Grace Persistent: A Faith Journey Complete with Staggers

compassrose2For years I have been trying to tell my complete story, the totality of the episodes that led up to and followed my baptism on April 11, 1998. But I cannot do it. It is perhaps a farce, or simply a Woody Allen Comedy of Neurotic Anguish that reads like a TV Guide listing:

A middle aged man, officially a Jew until age 54, in June 1997 is called by name to Christianity and becomes a Roman Catholic nine months later [how symbolic and convenient!] because it is the only game in the town in which he was living at the time. Less than two years later he is received as an Episcopalian.

As a Jew, I had been both active and believing. I was a synagogue officer who recited the daily prayers. Yet for reasons beyond my ability to compress a contorted story into a relatively small space ahead of the 600-page autobiography lurking in the recesses, my cathedral of self-delusion collapsed in 1992, and my marriage wasn’t far behind. Beginning in October 2000, when I entered the Episcopal Church, I wondered as I wandered, losing focus and making myself nuts. Then, a little over a year ago, a very wise Rector forced me to sit still and shut up. She did this via attendance monitoring (which I needed) by telling me I could not join her parish until I’d shown up at her church every week for three months. To break the wind of a bad pun: Enough flitting, try sitting.

Before that day last spring, I’d tried to convince myself that I was one of those post-ecumenical “dual communion” types I’ve heard about (but never met), and that I could be both a Roman Catholic and an Episcopalian. My S.O. also thought, given my history, that I might want to add Quaker, Lutheran, Baha’i, Hare Krishna, and Moonie to the list.

I had fallen into the status of Commuter Christian or simply “flip-flopper.” The traveling shoes went on not long after the Bishop laid his hands on me. Here, with the timeline straightened out, is how it worked: for the first eight months, until June 2001, I functioned happily as an Episcopalian. Then a fearsome health emergency–an oral cancer scare–sent me back to the Roman Catholic Church. The flip-flops kept recurring until I lost count as well as my religious and personal identity. For several months in 2002 I attended Quaker meetings. Then I’d run-not-walk away from any house of worship for up to six months. I didn’t need a breather from God, I need a breather from me.

Far from being on a faith journey, I was living out one of my classic nightmares: the one in which I keep looking for something I’d lost but could not find again. I became so desperate for a resting place that in the summer of 2004 I even made an attempt to return to Judaism via the formalized repentance of immersing myself in a mikveh.

My “unconversion” was a failure.

No, my issue was not about the existence of God. I knew this much: God exists wherever he is sought. As the dying curé says in Diary of a Country Priest, “Grace is everywhere.” I have had my romances with God and I have cursed him to his face. I have stood on the beach and screamed at him over the sound of the waves, and I have been soothed by him to the point of tears. I have found God in churches of all denominations, in synagogues, even in what I call my Chapel on Wheels, my car. I have found him in a psychiatric ward and in a jail holding cell. The issue of belonging, of naming, is what ate at me. Identity to me was as vital as breathing. But for years I could not plant my feet and declare, “I am” with a denominational name attached.

With the Rector’s challenge to me—Come here for three months and then maybe we’ll talk about affiliating—the pieces began to fit. This was not the voice of God within me summoning me to heal my divorcing self via the Cross. It was not a summons to overcomplicate my life any further. It was a simple statement, an invitation: Cut the crap and make up your mind. In other words, bring the body and the mind will follow.

Under that injunction I heeded and accepted the entirety of the pilgrimage—for I mostly remember all its terrifying chicanes on a frightening unlit road. It coalesced now around an incident that has become at long last all but primal in my understanding of how and where I fit into the structure of faith that for me at long last is now embodied in the Episcopal Church. I recall it now as the moment that, six years later, I had to learn to heed for its meaning. It was not just a “really cool moment in an out of town church” between sieges of doubt, but a way—finally accepted—to silence the doubt once and for all. I daresay this is the most unforgettable moment in my faith journey, the moment that has defined for me how I know what I am and where I belong.

So here at last is the incident:

In May 2002 my older son was receiving his M.A. from a college in Boston. I had made a hotel reservation almost a year ahead to lock in a low rate in Boston itself. But I lost my job in the late 2001 economic downturn, and—for the first of several times in the years that followed—was scratching for an income. I was enmeshed in a bitter alimony renegotiation, complete with a well-timed letter from my ex’s attorney accusing me of everything but the Crucifixion itself. It arrived the Saturday before the graduation was scheduled. The message was clear: “You are not welcome, stay home.”

Nevertheless, I drove defiantly north the following Saturday, and met up with my son in downtown Boston for dinner. We strolled Chinatown and had a lovely time. I remember going back to the hotel to watch The Silence of the Lambs, a film that made me grateful I’d had seafood for dinner.

Then the weekly question about Sunday morning rose up and smacked me with the Boston Yellow Pages: do I go to church; and if so, then which one?  Here was the madhouse of statelessness and homelessness risen again.

I felt entirely powerless. Except that tragedy, logistics, and need pushed me in the direction I took.

Tragedy. In May 2002, Boston’s majority Catholic community was grievously wounded by what we need refer to only as The Scandal. Stories were in the Globe every day, stories were on the news channels, a mood of terrible loss and sorrow was in the air. Nobody was gloating. It was a nightmare in which I had to protect myself from what I feared would be a pernicious, communicable, and personalized mood of loss and sorrow.

There was logistics. Where could I drive and park conveniently? God directs us in mysterious ways, yes, even in downtown Boston traffic and the unfinished harrowing of Hell called the Big Dig. So it would be The Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street, across from the Public Garden. I would, for this day at least, settle back into being Episcopalian again. And I remember only now Robert Frost’s definition of Home: Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

And there was a specific need beyond the churches. This is no secret: I am a recovering alcoholic, and I had to find an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting while I was in Boston. I had to. The fear I was feeling around seeing my ex’s family again had taken root in my stomach, so for someone with a little more than two years in recovery, a meeting was an absolute necessity.

I have known at least a half-dozen Roman Catholic priests and nuns who drank themselves into ruin but had become guides through their own recoveries for others trying to recover. My decision, such as it was, had nothing to do with jokes about Episcopalians and alcohol, most of which I’d in fact heard from a non-stipendiary Episcopal priest I knew from a job some years before. I simply sensed an abiding feeling of openness, a willingness in all areas to step outside the doctrinal lines into truth-telling for the good of someone else as well as oneself. And it loomed large for me because the Episcopal Bishop who’d received me in October 2000 spoke of 12-Step spirituality in his homily and later in the parish house told me he was 15 years’ sober after almost drinking away his career, marriage, and life.

So I drove to the downtown garage and walked to St. Paul. It turned out to be a glorious day, and the Eucharist itself was familiar and fortifying. Then, during Coffee Hour, I very quietly asked the celebrating priest if she had a list of AA meetings in the area. “I don’t,” she replied at once, “but I know someone who can help you.” And she led me to a choir member, a big bearded guy who looked like Hillbilly Jim, and who said “Step into my office.” His “office” was the choir loft. We spent 30 minutes telling each other our stories. A decade before, he’d been a homeless derelict wandering Boston, drunk, unemployable, and hopeless. Now he had a place to live, a job, a spot in this church’s life, and he’d been sober for eight years. He was a miracle and he humbly acknowledged the fact. I told him my story: functional drunk (in other words I still owned a necktie), rotten husband, eaten alive by fears, remorse, and inner miseries. It didn’t all stop when I stopped drinking but I could begin now to see it for what it had done to everyone around me, and begin the repair work.

The man gave me his Boston-area meeting list. I found a meeting late in the afternoon in Cambridge, right off Harvard Square, at another Episcopal church, Christ Church on Garden Street. I was early, so I went into the sanctuary and listened to a perfect concert of Baroque flute, theorbo, and vocal music. Later, at the meeting, a woman shared about how she’d lost her brother on September 11, 2001 because he was on one of the hijacked Logan flights. I was overwhelmed. I’d seen the disaster from the ground. She had survived a loss far greater than any I could imagine. I was surviving and prayerfully would continue to survive the loss of yet another world. In fact, my terrors about the next day were fading into insignificance.

The next day, of course, the fear—albeit somewhat muted—was back. And so was I, at St. Paul, for the 1:00 PM daily Eucharist, before heading down Tremont Street to the graduation. The congregation sat in a circle around a small table serving as a makeshift altar. In came neighborhood people, office workers, street mission priests and deacons who stationed themselves across the street in the Public Garden, and some homeless people. And my new friend from the choir the day before. Instead of a homily, the priest asked each of us to share what was in our hearts. I don’t remember what I said—I think it had to do with gratitude to this place and its people for helping me momentarily overcome fear—but the gentleman from the choir thanked the Holy Spirit aloud for having brought me into his life even for a brief moment. I was speechless.

At Communion, a young girl in a long skirt and leotard top came around the circle with the Host and extended it to me. “The Body of Christ, brother,” she whispered, and it was as though she’d kissed me.

And then I went to the graduation feeling as though God were protecting me even from the worst projections of my imagination. He was, at least that day. They come back and so do I, to that moment in St. Paul when a young girl bent toward me as though she’d stepped from pre-Raphaelite painting come to life.

The story does not end. This moment in Boston had to be recalled by the priest’s injunction to come every week and make up my mind by sitting still in God’s presence, in one place, for one extended period in time.

The story is not linear, not when its central panel was painted six years ago for me to find in 2007 and to understand with the beginnings of full depth in this writing. Of course I have remembered it but the power of its meaning, its significance as a kind of core of my religious experience, is new and I pray permanently affecting.

Did I happen to mention that I am an Episcopalian?

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