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I have written on religion (both my faith, and my frustration with certain elements of organized religion) in this space, but I have never gotten granular and truly spoken about my conversion to faith.

I have a wonderful example in my wife. She has an intuitive appreciation for faith, and frequently tells me the Holy Spirit has spoken with her voice. Most times, it’s to her CCD class. She prepares notes, but comes home with stories of how she has no idea how she came up with half of what she told the kids.

This post is supposed to be about me and my faith, but integral to my faith is the constant example Mary provides. The latest story is very close to my heart. She was teaching class, and as 9 year olds are wont to do do, many tangential discussions ensued. Just before the bathroom break, they were talking about oppression and one little boy said, “My dad says the Germans weren’t all bad, that if they didn’t do Nazi stuff Hitler would stab them in the eye.” “Time for the bathroom break!” Mary said.

Mary walked them down to the head, and as she did, she wondered how she would address this. She is fearless with them, but was stumped. On the walls were taped artwork of the first grade class at St John’s school. It wasn’t her inspiration; rather it was the names of the kids. One of them had signed his “Max” and right next to him was another signed “Kolbe”. No doubt pronounced Colby.

Please take a moment to read about St. Maximillian Kolbe, who was from Poland but of German descent. If you don’t have the time, I’ll sum it up: He was sent to Auschwitz for sheltering Polish Jews (like many Germans did, too). Once there, ten men were selected to starve to death in a pit in retaliation for 3 men escaping. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to die in the place of a married father. Father Kolbe (he was a Franciscan priest) lived so long that the Nazis eventually had to inject him with poison to kill him. He offered them his arm.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II canonized him. The man he saved from the pit was present.

Thus Mary had a way to teach her students. It is because she looks for the help, and recognizes it when it comes.

Now on to my story. I won’t start at the beginning (St Mary’s Franciscan Church in Pompton Lakes). I’ll start at the end.

Tonight, I was looking something up on Google, and I noticed they replaced the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. The button read “I’m feeling Wonderful”. I am, if anything, a perpetual optimist, so I clicked it. It links to locations Google is putting in it’s World Wonders Project. The wonder it sent me to was St Brendan’s Cathedral on the Irish Island of Clonfert.

It is, to my personal faith journey, the holiest place on Earth. I have never been there, but it was built in the 12th Century on the location of St Brendan’s monastery/college. I won’t get into St. Brendan’s achievements, but I encourage you all to read his Wikipedia entry. 

I’d been having a rough work week (work month is more like it) and had turned it around a little this afternoon, but the I felt the world creeping up onto my shoulders lately. It has been wearing me down. I really needed a spark.

Here it was. Like a match, flaming up and burning away the tightness in my head. The World Wonders Project must have hundreds of entries, perhaps thousands. And yet, the random entry was my site.

When I went back later tonight to look at it again, I went to Google, and the “I’m Feeling” button has what seems to be at least a dozen iterations. I’m Feeling Hungry, Stellar, Trendy, etc. So it just got much less likely that the button would return what it did when I needed it.

I know, I must seem fatuous, seeing God in what clearly could just be a random chance. But that is the point. What I learned from my wife is that yes, it can be random chance, but it can still have meaning. What made that teacher hang up Max and Kolbe’s art right where she did? It doesn’t matter. What matters is what it meant to Mary, and what the Cathedral of Clonfert meant to me.

It meant my life. Not too long ago, I was an Atheist. Not unaligned, or agnostic. There was no God. He was a sad impossibility. 1+1=2 and there is no room in that equation for faith. I had become an Atheist when I couldn’t wrap my head around the contradictions inherent in faith in general and Christianity in particular. The evil in the world, the bizarre hatefulness of many of the faithful.

Still, I respected my wife’s faith, and raised my children in the faith. I loved the church, and the message of Christ (Jefferson Bible, anyone?). I wanted my children to have faith, I certainly didn’t want them to have the difficulties inherent in my beliefs. It’s bad enough I’ve raised them as Red Sox fans.

We didn’t talk about it, and I never laid bare how I felt, but Mary one day challenged me to test my belief. I don’t mean she threw down a gauntlet, but rather she engaged me, and I respected her faith enough to listen. She instinctively knew (was guided) in the best way to push me along.

So, much like when I decided to get my life in order via Parris Island, I decided I needed to challenge myself with a task that would push my boundaries out of my comfort zone. I committed to doing perpetual adoration on Wednesday morning from 4 to 5 AM. My church, St John’s, always has a couple of people in the chapel praying. It’s really neat.

I started, and brought along my rosary and my encyclopedia of saints. I am a former historian, so I found the stories of the saints exciting, and their faith inspiring. If I was going to be led to God, one of these men or women would do it.

I read the entire book, alternating with prayer, and then went back and re-read the entries that spoke to me. In the end, the story of Brendan the Navigator most appealed to me.

But it was still in an historical context. I even re-read the book The Brendan Voyage, the story of a modern explorer’s recreation of the Saint’s epic transatlantic journey of the 6th century.

When I finally did find God, it wasn’t in the chapel. It was at home. I was riding our stationary bike before bed, and it was storming outside. We have satellite, so I lost signal on the TV, and grabbed my rosary. Like any meditation, it can be soothing, and so I prayed through the storm in my dark living room.

I was overcome by a vision. I was no longer on my stationary bike, but rather walking down a rocky beach to the shore. There was a boat there (I’m pretty sure if it was a leather curraigh like Brendan used) and in it was a lone man in a robe, facing to sea. I asked him where he was going and he turned just his torso around to  look at me over his shoulder.

He was lean, and had what seemed to be a perpetual smile at the corners of his mouth. His eyes held the same smile, and his face lit up even brighter when our eyes met. He just motioned me aboard and turned back to face the sea. As soon as I came aboard, I was back on my stationary bike in my living room.

In the space of time of my vision, I had ridden a good amount. I can’t recall exactly how far, but I know it was more than two miles.

It would be easy to dismiss it as a delusion or an hallucination. You could easily say that I wanted it so badly that I made myself see this.

Go for it.

But I know I was visited by the holy spirit, and although I can’t bottle that feeling and let you taste it so you’d know for sure, maybe if you know me a little, you’ll draw a little faith from mine. It was no hallucination (I know what those are like) or waking dream (I can never remember my dreams).

There is no mistaking the touch of the Holy Spirit, and that’s what it was. And Brendan was telling me something.

Let it go, Terry. Just trust me. Don’t worry about the scientific impossibility of Heaven, or the contradictions that tied your brain in knots until you disavowed faith. His ways are not your ways.

Just let it go.

So I did.

And tonight he said hi again.

Hi Brendan. Thanks for the ride; it’s been wonderful.

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*Note: I try to invest humor into everything I write. That doesn’t mean I think less of the subject.*

The Bishop!

I wish I had a direct line like this.

Every week at mass I am moved in some way or another. This Sunday was no exception.

I face-planted on my crutches going up the curb from the parking lot, so in addition to bringing my crutches with me, I brought grass stains, a bloody knee and helpful advice from my eldest (“Next time use the ramp, Dad”) into church with me. So you could say I was moved to humility before I even walked in the door.

Luckily, there was an open pew near the side door for us, and we managed to get seated without the thunking of my crutches amusing the entire port-side transept of our church. You could say this moved me to gratitude.

Next, the usher came and told me he would have the Eucharistic Minister bring me the host. I agreed without thinking. This moved me to shame. If Jesus could carry his cross to Golgotha, I could carry my lame butt up to get communion.

Then, the readings. First was Acts 3:13-19 and then 1 John 2:1-5a. These are uplifting. Even though we are sinners; even though every day we fail in some small way to live up to our legacy, we have an incredible legal team armed with a sure-fire defense. I was moved to rejoicing.

I had been trying to flag down the usher ever since I had agreed to take the Host in my pew. Before the Gospel reading, one of his compatriots walked by and I had him deliver the message that I wanted to go up for communion. I felt relief.

Next the Gospel. It was Luke 24:35-48, Christ reunited with the Apostles. This is it. This is where we, as Christians, all shout Bingo. The moment. Well at least as far as I’m concerned. I have innate Catholic guilt, amplified by my own close personal relationship with my failings, so I was moved to relief heavily tinged with guilt.

The Homily. The priest, not an eloquent speaker, led off with a layered question which really put me in a good mood.  I will paraphrase.

“What would you say if by listening to my homily you would learn all the cheat codes for your video games?”

Nice! That was the rhetorical high point, as he really has trouble with public speaking (I respect him all the more for getting up there every Sunday!) but it was a good message nonetheless. He reiterated that this week’s reading DEFINED our salvation. Until the last sentence of the sermon, I felt an underlying sense of comfort. Then he ended with this (again I paraphrase):

“On your way out of mass, please sign the Knights of Columbus’ petition to encourage laws to restrict marriage to one man and one woman.”

I felt sadness, anger and disappointment. The pivotal message of our faith. The climax of the event that defines our salvation. Ruined by a call for political action. Whatever happened to render unto Caesar. What do we care about the laws of man in church? If they make our faith illegal, it would be a boon!

I don’t remember anything else until I went up for communion. I wasn’t feeling one with Christ and the church. As I crutched up there, I could only think of that last line of the homily. (I fundamentally disagree with my Church on the issue of secular marriage of gays and lesbians). I thought I had better skip on communion. Then I looked up at the crucifix. If you are a protestant (or other religion) you may just think of a blank cross. We catholics don’t. On our cross is an embodiment of Christ at the height of human suffering. We usually include the spear wound, too, although this is out of place, as Jesus’ human form was past suffering when the legionary stabbed him.

Any pride in limping up to take communion evaporated. As did any feelings of anger, sadness or disappointment. My rules for my religion are simple. I try to live by Rule #1, and when someone, particularly a co-religionist, does something that makes me want to break Rule #1, or does something that seems to be at odds with that Rule, I move onto Rule #2 (essentially “If something contradicts Rule #1, See Rule#1).

So I only felt awe at this point. I was in communion with Christ.

As we left church, I limped past the table the K of C had set up to collect signatures. It was being manned by an usher I knew pretty well. He is a truly kind person, and exceedingly friendly to me, personally. I said hi and smiled. He gave me a genuine smile and waved as I passed.

I felt at peace.

I am reaffirmed in my faith that most people only want to do what they feel is best. Best for whatever reason, but mostly, best in that it will have the best, most moral outcome for everyone involved. This issue of gay marriage is killing me. I won’t always have the direct, physical example of supreme suffering to help me get my heart in the right place, either.

So, like my muse on religion, Tertullian, let me advise the bishops. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Treat the issue of gay marriage like you do that of re-married divorcees who work in your non-church institutions. Give them benefits and respect their civil rights as granted by our secular Constitution and the laws of the land. If entering the secular world to aid your fellow man means having to play by the rules, weigh that and do so. If the law of the land becomes too onerus, either break the law and rejoice in the consequences or retreat from those things that are irreconcilable.

This Marine’s advice to the bishops? Focus on your primary mission of proclaiming the salvation of Christ. That which meddles with Caesar’s laws only serves to obscure the message.