I grew up with Fear as my God, found the Judaism of my birth in the late 1970s, and lost it again in the 1990s. For years I tried to practice my birth faith. Then, in 1997, it rejected me. I separated from my wife the weekend before Pesach and was living alone in an apartment in northern New Jersey. After years of willful exile, I needed to reconnect. I put out a desperate cry for help via email, the phone, and a mailing list because I needed to reunite with my spiritual center: or so I thought.
“Establishment” Judaism had no place for me at any table in New York or New Jersey. “Do not turn your back on the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” How easily we forget!
I got one reply, from a rabbi (now deceased) in Pikesville, MD, who left a prepaid Metroliner ticket for me at Penn Station, along with an invitation to his home for the first Seder. “No Jew,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb to me, “should be alone on the first night of Pesach.” I went to what amounted to a glorious mustering-out party. When I returned to Jersey, “The long loneliness” described by the Servant of God Dorothy Day engulfed me again, worse than before. I began to get a sense that I was being drawn back to the attraction of The Cross, the same way it drew me in the 1970s. I did not want it. Separated or not, I had two children I had tried to raise as Jews. How could I do this? Better, how could I NOT? I could stay and shut up, become the same misery-ridden Jew as I was miserable husband. But that would not work either.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, June 15, 1997, I found myself praying aloud to Jesus with the promptings of a website called “Leaflets of Faith” (http://www.catholicmissionleaflets.org/). I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I began attending daily Masses in Manhattan, refusing to approach the railing for Communion even though nobody would know: God would and I would. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program at a local parish near my house.
People tried to talk me out of it. Someone I loved. Even a Franciscan priest who said the best man he ever met was his lapsed-Baptist father (yet he was now the Guardian of a vitally important Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan!). I persevered and was received into the Roman Catholic Church on April 11, 1998, at the Easter Vigil.
And I promptly ran into myself, a collection of disconnected synapses, neuroses, bipolar symptoms, and alcoholic behaviors. I was being torn apart by the same guilt that had driven me out of Judaism. Disloyal husband, indifferent father, out of control. Womanizer in the making and on the make. Short-cutting employee with a volatile temper. I made myself spiritually if not physically sick. I had a confessor who insisted I was violating God’s plan for me. But how could I know that? How could HE know that? A Jesuit I knew as a spiritual director tried to talk me off the ledge but he could not. I was bound on self-destruction with my soul if not via a weapon.
When I began to heal my alcoholism and manic-depression in late 1999 and early 2000, the guilt began to fade. So I changed denominations. Makes sense, right? You’re getting better so you allow yourself to relapse. Makes perfect sense. Yet…I was warmly received and warmly loved. I did not have to fight anymore.
And yet this was not about ME. Maybe there really was a plan and I was playing games around is margins by ignoring God’s requirements for me. Poverty (involuntary), chastity (not by choice, either), obedience–but to whom? Another Jesuit I met with several times suggested I was not supposed to get an easy ride into and through Faith, that it was supposed to be difficult. Well, it has been.
Every day since 1998 has been relentless pain. Oh, not because I abandoned Judaism–when I tried to go back in 2004 via the repentance of the mikveh, it did not take and I felt even worse than before. I have lived in lonely communion ever since. I fear I have sawed off the limb behind me and only now realize I have hit the ground head-first.
I present no definitive solutions for me or for anyone else. I know only that my defections and “flip-flops” made me more miserable than I ever imagined. My only hope is that there IS some hope.
I date my true fall into fear, into adherence to the Gospel of Wealth, and my subsequent fall into abject poverty, from that moment. Defiance? Recompense? Payback, I’ve heard, is Hell; and I’ve been in it now for years. I wonder daily why God has preserved my life, why he has allowed me sobriety regardless of this almost daily temptation to drink, why one day I am almost certain to relapse into the death of the spirit that I fear as much as I crave it as the end to this misery. The end to the fear of fear. The end of psychiatric hospitalization. The end of old age. The end of imprisonment.
I lost home, found home, abandoned home. Where am I now?