My name is Michael, and I am new here – greetings to all! I suppose I should add that I am not only new to Walking Christian, but new to Christianity as a whole. The story of my coming to Christ can really be summed up in one of my favourite Bible verses, Matthew 7:7: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you”. It’s a favourite of mine for its deceptive simplicity; it puts the destination and answers in such an accessible place, and in that sense is so reassuring. And yet hidden within it are riddles which you have to unravel for yourself; how should you ask? Where, and for what should you be seeking?
I was born and raised by two atheist parents, both of whom sit squarely on the liberal side of both social and political views. My father is about as atheistic as a person can be, and is a big fan of Marxism. His interests lie more in political philosophy than the philosophy of religion however (as the Marx interest may indicate). It was in sociology and political philosophy that he earned his degree many years back. My mother is also an atheist, albeit not such a strong atheist as my father. She has a profound love of education, not just her own but in that which she can provide for others (a graduate of Cambridge, she has now been a teacher for many years). Ironically in hindsight this was perhaps the best situation I could possibly have been born into from the perspective of finding God, and I have no doubt that this was a part of His plan for me. You see, while both of my parents consider themselves atheists, they also believe PROFOUNDLY in freedom of choice and religion. As such, they raised me to always make up my own mind about things. They are both lovers of philosophy, education and travel and tried to raise me and my brother in a very well rounded way. They believed in providing us with the tools and ability to reason and form our own ideas and beliefs, rather than providing us with the ideas and beliefs themselves. This meant that when I began my search, it was always MY search. I was never simply reciting beliefs or ideas that were foisted onto me, and right at the outset I wish to say that I am very grateful for being fortunate enough to have the freedom to come to God myself in my own time.
Up until about the age of 16, I would say that I was an atheist but I was more the apathetic atheist than the genuine “there is definitely no God” atheist. That is, I had simply never really cared about religion. As my parents were atheists religious ceremonies or practices had never played any big part in my life, and as a child I had not acquired that capacity for real thinking yet – so it had never been an issue for me. At 16 I had only just really come to an age of genuine, independent critical thinking so this was the first time I took notice of such things. It began more with an interest in philosophy than in religion specifically. I started to read the philosophy of ancient Greece which fascinated me (I couldn’t put down Plato’s Republic once I had started it). Over some time I read more and more philosophy and was amazed at how sometimes I would happen upon an idea that I myself might have toyed with – and would be yet more amazed if I discovered an idea that I had never thought of in my wildest dreams (this is the arrogance of the teen philosopher – usually last into the early 20′s, but some manage to retain it for their entire lives!). Through this read I found myself taking more of an interest in the philosophy of religion. By this time I would have been about 18, and was spending greater portions of the day in pure thought. It was a glorious time because I was on that cusp between the obligations of school and the responsibilities of adult life, which afford me great freedom to just sit for great lengths of time either thinking or writing. This was the first time I would say that I called myself a genuine atheist. I firmly believed that there was no God, and spent great amounts of time debating the matter over the next 4 years (debating not only
with others, but with myself). The yearning for me at this point was to find truth; something inside me was telling me that there was truth of some kind beneath the surface of the everyday world and the fire that kept me searching was the desire to find that truth.
During that 4 year period, I remember I came close to conversion once. I felt a force pressing on me, and felt like I was close to a massive turning point in my life. It was an incredible experience that I had only had a handful of time prior to my conversion; this overwhelming sensation that I was on the verge of something enormous. I felt I was about to realise something massive and that spurred me on (like getting your second wind towards the end of a race). I was reading more Catholic material, and had also become fascinated (almost to the point of obsession) with Gandhi – a man who I felt had found that truth that I was after. The man had a remarkable philosophy on life which depended on an interesting mix of his own Hindu beliefs, but also those of Christianity – he remains one of my greatest heroes to this day. I felt that if I could learn from him, that I could tap into what he had found. Tolstoy was a big influence on me at this time as well. The whole thing was a religious experience for me, and an eye opening experience. But I know I was not ready at that time. I had seen a glimpse but my heart was not ready to open to it yet. I lapsed into a confused agnosticism which caused great spiritual frustration for me at that time.
One of the biggest turning points at this stage was that I met my girlfriend (of now 4 years!). She herself is a Baptist Christian, and always tried to encourage me in my own search without pushing anything on me. She was always willing to answer questions that I had relating to her religious beliefs (as much as it probably drove her insane, she knew I was a very curious person and tended to ask lots of questions).
She was with me through the darkest time in my life; the point where the search seemed futile. I began reading some existentialist writings, and I found that most of the classical existentialist thinkers had evinced this MASSIVE problem…….and yet none seemed to offer a solution (or rather, none offered a solution that satisfied me personally). This dragged me down and down into very dark and hopeless places, where everything seemed utterly pointless. I was diagnosed with clinical depression at that time, and at rock bottom I spent much of my time crying. I had suicidal thoughts on a couple of occasions; not emotional thoughts but coldly logical thoughts. Camus had asked the question if suicide was the only logical conclusion to life’s apparent pointlessness – and I was toying with “yes” as an answer to that question. My girlfriend was my support at that time, and she was with me always to help me through. I realise in hindsight that God was with me also, even at my lowest point.
There was one existentialist thinker who fascinated me and seemed not to sink into the despair that many of the others did, and that was Kierkegaard. He was a man who valued faith above all else, and was responsible for an idea that impacted me in a big way: subjectivity is truth (and vice versa). That opened a door to me, and I began to realize the importance of the fact that the world as we experience it is completely subjective. Not relative (in this sense anyway) but subjective. That is, two people could view the same event and could be affected in two completely different ways by it. This was a big turning point, as it pushed “free will” to the foreground, in terms of importance. I had always liked the Stoic idea of happiness being derived from distinguishing between the things we can control, and the things we can’t – and ceasing to worry so much about the latter. Now here I was, beginning to realise that a large part of the cause of my depression…..was myself. Or rather the patterns of thinking that I had adopted. This led to the conclusion that I could choose to break those patters, even create new ones.
This put the control back in my hands, so to speak. I began to tell myself that if I was going to break the cycle of negative thinking that I was in, I would have to FORCE myself to see certain things from a different perspective. I thought back to the last time I experienced the closest thing to peace, during the time of my obsession with Gandhi. I tried to pin down what I had done differently, and realised that it was exactly that: I had always chosen to try and see something positive in everyone and everything. The key point being that I had CHOSEN to. I had made these choices, and as a result it became habitual: I started to see things positively without effort. It’s comforting now to think that through all that time that things seemed completely open ended to me – God’s hand was on me. He knew all along where it was leading, and He was allowing my choices to unfold and for me to gradually understand them. Exactly like a parent raising a child!
By this time my passion was thoroughly renewed and massive things were changing for me, the biggest relating to the verse I began with. “Ask and you shall receive”. You see, I came to the realisation that up until this point, I had been asking with my head. I had been trying to find God in books, debates and reasoning. I thought that there must be some way for me to reach this hidden truth I was seeking by simply thinking about it, and proving it one way or another. Now I found the obstacle: myself. Well, more specifically my heart. I had been asking for some time now, but only with my head and never my heart. My realisation was that you cannot find God while your head is open but your heart is closed. Your head (or rather your mind) is capable of incredible things, but it doesn’t drive you. It does the work, but it doesn’t provide you the FIRE that drives the work. Your heart is in fact where the “real” you lies, and your mind is a brilliant tool that “you” can utilise (so long as you remember who’s in charge!). This was it, now I was really knocking at the door, and I could feel I was back on that cusp that I had been before. I could feel God pressing on my heart, and I was going to listen this time.
He knew that this time I was ready, and He told me exactly what I needed to do in no uncertain terms: so I typed into Google the words “New Zealand Monastery”, and clicked on the first link that came up. I was acting now on pure faith, I had no idea what to expect or what I even expected to get from this, I only knew that God wanted me to do it. So I contacted the monastery and arranged to stay for one week beginning the day after my 26th birthday.
The apparent insanity of what I was doing was brought home to me when I stepped off the bus after a 12 hour bus journey. It was pitch black, and I was in the middle of nowhere in a forest. A few meters in front of the bus was a single car with an old man stood by it – Father Niko had arranged to meet me to drive me the rest of the way to the monastery. As I got into his car, the thought raced through my mind “I am getting into a complete strangers car in the middle of a forest at night – and I have no idea where he is going to take me”. Suffice it to say I was a little apprehensive.
The week I spent at the monastery could not be put into words even if I tried my best. I stayed in a small hermitage a little way away from the main monastery; it was a tiny (and I mean tiny) little building in the middle of the forest. It had the essentials: electricity, hot water, a fridge containing milk, bread, margarine, and a cupboard with a couple of varieties of cereal and some tea and coffee. And that was it! In the mornings and at several interludes throughout the day you could attend worship in the monastery, singing in Gregorian chant with the monks. There were two meals a day prepared by the monks themselves which everybody attended. And the rest of the time I spent in the forest studying, meditating and praying. I met many wonderful people, some of whom I am sure I will remain friends with – and I gained the wisdom of a spiritual director, in Brother John. Our conversations in the garden house come rain and shine will be with me forever. The experiences I had at the monastery were like nothing before and nothing since – and I shan’t detail them here as I intend to keep them entirely personal for the rest of my life. Suffice it to say that they were profoundly spiritual, religious experiences which left me in absolutely no doubt as to where my path lay. I had knocked, and at that monastery God well and truly opened the door (and funnily enough, I can see him opening that door and saying to me “you’re right on time!”).
Coming back from the monastery was a huge challenge, because I now had to carry those experiences back with me into the hectic confusion that is day to day life. But I had direction now, and had asked Christ into my heart – with Jesus I knew what to do, and began my search for a church. I wanted to be baptized into the church of Christ. The beauty of this time was that I did not even need to think. At every point here I knew what the next step was and what I was supposed to do, and I knew this only because He told me and I listened.
The finding of my church was another blessing from God; I catch the bus to and from work every day, and this one particular day I turn the corner to the bus stop and look up. Somehow I had never seen this before, but on the side of this building (I don’t even know what it was, it certainly wasn’t a church) was written in big blue letters “Jesus is Lord”. I turned around, and right behind me stood St Peters Anglican Church. I must have passed this church a thousand times on my way to work and never paid attention to it. But on this day I knew that I saw these two things for a reason, and said to myself “Lord, I hear you loud and clear!”. And so I began attending church there every Sunday, regularly meeting with the Vicar (a wonderful lady by the name of Anne Priestley – couldn’t be a more appropriate name for a Vicar!). And I am pleased to say that last weekend I was baptized into the church of Christ, in front of my parents, my sponsors (Godparents for adults), and my new family at the Church of St Peters.
Almighty God, I thank you from the deepest part of my heart and soul for your unending love. I thank you for my journey which You knew I had to make, and I thank you for always pressing on my heart and coming to me – whether it be directly, or through the people in my life. Most of all I thank you that by your infinite grace and mercy, and through the sacrifice of your perfect and only son Jesus Christ, I have been saved. Amen.