(Converts enter the Church by participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which is basically months of "catechism" classes and a series of rituals culminating in entry into the Church through confirmation and sometimes baptism. I wrote this about 8 years ago, it refers to events that happened 7 years before that. This is excerpted from The Elephant Chronicles)
In my Archdiocese, RCIA starts in September in most parishes and the participants are brought into the Church at Easter Vigil, which is the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. The eight weeks leading up to Easter are what we call Lent, and this is a very prayerful time in the Church. So it is too, for those in RCIA. It’s during this time that we make our first confession.
They don’t call it that any more. Officially, it is Reconciliation, which is a much more accurate description of what happens in that process, but most Catholics still call it confession. For those who are not Catholic, whatever you may have heard, Reconciliation is a wonderful thing. It was for me and for every person I ever spoke to who did this the first time as an adult. But, before you do it, it’s really scary. Think about it. Think about going to a man you hardly know and telling him, as an adult, all the most miserable things you have done in your life. All at once. You can’t possibly say everything, even if you could remember, but what if you made a list of the biggies. How will he react? How will God react? (Silly thought, huh? Like God wouldn’t know unless we told Him.)
That night I was in the church with my sponsor and the rest of my RCIA class. Father is in the Reconciliation room and people are taking turns. There's no real line, it's takes a while the first time, and folks are gathered around in small nervous groups, and someone will finally get up the courage to go stand by the door. My very spiritual sponsor and I are in a pew by ourselves on our knees praying. Like I said, she is a real prayerful person and I was more comfortable being apart from everyone. Well, she is praying and I am just trying to hang in. But I look like I’m praying, anyway, hands folded, head down, mind a fearful blank. Then, I felt something. I felt, from the right and above my head, something descend on me, like a warm rush of air, but like tiny prickles of energy. It was warm. I thought, “The heat must have come on.” I was startled and looked up and around for the heating vent, which I thought must be in the ceiling. My sponsor notices my movement and smiling says, “What it is?” I told her what I just told you, that the heat must have come on. She says, “Oh, that’s the Holy Spirit.”
Uh-huh. Of course, I agree with her. But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? So, I say to her, “I’m too nervous, I think I will go walk around.” She stays and I go off to get a view of the church and figure out where the air vents are, because I didn’t want to contradict her or hurt her feelings with my disbelief, but c’mon, obviously it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. I get behind her where she can’t see me and start looking around. Okay, so I am not real observant; it was the first time I realized the church was hot water heated. There were no hot air vents. There are some big vents for the blowers for the swamp cooler in the summer, but of course this was winter. Besides, none of those were anywhere near where we had been kneeling, essentially all alone in the center of the right side section of pews. There was nothing above and to the right but ceiling.
So, what was that? What the heck, I think, maybe it was the Holy Spirit. Though it occurred to me at the time if I am going to have some sort of supernatural experience at least it ought to be more psychologically transforming, don’t you think? I mean, shouldn’t there be some point to such a thing? I was still nervous as a cat and decided to get it over with and went and stood by the door to the Reconciliation room to be next.
Okay, the thing about a first confession is that it covers everything, all the things you have done, even that which you do not remember, haven’t the time to say or whatever. This is where you are freed from everything that has separated you from God, you are reconciled. It’s like you run up to your Father after you cut up his favorite sports team shirt to make doll clothes and he scoops you up and says, “Never mind, I love you.” So, after I tell the priest all my stuff, this wonderful spirit-filled man, he says something formulaic, but that formula to him is a profound Truth as he acts in the person of Christ, part of what he says is, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...” At that moment, there was another absolute flood of warm energy, again from the upper right, something entered into me. Then I knew: Whatever the Holy Spirit is, this was from that. This was real.
If something is going to be a Sacramental experience, like Reconciliation, I suppose I might expect something unusual. (I didn't, but I was trying to account for subconscious expectations.) So during my first Reconciliation, that would be a place and time where it would make sense for me to imagine something. But what about before that? Whatever happened in the pew didn’t have a ready explanation, not even a handy-dandy psychological one. It was just something that came out of nowhere. It was also not something I expected at that moment. Or any moment. When this same phenomenon happened in the Reconciliation room, I can say that I knew then that it was real, that this was from outside of myself. The first incident in the pew, allowed my sponsor to identify for me what it was. And, to make it clear later, that it is not something imagined. After what happened at that moment of forgiveness and Grace, I didn’t understand it, I just accepted it. It wasn’t until much later that I read enough about other people’s experiences to find it was common to describe the warmth, the tingling pinpoint energy, “electric fog.”
Yet that time, even though I accepted, I am also my own greatest skeptic. As this experience faded into the past, it quickly became just something to puzzle over. And, after all, so what? If this were from God, what difference had it made? Which is kind of like a person realizing that the heat is from the bulb and thinking the light is from somewhere else. I really was not “getting it.”
Now, seven or so years later, I think I might have a clue what part of that was about. First, something happened in that Reconciliation room, something real. Something healed. But then, something always heals in Reconciliation, though I didn’t understand that, then. As I started to explore reality after my integration, as I began to believe things that the Church might take exception to, I had to examine my own “faith in my Faith.” God validated the Church to me in many ways before I ever realized I would need that. There came a time in all my seeking out of elephants, that I wondered: If there is no “religion” on the Other Side, is it all something we just make up and it doesn’t mean anything? Is Reconciliation, or any Sacrament, real?
Silly question. Because of course I immediately thought of this experience, this reality of the Spirit in the act of Reconciliation and knew that however it is created, this Sacrament is as real as it gets: this place where we and Jesus Christ are literally present together in time and space and eternity. Reconciliation is, indeed, one of the Keys to the Kingdom. The key isn’t just the power to forgive, the Key is the acceptance of our own actions and even more the acceptance of Love as assured to us. There may be a great deal more to Reconciliation for us all than formal confessions, but that action, by intention and faith, it pretty much is as real an encounter with the Infinite as there can be. So, whatever I was going to be led to understand, I would find it in the context of my Church. And no matter what any person anywhere said, I was what I was (not, not crazy - a psychic medium) and I was Catholic and no one could make me not that because: God called me, Jesus led me, the Holy Spirit baptized me. I was never leaving.
Which leaves the last question I asked myself. IF, seven years ago, I had this gift of the Spirit which made no sense to me at that time, because I needed to have an answer to a question I was going to ask seven years later, does that mean that God knew I was going to ask the question seven years later? Does that mean God actually had a plan for me all along?
Listen, if you are sitting around staring at the blank walls of your life, or maybe the ones crawling with snakes, and thinking “this is all there is” then you might want to re-think that. Seriously, no one on this earth could have convinced me that there was any future in my future. I was just not one of those special people. I got news for you. We are ALL those special people. The simple fact of your existence on earth is, as God has said, Good.
What I wanted in the Church, was not to have friends, or be told what to do. What I wanted was a relationship with God. The spirit that never splits or dies, the part of me that was always me, remembered the moment in childhood of my first True Sacrament. But I didn’t know how to do that, get a relationship with God. My beloved sponsor gave me a copy of When the Well Runs Dry by Thomas H. Green. This book led me to find a copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, the Evelyn Underhill edition which is worth owning just for her introduction. And that is when I knew I needed to do contemplative prayer.
I don’t think my sponsor expected me to go quite so far, and she said her own spiritual advisor had cautioned her against this kind of prayer. I have run into this attitude several times, that no one should undertake contemplation unless they have guidance. I ignored all of that. I was not the kind of person who had the tools to find a spiritual director, and I was not going to ignore what was so clearly a call. Since, I have run into several people who are pursuing this on their own and we jokingly call ourselves “closet contemplatives.” The thinking seems to be that this sort of deep opening to God can be dangerous in some way and leave the person open to evil influences of some sort. For myself, I never did contemplation at the beginning anywhere but in my church about two feet from the Tabernacle in which the Body of my Lord resides. Nothing bad could ever happen to me there. It is still, after all of these years, my favorite place to pray. God does not call us and then go wandering off, leaving us to be devoured by wolves.
But, we always have to be aware of our frailty, that we are not perfect infallible beings. We all need validation. The first time I went to do contemplative prayer, I started out on a kneeler. As I composed myself and began, I received my validation. It had been many weeks since my first Reconciliation, but now, on that kneeler alone in the church, came that familiar rush of energy. I took it as a sign: yes, this is what you are supposed to be doing, I’m here for you. I thought that this was so wonderful, that I would always be able to count on this sign so that I would have a way of knowing when I was doing what I was “supposed” to do. That was seven years ago. I have never had that sign again. Ever.
And I came to realize that this was, in itself, a communication from God. His way, always. His choice, His act. What comes from eternity is not by our intent or action, but by His grace. And this is how we are assured we are not “making it up.” Because we cannot make it happen.
But, oh my God why me? Job asked God for an explanation of his sufferings. Why would a man so good be subject to things so terrible? Why would someone as - just really not so good at all - someone like me, have such grace? I think we both got the same answer.