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A Long Day’s Journey Into Light

September 9, 2014

Conversion-of-PaulMy 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.

Faith journey - bureaucrat

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.

First Communion

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!”

Busted.

“Mmm-Hmm.”

“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.”

smoking gustav

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.

on her knees

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From → faith, family

27 Comments
  1. Really honest spiritual journey stories, like this one, are rare. Your illustrations speak volumes in perfectly concise language. I love the little Confirmation girl.

  2. Billy Ray Chitwood permalink

    This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful blog posts I’ve ever read! Thank you, Vic…

  3. Neh, BR, it still feels like I have to scrape the bottom of the barrel of my soul to get anything on paper πŸ™‚

  4. For me, this is a beautiful post about impermanence and its inherent possibility, available to us in every moment that we live. As Thich Nanh Hanh has written, the flow of life, its impermanence, makes everything possible. I grew up Catholic but have pretty much stayed a hippie, I suspect. When pressed for a label, I usually offer, “mostly Buddhist,” having not yet taken my vows. Williams Carlos Williams has remained a favorite poet, his “red wheelbarrow” I often recite to myself. Lovely writing and thanks.
    Karen

    • Thank you so much, Karen. I have a Buddhist-Catholic friend who calls himself “Cathlist.” And I’m now a WCW convert, too πŸ™‚ (love “To a Dog Injured In the Street”)

  5. It is very beautiful and full of light. Thanks Victoria and to Billy Ray for sharing it in his page.

  6. Speechless , in awe !

  7. Thanks, Olga and Catalina πŸ™‚

  8. So very beautiful!

  9. very well done – a story many can relate to. Blessings to you!

  10. Thanks, Anita πŸ™‚

  11. “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 grew up heathen and became Catholic in my twenties. 25 years later, sometimes the only faith I have is “the heartbeat of the universe”. Thanks for reminding me that’s enough.

  12. Sometimes I need reminding, too. That’s why I wrote the post πŸ™‚

  13. Ah, Victoria – what a lovely post!

  14. Thanks, Kate! You’ve been nominated for another blog award – and well deserved πŸ™‚

  15. Catherine Kirby permalink

    I found this piece so moving and heart-felt, so thanks very much for it. It reminds me of so many twists and turns in my own search for meaning. The best answers seem to turn up just when you least expect them, I find. Thanks for sharing your experience here. I loved reading it. πŸ™‚

  16. Thanks for sharing. I have the same issues with Catholicism myself, but haven’t yet reconciled them. I guess I’m still fence sitting in regards to any belief or faith.

  17. Hi, Col – thanks for reading. Faith is a bit like falling in love, isn’t it? You just don’t quite know how and with whom it’s going to happen. Or whether it will at all.

  18. Thanks for the insightful post. Excellent writing that coveys a tender story. Quite the reverse of your experience, I’d never associated myself with the Catholic church (except for one crazy aunt) until I was age 59. The decision to become Catholic came from seemingly no where, yet 2 years later after 2 annulments and RCIA classes, I was confirmed into the Catholic Church. At 59 I certainly knew what I wanted but why I wanted it still remains a mystery to me…and that’s OK. Thanks!

    • What a great story, Cynthia. I, too, would have never guess that I would return to the church. At one point I was a confirmed atheist and unable to even entertain the idea of faith.

      • Although I wasn’t an atheist, we didn’t go to church as children and most of my adult life I just dabbled in the protestant churches, which left me feeling detached and uninterested. One afternoon, just after the death of my mother and Pope John Paul II died, I was watching a religious documentary on A&E. In one part of the show they said it is believed that Catholicism was the first religion, which made sense to me mostly because of ancient art I’d seen. Actually, I think Pope John Paul II had something Divine to do with my eventual Catholic confirmation.

        I think profound changes that occur in our lives, no matter how subtle or dramatic (having a child, death of parent, etc.), might influence us far more deeply than we realize because faith, too, runs deeply. I once wrote a story for “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Finding My Faith” and it was THE most difficult 1,000 word piece I’ve ever written, I suppose because faith is intangible, runs deeply and is so very personal. Cheers!

  19. You really said it all. Cheers and have a wonderful New Year πŸ™‚ And God Bless.

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  1. ASMSG Horror-Thriller Emagazine – A Long Day’s Journey Into Light

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