In 1980, a month or so after I had turned 18, I took up residence at Netherhall House, an Opus Dei-run student hall in the leafy London suburb of Hampstead.
I turned 50 in early August this year, and it is only recently that I am able to pull off the feat of looking back across 32 years without a sense of vertigo. The passage of time since I was 18 often seems simply a continuation of the journey that started when I took my first steps up the stone entrance of Netherhall and across the hushed threshold.
I converted from Islam to Christianity on the basis of an encounter that dates back to my time at Netherhall. The seeds of Christianity had actually been sown somewhat earlier when I was a young child, but as I grew older the same tendency towards rebellion that was so prevalent in the 1970s and which led to the creation of the punk movement in Britain manifested itself in my teenage years with a full blown (and entirely frivolous) solipsist intransigence. Religion, in any form, was low on my list of priorities, a distant form of “noise” that tended, if anything, to irritate rather than stimulate. Having been raised by Muslim parents, if I was anything at that point, I was a Muslim. My application form to Netherhall (which required an identification of religious affiliation) shows in its now grainy and sepia-toned photograph, a long haired boy affecting the “Bob Dylan” look of melancholy mixed with disinterest, and with the word “moslem” in the box “Religion.”
In accepting Christ, I first had to overcome the core objections that all Muslims face when confronted with the language of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s divinity. Not inconsequentially, I also created, and had to contend with, a whole host of obstacles that were self-imposed and which allowed me to continue the habit of patting myself on the back whenever I sounded clever in the context of a debate. It’s easy, as all adolescent rebels will know, to challenge from the sidelines when skepticism can be dressed up to look very sexy.
The path that led me through and then out of these dense thickets of mostly juvenile negativity was built around my first encounter, in Netherhall’s library, with Hans Urs von Balthasar. He spoke to me of matters that I had previously assumed to be beyond human articulation. Light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong became less relative. I was introduced to the idea that Beauty, Goodness, and Truth were irreducible, although it would be another decade (or more) before I would be able to convert my reading into a coherent understanding based on a pattern of identity through faith combined with intellect.
Without Balthasar’s firm foundations it is unlikely that I would have made much progress, but divine providence worked its magic, and my soul was nourished during my 30s alongside my mind, when I discovered the simple beauty of the liturgy at St. Joseph’s in Hong Kong. This nourishment was supplemented through my increasingly frequent visits to the Brompton Oratory whenever I came to London, where the sung Latin Mass allowed for the congregation to participate in a rite in which “heart spoke to heart.”
The reason for remembering these things is an incident from the past month.
A small group of Muslims from Accrington and East Lancashire decided to object to my conversion from Islam to Christianity in aggressively obnoxious ways. This, shall we say “protest,” gathered momentum during this summer’s Ramadan, and seemed to conflate during the days immediately before and after Eid.
My conversion, which is hardly “new news,” has attracted aggression and negativity in the past, but this recent series of concerted attacks was not always easy to accept. One of the reasons these attacks were harder to handle was that I was more upset by the effect they had on my loved ones. At some other point and in another place, I will write more specifically about the things that were said and done and how my brother and his family were targeted, but for now I would simply say that when Muslims in this day and age convince themselves that apostasy should be literally punished by death, their actions often lose any sense of proportionality.
My reaction to these people has, by the grace of our Lord, been marked by a careful and dignified turning of the other cheek. I can understand the indignation of genuine Muslims, and I can appreciate the anger of people who might feel let down (I speak of those who, in Lancashire, have known me since my childhood). However, regardless of the nature of the aggression or the personality of the insulter, I don’t seek to be negative about Islam. I point out, with careful attention to language and tone, that Christ, my savior, has drawn me to his side and guides me with Love. The prayers and support of my friends across the world buoyed my resolve and gave me renewed strength during this hard time.
However, a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the frailty of human resolve, and, in my own way, was bought face to face with a shadow of the caution and fear and the power of repentance and reconciliation that is told through the experience in the Gospel, of St. Peter and his denial of Christ.
My family and I live in a rather gorgeous part of Surrey, and the entrance to our home is marked by two beautiful Christian images. The first is a large and evocative crucifix that dates back to the late 16th century and came to me by way of modern-day Ecuador. It is carved in “weeping” wood and contains an amber nugget enclosed within the body of Christ.
The crucifix hangs above an earlier (late-14th or early-15th century) stone Pieta of southern Germanic origin. Even allowing for my obvious lack of objectivity, the sculpture, a Christmas gift from my wife Mara, is uncommonly moving and beautiful.
Mara gave me the present in order to commemorate, among other things, my determination to change a rather passive Christianity into the formal and deliberate act of conversion. This determination dates back to an encounter almost 10 years ago with Michaelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s. Like countless others before me, I can recall with vivid acuity the very second that I first saw the figure of Christ reclining in the arms of Mary, and in my case I remember the sound of the blood flowing through my body and my heart beating to a new rhythm. Words would serve only to understate how the confluence of time and place bought Faith to a new reality, but for those who read this piece and relate to their own journey towards the service of Christ I can say that the Holy Sacrament of Baptism that marked my conversion a few years later was set in stone from that day onwards in the Basilica of St. Peter.
We constantly have visitors to our home, and a Tuesday several weeks ago saw the arrival of a friend who I had not seen for many years. He and I both grew up in Lancashire together, and we have managed to maintain, in spite of an infrequent level of contact, a friendship that has slowly become more important as we have grown older. I celebrated my 50th birthday on August 4, and my friend (let’s just call him Yousaf) was coming to say “Happy 50th.”
It has become my practice to pray in front of our Ecuadorian crucifix and the Pieta, and that morning was no exception. The crucifix is placed very prominently in the hallway, and when I pray, with my face towards the Cross, I can be seen quite clearly by anyone who enters through the front door.
I had barely started praying when I heard the crunch of gravel as a car made its way across the pathway to our front door, and involuntarily I found myself drawing back from the act of prayer.
The truth is that I withdrew, no matter how slightly, from my prayers because my friend, Yousaf—a practicing Muslim—was about to come into my home. I have not yet been able to rationalize my reaction, but I think I was concerned that I might somehow be seen to be pushing my religion into his face. I knew that he was aware of the recent problems I had faced in Lancashire and I also knew that he had read some of the material posted online exhorting Muslims to attack me in order to “teach me a lesson.” I suppose on one level I wanted to be discreet and save Yousaf a degree of embarrassment.
I have to stress that this rationalization is all subsequent to the event and therefore as suspect as all things thus remembered.
Regardless of the question of why I withdrew from my act of prayer, and regardless of the fleeting second or two that my hand, which normally rests on the feet of the crucifix, came down to my side, what happened next is of key import.
If the rationalization or explanation of why I momentarily withdrew when hearing Yousaf arrive is difficult, my explanation of what and why I did what I did next is blessedly simple. I bowed my head, restored my hand to the cross, and resumed my prayers. I stood in front of my Lord, and my heart opened up to receive the nourishment that is essential for all who participate in the fellowship of Christ. I then knelt in front of the Pieta and recited the “Hail Mary” three times. Not mechanically as sometimes can happen, but with a feeling for each word of praise and supplication to our Holy Mother.
Yousaf had indeed arrived, and had walked in to see me kneeling in front of the crucifix. He walked past me into the drawing room and waited for me, and the conversation that ensued was affected by what he saw. Our friendship has withstood the test of time, and I am grateful that I did not withdraw from prayer merely to save his blushes or ameliorate his possible hurt. Any weakness was in fact in my mind, not his.
My fleeting withdrawal—my faltering when I heard Yousaf arrive— reminded me of St. Peter and the position in the Bible that this episode fills. Jesus’ prophecy, and Jesus’ subsequent acceptance of St. Peter, and, above all else, St. Peter’s role in the creation of our Church are critical elements of the foundation to the faith that unites all Christians. For me, however, my own simple weakness and the subsequent and immediate strengthening of my bond with Christ have played on my mind in the days that have passed. St. Peter, the same disciple who defends Christ and cuts off the ear of a Roman soldier, is also the follower who maintains a distance prior to the act of redemption both ahead of and after Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.
Denial and repentance are easy enough to recognize. My weakness was incontrovertible, no matter how I try to rationalize my feelings and no matter how fleeting my withdrawal from prayer in order to pause whilst Yousaf was coming into my hallway. I feel guilty that I should have faltered, however slightly. This feeling of guilt weighs more heavily on my mind right now than it perhaps will in the future, but were in not for that hesitation, I could not have appreciated more fully that in accepting whatever role has been given to me by Christ, I too, frail human that I am, need constant help and guidance. My “bravery” in not hiding my conversion and not running away from the violent threats of hard-line Islamists was instantly undermined by a moment of weakness when I tried to blend into the background and somehow hope that Yousaf might not see me during an act of worship.
These are difficult things to recognize and accept. I must allow for the fact that whilst there are times when I take pride and delight in being strong and forthright in my faith, and when I am able to count myself amongst the front rank of those who are willing to advocate for Christianity a place in the public square, there are also times when I temper my position.
One of the lessons of this episode therefore became clearer. Consistency requires just as much steadfastness as bravery. Faith is not just about “taking it on the chin” or enduring the brickbats and public insults, but also about those quiet moments more in our control.
Later that day I had to go to London. As is sometimes my habit, I took time to stop at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Farm Street. There is a wonderful Calvary Group in a chapel to the north of the Church, and I sat and reflected on my experience. Both my children were baptized at Farm Street, and more recently one of my guides in my research into von Balthasar—the brilliant English priest, scholar, and teacher, Father Dermot Power—has been staying there whilst recovering from an illness, so I have been a frequent visitor to this graceful and reverential retreat in the middle of busy Mayfair.
I am currently writing a book about Hans Urs von Balthasar, and in recent months I have been drawn heavily into a deeply meaningful and positive course of theological reading. This “intellectual” part of my faith is important. Very important in fact, but it is balanced by my need for simple acts of worship that help me to appreciate that the mystery of our religion and the lure of Farm Street, or Sunday Mass at St. Michael’s Abbey in Farnborough, are reflections of seeking this balance of heart and mind. Perhaps that is also why von Balthasar appeals so much.
Father Power’s reaction was typically gracious. I saw him before going to Church, and he told me not to be too hard on myself, and that my reactions (both the withdrawal and the renewed strength to continue with my open act of prayer) should not occupy too much analysis. His gentle admonition that “God’s Will, will be done” could not have been more apt.
Refreshed by prayer, and with the benefit of wise perspective from Father Power, I came home and took out from my library a dusty paperback copy of von Balthasar’s The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church. I remember buying the book some years ago, but it has remained largely unread as other works of this immense theologian and philosopher took their place on my reading list.
Apart from a superlative account of the Church’s authority, von Balthasar reminds us that St. Peter was chosen for his task despite his human fallibility. As someone who cherishes the role of the Church, I gasped, anew, at the beauty of the paradox which then led to St. Peter’s infallibility in his new station as Christ’s vicar on earth.
At the end of the day, all of us have a role to play. I can’t deny that I still feel sad at my moment of weakness. That it occurred in the immediate aftermath of a time when my faith was strong and I was able to resist so much hostility from militant Muslims, and when I had the resolve to rise above the threats and acts of cowardly malevolence being thrown my way, only made the paradox harder to accept. What I can say today, however, is that grace comes in many different ways, and through a variety of experiences. The grace of being lifted up from our human frailty is a special gift that I may now be strong enough to recognize and accept.
I close with a verse from St. Edmund Campion’s celebrated “Anima,” written in 1581 during the height of the English reformation. The original version (written in Latin) has been kept safe in Lancashire at Stonyhurst College. I am privileged to be very involved with the Christian Heritage Centre which is being built there, and which, when completed, will house this and other treasures of our faith.
Rightly do I owe thanks without measure to you, my Guardian Angel,
Who have brought comforts joyous with light,
That light which has borne witness to the manifold Majesty of the Lord,
And vouchsafes the distinction, stature and honor of God
— St. Edmund Campion, S.J., martyred December 1, 1581 (translated by Anastasis Callinicos)