The word “conversion” reminds me of Anne Lamott, whose own Damascus Road story is one that I love telling my students: Lamott recalls the fevered days after an abortion when, drunk and spotting blood, she noticed a stray cat sitting at her doorstep. The cat followed Lamott everywhere, down the street and to the liquor store, calm, gray, and unceasingly present.
The cat, as far as Lamott could tell, felt like Jesus. And one day, after the cat came to the porch, Lamott stood at the door and confessed:
“Fuck it. Come on in.”
This month marks the ten year anniversary of my conversion to Christianity, the story of which shares a certain tone with Lamott’s—I told Jesus “yes” in a bathroom stall, at Chicago’s United Center, where Michael Jordan won three-peats and where I was attending a large evangelical women’s conference.
“Women of Faith.” That was the name of the conference, a commercialized caravan of middle aged women and their frosted hair, their pink Bible covers, their hands raised like saguaros to the praise and worship music that I tried to sing along with:
I know he rescued my soul
His blood covers my sins
My boss, a beautiful hairdresser named Renee, paid for me to go to this conference. She prayed in tongues at her church, and had named her shop the “Set Free Styling Salon,” a place where people could get a haircut and be “set free in the Lord.”
Renee had been set free herself; her ex-husband was an abusive alcoholic, and she knew what my mom’s boyfriend did to us, knew what kind of freedom I needed.
And in that bathroom, I knew it too, knew what had been following me my whole life. Though my parents had raised us without church, I followed my school friends to Mass, vacation Bible school, charismatic prayer services where women fell over in the aisles, their bodies rocking in Holy Ghost seizures.
And in that bathroom, I prayed out loud for the first time, the fluorescent light falling against the gray stall door. “Okay,” I said. “Jesus, okay.”
I have been saying “okay” ever since. Because that’s what it feels like—a long series of “okays,” a continual bowing to mysteries both theological and spiritual.
And the bowing is not some romantic mysticism; it is serious, difficult, daily work to believe, to pray the old Gospel prayer: Lord, help my unbelief.
Many spiritual writers revel in the act of asking questions without realizing what questions put at stake: your life, and mine. My questions about the church, our sacraments and practices, our answers to others’ questions, have tunneled through these past ten years with serious, violent force.
And so have my many answers to those questions. I shudder to think of the Catholic bashing I did as a young evangelical, or the subsequent bashing of evangelicals that I’ve done as I’ve journeyed further into Protestantism.
And I won’t ever forget the hours I spent in Borders, scanning the theology reference books for answers: was that bathroom prayer enough to make my salvation sure? Were the icons that I got in Greece simply beautiful pictures, or did they open into something else? Something holy?
It is easy to hide behind the aura of asking questions, to live ambiguously, without root, without answer. And it is equally easy to cling to the tight answer, the rigid, angry question.
It is more difficult to live with mystery—not because we get to throw up our hands and say “We don’t know,” but because the richness of the Gospel wraps itself around us in so many indiscernible ways. Because our incomprehension of what is glorious and true is so vast and deep. So constant.
I thought that, once I prayed in that bathroom, all my yearning and aching would be answered. When I told my pastor this a few weeks ago, she laughed and shook her head.
“We are never done, Allison,” she said, her cropped hair reflecting silver in the coffee shop window. “You think that you’ve reached some point of closure, and then you’re off again.”
Ten years in, I know that my life has always been in God’s grip, that my days were fashioned ahead of me. But things are still so dim, as I pray and seek, and try to listen. Try to keep saying “okay.”
My neighborhood wraps around St. Thomas the Apostle Church, a wealthier Catholic parish of Grand Rapids. I walk Buddy around it every day, my eyes tracing the brick corridors, the Latin words carved above the doors of the sanctuary.
I walk there because it’s a comfortable route for Buddy, far from busy intersections, my neighbors’ flowerbeds bursting with yellow and cornflower blue.
But in front of the church is a tree, its trunk split open to the inner wood, smooth and white. Carpenter ants and sap line the edges of the tree’s wound, and the bark is cracked, red, rough.
I come to the tree daily, aware of what apostle stands behind me as I push my fingers past the bark, my hand in the tree’s side.
It is a brief, daily pilgrimage. Ten years from now, I do not know what questions will deepen within me, what other confusions will clog my heart and mind.
Lord, help me. Let the old song be a quiet, constant prayer. I believe. I believe.