In his new book, From Fire, by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith, Sohrab Ahmari traces the “awakenings” —spiritual, intellectual, personal — that led him from not-atheism to Catholicism. It’s an important book, one that could save a lot of people from misery. Ahmari talks about it in this interview for National Review. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
(Ahmari and I will also be talking about the book in person at the Sheen Center in New York City on March 13. All are welcome. Details here.)
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did Father Jacques Hamel make such a difference in your life?
Sohrab Ahmari: I announced that I was converting to Catholicism on the day he was martyred. His death — jihadists inspired by Islamic State beheaded him while Father Hamel was celebrating the Mass — offered a striking witness to the Catholic concept of the priest acting in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”) in performing the sacraments. In Father Hamel’s case, this meant laying down his own life for his flock in a modern echo or reflection of the sacrifice at Calvary.
Lopez: Why should more of us remember him and care what happened to him?
Ahmari: For starters, because it’s a reminder that Christian martyrdom isn’t a historical fact from first-century Rome but a latter-day reality.
Lopez: Why is your conversion story important to tell?
Ahmari: I recounted my conversion in the hope that a 20- or 24-year-old version of me might encounter it, see himself or herself in my story, and thereby avoid a lot of the misery I went through when I made myself my own moral measure, my own personal pope.
Lopez: Why was it so misunderstood at first?
Ahmari: A lot of folks assumed that because I announced my conversion on the day Father Hamel was martyred that therefore it had been inspired by that horrific incident. In fact, my conversion was the culmination of a decades-long intellectual and spiritual process, and it took a 60,000-word memoir to explain it all.
Lopez: Is it really the time to be telling a Catholic conversion story?
Ahmari: Maybe. Or maybe not. I had an overwhelming urge to set the record straight and make it clear that my conversion was well considered and the product of long reflection and life experience — that it wasn’t a rash decision. So I did. I suppose Catholic literary history will decide whether I succeeded and whether the book will last the test of time.
Lopez: You write this: “I also discovered the Shiite faith’s jagged beauty and deep pathos. Most important, I learned about Hussein ibn Ali, the third Shiite imam and the greatest martyr in a faith of martyrs. To this day, I hear in Hussein’s story an echo of Christ’s teaching that ‘greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John. 15:13).”
How has its meaning changed for you?
Ahmari: Nearly all cultures revere self-sacrifice unto death, including the Shiite Muslim culture I was born into. The difference is that, in Christianity, it is God himself who offers himself as the redemptive sacrifice. This radical reversal of roles — what Pope Benedict XVI calls “Christianity’s great reversal of values” — was pivotal to my conversion, as readers of the memoir will learn.
Lopez: If anyone reading this is feeling a nudge toward faith, what might you say to them?
Ahmari: Go to Mass, even if you don’t believe — or think you don’t believe. Tell yourself you’re just going to enjoy the beautiful liturgy. Our Lord will take it from there.
Lopez: Are there books you’d recommend? Prayers?
Ahmari: I wish the younger me would’ve read the Confessions of Saint Augustine. I read it when I was 31, much too late to save me a lot of misery. It led me to select Augustine as my patron when I was received into the Church. I also always give out copies of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon to young people and interns I come into contact with. It’s a great antidote to the totalitarian mentality that we are all susceptible to.
Lopez: How important is the Eucharist to you and how did that come about?
Ahmari: It is the source and summit of the faith and of my faith. It came about in a very mysterious way, through several providential encounters with the Mass while I still professed to be an unbeliever.
Lopez: What’s your pitch to people who equate religion with tyranny, as you once did?
Ahmari: Well, the worst tyrannies, the truly monstrous ideological tyrannies of the 20th century, were all radically anti-religious and anti-Christian. But more than that, all the liberal, humanistic ideals about rights and the dignity of man that such people celebrate are, in fact, parasitic on Judeo-Christian political and theological concepts.
Lopez: Is it hard to write today? There’s so much competition and noise and polarization. How do you keep your writing interesting and yet fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase?
Ahmari: In my new role (as op-ed editor of the New York Post) I write a lot less under my own byline than I used to do. It means that when I do write, I really have something to say. I’m also a big devotee of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, and I do try to offer up whatever work I do. It helps me push through the noise and the polarization.
Lopez: “Rare is the Iranian who hasn’t been nursed on 2,500 years of grievance.” Can that help us understand Iran and her people more and the Middle East region?
Ahmari: Iran and the Middle East are painfully complicated. But one enduring emotional strand in how Iranians perceive the world is that they are heirs to a great civilization that has constantly been wronged and suffered a successive chain of humiliations, mainly at the hands of outsiders.
Lopez: There’s an Iranian difference you bring with you. Do you find that it makes for a different steering of newsroom conversations? What do you wish Americans appreciated about Iran?
Ahmari: Iranian political culture is deeply authoritarian, and, therefore, whatever political order follows the mullahs is unlikely to be liberal. And that’s okay. We don’t need to replicate liberalism everywhere. Iranians can have a decent, benign regime that is nevertheless responsive to the deep longings in the Persian soul for order, continuity, and visible authority — kingship, in a word. That’s how the political culture is wired. My friends at Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the rest will, of course, find it repellent that I’d say so. But what can I say? I’ve lost a lot of my spread-freedom-everywhere idealism.
Lopez: Especially at this time of scandal revelations, can you tell us something more about the priest “who made Christ visible” to you?
Ahmari: Simply put, he was (and is) singularly committed to helping others get to heaven.
Lopez: How do we do that for one another?
Ahmari: Among other things, by following Pope Francis’s teaching about reaching out to the margins, and he doesn’t (just) mean the economic margins.
Lopez: What do you tell non-Catholics about the Church, especially now?
Ahmari: That it is the fullness of truth.
Lopez: In the foreword to your book, Archbishop Chaput writes, “The truth is, we’re never as important as we think we are, and, in the end, we and our stories will be forgotten by everyone but God.” Was that a little bit of humble pie to read at the start of your spiritual memoir?
Ahmari: Yes, even as he was kind enough to praise the memoir in a foreword, the archbishop, I suspect, was also acting as pastor. Again, making Christ visible.
Lopez: Chaput also writes, “The Church, as Ahmari discovers in these pages, is mother and teacher, nourisher and consoler, in all of these things, and all of these things prevent human affairs, no matter how confused, from becoming permanently inhuman.” Do you feel that way about the Church? Is she a mother still? Even after McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand-jury report and everything?
Ahmari: The Christian worldview isn’t naïve about human nature. Rather, our conception of it begins with the account of the Fall in Genesis. Before we know much about Adam and Eve, they sin and are cast out for putting themselves in place of Almighty God. But for grace, we’re all lousy. We can all be McCarricks. We can all be cruel concentration-camp guards.
Lopez: Did writing about the interior life teach you more about it?
Ahmari: Yes, but not in any way I could explain. To my own surprise, I found that I have some talent for describing the inner life.
Lopez: Why did you open with a story from The Onion?
Ahmari: The Onion article — about a man suddenly turning to Christianity in late middle age, and his colleagues’ and friends’ puzzlement about it all — was published just as I was going through the same thing. It seemed appropriate to start my preface with that.
Lopez: How can Christians stay sane — and Christian — in these times, digesting the news as we do?
Ahmari: By reading only as much news as one’s vocation requires (which, in my case, unfortunately, is a lot). But if you read one good paper cover-to-cover daily, you don’t also need to read every reaction to every story on social media etc. Better, I think, to read good novels and good spiritual books and serious history.
Lopez: Do you have rules for yourself for social media? Do you have rules in general that keep you on a straight path and with Christ in the center of your life?
Ahmari: I do have rules — never punch down, just post your article but don’t respond to critics, etc. — but I too often fail to keep to them! As to keeping our Lord at the center, I have a plan of life that includes morning and evening prayer, Scripture reading, some spiritual reading, and the Mass and the Rosary (daily). But I don’t always manage to keep to that, either, and the really important thing I’ve learned is to start afresh each day. If you try to “catch up” with the prayers and readings you failed to do the previous day, you’ll get overwhelmed and then eventually you’ll stop altogether. So treat each day as a new opportunity. That’s helped me a lot.