I remember listening to religious talks on cassette and CD with my family as a young boy. These talks were given by men and women who had either converted to the Catholic Church from another denomination (usually Protestant) or even another religion. Sometimes they were given by folks who were raised Catholic, fell away from the Faith, then rediscovered their Faith in some sort of dramatic conversion experience. Dr. Scott Hahn, Christopher West, Janet Smith, Fr. John Corapi, a number of priests from the Fathers of Mercy, etc. These folks seemed to be constantly playing on our radio in the car as we drove to and from daily Mass, or as we went about our daily farm chores. Their talks always had an huge impact on me. I was enthralled by every word they spoke. They really made the Faith "come alive" for me.
What struck me most about their talks, however, was the intense zeal that they exuded, along with their deep knowledge of the Faith. Of course at the time I did not realize that most of them had been studying the Faith for decades, and not a small number of them held doctorate and graduate degrees in theology (and sometimes philosophy as well). As a little boy the concept of academic degrees had not yet entered my consciousness. All I knew was that these were men and women who knew their Faith - I mean really KNEW their Faith - and were passionate and full of zeal to share that Faith with anyone willing to listen.
I would often reflect on their lectures with a hint of sadness mixed in with intense longing. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to know my Faith and experience my Faith the way they did. I wanted that fire, that zeal, that passion. But I was a cradle Catholic. I've never had any sort of dramatic "conversion experience" to another Faith, nor have I had any sort of dramatic "reversion" experience where I've rediscovered my childhood Faith. No. For me the Faith of my childhood has been the Faith I've professed all throughout my life, and most likely it will be the Faith I profess right up to the moment that I enter into the new life beyond the grave. Sure I've "discovered" Eastern Christianity in both its Catholic and Orthodox expressions, and I've very much found a home there. But still the Faith is one. The emphases and cultural expressions may differ, but at their root I still discover the same Faith with which I grew up.
So what is a cradle Catholic (or Orthodox for that matter) to do? How is someone who has no dramatic conversion story to kindle within themselves the zeal of those who have had such an experience? St. Theophan the Recluse points out in his marvelous book The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation that even those initiated into the Faith as infants are called to kindle this same zeal. We all reach a definitive moment where we must make the Faith our own. We must choose to embrace the Faith, that was embraced on our behalf as infants by our godparents, as mature adults. This is the "conversion story" of those who are born into their Faith. It is a conversion not of moving from one Faith to another, but of accepting as our own the gift of grace given to us at our baptism. (cf. pages 38 - 41 in The Path of Salvaiton).
We all reach a moment where the seed of faith, planted in us at our Baptism and nourished in us by our parents and godparents, is now ours to nurture. The responsibility for tending and growing that seed passes over to us. The question becomes, will we embrace the responsibility, or will we allow our seed to die?
Every farmer knows the great amount of work that goes into nurturing seeds into mature plants. It takes patience, sacrifice, vigilance, and great care. You face the threat of weeds from within your own soil. They constantly threaten to take over your garden and choke out your crops. I remember at times pulling up weeds that were the size of small trees (yes, occasionally certain areas of our family garden became quite neglected). When weeds grow that thick it is impossible for anything else, except other weeds, to grow. Apart from the weeds, you also must face the threat of disease, insects, animals, and the elements attacking and destroying your plants from without as it were. Insects were always one of my least favorite threats to deal with. They are many, and they eat away not only at the fruit of your plants, but at the plants themselves (plus they just give me the creepy-crawlies).
It took constant watchfulness to bring our garden to fruition. But once harvest season came along, man was the food good!
We can make the same comparison for the spiritual life. Those of us who are cradle Catholics or Orthodox, but long for the zeal of the new convert, must simply tend the garden that was planted within us. God will bring it to fruition, but not without us showing how dedicated we are to the Faith. The fire of the Holy Spirit will descend, but in God's time, not ours. In the meantime we must do the same things that a new convert would do: pray, study, be attentive at the Liturgy, form strong friendships with like-minded spiritual people, seek guidance. In reality the new convert doesn't do anything that we cradle Catholics/Orthodox should not also be doing. We just often take our Faith for granted and then don't do what we ought to be doing. So let's begin, for up till now we have done nothing. May heaven consume us.