Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
As you've probably heard, last week the popular atheist blogger Leah Libresco announced that she no longer considers herself an atheist, and has begun the process to convert to Catholicism. Among the hundreds of responses she received were well wishes from fellow Catholic converts, many of them that included warnings about the difficulties that she will inevitably face -- not only in the process of conversion, but if and when she comes into communion with the Church as well. Calah Alexander spoke for many others when she wrote a moving post about the losses that inevitably come with conversion. And quoting Paul Johnson, Elizabeth Scalia quipped, "Come on in; it's awful!"
As I watch all this play out, I'm reminded of my own experience going from atheism to Catholicism. When I first made the decision to convert, I received similar warnings mixed in with the congratulations. I knew they were right; I had no illusions that the path I was starting down would be an easy one. Yet, oddly, I wasn't concerned about what may come next, and I suspected that my uncharacteristic peace went beyond just new convert zeal. Certainly much of it was due to the grace of God, but watching Leah's story play out has made me realize that there was another factor as well, one that I didn't have the perspective to see at the time.
It reminds me of the 1998 movie The Truman Show. Remember that one? [If you haven't seen it but plan to, you may want to stop reading now. Spoiler alert!] It's the story of the man who was adopted at birth by a corporation so that they could make a reality show out of his life. Truman thinks he has a normal life, but, unbeknownst to him, he's living in a massive television studio so that his every move can be broadcast on a 24/7 TV station. For years, he is blissfully unaware that anything's amiss. But then, he becomes suspicious. He begins to notice unsettling things, like the open elevator doors that reveal not an elevator shaft, but the backstage of a studio. He observes that passers by walk in front of his house on a fixed schedule. Strange people occasionally run up and try to tell him that there's something important he needs to know, but they're inevitably carried away by the powers that be.
For a while Truman wonders if he's crazy. Then, a series of painful experiences convince him that there just might be something going on here -- and it's worth taking a risk to find out what it is. He tries to escape, but he's blocked at every turn. Finally, he jumps into a sailboat and sets off for the horizon, risking his life, just to see what will happen. The frantic studio executives cue a great storm. As Truman is pummeled by waves, battered by rain, and threatened by lightning, he clings to the sailboat, barely surviving the ordeal.
And then, it happens: The boat lurches to a stop when it runs into the edge of the dome. What appeared to be an open horizon was just a studio wall. The storm calms, and Truman stands in silent awe as he takes stock of what he's seeing: It's all true. Every one of his suspicions was right.
He looks over and sees a door in the wall, marked EXIT.
The way Truman feels in that moment is the way I felt when I made the decision to convert, and undoubtedly how many other potential converts feel as well. It's difficult enough to get to the point that you figure out that you're in a dome and find the door -- and then, as you stand in front of it, you realize that your problems are just beginning. As the story draws to a close in The Truman Show, it is clear that Truman will now face a whole host of daunting challenges; the screenwriters don't insult the audience by pretending that walking out of a false life and into reality would be an easy step to make. And yet it is a happy ending, despite the hardships to come. I don't think a single person in the audience thought that it was depressing that Truman finally found that door -- and wouldn't have even if there had been hints that something terrible would happen to him on the other side -- because life lived without the truth is no life at all.
And so to Leah and others in her position, I would say that I agree with everyone who tells you that it will be hard. You undoubtedly went through storms to get to the point that you're ready to begin the conversion process, and now a whole new existence -- one with its own challenges and problems -- awaits you on the other side. But, like Truman leaving the studio dome with its false sunlight and hollow buildings, stepping now into the the dangerous and beautiful and scary and wonderful real world, you will never, ever be sorry that you walked through that door.