Converted by Beauty – A True Story

Here is a true story from a convert to Catholicism. We’ll call him Tom. Names and places have been changed…

Dear Fr Longenecker,

When I came to Greenville my life was a mess. My marriage had just broken down. I wound up in your town.

I was brought up in a country Pentecostal holiness church. Now in middle age that simply doesn’t work. I was looking for something more–some way to find Christ again.

The entire time that I lived in Greenville it was in a little rented room in the basement of an apartment complex. It was about 12 x 14 with a bathroom and was connected to a laundry room that I shared with the family on the upper two floors. I had a little sign that read “Sleeping” that I would hang on the door in the evening so that the other occupants would know to be quiet when they came in to do laundry. It was better than nothing. But I lived alone and lonely.

Enter beauty. The kind of beauty that Fr Robert Barron refers to when he speaks of evangelizing through beauty. No matter how proud I had been of my work in technology before, a cube farm is not a pretty place. It is a squalid and featureless world. My room was a squalid and featureless space.But at Our Lady of the Rosary I found beauty. Catholicism doesn’t start off massively user-friendly out of the gate. You have to really want to become a Catholic to rightly become one.

But there is a great deal of beauty in Catholicism as I encountered it at Our Lady of the Rosary. Once or twice a week I could leave the sterility of work and my tiny room to come to mass in a beautiful space, with beautiful music and beautiful people. People greeted me at OLR. They took an interest in me. I made friends. I became deeply involved in study during RCIA. I was drawn in by the beauty of Catholicism as much as by the scholarship. I know that OLR isn’t the fanciest of churches. But you, the deacons, the parishioners, everyone there has created a place of considerable beauty. Even without a new church.

That beauty carried over into my private life. Over time my room became more beautiful. A cross on my desk. And then a rosary I asked you to bless. A daily missal to read. A candle with a stack of prayer cards.I struggled to come to grips with years of internal poverty and pain. But the beauty of Catholicism drew me in and began to heal those wounds. I knew I was connecting with God and his people in a deep and meaningful way.

My life will never be the same again. I don’t know how to describe it, and I still struggle with how to really write my conversion narrative. The fact is that it was both a painful and beautiful experience. And it is still difficult for me to fight back emotion when considering it.

I have now moved to Granton. My first experience as a Catholic here was unfortunately dissatisfying. Maybe it’s me but it just didn’t seem right. I arrived 15 minutes early so I could pray and get myself in the right frame of mind. As I walked into the church a greeter with a name badge said “Hello” and motioned me in. I looked for the song sheet but realized they don’t have them. I went into the sanctuary and looked for the Holy Water to cross myself. I couldn’t identify it until I looked over and saw what looked like a shopping mall wishing well.

I thought “Hmm” Where am I supposed to dip my finger? Do I bend down to a knee and scoop some up?There were no pews, just chairs. There were tiny little kneelers that you could fold out from the chairs but I am 6′,4″ and weigh 200lbs. So all I could do was bend down with my elbows on my knees. So I thought OK, this is cosmetic. I’m going to put these details out of my mind and concentrate on God. This proved difficult. The walls were all flat drywall painted a flat white. The floor was slick vinyl tile. There was no art, no color, no space. It looked like a hotel lobby or the entrance of a shopping mall. I thought how am I supposed to feel close to God here?

There was very little music. Just a bit of piano for the processional. No incense, no intonation, just a couple of candles, no bowing before the tabernacle, I couldn’t even identify what was supposed to pass for a corporate confession. I kept waiting for it “I confess…” but it never came. I wondered to myself if I should even go up and take communion. Seriously?The homily like everything else was delivered in the dry monotone of a quarterly report. I can’t even tell you what it was about. I’ll open up my missal today and read it for myself.

When mass was ended, as I left the church the priest shook my hand and said “Thanks for coming.” – Not one other person in the congregation, not a single human being spoke to me. Nobody said hello, nice to have you. Everybody went straight to the cars and took off.I felt terrible.

Now that I’m home I realize that not only do I feel disappointed. I actually feel angry. Not old biddy church lady angry, but “Hey isn’t this supposed to be about worshiping almighty God?” Angry.

Here’s what I walked away with. I’m glad Catholicism is bigger than one or two churches, because if that was all there was I would never have converted. Am I wrong to feel this way? Would my senses have been offended? Probably not, because I wouldn’t have yet known anything better. But with nobody but the door greeter and the priest to say hello, with no music, no contemplative and sacred environment, no art, no beauty – would there have been anything to keep me there? I would have wandered off, still searching. Maybe to encounter the beauty somewhere else. But not there.

How many people are lost day by day, because a little bit of beauty doesn’t shine in the one place it ought. If the temple isn’t a temple, why come?I think that is really why I am angry.

I am well off enough now that I can seek something better. But it is no longer just about what “I” need or want. I’m mad because I truly believe souls are being lost if the church doesn’t go about the business of being The Church. If someone said “Tom, do you really think people will go to hell if our church is not pretty and the people aren’t friendly?” – Yes. Yes I do believe that.

The church I visited is only a couple of  years old. I’ve reflected on it and I can’t help but wonder. If I was still in that dark place in my soul, instead of the good place I am in now, what would my experience have been?

This is why we are trying to build a beautiful new church in our parish–because Beauty matters and people are converted by beauty. They’re not converted by barren barns to sit in. Go here to learn more about our new church and read the articles I’ve written on sacred architecture and what we are trying to achieve.


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