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I’ve been thinking and dreaming about my deceased fiance Patrick lately.  Probably because of All Saints and All Souls Days.  And every time, the phrase “a thousand days apart” has come into my head.  It’s an odd recurring phrase.

Patrick died 28 April 2005, so we’ve actually been apart about 1,654 days.  Just over 4 and a half years.

I guess “a thousand days” is one of those symbolic numbers that means “such a long time.”  It has been a long time, and will only keep getting longer.  Seeing him in my thoughts and dreams can be nice and comforting.  It can also make coping with our separation harder in everyday real life.

I didn’t realize it was still so hard for me.  But it is sometimes.  I don’t think I’ll ever entirely “get over it.”  I don’t think that “getting over it” is the point.  The point is to bear it through everyday real life.  Not ignoring it or denying it, but just carrying it in a certain place and in a certain way.

Life-long separation from somebody who was such an important and treasured part of my life and identity is part of my own personal cross.  As such he is still an important and treasured part of my life and identity.  Just a very different one.

As always, we can either love or hate our crosses.  We can either suffer them well or suffer them poorly.  They don’t disappear.  Even if we drop them and walk away, they are still there and still ours.  We don’t “get over” them.

These may seem like gloomy thoughts.  But they’re just about coming to terms with life.  And taking life on its own terms gives a certain peace and liberty.  It’s such an important choice we’re giving.  I choose to love my cross and suffer it well.

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Recently, my ring broke very unexpectedly.  It was the only ring I wore.  Silver with a mystic fire topaz.  This one.

I’d bought it for myself shortly after my fiancé, Patrick, died.  I’d wanted a wedding ring just like it.  At the time, I fancied it helped keep my bond with him alive and “real.”  But it was just a ring I’d bought for myself.  And I wore that ring through some incredibly brutal times.

I was sad when it broke, but then I realized that compared to the sadness I’d come through already, with that ring on my finger, it was as nothing.  In fact, I’ve come to see it as a kind of release, a liberation.  As if my ring were saying, “I belong to that time… but you do not.  I’ve accompanied you far enough.  You should go on ahead now.  Find a new ring to go with you.”

It reminded me of a very vivid dream I had one night a few years ago.  I was sitting next to Patrick.  It seemed we were up on a high cliff, overlooking a sea.  He was telling me that our ways must part and we must go on our own ways.  He said there were other people who needed my love, and I must go to them and not linger near the past any more.  It was a sweet, gentle, simply truthful scene.

I felt a definite breaking off, a definite separation.  But it was a natural break, not a painful, jarring one.  It wasn’t a complete destruction of the past–nothing can ever destroy the time we had together.  It just shrank to a broken shard that I could carry around for remembrance, but not enter back into.

Sort of like the piece of ring I still have lying on the table.  I’ll probably keep it, at least for a while.  I still admire it.  But I won’t be wearing it any more.  I won’t be having it repaired.  I’m going to let it stay broken.  And get a new ring for this new time in my life.

I’m thinking about a deep red garnet.  It can remind me of the Precious Blood of Christ that has purchased my new lease on life–not only this life, but the one to come.  Maybe this one.

Or perhaps a lovely color-changing alexandrite to remind me of life’s transience?  Perhaps this one?

What do you think?  Are there any gemstones that have special significance in Catholic tradition?

This morning I went to a meeting of my parish pro-life group.  We had as our guest speaker Darlene Ellison, one of our own co-parishioners and author of The Predator Next Door.  She’s a wonderful lady, and gave a powerful talk… a very brave, very open talk.  She spoke of how tragedy helped her begin to truly believe and live out her faith, and how, in looking back at her life, she could see that God had been subtly building her up to face the tragedy–and to overcome it, to grow from it.  He brought new life and purpose from it.  He brought understanding from it.

Although my story is very different from hers, I identified so much with what she was saying.  I too re-discovered my faith in tragedy, and I too can see how God was working to build me up to face it, to overcome it, to grow from it.

This might sound strange, but when I think of the time leading up to Patrick’s death, it was almost as if I had premonitions at times–without fully realizing it at the time, of course.  It’s really hard to describe.  A lot of little things that sort of subconsciously or unconsciously jolted me with the message, “You won’t be able to have him with you much longer… but you will get through it… I will be here to see you through.”

The biggest thing I remember was the night when Patrick pointed out the church that was to become my parish church.  Part of me deep inside knew that it was going to become my safe haven, my castle keep, my second home.  Part of me was poised to flee to it, and when the awful time came, flee to it I did.  Amid all the shock, confusion, and anguish, I gravitated to the Church, and to this church in particular.  It was like a homing beacon had gone off.

People don’t always understand how I could regain my faith and my relationship with God in the midst of tragedy.  I can see how it might seem counter-intuitive.  We often hear of people losing their faith and turning against God or ceasing to believe in Him at all in response to tragedy and suffering, and we can hardly help but understand and sympathize with that.

I don’t really know how to explain it.  Perhaps I never entirely lost the faith of my childhood.  Perhaps there was still a tiny speck of faith left in me.  Faith that informed me that suffering and tragedy bind us to the Cross–and to Resurrection.  Faith that informed me that God would never abandon me.  When I was a child, I often looked at this plaque my grandmother had at her house upon which was inscribed the  poem, “Footprints.”  Maybe that memory was a tiny seed that had lain dormant in me all those years, waiting for a moment in which to burst forth in all of its meaning.  Waiting for the moment at which I would really need to know its meaning.

It was a moment that had to come sooner or later.  No human being alive has any guarantee against it.  And God generally doesn’t protect us from it.  But He does enable us to weather the storm and then to grow–even flourish.  He never fails to bring forth goodness from tragedy or from evil.

It is always good to have other people re-affirm these truths and re-affirm for me that I’m not really all that strange for gaining faith from tragedy.  It emboldens me to tell my own story and give my own testimony to how very good and powerful God is.

Today’s the 4th anniversary of Patrick’s death.

But it’s pretty much an ordinary day for me.

I guess that’s a good sign.

I’m pretty happy with it, anyway.

I still would rather he were here, but that’s not how it is.  And so much has happened since then… I have more than enough to think about and keep me busy.

He’d want me to keep on moving forward.

After all, moving forward is moving toward being reunited someday.

That will be good.

But we must be faithful to today too, and as I said, I’m pretty happy with today.

:)

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I’m sorry that it took his death for me to get to know him and appreciate him. 

It seems just like yesterday… Patrick was alive, and we spent hours on the phone together while we watched all the news coverage, trading info about what was happening on this or that channel.  I remember listening in silence to the Litany of Saints during the funeral, and Patrick commenting on how beautiful it was.  Patrick also told me he’d gone to a memorial Mass, and I was surprised… but really, it was just like him to do that.  Pope John Paul II’s death drew me and Patrick closer together, and drew both of us closer to the Church.  I’m sure we weren’t the only ones, either.

At home, now, I’m watching the movie based on his life.  The one with Cary Elwes and Jon Voight.  It’s a lovely film, and I think it’s a very good tribute to our dear late papa.

This day used to be very sad and mournful for me.  Mainly because it meant that the anniversary of Patrick’s death was on its way.  But this year, I just feel so grateful!  My memories are fond.  I’m finally getting to where I can cherish them!  That’s a good place to be.

Happy birthday, Patrick.

He would have been 29 today.

I still miss him.

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.

Looking back

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.

A couple of weeks before Patrick died, he visited me in Dallas.  One evening, we were driving to what is now one of my favorite restaurants, Mariano’s, and on the way we happened to stop at a red light.  Out of the blue, Patrick asked me, “Who was St. Thomas Aquinas?”  I thought that was really odd until he pointed out a sign at the corner for St. Thomas Aquinas School.  I dug up some vague memories from undergrad philosophy and religion classes as we drove on; I was really thinking only about Mexican food.  And that was that.

Or so I thought.

A couple weeks later, I was zombified by grief.  Shock insulated me inside a still, quiet, numb cocoon.  No tears, no cries, nothing.  I don’t remember much about the funeral proceedings.  My dad came to be with me.  We drove to Galveston, which until then had been so full of happy and pretty memories.  Patrick and I had gone there for our first date and many times after.  I remember that there were services officiated by some priests from St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica.  I remember the gunmetal grey casket.  It seemed like just an object.  I couldn’t–and really still can’t–grasp that it contained the body of that man I’d been so in love with, the man I’d planned to spend a long life with.  I remember that the day of the funeral was bright, and the sky was so clear and blue.  I remember that as we were leaving the cemetery, I saw a small plane flying overhead and thought it must be a message from Patrick:  “Don’t be sad.  I’m still alive.”

In the following week, after the funeral and condolences, life and the world around me started returning to normal.  People began to recede back into their own lives, and I began to feel abandoned, desolate, desperate.  The beautiful spring twilight when I had encountered God so close to me seemed eons past.  An impenetrable darkness began to close in around me and smother me.

I had to do something.  I had to go somewhere.  I had to have help from somebody.  I couldn’t cope on my own.  And that’s when I remembered St. Thomas Aquinas School.  I thought there must have also been a church there, as well.  I knew that church might be my only hope.  But I was also scared and ashamed.  Days passed and I went back and forth about whether I should go to the church.  Meanwhile the darkness and the agony kept growing stronger.  At last, I just dropped everything and went to that church!

Naturally, it was the best thing I could have done.  I got more help and more care than I’d even imagined possible.  Everybody I talked to was so kind and generous.  Nobody cared how sordid my past was–actually, they didn’t even ask.  They just wanted me back, they wanted me to find peace and comfort.  I learned that there was a grief counselor who provided free counseling, and the next day, she contacted me and we began having weekly meetings.  Meanwhile, I learned that the only thing I needed to do in order to be restored as a Catholic in good standing was to go to Confession.

Honestly, I was terrified!  But I knew I wasn’t going to be any less terrified if I put it off.  So that very evening, I went.  I had to wait in line.  It was excruciating.  The adrenaline in my body kept building and building.  By the time it was my turn, I felt like I was about to burst open!  I thought that kneeling behind a screen would actually freak me out a bit, so I went to the other side, where you can talk to the priest face to face.  I marched up and barged in so urgently that I think I startled the priest, and I just started talking.  I can’t remember what all was said, but I do remember the calmness and patience of the priest, and his complete lack of shock, abhorrence, or anger at my life of dissolution and apostasy.  Rather, I remember him saying a prayer of thanksgiving for my return and calling down God’s grace and protection upon me.  I truly felt like I was in the presence of Christ Himself!  Before I knew it, the priest had given me a penance, absolved me of my sins, and sent me on my way in peace!

I was so light-headed and weak-kneed with relief and joy that I just felt like falling flat on the floor, in the middle of the aisle, in front of everybody!  But I made it into a pew and knelt and prayed, although my whole body was trembling.  I’m pretty sure I wept.  I thanked God over and over and over again for taking me back and bringing me to that place.  And I remembered that Patrick had first shown me that place; I had never realized it was there before.

After Confession, I stayed and attended the evening Mass.  I received Communion for the first time in so many years.  I was a Catholic again.  That was Thursday, 12 May 2005.

But if I had expected that the darkness would be permanently dispelled from my life, I was in for a sore awakening.  The fact was that I had stepped onto a raging spiritual battlefield, without fully realizing it–a most perilous situation.  I had a LOT to learn.  I was not fully myself, broken as I was by my recent loss and the all-consuming work of grieving.  I was earnest in becoming close to God and practicing my faith again… but the devil was even more earnest in snatching me back away.  Nothing outrages the devil more than a soul turning away from him.  My conversion had barely just begun, and it was not going to be easy.

Looking back

Not much to say, except that I still thank God all the time for bringing me to my parish, and I’m also still convinced that Patrick really chose my parish for me!  It has truly been my second home.  Whenever I am in the church, I feel God’s presence and His peace.  It is a true refuge, a true haven.  It is still my beacon in the dark, my anchor, my safe harbor.

Prologue

I’ve been wanting to write down my conversion story for a while now.  I’ve found it to be a bigger and more difficult task than expected.  But maybe it will be easier if I break it up into parts and just write a little at a time.

When people ask me what brought me back to the Church, my first answer is:  “The love of a good man.”  Many people and events influenced my conversion, but Patrick and our relationship together were probably most influential of all.  Once we began planning to marry and start a family, we both naturally began to think about God and religion.  I think now that that was a natural sign of how much he and I loved each other; God is love, after all.  So, together, we were both slowly turning toward God and faith.  He was especially interested because he regretted not having been raised in any faith.  I began thinking back to the faith of my childhood.

Unfortunately, I was destined to make that journey back to the Church alone.  On 28 April 2005, Patrick died in a plane crash, at the age of 25.  And I, aged 28, experienced the end of my world, and an apocalypse in the truest sense of the word: an uncovering, an unveiling, a revelation.

The End

The calamity happened long before I realized it.  While I was still lying in the blue light of dawn, Patrick was leaving for his last flight.  While I was pouring my first cup of coffee at work, he crashed into Eternity and was jerked out of my future.  While I was laughing with my coworker about his fear of heights, so comical in an airplane pilot, they were cutting through metal to get at what remained of him, the mortal body I’d been so fond of and attracted to.  I was mercifully ignorant of that.

When I got home from work, something on television reminded me of him, and I picked up the phone to tell him about it.  No dial tone.  I realized that my internet modem had been left plugged in.  I plugged in the phone and started dialing his cell phone number, but then I decided it could wait until that night, when his minutes were free of charge.  I grabbed an ice cream bar and sat down.  I was half through it when a knock came on the door, at exactly 7:15 PM.

I saw a police officer through the peep hole, and became very nervous: what had I done?  It was a state highway patrol officer.  He asked me if I knew Patrick, and I said yes.  He asked if I was Patrick’s girlfriend.  “More like fiancée,” I thought, but I said yes.  Then I wondered: what had Patrick done?  The officer asked me to sit down.  He towered over me, and I got scared.  “There’s been an accident,” I thought, my mind racing.  “Patrick’s been injured.  He’s in the hospital.  I have to get to him!”

The officer looked down at me and said, “He was killed today, in an airplane crash.”  He said more than that, but that’s all I heard.  I remember dropping my ice cream bar on the floor, and choking on the words, “Oh my God!”  I vaguely remember scribbling down the name of a funeral home out in Midland.  I remember calling my parents and my aunt who lives here locally.  I remember going into the bathroom, sick to my stomach, vomiting, sick all over, tears streaming, stinging and burning.  Couldn’t breathe.  Wished it would kill me.

Then I was outside, waiting for my uncle to arrive.  I felt tiny and alone under the sky.  I thought about Patrick being somewhere beyond that sky.  Separated by an entire sky, and there was nothing I could do about it!  Longing and despair both stabbed through me like swords.  I was all alone, and everything had collapsed around me: all my joys, all my plans, all my hopes and desires, all my future.  I felt naked and vulnerable.  I felt like nothing!  Everything suddenly seemed so ridiculous and absurd–how could I still be there when I felt like such a nothing?

I said again, “Oh God!”  I hadn’t prayed sincerely in many years.  All I could say was, “Oh God.”  But apparently, that was enough.  That cry of misery, that cry for help, broke through all the walls I had built between me and God.  The fortress I’d built around my soul crumbled.

And at that moment, the world around me became extremely clear and vivid, very alive.  It was like seeing the world for the first time, young and pristine.  It was like seeing through the eyes of Adam, the moment after had God breathed life into his nostrils.  Everything was dazzling and full of wonder.  The sun was setting and the wind was blowing.  The sky was many shades of blue and orange.  There were clouds spread across the sky, in a variety of colors: white, gold, gray, lavender, rose.  A sweet floral smell was in the air, and small white blossoms from a tree next door floated by on the breeze.  The trees whispered and swayed.  Groups of birds wheeled round in arcs, chattering happily.  There was a strange, ethereal, and very expectant atmosphere around me.

My desolation diminished.  Even with everything torn away from me, not only did I continue to exist, but I realized I was not alone.  A presence, an enormous but benevolent presence was all around me–but not too close.  Just a breath away.  I didn’t have to ask Whose presence it was.  I knew it was God.  Invisible but so palpable.  Part of me thought I ought to be very afraid, after the way I’d treated Him for so many years!  But I felt no reason to be afraid.  It was a good presence, not threatening in the least… very powerful, but not forceful.  It was as if He were saying, “Look, I am here.  You may choose for me or against me.  But know that I am here.”  I knew that I was at a very momentous threshold.  God and all of creation were waiting to know what I would do and how I would respond.  Would I return to Him, or would I run?  I really didn’t know what would happen to me if I returned to God.  I suspected it could complicate my life significantly.  But I definitely couldn’t return to the alternative.  I feared and hated the loneliness, despair, helplessness, and absurdity I’d felt just a moment before.

Perhaps that fear and hatred weren’t the best of motives for my return to God.  But return to Him I did.  And I was right: it did complicate my life significantly!

That might sound sort of like a Road to Damascus conversion… but that was only the beginning.  Just one baby step on the path to a new life and to being a new person.

Looking back

Looking back on that day, I’m always taken aback.  I’m amazed at how God in His providence worked on that day.  He brought me to just the right moment, the right time and place, for me to be hit with that huge bombshell.  It’s a shame I had to be hit with it at all, of course, and boy have I yelled at God for it at times!  Sometimes, in my weaker moments, I still cry to Him, “Lord, why did You let this happen? Why didn’t You just save Patrick?”  But given the way things happened–for whatever reason or lack of reason–I know that God was most gentle and forbearing with me.

I wonder what would have happened if I’d found out while I was at work, for example.  I think that would have just compounded the horror and left a horrible scar on my work life.  Or what would have happened if I had gone ahead and called Patrick’s cell phone?  Or what kind of message I might have found on my answering machine had I not left the modem plugged in?  It was hard enough to have that officer tell me, “He was killed today.”  I think the alternatives would have been worse, though.  More nightmarish.

And being outside on that springtime evening…  I saw God’s beauty and goodness more clearly than ever before or ever since.  It was the perfect time and place.  What if it had been miserable and stormy or cold or unbearably hot?  Might things have been very different?  Could my life have possibly taken a very different turn?  Would I perhaps have perceived and responded to God very differently?

Things could have been much worse, I think.  Much more traumatic.  Much harsher.  Even more calamitous.  But God knows me so well.  And it’s true that He never burdens us with more than we can tolerate.  He never seeks to crush us.  That may be difficult to believe now and then… but we always know better with hindsight.

To be continued…

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(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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