Most people have heard about my conversion to Catholicism in 1845, and of course that was a pivotal moment in my life. But it was more concerned with church than with faith. I would put my conversion to faith much earlier, in the autumn of 1816 when a period of crisis and breakthrough gave me a new sense of God that lasted for the rest of my life. With my passion for reading I had been flirting with the ideas of some radical atheists, such as Hume, and I found their arguments impressive and plausible. From their external perspective God seemed incredible. For me, with my conventional Christian upbringing, it shook my foundations. I was just fifteen, with all the usual fragilities of adolescence, magnified by a financial crisis in the family that caused me to stay on alone at my boarding school through the summer holidays. In fact I fell sick but, a little like St Ignatius of Loyola, that illness proved a major turning point for me.
It was providential that a young teacher at the school, Rev. Walter Mayers, took me under his wing. He was a kindly Evangelical Calvinist and offered me alternative reading, to help me to see the limitations of those empirical thinkers. More importantly he guided me towards a more personal discovery of God. I experienced, prayerfully and powerfully, that God spoke to me in my conscience and that this God was both real and greater than my individual existence. It was a moment of revelation and of grace that never again left me. It was not simply an emotional or even a sudden conversion: gradually, over a number of months, I arrived at a firm belief in God’s mercy and providence, and a definite sense of being called into a lasting relationship with Christ. It was a change of heart, certainly, but also an enlargement of my mind. From reading a book by Thomas Scott, called The Force of Truth, I realized that life could be a long love affair with truth, an adventure that demanded total fidelity, and that being faithful to God’s truth would mean a constant battle against the more superficial world in me and around me. I came to cherish his claim that growth is the only evidence of life.