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 had a conversation with a lady in RCIA who will enter the Church at Easter Vigil. Overcome with emotion about the upcoming big day, she gushed about how much the Church has already enriched her life. She joyfully explained how close she feels to all her wonderful fellow Catholics, and said that she and her fiance can’t wait to begin practicing Natural Family Planning—all the books she’s read make it sound so great! Then she talked about the changes she’s making in her life: For Lent she gave up all meat, all television, all secular music, and only uses the Internet for an hour a day. She’s been going to Mass a few times per week, and plans to attend Mass seven days a week once she can receive Communion. On top of that, she hopes to start praying the three major hours of the Liturgy of the Hours, and plans to get in a Rosary at least once week.
I’ve changed some identifying details to protect this person’s privacy, but you get the idea. I think many of us have encountered people like this. (Heck, I used to be one of them.)
My gut reaction was to temper her zeal with a little dose of reality. I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of: “Yes, our fellow Catholics are wonderful, but, ya know, not every single person in the Church Militant is a living saint. And yes, NFP is great, but don’t be surprised if you find that it comes with challenges too. And sheesh, woman, all this praying and fasting! Slooooooow down! You’re going to burn yourself out with all these unrealistic expectations. Rein yourself in and start with smaller, more sustainable goals.”
Our conversation ended up being interrupted before I could foist my wisdom on her, and, looking back, I think that’s a good thing.
Especially when you come to the Faith from a radically different background, a period of over-correction may be beneficial to help you begin your new lifestyle. A life in Christ is, of course, a relationship first. But there is an aspect of it that is simple habit: If you’ve spent decades ignoring God, not attending Church, making zero time for prayer, seeing the Rosary as idolatry, etc., there are some basic practical lifestyle changes that will come with your new life as a Catholic. And many people find that they can adopt new habits more easily if they do them intensely for a short period of time, then taper down to something more sustainable for the long term (I once heard a motivational speaker analogize it to a spacecraft needing an extra surge of power to break out of its current orbit).
Also, as I think back on that conversation with my new convert friend, I realize that hearing her talk was actually quite inspiring. Maybe she’s a little too naive, but maybe I’m a little too apathetic. She might be wearing rose-colored glasses that make her see only the good, but I might have become blinded so that I don’t see enough good. And so I’m glad that I never had the opportunity to interrupt her energetic soliloquy about the beauty of all things Catholic. Because I think that she, like many other enthusiastic new converts, might be exactly where God wants her.