This year, I’m focusing on stories of former atheists that converted to Catholicism. How each person comes to Christ is unique and special, but especially interesting are those that go from no belief in God, to becoming members of the Catholic Church. For January, I interviewed Barry whom I recently met on social media. Originally from the Seattle area, he now resides in Baton Rouge. His story is the stuff of movies; truly a remarkable journey. It’s not just that Barry came into the Faith and believes in Christ; he puts his faith into action. He is the Associate Director for the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. He visits with imprisoned men in his area, where he brings hope and encouragement by sharing Christ’s message. From a near death experience, to studying Buddhism in the Himalayas, to overcoming alcohol/drug addiction; this is a compelling story of a search for Christ. If you are like me, you’ll find Barry’s story quite remarkable.
1. Were you always an atheist or did you leave the faith and become one?
I am from a typical Pacific Northwest (Seattle area) family who is in a sense “post-Christian.” What I mean by this is that I was raised in an environment that didn’t even bring up the question of God, or of the Christian faith. We had some neighbors invite us to a Disciples of Christ Protestant ecclesial community and my sisters were baptized there, but I never really thought about the meaning of it and didn’t understand it. I didn’t have a feeling about it one way or another, it just wasn’t even on my radar. I had never heard anyone in my family discuss God or speak as if there was such thing as God, and so I definitely never experienced any sort of witness to Jesus as the Christ.
So, I was, in a sense an accidental atheist from the start. I wasn’t the type of atheist who was once Christian and has rebelled against the faith intentionally and deliberately, rather, I was once by accident, by circumstances. I didn’t even have a rudimentary language for talking about ultimate reality, my origin and end, first principles, virtue and sin, or good and evil. And I definitely didn’t have a vocabulary for talking about God or knowing what the orthodox Christian faith taught in respect to the existence and attributes of the Creator or that Jesus was the Son of God and that the Church communicates Him.
Like the young Augustine, I sought out my completion in the world, in transient and sensual things. I didn’t know of any other way. I do remember, nonetheless, a time of greater innocence when my conscience alone communicated a sense of right and wrong, but by 15 or 16 years old this was largely clouded out by worldly clamors.
2. What was it that started to open the door for you, as far as considering the faith?
When I was 22 years old, I was critically injured in a car accident and had to be resuscitated. I had a near death experience. This radically changed my understanding of the meaning of life. Upon awakening from the NDE and since then, I have been involved in two primary tasks: Awakening to the gift of life and purifying my own life of attachment to sin. That path was intuitive to me after the accident and NDE though I wasn’t Christian. So I began a very intense period of spiritual searching, studying religion and philosophy. I studied both in school as an undergrad and graduate student, as well as in my personal life.
Like many in my socio-cultural demographic at the time I was more immediately drawn to the study of Indian religions, in particular Buddhism. For about five years, from 22-27 I studied it intensely in retreat and academic settings in N. America and India. I went as far as taking the five vows of a lay practitioner: 1) Abstain from killing 2) Abstain from fornication 3) Abstain from lying 4) Abstain from stealing 5) Abstain from intoxication.
It was in this milieu where I first began to exist in relationship to a transcendent source of morality and live as if my life had ultimate purpose. It was also in these contexts where I originally learned how to fast, how to be still and silent, how to meditate for long periods of time, how to renounce transient things for the sake of a transcendent goal. I also learned in this context, from a western Buddhist nun, of the moral horror of abortion. Up until that point, I though abortion could be justified. I also learned that mastubation, fornication, porn, intoxication, same sex acts, etc., were morally evil and very harmful (yes, even though everyone was doing promoting them as good and healthy!).
For the first time in my life I met men, usually Tibetan Buddhist monks (some nuns too), who were virtuous. This was very different from the men I was used to. And so, I would say, they were my first real formators in how to be a man. They taught me that a man isn’t a slave to his passions but rather gains mastery over them. The asceticism of these men was impressive, but their gentleness and kindness was even more impressive. I have always thought that if our own Christian faithful sought Jesus even half as intensely as these men sought liberation from suffering according to the path of the Buddha we wouldn’t have a priest shortage and the emptying out of our parishes in the West (I will leave that for another time).
I was in India, studying at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Himachel Pradesh or the Himalayan Province, when I began to turn toward the Christian faith in earnest. I was studying Tibetan language and Buddhist Philosophy in a place called McLeod Ganj where the Tibetan government was and remains in exile. In a sense, I was becoming a devout follower of the Buddha and was considering becoming a Buddhist monk. I am sure my family thought I was crazy, but I was deadly serious.
But then one day, I heard there was a nice walk to a local church. It was called St. John in the Wilderness: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John_in_the_Wilderness_Church, named after John the Baptist. This church was built during the British occupation of India up in the foothills of the Himalayans and as far as I know this area appealed to the Brits during the hot season because it was cooler, being higher in altitude. The church was built in the neo-gothic style and it had amazing (somewhat renowned) stained glass. The stained glass, of course, depicts various scenes from the Gospels. When I hiked into the area where the church was located I was immediately evangelized, so to speak, from the stained glass. The stained glass communicated to me a divine beauty that I desired to know, a Mystery that I wanted to behold. That planted the seed.
Upon returning from India, I began studying Western Philosophy and Christianity more, again both in an academic setting and in my personal life. Western Philosophy helped me with what is often called the preambles of the faith, particularly Plato. Certain writings of Plato are, in fact, very similar to writings of the Buddha and his followers. Both believed in reincarnation, the need for purification, and the sense that the goal of life is to assimilate to an absolute or divine reality. I contacted a monk from the local Benedictine Abbey, Fr. Paul Weckert, OSB, http://www.saintmartinsabbey.org/ and started talking to him about the faith. He recommended I go to RCIA and I did. Two years later, I was baptized.
One thing I will say is that part of my internal commitment was also the belief that the human person is more than what the Buddhists know from reason alone. I found their view of the human person, of reincarnation, and of karma, ultimately, somewhat impoverished. I rejected the notion that there was no-self, that the self was an illusion, largely based on intuition. Because of my NDE, I didn’t see the self that way, I saw it as a gift–something to be thankful for–not something to escape. And if you believe in reincarnation then the body is just a shell and is accidental. I eventually came to reject this, because I thought that it must be part of the mystery and unity of the person. And then I rejected karma, because the karmic system lacks mercy; there is no mercy in a karmic system. It is true that beings can be compassionate in a karmic system, but the ultimate reality as such, because it is impersonal, cannot be merciful. And so it was in meditation where my intense search for an impersonal absolute truth began to turn into something more asking to the Psalm that read, “like a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so was my soul…” I truly began to experience my Creator, God, as personal, in and through meditation, and began to simply rest in and receive His goodness rather than striving so much to penetrate the realization of an impersonal truth.
3. Why Catholicism?
I need to be honest and say I didn’t trust Protestantism. Largely, because my experience of it in high school had been very superficial. I didn’t find it intellectual, or mystical, and worst of all, there were no monks. I had in inherent distrust for a religion with no monks or ascetics, because coming from Buddhism, I knew that if you were really serious about pursuing the goal, you would even be willing to give up sex. It was the celibate and monastic tradition of Catholicism that attracted me, and the fact that (even though not very apparent in American Catholicism) there is a deep ascetic and mystical tradition. Now, this is all what attracted me initially, ultimately the answer to this question came to be this: I believe it is true.
4. Other than the fact that you now believe in God, how has your life changed since becoming Catholic?
My life has changed so much really since the car accident and the NDE. That is when my conversion really began which ultimately led me to the Church and her sacraments. By the time I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was addicted to drugs, alcohol, fornication, and porn. I even sold drugs to maintain my habit. I couldn’t keep a job. I was totally miserable and lost, headed for destruction. I was given a second chance at life at 22, but it came with a cost: I had to change.
Change is very, very hard. It took me five years of failing to stay sober from alcohol (and some drug use) and I am now about to celebrate my 14th year of abstinence from any intoxicant. I couldn’t and can’t do this without grace, without God’s help, without the Word of God, and without faith, hope, and love. There is no way. I also had no ability whatsoever to live a chaste life. I had been sexually active since I was 15 and trying to arrest that was like expecting a wild mare to tame overnight. Again, it has only been time, perseverance, grace, God, sacraments, prayer, support from other men, and spiritual reading that has allowed me to experience Christian chastity as a life totally free of the movement of lust and “use” in the heart. Getting off of lust, as a way of life, has been so much harder than getting off of alcohol, but also immeasurably good and worth it. The Church helps me understand the goal, the saints help me understand how to get there, prayer and sacraments orient me to the grace I need both to persevere and to grow in faith, hope, and love.
It is an amazing thing to go from a human experience of not feeling loved or cared for in an ultimate way to a human experience of trust in the goodness of God and love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I have found everything I was ever seeking in intoxicants and lust. It is amazing and it is true freedom. I have a special devotion to the Sacred Heart and love to teach and talk about it, and most of all, to meditate on it.
But, as we all know, each day is a new day. Each and every day, I am given the choice to seek first the Kingdom and put on the New Man, or to turn back to my old life; to turn back to the wide path of sin and perdition. And so, yesterday’s victories count nothing in the spiritual life. We must remember the example of Fr. Corapi and other followers of Jesus who were tempted away from the narrow path after a period of what externally looked like “success”.
It is today, in this moment, I must do battle with the Enemy (World, flesh, Devil). Truly, the evil of the day is sufficient thereof. This battle isn’t won through my strength, indeed I am much too weak even to persevere for a day. It is the grace I receive through the life of faith that urges me on; it is Christ the high priest to whom I look for power, strength, wisdom, peace, and love. So, my path is ever more one of humility, i.e. realizing how prideful I am and laying down my arms and accepting the graces that God desires for me without fighting it. This path is won not through strength but through faith, hope, and love and surrendering completely to Christ and seeking union with His heart.
Also, a gift of my conversion that I wanted to share that is more recent, is that I have begun to love the prayer of the Rosary. In my early years, as a Catholic, I really struggled with this prayer. It was very hard for me. Now, I will say that it is actually my favorite way to pray, and I can’t go a day without praying the Rosary. I feel so close, also, to our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the Angels, my patron Saint, John of the Cross, and all the saints. I really do, I am not alone anymore.
Being Catholic has also given me a home, a community, friends and a new family. I am so grateful to be Catholic, so grateful. To say it is the best thing that ever happened to me would be an understatement.
5. What one piece of advice can you give for Christians when speaking to atheists about Christianity?
It is important to remember that atheists are waiting for us to look idiotic or present a superficial version of our faith. We must be careful with atheists that we do justice to our own philosophy and theology. If we don’t, we can do great harm. We also must be careful not to seem angry, agitated or upset. I don’t think our infighting really impresses them either. Will they want what we have if we are rude, nasty, and obsessed on negatives? No way!
Also, I side with St. Thomas of Aquinas in that I believe that with pagans (atheists) we must use primarily natural reason to engage them intellectually because they don’t view the Scriptures as possessing any authority. But I also think that the liturgy or other things (like stained glass!) can often communicate Jesus and the gift of faith in a way that we fail to. The best thing for atheists might be an immersion into the sacred realities of our faith. Apart from that, there is a danger of it being divorced from the sources of faith. It takes patience, courage, and time. Wait for moments of opportunity, especially suffering and sorrow in the face of sin, personal or social. Be able to diagnose the problem: Our human condition manifests as a dis-ease that drives us toward sin, evil, and alienation from our Creator. The solution: Christ as communicated by the Holy Church.