When I was five years old, I dreamed that my dad had died. It felt so real to me that I was in shock, and I couldn’t stop crying.
I asked my parents, “What happens when you die?” My mom—a nominal Catholic—talked about heaven. My dad—a Buddhist—talked about reincarnation. I thought, Either I get recycled, or I live forever in heaven. They both can’t be right.
By my early teenage years, I had dismissed both my parents’ faiths. In my view, they were just consoling themselves; their beliefs didn’t seem to affect their actions. Beyond their common tenets of “Don’t cheat, don’t kill, don’t steal,” no larger truth seemed to guide either of them. When I thought about religion, I thought the stakes should be higher than this, but I didn’t see anyone treating it that way.
Not Just a Good Person. That changed when I was sixteen. I developed a crush on a girl who seemed to stand out from all the others in school. She had an inner joy and sense of self-possession that trumped anything I had ever seen. She didn’t lie or curse, like my other friends, and people were drawn to her. Even when she turned me down for a date, it wasn’t hurtful. She seemed to be telling me I mattered.
I wanted to understand her motives, so I asked one of my friends to find out more about her. “I know you’re going to hate this,” she told me, “but that girl is really religious.” I got angry and told my friend, “I thought she was perfect, but she’s just stupid.” That night in bed, though, I thought about how I had never met anyone who lived life so well. Maybe there was some kind of connection between this girl’s faith and her being so good. As a budding scientist, I decided to conduct an experiment and find out.
A God Who Calls—and Cares. A Catholic church had recently been built near my parents’ house, so I decided to drive over and check it out. Everyone I saw there reminded me of that girl: joyful, content, and centered. Intrigued, I kept going to church for a few months on my own.
Then came the homily that changed it all. At Mass one Sunday, the pastor said that it didn’t matter where any of us had been in the past. “You’re sitting in these pews today because God is calling you.” Those words struck me deeply. Up until then, I had thought that since I didn’t care about God, he didn’t care about me. But now it became personal. God was interested in me. My curiosity wasn’t just a coincidence or an experiment; it was because God was actively calling me. This realization kept me going to Mass, and it was the knowledge of a personal God calling me personally that led me to join the Church after my high school graduation.
“You Are Loved.” The first thing I did when I got to college was to find the Catholic crowd. Like that girl in high school, they stood out from the rest of the students on campus. They were happy, grounded, and well-adjusted. I started attending a small group and tentatively asking questions, aware of my own ignorance. Fortunately, being a convert gave me license to ask some questions that seemed obvious. And one of the most important “obvious” questions I ever asked was “What is grace?”
I found out that grace was a free gift from God to help people draw near to him. It was available even if I wasn’t aware of it. Grace, I learned, doesn’t have to change you immediately; it can be planted whenever God wants and harvested later. This helped me put my past into perspective. God’s grace had been waiting patiently for me to respond. I started wanting to respond more and more. I made my way through the four Gospels, then the whole New Testament.
One day, I also read this passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new. . . . You were with me, but I was not with you.” I was stunned. I felt that this man who had lived more than 1,500 years ago shared my story. He went on, “You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. . . . I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.” Seeing the parallels between Augustine’s life and mine made me feel a strange sense of communion with the past: a communion that was only possible in God.
I knew I had found the truth. You are loved, and you are looked after by an infinite God. There is nothing that he won’t do to draw you toward himself. This discovery filled me with joy. All I could think was that God had given me vision to recognize his calling. And if God could do this for me, he could do it for anyone.
Paying it Forward. The summer after college graduation, I felt that God was calling me to be a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, FOCUS. Although I really wanted to share the gospel with college students, there were a number of drawbacks. I would have to give up dating for two years so that I could concentrate on the demands of ministry; I would need to spend time fundraising for my expenses; and I would not be using the chemistry degree I had spent four years earning.
I was trying to make sense of why God would call me and then make following him so difficult! Then I talked to someone who told me, “You need to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” I realized that to the extent I have put my comfort before God’s call, I have given sin the upper hand. By accepting discomfort, though, I could become more like Christ, who suffered for me. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “The world offers comfort, but you are made for greatness.” Every day, being a missionary offers me new chances to rely on God and step out of my comfort zone. It’s worth it, too, because I am sharing the greatest good of all with others.
Niru De Silva is a FOCUS missionary at Columbia University. WAU Partners works with FOCUS to provide 10,000 copies of The Word Among Us to college campuses throughout North America. Learn more at www.waupartners.org.