transformative if you accept it–and I agree. I no longer have that Garfield-like aversion to Monday, because I feel rejuvenated by both the Eucharist and the rest I get (body and soul) on Sunday.

2. HOLIDAYS

As an atheist, holidays like Christmas, Easter, and New Year’s were things I looked forward to because 1) I usually got a day off from work, and 2) it was an excuse to laze around in PJs (and drink). Even after I got married and began spending Christmas with my husband’s family, celebrating the day entirely for secular reasons still left me feeling deflated; despite all the buildup, it just seemed anticlimactic once all the gifts were unwrapped and the dinner eaten. Now, those same days are spiritually rich and fun. Even though the trappings are the same–presents under the tree and chocolate eggs–there’s a deeply satisfying spiritual joy beneath the festivities, because I know that these “holy days” are really harbingers of the eternal joy we’ll share in heaven.

3. SEX

I’ve done the Cosmo thing, and had “no strings attached” and “friends with benefits” casual sex. I’ve done the secular married thing, too, where we were happy to take all the bonding of sex without the nuisance of that pesky fertility (thank you, Mr. Condom!). Now, I do the practicing Catholic thing, where lovemaking au natural is always accompanied by the possibility of bringing a new person into existence. And you know what? There’s no comparison. When sex was all about recreation and performance, it was easy for the novelty to wear off and to get bored with the other person. But when you really take in the spiritual reality of sex: that you’re receiving the full gift of another person (whose riches can never be exhausted) and that you might create a new soul that will exist for all eternity…let’s just say the experience is elevated far higher than mere “fun,” even when it is. And performance? That anxiety goes away, too, when you know the person is there for YOU and not just for the pleasure he can get from your body.

7thingssuffering4. SUFFERING

Despite the modern world’s desperate attempts to stave off all forms of suffering, pain and struggle are simply a part of life in our fallen world. As an atheist, suffering was doubly awful because it appeared to be pointless–I had to go through the pain, but then had the gall of knowing it had no meaning besides making me miserable. As a Catholic, I understand that when I suffer, God is inviting me to unite my pain to that of Christ’s on the cross, which transforms it into untold graces for other souls (i.e., redemptive suffering). When I suffer, God asks me to do nothing less than help Him save the world. If I have to suffer (and there’s no escaping it), then the pain becomes easier to take when I know it’s helping to save someone I love instead of just pointless misery.

5. MONEY

I grew up in a severely impoverished family in southern Virginia; we were even homeless a few times. Going into young adulthood, then, money (and all the cool stuff I could buy with it) became a symbol of security for me. Not to mention a self-esteem boost, because while all people are equal, I knew that in the secular world, being rich makes you more equal. As a Catholic, though, I know that everything I have is on loan from God, down to the health and strength I use to earn the money. It no longer matters whether I have a billion dollars or one, because my self-worth is rooted in God’s unchanging love for me, not in wealth or in things. Knowing that I’m really just God’s hired steward of my money has made me, ironically enough, both more thoughtful about money and less invested in it.

6. WOMANHOOD

As an atheist, being a woman was all about the fight–against patriarchy, against my fertility, against unrealistic societal expectations. Sure, women’s magazines would occasionally pay lip service to just how awesome it is to be a woman(!), but I knew that in the battle of the sexes, men always came out on top. Among other benefits, they got to avoid the bodily discomfort of menses and pregnancy and earned higher wages and better jobs just because. Then I became Catholic and accepted a faith whose most venerated human being is a woman. And whose theology not only calls woman “God’s masterpiece,” but demands that men not only treat us as equals, but sacrificially serve us above even their own needs! My Catholic faith has given me an appreciation for my unique feminine gifts that the secular world never could.

...and then it REALLY begins.
…and then it REALLY begins!

7. DEATH

I had two choices as an atheist: pretend death wasn’t coming or call it out by laughing at its absurdity. Either way, death was something to be hated and avoided at all costs. Why? Because whether it came suddenly in a fiery crash or peacefully during sleep after 100 years, death was going to end my rich and beautiful life on this planet, among all the awesome people I’d come to love. Today, I understand that death is not something to be feared or reviled, but anticipated joyfully, because it’s the beginning, not the end. As a Catholic, I know that however painful death may be, it’s the door to my eternal life of joy with God, the saints, and the angels (and hopefully, all those earthly pilgrims I now love). It’s funny that the very thing I once imagined was going to strip my existence of all its meaning is actually that which will enable me to live my life to its fullest potential.

 What about you, sisters? For those of you who have converted, what part of your life is better now that you’re Catholic?

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Misty

Evangelizing Atheists: Part 2

In my first post on atheists, I described why most people resort to atheism over belief in God. With that foundation, we can better explore how to most effectively evangelize these separated brothers and sisters of ours. It may help, however, to first address the most common mistakes Catholics make when trying to bring these folks home.

Mistake #1: Assuming the atheist wants to believe in God.

Of all the Gospel parables, the one that compares heaven to a hidden treasure in a field has always resonated strongly with me as a former atheist. Jesus said that the man who found the treasure hid it again and then “sells all he has and buys that field.” As a convert, I had to “sell” the secular world’s opinion of me as an intelligent person to become a practicing Catholic.

To believe, an atheist must forfeit his positive self-image and the secular world’s good opinion. Or you’re proposing they open themselves up to moral judgment for behavior that made believing in God intolerable in the first place. This is naturally perceived as a rather raw deal to the person who has not yet grasped the immeasurable treasure of Jesus Christ. Remember this and you won’t take their hostility personally.

Mistake #2: Assuming the atheist accepts the veracity of the Bible.

This may seem obvious, but I’ve heard countless believers citing Scripture to atheists. Which is pointless, since even the most magnanimous atheists see the Bible as no more than a nice book of stories.

Quoting the Bible isn’t just futile, it can be disastrous because it opens you up to criticism about the Bible’s more complex parts. The Old Testament especially can be a major stumbling block to those who lack the proper theological and historical perspective. Your “loving and benevolent” God seems to endorse sexism, discrimination, and plain old murder of non-Jews who get in the way of His Chosen People.

Most atheists know just enough about the Bible to have a distorted view of it. So unless you have six hours to explain how the Bible was authenticated historically; how its passages must be interpreted through the lenses of literary, theological, and historical criticism; and how the Word of God is only one source of authority in the Catholic’s life…avoid Scripture passages when talking to an atheist.

Mistake #3: Asking the atheist to walk before he can crawl.

I became Catholic by degrees: first I believed in God, then I believed in Jesus, then I believed in the divine authority of the Church. But most evangelizing Catholics start off trying to convert atheists to Catholicism. It’s an easy mistake to make, because we want our loved ones to enjoy all the Catholic blessings and graces that we do. But it’s overwhelming and premature to ask a person to accept the teachings of Catholicism when they haven’t yet accepted that God even exists…or that he’s benevolent.

And don’t fall for the atheist who tries to engage you in a discussion about Catholic doctrine—especially if he is a former Catholic. Recognize this for what it is: a convenient way for him to put you on the defensive and sidestep his lack of belief in God.

Mistake #4: Neglecting the apologetics of love.

The most compelling reason you will ever give an atheist to become Catholic is not logical, historical, or evidentiary—it’s love. St. Paul said it beautifully when he said, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong.” Rational arguments do have their place in evangelizing atheists, but it is primarily your love—manifested through respect, kindness, and prayers—that will thaw the icy fortress that surrounds their wounded hearts.

So don’t evangelize to “win.” Evangelize because you love the person and keep that reason before you even and especially if your efforts are met with condescension, personal attacks, or accusations. Remember that no matter how personal or vitriolic the exchange becomes, their anger is really directed at God, not you. Expect them to kill the messenger (you), but don’t let them kill the charity in your heart by baiting you into a prideful, self-centered, emotional reaction to their resistance.

Instead of being offended, stay calm and secretly rejoice when you get an intensely emotional reaction from an atheist! It means that somewhere, deep in his soul, your words and witness are hitting their mark.

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: (Finally!) The Best Evidence and Arguments for Evangelizing Atheists  

 

 

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Ink Slingers Misty

Evangelizing Atheists: Part 1

Ten years ago, I converted to Catholicism from atheism. I’m often frustrated that most Catholic apologetics materials are geared toward evangelizing Protestant Christians. But what about the person who doesn’t believe in God and certainly doesn’t accept the Bible as inspired? How do we bring our atheistic brothers and sisters home, too?

For people who have never really struggled to believe in God, especially cradle Catholics, atheism can seem inscrutable: “Why would a person not believe in a loving God?” But the experiences and perspective of an atheist is so different from that of a lifelong believer—whatever the religion—that some background is important before going on to the practical side of evangelizing atheists.

It’s helpful to understand that most atheists fall into one of two categories:

1. People ardently against belief in a higher power, who consider it their personal mission in life to dismantle organized religion (particularly Christianity); and

2. People who want to believe, have tried to believe, and may even have believed in God at one time in their lives…but who now cannot grasp faith outside of an intellectual concept.

Most of us have met people in the first group and the interaction has been a wholly unpleasant one if we stumbled onto the subject of faith. Vitriolic atheists are rarely willing to even entertain the idea that God exists, much less that Catholicism contains the fullness of truth. They have spent years or even decades refuting God’s existence and most are unwilling to pursue a truth that threatens their carefully constructed self-image as an enlightened and pragmatic person. (And I say that with all charity.)Atheism is not part of their identity, it IS their identity. Which is why they react so violently when you try to take it away from them.

If you encounter such an atheist (and you’ll know quickly), don’t try to discuss faith. Instead, pray for him. Fast for her. Only grace, not logic, can conquer an intractably rebellious heart.

The second group is what I call “closet theists” and they are much more receptive to discussing faith. I know this kind of atheist intimately because I used to be one. Most of these people yearn for faith, but mistakenly assume faith is something you will, instead of a freely-given gift from God. But there is still an unmistakable openness in the soul of these atheists…I used to tell my Jewish and Christian friends that the main difference between us was that they hoped I was wrong and I hoped they were right. These atheists will often express the desire for faith, but will conclude with, “But I just can’t believe.” Faith is a good thing, a great thing, even—for everyone else.

What I discovered about both groups of non-believers is that despite all their talk about “evidence” and “logic,” most harbor at the core of their disbelief an emotional reason for being an atheist. Her mother died of cancer when she was 12. His older brother was murdered. Her baby was born with a severe disability. These atheists are often profoundly angry at God, which comes out in the rage they exhibit when they discuss God or religion with believers.

If some atheists can’t embrace God because they blame him, just as many (if not more) can’t embrace Him because they blame themselves. She had an abortion. He cheated on his wife. She was a stripper. He was an alcoholic. They may have once tenuously believed in God…until their serious sin made belief intolerable. They carry a deep shame for the “unforgivable” behavior that rendered them unlovable to God. These people usually struggle to believe that anyone—divine or human—could truly love them as a person. A quote from the movie What Dreams May Come beautifully expresses the heart of those who tragically separate themselves from God due to shame: “Good people go to Hell because they can’t forgive themselves.”

Behind their seemingly magnanimous tolerance of faith is an intense fear that God actually exists. Because if He exists, then they will face judgment. It’s not uncommon to find that these atheists were raised in religious households where God was presented not as a loving and merciful Father, but as a demanding and punitive authoritarian.

Both kinds of atheists think that denying God’s existence will make their traumas easier to live with, so they build up walls around their hearts and minds to keep Him out. But the pain is still there.

Not every atheist fits neatly into these two categories, of course. Some were raised as children by staunchly atheistic parents (who were almost certainly in category 1 or 2) and learned that faith is only for the emotionally and intellectually weak. Others were raised in joyless households by religious, legalistic parents who taught them that faith and happiness are mutually exclusive. When believing in God makes you stupid or miserable, it’s easy to understand why a person would choose atheism.

Such are the hearts of our separated brothers and sisters, who go through life denying the existence of God, and denying themselves the spiritual joys of embracing the faith. Let this understanding serve as the foundation of our practical efforts to bring them home.

NEXT IN THIS SERIES: What Will—and Won’t—Move an Atheist’s Heart