How I Came From Islam to Protestantism to Belief in the Real Presence

How many men and women throughout history have dreamt of having easy access to a king?

Master of Portillo, “The Mass of St. Gregory the Great”
Master of Portillo, “The Mass of St. Gregory the Great” (photo: Public Domain)

There is a Eucharistic chapel at St. Francis Church in Raleigh. That’s where I go on my free days to spend an hour with the Lord. 

During that hour I hardly speak a word. It used to be that I probably spoke far too many words while in prayer. Sometimes a flash of piercing insight will dawn on me during that hour. Days such as that are the exception. The reason that I go there is to spend time with the One who calls us friends. Sometimes I even wonder whether he gets lonely when that room is empty.

My thoughts tend to wander, several times, during that hour. My mind gets seized by various concerns, hopes and dreams, events of the day, or events yet to come. Buddhists have a term for this: monkey mind. I once again focus on where I am whenever I catch this monkey mind by its tail. I do wish that I could remain fully present throughout the hour. Sometimes my physical presence is all that I’m able to give.

I do this because the Blessed Sacrament is what it is: Jesus Christ, really, truly and substantially present.

I’d gone to Holy Hours for about as long as I’ve been Catholic. Catholic Underground in New York, a cultural apostolate of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, offered a Benediction service that I’d found especially powerful. But spending time with the Blessed Sacrament had, for me, been rather sporadic until a year ago. 

It occurred to me during Lent of last year that regardless of whether I could “feel” the Lord’s presence in any given moment, he is still very much present in the Blessed Sacrament, that spending more hours in such close quarters with the Body of Christ would always be time well-spent. My initial plan had been to visit him several times, each week, up until the end of that Lenten season. By Easter, I knew that I would continue going. 

How many men and women throughout history have dreamt of having easy access to a king? How many of us today dream of being in the entourage of some political figure, celebrity, athlete or billionaire? Such men and women have far too much going on in their lives to give most of us the time of day. Our idols are just too busy for those of us who are deemed “ordinary.”

Our idols, like ourselves, have a Maker whom they ultimately must answer to. 

An opportunity for fellowship with the King of kings is always there, so long as a church housing him just happens to be near enough. In fact, he waits for us to visit him. The peace we get from being in his presence far surpasses that of being in the presence of any idol. Is this an opportunity which most of us take for granted? 

“The purpose of the Holy Hour is to encourage deep personal encounter with Christ. The holy and glorious God is constantly inviting us to come to him, to hold converse with him, to ask for such things as we need and to experience what a blessing there is in fellowship with him.” —Archbishop Fulton Sheen

I vividly remember learning about the Real Presence for the first time. It was in January 2008. I’d struck up a conversation with one of the pastors of Redeemer Presbyterian Church after a Sunday evening service at First Baptist Church in New York. (Redeemer didn’t have its own building quite yet.)

“Did you know that Catholics believe in something called transubstantiation?” the pastor told me. “They believe that the bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ.”

“Really?” I replied, tilting my head. I’d just been baptized some months prior to that. Having grown up Muslim, and having fancied myself as some kind of “reasonable” person, believing in the Incarnation was already something of an upper limit of what I was willing to accept as possible. This belief in transubstantiation seemed to go much too far, as it had for many of Christ’s disciples themselves (John 6:60). “That’s so weird,” I told the pastor.

Learning this sure made me glad that I hadn’t ended up becoming a Catholic.

I had indeed thought about becoming a Catholic during those months leading up to my baptism. My paternal grandmother had been a Catholic (my father is a convert to Islam). St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the first church I regularly attended while learning more about Christianity. I also learned during that time that to become a Catholic would mean having to go through something called RCIA, which looked to be rather time-consuming. Times Square Church, on the other hand, would baptize me so long as I took just one class. Times Square Church was where I got baptized. In December 2007, on a Sunday in which I’d been unable to attend St. Patrick’s, I went to one of Redeemer’s services instead. I was immediately drawn in by Tim Keller’s world-class preaching, and my thoughts of joining the Church were momentarily left behind.

I formally joined Redeemer in April 2008. The year 2008 also happened to be the year that a friend of mine, with grandiose dreams of preaching to the rich and famous, had found an office in Turtle Bay which let him hold services for a church he was trying to jumpstart. To be very frank, this friend was remarkably unqualified to give spiritual direction to anyone, or almost any kind of advice at all for that matter. But he was a fellow North Carolinian living in New York, and above all a friend who’d asked me for “a little help” with his church, and so I agreed. The services held in that office space were typically attended only by me, this preacher friend and another friend of ours who’d gotten roped in. 

This preacher-friend called me up one Sunday morning. “Hey, do you think you could pick up some bread, and some grape juice, on your way here?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I replied. It was obvious what those items were needed for. “Any kind of bread in particular?”

“Any bread’s fine,” he assured me.

I bought a loaf of Wonder Bread, and a plastic jug of Welch’s grape juice, at a nearby drugstore on my way to the office. That’s what we, the three of us attending that service, had used for “communion.” I did what I could to resist the thought of Jesus Christ yanking a bread clip off of a plastic bag, lifting a slice of white bread up in the air, and saying, “This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

I’d stopped helping my friend out with his church a few months later when it became clear that he and I had very different ideas of what “a little help” really meant. But the questions raised from the experience of helping him, including those concerning the proper uses of sliced bread and grape juice, had unwittingly inched me closer to again consider joining the Catholic Church. 

I knew rather little about differences between Catholic and Evangelical understanding when I’d first become a Christian. I learned a fair amount about those differences in the years that followed. The proper place of the Virgin Mary and the saints, the authority of the Magisterium led by the Holy Father, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the role of tradition, were all among those differences. I found myself sympathizing far more often with the Catholic outlook upon reading about them just a little bit.

But how was I to interpret that “outlandish” belief in transubstantiation when everything else that the Catholic Church believed had made so much sense? Why did so many of those saints whom I’d been growing to admire accept it as true? Was it my own pride, in fancying myself as some kind of “reasonable” person, that prevented me from believing in the miraculous? Who was I, or anyone, to impose any such limits upon God with my own self-estimation? 

Was the Eucharist instituted as an act of solidarity and/or remembrance, or as something far more holy than just that? Could it have been that Our Lord meant exactly that when he had said “this is my body” and “this is my blood”? And if such words were not meant to be taken so literally, then when did the Church begin teaching this, and why on earth would she even begin doing so? 

I began to wonder why Redeemer itself used sparkling grape juice, rather than actual wine, during “communion.” Having had enough years as a practicing Christian, as well as years removed away from Islam, that upper limit of what I could accept as possible had been considerably raised, that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist didn’t appear to me as crazy as before.

It turned out that my time at Redeemer was a preparation. It was where God saw it fit for me to go during those years between my baptism and my being received by his Church. In September 2011 I finally started RCIA, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, very eager to finally be able to partake in the Eucharist. 

“It is one thing to say that Jehovah is an all-pervading presence in the universe; it is something else to say that Jesus Christ has just entered the room.” —G.K. Chesterton, The Thing

“Let there be light,” God said, and the universe had burst into existence. We can look up at the vast firmament to witness God’s greatness. But not every marvel requires us to look up. 

“This is my body,” said Our Lord. The Passion was imminent, mere hours away, when he said it. And yet he had promised to remain with us, concealed under the appearances of bread and wine, and has kept his promise since that very first Holy Thursday 2,000 years ago. 

The opportunity to visit him is always there. The question is, and has long been, whether we will seize such an opportunity.