September 22, 2009

Testimony: How I Came to Know and Follow Jesus

I was raised for eleven years with practically no formal religion, although Jesus was considered a good man who lived a very long time ago. My parents were divorced when I was about two and it was usually just my mother and me. She had a hard time trying to make a living and care for me so my brother and his wife took me into their home for a summer when I was nine to give my mother a break.

Being introverted and 3,000 miles from home, life was pretty boring with my brother except when he was teaching me chess. I think I irritated my brother and his wife, but they tried to be patient. They had a Bible on a coffee table, and because I liked to read I decided to start from the beginning and work my way through. Over the summer, I read it about three times although I’m sure I skipped some parts like the “begats.” Anyway, I went home and didn’t think any more about it…

Because of my neighbors and teachers, I was almost baptized in the Episcopal, Lutheran and Mormon churches. In one of these, I was actually standing in line with a robe of some sort on when my mother asked me if this was what I wanted. I said no, it doesn’t feel right, and my mother said, “Then you shouldn’t do it. You have to do what you think is right.” We got in the car and went home.

When I was eleven, I was really afraid of going to the local junior high school. I was picked on a lot and undersized so more of the same was expected there. My mother talked to the local Catholic school principal, a Benedictine nun, and she accepted me into the school. In American Catholic schools, seventh and eighth grades are in a primary school environment. Now that I think of it, only one of the boys there picked on me, and we later became best friends. Anyway, Sister Agnella gave me a “Baltimore Catechism” in case I wanted to know more about the Church. I’ve always read anything I could get my hands on so I consumed it very quickly. It seemed to fit with what I had read before. One of my teachers, Mr. Perry, was a Marine. He would tell us stories about the Saints and some of his own faith stories. He taught us African and South American history, which I now know was unusual for the time. His classes were great although he was very strict. One of the families in the parish helped my mother out by picking me up after school and letting me stay with them until she was off work. Much later, I found out that they had been giving us money so I could stay in the school and eat. Did I mention how bad our financial situation was?

Anyway, I decided to become Catholic. I was due to be baptized in November, and about two weeks before that something happened I will never forget; the memory is still clear. Up until this time I would sometimes take money from my mother’s purse. I thought she didn’t know, but of course she did. Given our financial troubles, it was an especially bad thing to do but I really didn’t have much guilt about it. I remember standing in the middle of the living room thinking about where I could find some money for a toy I wanted. As I thought about it, I remembered that my upcoming Baptism would wipe away the sin (of taking the money). I think it was the first time I really saw it as sin and I knew that I could take it and be forgiven at baptism. For the first time in my life, I heard someone say, “No, that’s not right. If you are going to be baptised, it starts now. You know what is right now, and you will never be able to steal from your mother again.” I’ve tried to state it as much like it seemed at the time; it wasn’t exactly speaking, and it wasn’t my imagination, either. I know my imagination, and this wasn’t it. Some people will say my conscience was awakened, but it was personal and I remember a kind of thrill at the time, kind of like a piece of music that gives you chills, or like being a child in bed in the morning, sleepy, hearing the voice of an unexpected, beloved relative down the hall. Now, I know this was the call of the Shepherd, and I knew His voice. At the time, the temptation to steal left me. I’d like to say that I was never tempted again, but I was. The Shepherd never spoke to me about it again, but each time I was tempted, I remembered that I belonged to Jesus and that such a sin was not for me anymore. After a short time, the temptations left me and I never again took anything from my mother’s purse.

This would be a great story if I lived a perfectly righteous life after that, but this is real life, and I’m a fool.

I went to a Catholic high school for three years and graduated early because I was anxious to get to a university. Baptism had changed me but there wasn’t much for me to do in the parish so I just sort of rotted. At the university, I tried to get dates but I was hopelessly homely and eventually took a “social dancing” class to get close to some women. I dated once, dropped out of school, and went to work in a retail store. Life was dull and miserable. I dated a family friend (who was much younger) for about five years, off and on. She was Catholic, with strong enough convictions about premarital sex for both of us, even during our engagement, thanks be to God. Eventually, we broke up for the last time after a brief bit of counseling with a priest, who tried hard to straighten me out, with no success. At this point, I was entering my twenties and my life was spinning down the toilet faster and faster. I moved out, started drinking heavily and doing drugs, and desperately trolled for women in discos (OK, please stop laughing). The breakup with my fiancée caused me to lose a lot of weight and my way of life was eating away at what remained of my health. Work was worse, and I lost my managing position, which was for the best because of the added strain.

Finally, I was so sick I had to go to a doctor. After assessing my condition, he asked me if I had any religious upbringing. I replied that I was baptised a Catholic, but didn’t follow it. He recommended that I start or else I’d be dead soon. By this time, I had been suicidal for years, anyway, so this was not much of a threat. I knew my life was bad, and my conscience was killing me. It sounds crazy, but I was even afraid of lightning storms, expecting God to zap me for all my sins. That was the lowest point of my life.

During my brief years in Catholic school, I had the chance to go on retreat with my dad twice. Even though he wasn’t Catholic, he went on retreats at a Jesuit house and took me. I don’t know if he did it because my mother nagged him (they were still divorced), hoping it would cure his alcoholism or for my sake. Whatever it was, I went. The men on the retreat mystified me. They were big, in dark suits and ties. The retreats were silent, except for talks by the priest, and occasional conversations among the men. They would sometimes discuss how they would share their faith with people at work, in a very matter-of-fact way. They had no idea how highly I thought of them. I felt that they were some other kind of species, and it absolutely never occurred to me that I would someday be a man. Much later, when my self-imposed suffering was overwhelming, the memory of the retreats came back to me. One of my co-workers had mentioned that his sister was Christian. When I saw him at work, I asked him if his sister knew anything about retreats in the area. As it happened, she worked on them. He called her, and she gave me an application for a retreat, which was called “Search.” A lot of weird stuff happened so that I almost didn’t make it to the retreat, which was a whole weekend long. I still don’t know how I made it, but I did. I was a complete wreck emotionally and physically by this time, and I looked it.

When I showed up, everyone treated me like a lost relative. It turned out that it was a Catholic retreat, with both men and women, mostly younger than 21. My partner for the ice-breaker was about 18, and I was 23. I’ll leave out the details, but so many people there seemed alive and joyful that I was fascinated. They had a priest for the weekend, but it was his first time and the poor man had me for his first penitent. Before bedtime, I asked him if he would hear my confession. He assured me that God had already forgiven me and that I should try to concentrate on Jesus during the retreat, and not dwell on my problems. He said to “get as much as you can out of it.”

I took him at his word and had a great time. Most people working on the retreat and giving talks had joy in their faces that I had never seen before. They spoke of Jesus as their friend and prayer as the intimate conversation of a Christian with God. Jesus became real for me, if you understand. I think I heard the Shepherd’s voice again that weekend. There was a married couple there to give talks and be adult advisors. The husband was Ray, and I spent some time with him. In fact, my co-worker’s sister had told him that I was a mess and really needed the help. By the end of the weekend, I had fallen in love with God, especially through Jesus as I saw him in the people and in the Blessed Sacrament. I remember telling Ray, “I wish this would never have to end.” He told me, “It never has to. You can follow Jesus the rest of your life.”

He spoke the truth. Later, Ray introduced me to the writings of C.S. Lewis. I pulled out my Bible and spent hours every day, at lunch and at home, reading it over and over again. I read every book Ray and other friends in the retreat group recommended. There was a fellowship meeting on Wednesday nights for people that had made the retreats through the years, and we would often go out for a snack afterward. We spent many hours discussing Scripture. Many people in the group were also involved in local non-denominational churches as well, and we debated about whether the Catholic Church was truly Christian, the Sacraments, the priesthood, everything. I was forced to study and research so I could keep up and my faith grew even more. I began to work on the retreats, moving things around, waiting on tables, and once even giving a talk on prayer, Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

That was almost 30 years ago. I married a holy woman and now have six children. We live in peace together, not perfectly, but well. Our marriage has lived up to the promise of abundant life Jesus came to give us. Our earthly needs are met, and we are surrounded by good people who encourage us and love us. My work changed almost overnight, and though my job is very difficult and often trying, the Lord has made it possible for me to thrive in this environment, so that I can even have a kind of joy in the midst of it. My wife says I have grown a lot since we were married, but it’s hard for me to see. I only know that Jesus spoke the truth to me, and He has set me free.

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