Blogger’s Note: What follows is as close as I’ve come to a mystical experience. Because of this, I don’t doubt the charismatic side of our faith as much as some — but also, I recognize more fully that it is extremely hard to know what’s going on in another’s mind, heart, and soul. I wrote this back in 2003, shortly after moving to Minnesota and relatively early in my return to the Church– before my conversion, in many ways. As such, it is a glimpse into an immature prayer life that was blessed with a brief but up-close encounter with God’s love. I’ve made two small edits for clarity’s sake. I would write this differently today, but it is as accurate as it can be.
Thomas was a lucky man.
Imagine sharing your life with Christ, in the flesh. Experiencing the gospels firsthand. Hearing the people talk of the healer, the prophet, the man who overturned tables in the temple — your friend. Imagine seeing miracles not just happen, but be performed by someone you broke bread with.
Thomas was lucky — not only to have known Jesus personally, but also to have missed His first appearance to the disciples. Imagine — Thomas comes back from wherever he’s been, and his friends are grabbing his robes, spinning him around, each trying to explain over the others that Jesus, three days dead, had come to see them. Had breathed on them. Now, Thomas is no fool — he knows his Lord was flesh and blood, and saw Him crucified. He knows that, despite Christ’s miraculous powers, he didn’t make it off that tree alive, and he can see nine ways to Sunday how somebody pretending to be a risen Christ could really mess things up good for the disciples, for the Jews, for the Romans, everybody.
So he puts up both hands, looks at his brothers and says, “I’ll believe it when I see it. No — as a matter of fact, I’ll believe it when I can examine the holes in His holy hands and feet. When I can stick my hand in His side.”
Imagine the audacity! The disciples are staring at Thomas in open-mouthed disbelief: After all you’ve seen, and all we’ve told you — after all we’ve been through together — you won’t believe until you’ve pierced Him again with your own hands?
Thomas glares resolutely around the room, then stalks out again.
Thomas is lucky, because his Lord wants to give the people every chance to believe and be saved. Christ could have come back the second time and scolded Thomas for his lack of faith in God and his fellow disciples. Instead, he smiles at Thomas and tells him to go ahead and touch the wounds. Put your hand in my side, my friend, and believe!
Thomas immediately falls to his knees and proclaims Jesus his Lord. As a result, we learn two things about our God — He’ll bend over backwards to save us, and being in His presence requires no further explanation.
With 2,000 years of faith, tradition and perspective behind us, it’s easy to fault Thomas for his doubt. But remember, Thomas and the disciples were a newly formed minority, out of favor with the Jewish leadership, and now leaderless. In times like these, it pays to be a skeptic, if only to protect yourself.
Thomas wanted what we all long for — certainty. Faith is fine, but how many times have we all asked for something more?
“Just give me a sign, Lord. Give me something to believe in.”
The signs are all around us, of course — we only need to open up to them. What follows is a true account of what can happen if you do.
Jodi and I were youth leaders for three years before moving to Minnesota. We were volunteers — actually, we had volunteered to help with the high-school youth group, and were quite excited when, the next Sunday, Fr. Bill told the flock he had two new youth leaders.
We couldn’t wait to find out who.
Let me say right off that I’m no saint. Nothing in this world can make you more acutely aware of your own weaknesses than preaching the gospel to young people, or having their parents tell you what a wonderful, positive influence you’ve been in their children’s lives. As youth ministers, were we still sinners? Yes. Did we feel worse than ever about it? Oh, yeah.
Jodi and I did a lot with the group. We made pancake breakfasts for the parish. We sang Christmas carols for the locals. We saw the Pope in Toronto. And often, we just hung out.
The high point of the high-school youth group experience, however, is the yearly trip to Steubenville, Ohio, for Franciscan University’s famous Catholic youth conferences. Thousands of young Catholics, countless deacons, nuns, youth ministers and volunteer chaperones, and the widest assortment of priests you can imagine — biker priests, rapping priests, priests who speak in tongues, wizened old men and young fellows fresh from ordination — all spending the weekend together, singing and praying, laughing and crying. And on Saturday night, calling Christ to earth to walk among the masses.
Saturday night at Steubie is like nothing else. When the Eucharist passes through a gymnasium full of spiritually famished teens, “adoration” doesn’t do justice to the experience. Christ makes His presence known — not at the altar, not on the stage at all, but out among the hungry souls, the Bread of Life, meeting the young people where they are and taking them where they need to be. Their personal God and savior.
I’ve heard from teens who claim to have seen Jesus, talked to Him, held His hand. I’ve heard from people who have been held by Jesus, rocked, soothed. A friend of mine made peace with a relative long dead. Another heard, saw and felt his sins enumerated, forgiven and fall away like so many dry leaves. Kids shriek, laugh uncontrollably, sob, shout. Some stand upright, speaking aloud with God. Some fall flat to the floor, dead to the world around them. Some are prayed over, or escorted out. It quickly becomes apparent that the adults are no longer running the show.
Even so, group leaders are encouraged to devote themselves to staying alert and keeping their young people focused and safe. And the first Saturday night I spent at Steubenville, I wanted nothing more. It was unnerving to close your eyes for too long.
This past July, however, was different. Jodi and I had already relocated to the Twin Cities, and were coming back for one last Steubie trip with “our older kids.” I wanted to soak it up — all the energy, enthusiasm and love that they could give. We arrived at the St. Mike’s church parking lot at 5:30 a.m., and a number of the kids were there already, shivering, sleep still in their eyes. I was bouncing in place. My knees were shaking. It felt electric.
The trip was great — bittersweet, of course, with constant reminders that this was it, the last hurrah. That first night we circled up on the lawn after the evening session, and I told them how wonderful it felt to be there with them. I told them I felt like a live wire, feeding off their energy. I told them I thought the weekend was going to be amazing.
Saturday dawned early and rushed headlong toward adoration. So much going on, but the constant background buzz was tonight, tonight, tonight. The Steubie newbies didn’t know what to expect, and spoke in hushed tones, equal parts excitement and anxiety. The veterans exchanged knowing smiles.
And then we were there – a thousand voices singing softly, countless palms outstretched. The Eucharist appeared, raised high, glowing from within as the spotlight followed it on its slow procession. And the tears came. The laughter, the shouts, and the cries. Our kids were swept with the Holy Spirit, and Christ was there — you could see it in their eyes. I looked from one face to the next, and oh, how I wanted to see what they were seeing.
Gimme a sign, Lord, I thought. Just a touch, a taste.
I could hear the priest’s voice ringing in my head, advising the chaperones: “Remember, this is for the kids.”
But your will, not mine, I added.
That night we sat in a wide circle on the grass. One by one the kids and the adults shared how Christ had manifested Himself, speaking their language, sharing with them exactly what they needed. When my turn came, I told them I’d felt jealous.
“I know I shouldn’t have felt that way, but I so badly wanted to experience what you were,” I said. “Finally I made my peace with the fact that this wasn’t my time — after that, it was just a joy to be with you all.”
And I told them I loved them.
On the bus home Sunday evening, we’re called to the mic at the front of the bus to share our final thoughts on the trip. I don’t know what I’ll say when my turn comes — I want badly to be light and funny, but leaving the youth group is weighing heavily on me.
“Tell us a college story!” someone shouts, and everyone laughs. I have a well-documented tendency to fall back on those stories — and to run long in the telling.
“No college stories,” I say. “What I want to tell you is something you’ve all heard before from me, lots of times. But I want you to really listen this time. I love you guys –”
“We love ya, too, Jim!” the girls in the back shout.
I stop a moment, shake my head: “Thanks, but guys, listen…”
I wait. The chorus of “love yas” slowly quiets.
“Listen to me. We have a tendency to say these things in a casual, off-hand manner like that, but I mean it. I love you. All of you. So much.”
The bus is quiet now.
“We goof around with that phrase all the time — either we don’t say it because it’s sappy or we’re afraid people might think we mean something we don’t, or whatever. Other times we say it offhand, like it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just something we say, right? Let’s not do that. Tonight, let’s take a minute to look at each other, to recognize each other for what we are — flawed human beings, and children of God. Let’s tell each other how we feel and mean it tonight.”
By the time we get back to St. Mike’s, Jodi and I have visited with nearly everyone on the bus, one on one. Even the chaperones have taken my speech to heart, and the bus is warm with affection.
The bus pulls into the church parking lot. A few cars are waiting there already, and a small knot of parents stand in the evening cool, talking quietly. The kids pile out of the bus, a tumble of sweatshirts, pillows and duffle bags, raucous from lack of sleep. Some hug their parents; some, each other. A few hug Jodi and me.
I shout above the din for the group to circle up, and invite the parents and bus driver to join us in a closing prayer. We join hands, and begin in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
“Guys,” I say, “I’m shaking again.”
I don’t know where to begin. I tip my head back and stare up into the heavens’ blackness, past countless twinkling stars.
“My God,” I say. “Look up there!”
My legs are trembling.
I begin: “Dear Lord Jesus, thank you. Thank you for the love in this circle tonight. Thank you for the experience of this weekend, for your love, for being there with us. For being here with us. Thank you for joyous laughter and cleansing tears. Fill us with your Spirit, Lord, that we may carry this feeling forward with us, and share it with everyone we meet.”
I ask if anyone has petitions. I’m still looking to the heavens. Ron and Josh, the boys on either side of mean, are squeezing my hands, and my legs continue to shake. There are petitions — for safe travel home, for the youth who couldn’t go to Steubenville, for the church, for sick loved ones, and for all the young people touched by God over the weekend. When the circle is silent, I’m out of breath. “You guys, I can’t stop shaking,” I say. Then I begin the Lord’s Prayer.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
The circle picks up the prayer, but my voice falters. The trembling in my legs hits my chest and spreads rapidly toward my fingertips. My head is back; tears are streaming past my ears, and my mouth is open as if to shout, but I can’t speak.
“You okay?” Ron says. He’s squeezing my hand tighter now. So is Josh.
A feeling like strength and power and pure joy arcs through me in waves, and I feel like I’m rising. The Lord’s Prayer complete, kids begin to laugh, shout and sing. The circle remains intact, however, and I manage a groan: “Guys!”
No one hears me. I can’t stop shaking — don’t want to — this feeling — incredible! I don’t know if I’m standing on the pavement or floating above it.
“Guuuys!” I rasp. “Pray! Don’t stop — pray!”
The new youth minister, Mianne, starts a Hail Mary.* I can barely hear them — the feeling is deep and resounding and intense and glorious.
My body is dissolving, except my hands, and I grip Josh and Ron more tightly.
Jesus. Lord Jesus. My God.
Mianne leads a second Hail Mary, and I’m coming down now. I’m laughing and sobbing as they finish the prayer. The circle is intact.
“You know,” I say, gasping for breath. “Remember…I said…I was jealous?…I’m not…anymore…I just…got mine.”
“Praise God!” says Mianne, and the circle cheers. I collapse on Ron and Josh — they are hugging me, and I tell them to hang on to me; I’m not sure I can stand.
Ron whispers in my ear: “What was that?” I look at him and see a knowing smile. “I could feel it,” he says. “Coming out from you. Could you feel it, Josh?”
He could. Ron leans close again, and whispers, “Dude, it felt like you were gonna lift off. We had to hold you down to keep you here.”
I don’t think most of the adults knew what was happening. The kids who were closest to me in the circle knew I’d felt something incredible — some of them had felt it, too — but Jodi, on the far side of the circle, had thought I was just “getting into it” a bit.
I pull her close and try to explain. As the kids begin to leave, we walk to a bench outside the church and pray together.
I pray for understanding. Already my skeptic’s brain is working — I’m exhausted, and have so much emotion invested in the group, etc., etc. Had to be adrenaline, or something.
No. You were touched. And another wave hits me — just one. I look at Jodi with tears in my eyes, smiling.
“Jodi,” I say. “I think I felt God tonight.”
She smiles, and continues to pray with me.
When we arrive at my parents where we’ll spend the night, my mom is waiting up. She asks how the trip was, and we tell her it was great. I’ve a strange look on my face, and when she notices I tell her I had an experience I want to share with her, but I’m not sure how. I tell her I want to sleep on it.
In the morning it’ll be gone, my skeptic’s mind says. Instantly, I begin to tremble, ecstasy and tears rising to the surface.
That night I held my wife until she was sound asleep, for possibly the first time in nearly seven years of marriage. Always before I’d been too warm, too tired, too uncomfortable. Too selfish.
I woke wondering how to explain to my mother, only recently back to the church, and my father, who claims to be atheist, that I’d come heart to heart with Christ. I was afraid they would think I’d finally cracked — I’ve always been an emotional, and sometimes dramatic, child. I lay awake for a while and imagine what they might say to convince me otherwise. In my head their arguments made sense, but each time my heart would rise up and another wave would crash down on me — strength, power and joy. In the shower. Over breakfast. Each time I tried to deny what had happened, or call it something it wasn’t, I would be overcome.
When I finally explained to my parents, I was trembling again, not from fear, but from conviction. When I finished, they didn’t question me or laugh. When I finished, I knew the truth — I had been touched by God. And with the same certainty, I knew I wouldn’t get that feeling again.
So far, I’ve been right. God doesn’t let us replace our faith with Truth, but fosters faith in Truth. My sign was mine alone, to believe or disbelieve, but as soon as I made my choice the sign itself was gone. I don’t tremble. I don’t float. I don’t spark anymore.
Only once in a while, I’ll brush up against it and get gooseflesh and tears — all that remains of that glorious feeling. The earthly things we enjoy — food, drink, sex — don’t come close. The greater joys — love for family and friends, spouse and children; memory; the beauty of life — these too fall short. All strength, all power and pure joy combined as…what?
Love. The love I’d preached to the youth group but never given before that night. A love without boundaries, infinite, founded on our deepest commonalities — we are alive, we are human and we need to love and be loved. A selfless, giving love that never ceases, and never dies.
I’d like to say I’m free now. I’d like to say that Christ touched my heart, and I sinned no more. But it hasn’t happened. Touching God didn’t make me perfect, any more than experiencing Truth means I don’t need faith. The good new is it’s harder now — harder to sin, and harder to bear it. The good news is I’m more aware now, and it matters to me. The good news is that love really is all we need.
The Good News is He is real, He is here, and He is love.
29 Sept 03
*Accounts differ from my own on this point. Mianne told me afterward that we didn’t pray a Hail Mary as a group and suggested that must have been between me and Our Blessed Mother. The teens couldn’t recall for sure.