by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald.
Previously, he served as a columnist and editor of the Wall Street Journal opinion pages in New York and London and as a senior writer for Commentary magazine.
Sohrab was born and spent his childhood in Iran. He was the only child of nonpracticing Muslim parents. His father was an architect and his mother an artist. They lived on the second floor of his maternal grandparents’ home, where Sohrab was exposed to Western culture, music, art and movies. His parents divorced when he was 6, but for Sohrab’s benefit they kept up the appearance of their marriage for almost seven more years.
In his schooling, he was required to memorize significant portions of the Quran. While still a young boy, Sohrab rejected Islam, in part because of the hypocrisy of how it was lived by his parents and their friends. Nevertheless, Sohrab admired and was inspired by the courage of the Shia martyrs who sacrificed their lives rather than betray their convictions.
When Sohrab reached the age of 13, his parents could no longer keep up the charade of their marriage. With his mother, Sohrab immigrated to the United States. He spoke English well and looked forward to immersing himself in American secular culture.
Much to his disappointment, they lived near his uncle in, of all places, Utah — the closest one could get to experience a theocracy in the United States.
By the time he graduated from high school, Sohrab professed to be a Marxist atheist. Convinced there was nothing beyond this world, he pursued with determination the many pleasures readily available in America. Eventually, he began to experience the inevitable emptiness that comes from building one’s life on pleasure, material comfort and the denial of the existence of God.
In 2008, Sohrab was teaching at a charter school in Salem, Massachusetts. Previously, he had worked in Texas as part of the organization Teach for America. He was given the opportunity to earn additional money and visit New York on weekends by assisting with the training of new Teach for America recruits.
After having gotten drunk on Saturday night and embarrassing himself at the Sunday morning training session, Sohrab found himself with a couple of hours to kill while waiting for the train to take him back to Boston. He walked around the area surrounding Penn Station depressed and realizing he needed to make some significant changes in his life.
For some inexplicable reason, Sohrab decided to enter a Catholic church. It was the first time that he had visited a place of worship as an adult. Once inside, Sohrab was struck by the serenity of the place located amid the chaos of midtown Manhattan. While Sohrab sat in the back of the church, the Sunday evening Mass began. He had no concept of the meaning of the Mass and was only vaguely aware of what the priest was saying and doing.
Sohrab described his experience that night in these words: “Even at that moment, with my deep spiritual longing, there was part of me that scoffed at the sacred mysteries. While a young guy with an acoustic guitar and a man bun led the parishioners in singing various hymns, the thought that crossed my mind was: You’re too smart for this. What if someone I knew spotted me? Then I would forever be counted among the ranks of these gullible saps. But all of a sudden, the singing and strumming dissolved into that all-encompassing serenity, and something extraordinary happened.”
At this moment, Sohrab heard the priest say the words of consecration: “This is my body which will be given up for you.” He had no idea that the white disk the priest was holding up was bread that had become the body of Christ. Nevertheless, he felt a tremendous peace and tears streamed from his eyes. Sohrab then heard the priest speak the words over the cup of wine that recall Jesus shed his blood for us. It reminded him of what he felt when he first heard the story of the Shia martyrs. This was something even more phenomenal — God giving his life for us.
Sohrab describes the impact of his first experience of Mass: “Now, the friar held up a golden cup. The bell rang thrice more. My silent tears gave way to choked sobs. I was in the 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. I was aware, too, of my own abjection and smallness, which made me think that I didn’t belong in the presence of this holy thing. Not sixteen hours earlier, I had drunk myself into a stupor. I had willingly degraded myself. Now I dared to show up here? And yet, peace continued to radiate from the altar and from the friar’s words and hands. I covered my face and bent over in my pew.”
What a powerful testimony of God’s presence in the Eucharist from one who was not Christian, much less Catholic. It would be several years before Sohrab appreciated more fully what he experienced that Sunday in New York. I encourage you to read Sohrab Ahmari’s book, “From Fire By Water — My Journey to the Catholic Faith.”
When I asked Sohrab about are the main differences between Islam and Christianity, he noted that, for the Muslim, God is almighty and totally other. The Muslim seeks to submit to God’s will, to be God’s servant or slave. In Christianity, God is also almighty. However, this almighty God pursues humanity. God took on our flesh and sacrificed himself on Calvary for us. He desires for us to be able to commune with him, to enter into friendship with him.
During Holy Week, we celebrate the central mysteries of our faith: the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus’ suffering and death on Calvary, and his victory over sin and death on Easter. I encourage you to participate in the Triduum liturgies in your parish. I also invite you to come to one or more of the Triduum liturgies at the Cathedral of St. Peter.
Pray for the gift to experience the central mysteries of our faith with fresh eyes. The beauty of God’s love for us revealed in Jesus should bring us to tears. How can we not be profoundly touched by the incredible love God revealed for us on Cavalry, the privilege of sharing in his eternal life and the amazing gift to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist? May we experience that same incredible peace Sohrab found when he wandered into a Catholic church in the middle of New York City. What a gift we have in Jesus! What a gift our Catholic faith!