Since the intellectually fashionable tend nowadays to declare themselves “spiritual” but not “religious,” I’m always on the lookout for experiences that bring the two elements together. To this purpose, I finally tracked Fr. Romano Guardini’s (1885-1968) famous account of his own conversion. Besides being edifying, it arguably represents one of the most important ecclesial events of the 20th Century. As a priest and theologian, Guardini deeply influenced thinkers as diverse as Josef Pieper, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger. I might add that the latter, in the Nature and Mission of Theology, describes Guardini’s motive for converting to the Church as the spiritual core his own ecclesiology. There Ratzinger attributed to Guardini (at least in part) his own conviction that the “Church is the sole guarantee that the obedience we owe to the Truth is concrete.”
The following passage is set in Guardini’s university days (1905), during a vacation in Staltach, which our author describes as “a little village on Starnberger See.” There he shared an attic apartment with his childhood friend, Karl Neundörfer. By this point, exposure to Kantian Idealism had shattered the simple faith of Guardini’s youth. But …
Then came a turning point. What had drawn me away from faith had not been real reasons against it, but the fact that the reasons for it no longer spoke to me. Faith as a conscious act had grown ever weaker and had finally died out. Still, I think that one’s unconscious relation to the reality of Christ is never entirely sundered. It was also important that I held no grudge against the Church or against any ecclesial personality, and that the hardship of a scrupulous conscience, which was then closely bound up with the Church’s education, had never turned into a rebellion. The religious [dimension] was becoming stronger–now from within. And that led me immediately, as it happened, to draw close to the Christian faith.
I can no longer say which particular deliberations had contributed to this; however, an awareness came over me, which shaped and aligned the whole inner event, and which has remained for me ever since the authentic key to faith. I remember like yesterday the hour when this awareness became decision. It was in my little attic room on Gonsenheimer Strasse. Karl Neundörfer and I had just spoken about the questions that exercised us both, and my last word went: “Everything will come down to the statement: ‘Whoever holds on to his soul will it, but whoever gives it away will gain it’.” My interpretation, based in this translation of Mt. 10:39, says what it all came down to for me. It had gradually become clear to me that a law existed, according to which a person—when he “holds on to his soul,” that is, when he remains in himself and accepts as valid only what immediately illumines him—loses his authenticity. If he wants to arrive at the Truth and in the Truth arrive at his true self, then he must let go of himself. This insight had surely had its precursors, though they escape me now. Upon hearing these words Karl Neundörfer retired to the adjacent room, from which a door opened onto a balcony. I sat in front of my table, and the reflection progressed: “To give my soul away—but to whom? Who is in the position to require it from me? So to require it that, in the requiring, it would not again be I who lay hold of it? Not simply ‘God.’ For whenever a person wants to deal only with God, then he says ‘God’ but means himself. There must also be an objective authority [Instanz], which can draw out my answer from self-assertion’s every refuge and hide-out. But there is only one such entity: the Catholic Church in her authority and concreteness [Präzision]. The question of holding on or letting go is decided ultimately not before God, but before the Church.” It struck me as if I carried everything—literally “everything”, my whole existence—in my hands, in a scale at perfect balance: “I can let it fall to the right or to the left. I can hold on to me soul our give it away…” And then I let the scale sink to the right. The moment was completely calm. There was neither agitation, nor radiance, nor experience of any kind. It was just a completely clear insight: “So it is”—and the imperceptibly gentle movement—“so it should be!” Then I went out to my friend and told him.
—Berichte über mein Leben, pp. 70-72—(my translation)