09 May 2014
As a sworn atheist I was stunned that God should touch me
I have only recently, in advanced middle age, been received into the Catholic Church completely unexpectedly and definitely against my will, because of profound spiritual experiences.
My epiphany happened four years ago as I sat in an armchair at home several weeks after my older sister had died of cancer in a distant hospice. Prayer in church at the time was a total failure but in that chair the delayed awareness God’s love for me as an individual came with an overwhelming and frightening presence including the words: “David, I am always with you”.
This might readily be understood as a comforting fantasy after deep emotional distress, but it was followed by a transforming experience as a juryman on a deeply upsetting paedophile case. At the time the guilty verdict was delivered, I sensed the courtroom was filled by Christ’s compassion towards the criminal policeman in the dock, and that he should be loved for himself rather than rejected as a badly flawed individual who had done bad things.
My wife being a Catholic, I had some idea of one avenue to try and make sense of these spiritual experiences, but there was little guidance – even from my wise and tolerant priest and my loving RCIA mentors – on how to accept faith when you have spent your life implacably rejecting Christ, swearing about “God-botherers” and – coming from a Scottish Presbyterian background – scorning the office of the Pope.
It seemed difficult to tell people close to me that such scornful attitudes were now in my past, though I can still laugh about the flaws in established religions which are, after all, human constructs and only get in the way of truth if you let them! I believe my conversion was more of a surprise to some of my friends and relations than a matter of hostility; after all, the New Testament period was so long ago and humans are popularly thought to have grown beyond such credulousness!
I suspect that my state of excited spiritual confusion, which included a violent dislike of the Old Testament (why should we rejoice still at the drowning of the ancient Egyptians in the Red Sea?) did not make it easy to help me find a settled pathway in either the spiritual or literal sense.
Only I know of the occasions when personal fears turned me like a leper away from the church door with the hope that I might try again another day. But I was encouraged to persist by my priest and by several patient mentors, and was received with joy into the Church two years ago.
Because of the revelatory strength in the arrival of my faith, I share the belief that nothing can now change back and I, too, cannot get enough of Scripture, which thankfully the Church now regards as fundamental. (Although I still can’t understand the treatment of the Egyptians in Exodus, I find the poetry books stupendous.) I need to make up for all the years of casting venomous doubt on what Christianity stands for and the sometimes contradictory words in the Bible – think of St Paul’s letters – concerning Christian truth. I deeply thank Clifford Longley for being open in his Tablet article about the way his spiritual life was changed; this has helped me greatly to understand my own conversion from atheism and the Christian context to my renewed life.
David McLees is a lay Catholic and retired civil servant in the diocese of Cardiff
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