That two thousand and twenty-two might have been the happiest year of my life may not be saying much since for most of my life I had been a cynical latently depressed atheist like almost everybody I know.
But 2022 was my first complete year as a Christian. After accepting the Catholic faith last year, this year I regained access to the sacrament of holy communion through a general confession. In 2022 I have been consistently happy uninterrupted by anger or sadness. And I owe it all to faith.
Since we cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God, faith has been a matter of choice. And it’s a choice I continue to make as doubts attack me from all sides. One thing however is objectively true: my religious practice has made me a better person. And faith has been a necessary aspect of this practice.
A day with faith
Every day I get up, relatively early, often before sunrise, to read a hour or so during breakfast. This way I have read Augustine’s confessions, the catechism, the life of Saint Theresa of Avila and now John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Then I go to my studio and pray the rosary on my knees in front of the window. Preferably during sunrise, or with the moon shining on my face. Praying the rosary is like taking a mental shower. It’s the basis of my day. After that I listen to something on the Hallow app. Then I’m ready for work.
I only work on the morning. The afternoon is reserved for music, language learning, bible study, exercise, naps, walks, chores and occasionally adoration, vespers, mass, and so on. Before going to bed I listen to the gospel of the day and say some evening prayers. Every Sunday and feast day I attend mass. And every Tuesday the weekly catechesis hour at my church. Every month or so I talk to the priest, lately combined with confession. And in Rome, where I live, there’s many opportunities for special masses, for example on the feast day of the saint to which one of the hundreds of churches here is dedicated. I enjoy immersing myself in the crowd that attends such festivities. I have also participated in several processions.
This faith routine forms the foundation of my joyful mood. I feel weird and somehow not really alive without it. I have had to unlearn working intensely for long hours because the concentration away from God makes me cranky and annoyed. But I have also experienced the strange paradox that if I devote sufficient time to faith, everything else I want to do gets done as well. Without having to watch the clock or schedule.
Out of the closet
This year I stopped hiding my faith. I hung a rosary visibly in my studio, and a crucifix on the wall. I got jewels and t-shirts with Christian iconography. And most importantly, I confessed my faith to my family. I was raised an atheist and I raised my children atheist. So I was a bit anxious about this but they responded much better than I feared. Especially after the interview with Sim D’Hertefelt that was published, in Dutch, our mother tongue, on Kerknet to very positive reactions from parents: they were pleasantly surprised to learn things about me that I had not managed to tell them in person.
The launch of the first work of art I made as a Christian, The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration, was accompanied by declarations of my faith, including a blog post and a novena towards the feast of Saint John Paul II when the project was released. For advent I published a selection from my little book Ex-Atheist in which I confront my ideas about certain topics before and after my conversion. And I revived an old Instagram account to dedicate it to my life with faith.
It surprised me that, even here in the very center of Catholicism, while the reduction in the number of active believers is often lamented, it is in fact not easy to learn about the faith. Even once I had decided to be Christian and attended mass, I didn’t really know where to go with my questions. I read books to educate myself (Abigail Favale’s Into the Deep has been crucial). But the thing that probably helped most was the very active presence of Christians on YouTube. Even hardcore protestants like Jackie Hill Perry, John Piper and Tim Mackie, general Christian channels like Premier Unbelievable? and atheists like John Vervaeke have helped me on my way. But most important were of course Catholic channels such as Journey Home, Pints with Aquinas, Bishop Robert Barron, Ascension Presents, Daughters of St. Paul and That Black Catholic Chick. Most of these are American. In Italy I appreciate Bella, prof!, Francesca Parisi, 5pani2pesci, Robert Cheaib, Anita Baldisserotto, Un corpo mi hai dato, Francesco Maria Marino and Achille Boccia‘s strangely obscure liturgy of the hours.
Work and life
For several years I had written down everything I would otherwise have posted on Twitter in a separate file and published all those “tweets” in a little book at the end of the year. This activity has now morphed into writing about the faith, except that I write five times as much. I have no idea if I will ever do anything with all that material.
I took lent, the 40 day period in which Christians fast and pray to prepare for the feast of the resurrection on Easter, very seriously this year. I canceled everything but work and devoted a lot more time to prayer, including walking a Via Crucis every week and climbing the Scala Santa, the stairs on which Christ walked to be condemned by Pontius Pilate, on my knees, as is the tradition. Later, assisted by the Hallow app, I consacrated myself to the Holy Virgin Mary in the Capella del Santissimo Sacramento in Saint-Peter’s Basilica.
A huge part of this year’s wonder has been growing even closer to the person I have already shared 23 years of my life with, thanks to the faith, both hers and mine, and embracing the concept of chastity which has put us on an adventure trail towards a Christian marriage.
The key to unlocking the joy and peace that I experienced this year has been humility. Perhaps an unintuitive concept in today’s culture, I believe humility is the source of happiness, with or without faith. I myself have been so arrogant and prideful that God was the only one for whom I would kneel. And I’m so glad I did! It hasn’t been easy. Ridding oneself of pride is a process. Especially because pride is often hard to recognize in oneself. I still have a lot of work to do. So chances are 2023 will be even more spectacular!