In the sixth of a series of conversion stories published in The Tablet, a long-term agnostic recalls how, at his daughters’ christening, he found himself longing to be baptised with them.
My road to Rome (or indeed Damascus) begins in a rather nondescript late 1960s parish church in Tiverton, Devon. We were gathered on an overcast autumn day to celebrate the baptism of my two daughters, who were then nine months and two years old respectively. I’d been looking forward to seeing family and friends at the event, but hadn’t given much thought to the religious element. As the child of an agnostic father and an atheist mother, I was raised without any real understanding of sacramental life – and, indeed, without any sense of spirituality. I had no objection to my daughters being baptised, as I knew this was important to my wife (a cradle Catholic). But it was very much something we were doing for her. She’d been in touch with the local parish priest. She’d talked through the details with him, while I walked with our daughters in the presbytery garden. And she’d been the driving force behind arrangements for the day.
So it was with considerable surprise that I found myself standing in church and wishing that I, too, was taking part in the rite. It was clear to me that our daughters were embarking on a voyage, one I sincerely wanted to join them on. In the preceding weeks and months, we’d been making a concerted effort to attend Mass. As fellow parents will be only too aware, this is no simple matter with small children, particularly at a time of Covid restrictions when children’s liturgy had yet to be reinstated. So I’d been going down with my wife and helping her keep our daughters entertained. It was the sort of thing any loving father and husband would have done, and I thought no more of it.
Yet, as it is meant to do, the liturgy got under my skin. What bits of the readings and homilies I caught between nappy changes and demands for food and drink resonated with me. I didn’t yet make much of this. For some time, I’d identified as agnostic, not atheist. And I’d always thought the message of the gospels to be a worthy one, which is why I’d been happy to have our daughters baptised. Why should I not identify with gospel readings and homilies based on them? Thus, even before I knew it, the Holy Spirit had begun working in me.
I did not, therefore, experience a single Damascene moment, but rather a gradual spiritual awakening. At our daughters’ christening, I became aware of a process that had already started. When discussing how much we’d enjoyed the day that evening, my wife asked whether I would ever consider getting baptised myself. In over 10 years together, it was a question she’d never put, and I’d never considered. Yet it was posed kindly, without any pressure. To my surprise, I found myself saying “maybe …”
What turned a hesitant “maybe” into a firm “yes” was an extended period of reflection. I knew that conversion was a serious matter, which would entail a complete rethinking of my world view. The central challenge lay not in values and morals, but in belief itself. I’d given up on atheism precisely because I couldn’t be certain there was no God. How could I now be so confident there was one, and that Jesus Christ was his only Son?
It’s a question I struggled with for many months – and occasionally still struggle with, if I’m honest. The answer came slowly but steadily. Once the Spirit begins to work in you, it does not abandon you: it certainly did not abandon me. The answer, as I came to appreciate, had been staring me in the face all along. Faith is a different way of knowing. This may sound trite for those raised in religion; but to me, it was a revelation. The whole point of faith, I realised, is that it’s not easy. You can never know that Christ died, was buried and rose again in the same way you know that your Victorian terraced house is made of bricks or your bath is full of water. At some point, you have to make the leap. Belief is only meaningful without definitive proof. That’s what makes it hard; that’s also what makes it rewarding.
As soon as I left behind my doubts, it became clear what I needed to do. By the end of last summer, I’d all but decided. Yet even so, I found myself hesitating. Hesitating less because I didn’t think I was doing the right thing, than because it required a very public admission that my previous views were wrong. But inspired by divine grace and with a due sense of humility, I eventually swallowed my pride.
I contacted our parish priest, Fr (technically Canon) Kristian Paver, who responded with the kindness and humanity I’d already come to expect of the Church. He was delighted by my interest and we arranged a set of regular meetings. By profession, I am a lecturer in medieval history, a subject which demands a basic understanding of church history and Scripture. I’d read the Bible cover to cover during my doctoral studies; and I also had a grounding in elements of doctrine. What I didn’t have was a sense of the active life of the modern Church. So at our meetings, we began with the basics, discussing what it is that distinguishes Catholicism from other branches of Christianity, before starting to work our way more systematically through the catechism.
Fr Kristian had made it clear that I shouldn’t feel any pressure – that this was a process I could stop or put on pause at any point. But each step along the way, it became clearer that the Church was where I belonged. The community at our local parish of St James played an essential part here. The church itself resembles an aeroplane hangar more closely than the grand monasteries and cathedrals I’m accustomed to study. It’s frankly the last place I’d have expected to find religion. Yet precisely on this account, it was the perfect place for me to take the leap of faith. It was not pretty buildings and quaint nostalgia that lured me away from agnosticism and cultural Protestantism; it was the living faith of those within the walls of St James. It was the smiles and generosity of the parishioners, who happily excused the periodic outbursts of our daughters (typically timed to coincide with the Eucharist) and sympathised with their sleep-deprived and occasionally exasperated parents.
To an outsider, it may seem like a most inauspicious moment to join the Catholic communion. Barely a day passes without fresh revelations of misdeeds past and present. But, in Fr Kristian and our parish, I found a Catholicism that was true to tradition without being reactionary, one that welcomes not only the poor, but also the marginalised – refugees, immigrants and minorities. It is a community that is catholic in the original sense of the term, encompassing the full gamut of political opinion and embracing members of every conceivable age and background. While it’s sometimes easy to forget the wider world in small-town Devon, at St James’ every Sunday morning we are visibly and proudly part of a communion that spans the globe.
As liturgical preparations for baptism began in earnest during the Lenten period, I came to appreciate the full warmth of our community. Parishioners would stop me after Mass or on the street to congratulate me and ask how I was getting on. On discovering my intention, one – a long-standing friend – even offered to babysit our daughters on the night of the Easter Vigil, so that my wife could attend the baptism. I was also most fortunate in my sponsor, Gregory Lippiatt, a dear colleague (and fellow medieval historian). He, too, is a convert, who could understand the journey I was on.
The baptism itself went by in a blur, a heady mix of joy and adrenaline. When it was over, I felt relief and exaltation. But above all, I felt belonging. The last time I’d felt so certain of my actions was the day of my wedding. I knew that here I stand and here I shall stay.
Looking back, there is a beautiful symmetry to the entire affair. My spiritual rebirth began with that of my daughters; their salvation is mine. And when I reflect on the process, one word comes to mind time and again: love. Christ’s central message was one of love. And it was love that drew me to his pilgrim Church. The love of my wife and daughters, that brought me through church doors on that fateful day in November 2021. The love of Fr Kristian, that nurtured my faith in the weeks and months that followed. And the love of my sponsor and the wider parish community, that sustained me through the Lenten period of fasting and preparation. In the end, I’m tempted to rephrase the old Beatles refrain as theological truism: to find God, all you need is love.
Dr Levi Roach is a lecturer at the University of Exeter. This article first appeared in The Tablet, 11th May 2023.