"My parents were observant Jews in Europe who fled to the U.S. to escape the Holocaust. I was raised as a "conservative" Jew, and was rather pious by nature and very enthusiastic about the religious instruction I received and the religious activities I participated in."
I went to my synagogue's after-school Jewish religious education program ("Hebrew School") all the way through grammer and high school. By high school it was the main focus of my identity and activities, even though by that point there were only about a half-dozen of us who had continued in the program. I was very close to my rabbi and to several of the seminarians who were my Hebrew school teachers. As Providence had it, my hometown rabbi was Arthur Hertzberg. One of the highest-profile rabbis in the U.S., he was president of the American Jewish Congress, advisor to several presidents, and wrote a number of best-selling books on Judaism and Jewish history. My favorite Hebrew school teacher, with whom I was particularly close, also became a very prominent rabbi who later headed the largest Jewish rabbinical seminary in the U.S..
Growing up I was unusually devout and passionate about God and Judaism, although the suburban conservative context I was in did not really support a life of piety, faith and prayer. In my senior year of high school I met a very charismatic "mystic" Hasidic Rabbi (Shlomo Carlebach) who used to go around the country giving "concerts" which were really prayer meetings over which he would preside, playing guitar and leading Hasidic worship songs, interspersed with religious story-telling and teaching. He had a large following among Jewish hippies and college students. I fell in with him, and spent the following summer traveling with him in Israel in his entourage. I wanted to live my life for God and with God, and while in Israel I considered abandoning my plans to go to M.I.T. in order to stay in Israel studying at one of the Jerusalem yeshivas (which are schools where young men devote their time to prayer and religious study, the closest thing Judaism has to religious life). But I was turned off by a certain sterility and coldness which I saw in them, and which did not speak of real intimacy with God.
So I returned to the U.S. and started at M.I.T. I felt very lost, because anything which did not have God at its center seemed to have no point or meaning, yet there was nothing I could "do" which did have God at its center. The former Hebrew school teacher with whom I was close had also by then moved to Boston, where he started a kind of counter-culture, hippie-oriented Jewish seminary/commune. During my first few weeks at M.I.T. I considered dropping out, but he encouraged me to stay, and I did, spending much of my free time at his seminary/commune.
Although I tried to maintain my religious orientation, there was a fatal flaw in it which soon led me astray. I had no understanding of the relationship between religion and morality, particularly sexual morality. So my religiosity soon became mixed up in the drug and "free love" culture which was rampant, and soon degenerated into the immoral, vague hippie "spirituality" of the time. My thirst for God became, for a long while, sated by the false consolations and delusional spirituality of that environment.
For the next fifteen years, I lived my life in a tremendous inner tension. I had a yearning for transcendent meaning, and a refusal to let go of that yearning for more than short periods, but had no knowledge of what that yearning was truly for, and hence no sense of a direction to go in. Because a conventional engineer's life in the U.S. had no "meaning", I moved to Denmark, because I sensed, in the deeper relationship which Danes had with life and family, a greater spiritual meaning, but once there it was obviously not my real life, so I returned. For a few years after my return, while working as a programmer, I lived for rock-climbing, with the excitement and sense of danger and accomplishment which it produced, providing an anesthetic for my thirst for meaning. In 1978 I went back to school, to Harvard Business School for an M.B.A., but the momentary feelings of success which that produced did not assuage my desperation for real meaning for long. Anything which I tried, whether a career switch or a romantic relationship, only produced a momentary illusion of purpose which soon faded, leaving me with the desperate sense that there must be something more. That is why I never settled in to a career, or married.
At Harvard Business School, I did extraordinarily well, winning most of the available awards in my class, and graduating among the top few with "High Distinction". Shortly after graduation I was invited to join the faculty, and did so, teaching the core marketing course in the M.B.A. program. Yet even the success of being a Harvard Business School professor, and a very popular one at that, at thirty years of age, did not assuage my sense of pointlessness. I loved the teaching and the students but did not find much interest in the subject matter itself. After teaching, Harvard offered to support me (very generously) while I completed a doctorate so that I could qualify for tenure, but once into my dissertation, my lack of genuine interest caught up with me, and I went back to consulting.
It was around this time that I got involved with my last "false consolation", my last false direction to provide meaning to my life. As a child, I had been an enthusiastic downhill skier, but I gave it up when I went to college. I now took it up again with a vengeance, supporting myself with consulting while spending most of every winter skiing in the Alps. I became very good, and my skiing companions in the Alps were all professional skiers, "circuit" skiers, Olympic hopefuls, etc. For a few years I lived for skiing, finding enough consolation in the physical excitement, the speed, the aesthetics, the sense of accomplishment, the camaraderie, to dull the thirst for meaning in my life.
Of course God was using everything in my life to bring me to Him, and it would soon bear fruit. It was when I was in the spectacular natural beauty of the Alps that I became aware of the existence of God for the first time since college. I remember the scene: I was high up on the mountain, still well above tree line, shortly after sunset, with the sky glowing a soft red and the snow and granite glowing blue in the twilight. My heart opened with gratitude, and I knew that such beauty had been created by God. It is worth noting that the area of Austria which I was in was still deeply and piously Catholic, with beautiful crucifixes everywhere, both inside the houses, hotels and restaurants and also along the roads and even trails. Even in the ski town, the church was packed for Sunday Mass. (In fact, in the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying, a carved wooden crucifix with corpus hung over my bed. Every evening when I returned to the room, I would remove it and place it in a drawer; I had no desire to sleep under a cross! And the following day, I would find it had been rehung over the bed, without comment, by the devout, elderly woman in whose home I was staying).
After a few years of living for skiing, that too began to pale, and I became more and more despondent. The only relief I could find was spending time alone in nature, trying to recapture a hint of the consolation which I had felt in the Alps. During the spring of 1987, I took a few days off from work and went to Cape Cod to spend time in the nature there. I was walking in the early morning, in the woods just back from the beach, when God intervened, dramatically and distinctly, into my life to pull me back and put me onto the right path. As I was walking, lost in my thoughts, I found myself in the immediate presence of God. It is as though I "fell into Heaven." Everything changed from one moment to the next, but in such a smooth and subtle way that I was not aware of any discontinuity. I felt myself in the immediate presence of God. I was aware of His infinite exaltedness, and of His infinite and personal love for me. I saw my life as though I was looking back on it after death, in His presence, and could see everything which I would be happy about and everything which I would wish I had done differently. I saw that every action I had ever done mattered, for good or for evil. I saw that everything which had ever happened in my life had been perfectly designed for my own good from the infinitely wise and loving hand of God, not only including but especially those things which I, at the time, thought had been the greatest catastrophes. I saw that my two greatest regrets when I died would be every moment which I had wasted not doing anything of value in the eyes of God, and all of the time and energy which I had wasted worrying about not being loved when every moment of my existence I was bathed in an infinite sea of love, although unaware of it. I saw that the meaning and purpose of my life was to worship and serve my Lord and Master, in whose presence I found myself. I wanted to know His name, so that I could worship Him properly, so that I could follow "His" religion. I remember silently praying "Tell me your name. I don't mind if You're Apollo, and I have to become a Roman pagan. I don't mind if You're Krishna, and I have to become a Hindu. I don't mind if You're Buddha, and I have to become a Buddhist. As long as You're not Christ, and I have to become a Christian!" (Jewish readers might be able to identify with this deep-rooted aversion to Christianity, based on the mistaken belief that it was the "enemy" which lay behind two thousand years of persecution of the Jews.)
Not surprisingly, He did not tell me His name. Obviously, I wasn't ready to hear it; my resistance at the time was still too great. But I knew, from that moment on, the meaning and purpose and goal of my life; and that sense has not faded or wavered, although the immediate state of perception did.
When I got back home, everything was different. I remember calling my mother and telling her "Mom, I have good news! It's all true! You don't ever die..." only to be met with a sort of stony silence. It had never occurred to me that she might not believe me; after all, I knew from my own direct experience! Although I went back to my consulting, everything was now different, and I set out on a focused search to find my Lord and Master and God whom I had met on the beach that day.
Because I interpreted the experience as a "mystical" one, I initially looked towards mysticism, which led me to a lot of blind alleys. Prior to my experience, I had not had any interest at all in mysticism or any of the New Age religions or meditative practices or occultism, and those are what I first came across. I spent a number of months looking in that, essentially Hindu although disguised, direction.
Yet every night before going to sleep, I would say a short prayer to know the name of my Lord and Master and God whom I had met on the beach. A year to the day after the initial experience, I went to sleep after saying that prayer, and felt as though I was woken by a gentle hand on my shoulder, and escorted to a room where I was left alone with the most beautiful young woman I could imagine. I knew without being told that she was the Blessed Virgin Mary. I felt entirely awake (and my memory is as though I had been awake), although I was dreaming. I remember my first reaction, standing there awed by her presence and grandeur, was wishing I knew at least the Hail Mary so that I could honor her! She offered to answer any questions I had. I remember thinking about what to ask, asking the questions, and her answers. After speaking to me a while longer, the audience was ended. When I woke the next morning, I was hopelessly in love with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I knew that the God I had met on the beach was Christ, and that all I wanted was to be as much of, and as good a, Christian as possible. I still did not know anything about Christianity, nor the difference between the Catholic Church and any of the hundreds of Protestant denominations. It took me another two years or so to find my way to the Catholic Church, guided by my love and reverence for the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I will just touch briefly on some of the milestones which led me to the Catholic Church. After the dream of Mary, I started going to a local Protestant Church, but left when I asked the pastor about Mary, and he made a disparaging remark. I started hanging around Marian shrines, particularly a shrine of Our Lady of La Salette which was in Ipswich, Mass., about 40 minutes from my house. On a winter ski trip to the Alps, I decided to visit the real La Salette apparition site (in the French Alps), and ended up spending the rest of the "ski" trip there, in deep prayer. Someone I met there recommended that I make a visit to a Carthusian monastery, and I ended up doing so, spending a week there, on a kind of solitary "come and see", although I was still Jewish! There I became aware, for the first time, how the Catholic Church was itself an outgrowth of Judaism. It was unavoidably obvious, given how the monks spent many hours a day chanting the Old Testament psalms, with their continual references to Israel, Zion, Jerusalem, the Jewish Patriarchs, and the Jewish people, visibly identifying with the "Israel" of the psalms (that is, the Jews). A small illustration: One day when I was working alone in the fields, an elderly monk came out to speak with me. He approached and shyly asked, "Tell us, if you don't mind. We couldn't help noticing that you do not receive Communion, so you must not be Catholic. What then are you?" When I replied "Jewish", he grinned and with a deep sigh said "That's a relief! We were afraid you were Protestant!". At the time I had no understanding at all of the difference between Protestants and Catholics; they were just meaningless words to me describing Christians. Yet I was deeply struck by the fact that in some mysterious way this monk identified with Jews as opposed to Protestants. I later realized that in his eyes, Jews were "elder brothers in the Faith" who had not yet received the grace to recognize the Messiahship of Jesus, whereas Protestants had once had, but then rejected, the fullness of the truth.
During that week, I grew to feel Mary's central, penetrating presence in the Catholic Church. I also started to be deeply distressed at being unable to receive Communion. It was my desire to receive Communion which, more than anything else, drew me to the baptismal font. I had sought out a Jewish priest, Father Raphael Simon, (referred to me by the Carthusian Prior) for baptism. He was a former (Jewish) University of Chicago Philosophy professor and New York City psychiatrist, who became a Trappist monk. (His conversion story is published under the title The Glory of Thy People.) When I first met with him, he asked me why I wanted to be baptised. Since I knew that I couldn't truthfully say (at the time) that it was because I believed in all of Catholic doctrine, I angrily blurted out "Because I want to receive Communion and otherwise you won't let me!" I thought he would throw me out on my ear, but instead he nodded sagely and said "Ah, that's the Holy Spirit at work..."
So in early 1992, I was baptized and confirmed (by a different priest, as it turned out), just in time for another more extended stay at the Carthusian monastery, to discern whether that was my vocation. It wasn't (although the Prior continued for many years to be my spiritual director), but the fanaticism which characterized my pre-conversion life has served me well, now that I have found the true direction for my life.
Although I have no religious or priestly vocation, there is (please God) nothing in my life which is not for Him and around Him. In a number of small ways, I am active in the Church, with daily Mass and prayer being at the center of my life, writing, teaching or speaking whenever asked, producing and hosting a Catholic TV talk show. I have just completed a book on the role of Judaism in salvation history, Salvation is from the Jews, which was published by Ignatius Press. It should give Christians a deeper understanding of Judaism as the religion which God created to bring about the incarnation of God as man, as well as the religion into which He incarnated. To Jews it should reveal the full glory and importance of Judaism, a glory which can only be recognized in the light of the truths of the Catholic Faith. My hope is that by illuminating Judaism with a deeper meaning and significance than Jews see from within their own faith, their pride in being Jewish will draw them towards, rather than away from, the Catholic Church.
I will never know, this side of Heaven, whose prayers and sacrifices purchased the graces for my entirely unsought after and undeserved conversion, entirely unsought after and undeserved conversion, but I can only thank them profoundly, and exhort others, too, to pray for the conversion of the Jews; that the people to whom Jesus first made Himself known may come into the truth and into the fullness of their relationship to Him in the Catholic Church. How tragic that we, to whom God first revealed Himself as Man, should be among the last to recognize Him! In the words of the Postulatum from the First Vatican Council, signed by the Fathers of the Council and endorsed by Pope Pius IX (but never formally promulgated due to the Council's premature termination upon the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War):
"The undersigned Fathers of the Council humbly yet urgently beseechingly pray that the Holy Ecumenical Council of the Vatican deign to come to the aid of the unfortunate nation of Israel with an entirely paternal invitation; that is, that it express the wish that, finally exhausted by a wait no less futile than long, the Israelites hasten to recognize the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ, truly promised to Abraham and announced by Moses; thus completing and crowning, not changing, the Mosaic religion.
"…the undersigned Fathers have the very firm confidence that the holy Council will have compassion on the Israelites, because they are always very dear to God on account of their fathers, and because it is from them that the Christ was born according to the flesh…
"Would that they then speedily acclaim the Christ, saying 'Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed be He who comes in the name of the Lord!
"Would that they hurl themselves into the arms of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, even now their sister according to the flesh, who wishes likewise to be their mother according to grace as she is ours!"
Our Lady, Mary of Zion, pray for us!
"Roy Schoeman's Conversion Story." is reprinted from Christ to the World (July-August 2002): 253-260.