By Jennifer Fulwiler
As I stood in the warm glow of a church on the cold night of Easter Vigil 2007, only seconds away from receiving the Eucharist for the first time, I was overwhelmed with one terrifying thought: how very close I came to not being there at all.
Not only did I come from a background of lifelong atheism, but I was a worst-case scenario in terms of potential for conversion: I was raised in an atheist family and, until my late 20s, it had never once occurred to me that God might exist -- not even as a child. I'd never said a prayer in my life, and was so ignorant of Christian doctrines that I didn't know that Easter was a celebration of the Resurrection until I heard it in a class in college. I thought religion was nothing more than fairy tales, and categorized God and Jesus as no different than Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I wasn't searching. I didn't feel like anything was missing. I was just a happy, confident atheist.
How I got from that place to the Roman Catholic Church has always been something of a mystery to me. I know the series of events that took place, of course: My husband believed in God, and that piqued my interest since he's one of the smartest people I know; after we had children I wanted to make sure that whatever I taught them about religion was true, so I started investigating my own atheistic beliefs -- for the first time, with humility; then, despite actively avoiding any works by Christians, I accidentally stumbled across some Christian apologetics books that made a surprisingly reasonable defense of belief in God and Jesus his Son.
This kicked off a months-long reading and research spree in which I found, to my great shock, that there was one religious belief system that had all the coldly logical rationality of atheism yet did a better job of capturing the entire human experience, that explained with an uncanny perfection and consistency not just the material world but nonmaterial realities like love and suffering and sin: the belief system of the Catholic Church.
I thought about this series of events in the weeks after I entered the Church, and the reality of how very easily I could have taken a different path weighed heavily on my mind. There were a thousand places where one misstep would have taken me down an entirely different road. It occurred to me that it was almost as if some magnet had been implanted in me, slowly drawing me closer and closer to the Catholic Church, even when I was surrounded by countless opportunities to fall back into my comfortable atheistic ways.
A few months after the thought first occurred to me at Easter Vigil, I was getting ready to go to our church to finally have my children baptized, and I asked once again, "How did I get here?" Though I had said it as much to myself as to God, I opened a long-forgotten drawer to look for a scarf and saw something that I believe was a direct answer to my question: my own baptism candle.
Because it was never discussed in my family, I often forgot that I was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant. My maternal grandparents were Catholic, and it was part of their culture to have babies baptized. After we walked out of the church that day when I was six months old I never again went to church with my parents, and wouldn't even know what a "Mass" was until I heard about it in adulthood. Yet in that moment when the priest poured holy water over my head, I was sealed with a mark of belonging to Christ, an indelible mark that not even a life as an unrepentant sinner and avowed atheist could wipe away.
As I rolled the candle over in my hands that afternoon, looking at this symbol of a light that darkness cannot overcome, I realized that all those "coincidences" that happened during my conversion were the workings of grace in my soul to lead me to my home, a home I never even knew I had. In this new light it suddenly seemed like a perfectly natural course of events that I would be led through the treacherous landscape of my godless life and into the arms of Christ; after all, I had belonged to him all along.
Jennifer Fulwiler lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and four young children. She writes about her experiences with faith after a life of atheism at ConversionDiary.com.