One of my most memorable debates with an atheist, whom I knocked down to "agnostic" in the first ten minutes, was one where my opponent said the following: "I see them in those worship concerts, waving their arms, and they look mesmerized. All those people believing the same thing just because someone told them to . . . it's just weird." I took an Archbishop Fulton Sheen tack with this person (before I knew it was a Sheenism because this was back when I was a Protestant!), because the long way around the barn wasn't going to work. This man was well convinced that he was too "smart" for religion. So I paused, and then said to him matter of factly: "They seem a lot happier than you. That bothers you." The debate took a different turn after that. My friend started talking about loved ones lost, and how he wanted to believe they were somewhere, but felt silly calling it "Heaven." He exposed something that he hadn't before: his fear that if he got to know God, He would have to become one of "those" Christians he had mocked and felt superior to all of his life.
The thing he missed, the thing so many miss, is that once you get there, you won't care about other people's opinions anymore. The conversion is not always a lightning bolt. Some conversions happen that way. But a lot don't. If you are an adult who was raised as a "none" or a "whatever" or "I'll let him decide when he's old enough," then you have some time to make up for. You have to get to KNOW God. You have to get to know about Him, and you have to get to KNOW Him. Because to know Him is to love Him, and that's the plain truth. But once you have that consistent, daily, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, the last thing you're going to be thinking about is public opinion. It's going to only CONFIRM your faith in your decision when you are mocked. You WILL be mocked, and here's the kicker . . . if you are really doing it right, you will even be mocked by other self-identifying Catholics!
Because time doesn't always equal commitment. That's how we explain lifelong self-identifying Christians who still don't "get it." They hate people. They pick teachings cafeteria style. They think Heaven is just an extension of this life and they will get there because they want to get there and they have never shot anyone in the head. They may know the facts and figures, they may have Scripture memorized, they may even claim to be "born again!", but they don't KNOW Jesus, the living Jesus, who is there in the Eucharist EVERY DAY.
A high school student of mine, in a personal talk with me about her Christianity, explained her home environment growing up this way: "We went to church every Sunday, and we were taught right from wrong. But there was no presence of God in our house." What an indictment! She went on to explain how she never saw either of her parents watching a religious television show, talking about a homily, or reading the Bible. They said grace before every meal, by rote, but it was a lifeless gesture that had become "vain repetition." Only in her teen years did SHE take the matter in hand and research herself what Christianity was. She already knew about God; her parents had seen to that. But she didn't KNOW God.
How do you get to know someone? Well, think about dating. You're attracted to someone. He has something that makes your insides flip flop. So you want to do anything and everything you can to be around him, talk to him, walk past him, smell him, laugh with him, hear his voice, ask him questions, and generally have your two existences intersect. You WORK to "get" him in your life. And you know what else you do? You work to make yourself more attractive to HIM. You present your best self. And then, over time, you give him the inner bits, the nuggets from your past that aren't so savory. You share secrets. But always, always, there is the coming together, the intersection of lives, the magnetic pull of one to the other. You immerse yourself in him and he immerses himself in you.
Some people are knocked off a horse and converted. Some get a knock at the door and are converted. But true conversion never ends. Just like building a marriage or a relationship of any real substance and worth never ends. There are a million opportunities in a day to come to God, to KNOW Him. Why aren't you taking them? Are you embarrassed that people will call you a Jesus Freak? Are you afraid that you will be challenged on a theological point and not know the answer? If so, you are putting the cart before the horse.
Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and ALL these things will be added unto you. Look for Him. Call Him. Present your best self to Him, and then present your worst self. You'll find He loves both, because they are the same to Him. He wants it all. He can handle it all because He made it all! No one knows you better, and no one ever will. Ever feel a heavy sense of loneliness in a room full of people? Even if those people are your own family? That's a result of not letting the presence of God into your deepest core. If He's there, if you know Him, the love will come, and it will be a part of you. You will still have trouble in this life, I guarantee it, but you won't ever be alone. You won't ever feel like you're in a vacuum without love. It can't NOT happen that way because God IS love. All good and healthy feelings come from Him.
I have been stunned my whole life by the number of families I meet who don't have a Bible in their house. How do you not have a Bible in your house? Now as a Catholic, I would ask, how do you not have a Bible and a Catechism in your house? How are you not reading the Catechism and calling yourself Catholic? How are you not talking to Christ daily and calling yourself a Christian? How are you saying the Creed at Mass and then popping birth control pills? You don't trust Him; that's why. And you don't trust Him because you don't KNOW Him. If you knew Him, you'd know that He wouldn't tell you something untrue, something unhealthy for you. Not possible. He is perfection. He is "I am." He is Being itself. The Universe hangs there because he sustains it and suspends it, and He wakes you up every morning why? So you can ignore Him? You are missing out. You can call yourself anything you want. I can call myself Miss America, and I can wear a sash and a crown, but the fact of the matter is, I don't know how to be Miss America. I'm not doing what's necessary to even come close to being Miss America. I'm just claiming a title. That's not knowing; that's knowing ABOUT.
The most recent time I entered the Confessional, I started by looking at my priest and saying, "Not a banner week." And then I talked to him just like I talk to Jesus. It wasn't scary and weird like so many who are ignorant of the Sacrament of Reconciliation tell you it is, because the priest is there in persona Christi, and because you know Christ, you know that He has provided this for you. I wasn't uncomfortable because, in fact, this was all stuff I had already covered with Jesus. But, why not have another vehicle through which to KNOW Him? These are the riches that brought me to The Church three years ago. They are infinite! There are infinite ways to get to know Him! None of us has excuse. And the reward is so important, so great. Not just on earth, because you are still going to have sin, pain, suffering, embarrassment, and moments when you can't explain the reason for your hope. You are going to disappoint and be disappointed. But you will KNOW the One who never changes and never disappoints. And you will be able to hide under His wing.
In retrospect, what bothered my friend the atheist was not the happiness of the swarm of Christians at that concert, but that he felt he didn't even have the freedom to TRY what they had. Free in Christ is free indeed. There is no freedom living in a place of constant fear of embarrassment about your religious walk. So someone calls you a zealot. Get ready for worse. I take them as compliments. Jesus Freak? Yep, you bet. Holy Roller. Well, not technically speaking, but sure. I'll take it. You can call me anything you want. The names are like birds that circle and circle but never land, as Scripture tells me. They fly by, just labels up in the sky. Little sacrifices, so little. To lose a friend? Little. To give up a vice? Little. To prostrate myself before the altar and admit that I am the unworthiest of creatures without His grace? Little. Knowing Him? Big. Huge. Everything.
Because, friends, what else is there? You tell me. Almost forty four years and no one has ever been able to give me sufficient answer or been able to show me anything even close to the beauty and fulfillment of Jesus and His Bride, The Church. You know why? Because Jesus is who and what sits on the other side of every equal sign. He's the solution to every equation. He's the answer to every question. There's nothing beyond Him.
To know Him is to love Him, and I do.