I love a good conversion story. I’ve made a few attempts at writing my own, but I have never found quite the right angle of approach. It’s not the struggle to find something other than God in which to place my happiness, like it was for Jen Fulwiler. It’s not the attempt to make up my own system of belief and finding that the system already existed, like it was for G.K. Chesterton. After reading this most recent conversion story, I am convinced that I need to find my own schema for describing my journey toward God. For Leah Libresco, online atheist to newbie Catholic, it was a series of scaffolds between the worlds she knew so well and the traditions she slowly came to embrace. She shares her metaphysical bridges in Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.
It is no hyperbole to say that I am not into math or science. I studied engineering in high school, and I continue to befriend engineers, so I can speak the lingo, but my forays into the field are child’s play compared to Leah Libresco’s. Hers is the most intellectual story of finding God that I have ever read. It was a challenge to my mind and my soul to identify with her on the journey.
I felt my heart breaking as she explained her inability (at first) to accept the idea of mercy, preferring a cut-and-dry system of rule-breaking and punishment. I find kindred spirits in literature, too (although mine are not from Les Misérables; what a classy favorite!) I have taken up social dancing, so I can understand the process of internalizing that rhythm as a springboard to Rosary-guided contemplation. I struggle with Reconciliation as rationalization; I also find healing in acknowledging my brokenness.
On the other hand, I found myself wondering more than once how anyone could “math up” the Faith so much. I have never even considered comparing setting my prayer triggers to writing code. I love Shakespeare, but I don’t generally connect the Bard with my spiritual life (other than wondering if he was a secret Catholic, as some suggest). Her grasp of philosophy and formal logic puts me to shame. Libresco’s writing left me humbled and hopefully a little more sympathetic to those who understand God in ways very different than mine.
When I first came across Libresco’s book, I was very surprised at the choice to frame her story around such distinctly Catholic customs. My mom’s side of the family is Catholic, so before I came to appreciate and even love things like Confession and the Liturgy of the Hours, I knew they couldn’t be all bad. What I hear from people outside the Church, though, is still a sheer bewilderment toward Catholic practices. One of my (non-Catholic) trivia teammates described his attendance at a funeral vigil and his inability to understand the Rosary. As I told him, if I were in a roomful of people chanting the same thing over and over for twenty minutes, I would probably be confused and mildly scared, too. Now that I’ve read the book, I’m still in awe at Libresco’s ability to dive right into the super-Catholic parts of being a Catholic. She manages to make going to Mass and doing a daily examen seem like the most natural thing in the world. That takes skill and can only be the result of a wise mind.
Beyond its sheer depth and intellectual rigor, Arriving at Amen is one of the most charming conversion stories I have ever read. Part of its charm is that it’s much more than a conversion story. That genre typically focuses on Pauline-style testimony: my life before Christ, how I met Christ, and how much better my life is now that I know Christ (Acts 26). I love those, but this is different. By connecting her pre-conversion self with the new faith she found, Libresco was able to take baby steps toward belief. It takes time to work up to meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary. I’ve found myself halfway through the Agnus Dei without having thought about Jesus much at all despite looking right at him in the Eucharist. I’m still not a fan of the authentic Ignatian examen. This book makes me feel as though all of that is okay. We find God in our own ways, and if we can only start out hesitantly, clinging to what we knew before, we can still reach the promise of glory as uniquely beloved creations of God.
I received a free copy of Ariving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer from Ave Maria Press in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!