By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published February 22, 2022
A friend from my graduate-school days emailed me that one of our philosophy professors had died. This man was a lifelong atheist, so I’m praying he had a change of heart as he was dying.
Some conversion stories reveal how God extends grace to everyone, even people like my professor, who staunchly deny his existence. One is about journalist Andre Frossard, who was born in 1915 in France and definitely didn’t believe in God.
One day, he and a friend were out driving, and the friend stopped at a chapel. At first Andre stayed in the car, but when he grew tired of waiting, he went inside. He didn’t realize it, but adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was taking place.
As he gazed at the cross on the altar, he heard an inner voice saying “spiritual life.” In a breathtaking vision, he saw “an indestructible crystal, totally transparent, luminous….a different world, whose brilliance and density made our world seem like the wraith of an unfulfilled dream.”
Andre instantly accepted the existence of the person Christians call “our Father.” He knew this person was gentle, but powerful enough to break through the walls of his stony heart. He was filled with joy, which he compared to a drowning man being rescued at the last moment.
Walking with his friend later, he said, “God exists. It’s all true.” Andre was baptized a Catholic at age 20, and went on to write thousands of newspaper articles and several books on religion.
Another atheist, also born in 1915, had a more gradual conversion experience. Thomas Merton had grown up regarding Catholicism with suspicion and fear. As a university student in New York City in February of 1937, he bought a book without realizing it had the seal of approval from the Catholic Church.
Once he recognized his error, he wanted to throw away “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy,” but instead he read it, and was persuaded of God’s existence. As he put it, “Those who believed in Him really believed in someone.”
This book opened him up to prayer, but his conversion had just begun. One friend recommended he read “The Imitation of Christ” and “The Confessions” by St. Augustine, which he did. He also began studying the poetry of the Jesuit priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who celebrated God’s presence in creation. One poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” mentions how we glimpse divinity in other people: “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”
On a Sunday in August, 1938, Merton heard a voice saying “Go to Mass!” He broke a date with his girlfriend and headed to the Church of Corpus Christi, where he was immediately struck by the sight of people deep in prayer. The stirring sermon was exactly what he needed to hear, since the priest affirmed the truth of Christ’s divinity.
When he left that church, he wrote, “I could not understand what it was that had happened to make me so happy, why I was so much at peace, so content with life.” He became a Catholic three months later, entered the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky in 1941 and became a prolific writer.
Both these conversion stories show how God offers grace as a gift, which we can either ignore or accept. Andre Frossard could have stayed in the car, but he followed the impulse that led him into the chapel.
Thomas Merton could have thrown away the Catholic book, and ignored his friend’s recommendations about other books. He could have met his girlfriend that day, rather than heeding the voice that drew him to Mass.
The Good Shepherd keeps an eye on the lambs that traipse down treacherous paths. God will nudge us to change our lives, but we must respond to this grace. One of my favorite biblical quotes is “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
Let’s pray we’ll respond to God’s gentle voice in our hearts. Let’s pray for the atheists we know, that they will find God. And let’s pray my professor heard God’s voice as he was dying and let him into his heart.