It seems that “cradle” Catholics are more interested in conversion stories than converts are. Perhaps they enjoy the experience of seeing the faith in which they were born and reared affirmed, perhaps it strengthens their own fidelity. As a convert, I’m not as interested, though I have noticed from time to time that initial conversion most often seems to be intellectual. Actual spiritual conversion may occur sometime later. C.S. Lewis was converted intellectually by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. His spiritual conversion occurred only later when he was alone in his rooms. One is always alone, literally or figuratively, in spiritual conversion.

But perhaps it never occurs at all. Perhaps it simply grows emotionally, as cultural and communal life gains endearment over time—in institutions and conventions like marriage and child-rearing within the Church. What becomes familiar becomes “loved,” needed actually, because, like all animals, we are attached, bonded, to what is familiar and dependably safe. That’s the deeper meaning of the word home. Many converts, especially those who converted for the sake of marriage, are in this group. What we mean by “faith” is for them wholly emotional.

Sometimes, however, that “love” is shallow and unacknowledged intellectual doubt becomes too difficult to master. The reaction is often to cling to the images of things, to endow devotions with obsessiveness. The outward show of faith becomes paramount as the inner chamber where faith should live becomes ever more barren. For the emotional convert, Jesus becomes a teddy bear they’ve lost somewhere. In desperation, they cling to images of faith, outward signs of faith they no longer have. These are people, usually women, who often “coo” a lot about the Holy Spirit and are usually very active in the various ministries of the Church but who never have the time (they’re so busy) to visit a sick parishioner, or to keep a promise to call someone in distress.

This can seem almost frighteningly similar to our Lord’s description of “whited sepulchres.” But it doesn’t have to be—and what accounts for the distinction of this false pharisaic “faith” from the often salvific adherence to ritual and dogma may very well be a matter of character, or it may be an authentic intervention of the Holy Spirit. An example: One no longer believes, but one wants to believe, desires to believe above all things. If that’s the case, receive the Sacraments, do not sin, and just put one foot in front of the other. Go to Mass, receive Communion even if you don’t believe, in order that you may believe and with that intention. It’s not the road to Hell that’s paved with good intentions but the road to Heaven, because in the end, it’s our will that matters, not our deeds. These are people who may not be so active, so well-known, or so admired. They seem to care not so much about images, or how things look, as about what things actually are. They are the ones who call a sick parishioner, the ones not too busy to keep a promise.

“Lord, Lord, didn’t we [name all your activities] in Your name…?” And he will say, “Depart from me. I know ye not.” That’s terrifying. It should be.

Conversion, we’re often told, is a lifelong process. Good thing. We’re all in need of it.