Here in the buckle of the Bible belt, I hear a lot about born-again experiences. Around this time, some eighteen years ago, I had one of those experiences.
I was born and raised in a Catholic family. I had two amazing and faithful Catholic parents who loved their faith. They practiced what they preached in love and charity. All through my own life, I have had faith (even if, at times, I have demonstrated varying degrees of devotion and intimacy). Looking back, there have been many times in my life where I was just going through the motions. It was as if Catholicism were a club to which I belonged. Going to Mass, at times, seemed like nothing more than an obligation to fulfill.
In my thirties, I was confronted by three major challenges. First, my wife had been dealing with Multiple Sclerosis for several difficult years. Second, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Third, I was faced with whether to leave my job and start a new business. In the midst of turmoil, I felt a longing for something more. I am sure that, at some level, I was seeking some peace. I felt like I needed something to fill the gap that was growing inside me. Around this same time, the parish I attended welcomed three new priests.
One was a youthful, energetic, and great-hugging Italian with a wonderful singing voice. One was newly ordained and extremely personable. The other looked frightened as he introduced himself that first Sunday. Father Bruce and Father David had made eloquent and humorous introductions, but this third simply said: “My name is Father Ed and I’m glad to be here”. I thought to myself: “This one’s gonna a gem at homilies. A real spellbinder. I need to find out when he’s scheduled so I can skip that Mass.”
I came to learn, however, that there was something to his homilies. In his simple manner, quiet demeanor, and in his dour look, there was humor and there was warmth and there was love. This penetrated the clutter of my crusted outer shell. It was not like a knife, but a needle. While there was a lot of crust to poke through, it was working its way to my core. Lent was approaching.
I remember the Ash Wednesday Mass of that year. All the children of the parish school were in attendance. As I sat in a back pew, I wanted to belong. I wanted to have something of the innocence that I saw in the faces of the children who filled the church that morning. I wanted something more than I had. I felt the Holy Spirit whispering into my ear. I did not want to listen but I finally decided to go to confession at the next opportunity.The following Saturday afternoon, some eighteen years ago, I approached my church with dread and anxiety, and yet I felt an irresistible power drawing me. I had been reading about perfect contrition and, in order to achieve perfect contrition, I felt I had to tell all. It had been more than a few years since my last confession and so I had more than a few things to share. Poor Father David.
When I walked out of the confessional, I felt I was a new man. To this day, reconciliation remains a favorite sacramental experience for me. I feel grace, in the sacrament, and renewal. I feel spiritual intimacy as I do in no other experience. I am not trying to knock beautiful sunsets, holding my grandson, seeing my wife laugh and smile or, even, the Eucharist. Reconciliation is just very special to me.
It’s been eighteen years. I have had my dry times and desperate times and strayed from my path. However, when the father of a sick son says to Jesus “I do believe, help my unbelief”, I feel that this is me. Many, many days. I hope that I have matured in my faith and that I have kept a sense of the humble and simple message that Father Ed continues to preach today. I am still figuring things out and still searching. When I get frustrated, I think of what Peter said after many had abandoned Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
If you have not been to the Sacrament of Penance in a while, I encourage you to give it another try. Lent is just around the corner. If you are not Catholic, or don’t normally observe Lent, you might have something that you feel is keeping you from being closer to God. Try giving away, whatever that is, for forty days. If you have hurt someone, maybe tell that person you are sorry. If you have been avoiding God, maybe tell God you are sorry. If you are searching for something, or if there is a space in you that needs filling, St. Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
I pray that Jesus accompany you during this Lent. I pray for whatever miracle you are looking for in your life. Finally, I pray that God will be part of living that miracle with you as you journey on. Peace!