What serves as my religion was formed in an instant when I was 14. Ever since, I have searched for adequate vehicles to express it in practical ways. What I know from that experience is how the Divine felt to me. That knowledge is a foundation, primordial relative to all specific religions. It enables me to be aware of the presence of the divine in almost any context, Christian or Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist or Pagan, as long as I remember to pay attention, which I sometimes don’t, at least not at first, when frightened or panicky. Yet there are also contexts in which I am aware of the presence of evil, that is, of people who have rejected almost every aspect of the divine—yet not every aspect. I believe the primary agenda of the divine is to preserve the free will of even the apparently most hopeless of humans.
I have already written about what led up to that instant, but I will here summarize. Catechism at age 11 terrorized me; I could be tortured forever for even thinking about sex. The catechism seemed like a logical system, but I did not understand how its logic worked. During my sophomore year in high school I mastered geometry, the quintessential form of logic. In the summer of 1955 I rediscovered an official church pamphlet which asserted that Catholics are not obliged to believe anything by blind faith; instead, everything is proved to them. At the moment when I realized that nothing had ever been proved to me, my consciousness exploded. I was set free.
That evening I was suffering from severe depression. The episodes had been recurring every three weeks for about a year. Clinical depression is a metabolic disorder, true, but mine was fueled by terror over what the church taught about sexuality. I was not aware that evening of how close I was to being suicidal. That is what the explosion saved me from. That is sufficient reason for it to have happened. When I read Joseph Smith’s writings in 1990, I was struck by the fact that he too had been suffering from a severe depression at age 14 when his experience occurred.
The experience was quite synesthetic; almost all my senses were involved simultaneously.
When the ecstasy hit, I gasped and looked up at the ceiling above my desk, where a circle of intense light filled my field of vision. Joseph described that light also; it fits the traditional description of the Shekinah.
I was hearing a voice that poured information into me too fast for words to form.
My body felt light, as if I were floating, as if all the blackness within me had sublimed, in the chemical sense of passing directly from a solid state to a gaseous one.
I was filled with joy, radiant happiness. I was within a vast, compassionate consciousness, a person who cared about me and would always take care of me. I was simultaneously, paradoxically, part of that person and yet also myself. If this was what “being before the throne of God” meant, then it was no bland blissfulness. It was a riotous ecstasy.
I felt safe; I knew I would always be safe, that nothing could actually ever go wrong.
I knew I had been saved from a death I hadn’t known was approaching. All guilt or shame or regret over anything I had ever done evaporated. I thought in that instant which lasted forever, “So this is forgiveness!” I felt a wind that was not merely air blowing through me, as if I stood on a mountain peak. I was struck later to see that Bill Wilson described his own experience in those terms also. Wind / pneuma / animus / spiritus: perhaps in the conversation with Nicodemus that John constructed, he was preserving something that Jesus had said about his own experience out in the wilderness.
When the experience was ending, I burst into a torrent of prayer, of gratitude for what had happened to me, knowing that it was a pure gift, nothing I could ever have earned. I was not sure who I was praying to. The person whom I had felt was no one described by the teachings of the church. I knew the idea that such a person would punish sins was ridiculous.
I fell asleep from exhaustion. When I examined myself the next morning, like doing an examination of conscience, I knew I no longer had to believe in the truth of what the Catholic church taught about anything. However, I was now under a new obligation: to go find out for myself what the truth was about all things religious, including those that the church taught about. I was not convinced that those teachings were wrong. Rather, I simply did not know whether they were true or not. I have done my best to carry out that obligation ever since.
However, most importantly, I knew that everything the church had taught me about sexuality was wrong, a lie, a pathological monstrosity that had almost killed me, that had killed a vast number of people. Those teachings were evil. To compromise with them at all was the moral equivalent of compromising with the Nazis. I declared war in my heart, knowing I had no weapons to fight such a war, not yet.
There really is no adequate vocabulary for what happened or how I was changed. I know from my own search how hard Joseph had to struggle to find words to describe his experience, words that could convey what the experience actually meant. I was saved from death by suicide, but I was also saved in a far deeper sense. I was handed salvation as a gift. I was simply given what many people struggle all their lives to achieve, struggling because of not understanding at all what they are trying to achieve. Salvation consists of knowing that there is nothing one needs to be saved from—although, in my case, that did not become clear to me until my first real AA sponsor explained that to me. He said, “The only thing wrong with you is that, when you were too young to know better, you bought into the idea that there was something wrong with you. Once you get over that, you’ll be fine.”
Some people fear that a person who knows he or she is saved will then indulge in antisocial behavior. No, people who act like that only think they are saved—and they’re wrong. My knowing I am safe does not insulate me from the consequences of my own folly or prevent me from making mistakes. It’s just that I fear no evil, knowing all manner of things will eventually be well.
About two years ago, as we walked about the neighborhood around our church, in between Sacrament and Priesthood, my Home Teacher, a brilliant professor of psychology, was confiding in me about a problem over which he was already and literally suffering the torments of the damned. I was profoundly touched and immensely grateful that he trusted me so much. I was trying to help him understand that his situation was not at all as serious or hopeless as he thought, that he was trashing himself over our ordinary human nature.
Finally, he said, in the tone of a person in whom a light is dawning, “I think I’ve tried to be good all my life out of fear.”
I responded, “But there’s no reason to be afraid of God!” At that moment I was filled with sorrow, finally and fully being aware of the enormity, the tragedy that people live in terror from thinking that “God punished sins.”
I did my best to explain to him that thinking God punishes sins is childish, is to completely miss the point of what the Good News is about, that our “sins” are illnesses that God will heal, if we just get out of his way and let him do it. I told him I knew that from getting sober in AA, from letting the Divine do the impossible for me, because I had no option but to let that happen.
The next Sunday, a Fasting and Testimony Sunday, when I was going to say my farewell before my family’s return to Tacoma, he came forward and announced that they did not know who I was, that I was a spiritual giant! I burst out laughing. He said, “And now he’s laughing, because of his humility!” And I laughed even harder.
Afterward, I said to him, “I hope you know that was very bad for my humility.” I was joking. I don’t think one can actually lose humility, at least, not while staying sober. Is it possible to be proud of being humble? I don’t think so. No, I feel grateful. Having my youthful arrogance worn down by illness, by being almost homeless and unemployable, by doing customer service for AT&T for 18 months, was not fun, but it has kept me alive. As C.S. Lewis wrote, humility does not require being humiliated. It consists merely of knowing that you are not the one running the universe.