Dan Burke is a Hebrew Catholic, former president of EWTN News and co-founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, an institute that forms clergy, religious and lay people in Catholic spirituality. Dan was recently in Melbourne with his wife, Stephanie, to promote his book Into the Deep: Finding Peace through Prayer. He spoke to us about his ‘journey home’ from Judaism to Christianity, and the transformational power that deep prayer has had in his story of conversion.

Dan’s childhood was not an easy one, he says. Born to an agnostic father and a Jewish mother, Dan says he’s always been on a quest for the truth. From a young age, he knew that his grandmother had tried to kill his grandfather, and that his mother’s childhood had been tragic. ‘My grandmother was institutionalised when [my mother] was a teenager. She had two young sisters, so she became a mother and wife—in a way—to my grandfather. Then she got cancer very early on.’

Later, after Dan’s parents’ marriage ended, his mother remarried and sought refuge in the occult. ‘Like many of us, when you grow up in a religion and you’re not deeply rooted in it, and you experience tragedy, you start looking for answers, and you don’t always look in the right places.’ Dan’s stepfather fired a gun at home and terrorised his mother and siblings. ‘It was just a brutal environment. It was terrorising at the night and the day,’ he says.

At the age of 20, Dan contemplated suicide. ‘The interior turmoil was too extreme for me to take,’ he says. Dan’s first step forward was towards finding the truth.

‘It was really knowing that I couldn’t live anymore if I didn’t have an answer ... It was like the Holy Spirit said to me, “You’ve seen; you know the evil and the darkness, but in the spiritual realm there is truth and good. Look there.”’

Dan started his quest for truth in the New Age but quickly became disenchanted with its incongruities. ‘How can all roads lead to heaven, or to God, when they all look different and everyone wants to pretend they’re the same? I couldn’t live with it,’ he says. For Dan, it was a matter of life and death. ‘If it’s not real, then I’m not going to live, I’m not going to stay ... The way I describe it, it was either a bullet or a reason.’

It was like the Holy Spirit said to me, ‘You’ve seen ... the evil and the darkness, but in the spiritual realm there is truth and good. Look there.’

As time went by, Dan met a number of Christians who piqued his interest. One of these was Walter Martin, ‘an apologist, a good scholar and kind of a jerk,’ Dan says jokingly. ‘I liked him because he was clear. He seemed very fair but well grounded. One day he said he was a Southern Baptist. So I decided, “Well, I don’t know what those are, but I’m going to go find them.”’

Not long after, Dan walked into a Southern Baptist church, but he thought, ‘I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what happens here.’ The front pews of the church had filled up, so he took a seat at the back to remain incognito. The empty space in the middle was big enough though for the pastor to notice him. After the service, he came up to Dan and said, ‘What are you going to do when you get to your last judgement and God asks, “Why should I let you into heaven?”’

‘I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m hurting inside. I need a reason to live. If you’ve got a reason to live, then I will listen.”’ For the next year, Dan spent every Thursday night with the pastor studying Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell.

Love builds a bridge

Dan explored the veracity of the Bible from a legal standpoint, read the Old Testament and studied the messianic prophesies fulfilled by Jesus. But it was CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity that sealed it for him. Dan remembers saying to God, ‘You’re the King of Kings, and you’re God ... and I’m nothing. Help me. Have mercy on me.’ Soon after, Dan met Phyllis, a Catholic woman and colleague at Focus on the Family.

‘To me, Phyllis was a bad person. She was an idolater, and it was because she was Catholic. I used to poke at her, and I would tell her, “You’re going to hell. You’re an idolater. You’re [an idol] worshipper.”’ Phyllis didn’t turn away though; she stayed in the conversation and was always open to discussing her Catholic faith with Dan.

Dan remembers trying to avoid Phyllis’ farewell party when she eventually left the organisation. But one of his superiors convinced him to be there. There were about 60 people present, Dan recalls. Phyllis sat him down on one of five seats that had been placed at the front of the party. She then took off Dan’s shoes and began to wash his feet. ‘Oh gosh, it was very difficult,’ Dan says. ‘She told everyone how much I had helped her faith.

‘I always say, “Love builds a bridge over which truth can pass.”’

It would take another decade for Dan to consider Catholicism, but he remembers thinking, “What is it about [Phyllis’] faith that I should be open to?”

He spent years studying Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, and allowed himself to be washed over by the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers and mystics like Teresa of Ávila. ‘When I read her writings, I thought, “This woman knows God in every way.”’

But Dan says the Lord knew he needed a ‘liturgical bridge’ also. ‘1 Corinthians 11–27 haunted me ... “It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning.”’ Years later, while lying on a hospital bed after a life–threatening surgery, Dan said to the Lord, ‘I’ll never hold back again. If you want me to go to the seminary, I’ll go to the seminary.’

I always say, ‘Love builds a bridge over which truth can pass.’

He had begun to wonder about the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the role of bishops and the idea of Sola Scriptura—or Scripture alone. After the surgery, Dan decided to join an Anglican seminary and was then stationed at St Mark’s in Denver, Colorado.

While at St Mark’s, Dan studied the Thirty-nine Articles (outlining the doctrine and practices of the Church of England and wider Anglican communion) and engaged in conversations about the Catholic faith with the parish and visiting priests. ‘They were very kind to me,’ Dan says. It was ‘another “love builds a bridge” experience’.

There was also a Catholic church up the street from St Mark’s offering the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), and Dan decided to join their course. God had started to pave the way. And as it happened, the priest at St Mark’s was himself in the process of converting to Catholicism under the guidance of Archbishop Charles J Chaput.

That summer, Dan was baptised into the Catholic Church.

‘The people that God put in my way to testify to the Lord [were] the bridge—even Teresa of Ávila,’ Dan says. ‘Oftentimes we think of mystical experiences as an individual thing, but it’s actually not. You’re sharing in the supernatural grace of the reality of the encounter. The Spirit of God speaks to us in it.’

Growing in intimacy with God

Years later, Dan met his wife, Stephanie, and together they founded the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. The idea was ‘a surge of the heart’ to revive Carmelite spirituality in the Church. ‘The answers to my struggles in prayer came through the Carmelite tradition,’ Dan says. The Avila Institute then birthed Apostoli Viae, an apostolic ministry to ‘live, light, and lead the way to union with God’.

Oftentimes we think of mystical experience as an individual thing, but it’s actually not. You’re sharing in the supernatural grace of the reality of the encounter. The Spirit of God speaks to us in it.

During this time, Dan also served as CEO of the National Catholic Register and COO and president of EWTN News. Reflecting on what this meant for him, Dan says, ‘To be honest with you, I’m not qualified for anything I do. I just think of saying “Yes”, and just begging him, “Whatever I’m doing ... please use me. Whatever I can do, I want to help your kingdom.”

‘What can I do to serve? How can I wash your feet? How can I wash the feet of your people?’ Dan asks God. Dan and Stephanie’s apostolic ministry has reached millions around the world, with readers in every continent ‘except for Antarctica’.

‘I just never would have thought it would happen. I think it’s just saying “Yes” when he moves,’ reflects Dan.

In his book Into the Deep: Finding Peace through Prayer, Dan builds on the teachings of Carmelite spirituality and speaks about the importance of setting up sacred time, space and attention for prayer each day. He discusses some of the most common obstacles to prayer, and provides ways to experience God in a much deeper way.

‘By God’s grace, we have the ability to encounter him in and through prayer. John 14:27 says so: “Peace I leave to you, my own peace I give you, not as the world gives do I give to you.”

‘If you’re living in that covenant of love with him—which means that we’re being faithful to the covenant—your intimacy [with him] grows.

The answers to my struggles in prayer came through the Carmelite tradition.

‘Think of a human relationship,’ Dan says. ‘I love my wife; she’s my best friend. I will never have any woman besides her. It’s like that with God. If you say, “You’re the most important person to me”, [then] it’s impossible not to grow in intimacy with him. Like John of the Cross writes in Ascent to Mount Carmel, “Know him, study him, emulate him, love him.”’

When you do this, Dan says, ‘there is that real relationship that develops. Eventually, you come to know his voice. He says: “My sheep hear my voice.” You learn what it means to love him and to be loved by him.’