The God I grew up with was a tame Lion, more cat than beast, more comfortable than dangerous.
When I set off for college at Florida State University, I decided that regardless of how casually I took God, I would at least try to make it to church each Sunday. Whether out of habit or to placate my mom and girlfriend, I felt compelled to at least show up. When the first Sunday rolled around I played denominational roulette, allowing chance to determine my church-of-choice. In practice, that meant rolling out of bed and attending the church closest to my dorm. Providentially, that church ended up being the FSU Wesley Foundation, the Methodist campus ministry.
During my first couple of years, I just attended the Sunday services at the Wesley Foundation--nothing more. But after repeated invitations and dwindling excuses, I began participating in other groups and activities.
This ignited my spirituality. As I entered into this church community, I increasingly felt closer to God. At times I heard God's voice in prayer, in worship I felt I was adoring a real Person and not a phantom, and in Scripture I discovered a Lover on a relentless pursuit. I was in small-groups that revealed the Holy Spirit through the healing and holiness he brought. And I had a pastor, Vance Rains, who encouraged me more than anyone to take seriously the claims of Jesus.
About this time, I also entered into another community. I befriended a group of homeless guys at a local lake, hanging out with them at least once a week throughout my final college years. Like my friends at Wesley, these men caused another dramatic shift in my spirituality. During our times together, things I considered important just became insignificant. When I bemoaned my broken computer, my frustrating design project, or the recent football loss, these troubles just seemed to fade into oblivion even as they rolled off my tongue--not because they weren't legitimate, but because they just weren't important. I began seeing my life through the lens of a different Story, one where my agenda, my worries, and my happiness weren't at the center of the plot.
My lake friends also taught me what it really means to be "poor in spirit", and how those types of people can possibly be blessed. These were some of the most joyful, unpretentious men I knew, content despite sleeping on park benches and sifting through trash to find their dinner. They stirred a passion within me for social justice, allowing me to discover the outward ramifications of my inward conversion. The Wesley Foundation brought me into the story of Jesus. My lake friends added others to the tale, while pulling my own ego out.
Back at the Wesley Foundation--as in many Evangelical circles—there was a resurgence in classical spirituality. Hearing recommendations of Chesterton, Merton, Mother Teresa, and Augustine became regular. And ancient spiritual practices like 'lectio divina' and 'Lenten fasting' became fresh streams for thirsty souls.
As I engaged these authors and practices, though, I couldn't avoid a nagging theme: the Catholic tradition lurking behind so many of these gems. I thought, 'If so many of these spiritual giants were Catholic, and if so many of these practices stem from the Catholic tradition, then there must be some truth to the Catholic faith'. How could Chesterton and Augustine be so right about everything except their religion? Were the Catholic vows shared by Teresa and Merton a foundation or a hindrance to their profound spirituality? And there was another theme that echoed again and again: the Eucharist. What to make of this "Eucharist" that so many of these masters counted as gold? These questions—along with a proposal to my Catholic girlfriend--convinced me to seriously explore the Catholic faith.
The Eucharist really catalyzed my probing. It was an unavoidable hinge. Many of the holiest saints claimed the Eucharist as their fuel, and in her Catechism, the Church proclaimed it as the "source and summit" of her Faith. What I understood as just a symbol, they deemed to be God himself, hidden in bread. I read the writings of Christians throughout the ages, from the earliest church fathers to modern commentaries, searching for the truth about this sacrament.
Despite not wanting to believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus, I couldn't help but avoid the conclusions from the data. The earliest Christians believed in this Real Presence, as did the greatest Saints and many of the most brilliant theologians and spiritual masters today.
Once I found the Church that had the real presence of Jesus pulsating at the center of her Faith, I was hooked. This Divine Lure drew me into the Catholic Church in 2008 at the Easter Vigil, a Mass attended by many of my friends from the Wesley Foundation and even my gracious pastor, Vance.
Following graduation and marriage, I discovered a great friend, Bert Ghezzi, who brought me into a third transformative community: the communion of Saints. Through conversations with Bert, and his many books on the Saints, I found a whole group of friends and heroes. Each Saint I discovered was as intimidating, alluring, and energizing as Jesus himself, and each taught me something unique.
I learned wonder from Chesterton, holiness from Therese, and ordinary sanctity from Escriva. I learned logic from Kreeft, courage from Lawrence, and while Lewis baptized my imagination, Tolkien christened it Catholic. Merton, Teresa, and Nouwen ushered me into new depths of prayer. And my passion for social justice was inflamed by Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and the writings of recent Popes.
These people changed me. They gave clout to the Church they followed, the Church that seemed to double as a saint-factory. They showed me Jesus and his Church as one, a visible head and a visible body that no man could separate. Things like the Theology of the Body, the Church's moral teachings, and her orientation toward compassion also drew me into the arms of the Church.
Over the years, these discoveries radically changed my relationship with God. I now see Him as demanding, because he wants every bit of my life, not satisfied with me as a "half-saint". He is now a lover, luring my heart through the seduction of the Eucharist. And I no longer see Him as a disinterested master, but as a king who sets foot on the battlefield to fight evil with every fiber in His being.
My conversion continues today. I am heavily involved with social-justice activities in my parish, primarily because of my friends at the lake. I am leading some groups in town that aim to attract young adults to God, a desire birthed during my time at the Wesley Foundation. And as I've read more of the great spiritual masters, I've become drawn toward writing about the Faith myself—both through blogging and a new book that will soon be released.
Looking back, it's clear that God was always on the move, leading me to where I am now. It took community, the sacraments, the Saints, and a big dose of Divine Providence to stimulate my conversion. Without those elements—without Him—God would still be a safe, declawed kitten. But now I hear his roar, now I feel his strength. And now, finally, I've been caught by the Lion who has always been in pursuit.
"He gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion." – Revelation 10:3
Brandon Vogt is a 24-year old Catholic writer who blogs at The Thin Veil. He is also the author of "The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops who Tweet", which will be released in August 2011 by Our Sunday Visitor. Brandon and his wonderful wife Kathleen live in Florida where they are attempting to raise two saints: the prophetic Isaiah and the contemplative Teresa.