Every conversion story is different, yet all of them share the same ultimate conviction: that the Catholic faith is the truth, both in what it has to say about the meaning and purpose of life as well as in its self-understanding as the one Church founded by Christ. These thoughts are stimulated by my reading From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith by Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian American, the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.
Ahmari’s journey into the Church took many twists and wrong turns. Despite his Iranian name and background, his was not a journey from Islam to Catholicism as, for instance, Derya Little describes in her account: From Islam to Christ, also published by Ignatius Press. From a liberal, middle-class Iranian family – his mother successfully protested at his having to learn long passages of the Koran by heart at school – he and his mother immigrated to the US in 1998, when he was almost 14.
Ahmari was already fluent in English, steeped in American films and popular culture and “in love with the image of an Iranian atheist intellectual” when they settled in Utah. Then follows his tragicomic description of his disillusionment with the shallow pop culture he encountered among his schoolfellows. “For all the miseries of the Islamic Republic, there at least people had something to say”, he laments, asking “Wasn’t the point of social life to discuss politics, art and ideology?”
His intellectual restlessness drove the bookish Ahmari on a solitary literary and political odyssey; first to Nietzsche’s dazzling prose-poem, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which responded to his adolescent loneliness; then to Marx (joining a local 4-man communist cell); then, as a student at Utah State University, to a copy of the King James Bible where he read St Mathew’s Gospel for the first time.
Although transfixed by St Matthew’s account of the Passion and recognising within a longing for self-sacrifice that transcended Marxist ideology, Ahmari still had several years of living the hedonistic lifestyle of the average young American, including bouts of over-drinking and hook-ups, yet often dogged by a question that haunted him: “When are you going to change?” Aged 23 he wandered into a Capuchin monastery in New York as Mass was beginning. Knowing nothing of what was happening at the altar, he found himself weeping “tears of peace” at the Consecration.
Ahmari admits that during this period his emotions and imagination “had partially assented to faith, yet my reason and intellect refused to go along.” Finally, true to his enquiring mind, “it was reading that saved me” – in particular, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, which convinced him that the Bible was unlike other literary works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, but “a living text that spoke fresh truths across a distance of 3,000 years”, and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.
Of this latter work the author simply says, “It was to this one book…that I owed, and still owe, my soul and my salvation.”
Sent by the New York Post to work in London, Ahmari again wandered into a Catholic Church, this time the Brompton Oratory. The beauty of its architecture combined with the beauty of the liturgy overwhelmed him; he knocked on the presbytery door and asked for instruction. He remarks wryly of his long search that “It was nearly unbearable to recall that I had spent a third or more of a lifetime worshipping “idols” – “the idol of “history”, the idol of “progress” and the idol of self” before his conversion. Received into the Church, aged 31, on 19 December 2016 and having by now read The Confessions, Ahmari not surprisingly took St Augustine as his patron saint.
His autobiography is a disarmingly frank and humble account of his spiritual journey; I recommend it particularly to the young men of his generation in the western world; like Ahmari longing to espouse a transcendent cause but temporarily seduced, as he was, by the fashionable idols of the age.
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