Catechist Chat: The Case of the Boring Backstory

Everyone loves a good conversion story.

There’s the setup: I once was lost.

The rising action: the Holy Spirit began working in me (or knocked me off my horse).

The climax: But now I’m found.

A powerful conversion story is a terrific way to “hook” your listeners and get them to start thinking of how Christ could effect similar changes in their own lives.

Then, there are those of us whose conversion stories are more…ongoing. Habitual sins, tepid prayer lives, highs and lows. Nobody is going to be “hooked” by “I used to get really snippy with my husband, and then I prayed for greater patience, so I was more patient, but then I slacked off, and had to start over again, and every time I ask for grace it’s there, but sometimes I make other things a priority, and so it’s just a constant spiritual journey towards a 23% reduction in sarcasm when dealing with the following populations: husband, children, extended family, commenters on online newspaper articles. HEY – pay attention!”

It’s okay. I’ve been there. I am there. Let me tell you what not to do, first off.

Do not dress up your life experiences as something they’re not in hopes of presenting a dramatic conversion narrative.

True, and incriminating story: when in college, I worked as a janitor’s assistant in a factory that made ball bearing retainers. I walked around the factory with a magnetized stick and picked up scrap metal. (My dad got me the job.) It was a summer job and I made better money than I did as a camp counselor.

I used to carry a ball bearing retainer on my keychain and pass it around to my inner-city middle schoolers, telling them all about how my clothes used to smell like motor oil and how I decided to go to college, all because of that job. And they should go to college, too. I thought this would help me “connect.”

I am guessing – just guessing – that they may have seen right through this story of my hardscrabble upbringing, since the truth was that there was no way on earth in which I would have chosen to drop out of college to work at the factory, being the product of a prep school education and a life spent striving to be Teacher’s Pet. Pretty sure I was fooling nobody. I eventually decided that the act was backfiring and I should just be myself.

And so, since my backstory is basically one of persistent, irritating, and embarrassing venial sins, I don’t try to reframe the narrative as something it’s not.

I find that kids can relate to the daily trials that provide us opportunities to grow in our relationship with Christ – I’ve been snapping at my children a lot, and I know it’s getting in the way of my love for them, and so I go to Confession and I have a clean start. My friend calls and asks for my help with something and I’d really rather stay at home and watch my favorite show, but I can offer it up and do the right thing instead of being selfish.

If you believe that God put you in that room for a reason, as a catechist, then you need to trust that He is okay with you just as you are. You don’t need to embellish the details of your relationship with Him in hopes of capturing your students’ attention – be genuine, share what you’re comfortable sharing with them, and give them opportunities to consider what obstacles are blocking their own paths towards a deeper faith.

This also goes – or maybe goes double – for those of us who, for whatever reason, want to keep our conversion stories private. I think sometimes we can feel obligated to tell kids how we got to where we are, but if that story is painful or could cause scandal, there is nothing wrong with holding back.

We have so little time with our students that deploying the personal narrative isn’t something that should take up most of our class time, anyway, right? Besides, even those of us who have had dramatic conversion experiences will still face the mundane realities of “how to live from one minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.”

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  1. says

    ooops. That’s what it’s all about, really. I’ve got nothing dramatic either, and that’s OK. But the day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, is what really shows what we’re made of.

  2. says

    This is something I learned very fast teaching CCE to high schoolers – you have to be completely authentic with them. It’s not always necessary to the subject material you’re teaching, but it helps them know you as a person, and that helps make the Christian life real to them. A lot of them view it as an abstraction, and one they don’t have a lot of hope to live up too. Dramatic does the opposite of help them, because most people don’t ever get dramatic, and it just sets the Christian life even further away as something that they can’t do.

  3. says

    Thanks, everyone! (Holy Terra, I just love your pseudonym.) And yes, I think my vocation has boiled down, in many ways, to picking up small pieces of metal and/or plastic.

  4. says

    Those may not be earth-shattering stories, but they still work very well for examples and illustrating points. You can’t keep talking about your life-changing conversion experience all the time. People get bored with that too.

    But you do have to admit, those “once I was lost and now I’m found” stories do give a lot of mileage for folks.

  5. says

    “And yes, I think my vocation has boiled down, in many ways, to picking up small pieces of metal and/or plastic.” I love it!

    I think the dramatic conversion stories though they seem to give a lot of mileage can do a disservice in some ways though. One unintended lesson teens can sometimes take away is that it’s ok to go out and sow their wild oats, live wild and crazy lives and then they can convert later and all will be well. And the flashy “I was lost and now I’m found” stories can also leave the basically good kids who’ve never been “lost” feeling left out, like there isn’t a narrative for them.