From Atheist to Ashes

I sat at the kitchen table, probably working on my thesis for my M.A. in Catholic Studies. Ironically, I was an atheist. But at the time, I saw Catholicism like I saw Harry Potter: a sort of fairy tale that fascinated me, even if I couldn’t believe in it. Books piled up around me: Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, Hannah Arendts’s On Revolution, Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Symposium, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, volumes of Aquinas’ Summa… I typed away at what would become, “It is Not Good for Man to be Alone: Marriage and Friendship in the Catholic Tradition.”

Later on that year, one friend would read over the essay and comment, “Come on! It’s just a big f*** you, Jack!” He was right.

Jack was my first love. I had fallen for Jack a few years before, in college, and what had begun as a simple friendship developed into a complicated sexual-romantic relationship. He ended the relationship after five years, and the combination of loss and betrayal left me with a broken heart and a broken identity. The total and complete rejection (made partly in the name of Catholicism) left me with a sense that, if God were real and He considered this reasonable, He must be full of shit.

My Catholic education and upbringing had instilled within me the disposition that, if the world has meaning, and a god, it must be the meaning Catholicism ascribes to reality, and it must be the Catholic God. Maybe it was narrow-mindedness. But for me, either the God of Catholicism was real, or reality was arbitrary, meaningless, and godless.

After that experience with Jack, I became convinced that whatever version of Catholicism was being thrust upon me couldn’t be real, so God couldn’t be real either. God wouldn’t actually be full of shit, so God just didn’t exist. So life was meaningless. I still worked on my essay, partly as a response to the ways in which Jack and other Catholics used Catholicism to justify rejection. But I was an atheist

Meanwhile, I decided to just do whatever I wanted. This meant a lot of partying, hooking up, and not going to church. I decided to stop caring what people thought about me. I got an edgy haircut and started going to the gym as an outlet for my anger.

My friends didn’t know what to make of it. My (straight) roommate Derek went to the gay bars with me sometimes, partly because we had fun and partly so he could make sure I didn’t get into too much trouble. He did his best to understand.

But Derek also went to Mass, and prayed quite a bit. He was the kind of Catholic who believed in all of the Church’s teachings, and who worked really hard to live by them. He was saving his sexuality for marriage, and he wanted me to be Catholic, too. I knew the last bit, even though he never explicitly said it. Actually, he almost never brought up Catholic things to me. He just lived his life alongside mine, and he tried to accompany me as much as his conscience would permit.

So on Ash Wednesday, while I sat at my table writing my thesis, he said, “Hey bro, I’m going to Mass. Do you want to come?” He asked the question as if he were asking me to coffee. He offered an open invitation, without any subtext. I could say yes or no, and he would casually accept either answer.

I don’t really know why, but I agreed to go. Maybe I thought I could use a break from the writing. Maybe I thought it would be good for me to go with him, in the way it might be good to go with a Jewish friend to Temple. Even if I didn’t share his religion, I still appreciated him and wanted to do friendship with him. So I went. I didn’t expect anything.

I don’t think Derek could have done anything to make me believe again. The pain of rejection and heartache ran deeper than any argument could penetrate. It lay in some deep dark mysterious place that I couldn’t bear to examine, let alone share with others. Looking back, I appreciate that he never tried to “evangelize” to me. He let me be the person I chose to be then. I was I, and he was he. Our friendship transcended value systems and beliefs. It grew in a series of invitations that we could pick up or leave on the table. I just happened to pick up the invitation to Mass.

Two years ago, at that Ash Wednesday Mass in the Church of Saint Mark, I believed in God again. It’s not entirely fair to say, “I believed in God” as if I made some decision to do it. Really, I think that belief in God happened to me. In Catholic theology, conversion is never something we can effect. It happens through the activity of God. A lot of bad “evangelizing” happens because people believe they can make others believe in the Church if they find the right facts or arguments or social pressure, which is just bad theology.

The belief happened… and I was pissed. I remember praying, “I’m not done being mad at you!” God made Himself present to me, and I was not pleased about it.

But I also couldn’t ignore it. A part of me still wanted to believe that there was some meaning to the world, and that this meaning could be found in the Church. So I started going back to church, secretly. I would wake up early Sunday morning and go to a crack-of-dawn Mass, then to a coffee shop, so that if my housemates asked where I’d been, I could say I was studying. I think I was afraid that this coming back to the Church was just another phase that would eventually pass. I wasn’t ready yet to admit my belief.

In the end, the greatest gift my Catholic friends gave me during that stage of my life was enduring friendship. No strings attached, no formulaic expectations, no doctrinal ultimatums. They were Catholic beside me, but not at me. Their love came in a series of invitations laid before me discreetly. Two years ago on this day, I picked one up. It’s good to be back.

Thanks, Derek.

5 thoughts on “From Atheist to Ashes

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