Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What it means to NEED God

Last night I found myself remembering a little bit of what it was like to be me as a teenager. Adolescence is hard for everyone, that's unfortunately normal, but mine wasn't normal. I had suffered from major depression since the age of 9, and by the time I was 15 I was a real mess. I was drinking and getting high, skipping school, and in a whole lot of pain. When I was about to turn 16, I think I lost my virginity, while more or less passed out drunk. A month or two later I ran away from home. I picked someone up at a party so I'd have a place to spend the night, and I was so debased that I thought I could support myself by turning tricks on the street. I knew I was smarter than that, but I would have been psychologically incapable of holding a job. The next morning the guy I had gone home with raped me on a park bench. A few hours later the miracle happened, my stepfather tracked me down and took me home.

I got some counseling, quit drinking and drugging, and started hanging out with a different group of friends: the immigrant kids (that's when my Spanish went from classroom to fluent). Some of those kids had suffered horribly, this being the era of the Reagan wars in Central America. We didn't talk about it, but things would come out sometimes, and there was a certain gravity that held me much better than the privileged middle-class ambience of my "gifted" classes (God bless the school administrators who never booted me out of the "gifted" program -- I was intellectually gifted, though I was way too messed up to actually do the work those classes required, and being included there was a little consolation to my battered self-esteem).

That was not the last time I hit bottom. It was a reprieve, but I fell again afterwards and had more traumatic experiences before starting my long-term recovery at age 19. That's when I started going to AA and its offspring, especially Al-Anon Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) meetings. My parents are not alcoholics, I actually have a wonderful, loving family. I don't think I am an alcoholic, either, really. But it seemed that growing up with my own mental illness, depression, had deformed my emotional and social development in very much the same way that my ACOA confrères had experienced. At any rate, none of them ever questioned my right to be there, God bless them, and the program worked for me. They taught me to pray, they taught me courage, they taught me to hope. I met God and fell in love with Him. Then I found the Catholic Church and made it my home.

It was still years before I got medical treatment for the depression, and my path has been anything but a straight line since then (like a ladder climbing to Heaven? not), but I have always known what it means to NEED God, to need Him desperately, and I have never entirely given up on Him. Sometimes I have been very Catholic and sometimes I have drifted from the Church, miffed or unreconciled to some teaching that I just couldn't adhere to at that phase of my recovery. Sometimes I have lived immersed in prayer and contemplation, and at other times I have "acted out" and strayed from His friendship, but never have I entirely renounced Him. I cannot. I NEED Him, and I know it as surely as I know I need air. I rarely think about those bad years, and more rarely still do I remember so clearly how I felt back then. But Christ reached down and pulled me out of Hell.

My experience makes me an indifferent "evangelist". I do not know what to say about God to people who have not suffered. I would not know Him if I had not needed Him desperately. Life with God is hard. I can't see Him or touch Him or hear His voice. He speaks with this still, small voice, that can't be heard over the TV and the radio and constant mundane interactions with people. Following Him requires constant recollection, faith, trust, and great skepticism toward popular cultural values. I don't know how to tell people about the peace, the bliss, the love, the grace that He gives me, when they can't follow the tortuous path He brought me by.

Then again, my experience has given me an unorthodox perspective on sin and grace and punishment. I do not believe in eternal damnation. I guess I'm a heretic ... but my belief is grounded in these experiences. When I was 18 years old, still in Hell, a high school friend died. He died drunk, and breaking the law, not in what you would call a state of grace. When I found out, I was blessed with a "parting of the veil": I "saw" (not visually) my friend, in God, with God, deeply happy, deeply peaceful, no longer crazy. He was healed of the "sins" that had characterized his earthly unhappiness and caused his bodily death. When I first started to go to Mass, a year or two later, that is what I took from the lines "Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed". Our unworthiness -- our sinfulness -- is not something God punishes us for, but something He stands ready to heal us of if we will just permit Him to. Sin carries its own punishment -- I know, I have tested all this out. I have sinned and suffered, and I have surrendered to God and known bliss, even risen above suffering. And it is only God's grace that makes it possible for us not to sin. And it is only our willingness, the surrender of our wills, that allows God's grace to enter. The only requirement for membership in AA, that great program for the healing of hardened sinners, is the desire to stop drinking. All we have to do is want to change, ask Him to cleanse and heal us, and then get out of the way while He does the job.

In great suffering is great blessing. No way would I ever change places with people who live conventional lives, with conventional little happinesses and little sadnesses, who know neither Hell nor Heaven. It seems that it takes a crucifixion to experience a resurrection ... and it is worth it! I guess that's why I have always loved to sing for funerals: grief opens a door for Consolation to enter, and once He is known who could ever throw Him out again? And that "parting of the veil" after my friend died, 23 years ago, also means that I do not fear death, I look forward to it!

I do want to share what I know with others, as they are able to receive it. That's why I love to see D at the food co-op: this man has suffered violently, and he is reaching for grace with a fierce need. I think he can see that I, too, have been down and am now up, and he is very receptive to the little words of guidance I try to offer him. I don't care that he doesn't reach for God in the Catholic Church, or in church at all. I know that God doesn't need the Church to save sinners, since He actually saved me in the 12-step meetings, before I ever entered the Church. I can share the beauty and truth that I find in Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the tools for living my faith that I have gleaned from Church traditions and practices, but the visceral experience of having been saved, of having been snatched out of Hell, happened before ever I darkened church doors.

Thus also, this little blog. I don't know if anyone will read it; so far no one has posted any comments. It is deeply personal, but as it is and will always remain anonymous, I dare to share my story in case someone still in Hell might read it and find the courage to reach for Heaven. My sister, my brother, it is open to you. No matter how far down you have fallen, no matter what terrible, shameful things you have done, even if you do not believe in God, even if you've cursed God, but don't know where else to turn, it's OK -- just ask Him and He will touch you and heal you. He doesn't even have to forgive you, because He was never angry: you haven't hurt Him, you've only hurt yourself, and He wants to make you whole.

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