I received a review copy of From Fire, By Water, Sohrab Ahmari’s upcoming memoir about his conversion to Catholicism. I started reading it last night, and found it hard to put down. I won’t say anything else about it until we get closer to its January 29 publication date, but I am confident that this book is going to make a big splash. He’s a fantastic writer.
Though I’m not far into the book, I can tell that Sohrab’s father, Parviz, is going to play a significant role in the story of his son’s life and spiritual journey. Sohrab was born in 1978 into a fairly secular Tehran family — he makes it clear in the opening chapter that he converted to Catholicism from atheism, not from Islam — his parents were real bohemians (e.g., they encouraged their son to call them by their first names). He describes his architect father as a larger-than-life figure.
As I’m reading Sohrab’s account of how he found the Catholic faith, I’m reminded of the role the psychological and emotional drama between my own father and me spurred my entry into Catholicism — and my exit from it 13 years later. None of this was clear to me until a few years ago. If you’ve read my books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and How Dante Can Save Your Life — which, let me point out, is available on Kindle for only 99 cents — most of this will be familiar to you. I offer it here for those who haven’t read it, and also to inspire what I hope will be a thoughtful conversation about the way our families affect our religious lives, for better and for worse.
As a boy, I desperately wanted my father’s approval. He was a towering figure in my life. He named me after himself (Ray Oliver Dreher, Jr. — R.O.D., get it?), and raised me to be a miniature version of himself. I never was able to cooperate with that, though heaven knows I tried. He was a man of action — he loved hunting, fishing, working with his hands, sports. I was a soft intellectual type — no good at sports, too soft-hearted to be a hunter, etc. You get the picture. He had a very strong personality, and thought that if he only pressured me enough, he could reproduce himself in me.
The damage this did to me, and to our relationship, was significant.
I more or less broke with my dad as a teenager. Emotionally and psychologically, I was the walking wounded. I deeply admired my father, who was in most respects a just and good man. But he found it unbearable that his only son was not exactly like he was. He regarded this as a failure of love on my part. As disloyalty. I knew that he was wrong, but I found it very hard to live without his approval.
If he had been a bad man, it would have been easier to have let go of him. But he wasn’t a bad man.
In 1987, when I was 20 years old, John Paul II came into my life. He visited New Orleans on his American tour that year. I was in college in Baton Rouge, but felt drawn to see him. I couldn’t explain why. I had an interest in Catholicism, but not enough of one to go see just any pope. There was something about the person of Karol Wojtyla that drew me like a magnet. He was strong and masculine, but also compassionate. I didn’t understand this at the time — I was young — but what I was seeing in John Paul was a father who it was safe to believe in.
I saw John Paul at the Superdome, and never got over it. I became a Catholic five years later. I had a dream not long after my conversion, in which I was standing near our family’s pond, shooting guns with my father. He was furious at me for not shooting properly, and was yelling at me. I ran away, and hid in a grove of trees. Later, I peered out to see if he had gone away, and it was safe to emerge. I saw what I took to be a mother swan and her cygnets floating just off the bank of the pond. When I left the safety of the woods, I recognized that the mother swan was actually a priest wearing a white robe, and the cygnets were white-robed children being baptized.
I shared this dream with a wise friend, who interpreted the dream like this: retreating to the woods to escape the anger and (symbolic) violence of my father symbolizes my escape into books and ideas to find solace from what I thought was unbearable. Discovering religion — Catholicism, specifically — gave me the courage and confidence to leave my refuge, and live in the world.
That made a lot of sense to me. Still does. Catholicism, in the person of the Good Father, John Paul II, showed me a different way of being a man — a way that took the best parts of my father, and perfected them. I never believed that the bishops of the Catholic Church were perfect, but what I believed subconsciously was that they were safe, and good, in a way that my dad was not. I gave them my trust at a far deeper level than mere assent to the propositions they embodied as Catholic bishops. I gave myself to them as fathers.
Years later, when I would begin to learn what a sham the bishops — including John Paul II, it pains me to say — made of their spiritual fatherhood, it destroyed me inside. The anger and sense of betrayal broke me. I left the Catholic Church in 2006, unable to believe in its claims any longer. I didn’t understand what was happening to me emotionally, and it didn’t entirely cohere with me until I faced the final crisis with my father, in 2013 — something I wrote about in How Dante.
My returning home at the end of 2011, in the wake of my sister’s passing, forced me to realize that I was never going to get the love of my father that I needed. Back then, I suppose that I had the Prodigal Son narrative in my mind. I had not been a prodigal — in fact, I had done quite well away from home — but in my father’s mind, I was a prodigal, because I had wasted the inheritance he gave me. He believed that I should have stayed at home in our town, and never left.
I was 44 years old when my sister died, and believed that the trauma of that event in our family would destroy the old prejudices that kept us apart. I thought all that would be past us. I assumed that he would welcome me home.
He did, but not really. He was certainly thrilled that we were living there, but he put up some insuperable roadblocks. I won’t go into the details here — this material is in my books — but the bottom line was that he still resented me for not being exactly like him. He was never going to change.
I was living a perversion of the Prodigal Son story. It was as if the father in the Gospel parable had sided with the elder son, and refused to let the prodigal son cross the threshold of his farm. In that parable, Jesus gave us a model of divine fatherhood — what God the Father was like. As I worked with my priest and with my therapist to make sense of the ruins of my relationship with my father and my Louisiana family, I came to see that in my subconscious, I had confused God the Father with my earthly father, such that I expected of my dad something that he could not give.
Worse, I understood that for all of my life as a Christian, both the 13 years of Catholicism, and the seven or eight years of Orthodoxy — I had been incapable of believing that God the Father loved me. Rather, I knew that He loved me, but I was also convinced that He didn’t approve of me, and that if only I worked hard enough to be holy, maybe He would accept me.
In other words, I thought God the Father was like my own dad.
Sorting this out was necessary to my inner healing — and, by the grace of God, and with the help of my priest, my therapist, and, believe it or not, Dante Alighieri, I did.
I made peace with my father and his legacy, and had the grace of being there to hear him say to me that he was sorry. I was also able to live in his bedroom with him for the last week or so of his life. I was holding his hand as he died. I tell this story in How Dante, by the way.
That experience made me reflect on how my deep hunger for an affirming relationship with my dad caused me to set myself up for destruction as a Catholic.
Here is a passage from How Dante, in which a mystical experience accompanied my inner healing. The scene starts in the confessional with my Orthodox priest, Father Matthew. I am telling him about realizing that I had been an idol worshiper — the idols being family, place, and the embodiment of them both, my father. (What I didn’t see at that time was that I had repeated this emotional dynamic in my relationship to the Catholic Church, and to John Paul II):
I explained how much I had revered Daddy as a child, and grew up listening to his stories about the family and the land. When I’m gone, he would tell Ruthie and me, this land will all be yours to pass on to your children. This was a sacred trust. This was the right order of things.
“And you didn’t want it, but Ruthie did.”
“Well, I wanted it, but not in the way he wanted me to want it. I wasn’t made for this place. I was weird by his standards. I think he saw every deviation in me from himself as a rejection of everything he stood for, of everything he had to give me.”
“I can see that.”
The root of the problem, I explained, was that my dad couldn’t see me as me. I could not live here without being crushed by his will. I wanted the good things of family, but the price was too high.
“And this is your sin how?”
“You remember me telling you a while back that I have a lot of trouble believing that God loves me? That I felt like I could never make him happy enough to deserve his love? This is where it comes from. I didn’t understand it until Dante made me think about it, but without meaning to, I made gods of family and place. I made them into my idols. I set them up in my heart where God ought to be.”
Father Matthew looked at me, his brow creased.
“There’s more,” I said, then told him the story of Pier della Vigna. [Note: a character in Dante’s Purgatorio who committed suicide because he lost the approval of his master, the Holy Roman Emperor — RD] “Don’t worry,” I hastened to add, “I’m not a potential suicide. It’s that there’s a part of me that can’t deal with life without my father’s approval. Isn’t that stupid?” I asked.
“It’s not stupid.”
“Well, I feel stupid. I’m forty-six years old, and I am stuck in this damn ditch, where I have been since childhood. I couldn’t take it when I was younger, and ran away. I’m tired of running. I’ve got to face down this dragon and kill it. I don’t know what to do now, but I want to confess that I have worshiped idols, and I am sorry. I put other things before God. I want to lay those idols at the foot of the Cross and be done with them.”
Father Matthew said nothing. He bowed his head again and reached down to lift his stole, which was my signal to kneel. He put his stole over my head, pronounced the words of absolution, made the sign of the cross over my head, then unveiled me. I kissed his right hand, stood up, and walked out of the church feeling light.
A few nights later, I was lying in bed in the dark, with Julie asleep next to me. I was saying my five hundred Jesus Prayers, frustrated because I had put it off till the last moments of the day, and struggling through my fatigue to focus on it. By the time I arrived at the fourth cycle around my prayer rope—that is, after three hundred prayers—I was on autopilot.
And then something strange happened. The words God loves me appeared not in my head but in my heart. It was the strangest thing—like someone was standing at my bedside, placing them into my chest. Not God loves you, but God loves me.
Just like that: God loves me. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. There it sat in my heart, like a pearl, glowing. It scared me at first, this mystical experience, because I feared it might go away. I finished my prayers, smiling in the darkness, because the words remained there, radiating. I fell asleep with the words repeating in my mind: God loves me. God loves me.
When I awakened the next morning, the first thing I noticed was a feeling in my chest. It was as if someone had laid a cornerstone in my heart, and chiseled into the stone were those three blessed words. All morning, I could physically feel them in my chest, humming along like a happy little pacemaker. I refused my usual impulse to analyze what happened; I chose to accept it as a gift.
To this day, the words remain there, as if they were written on my heart. God loves me, and he had established a beachhead within my soul. It was a small patch of ground, but it was real and firm, and now it was where I stood. And Dante Alighieri had led me to it.
Later in the book, I tell a story about realizing on the Feast of Theophany, 2014, that I was no longer sick, physically — and that I had been healed internally:
In the Orthodox Christian tradition, Theophany – from the Greek, meaning “appearance of God” – is the feast day commemorating the day that Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan. When Jesus emerged from the water, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, alighting on the Christ. The voice of the Father said, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Our little flock gathered at the mission on a cold Sunday morning—January 19, in fact—to celebrate the liturgy. Father Athanasius, an old friend of Father Matthew’s, was visiting from the Northwest, and gave the sermon. He dwelled for some time on the blessing God the Father spoke over his Son. I could have listened to that kind of talk all day.
This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Here, in the middle of the journey of our life, for the first time ever, I was able to hear those words in church and believe that God meant them for me too.
I don’t know when, exactly, in my healing process this change came over me. I had finished Paradiso over the Christmas break, but there had been no aha moment. I just noticed one day, a couple of weeks into the new year, that I felt pretty good. No chronic fatigue. No daily naps. Nothing. It was gone.
The night before Theophany, I mentioned to Julie that for the first time since arriving home, I felt at home. Settled. Stable. Healed. Free. Nothing had changed externally; the change was all within. But I saw the world with new eyes now.
I think a lot about the relationship between the families we grow up in and how it frames the way we relate to God. How has it been with you in your life? I’m not interested in arguing with anybody about this (certainly not about Catholicism); I’m only interested in hearing your stories, good and bad. You readers who are not Christian, and not religious, please feel at liberty to share your own stories of how your relationship with your families, especially your fathers, affected the way you regard religion.