Have you ever had a problem believing in God, or with the beliefs of the Catholic Church? Or a problem with drink or drugs? I sure have.
“God, I Hate You!”
My descent into unbelief started at about age 13. My little sister, Maxine, was multiple handicapped, and had convulsions every few weeks. After witnessing a particularly severe seizure, seeing her innocent little face twisted in pain, I ran down to the storage room in the basement to sneak a cigarette. Yes, I was also smoking at that age. I remember snarling, “God, I hate you!” up to heaven. I had already stopped going to church, physical and emotional abuse had given me a rebellious and anti-authoritarian nature.
I had been going to a Disciples of Christ Sunday school, singing in the choir and lighting the candles at the church service. Our family didn’t really talk about God or religion except when my mother warned me in her Southeast Missouri twang, “God is watching you when I’m not there and if you do something bad He will tell me.” This was not good news. She was very critical of everything I did except when I got good grades or did something good on the baseball or football field.
The only religious thing going on at home was my mother listening to a Southern Gospel music station and sometimes singing along. Once in a while she would clasp her hands and exclaim, “Oh, there’s The Old Rugged Cross.” Those songs must have been her only consolation in her years of struggle with my sister. Once or twice, I saw her sit on the couch in tears, hands clasped in prayer saying, “Lord give me strength” as a song on the radio played. Years before, I had prayed for my sister’s healing, but to no avail. I think that started my disillusionment.
The Elixir of Drink
I tried to be a goody-goody by staying away from drinking even though my buddies were all doing it. But at age 16, I made the decision to start in hopes of seducing a cheerleader who had a reputation as a big drinker.
After just a drink or two I remember that “click” that they talk about in AA. It felt so good, all my depression, anxiety, inhibitions, fears and despair went away. I had found the answer, the elixir. I remember holding up the half pint bottle of Smirnoff’s Vodka against the orange and steel gray sky of the Gary, Indiana sunset and saying, “A dollar fifty buys so much pleasure!” I was hooked. Well, I never got the girl, but I kept the habit for the next twenty years.
The More Lethal Habit of Drugs
Three years later, I discovered a more lethal habit—drugs. I dropped out of college just to get high and in a year I hitchhiked out to California with my guitar to follow in the footsteps of Kerouac, Dylan and Woody Guthrie. It was 1970 and the Summer of Love was long over. It was now more of a Winter of Paranoia with people scrounging around to get high, suspecting everyone of being a cop.
Thankfully, I met my former wife out there; a fallen away Catholic but still a believer in the Lord. By the grace of God, she told me that I didn’t need drugs, to just stick to alcohol and I’d be okay. Well, that advice saved me from an early death, but not from years of alcoholic hell.
Troubadours Travelling the Country
She was a gifted singer and we travelled around the country picking up gigs when we could, but mostly just drinking together. We picked up odd jobs to finance our lifestyle. Two of her children were with us, and life must have been hell for them, bouncing from town to town, school to school, enduring our irresponsible behavior.
I mostly loaded trucks and she did typing. San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Nashville and finally we ended up in Miami Beach.
“#$%& You God!”
The drinking, along with our Irish temperaments, led to many betrayals by each of us, and many horrible fights. One particular night, at the very end of our marriage, we were on the beach after midnight with me ranting about something. Over the years, I had become a virulent atheist, while she remained a believer. I never had a problem with Jesus. I considered him a great teacher or enlightened person like Gandhi or Buddha, but certainly not divine. She would cautiously try to insinuate something about God or Jesus into our conversations. Well, that night she did again, and it set me off. I remember shouting to the heavens, “#$%& You God!”
She cried out, “Oh, no, Jimmy! May God forgive you.” To which I screamed back to the Great Unknown, “If you’re so great then strike me dead!”
The next thing I remember was waking up alone on the beach at dawn with my wallet missing. I must have passed out, she had gone home and someone had robbed me during the night. Perhaps it was God after all, taking away my identity that night so that He could show me better plans.
The Holy Spirit Said Softly, “Quit Drinking”
Two weeks later, after a final catastrophic fight, I knew the marriage was over. I rented a forlorn aqua blue room with no curtains, and furnished with nothing more than a sagging bed, a tattered chair and battered dresser with missing knobs. I was devastated, on the floor. Certainly the end of a my marriage was one of the great tragedies of my life, especially when it was mostly my fault. However, I think for the first time in my life I actually listened to the Holy Spirit who said softly, “Quit drinking.”
Well, I did quit. The ten days of diarrhea I experienced made me aware of how addicted I had become to the alcohol. Since I only drank after work, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic – not like those round-the-clock drinkers on the Bowery with their raincoats and wine bottle in their back pocket. It’s a deceptive trick that the disease uses, “I’m not as bad as those guys,” so you don’t consider stopping.
As Providence would have it, a woman at work that I was romancing—one of the reasons for the marriage breakup—was a social worker and an avid reader. I told her I quit drinking and she showed me a book by a former alcoholic Jess Laird I Ain’t Much Baby—But I’m All I’ve Got. I said I liked the title, and handed it back to her. Then she said, “Just read the rest of the cover.”
“Hmm,” I said, “Turn the corner into a more beautiful life—five minutes at a time.” Five minutes I could handle, that was about all I could handle. I took the book back to my shabby aqua blue dungeon.
I laid down on the broken bed. The first page said that many alcoholics and drug abusers become atheists because they think the whole world revolves around them. Once they stop using, they see that we are all like planets revolving around something greater, much greater, at the center and they start to believe. I blinked. I looked away and thought - that sounds true … and I believed. Twenty years of atheism just wafted away with one sentence. I think of the Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s quote, “Any book that teaches you to be a better person is a good book.”
God had been waiting in that aqua blue room all these years for me as He is waiting in every room and every place for His children to come home. I must say that it wasn’t a deeply religious experience in the sense of me jumping up and joining a church, becoming an altar server or a street preacher. It was just a slow intellectual conversion – very slow. I just figured that God thought pretty much the same way that I did. What a dope I was. The liberation from alcohol does cause deep spiritual changes. One does get away from the insane alcoholic thinking of self-centeredness and using people. Also, I noticed that my arrests for drunk and disorderly and DUI’s stopped immediately.
Vague New Age Meanderings
I moved to New York City and started reading New Age books and meditating. I didn’t care for organized religion, least of all the Catholic Church. I was also going to AA and became a leader of a group at a rehab. I found a New Age church and was an active member for fifteen years, playing the guitar and writing songs for their services. Our spirituality was an amalgam of A Course in Miracles, Buddhism, Hinduism and mysticism. It really had nothing you could sink your teeth into. Our God and our universe was an amorphous and indefinable blob. We could do pretty much what we wanted morally and that was basically whatever we wanted. As long as you kept meditating and talking about good energy, higher planes and higher vibrations you had the feel-good cover that you were doing something grand. While all of these religions and spiritual paths have some of the truth, they don’t have the fullness of Truth.
Still, there was a deep hunger inside me. Something was missing. Someone was missing. Often when I came home, away from the fun and camaraderie of these meetings or services, I still felt lonely and depressed. Sometimes I would ask myself – if I am so spiritual how come I’m still so sad?
The Fullness of Truth, Almost
By the hand of Providence, my dear pastor, a brilliant man who was also my AA sponsor, died. Thus, I left the New Age church. While desperately searching for a new church, I began to watch e religious television shows. I liked a couple of the televangelists. However, when they weren’t on I would switch to EWTN ,the Catholic channel. I enjoyed the spiritual imagery of the paintings and sculptures. If a priest came on I would listen for a minute or two, and then shut it off. Usually it was a question of Christ’s divinity, or morality or confession or something like that.
I seemed to listen longer to the lay hosts like Johnnette Benkovic and Frances Hogan. Lo and behold, they would sometimes say things that really had the ring of truth to them. They would back them up with very sound and learned arguments. I started watching them more, and soon began listening to the priests and nuns also.
In just a few weeks, I started really understanding their theology regarding issues that had troubled me such as their strict morality, priestly celibacy, confession and the veneration of Mary, but I still had a problem with the Divinity of Christ.
Chesterton and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ
Then one Sunday night in the spring of 2007, I was watching, The Apostle of Common Sense, a show about G.K. Chesterton. On an episode entitled, The Art of Defending the Faith Part 1, actor Chuck Chalberg while portraying Chesterton gave this speech. Read full text here. It contained this passage about Jesus:
[A]n extraordinary being who would certainly have seemed as mad in one century as another, who makes a vague and vast claim to divinity, who constantly contradicts himself, who imposes impossible commands, who where he seems wrong to us would certainly have seemed quite as wrong to anybody else, who where he seems right to us is often in tune with matters not ancient but modern, such, for instance, as the adoration of children. For some of his utterances men might fairly call him a maniac; for others, men long centuries afterwards might justly call him a prophet. But what nobody can possibly call him is a Galilean of the time of Tiberius.
That passage had “the ring of iron,” to use a Chesterton phrase. I blinked. I swallowed. I blinked again and I stared into the distance. That is so true. Jesus seems to be talking to modern man even more so than to ancient man and his wisdom is so supernatural that no man of ancient Israel or modern times as well could have possessed it. Jesus was God come to earth! And He’s still here, inside each of us. All those religious nuts were right all along, all these years, and I was wrong. My whole universe rocked and listed and turned upside down and then righted itself again. Now I know where I came from, why I am here: to know, love and serve the Lord, and my purpose, to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and my hope, to be in heaven with Him forever. In a few weeks that followed, I would knock at the rectory door to begin the RCIA conversion class.
I guess Jesus had been waiting for me in the white apartment in Briarwood, Queens, aptly named “Briarwood.”
Catholicism is Hard, But Aren’t All Good Things?
My conversion was seven years ago and it just keeps getting better. The more I learn about Catholicism the more I want. I feel fulfilled and experience the deep peace and joy that only Jesus can give. Has it been easy? Not at all. It takes a lot of humility to realize what a sinner I was and still am. Also, to recognize how far I am from the man God wants me to be. Yet, with His help I keep moving closer to that goal.
When I think of my wasted years without God and without His Church
I think Archbishop Sheen says it best, “The great tragedy of the world is not what people suffer, but how much they miss when they suffer. Nothing is quite as depressing as wasted pain, agony without an ultimate meaning or purpose” (On Being Human: Reflections on Life and Living).
But I am still a work in progress, and with each time that I fall short of my expectations, I think of Saint Teresa of Avila who would touch people on their way to the Confessional and simply say, “Begin again.”
© 2014. Jamey Brown. All rights reserved.