Revert Story from Catholic Anchor
By CHARLIE ESS
With pain comes perfection, Christ taught. Thanks to the gift of the Catholic Church we are able to reach this perfection through a glorious journey. But for too many years this was not the way for me.
My parents planted the hope of salvation and the reality of heaven within me during the impressionable years of adolescence. Practice in faith and good works as a cradle Catholic included a few years as an altar boy and a strong sense of compassion as I worked my way through the lower grades in a Catholic school.
Five decades later, however, I’m looking back with envy at that child in terms of purity, the quest to embrace the sacraments — which included the possibility of holy orders — and good works as a way of strengthening my spiritual life. How simple it seemed then to keep my soul spotlessly clean with the belief that in the event of sudden death the Kingdom of God was unquestionably at hand.
Now, I face the reality that, like everybody else, I must one day die. Moreover, I have some catching up to do after a hiatus of nearly 30 years from the Catholic Church.
I moved to Alaska in 1978, and though there was ample opportunity to continue attending Mass and receiving the sacraments, I lived life on the beaches, the mountains and on boats. Though I believed in God as the Creator, I did not live the life of a religious hermit as I had originally intended. Instead I embraced wide ranging religious ideologies. I gravitated toward secular thinking and found plenty of camaraderie. What didn’t come in the form of worldly ways during my life as a commercial fisherman surely befell me when I entered a licentious period as a writer. I had joined the national subculture of some 20 million baptized Catholics who no longer practice their faith. I had become a “fallen away Catholic,” as my grandfather used to call those who left the church either in quest of liberties granted by other forms of theology or those who walked away from any sort of Christly tethers altogether.
My departure from the Catholic Church left me with an uneasiness whenever I contemplated my journey with God. I knew too much about the Catechism and caught myself trying to arrive at various checkpoints in the journey through a feigned innocence. Not that other churches I had attended condoned my immorality, but I had drifted away from a discipline, an essential way of thinking, of praying, of examining conscience and of confessing.
Most tangible among the triggers would be the periodic discovery of one of my rosaries out among books or other trinkets in a storage shed. Though the familiarity of its beads would bring pangs of a guilt that I would later associate with a nudging of the conscience to grow closer to God, it was divine intervention and the intuition of my wife Cheryl that eventually lead me back to the Catholic Church.
Like many couples, we struggled in our marriage, and though we knew God must be at its center, we so often got caught up within ourselves. Cheryl, meanwhile, had begun watching EWTN and had a growing curiosity about the magnitude of Mary in Catholicism. This occurred shortly after we moved to the Palmer side of the Matanuska Valley.
At the same time, as parents we had started “church hopping” in our desire to provide some Godly roots for our kids. For several months we were unable to reach consensus in joining churches of this or that denomination, and we settled the matter by rotating among individual choices each Sunday. On a particular weekend, when it seemed we had tried them all, it was my turn, and I suggested attending Mass at St. Michael Catholic Church in Palmer. I prepared myself for our awkward genuflections and kneeling during the consecration.
While the kids had questions about incense, holy water and other rituals after Mass, Cheryl experienced an epiphany of sorts and shortly thereafter enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), by which adults come into the Catholic Church. A year later, on the eve of her confirmation and first Holy Communion Father Tom Brundage asserted our marital vows — this time they were sacramental.
As for me, the return to the faith has been blissful as I rediscover the purpose of spiritual tools that were given to me when I was young. In a sense I have arrived, broken, but back at the threshold of a great workshop that I’ve had access to since I was a kid. At its center, like some great lathe or milling machine, is Christ’s passion, replete with the original manual on how to accept pain and create selflessness, and the periphery has been festooned with the seven sacraments, with Sacred Scripture, Holy Mass, adoration, the daily recitation of the Rosary and countless chaplets and prayers. Practicing one aspect of the faith, I have discovered, leads to a desire to practice others.
I still struggle with sin, the reality of death and the endlessness of eternity like I imagine anyone who’s bothered contemplating such matters might. With my return to Catholic discipline, however, I find hope in reaching for perfection as each day ticks toward the end of my tenure here on earth. And hope fuels my journey toward eternity, one day at a time.