Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Conversion Story

To say I was ‘messed up’ when I was 15 would be the understatement of the century. True enough, the cards I got dealt weren’t very fair. My dad had been a raging alcoholic and my parents were divorced even before I was born. At the VA, they told my father he shouldn’t be alive even before I was born. He ‘took the pledge’ and was sober for eight years and my sister and I came along. We lived an idyllic life on a lake in the Belgrade Lakes. But then, when I was three, we moved into town and that was all she wrote. I saw my father collapse in front of me. The priest told my mom we couldn’t live with an active drinker. We got a tiny apartment and got by with my mom working as a cleaning lady at the State House (later the hospital) and we got help from the town. My mom was in terrible shape and my sister had multiple untreated nervous breakdowns. I reacted by going DEEP inward, despite my outgoing nature. I couldn’t even talk to my mom and I tortured myself with self-loathing. I was horribly ashamed in front of my richer schoolmates.
Despite all this, I refused to accept there was anything wrong with me. In terms of religion, I used to read a chapter or so of the Bible every night just to say I had read through the whole thing; I did it. But at the same time, I didn’t really understand what I read, didn’t believe anymore and stopped going to church. I was starved for love but refused to open to others or admit my need.
Then it happened. One night in my room I dropped to my knees sobbing and I finally ‘admitted I was powerless’ like they say in AA. “God”, I prayed, “I don’t even know if you’re there, but if you are, please help me.” I took out a Rosary; I hadn’t prayed one since I was little, but I managed a couple of decades.
The NEXT DAY in the library some of us were having a discussion with a kid who had made up his own religion (!) and we were all talking about what it all means. After the others left, this girl, Kathy, told me, “You know, I think I know what could really help you”. A silent voice in my head said, “See, Mark, I’m answering you”. “They’re having a charismatic family retreat Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s Center; you ought to go.” That little ‘voice’ said, “THAT’S IT!” [By the way, I recently heard from Kathy after 30 or more years and I was so happy!]

I went from 9 to 9 that Christmas and I was amazed at what I saw. I saw normal family interactions, praying, recreation, music and I drank it in like a thirsty soul, although I didn’t actually TALK to anyone, mind you! That night I saw Handel’s “Messiah” on TV with those Scriptures predicting the coming of the Lord, and though I had heard it many times before the words LEAPT out at me and I fell flat on my face in front of the TV set in worship and recognition. I went to Midnight Mass for the first time by myself and the MASS started leaping off of the pages. “WOW!” I kept saying out loud; there was this other girl from high school I remember and she must have thought I had lost it.

In the coming days, the Bible starting coming ALIVE and I was filled with excitement about the discovery. I started writing songs like “Cast Your Soul”, “This is My Body”, “Jesus” and “Make Me Free”. I began attending prayer meetings, making friends and praying with some of them and traveling around to sing and play. Miracles like what happened with the rain [see “A Faith Story”] and the Girl Crying at the Church began to occur. It was a magical time; many of the friends I made remain my friends in the Living Waters music group.

What do I get out of all this? “The Lord chooses the weak and foolish to confound the strong.” I was just so screwed up and needy that the Merciful One just couldn’t resist breaking me out of my self-imposed jail. And now that makes me just the right sort of guy to talk about religion and faith with 14 and 15 year olds! I remember only too well how hard it can be, and yet I also know there is always hope in that secret space between a teen and their Creator. It is my privilege to teach them about their growth and the Catholic faith, and I hope this little story will give them and others courage to use faith in order to hope and love.