I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, and the fortieth anniversary of its beginning seems as good a place as any to start.
1968. The height of the protests against the Vietnam War. For those of us who had “people” over there, children, or brothers and sisters, or fiances or spouses, those protests were simply “giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” and I had spent much of the previous year praying mightily for my then fiance’s safe return. Well — he made it back in February of 1968, whole in body and seemingly whole in mind, but not in spirit. His behavior was so irrational (and this was in the days before we knew much about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that not even the war veterans in my family could explain it. They all had the same advice, though: Lose him.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was good advice. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to, although I had loved him greatly. But having been brought up a truly devout Catholic, I had had impressed upon me the notion that the salvation of the world was up to me, in the sense that if I didn’t get out there and witness to Catholicism, souls would be lost that could have been saved, and I would have to answer for every one of them. Not only was my fiance not Catholic, but — I loved him. How could I risk his being lost, when he was so clearly halfway there already?
On the other hand, I had recently read a book that changed everything I thought I knew about my faith: That Man Is You, by a Belgian priest, Louis Evely. And he had come up with a radical (for me) notion: What if saving somebody’s soul is up to somebody else, and not you? So now I had a real dilemma: What if, by staying with the guy, I was interfering with the will of God that someone else be responsible for his salvation? (My Orthodox readers will by now have discerned that nowhere in this discussion is any notion that saving souls is actually God’s business? What a novel notion!!)
One other of the many tenets of my sterling upbringing was the You Don’t Bother God. Ever. You could pray to any saint you chose, and certainly to His Mother, who could wheedle anything out of Him; but you didn’t evereverever bother Him. However, there was one exception: the salvation of somebody’s soul. I had already been in the habit of attending daily Mass — when you’re praying for somebody’s physical or spiritual safety, you can get pretty radical — so I took my courage in my hands and dared to “bother” God with this one request: Let me know what You want me to do.
It was in June of 1968 that I had an experience very similar to the one Frederica Mathewes-Green describes in her book, Facing East, when she encounters the living Christ. In my case, no statues were involved, just a Voice — certainly not audible anywhere but in the depths of my heart — “Do you believe that I love you?” At this point, all I can think of is Bill Cosby’s comedy routine about Noah: “bling! Noah!” “Who’s that?” “It’s the Lord.” “Riiiight.” I had almost the same reaction, except that I said, “Well, yeah, sure,” not really understanding where that question was going. But the Voice went on, “Do you trust Me enough to leave this with Me?”
SAY WHAT?! “You mean, all I have to do is leave it? Just walk away from it, and You’ll handle it?” “M-hm.” I can’t tell you exactly what this felt like, a sort of open-mouthed semi-belief as I said, “Sure, go ahead,” and walked out of that church thinking, “I have no idea where this is going, but I’m willing to give anything a chance.” “Disembodied reality,” is how I think classier authors describe it. So I got up every day, went to work, went to Mass, saw my fiance in the evening, just like always, but with a radical sense of Difference, as I waited to see how this thing would play out.
A month later, it was my fiance who broke off the engagement. And that had never been on the table, not even once. We never even fought.
A third component in my upbringing was that if God lowered Himself sufficiently to grant you even one iota of any request you had made (of a saint or His Mother, naturally), you were to be as effusive in your thanks as possible. And I was. It helped that I really was profoundly grateful. Suddenly one day it occurred to me: This is going to happen again and again. Things will always come up in your life that you have no idea how to manage, so you’re always going to be “bothering” God, sooo…what are you going to do about it?
Well, that was a no-brainer. Give my life to God, of course! So I did, wholeheartedly, unreservedly, ecstatically, and with no other guy in the picture and a Good Catholic Upbringing at my back, I went out and bought myself a black rosary, certain that God would point me towards the right convent in due course.
Koff, koff. A month after that, a little blurb in the local paper (yes, there are very local papers even in New York City — this one was the Queens Ledger) caught my eye, about the graduation from Air Force Technical School of someone I had met in the public library five years earlier, and dated very briefly. On a whim, figuring he was probably married by now for-crying-out-loud, I wrote to his home address. His parents forwarded the letter to him, and he wrote back. And by June of 1969, we were married.
Very dangerous thing, to give your life into the hands of God. Even the Bible warns us, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Not “terrible” in the sense that we understand it today, just — terrible in the sense that, you can never know where it will take you when you do that, so if you’re going to do it, get your seat belt on — you will go places you never dreamed of, do things you never once thought you could do, encounter yourself more deeply than anyone thinks is possible, and at the very depth of your being — encounter God Himself.
I never once dreamed I could ever stop being Catholic. But that’s its own story. And how sweet it is.