Mariam, a regular reader of and commenter on this blog, posted this as a comment Sept 26 on our “Conversion” post. I wish here to record my thanks to her for telling her story, a truly redemptive one, at this site.
My family were non-religious. I think my dad believed in God and retained a basic Sunday School Christianity but he was very anti-religion, turned off by what he perceived as both the hypocrisy and meanness (in both the British and American sense of that word) of his Presbyterian background. My mother came from a gentler Anglican background but kept her beliefs to herself. Both only stepped inside churches for weddings and funerals and both thought it impolite to discuss one’s religious beliefs. My first “conversion” was at age 13 in an evangelical church during a Billy Graham style crusade and altar call. I went with friends who were evangelical Christians from a variety of churches and during this “religious-kook” phase as my father called it, I attended a variety of pentecostal, fundamentalist, evangelical and charismatic churches with various friends. I tried but failed to have my long-suffering parents “accept Jesus as their personal savior”. By 16 or 17 I had pretty much fallen away from that early faith for a variety of reasons – as has many of the friends I used to attend church with. By my early 20’s I was a confirmed secular humanist.
Fast-forward 20 years. I had 2 little children. My father died. My youngest sister fought and lost a battle with leukemia. My husband was diagnosed with cancer. It was a difficult few years but God and prayer never entered my mind. Then my beautiful, bright, and sweet-natured daughter became gravely ill with an eating disorder, extreme anxiety and suicidal depression. Our family seemed to fall to pieces as we fought for her life. I asked friends and neighbours to pray for us when they asked what they could do. I didn’t pray. I had been a non-believer for a long time and I couldn’t pretend I did believe in God – not even to save my daughter’s life.
Then a terrible truth was revealed. My best friend’s husband had repeatedly sexually assaulted my daughter for over a year when she was 12 and 13. He had threatened, cajoled and manipulated her into keeping it a secret. At first she threw herself into as many activities as she possibly could to avoid family gatherings where he might be present and to avoid having to think about what was happening to her. Then she became increasingly fearful, retreating from friends, family and the world. Eventually she tried to retreat right out of life. “I am a mistake,” she would say. “There is something bad in me. I can’t be allowed to live. I make people do bad things.” Meanwhile her perpetrator had sat across the table from us along with his wife and daughter, commiserating with us, while he had watched my daughter fall farther and farther into darkness and madness keeping his dirty little secret.
I had never confronted evil so closely and so personally before. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Every belief I held dear was in tatters. People were not basically good. The universe was not fundamentally a just place. Terrible injustices were perpetrated on innocents and evil-doers went unpunished. What is more, I, who had never even truly disliked another human being before, now burned with hatred and rage. I now wanted there to be a God – a just and wrathful God who would smite this loathsome man with pain, suffering, humiliation and eventually death and eternal punishment. I was willing to pray now – for justice. But the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I googled “how to pray” and ended up at the Anglican daily offices. I began saying those offices aloud each night. I won’t call it praying as I still didn’t believe in God. I thought of it as a technique for “organizing my emotions”. But something moved in me as I read the scriptures and prayed the psalms and spoke the prayers – some of you would no doubt call it the Holy Spirit. I longed for peace; I longed to put aside my rage and hatred. I had lost trust in the universe and myself – I needed to have somewhere else to place my trust. I began to examine my own life – surely I hadn’t done anything as destructive as rape a child but I had hurt and betrayed people, I had lied at times to save my skin, I had been a coward at times and refused to acknowledge my mistakes and sins. I realized that except for the nature of the initial sin I wasn’t really much different than the vile person who had destroyed my daughter. I never wanted to be responsible for hurting another person the way we had been hurt and I realized that I was not smart enough, brave enough, strong enough or good enough to make up the rules as I went along. My first real prayer in my own words from my own heart was not a demand for justice. It was “God forgive me. I have been wrong and I have sinned.” The peace and new-found strength I felt immediately afterward was an experience which, if I was less of a skeptic, I might think of as being God’s presence.
That was the beginning of my second conversion to Christianity. It has not been an abrupt change. I did not take a sharp turn. I think I am still in the process of converting. It took me a while to accept that the existence of God might be possible. For about a year I attended church each Sunday and prayed each night, while simultaneously believing God was a figment of my imagination. There is a God-shaped hole in my heart and so my heart seeks God while my brain lags stubbornly behind. Every now and then I just stop and let my brain catch up or my heart goes back and sits on a bench with my reluctant brain. After about a year of exploring Christianity with the help of a very patient and tolerant pastor and parish, I decided that I would operate on the assumption that God existed. I certainly came to believe that Jesus’ teachings were my best guide for leading a moral and loving life and the planet’s best chance for peace.
The idea of redemption and forgiveness was integral to my understanding of our relationship to God and each other and to what I needed to be whole. I knew I had to work on forgiving both myself and my daughter’s molester. Gradually it stopped being important to me that he be held accountable. I stopped hating. I was even able to pray for God’s blessing and peace on him and his family. At that point I was ready to be baptized and participate in the eucharist.