Tuesday, January 5, 2016

John 1:1

I was asked to share the details of my conversion. I'll try to be concise (yeah right).

Backstory: A little over a year ago, I was presented with the opportunity to work for the Church. A friend of mine was the Faith Formation Director at Queen of the Universe Parish. He accepted a tenured position in Florida and could no longer continue on at his position at church. I inquired if there was an heir apparent to the position. I was encouraged to talk to our pastor, Fr. Mike. Long story short, there was not another person lined up for the position and Father seemed very enthusiastic about my interest. There were several factors that convinced me that I was not the man for the job. It was then though, that I became very dissatisfied with my current job. I had devoted 15 years of my life to sleep disorders. I managed a relatively large sleep center, trained new technologists, taught continuing ed classes, served on the board of New Jersey Association of Polysomnography Technologists, and facilitated sessions and screenings to educate people on the need for sleep testing. I was under the impression I was fulfilled in my current job, and was committed to the advocacy of an underrepresented medical field.

Then something changed. The job always had its challenges, but now even the wins were not gratifying. I felt like I was on some kind of hamster wheel. It was about this time that I was unexpectedly volunteered to facilitate a discussion group in a program called Discovering Christ. Seeing as that I thought I was pretty well associated with Jesus, my first inclination was to pass. God wasn't having it, however. I received an email about two weeks after my declination, outlining my group and and the time requirements. I took it as a sign that I should be attending, or that I wasn't going to outmatch the stubbornness of the program coordinator. I grudgingly accepted the invitation. It was pretty much what I expected. A communal meal, some light faith sharing, a video, and contemporary worship music. For those that know me well, you know that I don't really get excited about many of those aspects (except for the food).

Things changed for me when we went on the retreat. The retreat itself was much of the same, except that is was held at the Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel in Bensalem. Up until this point we had been meeting at the parish hall. We had a wonderful speaker elucidate the existence of God as pure love and that the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was the embodiment of this love. Something in me began to stir as I thought more deeply about this concept. That love was the all encompassing force that created the universe. I saw love for what it was. Something that we experience as an emotion, obviously; but now I saw it as a thing entirely unto itself. I went from the knowledge level of love to a wisdom understanding of it. I wish I could put it into words for you the difference. It was much more like a divine revelation or a beatific vision. I saw love for what it really was. I had been searching for a long time for God, through philosophy, prayer, scripture. I still felt this gap, that there was something else. The something else was about to hit me like a ton of bricks. With this vision in my head, I went to confession, and I sat through the following prayer service.

Then we were asked if we'd like a priest to pray over us. I was tentative at first. It sounded a little too "charismatic" to me. I had convinced myself long ago that this was not my kind of Catholicism. I didn't buy into the whole "moved by the spirit" stuff. I thought it was just plain weird and somewhat phony. As an aside, I was always profoundly curious about the mystics of the church, what it must be like to have a direct experience of the divine. I still was not convinced anyway, but I thought it foolish to turn down an opportunity to have a priest pray for me. Perhaps I'd receive some graces.

I sat in a pew, that was positioned parallel not perpendicular to the altar like we find in our regular parishes, and waited my turn. Everyone before me just sat quietly while the priest stood behind them and prayed in an unintelligible whisper. Then it was my turn. I exhaled and prepared myself to receive what ever blessing would come to me. The same as all the others, his finger lightly touched my scalp and he began to pray in the same hushed whisper, so quiet that I was unable to ascertain what he was saying. Then it began. Slowly at first. A soft excitation, a buzz almost, that began where his fingertips touched me and began to radiate down into my whole body. I felt my body become lighter, not weightlessness, but as if I was being pulled upwards. My whole person was in a state of vibration (It was more than that, but the right word to describe it escapes me to this day). I felt an internal presence, like my soul was being directly plugged into some inexplicable power source. I felt every emotion all at once. What I'm sure was a couple seconds, felt like hours. I was no longer in that chapel, but some where outside of time and space. It wasn't transcendental. I still knew where I was, and still aware of my body, but I was aware of being part of a greater whole. I felt naked. I felt exposed. I had no control over what was happening to me. The emotions continued to get stronger to the point where I thought I couldn't take it anymore. I was praying it would end, but wishing I could hold onto it forever. When Father John ended his prayer, he made no sign or gesture. He just simply lifted his hands and moved on to the next person. I immediately went to the altar. I sobbed. Not cried, I let out the emotion that was now bottled up inside. It was a bittersweet sobbing. I was so many things at that moment. Grateful for this experience, overwhelmed with the love I was feeling, and distressed by all the times that I had failed to recognize it. It was an existential cry. I had sinned. I had failed to believe. My very being was being torn apart between elation and sorrow. It was like I was the person standing in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Once the emotions subsided enough where I could catch my breath, I walked down the stairs to the side of the altar into the room where St. Katherine's tomb was. I asked Jesus what all of this meant and what he wanted from me. The answer didn't come immediately. I was tortured with thoughts of my shortcomings for the next few weeks. I thought about what I was doing with my life. I was saddened that I couldn't recreate my recent experience no matter how deeply I prayed or mediated. Then it hit me. This experience wasn't for me alone. It was a message. We can directly receive God's love in the here and now. Instant gratification! I thought, as I'm sure so many Catholics do, that we are supposed to wait patiently for Heaven. We try to be good enough here on Earth so one day we can be called home and experience the fullness and wonder that is direct contact with God. I reread the Gospels in a new way. I heard the readings at Mass completely differently. Jesus wasn't telling us how to gain salvation, he already did that with his ultimate sacrifice. He's telling us how to be happy now! The Gospels are a prescription for happiness.

I had to find a way to share this. It finally dawned on me that the answer had been staring me in the face for a year. I needed to take that job! I have joked that I am now Jesus' wingman. My job, in essence, is now to help people find that feeling in this world. It's slow going, and I know I have a heck of a job cut out for me. But I persevere. Knowing now what it is to really know God's presence.I know that faith doesn't have to be an exercise in blind hoping. Jesus will really come to us and let us put our fingers in the nail holes and his side, as he did for Thomas. He is standing there right in front of you, arms outstretched, waiting to embrace you. All you have to do is let go and lean in. He'll do the rest.