A conversion to Catholicism is invariably a romance with the Eucharist through the holy sacrifice of the Mass—and in this sense, New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari's memoir From Fire By Water is a typical conversion story. But it's also deeply personal: For Catholics, the Mass is the wellspring of a relationship with God, and Ahmari's story speaks to the humbling power of the sacrament.
Born in 1985 in Tehran, several years after the 1979 revolution, Ahmari seemed an unlikely candidate for religiosity of any sort. His parents lived secular lives: They drank alcohol, pirated western videos, and did not make their son memorize lengthy portions of the Koran, as other families under the totalitarian regime did. He was encouraged to read whatever he wanted, to call his parents by their first names, and to converse with adults as if he were their equal. Ahmari refers to his upbringing as roshan-fekr, the Persian word for "intellectual," but void of substance. "The only absolute command my father handed down to me was: ‘Be yourself,'" he writes.
Growing up without direction inside a repressive culture, Ahmari longed to leave Iran for the West.
"My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rosewater. There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind, to be sure," he writes. "But when it wasn't burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia. Those were its default modes, rage and nostalgia. I desired something more."
That "something more" appeared to Ahmari in the form of a chance for him and his mother to immigrate to the United States in 1998 to live with her relatives in rural Utah. But this was not the United States the teenaged Ahmari had envisioned. He and his mother lived in a trailer park, among a mostly Mormon community, where sports were the chief societal concern.
So Ahmari rebelled. He read deeply in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, loving the German philosopher the way only an impressionable high schooler can. Ahmari decked himself out in black, blasted Pink Floyd's The Wall in his bedroom, and railed against the evils of capitalism. The wounds of an adolescence wasted are still fresh, and Ahmari's prose reads hot with disdain for his past self. He describes his teenage passion for communism as "insufferably self-righteous."
Much of Ahmari's young adult life consisted of a similar wandering through different ideologies. He recalls how, in an attempt to convert his Mormon roommates to Marxism at Utah State University, he would leave his Marx books out in their common room. But the opposite ended up happening. Ahmari's roommates often left the Bible lying around in the common room, and one day in his sophomore year of college, he picked up the Gospel of Matthew. Ahmari flipped through it, generally unimpressed with Christ's story—until the paschal narrative. "Why did I long for sacrifice? These questions stayed with me for many years after reading Saint Matthew's Gospel," he writes.
But it wasn't enough to interest Ahmari in Christianity. He continued fumbling: transferring to the University of Washington, joining the Communist group Workers Alliance, and upon graduation from college, working for Teach for America. Ahmari characterizes this period as a hopscotch from hangover to hangover, driven by a persistent desire for meaning.
One morning—after a particularly bad night—Ahmari wandered into Mass at an oratory behind Penn Station in New York City. He watched the celebration, not knowing exactly what was happening, but longing for participation in whatever was going on in the sanctuary: "I was in proximity of an awesome and mysterious force—a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death, the idea that had made my heart tremble ever since I was a boy."
But Ahmari still wasn't ready. After finishing his stint at Teach for America, Ahmari enrolled in Northeastern University in Boston to study law. While there, he found his calling in opinion journalism. Ahmari wrote about the controversial 2009 Iranian election for the Boston Globe. Soon, he was freelancing regularly for publications such as Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard.
Around this time, Ahmari began reading Christian thought. He fell in love with Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth (2006), the first of Benedict's three-volume biography of Christ. "It was to this one book, more than any other, that I owed, and still owe, my soul and my salvation," he writes. Ahmari read Benedict alongside Robert Alter's translation of the Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses (2004), considered the closest English translation to the cadence and tone of the Hebrew original. Both books are superb works of scholarship, but an appreciation for Benedict's thought and Alter's prose did not make him a believer.
Ahmari's true conversion came while he was working for the Wall Street Journal in London. By chance—or so it seemed—he entered the Brompton Oratory in London, where a priest was celebrating the high Tridentine Mass. Ahmari recognized it immediately as "a holy place, set apart from the banality and corruption of human affairs."
"The Mass gave full expression to the truths and mysteries of Christianity," he writes. "The Cross was there, but so was our Lord's crucified body, with the pierced side, the bloodied hands, the scourged and welted back, the thorns cutting into his forehead. His sacrifice was present."
It was a moment of great humility for Ahmari, and he chose to begin instruction in the faith almost immediately. After a life of serving "the idol of history, the idol of progress, and above all the idol of self," Ahmari found rest in a God whom he had never imagined would be "this gentle, this self giving."
Ahmari came into the Church on December 19, 2016. His conversion—from the relentless pursuit of self-fulfillment to a trust in completion through God—recalls the humility of the Roman centurion in the Gospel of Matthew, echoed in the words of the Mass: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."
Published under: Book reviews