Everyone has heard the saying that one should never discuss religion or politics at the dinner table. As Sohrab Ahmari learned, it’s unwise to discuss one’s forthcoming religious conversion on Twitter, too.
On July 26, 2016, a month after Ahmari began studying to enter the Roman Catholic Church, Jacques Hamel, an elderly Catholic priest in Normandy, was murdered by two men who pledged allegiance to ISIS while he was celebrating Mass.
This martyrdom prompted Ahmari to announce in a tweet, which he has since deleted, “#IamJacquesHamel: In fact, this is the right moment to announce that I'm converting to Roman Catholicism.”
The tweet went viral, and suddenly Ahmari’s conversion was being publicly reported, often with incorrect details or assumptions about why he, an Iranian-born journalist, was crossing the Tiber.
“Catholicism was the destination I had reached after a long, circuitous spiritual path. That path cut across my Muslim background and Iranian heritage, to be sure, and these 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,” explains Ahmari.
“My internet cheer squad craved precisely this simplistic narrative, which Twitter, with its tendency to flatten human experience into readily digestible memes, supplied.”
From Fire, By Water tells in 207 pages what Ahmari could not fully elaborate in 140 characters, which was all Twitter allowed in those days. It is the story of the son of secular Iranian liberals, who, as a child living in an Islamic theocracy, rejected the idea of God, who would grow up to find himself, as an adult living in Britain, thrust into the healing embrace of God’s mercy.
As a child, Ahmari viewed religion as something practiced by hypocrites, not by people on his intellectual level. He carried this view when he moved to America as a teen, discovered Marxism, and spent years dabbling in far-left politics.
Then things changed.
As a young adult, Ahmari realized that just about everything he thought he knew was wrong, including, perhaps, his rejection of religion. That realization prompted a search for the truth and eventually led him to the door of London’s Brompton Oratory.
After stumbling into the Oratory’s Tridentine Latin Mass on the feast of Pentecost in 2016, after attending an evangelical service earlier that Sunday, he realized that “this was a holy place, set apart from the banality and corruption of human affairs. It was a place of right worship.”
Even though he did not fully understand what was happening, even doing the sign of the cross with the wrong hand, Ahmari knew he had found his spiritual home.
“I was called to conform myself to a body two millennia in continuous existence, not the other way around,” writes Ahmari. “The world was unimaginable without the Catholic Church,” he said. “The institution that appeared fusty and antique was timeless and universal, a fortress against the ephemeral.”
Holy Trinity Brompton, the evangelical Anglican church Ahmari had been attending, which had large video screens and modern music, was “small and parochial, a pure product of its age,” he said.
Following Mass on Pentecost, Ahmari knelt before a statue of Jesus in an “utterly spontaneous act of obeisance” and prayed to be forgiven and cleansed of his past transgressions. By the following Monday, Ahmari was back at the Oratory, where he informed a priest that he wished to become Catholic. The priest, unfazed, agreed on the spot to provide him religious instruction.
From Fire, By Water is a wonderful read for anyone who is seeking a deeper meaning to life, whether they be persons of devout faith or of none at all.
As a cradle Catholic, I was continually struck by how much Ahmari revered and appreciated things I had taken for granted each Sunday. The book forced me to take a deeper look at the faith I had been baptized into as an infant, and it helped me gain a fuller understanding of how remarkable, unique, and life-giving Catholicism can be.
Church attendance is dwindling, while those who identify as “unaffiliated” are the fastest-growing religious group in the United States. The role of religious faith itself is cast aside by many, including many who have never given it serious thought. From Fire, By Water invites the reader to ponder religion.
Ahmari began his catechetical instruction in June of 2016 and was baptized and received into the church six months later, on Dec. 19, 2016. The only major flaw of From Fire, By Water is in its timing, arriving just three short years after Ahmari's baptism as a Catholic.
To his credit, Ahmari leaves the reader wanting to know more about where his faith journey has taken him. I eagerly await an expanded edition in a decade or so.
Christine Rousselle is a D.C. correspondent for Catholic News Agency.