Today is my birthday. It’s not my actual birthday, but it is, what I consider my spiritual birthday. Here in the “buckle of the Bible-belt,” we hear a lot about born-again experiences. Well, on this date in 1996 I had what a friend of mine refers to as a born-again-Catholic experience.
I was born and raised Catholic with two amazing, faithful, practicing Catholic parents who dearly loved the Faith. They practiced what they preached, and we as a family observed all the aspects of the faith in love and charity. And all through my life, I lived a life of faith, however at times with varying degrees of devotion and spiritual intimacy. Looking back, there were many times of my life I was just going through the motions, as if the Faith were a club to belong to with a checklist of rules and regulations to follow; and there were times when going to Mass was an hour obligation to check off the list of weekly things to do –or simply to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with my mother as to why I was not at Mass. She had a saintly subtlety to her approach, and learned from my father who had graduated from law school the lawyer’s most basic rule –never ask a question, you don’t already know the answer to. “So, what did you think of Father’s sermon Sunday,” she’d ask on Monday morning, knowing full well I had skipped Sunday Mass. God bless her, her quiet voice prodded me, whispering in my ear: go to Mass on many occasions, just to avoid her stealthy, yet loving line of questioning.
So, fast forward to my early 30’s; I am confronted with 3 major challenges. My wife had been dealing with multiple sclerosis for two especially difficult years. My father was diagnosed with cancer. I was trying to decide if I should leave my job and start a new business. In the midst of this turmoil, I felt a longing for something more. I’m sure at some level I was seeking some peace, but I also felt like I needed something to fill a gap that was growing inside me -while all this crap was going on around me. About that same time, our parish welcomed three new priests.
The new pastor was a youthful, energetic, great-hugging Italian, with a wonderful singing voice. One of the associate pastors was newly ordained and extremely personable. The other associate pastor looked frightened as he introduced himself from the altar that first Sunday. Father Bruce and Father David had made eloquent and humorous self-introductions, but this one … “My name is Father Ed, and I’m glad to be here,” was all he said. He then quietly stepped back to his chair. In my not-so-holy attitude at the time, I thought to myself, “Wow, this one’s going to be a gem at homilies; a real spellbinder. I need to find out when he’s scheduled so we can skip that mass.” And then I checked my watch to see how my hour obligation was coming along. These introductions were putting me into overtime.
I came to learn there was however, something to Father Ed’s homilies. At first I approached them with misgivings and apathy, but something was coming through. In his simple manner; in his quiet demeanor; in his dour look, there was humor; there was warmth; there was …love. And it was penetrating the clutter of my crusted outer shell, not like a knife, but like a needle. He was needling me with the kindest, gentlest, most remarkable conveyance of the message I had ever heard. There was a lot of crust to break through, but it was working its way to my core. And Lent was approaching.
I remember going to Ash Wednesday Mass that year. It was a school mass with all the children of the parish school. As I sat in my back pew, I felt I wanted to belong. I wanted to have some of the innocence I saw in the faces of the uniformed kids that filled the church that morning. I wanted something more than I had. The Holy Spirit whispered into my ear. I didn’t want to listen to this. I didn’t want to do this. …But, I decided to go to confession at the next opportunity.
The following Saturday afternoon, February 24th 1996, I remember approaching the church with a sense of dread and anxiety, and yet feeling an irresistible power drawing me in. I had been reading about perfect contrition, and in order to achieve this I had to tell all. It had been more than a few years since my last confession, so I had a few things to share. Poor Father David; he got the full double barrel story. (He still speaks to me to this day, so maybe he’s heard worse…)
I walked out of that confessional, a new man. I felt like I was floating into the church to say my penance. And afterwards, I floated out of the church into a completely new sunshine. I continued to float for months, years afterwards. To this day, reconciliation is still a favorite sacramental experience for me. I feel the grace in the sacrament. I feel the renewal. I feel the spiritual intimacy like no other experience. That’s not a knock on beautiful sunsets, or holding my grandson, or seeing my wife laugh and smile, or even the Eucharist; it’s just very special for me.
So, it’s been 18 years. They haven’t been all floating on clouds, I can assure you. I’ve had my dry times, desperate times, strayed from the path. In today’s Gospel reading the father with a sick son says to Jesus, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) That’s me, many, many days. I hope I’ve matured in my faith, and yet kept a sense of the humble, and the simple that Father Ed continues to preach today. I’m still figuring it out, and still searching. When I get frustrated I think of what Peter said to Jesus after many of his followers abandoned him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
If you are Catholic and haven’t been to reconciliation in a while, I encourage you to give it another try, especially with Lent around the corner. If you aren’t Catholic and you have something that keeps you from being close to God, try giving whatever it is for you, up for 40 days …maybe starting next Wednesday, March the 5th… If you’ve hurt someone, tell them you are sorry. If you’ve been avoiding God, tell him you’re sorry, and then open up to the possibility of getting your relationship going again. If you’re searching for something, if there’s a space in you, a place that needs filling, St. Augustine said: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”
As I celebrate my spiritual birthday today, I pray for Jesus to accompany you in your search. I pray for the miracle you are looking for in your life. And I pray that God will be part of living that miracle with you as you journey on. Peace!