He Kindled a Fire that Never Died Away – How I Met Jesus

110713Personal Testimonies are supposed to be three to five minutes. I suspect that my written version of how I met Jesus violates that rule. But, since many of you have known me a while, I think that I have to add a few details that I don’t when I am speaking to people who know less about me.

Thus, here is my personal testimony of how and when I met the Lord. I break it into sections so that perhaps you can abbreviate your reading where necessary. The over arching truth of my life is that the Lord kindled a fire that did not die away, despite trials and personal failings. Thanks be to God, here is how I met Jesus.

I. Death to life – I know by faith that I met Jesus the day I was born. I know this because I was baptized the day that I was born. Having complications with something called “RH factor” in my blood, it was likely I might not survive the day, so the priest was summoned and I was baptized at once. It was July 10, 1961, St Francis Hospital, Evanston, Ill.

And thus, Jesus came, and saved my soul, he also saved my life in this world. For here I am, still alive all these years later.

And though I know by faith, that I met him that day, I have no memory of it. But indeed, he did establish a powerful relationship with me at that moment. I say this because my earliest memory is of talking with Jesus. I have a few memories from early childhood but my clearest and oldest memories were of how Jesus spoke to me.

I think I was approximately five years old. There was a Sacred Heart statue in my room. It was unique because the Lord’s robes were not red, but blue. And in my room I could go, and the Lord spoke to me, tenderly, and in the way a five-year-old could understand. I do not say that the statue talked, it did not, but it did signal the Lord’s presence,  and I always knew that I could go to my room and there experience the Lord’s presence and talk with him.

I also want to be clear, Jesus was not just some “imaginary friend.” I had those as a child, and I knew the difference. Jesus was real, and He spoke to me in a different way. I knew I was not making it up, that he was initiating it. With my imaginary friends, I ran both sides of the conversation. But Jesus was no imaginary friend, he was someone who was quite real, who loved me, and spoke tenderly to me.

Yes, these are my earliest memories. At the dawning of my life, my first memories are that Jesus was already there in a relationship with me,  simple, intimate, and very reassuring.

II. Dormition – I do not know when or why exactly, but this connection ended. I have a sad memory, though vague, of speaking to an adult in my life, (probably my mother) and explaining that Jesus had gone. I remember even offering some sort of explanation, that perhaps he had to go help other people who need his help more.

This was a time in my life where I began to discover there was a very big world out there, and there were some very awful things happening there. Perhaps my clinging to Jesus seemed selfish. But I attributed his disappearance to the fact that others “needed his help more.”

My awakening in regard to the worse sufferings of others happened when I heard that my father had to go to a far away place called Vietnam, where people were killing each other. Things were very sad there, and there were many orphans and much sorrow.

I was seven years old when my daddy left for the war. And I don’t know if there’s a direct connection, but it was at that time that mysteriously I stopped experiencing Jesus so personally. Yes, I figured he had to go help someone else. I knew Jesus was up in heaven, and I knew he knew and cared about me still, but I no longer heard his voice.

III. Deepening Darkness – At this point, my spiritual life and relationship with the Lord went into remission. I went through the motions: First Confession, First Communion.  I knew I was receiving Jesus, but my relationship was less personal, more theoretical, more intellectual.

My father came back from the war, a changed man somehow,  sadder and with more anger. My family was uprooted from my boyhood home in North Chicago, as my father’s next duty assignment was down in Florida.

My spiritual dormition (sleep) deepened, and soon enough became a great darkness. At age 10, (1971) as a result of several family crises, I began having my first panic attacks and I remember once saying to my mother that I understood what older people meant when they said that life was hard. I did not think at that time I wanted to live long, and hoped to die young.

As I edged towards my teenage years, I went from being a fretful child, to a teenager often plagued by bouts of severe anxiety and phobias: I feared fire, home invasion, and domestic violence. My parents sent me to a counsellor, and I was placed on psychotropic meds for the first time.

I prayed little in these years and though required to attend Mass, I was uninspired by it, and almost never thought of God or had any interest in things spiritual. My spiritual sleep was all but complete, and the darkness of my anxiety also began to manifest as well as intense anger. Loud and angry rock music connected with my soul and gave voice to my anger and the rebellious spirit of my early high school years.

I developed hostility to things religious, to the Church, to the Bible, and  I did not like being told what to do. In a sense, this was typical teenage rebelliousness, but I was about as far as I could be from those early tender years when Jesus used to speak to me quietly in my room.

IV. Dawning – And then Jesus called! I didn’t know it at first, but it was him, I know it now.

Among the “curses” in my life at that time was having to go to Mass on Sunday. And then one day, a high school choir formed at the Church that I attended, and I noticed there were very pretty girls in the choir. I could not sing at all, and did not like to sing, but I accepted an invitation to join the choir to meet the girls.

And I did meet them, and dated two of them seriously, and several of them more casually over the 4 to 5 years that followed. Strangely, I actually began to like the music, and was impressed with the sound of the mighty pipe organ.

I was not praying yet, I was still not spiritual, but through the goodness, truth and beauty of the music (and yes, the girls) The Lord was calling. The darkness had not passed, but light was on the horizon.

V. Development – I cannot fully develop every step which took place, but in varying stages in late high School and early College, I became cantor, the Church choir director,  and an organist.  That led to liturgy planning, studies of God’s Word, and entering more deeply into the life of the Church.

A strange and uncomfortable yearning began to develop within me,  for though while completing my computer science degree and already working for the Army Corps of Engineers, and while dating a girl I intended to marry, a strange desire for the priesthood began to dawn on me. And it was strange.  I was not really praying all that much, and I was working for a pastor in Virginia I did not respect. But in your twenties, sometimes you think you can make a difference, and somehow the priesthood seemed that sort of path for me: something I could do to make a difference.

My college sweetheart, for various reasons, mostly my fault, turned cool on me, and one day, I received my walking papers. One door closed, but I sensed another door still stood open: priesthood. I contacted the Archdiocese of Washington. Within two years, I was walking through the doors of the seminary.

I will not tell you that I had met the Lord again. Not yet, that was still to come. But I entered with pride really, thinking I could make a difference. Yet still, despite my sinful pride, the Lord was still calling.

He reached my mind first. I had entered the seminary poorly catechized, emerging from the “silly 70s” with “butterfly theology” at best. Yet in the seminary, despite dreadful dogmatics, and certain dubious scriptural classes, there were some very wonderful teachers and classes: Liturgy, Patristics, Church history, and Moral Theology were all solid.  And that lit up my mind with joy. I supplemented the shortcomings of some of the scripture classes, and the dreadful dogmatics with wonderful books like Ralph Martin’s Crisis of Truth,  and Fr. James O’Conner’s The Father’s Son, and The Hidden Manna etc.

Suddenly the beauty of Catholic truth entered the vacuum of my silly 70s mind, and I could hear the voice of Jesus speaking through Scripture and Tradition. I was thrilled with this wisdom, and the great deposit of faith. I was hungry and spent long hours in study. I graduated at the top of my class at Mount St. Mary’s.

But I still cannot say I had yet met Him again. Surely I heard his voice mediated through Scripture and Tradition but it was still not the same as that young boy at five years of age who knew Jesus very personally, that was still yet to come. In Seminary years I prayed an hour each day, but it was a struggle to really experience God at all during those times of prayer.

The Lord reached my heart in my deacon year. It was my canonical retreat, prior to ordination to the priesthood, and Fr. Francis Martin came to the seminary and set forth for us a powerful and cogent proclamation, that through the Word of God and the Sacraments, The Lord Jesus revealed himself to us, and invited us into a relationship that could and would totally change our lives, wherein we would see sins put to death and every virtue come alive.

And so, my heart was on fire and in every liturgy, every proclamation of the Word I began to hear the Lord Jesus, and experience His powerful ministry. My life to begin to change, I saw many sins put to death, and many graces come alive.

But still, I will not tell you, though having a new mind and heart, I had met him again. I knew him through his Word, and through the effects of his sacraments in my life. I knew by faith he existed, but I had not yet met him again. But he had my mind and my heart, and I was well along the path of what the mystics call “the purgative way.”

One final, and painful stage awaited me before I met him again.

VI. Distress – My early years of priesthood, were not without struggles, but they were largely pleasant and productive. Yet, my long history of anxiety and my tendency to fret continued to plague me.

An early promotion to the pastorate, seemingly a great compliment, plunged me into a period of great distress. Panic attacks, and unremitting anxiety robbed me of sleep for weeks, then into months. Demons found an easy doorway and added to my crisis, such that I became despondent. A dark presence enveloped my room, tormenting me and further robbing me of sleep.

It was clear I could not take up my pastoral duties, and I found myself to St. Luke’s Hospital for a week of mental evaluation. And yet, in this great crisis, through this great distress, there seemed to come some purification.

VII. Deliverance – Shortly thereafter, one morning in my holy hour I was praying,… and there he was! It was November of 1994, I was 33 years old.

I cannot describe to you his glory, for it is beyond words, analogies or pictures. Words like spaciousness, openness, wideness, glorious light, and deep serenity come to mind, but they are wholly inadequate. But there he was.

I said nothing, and He said nothing, yet everything was communicated. Words were not necessary at all. It was Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaking to heart). Here was what the mystics call “contemplative prayer,” or at least the first murmurings of it. Beyond words or images, not the devoid of them, but beyond them.

Yes there He was and I with him. I had met him again, whom my heart sought, and my mind delighted in. He was here and I with him.

Over the years, my experience of him in prayer has deepened. It has also become more gentle. Some days his presence is deeper than others, some days I struggle to see him at all. But quite consistently and faithfully throughout the years I have known his presence.

And as his presence in my prayers has deepened and become more contemplative, it has overflowed into my daily life. Increasingly, I have become a mystic on the move. Throughout the day, I see his presence beautifully displayed his creation, and in so many people I have come to know and love.

I remain startled at those say there is no evidence of God’s existence. His whole creation shouts “I am designed and it is he who holds me in existence.” I am powerfully aware of his presence in my prayer, and throughout the day, also in the liturgy, and in the glory of his Word and Sacraments.

And yet, I cannot forget those years when I knew him not. I am in no way unsympathetic to those who struggle to see him, but thanks be to God, I can say I know him, I have met him (again), and he is very, very real in my life.  I feel his presence now, and a moved to tears as I write this.

He has been good to me, and I am so grateful, so very very grateful, that he looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

An old song says “Within our darkest night, you kindle fire that never dies away!” And that is my story, a fire he kindled that never died away, by his grace.

And I’m also grateful, for those who prayed for me in my darkest hours, especially my grandmother and my mother and so many parishioners who saw me through and witnessed to me of the glory of God in their life.

Yes, Jesus is real, I have met him, and speak to him each day in prayer. He kindled a fire in me when I was baptized. I knew it at age five, and strangely lost sight of it. But the fire he kindled never died away. And He, by the fire of his presence is changing my life. I am not what I want to be, but I am not what I used to be.

For all this I am grateful, so very grateful.

Some questions and truths at the heart of the”New”Evangelization

I am gathered with over 200 brother priests from the Archdiocese for a convocation on the New Evangelization. And we are blessed to have Dr. Ralph Martin as our Keynote speaker.

Of course some wonder at the title “new” in the New Evangelization. On the one hand it is new in the sense that we are having now to reach back to once Christian cultures and people and repropose the gospel. The is a “new” (and unfortunate) development that is in a way harder than opening new “virginal” territory for the Kingdom. The ancient Western world was as a virgin awaiting her husband. But the modern West is more an angry divorcee. And this requires new approaches rooted in healing past hurts and overcoming a kind of spiritual boredom and sloth that has overtaken the modern West.

There are also many new modes of communication that make evangelization new in the sense that we must retool, and enter whole new realms of instant and global settings. But one of the most central aspects of evangelization that must be newly emphasized (as it was in the early Church) is to become a personal and firsthand witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to be able to say how I met him, and what he’s doing in my life.

Doctrine and Scripture are essential and help us to verify whether our experiences of God, are in conformity with the truth of who God is as he has revealed himself. But one of the dangers is that we become content to quote the doctrine, to quote Scripture, but not really come to know the One, who reveals them. We run the risk of becoming content to know about the Lord, rather than  to know the Lord, personally and intimately.

And thus, there comes a time, and the moment for us to ask the critical questions, Do I know the Lord? Or do I just know about him. Have I met him? How? When? And what is my relationship with him doing in my life?

Sadly, we Catholics are collectively terrible at reflecting on and learning to give witness to the Lord in our life. Frankly, many of us were never taught to give personal testimony, and even worse many have never been taught even to expect a personal encounter with the Lord.

This needs to change, especially in a culture such as ours, where the argument from authority no longer holds much sway. If it was ever true that we could hand on the faith without personal testimony, it certainly is not true today. People rightfully and reasonably expect an authenticity wherein our proclaimed faith, matches with our life, both as publicly lived an experienced.

We may get to a moment with someone where we are able to announce that Jesus Christ can save them from sin and set them free from all bondage. And then comes the question from them, “That sounds like good news, but how do I know it’s true?” And here is where you have to be able to say, “Look at me.” and begin to describe how it is in fact true in your life, that since meeting the Lord, you are seeing sins put to death, and many graces come alive.

Yes, we have to be able to tell our story, to say, briefly, how we met the Lord, and what our  relationship with him is doing to change our life.

Critical though it is, all the apologetics in the world, may founder if we cannot authentically and authoritatively answer the question “How do I know it’s true?” by saying, authentically,

“Look at me. ” In other words to be able to say, “This word, this teaching, is true, because in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested it, and found it to be true, and here’s how. And Jesus is real, because I have met him and here’s when, and here is how. And here is how I’m experiencing him today in my life. Yes, when I pray, I am heard. The Lord speaks in the depths of my heart, sometimes in wordless contemplation, at other times vividly through his proclaimed word, and in my mind, and in the experiences and interactions of my day. I see him, I know him, and I experience his presence, and this is changing my life.”

  • Can you authentically speak like this?
  • Have you met the Lord,?
  • How, when?
  • Do you know him?
  • And how is your relationship with him changing your life?
  • What has your walk with him done?
  • Have you encountered him in his word, and in the sacraments celebrated?
  • How, when, and what has this liturgical experience of the Lord done for you?
  • How is it changing you?

These are essential questions and truths to ponder to be able to answer briefly and articulately if we are going to personally evangelize others today.

Ask the Holy Spirit to anoint you to know the answers to these sorts of questions, and to be able to access the memories of how the Lord is living, working and relating with you in your life. Ask God the Holy Spirit to help you form a testimony, so as to become a first-hand witness to the power of the Lord in your life!

It is increasingly clear to me, that God’s people expect me as priest pastor, preacher, an evangelist not just to know the facts, but to know the Lord. Our  people, whether they know it or not, are desperate to hear from us that we who announce the truth, know in a very personal and deep way He who is the Truth. The people of God, need first-hand witnesses, witnesses who know the Lord, and know by experience the truth of his Word. Our preaching cannot simply be technical and a mechanistic it must be personal and proclaimed by someone who knows what and of Whom he speaks.

And if this is true of priest, it is also true parents who must become more comfortable with giving true witness to their children of the faith, of the personal relationship and walk with the Lord, and of the power of God’s Word and Sacraments to change their lives.

Both priests and parents need to learn what it means to preach and teach with authority. The Greek word for authority is “exousia” which means to literally to speak out of one’s own substance and experience.  This is is what made Jesus such an authoritative preacher: he Knew the Father and spoke out of his own substance and experience. And we too, empowered by him must experience   his power, love, life, joy and truth and speak  out that experience and relationship. Nothing less will be very effective today Dr. Ralph Martin, in his new book The Urgency of the New Evangelization, a book which I want to review more thoroughly next week, has the following insight

Now at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit at the beginning of every class I have one of the students give his testimony. …. I ask seminarians and priests not to tell how they discerning a calling to the priesthood, but how they came to discover the reality of God in their lives. This is a struggle for some, but eventually almost everyone reaches the point where they can briefly give an account of how God became real in their lives in such a way that unbelievers could relate to it.

Thus, what is new about the new Evangelization is essentially very old, very apostolic. It is to give personal witness and testimony to the revealed faith based on what we have seen, heard and are experiencing. St. Paul couldn’t look it up and quote it, he had to experience it and write it. And while we are not evangelists like the apostles, we  are called to speak to the truth of the faith they revealed out of our own substance, life and experience.

More on this tomorrow wherein I would like to share more directly how and when I met the Lord and what he is doing in my life.

The Rosary-a tool for evangelization

The Rosary and other religious symbols worn as jewelry  or tattoos are getting a lot of attention these days. In a recent blog post in the Washington Post, the author opined that this  is part of a growing movement of separating the spiritual from the religious. Religious jewelry “caters to people who are expressing their personal spirituality rather than an affiliation with organized religion.”

Putting my jewelry to work

I am someone who owns a rosary bracelet, that though it can easily be mistaken for a silver beaded bracelet, is for me, my traveling rosary, always within easy reach if the opportunity to steal a few minutes of prayer presents itself.

For a recent talk that I was giving, I re-read Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, The Most Holy Rosary. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. I recommend you celebrate today’s feast of the rosary by reading it!  The Pope speaks about how in the rosary we learn Christ through Mary. We don’t just learn about Christ, we learn Christ.  “The Rosary is also a path of proclamation and increasing knowledge, in which the mystery of Christ is presented again and again at different levels of the Christian experience. Its form is that of a prayerful and contemplative presentation, capable of forming Christians according to the heart of Christ. When the recitation of the Rosary combines all the elements needed for an effective meditation, especially in its communal celebration in parishes and shrines, it can present a significant catechetical opportunity …. In this way too Our Lady of the Rosary continues her work of proclaiming Christ.

This Saturday, October 10 at 2:30 p.m., the archdiocese hosts its annual pilgrimage to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We make a pilgrimage to “Mary’s House” to ask her intercession on our behalf for a particular intention that is on the heart and in the mind of the church at this time.

Mother of the Church and Mother of Families

As part of our commitment to the New Evangelization, we will ask Mary, Mother of the Church to pray with us that our work will bear fruit in our parishes. As Mother of Families, we ask her to join with us in our pray for the people we love most who are inactive in the practice of their faith or alienated from the church. We will ask Mary, to intercede with her son, Jesus, to give us courage to speak about our faith and to be bold in inviting family, friends, co-workers and neighbors to take a second look at the church– to come home– and join their church family.

The right first step

Do you have someone in mind whom you would love to invite to join you at church or with whom you would like to have a serious conversation about their faith or their participation in the life of the church? Are you wondering how to begin a conversation? Do you need a little more courage to be bold? Why not make the commitment to join us for the rosary and for Mass? Make this your first step –to pray on behalf of the person– and to entrust the person to Mary’s care.

A tool for the Evangelizer

 Pope John Paul II writes “The history of the Rosary shows how this prayer was used in particular by the Dominicans at a difficult time for the Church due to the spread of heresy. Today we are facing new challenges. Why should we not once more have recourse to the Rosary, with the same faith as those who have gone before us? The Rosary retains all its power and continues to be a valuable pastoral resource for every good evangelizer.”

"R You In?"

If you are a Washington Redskins fan, you have, no doubt, already answered this question! “R You In?” was the rally cry for Redskins training camp and the tag line for season ticket sales. I’m not in with the Redskins but I love the simple and direct nature of the question.  It really demands a “yes” or “no.”

Archbishop Wuerl is asking us the same question, in much more poetic language in his pastoral letter Disciples in Mission: Sharing the Vision.  While we can opt in or out with the Redskins with very little consequence, opting out of full and active participation in the New Evangelization for those of us who are baptized, does have consequences for us and for the church.

Sharing the vision

Msgr. Pope did a nice job introducing us to the pastoral letter and I plan, from time to time, to share stories about people and parishes who are in– who are giving new definition to what it means to be Catholic Evangelizers.

It begins with the sign of the cross

One of the ideas in  the pastoral letter that seems to have hit home is the suggestion to pray grace before meals in public. I was out with a group of colleagues, with whom I had not shared a meal and wondered if they were the types who pray grace in public places. The food came, there was a pause, and then a chuckle and two of us in unison said, “We’re all about the New Evangelization, and we are going to pray.”

At Mass on Sunday, I was chatting with a fellow parishioner and he said, “Susan, a friend read the pastoral letter, and told me that before reading the letter, he would make a small and quick Sign of the Cross before eating in public, now he decided, he would make a real Sign of the Cross.” Another friend wrote, “My husband and I are going to pray grace in restaurants.”

Evangelization really can be this easy and people do notice. At the hotel where we stayed while we were at the Passion Play, we had assigned tables for meals in the hotel restaurant. When we sat down for dinner, there was a woman who was also assigned to our table. She was just about finished when we arrived.  She was reading the paper and sipping coffee. We sat down and began with Grace. The next day, we came back to the hotel and were sitting in the coffee bar.  She came in and sat down and we started to chat with her. At the end of the conversation, she said, “I just want to say that I thought it was really nice you prayed Grace before you ate, you don’t see that often and not from Catholics.”

Hopefully, as we study and discuss the pastoral letter and our renewed commitment to the New Evangelization we will take advantage of other opportunities to share our love for the Lord and the joy we have found in the Catholic Church. The Sign of the Cross, the public acclamation that we live, and move and have our being in the name of the Father and of the Son and Holy Spirit is a great way to start. Buon apetito!