And baptism. And relations with Islam. But I relate to it because of what it had to say about conversion to the Catholic Church. I am speaking of Pietro De Marco’s beautiful essay that appeared in L’Osservatore Romano and was translated on Sandro Magister’s website, Twofold response: to the Catholics, and to Aref Ali Nayed.
De Marco’s essay forms a helpful counterpoint to the essay on conversion by Scot McKnight (“From Wheaton to Rome”)which I blogged about earlier. I have read all of McKnight’s essay now, and actually find it quite gentle and gracious (well worth reading), but he doesn’t really understand the heart of the Catholic convert. De Marco does. I found many occasions when reading McKnight when I said, “Yes, he is right, that is what I thought during my conversion process”, but when I read De Marco I thought, “This bloke has it spot on–that is what I FELT during the process.”
De Marco is writing about the controversial conversion of Magdi Cristiano Allam, and the controversy that followed Allam’s own statements and the reactions to it. But he is also writing for Catholics who have become uncomfortable with conversions to Catholicism and don’t know how to deal with the exhuberant enthusiasm of the convert.
Thus the process of the overturning of the relationship between Revelation and humanity that has marked recent modernity was manifested even in the Catholic Church. Only the human, according to this logic, is universally constituted; while all Revelation can be nothing other than individually given or founded. From this it emerges that the passage, or the return, to a religion can be seen as an undesirable, incomprehensible act, and all the more so when the elites of this religion are trying to emancipate themselves from this individuality.
Fortunately, the current terms of Catholic reflection are no longer the ones just described, but trans-religious spirituality and vague philosophical religions still tempt it. And conversion is still not admired, even today. Magdi Cristiano Allam will have the chance to see this for himself: among the intricacies of the splendor of the City of God, he will experience the bitter side of the Catholic “complexio oppositorum.”
Like McKnight, De Marco understands that conversion is about a “search for transcendance”. “Conversion is always the crossing of a threshold”, he says, and “the threshold implies the human-divine in the search for transcendence.”
But he has a better understanding of the role of “journey” in conversion. McKnight speaks of the search for “certainty”, but De Marco speaks of the ‘call of certainty’ that compels one to begin the journey in the first place:
It is an often painful journey through unknown lands, following the splendor of a call, following the appearance of a “certainty of a pure Presence” (Louis Massignon) that judges and burns the heart. It is the exit from a spiritual Egypt, by a voyage whose arrival point transcends the search, and reveals a land that is not that of the departure.
At the start of my own conversion journal after Easter in 2000, I quoted Newman’s famous words from his Apologia:
You may think how lonely I am. ‘Obliviscere populum tuum et domum patris tui,’ has been in my ears for the last twelve hours. I realise more that we are leaving Littlemore, and it is like going on the open sea.
Even more striking is the way De Marco describes the peril of the journey–for you do not know how the journey will when you set out. This is great paradox for those who, according to McKnight, have a transcendant need for certainty. They must launch themselves into the unknown relying totally on God’s mercy for any hope of reaching their destination. De Marco writes:
The fact that the arrival point is not guaranteed, that it must always be desired as if it were not possessed, as a gift that remains under the sovereignty of the Giver, all of this does not negate, but rather confirms the reality of the threshold. The precariousness of the gift, in fact, is such only for man. But with the crossing of the threshold, we know that He, the divine Lover (as the true mystics know him, beyond his ineffability) “takes us as it were by the hand, and introduces us to lasting life, to the true and correct life.” And therefore: “Let us hold on tightly to his hand!”. These are the tender, perfect words dedicated to baptism by Benedict XVI at the homily for the Easter vigil, at which Allam was baptized.
I commend the essay to you for consideration along with McKnight’s article. If you are on the journey at the moment, may God bless you with the trust that you need to reach your destination. Don’t let go of that Hand!