I converted to Catholicism 10 years ago at the age of 36. Technically it might not have been an actual conversion, as I had never been a member of any religious group before that time. I was not raised a Christian, but my parents consistently behaved like Christians are supposed to behave, golden rule and all, and imparted their Christian values to me on a daily basis mostly in the form of unconditional love. Despite my lack of a formal religious upbringing, as a young child I said the traditional “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” prayer out loud every night before I went to bed and recited a litany of names of friends and family for God to bless. Mostly this seemed like good insurance that I would be whisked up to heaven when the monster that lived under my bed finally did me in, but in my childlike way I was developing a real relationship with my higher power and tapping into important practices that would serve me well throughout my life.
My sister and I invented our own special Christian hymns with our best sister girlfriends who were also being raised as heathens-with-Christian-values by their college professor father and feminist mother, who we thought of as our second set of parents. On road trips in their 1960-something International Harvester Travelall who we affectionately referred to as “Ermentrude”, we snuggled together on the custom-built bed in the back and tortured the parents by singing such jubilant verses as “The itty-bitty baby in the forest green!!! He praises the Lord right on the scene!!!!” and “Jesus is our boy! We love him so! We’re praisin’ him from our head to our toe!!!!”. Ermentrude became a strange kind of children’s mobile revival tent which also hosted less savory events such as the “third annual swear-off”.
I did not feel encouraged to talk in concrete terms about God as a child, especially not Jesus. For me, Jesus was a mysterious and sometimes appealing character whose more vocal followers seemed to both greatly irritate and amuse my father. In the same way that he scoffed at the scantily clad ladies advertising Ace Hardware’s manly products, he scoffed at Tammy Faye Baker weeping for Jesus through 5 coats of mascara.
My paternal grandparents took Jesus VERY seriously, but my father didn’t seem very interested in any of it now that he was a grown-up and no one was forcing him to do anything he didn’t want to do. I was secretly jealous of my father for arriving at his seeming disinterest in Jesus after having the privilege of undergoing special rites and rituals associated with his Lutheran upbringing, and I felt slightly jilted that no one was giving me these same opportunities. Like all children, I used my imagination to create a version of my father’s childhood that certainly existed uniquely in my head. At the same time I was lamenting my lack of religious indoctrination, I could tell I was lucky because I was free to reject or fantasize about God, and I wouldn’t get in any kind of trouble for it, at least not by my parents.
As I got older my friends were ditching the religion that was inflicted upon them as children, and rebelling in ways that were also appealing to me but seemed a luxury I could not really afford given my unbaptized condition. I was comforted by my parents theory that my grandfather, a Lutheran pastor, had secretly baptized my sister and me “in the bathtub when no one was watching” (except maybe my grandmother). However I wasn’t really confident this had actually happened, because I was pretty sure that God would be communicating with me differently if it had, and I sure wasn’t hearing any voices or seeing any easily identifiable signs.
It would be many years before I had the guts to begin my own adult exploration of God and Jesus in any formal manner, and outwardly it was a decidedly unglamorous experience. In fact, my first real heartfelt investigation of Christianity occurred in a rather dingy room in the basement of the Catholic church connected to my children’s school. As I inched closer to Jesus in that dim room, I felt like a bit of a rebel. It seemed contrary to embrace Jesus when so many people I cared about, including my parents, seemed to be keeping their distance. And of course, as a first child, contrarian behavior is my birthright. Some of my friends were Catholic, and they seemed surprised and almost flattered when I told them I was on the road to becoming Catholic. Given my upbringing it was odd to find myself in this place. Let’s just say if I’d been given one of those “most likely to succeed”-type monikers in my high school yearbook, it would likely have read something like “least likely to be Jesus-y”.
But alas, as I have learned repeatedly, rebellion and contrariness are not a solid ground for being one’s authentic self. Ten years later, and after much further exploration, I have a rather different orientation towards my faith, and Jesus. But it is finally starting to feel like something I can live with…