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.
I recently read the powerful conversion story of The Raving Theist, formerly The Raving Atheist, who was once one of the most popular atheist bloggers in the world. (You can find his story and many others, including mine, in the new book Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion). His entire story is fascinating, but one sentence particularly struck me.
While still an atheist, he got to know some Christians through the blog world who were involved in the pro-life movement. Intrigued by their selfless dedication to others and inspired by their “gentle and reasonable” writings, he did something out of the ordinary and began volunteering at a pro-life crisis pregnancy center. He says of this encounter:
“Suddenly, I was surrounded by life.”
This resonated with me deeply, since that sense of being “surrounded by life” is something that my husband and I also noticed as soon as we got involved in Catholic circles. We first remarked on it years ago, when we did a tour of our city’s churches as part of our research into Christianity and religion: Almost all the services we went to had low to moderate attendance, and the members tended to be of similar ages (e.g. all people in their late 30s, or all over 50, etc.). One day we stopped by a Catholic church on a lark, and we were amazed by the difference. It was an explosion of life! There was standing room only inside the sanctuary. After the Mass, there were little kids running past elderly people in wheel chairs, 20-something singles, teenagers chatting with silver-haired couples in their 60’s, babies being passed around by everyone. At the time we weren’t even close to becoming Catholic, but we were struck by the sheer abundance and variety of life at these Catholic churches.
Now that I’m Catholic, the difference is even more striking.
Get-togethers in our old social circles used to be tame events, a group of similarly-aged adults making polite conversation with only the sound of smooth jazz in the background. With Catholic parties, you can usually hear the din of the crowd well before you walk in the door. People socialize as families, so the sounds of cooing babies and stampeding kids intermingles with the conversation and laughter in crowded houses. Young life is everywhere, adding an unmistakable feeling of energy and hope to each event.
Even our own family has exploded with life since becoming Catholic, and not just because we’re bad at NFP. Our views of human life have changed, giving us a new appreciation for the gift of children. Now that we understand that the meaning of life isn’t to rack up impressive career accomplishments or worldly accolades, we have more time to spend with extended family. Thanks entirely to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I went against my extremely introverted nature to open our home to neighborhood girls who didn’t have anywhere to go after school. A couple summers ago we hosted an orphaned child through the Kidsave program—something we never would have had the courage to do without our faith.
Last week two friends from our parish generously offered to come over and work on some household projects with me, as a gift to our family to welcome the new baby. Our four kids were delighted by the visitors, and followed our friends around, giggling and chatting with them. Then two of the neighbor girls who were on Spring Break stopped in to say hello. As I stood in my living room and observed the scene in front of me, I marveled that there were eight other people in my house on a random Thursday afternoon. And the whole thing was thanks to being Catholic.
Technically, nothing would have prevented me from inviting eight guests to my house before I was Catholic. But it never would have happened. First of all, we would have had fewer kids, since in my pre-conversion life I never questioned the pro-contraception, children-as-burdens worldview. Without being pregnant and having a lot of kids, I doubt our friends would have felt inspired to bless us with their generosity—and without the parish community, we wouldn’t have known them in the first place. And given my temperament (which once inspired my spiritual director to note that I would have made a good desert hermit), nothing short of God’s grace could be responsible for me getting to know the neighborhood kids.
At one point that afternoon I stepped outside to get something, and looked up and down my street. A typical modern suburban scene, it was so desolate I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a tumbleweed blow by. Then I looked back at my house, where the kids were spilling out the front door and sounds of laughter and chatter floated out from inside. It looked like a party, and in a way it was. As I walked back into the noise and joyful chaos, I thought of the Raving Theist’s words: “Suddenly, I was surrounded by life.”