Tuesday, June 9, 2015

My Conversion Story: "You Wimp!"

St. John Cantius

Don't worry. This won't be a long boring intellectual chronicle of the books I read--Chesterton said, "blah blah blah," and then I was led to Belloc who said "blah blah blah"--nor an amazing report of a supernatural vision. Rather, here's what actually happened on the day, seven years ago, when I finally decided, in the words of Charlie Sheen, to "just deux it".

My procrastination in becoming Catholic was motivated by laziness. However, my decision to become Catholic was also motivated by laziness. God does the best with what He has, after all. Here's what I mean by that:

I was in the middle of a twenty-mile marathon training run. As usual, in my long marathon training runs, I wasn't enjoying myself. But the thing about most twenty-mile training runs is that once you get to ten miles--the turn around point--you kind of have to keep going if you want to get back home.

Unless a church is closer.

So, I said to myself, I really don't want to finish this run. But I do want to get something out of it. If I turn off on Chicago Avenue, the church I've been attending off and on for a year or so is only a few miles away. I can stop there if I have a good reason. Perhaps today is the day to become a Catholic.

I ran to St. John Cantius.

Not twenty miles. Fourteen miles.

I had a narcissistic vision that the doors of the church would open of their own accord and I would be welcomed with a red carpet and flowers. After all, wasn't Catholicism itself dying? Weren't the churches just dying for new parishioners? You know, intellectual people who have thought things through and all that--people who had decided to become Catholic. And I was quite a "get". It had taken me so long to arrive at that point, after all, heroically wrestling with all the arguments or whatever, etc. I had read Chesterton and Belloc. 

The big doors of the church were locked.

Now, this was unusual at my church. In my experience, the main doors of Cantius were never locked.

But perhaps they were stuck? No, locked. Maybe the center one? Locked. The left one? Locked.

God was telling me something.

"Not so fast, Spalding" (said God). "You're not the Prodigal Son. You're just a lazy runner. You diddled around on this for years. Now you expect it to be easy? Suck it in."

But I saw a group of men moving furniture in and out of one of the side doors.


They were dressed in black pants and white shirts. And--I'm not making this up--they were the happiest furniture movers I'd ever seen. They were smiling and joking as the couches and tables bobbed through the door. In my memory (but probably not in reality) they were singing.

I saw one of them good-naturedly taunt another one about the fact that he was wearing his "civvies."

Maybe one of them could direct me.

"Excuse me," I--a sweaty long-hair in running shorts and singlet--said. "Do you know, um, where I could, um, talk to a priest?"

The tallest furniture mover put down his couch corner and focused a bemused look at me. Everyone else seemed also to be looking. I felt like a lone American walking into a rural British pub.

"I'm a priest," he said, staring down.

"Oh, ah" (trying to be nonchalant), "well, I thought I would ask, whether, um, or how, er, I could become a Catholic."

He looked at me up and down, as if to ask, "you're wearing running shorts and a singlet and you want to become a Catholic?"

Understanding, I said, "Well, I was on a twenty-mile run and stopped after fourteen."

"You wimp," said the priest.

I swear that's what he said. I will always remember what he said. He had a twinkle in his eye, of course, but that's what he said. Okay, not twenty miles, but fourteen miles. Still, FOURTEEN miles and...you wimp.

I won't bore you with the rest. Within a year, that following Easter, the thing was done.

The "furniture movers" were all priests and brothers of one of the most vibrant and growing religious orders in the American Church--the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius.

And by the way, I know that priest much better now. He's an incredibly holy man. He's also an incredibly funny man. And a kind man. And though he looks half his age, he's ten times as wise as his years. He's one of my confessors. And no, confession with him has never been a "torture chamber". I imagine (God forbid) that I could confess a bank robbery to him and he would be nodding his head behind the screen saying, "let's talk this through, man. I have all the time in the world." 

Church of Mercy? Of course. With me, more than you could ever imagine. But also Church of the occasional, shall we say, realistic and completely appropriate observation.

You wimp.

That was the church for me.