Sunday, January 15, 2017

An Unremarkable Convert

A grainy photo taken decades ago in a trailer park somewhere in West Virginia...or maybe Alabama.  A  little boy with big ears and big smile.  Somewhere in that little boy was a future that was still unwritten.  He was a boy that didn't spend much time in churches.  He was raised to be honest and respectful but not terribly religious.  He wasn't baptized until 6th grade.  He became Catholic that March day back in 1977 in a part of the country (southeast Kentucky) where being a Catholic was not welcome.  At the point of this photo, the little boy had a little sister.  Years later, 4 more siblings would come along.  Home life would be rocky at times.  He would go to a Catholic School in Missouri and be bullied most of the time.  He was by the far the smallest in the class...smaller than even all the girls.  He would find some solace in Church, not a relationship, just solace.  By 8th grade he wanted out of his town and an opportunity opened up.

He had heard about a High School seminary.  It was away from the town he lived in. He had been asked about priesthood by a neighbor.  The neighbor had sons in the seminary.  He and his wife were wonderful people.  When the seminarians came to visit/ recruit, this young man saw a camaraderie  absent in his life.  Drawn by the hope of respite, he begged his parents to let him go.  They did.  He went through four years of seminary.  He was unremarkable and excelled in little.  He was Joe Average.  There was a lot of untapped potential that was there, but he was far too timid to take a chance.  He graduated and headed to college seminary because it was expected and safe.

Without going into detail, the first three years of college seminary were difficult.  What faith the young man possessed slowly ebbed away.  Those who took the faith seriously were dismissed as trolls and the young man had managed to fit in with the 'right' group.  Worldly criteria clouded his judgement.  He transferred his senior year.  That little move of God's hand saved His faith, although it would be years before that became clear.  This seminary took faith seriously and demanded more.  This appealed to the young man.  For the first time, he really felt that there might actually be a real calling to the priesthood.  Just when the story was about to take off, tragedy struck.  His parents were divorcing.

The timidity of this young man was long gone.  He had come into his own.  He found he was smart and could get along well with his peers.  But with the divorce came anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Much of it directed at God.  How could God let this happen?  The young man was following Him.  How could this happen?  He tried to enter major seminary but the interviewers caught the anger and suggested he take some time off to figure things out.  The young man's faith was decimated.  He went home to New York and landed right in the middle of messy divorce and a split family.  The local pastor found out the young man had been in the seminary and pressured relentlessly to get the young man back in again.

The young man caved to the pressure even though he had severe doubts about even the existence of God at all.  His faith, such as it was, was limited to religious practice which more and more seemed empty.  He lasted less than one year in what was probably the hardest year of his life.  What he witnessed in the year of theology convinced him beyond the shadow of a doubt that there might be something that created but He was as distant from His creation as possible.  The horror show he witnessed in that one year so turned him off to the not just the Catholic Church, but to Christianity as a whole.  He went home and refused to step into a church.  He didn't pray.  God was dead to him.

For the next several years he became largely indistinguishable from his peers.  He got a job, dated, and made plans for  getting married and having children some day.  He bounced from one bad relationship to another. He started to drink a lot.  He started to withdraw.  But, at work, he quickly moved up.  You see, the lessons from his parents about honesty and hard work paid off.  His distancing himself from god and religion seemed to paying off.  He dropped drinking and threw himself into work. He found he girl he wanted to marry and make a future with.  His company transferred him to a much bigger position that would take him back to Missouri.  In fact, right back to the diocese he had studied for before.  When he left for Missouri, he had no intention of rejoining anything of his old life.  Though he lived an hour away from many people who knew him, he made no effort to contact any of them.

Maybe it was being back in place where the old god he worshiped felt familiar.  Actually it was a gnawing hole that wouldn't leave him alone.  The young man, now in his mid 20's found success unfulfilling.  He realized there was never going to be enough.  There would never be enough money, enough power, enough pleasure, or enough honor.  That realization ate at him for months.  Hindsight now shows it was the Good Shepherd calling the name of His lost sheep.  The more he heard  that voice beckoning the more his life seemed empty.  All he had built seemed little more than a sand castle.

The young man started making contact with his old acquaintances.  Of course as Catholicism was part of their life, he reluctantly gave it another chance.  But he didn't want what he had before.  If he was going to do this, he wanted what those who loved the faith had.   The faith would have to be built from a different perspective.  Before, as seminaries were want to do in the 80's, he had been exposed to a 'make it up as you go along' faith touted by the progressive arm of the church.  He knew that didn't work and he wasn't going to put himself through that again.

After reconciling with the Church, the young man found a spiritual director.  This spiritual director placed a primacy on the father-child relationship.  Seeing as how the father-child relationship he had with his own dad was stressed, it was going to be hard to readjust.  It was a purging experience.  As that relationship developed a long dismissed notion struck back up in the young man's head: God was indeed calling him to the priesthood.  This was not a welcome development.  Could God not be pleased with what had happened, why did He require more?  To make matters worse, he would have to try to go back to a place where he had done a sufficiently good job burning bridges.

God, however, purifies by burning off the bad.  Pursuing the possibility meant a total destruction of what was.  The job was left behind and replaced by an internship at a parish.  All of the debt incurred by spending with a higher paying job now meant that all the trinkets and prizes the young man has acquired had to sold off bit by bit to settle the bills.  His payment for his internship was room and board.  A job was taken at a local grocery store stocking shelves.  The young man now had lost his power and his wealth. To make matters worse, the diocese he petitioned to had a vocational director who had no intention of allowing him back.  The young man now lost his honor, he was persona non grata.

You might think this cruel of God.  However, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a grain of wheat.  Stripped of his honor, wealth, and power the young man was challenged by the pastor to everything he feared.  The pastor was teaching the young man the importance of service and prayer.  He made the young teach the faith and do it correctly.  He made him get involved with the sick and dying.  That pastor had many sleepless nights worrying about whether the young man had the perseverance to live up to the challenge.  For the first time in young man's life he had to fight for God's was not going to be handed to him with ease.

The next year and half humbled the young man.  He needed it.  It also made clear his gifts.  he needed to know them as well.  He was far from the 8th grade boy who used the seminary to run away.  IF he were to enter again, it would be an positive answer to a call..not a fleeing from reality.  Now, for this young man, a desire for truth and a deeper relationship  arose.

He persevered by the grace of God and made it into the seminary.  His conversion was far from over.  His arrogance had to be tempered.  His anger needed to be tempered.  His trail by fire was far from over.  The young man almost got booted out.  However, the Vice Rector saw something in him and while punishing the behavior allowed him to stay.  That might have been the single most important act of being forgiven to effect the young man.  That act of forgiveness was the coup de grace of his doubts and rebellion.  Over the next four years the young man grew more and was determined to preach and teach the mercy and forgiveness of God.  He knew that to do this meant being immersed in the truth.

He got ordained.  Twenty years have passed.  In each assignment he grew.  His conversion is not over yet.  One of the things he learned in this whole experience is that the prodigal can come home. He also learned that he must be as patient with those undergoing conversion at any stage as people were with him through all those stages.  That young man is now middle aged and creeping slowly into older age.  He is as far away from the little boy in the picture in soul as he is in stature.  He is wise enough to know that through the whole thing...through the high points and low points...God was there and will continue to be there.

Now the reader of this will have guessed from the beginning that I am this man.  I wrote it in the third person to disconnect from the emotions and make it less about me.  Funny in a story of conversion I would do this?  Not at all.  Our lives as Christians  moves beyond us; it points to something greater.  Hopefully some reading this might see themselves in this, for good or for ill, and be sparked to conversion.  I name this an unremarkable convert because this story, or variations of it, play out every day.  Those who are on this path need to know it leads home if they will allow it.  The story of this convert is far from over.  The conversion is far from over.  I am still not the man, the priest, the Catholic, the son, the brother, the uncle, or the friend that I want to be.  I am still not the adopted son of God that I want to be.  I don't see it stopping until God chooses to call me from this life.  Nor do I see God's grace stopping to fuel this ongoing conversion.

Gone is that little boy.  Gone is the angry young man.  But without those phases, I wouldn't be the man I am now.  The end lesson is this: you can either allow the peaks and valleys destroy you or strengthen you.  What I found, is that with the grace of God, they strengthen you like a trial by fire to help mold us into what God call us to be.  It may be hard...but there is always a way home.  

1 comment:

  1. You still have that same heartwarming smile!
    God bless you and keep you and may the Holy Spirit guide you as you become the priest, friend, sibling, mentor that God's plan for your salvation has laid out for you!!!
    Thank you for humbly sharing your story and your gifts with us.