My parents are good people. They raised me and my sister to be good to others and never do harm, but going to church wasn't their first priority. Sundays were days to spend time with the family, watch TV, or go on an outing. I didn't ask them why we didn't go to church because I liked it that way, but I heard them say that people who did go were hypocrites who did it so others would think they were good. The clergy were even worse.
When I turned fourteen a series of experiences made me realize there was such a thing as death. I couldn't take it out of my head: someday, which might be far off or maybe just a few days away . . . my thought will stop, like a candle that goes out until it doesn't even smoke anymore. And that will be it. No more me. Just like a candle.
I'm sure you've thought about this at some point. Everyone does, later rather than sooner. But likely you didn't sink into the deep depression I experienced at that point. I think I must have spent a couple of weeks sitting in the darkest places I could find just to brood on death, terrified, wondering what it would feel like.
It was so bad that I didn't even want to watch TV to distract myself. The only thing that made me forget it for a while was reading comics. That was my first step back to God, for in the few minutes when the funny stories made me forget that I was a candle destined to flicker out and be forgotten, I seized on to the notion that, if there was a God, he would want me to smile no matter what instead of just sitting desperate in the dark.
Two years later, rather content by then with my eventual fate'which is probably the way most people out there feel every day'I started searching for that God that wanted me to put a cheerful face on death. At first I conceived him as some sort of impersonal cosmic energy on which everything floated as a ship floats on the sea. I read everything I could find about the paranormal, because it dealt with that cosmic energy that some people called God.
One day, members of a fringe Christian sect dropped their literature at my house. I read their little book in one sitting. I was moved by the simple joy of the people in the pictures, how they lived with an ideal greater than themselves. I even planned to go to their meetings. But then I thought, why not give the same kind of chance to the church my parents grew up in, where I was baptized and where I was still considered a member?
I forgot to tell you that I've been inventing things since a very young age, which I've kept up over the years and now I'm teaching at the university. It so happened that I was working on an invention at that time. I wanted to write it up and submit to a contest to win a prize. Time was running short, so I made this deal with God, if he could hear me: if I managed to finish it by the deadline, I would go to church one Sunday. Sure enough, I finished the project, and I felt obliged to deliver on my contract.
It made sense to me. Hanging above the altar was a man tortured and killed, a candle snuffed out. And on the altar was that same man undergoing that same death, though I couldn't see it with my natural eyes. He had turned death into something else. The candle had been relit. Now it would never go out again, and he had promised that neither would those who participated from it.
I had to get more of it, so after that first Sunday came a second, and a third. That was the second step.
The third step was a spiritual retreat I got involved in, rather by mistake, barely one month after that. It was a silent retreat and if you were caught talking they kicked you out. One day I ran into Isaiah 1:18, which says, 'though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.' It gave me a tremendous hunger to be forgiven of so many little things that maybe added up to something big, especially to have been ignoring God for such a long time. . . .
On the second-last day of that retreat, a priest came to hear confessions. I had always said that I talked to God and he would forgive me. But this time I almost heard his voice daring me to get in the confessional box and actually say what I had done, if I was so brave. I did, and I realized the man on the other side was merely lending his voice to Jesus welcoming back, for he had said 'whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven' (John 20:23). I got out of the box feeling like I had wings. I could hardly sleep that night, thinking that I would be touching Jesus' true body contained in the Eucharist only a few short hours later, fearful that I would still offend him, once again, before that moment.
Two years after my conversion, God challenged me, through a friend, to leave everything and follow him even more closely by living a celibate life. I split my time between prayer and work, which I tried to turn into prayer by doing it very well and offering it to God. I didn't think it would last, but through God's grace I'm still here, each day more in love with my calling, as I hope you'll be with yours if you say yes and stick with it.
The most recent step happened this summer. I saw a movie made by Muslims about their founder, then another made by Christians about the Gospel of John. Jesus smiles a lot in this movie, which is the way I always imagine him. I couldn't stop thinking of how fortunate I was to have recognized the arrival of the beloved Son of God himself. I couldn't stop giving thanks for all the sacraments of the Church, where Jesus gives us his grace freely, though so many Christians still seem unaware of it.
God is asking me 'more, more,' every day, but he takes the initiative in giving to me. I feel like a child playing at his daddy's feet, knowing that he is near. I cannot live without him and without the nourishment he sends me every day in the Eucharist, for he said, 'unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you' (John 6:53). I go to weekly confession like a beggar, showing my wounds and screaming to be cured. I see those around me, and I realize I must be Christ for them; I must give my life for them, as he did for me.
And I must smile a lot, as he did and probably does right now, seeing me write these lines.