I am often asked by friends and family why I converted to the Catholic Church. They don’t want a simple answer; they want to know how and why the Church “sucked me in.” For most of my family, the response is usually one of surprise, but they are so thankful I am at least Christian now that there’s little argument against it. But for my friends, people who have known me since at least college (and sometimes longer than that), the response is often some combination of anger and bewilderment. You see, before my conversion, I was neither Protestant, or Christian, or Jewish. I was a Neopagan Witch.
But! I didn’t start out that way.
I was born into a nominally Protestant family, but shortly after my parents moved from Michigan (where my mother’s family lived) to Nash County, North Carolina, my mother was visited by a pair of Mormon missionaries. These kind, affectionate ladies brought more than a new religion to my parents’ doorstep. They brought a ready-made “family” of sorts to replace the one my mother had left behind. Mormon worship communities are extremely close-knit, and they must have seemed a welcoming godsend to my lonely mother. She converted first, my father shortly after, and I was baptized at eight years old, the Mormon age of reason. My two younger sisters were born around the same time.
By the time I was in junior high school, however, my parents had fallen away from the Mormon church and were token members at best. I was a typical unchurched teenager, with little interest in getting up early on Sunday mornings to attend any church, much less the Mormon one, and far more concerned with being cool than cultivating a relationship with God. Still, at some point I had developed an interest in religion, and living in the South with many Christian friends, I had ample opportunity for attending various churches. They were all Protestant, every one, and I never attended a particular church with any frequency, but I was exposed to a wide variety of Protestant denominations, and even flirted briefly with the Church of God during my senior year. This was not because I was attracted to the church–in fact, it scared me to death–but because I was dating a devout member of the church and thought I might marry him. Needless to say, I did not, and shortly after the end of our relationship, I stopped attending his church.
I knew exactly one Catholic family while I was growing up. They were more culturally Catholic than devout, but I was fascinated by them all the same. The Catholic Church was something I only knew from horror novels and movies like The Exorcist, but even then I was attracted to the “trappings” of the faith. Rosaries also intrigued me: When I found out this family had an entire drawer full of rosaries they never used, I remember feeling this vague sense of shock. I had never even seen a rosary in real life, so the thought that someone could have an entire collection and never even use them made zero sense to me. (I didn’t even know what it meant to pray a rosary, but I still knew there was something special about it. Stuffed in a drawer, indeed!)
This touch-and-go interest in religion–any religion–would explode over the summer of my twentieth year. I have always been an avid book hound, and I frequented the fantasy and science-fiction section at my local bookstore. This section was directly across from the New Age/Astrology shelves. Not finding anything new to read, I casually turned to the section behind me, where a book on witchcraft immediately caught my attention. The cover was silly, the title even more so, but to an impressionable twenty year old with a love of all things “dark and mysterious” (did I mention I was born on Halloween?) and a deep-seated craving for something spiritual in my faith-starved life, the promises of the book’s back cover struck a deeply resonant chord. Witchcraft wasn’t just a fairy tale! It wasn’t devil worship! And all I had to do was buy this book, and I could be a real Witch, too!
I bought the book that very day and smuggled it home. I was fascinated. Enthralled. I began studying the lessons contained in the book, and soon I met other like-minded people who shared my newfound faith. And while I’ll admit to the obligatory period of newbie Witch “oogy-boogy, look at me,” it didn’t take long before I ditched the all-black wardrobe and ten pounds of silver pentacles to embrace a more serious, dedicated approach to the Craft. I cultivated a circle of Pagan and Craft friends. I found experienced real-world teachers to help me. And I read without ceasing anything Craft-related I could get my hands on. That’s not to say there weren’t things about Neopaganism and the Craft that I failed to agree with completely–I still couldn’t entirely shake my Christian upbringing, and it would creep back at unexpected moments–but with time and continued practice, it became easier to sweep those doubts and questions under the rug.
I practiced Neopagan Witchcraft for fifteen years. I was active as a solitary, as a coven member, and eventually I began teaching the Craft to others. I organized Pagan events and networked extensively online. I cultivated occult “talents”–I seemed to have a particular gift for both divination and working with the dead–and learned to heal and curse, although I definitely had more success with the latter. I do not believe this was a coincidence. One of the great draws of Neopagan Witchcraft–and a favorite point of argument for Witches defending their faith–is its supposed focus on positive magic, but it’s a milk-before-meat fairy tale with little basis in reality. “An in harm none, do what thou wilt” is quickly discarded for, “a witch who cannot hex, cannot heal.”
This was a dark time for me, although I wouldn’t realize how dark until after I had put that lifestyle behind me. There is a level of permissiveness in the Craft I’ve yet to find anywhere else, and in many ways it’s a faith-enshrined species of hedonism. I began pushing the envelope in every way I could think of, determined to shake up the narrow, close-minded views of the Christian majority, and in the process I found my inhibitions and moral checkpoints being gleefully tossed aside in a spirit of newfound “freedom.” Practicing magic was really the least of my problems. I had adopted an entirely new worldview that left me walking a spiritual tightrope without a safety net.
God never abandoned me, however–I just couldn’t see it at the time. And because I had turned my back on all organized religion, he reached out to me in surprising ways. I continued to read horror novels and enjoy horror movies, and I noticed that whenever real evil threatened in these stories, no one called on the local Protestant minister or voodoo mambo…or Pagan priestess, for that matter. They called on the Catholic Church. I didn’t realize how that fact had seeped into my subconscious until I said (jokingly, I thought) to a friend of mine that if something evil ever manifested in my house, I would call the local Catholic priest before I called on a Wiccan priestess to help me. There was a power and authority in the Catholic Church that I unconsciously acknowledged even then.
I also enjoyed comic books. (Bear with me; this will all tie together in a moment.) My favorite character was from The Uncanny X-Men, a blue, fuzzy mutant with a spaded tail and a penchant for swashbuckling with a sword. His name was Nightcrawler, and he was a devout Catholic–possibly the only devout Catholic to ever star in comic books. He was something new in my (admittedly limited) experience at the time–a Catholic clearly in love with God, and clearly happy about it.
My affection for the character soon translated to my creative free time. I started writing stories for my friends, and eventually role-playing the character in a comic book RPG. I played in other RPGs as well, and wrote on a semi-pro level in the fantasy and horror genres. Far more often than I intended, my original characters would end up Catholic, too. As a result, I was often challenged by other players and readers about my characters’ motivations, which forced me to turn to Catholic apologetics so I could accurately defend the reasoning behind my characters’ actions.
By this point, the Church was beginning to saturate everything I thought and everything I wrote, but it was when I began studying the Church in earnest (purely for research, or so I told myself) that the first real doubts began to creep in. I was thirty-five by this time, and had lived the majority of my young-adult life as a diehard Neopagan Witch. But enough doubt was sowed by the histories I read, the apologetics I devoured–and yes, the Catechism of the Church–that I began to wonder if I’d been off the mark all along. I was already in love with the trappings of the Church–the smells and bells, art and music, even the grandeur of the rituals, which is probably unsurprising given my love for the similar trappings of Neopaganism and Witchcraft. But I began reading truth in the apologetics as well. Hard truth, but Truth all the same. The rituals and spells of the Craft began to seem cheap by comparison–mere shadows of that Truth— and I was hungry for something real.
I signed up for RCIA at my local Catholic parish, and I gave myself a year. It took far less time than that; I was already His, you see. I had one foot in the door, and I only needed someone holding my hand to help me through the rest of the way. That’s not to say it was an easy road. Far from it. I was going from a religion of extreme permissiveness to one that actually demanded things of me, and as much as it shames me to admit it, I had never been the sort to stick things out when the going got tough. But as Cardinal Newman famously said, “to be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant,” and it is also to cease to be Pagan. Despite the difficulty, despite how well I dug in my heels and balked at every turn, I knew I’d seen a glimpse of that Truth, and my soul was crying out for more.
During Lent–and especially during Holy Week–something deeply personal happened. Up until that point, I had been a Catholic of logic, my journey to the faith resting solely on what I had read and the common sense of it all. But during Holy Week, I became a Catholic of the heart. I experienced God in the Holy Spirit, in a very real and life-changing way, and in that moment I left Paganism behind for good. There have been other moments since, but it is that moment I hold close to my heart. It was then that I fell in love with God, and I never want to be parted from him again.
I was baptized Catholic at the Easter Vigil Mass, 2010. At the time of this writing, I have been Catholic for one year; I look forward to the time when my years as a Catholic will outnumber my years as a Pagan! It hasn’t always been easy–giving up fifteen years of Paganism is much like breaking an addiction–but God continues to give me the grace to muddle through. It is incredibly difficult to be a devout Catholic, compared to the anything-goes mentality of Pagan Witchcraft. But my life is also simpler, more beautiful, and more peaceful now than it ever was under Paganism.
Witchcraft offers incredible freedom, but oh, it’s a clever lie.
True freedom… That rests with God.