I posted my conversion story before under the title Why I have a testimony. As part of “My conversion” week, I use it again here, adding a little introduction on my childhood.
My childhood years in Belgium were embedded in traditional Catholicism. These were the 1950s. The Mass was still in Latin and I was a devoted altar boy. I grew up with the enchantment of elaborate liturgy and Gregorian music. My dad, a museum director specialized in religious art, immersed us in the wonders of centuries of Christian iconography. Bible stories, in subsequent graded readers, were my favorite readings over the years. I will readily admit that, beyond Mary and all the medieval Saints, my childhood faith had discovered Jesus, even in that dead body hanging on the cross, as the center of the universe and of salvation.
Then came the sixties and the crumbling of devotion and tradition. Catholicism changed and lost its appeal. My adolescent years drifted into relative religious indifference, at least for the spiritual part, though I continued to follow Catholic religion classes at school, and joined my friends there to confront the beleaguered priest with intellectual questions and skepticism. Religion became a target for rationalism.
Antwerp, June 1964. I was seventeen now. That month I was studying for my finals for the last year in high school, one of those demanding European schools. I had had seven years of Latin, five years of old Greek. A mass of philosophy and religion.
That Saturday afternoon, the door bell rang. I went down and saw two young men.
– Hi, little guy, are your parents home?
I knew I looked like a lad of fourteen.
– OK, we’ll be back later.
They cracked a few jokes and left.
I hardly paid attention to the occurrence and went back to study for my finals. The evening set in. A feeling came over me. The excitement of something unknown, somehow tied to distant memories, but beyond my grasp. I realized it had to do with the visitors. Nothing should have impressed me about them, probably salesmen or sollicitors. But my agitation grew into a compulsion to meet them again. I spent a restless night, trying to imagine who they were. The next day was Sunday. I spent hours looking for them, riding my bike along the streets. I knew I had to find them, by all means. Nothing. I felt desperate. The next morning I kept watch from the window of my room. And then I saw them coming, ringing door bells at the other side of the street, slowly moving in my direction. I crossed the street and waited with a pounding heart.
– According to you, who is God?
It was their first, blunt question only seconds after they told me they were missionaries.
It was the perfect question to ask a young student studying for a Catholic religion final.
– Well, definitions of God have evolved over the centuries, from Augustine to Thomas Aquino, to modern interpretations. Nowadays God is defined as the Totally different, the immaterial perfection that fills the universe.
One of the elders looked at me and said: “Yes, but who is He really?”
I grasped, vaguely still, the massive dimension of that question. All I had been learning all those years were the projections and philosophies of men. And here was a 19-year old boy from America, unaware of the theories of theology, who scattered them with one simple question: But who is He really?
I asked for some literature. One rummaged in his bag and turned up a Doctrine & Covenants. That night I read, deeply impressed:
HEARKEN, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.
Days later the brochure with Joseph Smith’s history followed. It overwhelmed me. Then, finally, the Book of Mormon. Moroni’s promise, inasmuch as still needed, was put to the test.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
I prayed, I cried, I knew.
With that experience came Knowledge, the second pillar on which my testimony is based. Simple, concrete, and to me logical knowledge. Remember, this was 1964. The Catholic Church was in social and doctrinal turmoil. Vatican II. My parents were deeply involved in the aggiornamento. At home the New Theologians were the talk of the day. Kung, Teilhard de Chardin, Schillebeeckx, de Lubac. Modern Biblical hermeneutics. But basically they were reducing miracles to human proportions, enervating the remaining supernatural, abstracting God to a concept, trying to accommodate science and belief. And therefore undermining the very essence of religion, the simple faith in unseen realities.
In Mormonism I found the living, personal, physical God, literally communicating through revelation. Here the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, as described so unequivocally in the New Testament, became real again. The clarity of the Plan of salvation. The audacious description of a dynamic, personal existence after this life. The reunion with forefathers. The spirit of Elijah. This faith satisfied the demands of unseen realities. To believe logically is to believe daringly. Dare to accept the reality of the First Vision.
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other — This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
There came no end to the unfolding of this simple and joyful logic.The dispensations of time. The House of Israel. The history of the priesthood. Christ establishing his Church. The fundament of apostles and prophets. The great apostasy. The need for restoration. Again, the daring, astounding reality: May 1829, John the Baptist laying his hands on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Then Peter, James and John —
… declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times! … And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!
Years later, the temple broadened the perspective to celestial heights.
At the same time, all other knowledge was included. The Church encourages research, academic studies, proefssional development, all forms of arts. This is not a cult closing its eyes to the world, but welcoming anything that could help us progress and grow.
The third pillar of my testimony is the Book of Mormon. To me, there is nothing as poignant, as miraculous as this Book, from its very first verse to the last.
I, NEPHI, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
There was a time when I was keenly interested in Meso-American archeology, in Hugh Nibley’s studies. I still find them enlightening for many aspects of the text. But over the years I have learned to look more at the Book as such. Powerful voices repeating over and over again the same supplication and the same testimony: misery follows iniquity, joy and redemption come through repentance, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The discourses, letters, commentaries of those numerous men deal with the nature of the Godhead, redemption and atonement, plan of salvation, commandments and ordinances, hope and love, prayer and spiritual gifts, revelation and the Church in action, insight in the great course of human history, and a continuous call to repentance and justice.
This is my reasoning: how could anyone have written the Book of Mormon as a present-day forgery and at the same time be so completely engaged in the preaching of absolute truth? Internal historical criticism tells me it seems impossible for someone to write hundreds of pages instilled with intense spiritual power and dynamic moralism, knowing that the basis of it is deceit. And then close with Moroni’s promise.
Now, after 41 years, I stand in even greater wonderment when reading the Book. I have learned what it means to write a book, having published quite a few myself these past decades. It means filling hundreds of virgin pages, often painstakingly, next correcting and rewriting, version after version, keeping track of internal coherence, names, numbers, references. And now we have computers and word processing! I cannot imagine a book like the Book of Mormon to have originated creatively from the brain and by the hand of Joseph Smith or any other of his contemporaries without numerous indications and rumors of a long genesis in the 1820s. But nothing of the kind: the book is suddenly there. Those close to Joseph, even those who fell away, never gave a hint that the origin could have been different than the one I firmly believe in. Witnesses testified they saw and handled the plates.
There is a fourth pillar. The opposition. 1964. I was seventeen, still a minor, in a period when 21 was the legal age. I wanted to be baptized, earnestly. My parents said no. The clash was profound. I was too young, too inexperienced to understand the depth of the breach my parents felt. My conversion was a betrayal of their holiest heritage. My father hauled books from the library, filled with tales of polygamous atrocities, of Danites murdering opponents, of tortured women thrown from the towers of the Salt Lake temple into the Great Salt Lake. I got to read the Catholic and Protestant theories elucidating the ‘real’ origin of the Book of Mormon, lists of ‘errors and changes’ in the Book, the psychology of Joseph Smith’s hallucinations, and all the inconsistencies in Mormon theology. And I was served some inflammatory exposures by ex-Mormons.
I would not change my mind. I could not. And somehow I was grateful for all the anti-Mormon literature poured over me. It gave me a feeling of confidence: no matter what enemies of the Church would be able to concoct to disprove Mormonism in the future, I felt assured I would be able to stand it. Of course there were disturbing data here and there. I never swept them aside as inexistant, but either their fallacy soon became apparent or the larger picture made them insignificant. The ex-Mormons filled me with sadness. Why such a desire to tarnish, to undermine, to justify, to rationalize? Could it ever happen to me since those people once had a testimony too? I vowed solemnly that I would never allow myself to forget the basis of my conviction.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
My parents sent me to a Catholic monastery to be reconverted. It was their last hope to rinse my brain from Mormonism. It was the famous abbey of Tongerlo, founded in 1130, one of those stern monuments from ages past. The abbey’s father took it to heart to bring me back to the fold. We talked and talked. We talked about God. I asked him the missionary question: “But who is God really?” He said: “No man can know. God is invisible and beyond comprehension.” I opened the Bible and referred him to all these plain Scriptures that show us that God is a tangible, visible, glorified Being. He said it was all symbolic. I asked him if his presence as the abbey’s father was real or symbolic to the monastery. He called my parents: “Take him back. It’s a hopeless case.”
Two years later, my parents finally gave in and allowed me to be baptized. They refused to attend. It would take another ten years before they started to admit that my Church membership was a source of strength, opportunities, and blessings. But they never joined the Church.
I am grateful, immensely grateful that I could experience the conversion I had. I think my testimony, in its essence, has never changed over the years. The glow is sometimes radiant, sometimes quiet, but always there. Maturation, yes, and I hope, in the process, some wisdom.
I have tried to explain why I have a testimony. Each convert to Mormonism has to gain and keep his own, one way or another. Some testimonies are received easily, some are struggling over much time and anguish. Some remain intertwined with doubts. Some are submissive, others contesting. We help each other by accepting those varieties and growing together.