In high school, I came to base the perception of my own worth as a person on what others thought of me. It was an unstable foundation to be sure, but so long as everyone thought well of me and I had nothing to be humiliated about, all was well. Eventually however, this way of thinking caught up with me, and I reached a point where I could not hide any longer from it. That point came during my sophomore year in college. On the outside, my life was really great: I made good grades in school and had a nice girlfriend, a family who loved me, and lots of friends. But on the inside, I was beginning to be eaten alive by anxiety. It started out small and slowly got worse. I began getting nervous in social situations like going to restaurants, to the movies, and eventually, just being in class for school. My stomach would churn, and I would fear having to run out of the classroom, embarrassing myself in front of everyone.
Other humiliating aspects from these disordered anxieties began to surface: when I felt really anxious, I would begin noticeably sweating, for no apparent reason. And when the anxieties became really bad, I would have panic attacks, where my heart would start beating frantically, and my fears would feed into one another in a spiraling cycle that I could not control. I did a good job of hiding my anxieties from others, bottling all of it inside and trying to "think" my way out of the fears.
During my junior year, I was interning for a semester and living with my mother, and I began having headaches every day. This persisted for five months solid. They wore down what little physical and emotional strength I had left within me, and near the end of my internship, I was driving home each day hoping that a car would swerve into my lane and kill me. Here I was, an honor student, full-scholarship holder, and a talented athlete surrounded by good friends and family, and I had reached a point where I wanted to die rather than suffer through another day of hiding my problems. It was at that point that I faced for the first time what my atheistic beliefs really meant: despair. Always before in my life, the thin veneer of comfort, prosperity, and general well-being had protected me from facing the terrifying existential conclusions of my worldview. One day, in a disturbing waking dream, I saw before me total, empty blackness—a vivid manifestation of my utter hopelessness.
Finally I told my mother about my anxieties. (I thank God now that even in despair, He gave me a loving mother to whom I could turn when I thought that I had nowhere else to go.) She suggested that I see a psychologist, which humiliated me further, because I had always looked with disdain upon people who went to psychologists. To my great relief, however, the psychologist helped me realize that my condition was not unique. She taught me some cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, including breathing exercises and positive thinking. These helped, but only in a limited way. My anxieties persisted almost as strongly as ever, and I realized then that I was in trouble: I was clinically depressed, suffering from frequent panic attacks, and fighting a titanic struggle with never-ending anxieties. I believed that my problems were just chemicals in my brain, but I had tried every tactic that I could think of to beat the anxiety, and none had worked. My once-reliable intelligence now failed me utterly, so I faced a choice: either commit suicide or try to believe in God. For some reason, that was the dichotomy in my heart, even after years as an ardent atheist.
I decided to try belief first, with suicide as the backup plan. I knew that if God did not exist, then "trying" to believe in him would not work, because it would just be me trying one more mental tactic among the multitude that I had already tried without any success. But if God did exist, then I shouldn't kill myself without giving Him a fair shake. Still, the stupidity of asking God for help revolted me. But with nothing to lose, I gave it a try. I began praying for the first time ever by saying, "God, you know I do not believe in you, but I am in trouble and need help. If you are real, help me." I also started reading the Bible to learn about Christianity, starting with Genesis, for I was determined to begin at the beginning.
The initial result of my prayers was, well, nothing. I didn't see God or Jesus or anything supernatural. No one whispered anything in my ear. If I had an angel, he didn't come to visibly embrace me and kick my demons out. My problems didn't go away, nor did they seem to lessen noticeably. This disappointing result did not surprise me but instead wryly confirmed what I had always believed: "God doesn't exist, so thinking He'll help you is foolish." But when you are in the ocean and all you have is a life preserver, however small it may be, it's the only hope that you've got. So I kept asking God for help every day and kept reading the Bible, though the King James Version with its "thees" and "thous" and "begats" made for near-inscrutable study. Slowly, however, under this simple regimen of prayer and reading, things began improving slightly, enough for me to notice a difference. Once, a picture formed in my mind of a little sapling in the woods, overshadowed by huge trees. I knew that this sapling represented my faith in God: tiny, vulnerable, frail. All my beliefs sought to destroy the sapling: atheism, atheistic evolution, the absurdity of believing in God, and the doubts that some invisible being could help me. So I protected the sapling in my mind, knowing that I had to give it a chance to grow, that it was the only possible lifeline I had. When my thoughts rebelled against belief in God or assaulted me with a myriad of doubts while reading the Bible, I pushed those thoughts aside, suspending the disbelief and exerting myself to believe, all the while telling God that He had better help me if He valued my life at all.
When I returned to college after my internship, I lived with a friend of mine who was a faithful Baptist, and he took me to church with him each Sunday. It was a strange experience, being around people who were singing songs to God and praying together. My social anxiety disorder made it tough for me to sit anywhere in the church without feeling very anxious. I didn't know the songs or the prayers, and so I felt even more like an outsider. Still, I persevered. I continued reading the Bible, asking my roommate questions about what I was reading, and praying. Slowly (and amazingly) over the course of several months, my faith grew appreciably, and it eventually threatened to whelm my doubts and unbelief. It was incredible and something that I knew I could not have manufactured. As the months went by in my senior year of college, I deepened my friendships with the Christians I knew, attended church and Sunday school regularly, and started calling myself a Christian.
At some point that year, the scales tipped, and God came rushing in. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. I was given the courage and strength to face my crippling anxieties and to begin to overcome them. I read the entire Bible from cover to cover and then began reading it again, along with other spiritual books. God had given me hope to counter my despair, and faith and love began to heal my deep wounds. I encountered Jesus Christ for the first time and was finally able to receive the love that He had longed to give me for so many years. Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe—who created the laws of physics in His brilliance and yet became a human being to rescue me from my sinful, selfish, meaningless way of living—loved me and had created me to love Him forever.
I didn't see a flash of light; I never heard Christ's voice, and I never saw Jesus or the Holy Spirit. But I believed in Him and believed that all He said in the Bible was true. As I grew to learn His teachings and commands, I realized that He desires only what is good for us and that He alone knows what will fulfill us. I felt God taking a hold of me and my life changing dramatically. Finally, near the end of my senior year, I was baptized in the Baptist church and became a member of it. I believed in Jesus Christ. I believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. I had become, though I would not have called myself this, an Evangelical Protestant, and my spiritual life had begun.
Anywhere but the Catholic Church
So how then did I come to be Catholic? I had just been baptized in the spring of my senior year in college and was growing tremendously in my faith. I was involved in Bible studies, went to a young men's fellowship group, and volunteered with disadvantaged elementary-school children. I also began memorizing Scripture verses.
I had one summer and one fall semester left before graduating from college. Most of my friends left town for the summer and went back home to work, often in youth ministry at Evangelical churches. But one of my friends, Matt, was staying in town to take classes, so he and I roomed together for the summer. We went to church together regularly and frequently talked about our Christian faith. He was a logical thinker and a good debater, so we could delve into matters deeply and have lively discussions without taking things personally if we disagreed.
I had begun to grow uneasy about why we as Christians were so divided from each other in our teachings and in our worship. Our Southern Baptist beliefs differed, on big and small matters, from those of other denominations, and we certainly didn't worship with them. They had their church, and we had ours. Our (very large) Baptist church was only a short distance away from an equally large Presbyterian one, a troubling example of our intra-Christian divisions. "What do they believe at that Presbyterian church?" I asked Matt. But he didn't know either.
That first question began a long series of discussions that we had together about the lack of Christian unity and whether it was a problem. It got me thinking about what I believed about God and more importantly, why I believed it. I had only been a Christian for one short year (and had only been baptized for a few months), but already I more or less subscribed to the Southern Baptist teachings and had rejected conflicting beliefs held by other denominations. How had I, a newly minted Christian, come so quickly to a conclusion about which denomination taught the most accurate truth?
I realized then that all I had learned about Christianity came from an Evangelical Protestant perspective. My friends had promptly bought me a large, well-annotated, New International Version of the Bible to replace my King James Version. I read this Bible from cover to cover and read it again. When I didn't understand something, which was often, I would look down and see if there was an explanatory note about it, and I usually found one. This feature is very helpful, but I realize now that the answers were all interpretations through an Evangelical Protestant lens. When I had questions about the Faith, I would ask my Evangelical friends, and they would answer me according to what they believed was true.
These are not bad things. They are the ordinary way that God made us and account for why children of Muslims usually become Muslim, children of Christians become Christian, and so on. However, I needed to survey other Christian denominations' beliefs and decide for myself what was true. So I returned to the discussions with my friend Matt about which denomination's teachings were "closest" to the truth that God has revealed, praying that Jesus would guide me. Because having now discovered Him, I wanted to be as close to Him as possible.
I assumed that the Bible was the sure basis for truth, because we believed it was the inerrant word of God. That sounded good, but there were two problems: firstly, other Protestant denominations claimed the same thing, and yet we were divided from them in our beliefs, and secondly, the Catholic Church claimed there were seven more books, not included in our Bibles, which were inspired by God.
The first problem led to the inevitable conclusion that it was possible for different Christians—all claiming to be "led by the Holy Spirit" and all basing their beliefs on "the Bible alone"—to veer off in different, mutually exclusive directions. Throughout history, I discovered, some person or group within a Protestant church came to believe differently than the others and broke off to form their own, new denomination. This seemed to me to violate Christ's prayer and command for us Christians to be in unity (see John 17). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and would never lead people to believe something untrue, so that meant that at least some of the Christians who thought they were listening accurately to the Spirit's promptings were in reality, not.
The second problem was of a different sort, because it struck at the root of the tree of my faith: we believed in the "Bible alone," yet that meant we had to know with confidence which books made up the Bible! Here we had the Catholic Church claiming that my Bible was missing seven books that God had inspired and therefore desired to be included. How did I know who was right? More broadly, who had determined which books should be in the Bible, when did they do so, and why should I believe them?
I finally concluded at that point that one of two things must be true: either the Holy Spirit had tried to guide Christians to know which books belonged in the Bible, but we may still have gotten some of the books wrong, or the Holy Spirit by God's grace succeeded, miraculously overcoming our myriad faults, such that the Bible was made up of the exact books that God himself inspired.
In other words, God either preserved His Church throughout history from errors which would corrupt her teachings, or He did not, leaving us in a state where we could only be somewhat confident that most of our beliefs were hopefully true.
I was hoping that God had preserved His Church from errors in her teachings, so I wondered: which denominations had the boldness to claim that they were that Church who held the fullness of the truth? (My Baptist church certainly didn't claim that.) It turned out that Catholics, Orthodox, and Mormons claimed that. The two of these that had credible claims historically and theologically were the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches—both were a long way from my Evangelical Protestantism.
I was dumbfounded and unsettled. The Catholic Church taught things about Mary, purgatory, the saints, the sacraments, and priests that I thought were completely bogus. But I tried to set this bias aside and be objective. With a sense of dread, I began investigating the Catholic Church in earnest, looking and hoping for something that would let me off the hook to return to Protestantism in peace.
Alas, I failed to find it. I challenged my Evangelical friends to prove my arguments wrong and explain where I was going off course. They tried to do so but could not explain, for example, why I should accept the Protestant canon of Scripture (or any canon for that matter). For months, we debated many matters of our Faith, but I returned again and again to the canon of Scripture and the authority by which it was formed. For many of my friends who had been raised in the Faith, my stubborn questioning was hard to fathom. But the freshness of my conversion, perhaps, kept my curiosity ignited.
I studied books, took part in internet discussions, and read stories of faithful and intelligent Protestants converting to the Catholic Faith. I joined RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults—an odd-sounding name for the classes you take if you are thinking of becoming Catholic) in the last semester of my senior year and was received into the Catholic Church at Easter of 2001. Two of my Evangelical friends, including Matt, came to the four-hour-long vigil Mass. I greatly respect and love my Protestant friends; I would not be the new man that I am today without them.
My anxieties didn't disappear in the blink of an eye. Instead, they slowly diminished as God replaced my atheistic, selfish worldview with the truth. I learned that I was a child of God and that my worth as a person stemmed from that and not from what others thought of me. I learned to respect myself and others more deeply than I ever could have as an atheist. I now lean on Christ daily for strength to face my fears, and though they still surface at times, they no longer rule my life—God does.
My "road to Rome," then, began with taking the risk that God might be real. It continued with the discovery that He loved me and was worth trusting. And after living the Catholic Faith for ten years now, my confidence in Christ and in His Church has only gotten stronger.
Devin Rose blogs at St. Joseph's Vanguard. He and his wife, Katie, live with their four children in the Southwest.