A Long Day’s Journey Into Light
My switch from non-believer to believer has been more of a slow evolution than a short, sharp shock. You know the kind of blinding light followed by the voice of Christ conversion that St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus – pictured here in a painting by Caravaggio?
Well, that’s not me.
First of all, my conversation with God began at the gym. And it was definitely one-sided.
I was lifting a ten pound weight, trying to beef up my left bicep, letting my mind run wild – thinking about the story I’d just begun writing, wondering whether I wanted to make roast chicken or lasagna for dinner, and plotting my husband’s and my next adventure. Childless and newly married, we had moved to San Francisco the previous year and were taking some sort of little road trip almost every weekend. Often, it was my job to dream them up.
As I switched the weight from my left to my right hand, it suddenly occurred to me that while I lived my exterior life with tremendous imagination – that very moment contemplating a visit to Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed – I approached my spiritual life with the creative vision of a bureaucrat. Out of a combination of laziness, and frankly, smugness, I had stamped a big NO into the box for belief.
So, for the first time since my senior year in High School, I cleared my throat and in my mind’s voice said, “Hello, is anybody there?”
The simple answer was no.
But for some reason I didn’t stop asking the question. Every few months or weeks, I would basically just say “hi, there,” and wait to see what would happen. And, well, nothing happened.
It wasn’t until some two years later when I actually decided to do something about my lame attempts at seeking God.
I was in a book store in the Castro district with my nearly eight month-old son looking for a book of poetry to give a friend on his birthday. I hate choosing poetry for people – it’s so personal, like picking out their underwear. But when you get it right, you’re able to add something of real value to their lives. A thought, a metaphor, a validation of a buried dream that will travel with them always. I wanted to do that for this friend, but I was struggling.
“You should try William Carlos Williams,” a man next to me said, handing me a copy of his collected poems.
“It’s for a friend,” I said, casually flipping through the book. I’d never read William Carlos Williams and for some reason didn’t want to.
“They’re wonderful poems,” the man said with genuine emotion. He looked at my young son. “I’m a Catholic priest. Would you mind if I blessed your son?”
I should mention at this point that my husband and I had left the Catholic Church in a huff, separately, during our college years. We were angry with their treatment of women, their refusal to sanction birth control in even the most poverty stricken countries, and their over-all Holier Than Thou attitude about everything. Our marriage was a civil ceremony as we had no intention of going through the required Pre Cana (this is basically premarital couples counseling officiated by a priest) that precipitates any Catholic marriage, and we had recently been congratulating ourselves for having left the Church, given the pedophilia scandal it was embroiled in at the time.
We did want to give our son some spiritual grounding, however, and had looked into Buddhism (we’re not groovy enough), Judaism (we’re only a quarter Jewish, each), and the Unitarian Church (too Protestant).
Anyway, I looked at this Catholic priest standing next to me – dressed in a sweater, a raincoat, jeans and a fedora – and he seemed nice. And I’d let a trans-sexual healer fresh from an all-nighter bless my pregnant belly some months back, so why not a poetry-loving priest?
“Sure,” I said. He asked me my son’s name.
“Eamon Francis Dougherty.”
“Oh, you’re Catholic!”
“Where do you go to church?”
“Um, we’re kind of new to San Francisco,” I explained. “We’re still looking.”
“How long have you been here?” He asked.
I felt like a little kid again. “Actually, three years.”
He didn’t judge and he didn’t miss a beat.
“You must try St. Gabriel’s,” the priest told me. “You’ll love it. The 9 o’clock mass is perfect for children, really any mass there is, but that’s the one families most attend.”
To make a long story a little less long, I strode through my front door with a book of poems by William Carlos Williams stuffed into my armpit and told my husband, “We’re going to church on Sunday.” Regardless of recent meanderings, he knew exactly what I meant by “church.” – “Just go with me on this.”
“Okay,” he said.
I wish I could remember the homily on that next Sunday when we attended mass at St. Gabriel’s, but I can’t. I only know that it was soulful, beautiful, relevant and utterly down to earth at the same time. I do remember the priest saying, “There’s a lot of noise here today – giggling and whispering from the children. Crying. And I want you all to know that if this is bothering you, I’m afraid you’re at the wrong church.”
For the first time in our entire lives, although we’d attended years of Catholic school and hundreds of masses, my husband and I had a moving experience during a service.
We became regulars at St. Gabriel’s, even if we couldn’t quite call ourselves believers yet. That would come a long way down the road. But we made friends with the man I’d met at the book shop – Father John. Shortly after my son’s first birthday, we did what we’d swore we’d never do: we had him baptized in the Catholic Church.
When Father John sprinkled holy water on Eamon’s still-bald head during the ceremony, he said, “Eamon Francis Dougherty, you are a poet, a priest and a King.” My husband’s eyes welled up. He still says that to our son every night before we head off to bed – even though the boy is nearly thirteen.
It would be years before I would hear anything even resembling an answer to the tentative greeting I offered God at my gym. Before I could call myself a Catholic with a straight face to be perfectly honest. Or even a believer in anything other than strong values, love and good citizenship.
I would be at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in a grieving room that was offered to me while my new baby underwent a life or death surgery – one of several she’d already been through, but this time I felt at the end of my rope.
I was rolled up in fetal position on a cot and my hands were folded together so tightly that my fingers had gone numb. In the morning, when the nurse came to get me, I would actually have trouble prying them apart.
But that night, I finally heard something. And no, it wasn’t a voice. I guess it was more a feeling than a sound. It was what I can only describe as the heartbeat of the universe. It was a notion, a hunch, an impression – I don’t know – but one that without saying a word told me that I was a part of it and that no matter what the outcome of my daughter’s surgery would be, my family was safe.
I didn’t spring into that next day with all of my problems solved. Nor were the next few years a breeze because I’d had this experience. But I did feel different. I felt stronger and like anything was possible. And by that, I mean even the worst I could possibly imagine.
And I understood, for the first time, what it meant – doubtlessly, categorically – to love.