Everyone loves a good conversion story.
There’s the setup: I once was lost.
The rising action: the Holy Spirit began working in me (or knocked me off my horse).
The climax: But now I’m found.
Then, there are those of us whose conversion stories are more…ongoing. Habitual sins, tepid prayer lives, highs and lows. Nobody is going to be “hooked” by “I used to get really snippy with my husband, and then I prayed for greater patience, so I was more patient, but then I slacked off, and had to start over again, and every time I ask for grace it’s there, but sometimes I make other things a priority, and so it’s just a constant spiritual journey towards a 23% reduction in sarcasm when dealing with the following populations: husband, children, extended family, commenters on online newspaper articles. HEY – pay attention!”
It’s okay. I’ve been there. I am there. Let me tell you what not to do, first off.
Do not dress up your life experiences as something they’re not in hopes of presenting a dramatic conversion narrative.
True, and incriminating story: when in college, I worked as a janitor’s assistant in a factory that made ball bearing retainers. I walked around the factory with a magnetized stick and picked up scrap metal. (My dad got me the job.) It was a summer job and I made better money than I did as a camp counselor.
I used to carry a ball bearing retainer on my keychain and pass it around to my inner-city middle schoolers, telling them all about how my clothes used to smell like motor oil and how I decided to go to college, all because of that job. And they should go to college, too. I thought this would help me “connect.”
I am guessing – just guessing – that they may have seen right through this story of my hardscrabble upbringing, since the truth was that there was no way on earth in which I would have chosen to drop out of college to work at the factory, being the product of a prep school education and a life spent striving to be Teacher’s Pet. Pretty sure I was fooling nobody. I eventually decided that the act was backfiring and I should just be myself.
And so, since my backstory is basically one of persistent, irritating, and embarrassing venial sins, I don’t try to reframe the narrative as something it’s not.
I find that kids can relate to the daily trials that provide us opportunities to grow in our relationship with Christ – I’ve been snapping at my children a lot, and I know it’s getting in the way of my love for them, and so I go to Confession and I have a clean start. My friend calls and asks for my help with something and I’d really rather stay at home and watch my favorite show, but I can offer it up and do the right thing instead of being selfish.
If you believe that God put you in that room for a reason, as a catechist, then you need to trust that He is okay with you just as you are. You don’t need to embellish the details of your relationship with Him in hopes of capturing your students’ attention – be genuine, share what you’re comfortable sharing with them, and give them opportunities to consider what obstacles are blocking their own paths towards a deeper faith.
This also goes – or maybe goes double – for those of us who, for whatever reason, want to keep our conversion stories private. I think sometimes we can feel obligated to tell kids how we got to where we are, but if that story is painful or could cause scandal, there is nothing wrong with holding back.
We have so little time with our students that deploying the personal narrative isn’t something that should take up most of our class time, anyway, right? Besides, even those of us who have had dramatic conversion experiences will still face the mundane realities of “how to live from one minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.”
This column originally appeared at Scrutinies.net.