After a lifetime of spiritual searching, Richard Cole found what he was looking for in the most surprising of places — a small, unassuming monastery in southern Texas. Cole’s wife had given him a three-day retreat at the Benedictine monastery for his 49th-birthday, and Cole went, thinking it would be a nice few days of relaxation and reading. What he didn’t expect, was to come home with a heart strangely on fire for Catholicism.
Here, Richard talks with us about his midlife conversion to Catholicism, the subject of his lovely new memoir from Loyola Press, Catholic by Choice: Why I Embraced the Faith, Joined the Church, and Embarked on the Adventure of a Lifetime.
What was it about those three days in an unassuming monastery in Sandia, Texas, that transformed your life, and set you off on a path toward joining the Catholic Church?
Maybe I connected with that monastic community because it was so unassuming. Evangelism is a curious thing. Like making friends or courtship, the initial contact and reaching out sometimes needs to be simply a quiet welcoming and nothing more. That’s what I received from the Sandia community. Two years later, I went to another monastery where the mood was very different. It was also Benedictine but the brothers were intense, almost militant. They were the marines of God. In fact, they scared me a bit. If I had visited them at the beginning, I might have backed away from Catholicism. As it was, the Sandia community turned out to be just the right experience for me at the time.
Of your new and all-consuming love for Catholicism, you write: “A psychologist might argue that my Catholicism was simply a coping mechanism, a way to deal with a normal midlife crisis. Some men buy a red sports car; I was going to Mass.” How did you know this was true love, and not just an affair?
For one thing, I was going to mass, not driving a car. Even then, I knew that this was something having to do with the divine, with something that was much more than myself. The experience was too intense, too all-encompassing and my whole life was changing from the ground up.
What was it that so compelled you about Catholicism in particular?
There was no trade-off with Catholicism. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel that I had to choose mind over heart, heart over mind or the physical over the spiritual. In the Catholic incarnational understanding, the “mind/body” problem in Western culture wasn’t a problem – mind and body were in relationship, not opposed.
Learning about Catholicism changed my heart and transformed my life, but it also became the greatest intellectual adventure I had ever experienced. I started looking at old assumptions with new eyes, stepping back and asking questions about a secular worldview that I’d absorbed almost by osmosis. In this sense, Catholic teaching wasn’t a cage that kept me from growing. Instead, it was more like a trellis by which I could send my roots down deeper and reach higher than I ever had before. I felt like a spiritual trust-fund baby. I had inherited this incredibly rich tradition and set of teachings that could keep me reading and learning for the rest of my life.
You talk about how your renewed zeal for your faith, and specifically the Catholic faith, was not so easy on your family, especially your wife who was born and raised Catholic! Ironically, as you were moving toward the Church, she was moving away from it. How did you navigate that aspect of your conversion process? And what suggestions do you have for couples who are traveling down different spiritual paths?
I believe that God gives us different channels of grace, and that this difference can itself be a grace. We can learn from those on other paths, lessons about compassion, detachment, diligence and tolerance that we can use in our own faith.
This applies especially to couples. As they say, all politics is local, and I think all religion and spirituality is local as well, beginning with the people with whom we live. In talking with my wife, I keep in mind the quote by St. Augustine: “There are those of God who are not of the church and those of the church who are not of God.” She’s definitely of God. I also remember an anecdote about a rabbi who worked with Christians on ecumenical ministries. One of his colleagues asked him whether he ever encountered conflict or disputes with those of another faith. Quoting Psalm 42, he said “Deep talks to deep. If I try to have a deep faith and I’m with others who try the same way, we have no problems.” I try to recognize and respect the depth of my wife’s faith and support her just as she supports me.
What was the most difficult part of converting to Catholicism for you?
Opening up my heart. It hurt. A lot. I understood better than ever why the words for love in the Romance languages – amour, amorte – mean “to the point of death.” Love is wonderful but painful. Being reborn means having to die in some way.
What surprised you most about the process of conversion?
I was surprised that the experience just kept on going. I’m a serial enthusiast, and I’ve noticed that many of my enthusiasms don’t last more than six or seven years. But after 13 years, I still need the mass as much as ever. Conversion is a honeymoon followed by marriage, and that marriage depends on an ongoing conversion, a reconverting that never ends.
Lent is nearly over, and Easter is coming. What was your first Lent and Easter like as a new Catholic? What’s your experience of the Crucifixion and Resurrection?
My first Easter was a homecoming. Like many converts, I was always Catholic, I just didn’t know it. I also appreciated, and still do, the passage of the Triduum, how the passion and darkness of Good Friday leads to the light of Easter. It reminds me of something I read recently by a painter. “The eye naturally gravitates toward the light in a painting,” he said. “That’s why shading and shadows are so important. The dark is necessary because it guides us to the light.” Exactly.
To read an excerpt from Richard Cole’s memoir, Catholic by Faith, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Watch our extended interview via Skype below: