05/05/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Religious Conversion Stories and Musical Chairs

Simply put, religious conversion stories are bound to offend sizeable groups of people. Religious people of one faith may label someone in their own camp who goes over to another faith as a traitor, deluded or perhaps as having fallen into heresy.

In my life, I have known Protestants who have become Catholic, Catholics who have become Protestant, Christians who have become Jewish, Hindus who have become Muslim, and of course, plenty of people who have become atheist or agnostic. Being atheist is the thing now.

In my own family, I have cousins who were born Catholic but who then converted to the Mormon Church. When I was in my 20s, I looked into the Episcopal Church, especially the High Church version, and attended for a short season. While working with a Jewish organization in the 1980s, I was invited to a service at a reform synagogue (and a festival afterwards) and felt a certain attraction even if this had more to do with the dancing at the festival than with theology. My core base is hopelessly Christian, although this didn't prevent me at one time from checking into Center City Buddhist circles (as an observer) and even learning to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo every so often. The chant was supposed to draw all good things to the chanter, but in the end I was confused. I simply didn't know to "whom" I was praying.

Having lived in Germantown at one time, I also visited the Hare Krishna temple there for one of their "Come and see" dinner festivals. These were famous Sunday evening vegetarian food fests in which you got to see dancing Krishna monks. I called it a trip down George Harrison Lane. Years ago, I had a friend who was a former Hare Krishna monk. He told me stories about how he and his fellow monks would parade through downtown Boston doing the Hare Krishna dance, drumming the drums, burning incense, and causing a spectacle. In the end, he couldn't take the celibacy requirements, so he cut off the Krishna pony tail, put it in an envelope and gave it to me as a souvenir. He was only 24, after all. People in their 20s, as a great psychic once told me, have a blank karmic slate, and don't really become real people until at least age 30.

So, here I was with this cut-off Krishna pony tail in a white envelope. At first I was going to put it into my personal museum of found objects, but then I filed it away between some old books until one evening it fell off a shelf into the keyboard of my computer, and I thought "Enough is enough." I decided I didn't need any Karen Armstrong-style souvenirs of religious diversity.

In Colorado, when I was 21, my much older writing mentor -- whose family I was visiting then -- took me on a western road trip where we visited a woman friend of his in the Las Vegas desert. We had already toured the glitzy neon casino end of the city (awful -- but the silver dollar-sized pancakes there are terrific), and now we were embarking upon serious business: checking into Scientology.

You see, my mentor -- he was a married man with grown children who were my peer group friends at the time -- thought he knew what was best for me. He insisted that I had a lot of psychological blocks that needed to be worked through. Scientology could do that, he said. He blamed all my pent up blocks and issues on my being raised Catholic. "They did a number on you," he said. "The Church did a number on you. You can't go on as a writer if these things are hanging around inside your head like cobwebs." So I believed him. I mean, what if he was right? Didn't I want to be the best human being possible?

So he introduced me to this woman who lived in the desert. She was a Scientology clear who made great coffee and who knew how to get rid of those mental cobwebs. She produced an E-meter from her desk, a gadget she wired to my wrist with a control box with a meter that only she could see. The idea was to ask me questions about my childhood, intimate questions, and then see what the meter indicated. I started talking about nuns, parochial school, the whole Catholic thing (sex and guilt), and the meter went wild. It didn't buzz or throw out sparks but the movement was enough to make her want to take notes. When the session was over, she produced a short list of the so-called red flag areas, an X-ray of those cobwebs. Nothing was conclusive, however, and so I left the desert house feeling as if I had merely played a game of Monopoly.

Years later, Scientology would become big business, the "religion" of the stars. Today, whenever I look at a photograph of Tom Cruise, John Travolta or Kirstie Alley, I wonder if they hook themselves up at night with E-meters.

E. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, was a strange man, but not as strange as the traveling female yogi I encountered in Center City at the First Unitarian Church. The yogi, who had a very long name, had a vast following. Her followers promised that a session with her -- and allowing her to anoint you on the forehead with some kind of holy ash -- would produce positive life results, some of them material. She was famous in India, and I was startled to discover that one of her followers happened to be a woman I used to work with who would tell me stories about her highly religious mother who was devoted to the Catholic mystic, Padre Pio. Well, here was the daughter taking on her mother's mantle, only she was devoted to a yogi.

When I approached the yogi for the forehead anointment, she gave me a separate packet of the ash that I was supposed to save. I think I kept it for a year, then lost it but discovered it later in my sock drawer. What, I wondered, were these ashes supposed to represent?

When I happened upon a book, The Gurus, the Young Man and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis, I thought of my visit to the yogi while reading Farasiotis' account of his incredible search for the truth, and how his experiments in yoga, travels to India and extended visits to ashrams eventually led him back to his native Orthodox Christian faith.

Farasiotis writes, "...I was pondering over what I had been told about Christ being a yogi who was a disciple of Shiva, about Christ founding and dying in a Himalayan ashram called 'New Jerusalem,' and about Shiva, the first yogi, being godlike and very great. The yogis didn't dismiss Christ, but they did relegate Christ to a second-tier status, claiming that Christianity were basically the same and not in conflict..."

Religious conversion literature is vast. You can almost find any kind of book to fit your particular religious bias.

Roy Schoeman's road from Judaism to Christianity, for instance, took the form of a conversion to Catholicism. The Harvard Business School graduate is the author of Salvation is from the Jews, a collection of essays explaining why Catholicism is the continuation of Judaism. This, of course, is Schoeman's opinion, but look further and you might come across another book, Surprised by Christ, by the Rev. A. James Bernstein, a formerly Orthodox Jewish man who became an Eastern Orthodox Christian and who maintains that the Orthodox Church is the true home for Christian Jews.

Schoeman has compiled the personal testimony of 16 Jews who converted to the Catholic Church. Some of the conversion stories are historical, such as the testimony of Hermann Cohen, a musician and friend of Franz List.

Cohen, who as a young man led a wild and sensual life, had a profound experience while observing a Eucharistic procession in his native town of Hamburg, Germany.

"When the Holy Eucharist passed by, I felt terrified, a torrent of tears came to my eyes. I felt a profound respect, I directly felt the Real Presence; an indescribable sensation," he wrote. The year was 1848; shortly after that, he became a Carmelite priest.

"Hermann Cohen did not abandon his love for his own Jewish people when he entered the Church -- quite the opposite," Schoeman writes. "Upon his entry into the Church he took a vow 'to do everything in the world for the conversion of the Jewish people.'"

This, of course, may not sound so good to Jews!

Father Bernstein writes: "Jewish worship was always physical. The Old Testament people of God worshipped with music, with color, with light and candles, with sweet aromas and incense, with art, with rhythmic chant, with feasts and fasts, with cycles of holy days, and with godly order and liturgy. I came to realize these things were neither pagan in origin nor temporal in character." Fr. Bernstein also adds that the Orthodox Church "had inherited, kept, and practiced biblical worship in a way that no other church had...".

For Fr. Bernstein, who at first converted to Protestantism before discovering Orthodoxy, the disparity of belief among Christians was at first a problem. "My closest Christian friends all claimed to believe 'only in the Bible,' but they interpreted its teachings on salvation in diametrically different ways. Within my circle of Bible-believing friends, I witnessed a mini-explosion of sects and schismatic movements, each claiming to be 'true to the Bible,' each in bitter conflict with the others. Serious conflict arose over every topic imaginable...".

Of course, there's much more that unites Catholicism and Orthodoxy than divides the two oldest branches of Christianity. Both were one Church prior to the great schism of 1054. Both Churches today recognize each other's priesthood and sacraments as valid. Under special circumstances, a Catholic may receive the Last Rites from an Orthodox priest, and vice versa. Most Catholics have a limited knowledge of Orthodoxy, however, and are amazed when they discover that, just like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church canonizes saints, has monks and nuns, as well as a rich history of miracle stories. The Orthodox Church, however, has the unique distinction of being the only Christian Church that does not bow to the pressures of modernism and liturgical fads.

Since my parents' death, we Nickels children have mostly gone our own way when it comes to religion. I have grand nieces and nephews who have never been baptized. In our big Irish German Catholic family, just one sister -- I am the eldest of six -- attends Mass every Sunday. I'm certainly implying no judgment here -- going to church is no mark of sanctity. In fact, I've met "Christian" atheists who can outshine many outwardly pious churchgoers in the "good person" department.

As for my family, while nobody has turned completely atheist, the church stuff is still hidden in their heads, as if it had been put on hold.

I say put on hold because, you know, this suppressed identification tends to reappear in a big way whenever life takes a scary unexpected... downward turn.