The 10 months after my rejoining the Church were some of the most difficult, most harrowing of my entire life. I had seen the light… and the darkness I had lived in for many years became even darker by contrast. Leaving that darkness behind was a real trial.
Not everything was darkness, of course. I was in grief counseling with a good, wise, knowledgeable counselor at my church. At times, I could feel the pieces of myself coming back together. I could tell that God was working on me, though often in deep, secretive and mysterious ways.
But there were some pretty big stumbling blocks in my way, and falling back into old habits and affinities was ever so easy. As easy as falling off a cliff.
As one would only expect, I found some of the Church’s teachings to be very difficult and seemingly arbitrary, especially where sexual matters were concerned. Not coincidentally, some of my favorite and most addictive sins fell into that area. Until I could see why they were sinful, I really didn’t see any point in stopping them. So I went about life much as I had before, while telling myself that I was trying to understand. Furthermore, I was soon distracted by meeting some occultists–not a very surprising thing to happen, given the kinds of circles I’d lived in.
I had been pretty deeply steeped in the occult for several years, and was still quite familiar and quite comfortable with it. My life was so full of pain and turmoil that I yearned for something familiar and comfortable–and was willing to accept it without much critical thought. I was vulnerable, I didn’t really have my head screwed on straight, and these people knew how to take advantage of that. They knew how to take advantage of my nascent religious faith–my lack of knowledge, my doubts, my struggles. They planted seeds in my mind that what we were doing wasn’t evil, that it did not necessarily conflict with my religious beliefs, that they too were religious people so I had nothing to worry about. But above all, they took advantage of my loss, my sorrow, my incredible yearning to remain close to Patrick, to not let go of him and our life together. They fed me some rather fascinating threads, some techniques and theories, all seemingly very rational, even scientific. And I swallowed them hook, line, and sinker.
For months I practiced deranging my mind and senses, in search of a breakthrough into “other planes” and other worlds. I spent many sleepless hours attempting to induce trances, to trigger astral projections, to contact spirit guides, to open chakras, and all other kinds of nonsense. And I kept telling myself that it was all OK, that it wasn’t harming or endangering me in any way. That was a huge delusion! I conveniently ignored the fact that I went to Mass less and less frequently, that I had not gone back to Confession since 12 May, that I considered occult techniques more beneficial than the guidance of Scripture and Tradition, of priests and counselor, and that I was getting back into the habit of looking in the mirror to find God. I thought I had everything under control. In reality, I was becoming the same obsessive occultist that I had been before.
Meanwhile, I was perfectly at home with my pet sins from before, and was even adding new ones. I was retreating more and more into myself, and yet I was always angry at other people for allegedly shutting me out or turning against me. I was consumed with anger, with envy, with downright hatred. I blamed it on grief, but in reality, I was refusing to actually work on the grief. I would go to my grief counseling group and talk about things. I never let on to my counselor that I was living a kind of double life. I wanted to protect my double life. And it nearly destroyed me. The devil had a great big meat cleaver splitting me down the middle. His claws sank deeper and deeper into me, dragging me away from the Church.
Three Rays of Light
Things were really bad–I don’t think I can really express the horrors of that time in my life. You may be asking, as I sometimes do, “Where was God when all that was happening? Why didn’t he stop me from falling back into all that vileness?”
We must take into account the mystery of free will and free choice–the fact that I chose to turn my back on God and the faith in favor of my favorite sins and occult practices. My grief and confusion may have mitigated some of my responsibility, but there was a big measure of willful disobedience there nonetheless.
But this is also a lesson about God’s mercy. To the extent that I was suffering grief and confusion, He was very merciful to me. I describe those months as “falling off a cliff”–and yet I never hit bottom and died. I could have. But between God’s mercy and the part of me that still sought Him, I was spared.
He was still at work on me and in my life. And in the end, He did step to the forefront, in a most marvelous way! During a time when I was seeking out bizarre occult experiences, a few genuine mystical experiences sought me out quite unexpectedly.
The first one involved Patrick. He and I were sitting together in a high place, on top of a cliff. It was sort of gray and misty. He was warm, luminous, but solid, and I felt his presence more strongly than I had ever felt it when we were together in our earthly life. It’s hard to explain. But he was no shadowy dream figure or product of my imagination. He was talking rather sternly, as was his way on occasion, telling me that I couldn’t be with him in the way I wished and planned, that nothing could possibly achieve that, that trying to achieve it was foolish, deluded, and dangerous for me. He told me I was falling away, and that at that rate, he and I would only become more separated–maybe for eternity. He told me that our paths were going to be separate for a while, and I had to keep on my own path, not chase after his. He told me that there were a lot of people in the world who needed my love and my attention, and I was neglecting them. There was a very clear message, and a very strong feeling, of separation. Something final. I knew I would never see Patrick again in this life. At the same time, I knew that something would always remain… something undefinable. It would be a loving separation. It would be in my best interests, and that was all Patrick had ever thought of and desired.
The next one involved a lady in white. We were in a moonlit garden. She told me that I must come back around to seeking true wisdom, which would not be found inside me, but only in God and His Church. I would have to reach outside of myself for it. I would have to seek out an encounter with God. She told me that I must not shun or be afraid of suffering, because my suffering would help to take me outside of myself and reach out for God. It could serve a very good use for me. I don’t think I really recognized the lady in white at that time… but it wasn’t long before I did. Almost immediately thereafter, I felt an enormous urge to begin praying the Rosary. And I began to cope with my suffering and sorrow in a more genuine, head-on way, just like Mary and her Son had.
The third one was an encounter with Christ Himself. I was kneeling at the altar rail in my parish church. Before me was a tremendous light and an overwhelming presence that made me tremble from head to foot. I tried to look up, but I couldn’t look at His face. I did see His hand, still bearing the nail wound, a dark red opening near His wrist. He raised His hand to His chest, over His heart, and drew out from it a gleaming white Host. He brought it down to me. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth as if to receive the Host on my tongue. But before I could, I was seized with a horrible illness. I was struck by an intense heat, my body convulsed, my mouth filled with an extremely bitter, rotten fluid. Almost as quickly, then, the sickness vanished, and His hand brushed my face, and the vision was over. But I understood: what I had felt was the effect of the sins in my soul, and that to receive Communion while my soul was in that state was a horrible imposition on God, and a great harm to myself.
These experiences happened in quick succession… all within about a week. They happened while I slept, but… they were not like any dreams I’d ever had. Even if they had been “just dreams,” the messages were real and true. In any event, they pretty much blew any occult experience I’d ever had out of the water, and jolted me to attention! And that’s when I discovered two of the greatest, most important things of all, the things that really turned the tide:
First, I learned that God really was worthy of my trust, my faith, my obedience, and my submission. He wasn’t going to lead me wrong. Even if I didn’t always understand Him or His teachings or His demands, I could trust them. Even if I treated Him horribly, He wouldn’t send me to Hell. If I went to Hell, it was going to be because I chose to. And He and I both knew that I didn’t want to choose Hell. Part of me was still crying out for Him and longing after Him, and that was enough! As long as I was just willing to strive for Him and do my best to cooperate with Him, He was going to to be there for me, and He was going to save me. I could rely on that!
Second, and related to that, I discovered the real meaning of freedom. I looked at myself and at what was going on in my life–my sins, my stubbornness, my mistakes. And I said to myself, “I’ve had enough of this! This stuff is just bringing me down. It’s burying me. And I don’t have to let it. I have another option, and by God, I’m going to choose it! I’m going to choose Him, I’m going to be faithful to Him, and I’m going to do whatever it takes! It doesn’t matter if it’s hard or if I don’t have all the answers and all the power. He is worth it, and so am I. I am above always giving into the basest drives and desires. I am above taking the path of least resistance.” I learned that freedom meant taking responsibility for myself. And it also meant choosing something, and Someone, greater and better. It meant being able to overcome, as opposed to saying, “Oh the devil made me do it… oh, I just can’t help it… oh, it’s because I’m grieving…” etc., etc.
That was the turning point. It happened to coincide with Ash Wednesday, 1st March 2006. Almost a year since Patrick’s death. A year spent on a monstrous precipice between Heaven and Hell.
A Grueling but Wonderful Lent
I call Ash Wednesday 2006 “the point of no return” because that is when I decided once and for all that I was going to be a practicing Catholic. I wasn’t going to give less than 100% of myself to God and the Church. I was going to learn and live by every single Church teaching, without compromise. If I failed, I would simply try harder. I would struggle as much as I had to. I would go to Confession as often as needed, and I would never receive Communion unworthily again. That’s what I decided to do, and I stuck by it!
Dang if that wasn’t one grueling Lent! I was often terrified of the decision I’d made! I knew I was committing myself to something huge and really radical. I knew I was setting myself apart from the world, and I knew it was going to bring conflicts and difficulties. I knew I was going to have to learn some serious humility. Terrifying! But God was so very good to me, and as I got to know Him and rebuild my relationship with Him, person to Person, I came to love Him so much and to desire so greatly to be with Him. Whenever I committed a sin, I immediately had to be reconciled to Him, because I couldn’t bear being apart from Him and His grace. To be separated from Him felt like death to me. I went to Confession most every week.
I came to understand all the difficult teachings of the Church that had previously frustrated me. It’s amazing what you learn when you just sit yourself down at God’s feet and say, “Lord, I am all Yours! Give it to me straight, and give me the understanding I need to incorporate it into my life and give my obedience to it!” You can read as many books and listen to as many homilies or Catholic radio programs as you want, but unless you completely submit yourself to God, you aren’t going to get anywhere.
By the time Easter came around on 16 April 2006, I was truly a different person. All of my pet sins were completely gone. I was completely freed from them! I have never even thought about delving back into the occult. Every occult experience I’ve ever had is pale in comparison to what I have learned, seen, discovered, and experienced in Catholicism and in my relationship with God. God and Catholicism have opened my eyes to the wonders of creation and humanity. There’s always something new to learn and something new to appreciate more deeply. I don’t need anything else.
There is so much more I could tell about those 10 months of darkness and the subsequent Lent. Even now, I am probably doing a very poor job of describing them and just how intense and challenging they were. But looking back now, I am just so grateful for them! I am grateful that they were challenging. I’m grateful that I was forced to face the darkness in my life and then fight to overcome it. I think that I really had to be brought to the brink of destruction in order to know definitively what I wanted and which path I was going to take.
As I said before, that’s the mystery of free will and how God interacts with us. It was scary. It didn’t always make sense–I couldn’t always figure out just what God was up to! But as time goes by, I can see the wisdom and the goodness of it.
Some people I’ve talked to about it are utterly confounded by that. They say, “That’s crazy! If God did me that way, I’d just tell Him where to go! I wouldn’t put myself through that! That’s not my idea of a loving God!” I smile and say, “Oh, if only you knew Him! If only you could go through what I have–to be able to look back and see what a beautiful, fascinating, intricate tapestry He has woven in my little life! That makes everything worthwhile!” I don’t think I’ve convinced anybody yet… but I do pray for them. Especially the ones who profess to be Christians. I mean… they don’t even seem to know Him whom they profess to worship! I hope and pray that they will someday.
On the other hand, there have also been people in my life who have assumed that my conversion was just an easy, mindless thing, like somebody flipped a switch and BOOM, I was a bona fide brainwashed Catholic! Yeah, I had some really powerful mystical experiences that would make many of my former friends roll their eyes and sneer with disgust. But you know, for all their glory and power, those visions really only served as a bridge, a transition. They were merciful consolations amid vast desolation. They were a respite from the journey so far, and fuel for the journey ahead. There has been absolutely nothing easy, magical, mindless or instantaneous about my conversion, and to characterize an entire long, arduous, and still-ongoing journey as just a flash of light or a puff of smoke or brainwashing is just incredibly irrational and insulting. I pray for those people too.
By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever written about all three of those “visions” (I really don’t know what else to call them). Their exact natures can’t really be captured in words, of course. I think I’ve probably hesitated to discuss them for fear of being considered a lunatic. But I’ve reached the point where I don’t care if somebody thinks I’m a lunatic. I have so many other things to think about! I am OK with putting myself and my experiences out on the line. Because no matter how strange or absurd they make appear, those experiences are true. And I am all about speaking truth. There’s no point in saying anything if you’re not going to speak truth.
So that’s why I tried to describe them at some length. They were each wondrous and strange. I recall that I was very calm during them. Not frightened. I just took them in, absorbed them. I don’t recall saying anything myself, but just listening. That’s what I needed to do.
Listening is so important. That is literally where “obedience” comes from–a Latin expression that means to “listen to.” That’s why you have to sit yourself down at God’s feet and just open your mind, open your ears. You have to do that if you’re going to be able to practice Catholicism. Otherwise, you’re going to beat your head against the Church’s teachings, and you’re eventually going to give up on them or redefine them to suit your own tastes. And that’s not practicing Catholicism.
Epilogue: The End is Always a Beginning
Well, that’s the bulk of my conversion story. The rest of it is just what you read here! It continues on. I still struggle at times. But I’m not giving up, no matter what happens, no matter how hard I have to work, no matter what I may have to sacrifice. To put it very simply: God and the Church saved my life. Or rather, restored my life. I wouldn’t be here today without them. Or at least, I wouldn’t be who I am. You don’t just turn your back on that, or treat it lightly! You don’t pour yourself 100% into something just to let it go to pot or abandon it for the latest fad.
I have a long way to go. I’m definitely not perfect. My faith is still very much a matter of “practicing” in every sense of the word (hence my blog title). I fall flat on my face now and then, although I’ve now gotten to where my life is mostly a “controlled fall” where I can avoid being seriously injured and seriously offending God–all thanks to frequent Confession, my friends.
If I could sum up Catholicism in one phrase, it would be this: “There is always a new beginning.” After all, we worship a God who died and was resurrected, right? So, even if we seem to reach an end of some kind, we can be assured that there can be a new beginning. It might not be easy, but it will come.