Before Dulles could make his final act of faith in 1940, a full year elapsed, as he began his law courses at Harvard. “It was necessary,” he writes, “to put away every doubt and to commit oneself without reservation. Christ constantly insisted on this act of unqualified faith as an essential step” (Ibid., 59). Yet, he writes, that “it was a reasonable sacrifice for how else could one consent to follow Christ with that singleness of devotion which He, as God, could rightfully exact?” As we see, Dulles’ path into the Catholic Church “was straight, but it was long and steep” (Ibid., 48). His decision was a leap of faith that resulted from a convergence of mounting evidence that had come together toward the center, Christ and his Church transcended his reason for and his reason against becoming a Catholic. He attributes the assent to God’s grace. For him, the act of faith presented a stumbling block because he had been trained in the habits of skepticism. Because he valued his intellectual honesty, he could not bring himself to surrender just yet what he valued most.
Through his act of faith, Dulles’ intellect made a subjective certainty out of an objective probability, though this was a sacrifice of reason itself, a faculty he much prized. It was a reasonable sacrifice because he saw the good it held out for his spiritual well-being. With the dynamism of his will, he assented to Catholic faith. Dulles again: “That I did eventually make the act of faith is attributable solely to the grace of God. I could never have done so by my own power” (Ibid., 60). Avery Cardinal Dulles died in 2008.
Sudden Conversions: Saul of Tarsus, Paul Claudel, and André Frossard
In addition to the sudden conversion of St. Paul, there are two other noteworthy conversions: the sudden conversions of two French writers, Paul Claudel and André Frossard. Their conversions are two of the most stunning examples of God’s grace striking two men who had no desire and no knowledge of such extraordinary graces.
Paul Claudel (d 1955) was moved to conversion at the age of eighteen when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books and arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor, to tell the truth, have they even touched it.”
The conversion of the atheist writer André Frossard (d 1995) is one of the most amazing of the twentieth century. At the age of twenty, finding himself in a chapel waiting for a friend, Frossard experienced an explosion of light emanating from the Blessed Sacrament. In two minutes, his life changed entirely. Frossard narrates: “Having entered a chapel in the Latin Quarter of Paris at 5:10 in the morning to look for a friend, I left at a quarter after five in the company of a friendship that was not of this earth. Having entered a skeptical atheist, indifferent and preoccupied with so many things other than God to Whom I never even gave a thought even to deny. My gaze passed . . . (unaware that I was standing in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament). And at that point, suddenly a series of miracles unfolded whose indescribable force shattered in an instant the absurd being that I was, to bring to birth the amazed child that I had never been. At first, the hint of these words, Spiritual Life came to me as if they had been pronounced in a whisper to me ... then a great light … a world, another world of a radiance and a destiny that in one stroke cast our world among the fragile shadows of unfulfilled dreams . . . of which I felt all the sweetness . . . a sweetness that was active and upsetting beyond every form of violence, capable to breaking the hardest stone and that which is even harder than stone – the human heart. Its overflowing eruption, so complete, was accompanied by a joy which is the exultation of the saved, the of the shipwrecked who is picked up just in time. These sensation which I find difficult to translate into a language which cannot capture these ideas and images, were all simultaneous. Everything is dominated by the Presence of Him of Whom I would never be able to write His name without fear of harming its tenderness, of Him before Whom I have had the good fortune to be a forgiven child who wakes up to discover that everything is a gift. God existed and was present. One thing only surprised me. The Eucharist! Not that it seemed incredible, but it amazed me that Divine Charity would have come upon the silent way to communicate Himself, and above all that He would choose to become bread, which is the staple of the poor and the food preferred by children. O Divine Love, eternity will be too short to speak of You.” Frossard writes of his conversion in God Exists: I Met Him.
The Mystery of Faith
On many college campuses, the renewed interest in faith and spirituality has not necessarily translated into increased attendance at religious services. Still, in a world as robustly religious as ours, a college education is woefully incomplete if it does not offer some familiarity with the Bible and world religions.
Religious literacy requires the study of non-belief as well. Atheism is part of the religious conversation, and we cannot understand religions in the modern West without taking atheism into account. It is essential to know the basic doctrines, practices, and stories of the world’s great faith-traditions and of atheism as well. But it is also essential to know how these believers and non-believers feel and think, and think about what others think about them – the kind of knowledge that requires imagination, empathy or, what colleges often provide, real encounters. Why people who were formerly men and women of faith can assert: “I no longer believe,” “I no longer practice any religion,” remains a mystery that can be answered only in the solitude of their hearts.