Evangelizing with your story
I tend to lean pretty far in the self disclosing direction when I share here on the blog. I’ve pulled back a little bit as the kids have gotten older as far as the specifics I share about them, images, etc, but I’m still a fairly open book with my own story. I share bits about our marriage that Dave approves, but for the most part I’m a one woman show in this space.
The reason I share so much about my own life and my ongoing conversion is because I believe so deeply in the power of story.
When I was reawakening to the truth towards the end of my first run through college (I basically had two separate college experiences – 4 years at CU Boulder where I did my level best to uphold the party school reputation, and 3 years at Franciscan University of Steubenville where I finished my BA and started my MA) much of the awakening happened while listening to CDs and tapes (this was pre podcast era, people) of other people’s conversion stories.
I found Dr. Scott Hahn’s story particularly riveting. I remember one night with particular clarity. Hidden away upstairs in my converted attic bedroom, I could hear the happy, sloppy sound of my roommates and their friends banging around downstairs as they came home from the bars, sliding furniture across the battered floors of our rental and clinking bottles. Barricaded in my room, I pushed play on a borrowed boom box and listened for the third or fourth time as Hahn described his surprising journey into Catholicism.
I was a cradle Catholic with at least a tenuous grasp on my faith, so it wasn’t as if the details of his tale were totally unfamiliar to me. It was his conviction that gripped my soul, wearied as it was after years of blurry football games and black out partying and inch-deep friendships. Could somebody really take God this seriously? To turn away from their life, their career, leave everything behind to jump in faith?
The things coming out of the speaker sounded more like the stuff of Bible stories than current events. In my twenty-something years of living as a Catholic, I hadn’t encountered what seemed to me a radical application of Catholicism; not merely part of life on Sundays or used as a modifier to describe oneself, but as the essence of a person. His identity seemed to rest, now, post conversion experience, entirely in being Catholic.
I didn’t know anyone like this in real life. My parents didn’t count, at the time, because caught in the snares of my adolescent misery, I couldn’t see clearly how much love they’d expended, how hard they’d tried.
What I knew of being Catholic was duty, sacrifice, and a sort of stoic resignation. I’d stopped living my faith in any meaningful sense except one: I still went to Mass most Sundays. But I was not sober, I was not chaste, I was not kind or honest or patient. Duty-bound, I dragged my hungover body out of bed for the latest possible service on Sundays, head down and heart numbed in the pew as the liturgy – often banal and irreverent because Boulder – washed over me in a comforting, familiar rhythm.
What caused this profound disconnect between my head and my heart? What allowed me to profess the Creed with my fellow parishioners on Sundays and party recklessly with my fellow classmates on Fridays? I can’t say for sure, but I imagine it had much to do with a lack of community. With a fragile catechesis that only went skin deep, the profound truths of the Faith I’d professed since childhood eluding me as a jaded young adult.
I knew who Jesus was as a historical character and, theoretically, Who He was in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar at Mass. But I didn’t know Jesus as my Lord. He didn’t call the shots in my life. I was living for me, directed by me, and in pursuit of what pleased me. Jesus was an afterthought, and His Church was the window dressing I put out as a flag to signify to others what I was about. Being Catholic defined me in the same way being an American did, or being a woman. It was something intrinsic and immutable but nothing I had real agency in.
When I started hearing stories like Dr. Hahn’s, the universe tilted. I came to recognize that faith was as much a gift as a choice. That this man, and countless other men and women throughout history had chosen Christ, had made a decision to orient their entire lives around Him. Not by reciting an “I accept you as my Lord and Savior” prayer – though a well-meaning roommate had once coached me through that, sensing an opening in my confusion over the question of whether or not I was “saved”. The fact that we recited the prayer after smoking pot in her Honda Accord did not seem to deter her from helping me go through the motions.
I don’t fault her for her confusion – my faith wasn’t any deeper! Her “Lord and Savior” line was similar to my weekly attendance at Mass, in that we were both going through the motions we’d been taught, unsure of what it meant to concretely apply our belief in Jesus to our lives, or unwilling to make the leap.
The joy I heard in Dr. Hahn’s story was infectious. I can’t think of any other reason I’d have wanted to replay over and over again this recording of a forty year old man telling his life story.
Later in the night my roommates came and pounded on my locked door, begging me to come out and join in the festivities. I feigned sleep as I lay there in the darkness, the CD still playing and hot tears rolling down my cheeks. I wanted out. I wanted joy. A fire had been rekindled inside of me earlier that semester with the death of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.
His passing had left me dazed and weeping, shocking me with an intensity of grief and regret such as I had never felt. I was still dazed, some weeks later as I lay there listening to my old life progress outside that bedroom door and feeling certain that something new was on the horizon.
My path back into full practice and belief was not linear. For brevity’s sake and to construct a coherent narrative, it sometimes reads that way. The years that would follow, however, were marked by pain and uncertainty as much as by profound consolation in prayer and joy in newfound Christian community. And as I learned to read The Story with new eyes, my heart burning as the Scriptures were unfolded for me, I came to recognize the power of my own story, too; to console and to inspire and to attract.
We tell our stories because we love to share ourselves, but also because apart from the grace of baptism, the story God is writing with each of our lives is the most miraculous thing that will ever happen to us.
When I look back over the seemingly disconnected events in my life, the unexpected twists and turns, the disappointment of unanswered prayers, the highs and lows, it can seem random. When I do so applying the lens of faith, the resolution seems to improve a bit, the principal image coming into clearer focus: I love you.
God is writing a love story with each of our lives. When I remind myself of this, when I remind other people of this by sharing parts of my story, I pull back a little corner of the veil between this world and the next, a burst of His light and love escaping forth into the darkness.
We live in a world shrouded in darkness. We needn’t – shouldn’t – let the fear of humiliation or a little stage fright hold us back from lighting candles in the darkness. And every Christian has this light burning within them, ignited by the specific, personal love Jesus has for every single person ever created. Every single soul is the story of salvation history all over again: rejection and redemption, suffering and salvation.
Later this week, the Catholic Woman will publish a letter I wrote about my younger years. While parts of my story are painful to share, the cost is more than warranted when I consider the immensity of what I have received.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. I personally think it’s huge that you continued going to weekly Mass during the stage in your life when your lifestyle was distant from the Church. I’m sure the graces opened your heart to your conversion experience.
I think we can use our stories to evangelize in even small ways. I recently lost a lot of weight via participation in a Catholic program called Lightweigh. Whenever people ask how I lost the weight, I am always quick to point out out that it was a Catholic program that helped me accomplish it. I don’t go into detail unless they ask (and they often don’t), but I think sometimes planting little seeds like this lead to evangelization in ways we might never know about.
So good. I think we should never underestimate the power of being present at mass even during times in our lives where we may not be very well disposed to receive Him. It’s a prompting of the Holy Spirit that we even make it there at all.
Jenny. Your posts are so amazing and wonderful. Thank you for being an open book and sharing your whole story, even the parts that make you feel vulnerable. I am an open book too, and I think speaking the truth always makes me feel less shameful, and less pain inside. Seriously, love your posts.
Thank you for baring yourself out to share the love of Christ! The truth is that He is always there when we busied ourselves with the lures and trivialities of the world.
Jenny, Tears fill my eyes almost every time I read your blog. Oh, to have your gift of writing. That’s on my mind a lot these days as I’m preparing my Christian witness for an upcoming women’s retreat at my church called Welcome. Each story of personal encounter with Jesus and His mama leave me on the edge in my seat, hungry for more. How God finds each soul is so beautiful. St Augustine once said, “God loves each of us as if there were just one of us.”
PS. We have a mutual friend and I hope to meet you sometime and buy you a cup of coffee.
Thanks for sharing Jenny. I have a similar story & it feels good to not be alone. Cradle Catholic & very involved with family faith life growing up. My parents sacrificed greatly so I could live at one of the best Newman Centers in the country, which has such a strong FOCUS presence, produced so many beautiful vocations & had limitless resources to help students grow in their faith life. What did I do? Partied really really hard. Never stopped going to Mass or confession (although with no real resolve to avoid the occasion of sin) & even had spotty attendance at a FOCUS bible study. It wasn’t until my experience in Pre Cana that I realized … Hey, the Church may be on to something here… It’s been a very slow journey back to the faith ever since then! The one thing that is so striking to me is how patient Jesus has been with me this whole time. So looking forward to reading your story on The Catholic Woman. That has become my favorite resource lately!!
Thank you so much for sharing your story! I love your blog and always find so much joy and encouragement when I read it! May God Bless you!
Also, do not know if you are familiar with Fr. Donald Calloway. He has an absolute wonderful conversion story. I was very blessed to hear him talk and read his book.
I think yr Blog is beautiful! I am a convert and I deeply miss that ingrained feeling of being a cradle catholic. My family think I am a bit of an alien.
I adore conversion stories, Jen Fulwiler, Holly Ordway, Scott Hahn and Sally Read being my favourites. I agree the power of story in incredible
Such a great reminder that God can transform any one of us into a beautiful person, no matter how messy the beginning might seem.
As a parent, we will experience the time in life when our children embark on their own path to adulthood, and the odds are that no matter what you do now, one or more may end up making a few side trips on the spiritual path you are setting for them. With experience under your belt, you will feel the struggle and suffer together with them, and hopefully lead them back to the faith.
When I was a child, one of my teachers taught us that conversion is a daily process. That really stuck in my head. And it is true! As long as we know it is ongoing, we don’t need to give up on ourselves. Thanks be to God that you did not give up on yourself (and I will bet that your parents were busy praying for you!)
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It draws me back to reflect on my own journey and gives me hope for our children. Your writing style is beautiful and a gift from God. Thanks for sharing that also.
Dear Jenny, thank you for sharing your story. I have been reading your blog for years and years, but not a big commenter. I also believe in the power of stories and that’s why I started a very humble site to try and share small successes in marriage. http://marriagepossible.com/ I wonder if you would consider sharing something that works in your marriage, just one tiny thing that you do well?
You can see more at http://marriagepossible.com/you-have-a-story/