“Those eyes wherewith men see the dead in heart rise again, all men have not, save those who have risen already in heart themselves.”
“And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”
When I was first coming into the Church, I was listening to a lot of Catholic radio. One of my favorite shows was Mother Angelica Live. One show in particular I will never forget.
Mother Angelica was talking about how new converts often initially approach their conversions with a nonchalance that betrays total ignorance of the true magnitude of the process. They think to themselves, “This is no big deal, I can just stop doing this bad thing here, and start doing that good thing there, and voila! My life will conform to Church teachings, and I’ll be a good Catholic.”
That, she said, was like thinking that allowing Christ into our lives would only require a smidge of redecorating within the houses of our hearts. Mother Angelica chuckled in her signature way and said that Jesus doesn’t want to remodel our current houses—he wants to tear them down and build new ones.
Well, that scared me a little.
But I optimistically reassured myself that I was prepared for, and willing to accept, whatever God might wish to do with me.
And besides, I thought, how bad could it possibly be?
* * *
When I began catechesis in 2013, the shooting of a short film I’d co-written with my boyfriend of six years had just wrapped. I’d been an aspiring writer for ages—in fact, I had gone to college and graduated with honors with a degree in that discipline. My boyfriend and I had already written two screenplays prior to the short, and the fact that we’d successfully filmed our third effort seemed like a major victory. It felt like we were quite possibly on the precipice of something big, career-wise.
My boyfriend and I had seen each other through some very dark times. He stood by me through some intense, painful trials, and he’d shown me unqualified forgiveness for some downright rotten things I’m deeply ashamed to have done to him. We were battle-tested, and he was, without question, the proverbial “love of my life.”
We were so much alike in worldview that I could not understand why he seemed to have no interest in joining me as I entered the Church. This was an institution that had formalized in doctrine virtually everything we already believed, and added to it the structure of indescribably beautiful ritual. What’s not to love about that? I couldn’t fathom his apathetic disinterest.
And I can’t overstate how arduously, intricately, and often I tried to explain to him why coming into the Church was the logical next step for people like him and me. How it was the missing ink that would connect the dots between the whats and wherefores of our lives. How it could cure what ailed us on an existential level, and provide meaning to the seemingly mundane.
But for the very first time since the day we met, talking to him was like talking to a brick wall. He admitted that he “liked me better” since I’d decided to become Catholic, that he felt it had made me a better person. But as for him?
He couldn’t be bothered.
* * *
Augustine, in addressing the three resurrections performed by Jesus recorded in scripture, points out that there are two types of death—visible and invisible. The former concerns the body, the latter the soul. He notes that, while we are all capable of perceiving physical death, “death invisible [i]s neither enquired into nor perceived.” Analogously, Augustine asserts that only those who “have risen already in heart themselves” are capable of perceiving the resurrection of heart which Christ can perform upon the spiritually dead.
In opening my eyes to the truth of Catholicism, God had resurrected my heart and soul, which had indubitably been dead for a protracted period as a result of my uncommonly un-virtuous life. And, although my boyfriend could perceive changes in my outward disposition and behavior consequent to that spiritual rebirth, he, not having “already risen in heart,” could not perceive the true scope of my transformation, and no amount of eloquence or explanatory elocution on my part could awaken his heart.
Only God can resurrect the dead.
So I was forced to accept phase one in the great renovation project Christ had in store for me by walking away from a man I still loved with my whole being, with whom I’d planned to spend the rest of my life.
It hurt like hell, and it was just the beginning.
* * *
Next, my health went straight down the toilet.
I have rheumatoid arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in faulty collagen, which of course, is found all over the body, and, consequently, causes a wide range of symptoms.
Over the course of that year, I dwindled down to 106 pounds. I’d lose large clumps of hair virtually every time I took a shower. I vomited, or came darn close to doing so, between bites one and three of pretty much every meal. I experienced fatigue so oppressive that I felt like I was constantly swimming upstream against a river of murky molasses—indeed, it was so bad that I couldn’t drive longer than half an hour without having to pull over for a 15-minute roadside nap. And I sat helplessly by as my arthritis spread from my knees and spine, where it had been more or less confined for years, into my hands, fingers, hips, feet, and toes. I was in pain every moment of every day.
After about a year of this, I had a phone conversation with my maternal grandmother. She lived in Oklahoma—the place in which I’d spent most of my childhood, but hadn’t revisited in over a decade. My grandmother and I talked on a regular basis, but this conversation was different: she asked me to come home.
My grandma’s house had been my refuge growing up—when life with my alcoholic, drug-addicted mother and her violent, psychotic boyfriend had become unbearable, my grandma had taken me in.
So when she asked me to come back, I packed up the accumulated trappings of my 15 years in the San Francisco area, and headed quite unwittingly into the next phase of my spiritual renovation.
Once I arrived in Oklahoma, the heavy demolition began.
* * *
I didn’t realize how good I’d really had it in California—how spiritually spoiled I’d been—until I returned to the site of the worst years of my life.
In California, I was accustomed to having a close-knit, socially active Latin Mass parish and my spiritual director nearby. I had countless Catholic friends a phone call away to whom I could reach out for moral support, companionship, or help with just about anything under the sun. For crying out loud, my parish’s altar servers packed up and prepared my boxes for my cross-country relocation—and I think that was the third time they’d helped me move. I was incredibly well cared-for.
When I got to Oklahoma, the nearest Latin Mass parish was over an hour away by car, and spiritual direction was not available. There seemed to be no real parish community life to speak of—probably because virtually everyone who attended Mass there had to drive a significant distance to do so. Long story short, I couldn’t seem to find a place there for myself. Even as the weeks and months wore on, I felt like a perpetual outsider.
Daily life was a PTSD nightmare punctuated by a sequence of catastrophes.
When I’d lived there as a child with my mother, we had moved at least 2-3 times a year. I can’t count the number of times she busted into my bedroom long after everyone else in their right mind had gone to bed holding a plastic garbage bag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. “Fill it up with whatever you care about the most,” she’d say, handing me the garbage bag, “because we’re moving.” And she meant right then and there, at 1, or 2, or even 3 in the morning—and everything that didn’t fit in that garbage bag, became garbage. We simply left it behind.
In each and every one of those places we lived, things better left unsaid took place on a daily basis. And because we had moved up and down and all around the greater Oklahoma City metro area, the entire landscape for me as an adult was tattooed with tragedy, the memories of which I had buried deep in the vaults of my mind, unrecollected for years.
Until, that is, one day I would unwittingly happen upon the site of one of these past calamities while running an innocent errand—and then it would all come flooding back. And I would have to pull over and have a minor meltdown, or get out of the car to vomit. Because, for a few interminably long minutes I would be 5, or 11, or 14 years old again, and trapped in the black cauldron of terror and despair that was my childhood with my mother.
That was happening a couple of times a week. Meanwhile, one major thing after another went horribly awry.
First, the so-called doctor I was seeing decided it would be a good idea to summarily discontinue a medication regimen my previous doctor and I had fine-tuned over the course of over a decade. The results were a disaster. I nosedived into a deep depression. I started to gain weight with shocking speed—2 pounds a week at one point. I had symptoms of both puberty and menopause, simultaneously—at age 37. Everything was completely out of whack. And the pain? The pain was almost unbearable.
Then, my car was destroyed in a flash flood. I happened to be in it at the time, but I, unlike the car, waded to safety.
Then, we got bedbugs. The stress of trying to get rid of them caused me to get shingles.
I’d lie wide-eyed into the wee hours on my air mattress on the living room floor, half-crazy from sleep-deprivation, pain shooting across my back in waves like electric shocks, jumping up at the slightest rustle to check for creeping parasites, terrified to close my eyes, wondering what calamity was coming next.
Something had to give.
* * *
After all of the isolation, illness, and infelicitous incidents of my Oklahoman sojourn, I felt almost as though I were spiritually hibernating. I had by no means lost my faith, but what had been a bonfire had dwindled to an ember, and I felt far away from God. I did not sense His presence in my life the way I had on an everyday basis in California.
In California, everywhere one looked, one could see the fingerprints of God. The ocean, the mountains, the green glory of the foothills, the sweetly perfumed flowers in every front yard from ritzy Mill Valley in Marin County to working-class Bushrod in Oakland—my neighborhood—it all sang God’s praises.
Oklahoma seemed to me an endless holocaust of yellow emptiness by comparison. I found nothing that said, “I am God’s creation, and I’m glorious,” like the chorus of natural beauty I’d been spoiled by in California.
And, like the landscape around me, I felt stripped down, parched, uninspired, and uninspiring. I longed for the intimacy with God that I had come to take for granted in California, which seemed to have vanished the moment I crossed the border into this place in which so many demons from my past still roamed free.
So I made up my mind to go back to California. But because of the bedbugs, and my determination not to bring back any parasitic hitchhikers, I decided to abandon my possessions. That 15 years of a life I’d packed up when I moved out there? I had to leave it all behind.
The decision was extremely painful, like a punch in the solar plexus—breathtaking, paralyzing. Like a wrecking ball slamming into a brick wall.
But after all, that is more or less what God was up to. How could I expect it to feel otherwise?
* * *
Right around the tail end of my time in Oklahoma, I discovered something that had been right under my nose the entire time: a Maronite parish literally within walking distance of my house. The first time I went there, Bishop Elias Sleman from Syria was visiting and celebrating Mass.
It’s difficult to describe the effect this man had on me. Here was someone who had seen horrors that made those of my life look like Romper Room by comparison—civil war, genocide, the sadistic murder of loved ones—yet he radiated inner peace and love for his fellow man. I could not help but weep at the sight of the wholehearted, reverent adoration with which he raised the host during the Consecration.
He was on-fire with the love of God, and the force of his blaze re-ignited my tiny ember.
I started going to daily Mass at the Maronite parish, and I could hear the echo of the passion and fervor which had drawn me into the Church in the first place.
As my departure date drew nigh, I began to feel a pressing urgency to make a General Confession. I needed to put the events of the past ten months in perspective—I needed closure, and something told me this was the best way to obtain it.
Bishop Sleman left, and the parish received a new pastor. I made an appointment with him for my Confession.
I poured my heart out, and cried my eyes dry. And he listened.
This was a man who had only met me a single time before. Yet, when he counseled me after I’d finished speaking, he referenced things I had not mentioned, things known only to God and me. And he told me something that helped me bookend my time there—something that allowed me to drive away two days later, leaving virtually everything I owned behind, feeling clean, and new, and at peace with what had happened.
He said, “My child, sometimes you have to die to be reborn.”
* * *
Unfortunately for me, I tend to be someone who learns the hard way.
Maybe some people could have learned to let go of their attachments without having to lose everything they owned. But not me.
Maybe some people could have learned to count their spiritual blessings without having to lose just about every last one first. But not me.
Maybe some people could have learned that they were not in control of anything, and that they really ought to let go and let God, without having to endure natural disasters, pestilence, and multiple ailments of both mind and body.
But not me … we’re still working on that one.
No, in order to build something new, God has to tear down the twisted, soot-stained, baggage-burdened piece of work that has stood in this spot for far too long, and it has not been fun.
But as each wall comes down, I feel cleaner, more straightened-out, and lighter. And it gets easier and less painful as more and more bricks become loosened, then demolished entirely. And I think—I hope—I can see the new floor-plan starting to take shape.
And that, my friends, is most exhilarating.