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Sex - Alcohol - Drugs...
From S.A.D. to Salvation
A True Story...
My heart within me is broken, all my bones are trembling; I am like a man who is drunk, overcome by wine, because of the Lord, because of his holy words. With adulterers the land is filled; on their account the land mourns, the pasture ranges are seared... Evil I will bring upon them; the year of their punishment, says the Lord.
Jeremiah 23: 9-12
On paper, I was born with all the advantages: Solid, hard-working, Catholic parents. My father was the youngest of four sons -- smart, good-looking and courteous, educated in Catholic schools. He and his brothers all excelled at sports. My father especially liked baseball. In fact, he tried out for the Detroit Tigers in the mid '40s.
My mother was also a standout in sports, having won championships in swimming and tennis in her hometown of Cleveland.
And my family was fairly well off. We lived in a beautiful home in the country next to my grandparents, and while we weren't wealthy, neither did we live paycheck to paycheck like most families do. But of course, there was more to the story.
My father was an alcoholic. And, like so many alcoholics, he was often angry, critical and emotionally remote. When I was three or four years old, I gave him a nickname. Instead of 'Daddy,' I called him 'Maddy.' My folks found that amusing -- or at least they pretended to. Now that I look back on it, it doesn't seem all that funny.
I was never my parents' idea of a model son. And, when I attended a Jesuit high school, I found I didn't fit into their mold either. I was very independent, almost a loner. What I was really looking for -- although I didn't know it at the time -- was love. Unfortunately, I had no clear blueprint of what love was -- or even how it felt.
At 16, a month or so after I got my driver's license, I went on a blind date. Nancy was petite and pretty, with long brown hair -- and tremendous emotional problems of her own. We got married when I was 20 and she was 19. Our daughter, Clare, was born in 1974, just before I graduated from college. Having her was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.
I have a vivid memory of holding Clare after her birth. I was wearing a hospital gown and mask, and I rocked her in a little room before they put her in the baby display rack. I prayed so hard that God would always love her and keep her safe.
For a long time, I felt my prayers had not been answered. Now I know they were.
After graduating, I got a job as a newspaper reporter. I covered breaking news, the police beat, and did a little bit of music reviewing.
In 1975, after years of tremendous emotional turmoil, Clare's mother and I were divorced. Losing day-to-day contact with my daughter was a nightmare, especially since I believed her mother to be emotionally unstable and unable to provide a consistent, loving home life.
After that, I started drinking a little socially and smoking a little dope at parties. An important discovery I made at this time was that on occasion women actually found me attractive. I started dating, and casual sex took up more and more of my time and effort. It was the perfect waste of life for the person I was at that time. I could use women to get a cheap jolt of self-worth, and at the same time take out my anger against them.
I remarried in early 1978 -- impulsively. My friends and family didn't even know I was getting married. They'd never met my wife, and no one I'd known for more than two months was invited to the wedding.
In 1979, my beautiful son, Vincent, was born. He is a sweet, loving, quiet guy -- a sophomore now at Ohio State.
In 1980, my dad died of lung cancer. All through his 10-month illness we hadn't been able to talk about anything important -- just stupid Tigers games and my job and my kids. Nothing that meant anything really. We had never been able to communicate, and that didn't change until the last time I saw him alive.
I was sitting near his bed. He sent everyone but me out of the room. And when we were alone, he told me he was sorry he hadn't been a better father -- that he hadn't really been there for me -- and he asked my forgiveness. I argued a little, told him he'd been a great dad, that I'd been a difficult son. But he just kept pressing me to forgive him, and in the end, of course, I told him I did. He was relieved. The funny thing is, I didn't really think about that apology until years later. But now I feel it was one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me. In my mind, I have often traveled back to that moment, talking to him as I never could at the time, giving him my forgiveness and asking for his.
My second marriage was breaking down by now. I remember one night about eight months after my father's death. I was relocating to my hometown, so I was living with my mom and looking for a job. I was in a terrible depression. I felt like my life was a cave. The prospect of losing another marriage weighed heavily on my heart. Even more frightening was the idea of losing another child through divorce.
I didn't know what to do. My days were oppressive. I had never felt so alone. I had no money. My wife was threatening to divorce me and stay in L.A.
After a couple of months of looking for work, I began fantasizing about suicide. How I might do it. How bad I thought everyone would feel if I did. And how good it would make me feel if they felt bad. Soon I realized that these thoughts were moving past the fantasy stage into the planning stage -- but I couldn't stop. It was like I was on a train that just kept moving. Everywhere I looked, my life was a mess. As the days passed, the more and more I wanted to die.
Late one night I was up alone. I saw a Bible sitting on the kitchen counter -- to this day, I don't know why. At that time especially, neither my mom nor I were avid students of Scripture.
I picked the Bible up. A few times in the past I had turned to the scriptures when I was in pain, opening the book at random, and reading the first passage I came upon. I had always gotten consolation this way -- sometimes in a really remarkable way. I had always viewed it as God's responding to me in my need.
As I thought about doing the same thing this night, I racked my brain for a single Bible passage dealing with suicide. I couldn't think of a single one.
So when I picked up the book, it was almost as if I was daring God -- throwing myself off the parapet of the temple. I thought, "Lord, you know how bad things are going for me. You know I need your help. But I'm not in any mood right now to unravel anything abstract. I'm not feeling too interpretational. I want something specific. And I realize that if You reveal something in all these pages that has to do with suicide, it's an absolute Old-Testament-sized miracle."
I closed my eyes and opened the book. And -- you may not believe this, but I call upon God to be my witness -- when I opened the book, there it was. A passage that told me -- clearly and precisely -- that I was not to injure myself.
"But Paul shouted, 'Do no harm to yourself...'"
(Acts 16: 28)
I had never felt the Lord's presence more strikingly or more directly than I did that moment. I was completely blown away. There it was. Clear and specific, just as I'd demanded. And, then and there, with my whole heart, I believed. I knew that my life -- my goofy, screwed up mess of a life -- was important to God. The same God who had created the Universe, the God of Abraham and Moses, the God who came down in the form of a man to save us. The crucifixion suddenly became real -- immediate -- believable -- in a way it had never been before.
But don't get the wrong impression. My life did not turn around. I still had a long way down to go before I hit my absolute bottom.
I got a job -- in the field of marketing. And I started all the drinking and coolness that seems to go along with that business. As my second marriage was breaking up, my wife took a trip to visit her sister. She was seven months pregnant. I called our baby Sam. He was a very active child -- I remember vividly the little pushes, as if he were trying to get out. As if he knew what was coming.
When she came back from her trip, she wasn't pregnant any more. Incredibly -- without my even knowing she was going to do it -- she had killed my child.
I couldn't believe it. I was in absolute horror and shock. When I found out -- simply by looking at her -- I immediately fell to the floor and started rolling around. I remember crying, "Blood. Blood." All I could think about was blood. The blood of my baby, washing the world -- washing me -- in guilt, in evil, in death. I couldn't believe my heart would keep beating. I couldn't imagine the earth still revolving, the wind blowing, people driving around.
I remember everything came unhitched. Nothing worked any more. I had to think, "breathe, breathe, breathe," or my breathing would have stopped.
I thought I would die, that the sun would be blotted out and the world would end.
And I didn't care. I didn't have much use for the new, blood-bathed world I found myself in. And the worst thing was, this horror would never even be acknowledged as a tragedy. It was nothing anyone would ever regret. It was just the reality of life in America, land of the free and home of puréed and suctioned babies. Nothing was wrong. This was just one more insignificant occurance in this world of ultimate convenience.
There were no condolences, no flowers, no tears but mine. Because nothing bad -- nothing even unusual -- had happened. Everything was fine. A choice had been arrived at, an appointment made and kept -- nothing more, nothing less. My child whom I had so, so loved had been removed like a tumor -- with no more ceremony or regret.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar. Then he reached out and took the knife to slaughter his son.
Genesis 22: 9-10
I carried that guilt for many years. I gnawed on it, used it as a bright, clear, nitro-powered fuel in the furnace of my self-loathing.
I was broken into pieces. All my ideas were spent. I had nothing left of any value.
When the second divorce was final, my ex-wife moved to Chicago -- taking with her my son. And even after all of this, I didn't decide to turn back to the Lord.
As a dog returns to its vomit, so the sinner returns to his sin.
Prov. 26: 11
For the next year and a half, I descended into a pit of meaningless sex and heavy drinking. I was passing around the pain, preying upon women who had the misfortune to care for me. I was an ugly, angry person, and I made other people pay for my unhappiness.
After the divorce, I had nowhere to go. I was shacking in a friend's art studio, sleeping on a pile of flattened out cardboard boxes. I remember lying on those boxes, praying to Jesus. I had never been so alone.
I ended up in counseling for depression. At my therapist's request, I quit drinking, and soon after, I finally turned to the only path I could ever really believe in -- the narrow way of our Savior God, Christ Jesus.
The path back to God wasn't an easy one. It was very gradual. For quite a while, I was able to attend daily Mass -- and I profited greatly from it. And where I had once feared the Sacrament of Reconciliation -- because I didn't want to admit the deepest, truest fact about my sin; that it was of me, it was mine, and no one else's doing or fault -- I eventually came to love and treasure the sacrament. Because, where by my actions I had once I spit in the face of my God, in the sacrament I was able to renounce evil, and throw myself wholeheartedly upon his mercy. Gradually, through God's gift of my faith and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I was able to see my heart knit whole again.
So I raised my voice from the very earth, from the gates of the nether world, my cry. I called out: O Lord, you are my father, you are my champion and my savior; Do not abandon me in time of trouble.
Sirach 51: 9-10
Now, only because of God's goodness and generosity, I have a wonderful and understanding wife, Mary, who loves me like I've never been loved by any other person on this earth, and a beautiful, funny, sweet little baby girl who's 3 1/2. When I look at them, I see God's true, amazing, inexplicable love for me.
I have only gratitude because he has given me not what I deserve, but more than I could have ever imagined.
And when I look at Clare and Vincent -- who, thank God, I have close relationships with today -- I know that His love for me can overcome my weakness and my sin -- can use them, even, for his glory -- as long as I let it.
There is one more event from my past I want to share with you -- an event of great healing and forgiveness...
I was in church one summer Sunday in 1988. It was close to five years exactly after Sam -- my unborn baby's -- abortion date. I was sitting alone, at the end of the pew. Across the aisle, a little kid of about five caught my attention -- I have no idea why. I realized that he was about the age Sam -- my dead child -- would have been, and for some weird and mysterious reason, I felt a strong emotional draw to this kid. I couldn't explain it; in fact, nothing like that had ever happened before, and it's never happened since.
Anyway, at the Sign of Peace, an astounding thing happened. This little kid crossed the aisle and offered me his hand. I didn't react much. I was kind of startled -- those are very wide aisles in that church, and nobody EVER crosses them to offer the sign of peace. I'd never seen it done. At most, they wave and smile at their friends. But here this little kid -- who I was associating with my dead child -- took four or five long and lonely steps across the aisle and offered me his hand.
I felt it was a sign that God -- and my unborn child -- forgave me; that somehow things were okay and that the gift of God that was my life was to go on; that I still had things to accomplish; that I could still, if I chose, contribute to the Kingdom.
There were many other gifts from God along the way. My marriage in 1990. Our baby's birth in '95 -- which was a response to many Rosaries said by many people when my wife was actually being treated for pre-menopausal symptoms. And the joy I find each week in the Sacraments.
The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him, but the Pharisrees and scribes began to complain, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." So to them he addressed this parable. "What man among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."
Luke 15: 1-7
The Sacrament of Reconciliation -- confession -- has been so important to me. In a way, it has returned me to life -- healed, whole and complete. It has allowed me to face myself -- my weakness, my failure, my sin -- and it has brought me back into the arms of my God.
It has helped me look at myself -- and accept what I saw there -- because it assured me that God accepts me.
People in 12-Step programs actually thank God for their affliction -- for their addictions. Because without them, they would never experience the fullness of the mercy of God.
That's the wonder of Reconciliation -- it can actually turn our sin around, and use it to reveal the glory of God. To ourselves, and to others around us.
A lot of Catholics fail to make use of the sacrament, and I think it's because they are afraid of it. Like I was, they are afraid of acknowledging deep down that they are sinners -- that their hearts are divided, and flawed; that they hurt the people they they love -- and that, because of their weakness, aspects of their lives may have ended up going terribly, terribly wrong.
I'm a prime example of that. I live my days with the blood of one child on my hands -- and, to be honest, there might have been others I never knew about.
But it is when I can stand before my Father God, facing my worst failures straight-on, without lies, without excuses -- and, in the process, staring down the devil himself -- it is then I am able to call upon my God to come to my aid, to heal my heart, to fill my emptiness with His love and His strength. Only then is He free to act, to help me put on the new man in Christ, as St. Paul says so beautifully:
"...Put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth."
Ephesians 4: 22-24
That new self cannot materialize on its own. Because our sin -- and actually, it's not the sin itself, it's our clinging to the sin and our refusal to give it up -- keeps it out. As the psychologist, John Bradshaw, says, "We are as sick as our secrets."
There is power that comes when we face those secrets, those sins, with courage.
Because when we acknowledge our sins and face them -- and then, consciously and determinedly turn away from them -- our sins can actually be a source of intimacy with God. For when we see God's mercy and strength -- which is there for each one of us, absolutely and unconditionally -- only then can we experience the fullness of His mercy and love.
Jesus told the Pharisees that He came for us sinners. That's because it is we sinners who love Him the most. We are the ones who see most clearly what He has done for us.
You changed my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, That my soul might sing praise to you without ceasing; O Lord, my God, forever will I give you thanks.
Psalm 30: 12-13
Our entire lives -- including whatever evil we may have done -- can be used as fuel for the fire of God's love. To me, that's the most amazing aspect of God's power. That His plan can use even sin itself to build His Kingdom.
With God's help, we can bring His Kingdom into our hearts and our lives a little more -- a tiny bit more -- with each passing day. And I don't think it's an accident that God breaks our lives into days, because with each new dawn we can decide how we're going to live that day. Will we start fresh, free to follow His will for us -- or will we stubbornly insist on having things our way.
At 6:30 every morning, we're all starting out even: Me. You. And the Pope himself.
In closing, I'd like to share with you -- in paraphrase -- a story that's meant a lot to me in my life. It was written one of my favorite authors, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and it describes a good and holy Jewish man who leads an upright life, keeping all the complicated rabbinical laws, respecting his neighbors, giving to the poor, and loving God with his whole heart. He's married, but a good marriage is not among his blessings -- his wife doesn't respect him much and is actually scornful of his determination to live by God's law.
Eventually, in a moment of weakness while he is away from home, the man is gives into his passions and has intercourse with a woman who is not his wife. Instead of rationalizing his behavior by pointing up the faults of his wife or his marriage -- or even his own weakness -- he views his lapse as a terrible sin, a slap in the face to God himself, and the absolute forfeiture of any claim he might have on Paradise.
Soon, his wife dies, and this only makes matters worse for the man. He is tortured with guilt for months on end, alternating between despair at the state of his soul, and his great love of God -- which only makes his despair that much more intense.
Finally, he travels to a faraway city to visit a holy rabbi. He confesses his transgression, and he acknowledges how unworthy he is to serve the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. He asks the rabbi, "What should I do with my days, now that I have relinquished any claim on salvation?"
The rabbi has a beautiful answer -- one which I've never forgotten. He tells him, "You are correct, you have forfeited your salvation. You have no reason to expect mercy. For if he wishes, God can throw you into the deepest pit of Gehenna -- and you would have no complaint.
"So all you are left with now is a beautiful opportunity to prove the perfection of your love. Now you can be one of the true followers of God. Because whatever good you do from this day forward will not be due to any expectation you might have of justifying yourself and gaining an eternal reward. You have no hope of that. Now your good works will be due only to the love you carry in your heart for your Creator."
Like the man who sinned, God has the goods on me. He can send me to Hell for eternity -- and, truly, I would have no complaint. It's what I deserve.
But I know that's not what He wants. He has shown me -- through His Son Jesus and the Sacrament of Reconciliation -- that He loves me and forgives me -- forgives even the ugliest, darkest, most secret part of me.
In fact, He has taken me into his arms. He has placed a ring on my finger and a robe around my shoulders -- because He knows how I love wearing robes. And He has ordered the fatted calf to be slaughtered to welcome me home.
With my wife, my children, my life in his Church -- which is really nothing more than a loving and giving community of friends and believers -- my God has glorified me beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create. For I create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight... No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there or the sound of crying. No longer shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime.
Isaiah 65: 17-20
Please thank Greg Michaels for sharing this moving and thoughtful account of his personal conversion, thanks Greg!
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