I moved out of my mother’s after freshman year and rented a room in an apartment building just off campus. The three-story complex was something of a student slum. My unit, on the top floor, had sticky linoleum flooring, cheap broken fixtures, and inoperable air conditioning that left it baking in the dry heat of the Utah summer. I didn’t mind, though. It was better than that ignominious trailer park, and I reveled in the new freedom that came with flying out of the maternal nest. Only, now I had to put up with a pair of Mormon roommates, just back from their missions abroad to attend Utah State. Or, to be more precise, they had to put up with me.
Nick and Taylor—or Tweedledee and Tweedledum, as I hatefully nicknamed them—mostly kept to themselves and, contrary to the Mormon stereotype, made no effort to convert me to their religion. It was I who went out of my way to stick my non-Mormon ways in their faces.
Smokers were required to go down to the parking lot, but I lit up on the balcony, next to their windows. Alcohol was prohibited, but I invited my old high school buddies to drink in my room. I never missed a chance to cuss within my roomies’ earshot. I also made a point of reading in the living area, rather than privately in my room, and deliberately left my books sitting out in the shared spaces. It would benefit those ignorant hicks, I thought, to discover that there is more to the world of letters than their Bible and Mormon study books. (What a vain, fatuous creature I was!).
It was my copy of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch that I most fervently wished my Mormon roommates would pick up after I “accidentally” laid it about our living room….My roommates’ picking up the book never came to pass—or if it did, I never found out. But the exact opposite of what I had planned did take place during our second semester together. One day, while they were out to class, I came across a leather-bound King James Bible that one or the other had left on our couch. I was bored, so I stepped out to the balcony for a smoke. When I came back inside, I threw myself down on the couch, opened the Bible to the New Testament, and read the Gospel of Saint Matthew in one go. I can’t say that the first twenty-five chapters made much of an impression on me.
My frame of mind was contemptuous. “Here we go with the hocus-pocus, blah-blah, Jesus is born, blah-blah, Jesus tells a parable, blah-blah, Jesus performs a miracle, blah-blah, another parable,” was how I read the portions of the Gospel that Matthew devotes to Christ’s life and ministry. But that changed when I got to chapter 26, which is to say, to the Passion narrative. I remember sitting up and reading attentively, where before I had been perusing languidly. Against my every inclination and instinct, the evangelist’s account of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus had me transfixed. “And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified” (Mt 26:1–2, KJV).
I had to admit that the Jesus portrayed by Matthew is an extraordinary figure, not least because—and this is the second dimension of the twofold tragedy—he submits willingly to the injustice meted out to him. When one of his friends takes up arms to defend him against his enemies, he commands him: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Mt 26:52, KJV). He could call at any time on armies of angels to protect him, he says, yet he doesn’t (Mt 26:53). As he hangs from the Cross, his persecutors mock him: Rescue yourself if you are who you say you are (Mt 27:40–43)! He doesn’t rebuke them but suffers in silence (Mt 27:44).
It would be half a decade or more before I would even begin to reconsider my atheism and still longer before I would consider myself a Christian. At the moment, I closed my roommate’s Bible thinking that, although Christianity was surely as false as every other religion, it couldn’t easily be dismissed; there was something in the myth of Christ’s sacrifice that transcended history and class struggle.
Prayer: When I had found the Mass, I had not yet memorized any prayers. All I said, over and over again, was “Forgive me. Cleanse me.” I must have repeated them thirty or forty times before I got up and left
Excerpted from “From Fire By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith” by Sohrab Ahmari.