Conscience and Reason: Sohrab Ahmari’s Conversion Story

 

I do not write a weekly review for any publication. Ahem. I don’t even read a book a week (who are you people and don’t you have responsibilities?!). But, this book I finished in under a week — couldn’t put it down: Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of Ahmari until I heard him interviewed on Andrew Klavan’s podcast last week. He seems to have written for every conservative outlet (and some not so conservative) and he names a slew of prominent conservatives and small-o orthodox Catholics I’m familiar with in the acknowledgments, so I’m not sure how I missed him up until now. But, I found his story very relatable, although mine is a much humbler, more hidden life than his. I’ve always felt that I was “imprinted” on the Holy Spirit at Baptism, like a duckling to its mother (I know, the Church teaches it’s the Holy Spirit who does the imprinting, but you know what I mean). That’s the conscience part of my return to the faith of my parents — the irresistible pull toward beauty, goodness, and truth.

The reason part of me took longer to come around — a lot longer. I was a “pro-choice,” knee-jerk lefty (emphasis on jerk) from high school through engineering school (engineers have all the answers — pffft) up until after I had my firstborn at age thirty-six — when I finally started to doubt myself. I participated in similar drunken debauchery described by Ahmari in my first two years of college, but he definitely wins for scope and duration. I wasn’t intellectually-inclined enough to have read Nietzsche or Marx (still not) or to become a card-carrying Communist like Ahmari. Nor did I have an exotic background as an immigrant from a Muslim-dominant country (Iran). Mine was a lazy, unthinking atheist-leftism which, I suppose, makes my lost years worse in a sense (lukewarm) and my conversion to Christ less powerful than his. But, his experience of the Mass, and especially the recapitulation of Christ’s Passion in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, brought back memories of how I’d weep and tremble after receiving the Lord in Eucharist in the months after my return to communion with the Church. Here’s an excerpt:

Even at that moment, with my deep spiritual longing, there was a part of me that scoffed at the sacred mysteries. While a young guy with an acoustic guitar and a manbun led the parishioners in singing various hymns, the thought that crossed my mind was: You’re too smart for this. What if someone I knew spotted me? Then I would forever be counted among the ranks of these gullible saps. But all of a sudden, the singing and strumming dissolved into that all-encompassing serenity, and something extraordinary happened.

“On the night he was betrayed,” said the friar, “he took bread and gave thanks and praise. He broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat it, for this is my body which will be given up for you.'”

Then he held up with both hands a little white disk (I didn’t know it was bread), a bell rang out thrice, and I felt waves of peace wash over me. I was as still as a statue. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my face. These were tears neither of sadness nor even of happiness. They were tears of peace.

Now the friar held up a golden cup. The bell rang thrice more. My silent tears gave way to choked sobs. I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force — a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death, the idea that had made my heart tremble ever since I was a boy. I was aware, too, of my own abjection and smallness, which made me think that I didn’t belong in the presence of this holy thing. Not sixteen hours earlier, I had drunk myself into a stupor. I had willingly degraded myself. Now I dared to show up here? And yet, peace continued to radiate from the altar and from the friar’s words and hands. I covered my face and bent over in my pew. I did not kneel.

As Ahmari is leaving the church, he sees a photograph in the vestibule of Pope Benedict XVI smiling and waving to the audience in St. Peter’s square, which sets off another bout of weeping, and leads to a hilarious interchange with the friar who witnesses the whole thing. Ahmari again,

Of course, I knew that the pope wasn’t God! But then why had his picture brought tears to my eyes? It wasn’t so much who Benedict was — I had yet to read any of his writings — as what he stood for. For a twenty-three-year-old groping his way through the mess of modern life, and the mess he had made of his own life, Pope Benedict XVI stood for the principle of continuous, even absolute, authority — the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, in other words, which the pope embodied, and which shone through his portrait. I longed for stable authority as well as redemption.

This episode is not the end of Ahmari’s conversion story. He still needs to experience more human depravity in the form of the migrant smugglers’ trail from the Middle East to Europe by going undercover and infiltrating a group in Turkey with the help of a fellow Iranian who happens to be a Christian convert. It is the darkness of fallen human nature which finally convinces him of his need for God.

It’s a remarkable story. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. Underground Conservative Coolidge
    Underground Conservative
    @UndergroundConservative

    Dang, I gotta read this. 

    • #1
  2. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Underground Conservative (View Comment):

    Dang, I gotta read this.

    There’s so much worth repeating, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I will give this little bit as a further tease:

    My time in Ehsan’s safe house shattered what was left of my faith in perfectibility and progress and the bland secular universalism that is the lingua franca of Western elites. Human nature was so much more unfathomable and horrible, than all that. There, in that shabby corner of working-class Istanbul, I discovered a portal to the lower depths of human misery. Ehsan’s house was a kind of charnel pit or Sheol, though the people in it were yet alive. It was a void, though it existed within the boundaries of space and time. It was a on fire with degradation — and sin.

    […]

    There was only one escape hatch that led out of the infernal prison in which my soul was trapped, and it happened to be cruciform in shape.

    • #2
  3. Scott Wilmot Member
    Scott Wilmot
    @ScottWilmot

    I first learned of Ahmari from the Commentary Magazine podcast. He was a refreshing voice there. He was also interviewed on the Flagship podcast. Whenever Peter would address him he pronounced his name so that it sounded like “So, Rob”. And every time I would think, why is he asking Rob a question, he has this great guest on. 

    Anyways. Conversion stories are wonderful and I am glad you shared some of yours. Yours is a voice of reason here at Ricochet – on both politics and faith. Keep up the good work.

    • #3
  4. Burwick Chiffswiddle Member
    Burwick Chiffswiddle
    @Kephalithos

    I, too, am reading From Fire by Water. It’s as riveting and beautiful as suggested — though, I must say, the Ahmari–French spat has thrown a bit of cold water (pun intended) on the whole experience.

    Sohrab Ahmari is like the converts I’ve met (and whose books I’ve read). His writing is saturated with a sense of striving — the sort of yearning for meaning which is, I think, a prerequisite for the religious life. (Agnostics rarely convert; militant atheists do. That’s not an accident.)

    • #4
  5. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Burwick Chiffswiddle (View Comment):

    I, too, am reading From Fire by Water. It’s as riveting and beautiful as suggested — though, I must say, the Ahmari–French spat has thrown a bit of cold water (pun intended) on the whole experience.

    Sohrab Ahmari is like the converts I’ve met (and whose books I’ve read). His writing is saturated with a sense of striving — the sort of yearning for meaning which is, I think, a prerequisite for the religious life. (Agnostics rarely convert; militant atheists do. That’s not an accident.)

    Good point. I hadn’t thought of that before, but I think you’re right.

    • #5
  6. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Western Chauvinist: I suppose, makes my lost years worse in a sense (lukewarm) and my conversion to Christ less powerful than his

    When someone truly comes to Christ, that is always powerful, no matter how boring your life may have been before that. So no testimony envy . . .

     

    • #6
  7. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Western Chauvinist: I suppose, makes my lost years worse in a sense (lukewarm) and my conversion to Christ less powerful than his

    When someone truly comes to Christ, that is always powerful, no matter how boring your life may have been before that. So no testimony envy . . .

     

    “Testimony envy.” Ha!

    • #7
  8. Chris Hutchinson Coolidge
    Chris Hutchinson
    @chrishutch13

    Scott Wilmot (View Comment):

    I first learned of Ahmari from the Commentary Magazine podcast. He was a refreshing voice there. He was also interviewed on the Flagship podcast. Whenever Peter would address him he pronounced his name so that it sounded like “So, Rob”. And every time I would think, why is he asking Rob a question, he has this great guest on.

    Anyways. Conversion stories are wonderful and I am glad you shared some of yours. Yours is a voice of reason here at Ricochet – on both politics and faith. Keep up the good work.

    I agree on both points, Scott. Really good post, Western Chauvinist. I always enjoy your posts and I always enjoy testimonies.

    I came into contact with Sohrab a bit earlier than the Commentary podcast. He tweeted something that ruffled my feathers some and we had an exchange; not a contentious one, a thought-provoking one. I started listening to the podcast shortly after that and always liked him, even when I disagreed, which wasn’t often, he had a different take on things than John, Noah and Abe that I thought added much to the podcast. Quite frankly, I only listened to a few episodes after he left.

    • #8