Conversion stories — don’t you just love them? I find it both fascinating and inspiring to hear how Our Lord takes a soul and draws a person lovingly and compellingly towards Him. As parents, it’s useful to know how Our Lord does this so we can fully cooperate with Him in drawing our children to Christ.
St. Edith Stein: Attracted by Truth
Let’s start by looking at St. Edith Stein, who was raised Jewish but became an atheist. A brilliant intellectual, she was one of the first women to be admitted into the German University of Gottingen where she studied philosophy. Her philosophical search for truth was long and painful, but eventually she came upon The Life of St. Teresa of Avila. St. Edith writes:
I picked at random and took out a large volume. It bore the title The Life of St Teresa of Avila, written by herself. I began to read, was at once captivated, and did not stop till I reached the end. As I closed the book, I said, ‘That is the truth’.
Truth. For many, the doctrinal and moral truths of the Catholic Church is like a magnet which, once discovered and understood, has an irresistible pull. Many modern day converts such as Scott Hahn and Jennifer Fulweiler became Catholic because they discovered the undeniable truths of our faith and the unmatched wisdom of the Church.
St. Ignatius: Conquered by Goodness
Many of us know St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was born and raised a Catholic. But, as a young man, his mind was occupied with dreams of military advancement and feats of chivalry. During a battle in Pamplona, his leg was severely wounded by a cannonball, so he was forced to spend many painful months in bed. To pass the time, he began reading. In his autobiography, St. Ignatius writes:
While perusing the life of Our Lord and the saints, he began to reflect, saying to himself: “What if I should do what St. Francis did?” “What if I should act like St. Dominic?” He pondered over these things in his mind, and kept continually proposing to himself serious and difficult things. He seemed to feel a certain readiness for doing them, with no other reason except this thought: “St. Dominic did this; I, too, will do it.” “St. Francis did this; therefore I will do it.”
What ignited St. Ignatius’ conversion was the goodness of the saints. Indeed, the goodness of the faithful — their piety, their joy and peace in the midst of suffering, their charitable works — can make a greater impression on a soul than the most eloquent of homilies. While St. Edith’s conversion was mainly an intellectual one, she also was affected by goodness. For example, St. Edith recounts how she was deeply impressed by the piety of a woman making a visit in a cathedral:
While we looked around in respectful silence, a woman carrying a market basket came in and knelt down in one of the pews to pray briefly. This was something entirely new to me. To the synagogues or to the Protestant churches which I had visited, one went only for services. But here was someone interrupting her everyday shopping errands to come into the church, although no other person was in it, as though she were here for an intimate conversation. I could never forget that. (LJF 401)
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton: Transformed by Beauty
And then there’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. St. Elizabeth was once an ardent Episcopalian. When her husband contracted TB, they sailed to Italy, hoping the weather would improve his condition. Unfortunately, he died in quarantine. Elizabeth then stayed with the devout Filicchi family, where she was exposed to Catholicism. But what impressed her the most was the beauty of the many cathedrals she visited, as well as the magnificent sacred music and art. In her journal, she wrote:
Went to the Church of S. Lorenzo where a sensation of delight struck me so forceably that as I approached the great Altar formed of all the most precious stones marbles etc. that could be produced, “My Soul does magnify the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” came in my mind with a fervor which absorbed every other feeling. – It. Journal p. 286
A kind of soft and distant music which lifts the mind to a foretaste of heavenly pleasure called up in an instant every dear and tender idea of my Soul, and forgetting Mrs. F., companions, and all the surrounding scene I sunk to my Knees in the first place I found vacant, and shed a torrent of tears at the recollection of how long I had been a stranger in the house of my God, and the accumulated sorrow that had separated me from it. – It. Journal p. 283
A Picture of the descent from the Cross” nearly as large as life engaged my whole soul. Mary at the foot of it expressed well that the iron had entered into her-and the shades of death over her agonized countenance so strongly contrasted the heavenly Peace of the dear Redeemers that it seems as if his pains had fallen on her – How hard it was to leave that picture and how often even in the few hours interval since I have seen it, I shut my eyes and recall it in imagination. – It. Journal p. 287
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton came to Italy an Episcopalian; she returned to America transformed by the beauty of the Catholic cathedrals. Less than two years later, amidst a storm of opposition from friends and family, she converted to Catholicism.
Many souls are drawn to Our Lord through beauty in art, music, and architecture. The great cathedrals of the Middle Ages and Renaissance imbue the faithful with a sense of awe and reverence. They reflect the omnipotence of God, and as such, are truly sacred spaces. The beauty of nature also draws souls to God. Pope John Paul II used to love going to the mountains for hiking, skiing, and evangelizing the young. His love for nature was fueled by a sense of closeness with God in the unsullied beauty of the wilderness. Beauty in art and nature opens the door to prayer and contemplation, drawing souls closer to God.
The Three Magnets of God
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. These are the three magnets of God, the usual ways by which He draws souls closer to Himself. In an essay entitled “Lewis’ Philosophy on Truth, Goodness, and Beauty,” Peter Kreeft writes:
These are the three things we all need, and need absolutely, and know we need, and know we need absolutely. Our minds want not only some truth and some falsehood, but all truth, without limit. Our wills want not only some good and some evil, but all good, without limit. Our desires, imaginations, feelings or hearts want not just some beauty and some ugliness, but all beauty, without limit… These are the only three things that we never got bored with, and never will for all eternity, because they are three attributes of God… We are head, hands, and heart. We respond to truth, goodness and beauty. We are this because we are images of God.
While individuals tend to be enticed more by one than the others, with children and teens, it is often unclear which of the three, (truth, goodness, or beauty) attracts individual children to the faith the most. They themselves are typically unaware, and it takes a highly perceptive parent to discover what attracts their children to the faith. But since we usually don’t know until our children are older, and since Our Lord often uses a combination, we ought to ensure that our children’s education and spiritual formation is imbued with truth, goodness, and beauty.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Spiritual Formation of our Children
To begin, we need to teach our children the truths of our faith at home. It is not enough to rely on religion teachers. Religious education in church and school programs can only supplement what is taught at home. Parents need to give their young children a systematic and thorough grounding in catechesis. This starts with an intimate knowledge of Christ through the Gospels, for Christ Himself said, “I am the Way, The Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6) Our children also need to know the stories of the Bible and the basic teachings of the church as taught, for example, in the Baltimore Catechisms. Middle schoolers and high schoolers need to learn apologetics. And because the Church and her teachings are constantly under attack, we need to discuss current events and controversial issues, especially regarding sexuality, with our teens. Dinner time is often a good time for such discussions, as are long walks, hikes, and car-rides. Let us show our children that the teachings of Christ and His Church are not a denial of earthly freedoms and pleasures; rather they always point to our salvation and eternal happiness.
In addition to teaching our children the truths of our faith, we need to expose them to goodness. Like St. Ignatius, our children can be very inspired by the goodness of the saints. We need to read the lives of the saints to our children. Let them see that saints also struggled against temptations and weaknesses. They were not perfect, but they loved greatly and generously. The older I get, the more I realize that saints are not mythical beings. Rather they are more common than one would think, and they’re not always wearing a habit: the pious old lady who faithfully comes to mass every day despite crippling rheumatism; the cheerful volunteer who brings warm food to the homeless every weekend, regardless of the weather; the father of a large family who pours out his life for the good of his loved ones; the college student who stands up for her religious beliefs despite heavy persecution. Point out these hidden saints to your children so they can see that holiness is, indeed, attainable.
As busy as our lives are, it’s also a good idea to let our teens experience the goodness of serving the under-privileged first-hand. This summer I spoke to a high school student who went to Jamaica on a mission trip. The experience, she declared, was one of the highlights of her high school years, and now she wanted to spend her career caring for children with special needs. Catholic charitable works are numerous: nursing homes, hospitals, pregnancy centers, soup kitchens, etc. One does not need to get on a plane to serve the poor. Before our kids were born my husband and I used to deliver food locally for St. Vincent de Paul. We always found the experience of delivering groceries to the poor very edifying. For as Christ said, Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. (Mt 25: 40) Not all young people will be strongly attracted to the faith by serving the poor, but some will. And for those who do, an encounter with the poor is an encounter with Christ.
Finally, there is beauty. “Though beauty is derived from truth and goodness, it has the greatest power over our souls,” writes Peter Kreeft. Perhaps this is because true beauty speaks to the deepest longings of our hearts and raises the soul to contemplation. The most magnificent architectural structures, the most glorious and uplifting music, and the most brilliant artwork is found in the Catholic Church. Just as the arches at Sainte Chapelle force the eyes upwards, true art elevates the soul.
Sadly, too many churches today resemble auditoriums and fail to reflect God’s majesty. They do not create an environment of reverence or prayer. Many of us do not have the privilege of attending mass at a cathedral on a weekly basis. But, imitating the Holy Family, who made yearly pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, we can make family pilgrimages to beautiful cathedrals or basilicas. There our children hear heavenly sacred music and see beautiful sacred art. Although they may not pay attention to the readings and homily, children nonetheless sense that this is a sacred place, a place of prayer, a house of God. These experiences can make a deep and lasting impression and help them develop a sense of reverence and awe of God.
At his World Day of Peace address in 1990, St. Pope John Paul the Great wrote: Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity. Indeed, the beauty of nature can also draw our children closer to God. For those of us who live in suburbs or cities, we should be deliberate about bringing our children to the countryside. Let them experience the majesty of the mountains, the vastness of the ocean, the magnificence of starlit skies. Give them opportunities to sit in stillness and silence, and they will begin to see God the Creator reflected in His wondrous creation.
So, we need to fill our children’s lives with truth, goodness, and beauty. But as I’ve written before, all young people are especially attracted by joy. Our children long for happiness because they were born for happiness — eternal happiness. Our cheerfulness, despite countless annoyances and sufferings, is a testimony to our faith and trust in Christ. It is tangible proof that the way to find the happiness our children seek is to live as a true Christian. Truth, goodness, and beauty are the magnets of God, but joy is the magnet of parents. As we teach our children eternal truths, as we inspire them with examples of goodness, and as we give them opportunities to bask in beauty, may we always do so with joy.