Richard Cole was not much of a believer: By his own admission, he didn’t pray, he didn’t worship. He was in recovery following years of alcohol abuse. Raised Methodist, he had fled the church of his youth to dabble in Zen, t’ai chi, New Age, witchcraft.
But then for his 49th birthday, his wife gave him the gift of silence: a three-day stay at a Benedictine monastery, where he could read, study, write and simply “de-stress.”
Why Richard’s wife thought that would be a suitable gift for a nonbeliever, I don’t know.
And why it affected him so profoundly, initiating the life change that would propel him into the Catholic Church, I don’t know. The Spirit moves where He will.
What I do know is that Richard’s book is a page-turner, a deeply personal recounting of his journey of faith. Like the English poet Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” God pursued Richard Cole, gradually revealing Himself in the Church. But the story’s not all love and roses: Cole, compelled by an inner voice to study and pray and learn more and more, also had doubts and difficulties, strained relationships with his family, and challenges at work. His honesty about these challenges makes one all the more joyous when he is finally received into the Church.
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I’ve read plenty of conversion stories through the years: Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home, Steve Ray’s Crossing the Tiber, Patrick Madrid’s Surprised by Truth with its testimonies from eleven converts and its sequels, Surprised By Truth 2 and Surprised by Truth 3, with 25 more. Those stories have usually focused on theological reasons for embracing Catholicism.
Catholic by Choice: Why I Embraced the Faith, Joined the Church, and Embarked on the Adventure of a Lifetime is not like those other “conversion stories”. The force which drew Cole to delve deeply into the Catholic faith, to study the Scriptures, to attend Mass as frequently as possible, was not its historicity or its plausibility or its veracity. Richard Cole’s faith journey seemed driven by deep emotion. Cole describes it as “an intense, painful and utterly dazzling two-year period during which I fell in love with God, became a Christian, and finally entered the Catholic Church.”
Reading Catholic by Choice, I was struck by Cole’s breathless amazement at things cradle Catholics may take for granted. Seeing anew through his convert’s eyes, I found myself stepping back and appreciating the Mass and the familiar devotions. Here, for example, is Cole’s description of his first encounter with Eucharistic adoration.
One evening after Mass I was wandering around and I discovered something called a Chapel of Perpetual Adoration. When I first walked in, the place seemed dark and creepy. All my Protestant feelers were twitching. The air was stale and sweet with an odd smell, either incense or cheap disinfectant. Three or four people were seated in the little pews, some praying, some just sitting. In the front, there was a silver cross with a disk in the middle, which I later learned was the Eucharistic Host. A young woman wearing a scarf looked up at me, then returned to her reading. An old air conditioner was working hard in the background, kicking on for a few minutes, then kicking off.
I looked around and discovered a sign-in log beside the door. And then I understood what was going on. People were praying in this chapel, in front of the consecrated Host, but doing this around the clock! Day and night, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day! I looked through the log. Sure enough, there were names for every slot. Venancio was signed up for 2:00 to 3:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Lucille checked in at 6:00 a.m. every day for an hour. Maria at 7:00 a.m. I was astonished and fascinated. It was a window into a part of Catholic devotion that I’d heard about but never seen before. I said to myself, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
I stayed a few minutes longer, but I couldn’t breathe in there. I needed fresh air. At home I told Lauren what I’d seen. Oh yeah, she knew all about Perpetual Adoration. “You’ll be there someday, taking a shift,” she said.
That night I kept thinking about the chapel. All night long there would be someone there, praying, maybe just sitting, but keeping watch. Like a power utility, it never closed, never shut down. Each person stayed until the next person showed up.
The next time I visited San Jose, I went straight to the chapel. Outside I read a little bit about adoration: neighborhoods where this occurs have lower crime rates, etc. etc.
I opened the door. The minute I stepped inside I was almost overwhelmed with the impulse to throw myself down on the carpet in front of the host. Suddenly the whole idea of devotion to the Eucharist made all the sense in the world. This chapel was holy. On the wall I noticed a small, handwritten notice: “Do Not Lie on the Floor.”
May I suggest that you read Catholic by Choice for yourself? Whether you are an interested observer of faith, wondering why Catholics do the things they do, or a life-long Catholic who could use a booster shot of enthusiasm, you’ll enjoy Richard Cole’s honest, highly relatable and often funny story of his adult conversion to Catholicism.
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Catholic by Choice is a selection of the Patheos Book Club.
For more information, to read an excerpt, or to join the conversation, click here.