Sohrab Ahmari’s ‘From Fire by Water’ tells a different kind of conversion story

Reviewed by Nancy Piccione

Nearly three years ago, 85-year-old priest Father Jacques Hamel was martyred by two Islamic state terrorists while he was celebrating daily Mass at the parish in Normandy, France, where he lived as a retired priest. I vividly recall how moved I was by the accounts of him, and his witness to the faith. Like many Catholics, I wondered if I could have done the same.

Shortly after Father Hamel’s martyrdom, new stories shared that Wall Street Journal reporter Sohrab Ahmari, a secular Iranian-American, announced on Twitter his conversion to Catholicism because of Father Hamel’s witness.

Wow, I remember thinking. How amazing that an old priest’s martyrdom could inspire a Muslim-born Iranian to convert.

The true story of Ahmari’s conversion (and the tweet — which he soon deleted after it went viral because of how it was misreported) is far more compelling.

“From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith” is Ahmari’s spiritual memoir of what really happened.

As Ahmari writes in the preface,

“Catholicism was the destination I reached after a long, circuitous spiritual path. That path cut across my Muslim background and Iranian heritage, to be sure, and then in turn shaped its course. But it wasn’t as if I had been praying to Allah one day and the next day accepted Christ as my savior. My Internet cheer squad craved precisely this simplistic narrative, which Twitter, with its tendency to flatten human experience into readily digestible memes, supplied.”

“(M)y becoming Catholic had something to do with being Iranian- and Muslim-born but that it was ultimately a response to the universal call of grace.”

FASCINATING ODYSSEY 

This book is fascinating because Ahmari’s story is so different than the typical American conversion story. But even though the biographical details are unusual, his story shares elements that are shared in most, if not all, conversion stories.

Chief among these is an attraction to the good, the beautiful, and the virtuous, that helped him accept a universal standard of good and evil.  That gradually drew him towards God and living a life of faith.

He was raised in Iran by non-religious and inattentive parents, and his sharp communications skills made him seem older and wiser than he was.  And this lack of virtue development didn’t help him become better. As he writes, ““I wanted to be “good.” But I came to associate being good with wowing adults.”

After he and his mother emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager, his high intelligence allowed him to “coast” through high school and even college, without learning critical thinking skills, and helped him easily conform to the worst of the prevailing secular culture.

He participated in the Marxist movement in college, only giving it up when he realized that while the principles seemed sound, it was a movement of not the working class as it proclaimed, and that “the full-time socialist life was possible only for the children of the upper-middle class.”

PRACTICING VIRTUE, INTEGRITY

One of the chief themes of “From Fire by Water” is the idea that it’s not just good enough to be intellectually brilliant and insightful. One must also have and practice virtue. In short, you can’t just be smart. You have to be good, too.

This is most illustrated in the story of Ahmari’s fellow co-worker when they were together in the Teach for America program. (Teach for America is a program that enlists recent college grads to teach for several years in schools in low-income rural and urban communities.)

This co-worker worked long hours and was a tough but fair teacher. A the same time, and unlike his fellow teachers, he refused out of principle to advance kids who were not doing well enough. Instead, this teacher spent extra time with them and held them to his high standards. This did not endear him to others, but caused him to be out of favor with his higher-ups and even his fellow teachers.

As Ahmari met and encountered people who practiced the virtues even in hard circumstances (eventually, learning of Father Hamel’s heroic virtue in martyrdom), he recognized his own lack of good character, and tried with limited success to remedy that.

This search for integrity led him to spend time in a Catholic church in Manhattan, where he encountered Jesus in the Eucharist. Like many, he experienced powerfully God’s presence. After a long time, and even after more twists and turns, Ahmari converted to Catholicism in London.

INTELLIGENCE, FAITH A POWERFUL COMBINATION

Back in the day when blogs were much more popular, I followed many blogs of Catholic moms. And we moms struggled mightily to name our blogs, and rename when necessary. Mine was the name of a Rich Mullins song, probably dating me, but I don’t care.

One mom I followed named her blog “Heaven, not Harvard.”

For some reason this always bothered me. I thought, “But why can’t you have both?” Because of course you can — and recently I reviewed a book on that very premise, “How I Stayed Catholic at Harvard,” by a recent Harvard graduate who found a way to live our her faith in a robust way.

Reading “From Fire by Water” helped me to remember that high intelligence and a strong faith are not mutually exclusive, and can be a powerful combination.

The book also helped to confirm the importance of trying our best, with God’s grace, to live lives of virtue. We never know how we might be affecting the people around us, or the seeds we are planting by our consistency in doing the right thing, especially when it’s difficult.

Most of all, “From Fire by Water helped me to reflect on the ways that everyone’s faith journey is just that — a journey. We lifelong Catholics may not have the dramatic conversion odyssey of a Sohrab Ahmari, but our faith, and our relationship with Christ and His Church, changes through the years.

NANCY PICCIONE of St. Jude Parish in Peoria is a member of The Catholic Post’s six-member book review team.  She recently established her own business, Clarus Money Coaching.  Nancy edited The Catholic Post’s book page for eight years. Learn more about Nancy’s interests and view her past book reviews at her blog, Reading Catholic.

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