Who's Coming To Whom?

A friend asked to hear the story of how I came to Jesus.  I replied briefly in an e-mail and I think I messed up a story I told.  I should never do more than one thing at a time.

I don't know that my story is a matter of coming to Jesus.  I've always known that Jesus has been with me.  We used to have long conversations, when I was growing up about how things were and nothing ever changed.  I went to a Catholic grade school and had a fairly typical experience there.  We were a small class with the usual cliques and issues that exist among a small group of very different children who are together for three-fourths of every year for eight straight years.

Our pastor for those eight years, Fr. Noll, was an eccentric man given to distraction and preoccupation, but he was a very good man and priest.  One of my classmates and I had similar builds, but very different names.  For eight straight years, though, Fr. Noll called me, "Alex" and called Alex, "Marcus," except for one time.  We were in the third grade and standing in the lunch line.  Fr. Noll came through the doorway at the end of the hall with his head down walking very quickly.  He seemed upset by something and did not appear as those he was aware of anything going on around him.  As he came up to our line, Fr. Noll suddenly stopped next to me and said, "Marcus!"

I was floored.  His demeanor combined with calling me by the right name had me thinking that I was in very serious trouble.  "Yes, Father."

Fr. Noll looked me in the eyes and said, "Do you know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant?"

"No, Father."  I don't know that I have ever been as bewildered as I was at that moment, but I was paying attention.

"Well, if you ask one Protestant what he believes, he'll tell you one thing.  If you ask another Protestant what he believes, he'll tell you something else.  If you ask a third Protestant what he believes, he'll tell you something different still.  But if you ask a Catholic what he believes, he'll tell you the Nicene Creed.  The problem is most Catholics don't even know that.  Know your faith, Marcus."  With that Fr. Noll walked away.

I took Father's admonition to heart and have spent the rest of my life learning all I can about my Catholic faith.  My studies have given me a very good, academic understanding of my faith, although I have not always allowed what I know to affect the way I live.  For me Jesus has always been there.  I've never lost sight of Him and I've always maintained a relationship with Him, but it was always a relationship on my terms.  I never allowed Him to get too close.

A big reason I have kept Jesus at a distance was because I have not trusted Him.  All through grade school, I was taught that if you ask, you shall receive.  God is there to help you.  Christ has a special love for children.  God is love.  With all of that circling inside my brain, I would beg God every night to make some things better.  Well, things got worse.  No one ever talked to us about how we suffer.  The teachers and pastors only told how Christ suffered, so we wouldn't suffer eternal damnation.  The suffering we are going to do was left out, so I had no understanding of what was going on or how I was supposed to respond to any of it.

Even now as an adult with a tad bit more wisdom and understanding, suffering is not something I understand all that well, especially this suffering that seems to never have an end to it.  Looking back, I know now that I was completely unequipped to deal with what was going on at the time.

Along with the lack of any kind of teaching about suffering was a strikingly unreal depiction of the saints.  The saints were shown to us as role models, but role models we could never hope to emulate.  "Now, class, as a small child, St. Whomever prayed for ten hours a day before the Blessed Sacrament and only ate once a week.  Shouldn't we all try to be just like St. Whomever?"

I remember sitting in class hearing stories similar to this and thinking that I enjoyed playing with my G. I. Joe and my green army men and wondering why that was wrong.  I knew even then that I was never going to get to Heaven, since I did like to eat at least daily and I prayed, but didn't see the need in making it into a nuisance.

By the time I got to high school, I think I had become numb to most of what I had been taught in all of those religion classes and had started looking to my friends for what was lacking in other parts of my life.  Once I had discovered that a few girls did like me and were willing to date me, I was enchanted with women and love and dating.  With all of the breakups and heartaches and disappointments, dating women didn't seem any different that believing in God.  From my perspective, both were fickle, self-centered, and couldn't really be trusted.  The fact that women were flesh and blood and God wasn't kind of gave women the edge.  I had spent too long talking into the air and getting results similar to the ones I got from talking with women.  At least women would occasionally kiss me.

From my first date in high school through my "marriage" and divorce, my relationships with women have been horrible at best and my relationship with God has not been much better.  I've not been able to trust anyone, so for the most part, my relationships with women and with God have been more about what I can get before they go away.  There was no point in dedicating myself to a person who had no more inclination to be with me than to be with someone else.  Without the ability to trust, there cannot be a relationship.  Trust is the foundation upon which a good, solid relationship must be built.

There have been three exceptions to what I just said and with those three women, I did everything I knew how to be a man they would want for a husband.  Those three failures only served to increase my bitterness, anger, cynicism and my selfishness.  God has since shown me that those relationships were not right for me.  I think He had given me that insight then, but I chose to ignore it much as I chose to ignore a lot back then.

Adding to my mistrust and cynicism was my experience before entering the college seminary for my archdiocese and my one semester there.  My naiveté and the good example set by the priests and sisters in my life prior to that experience did not prepare me in any way for what I encountered during that time.  The experience almost destroyed me.  Only God's love and strength got me through that, but I went wild after that.  Well, as wild as I get.  I wanted as far away from all of it as I could get, but not too far away.  I still attended Mass and went to confession occasionally.

Despite all of this, God has always been there pricking my conscience and keeping me on a path that was not as narrow as it should have been, but not as wide as it could have been.  For example, when I was in grad school, I was dating an underclassman and she asked me once, why I had premarital sex, if I believed it was wrong.  I told her, because I was selfish. If nothing else, I'm honest.  It had been about four years since I had left the seminary and her question that afternoon was what prompted me to let go of that experience and to think more about where I was and where I wanted to be.

About five years ago, when my life began to fall apart completely, I did turn back to God, but not because there was nowhere else to turn.  I turned to God, because all of those religion classes and all I had read and studied had taught me that only God had the power to help me out of the mess in which I had found myself.  So, I prayed and the more I prayed the more my life fell apart.  This time, though, I worked hard to overcome my fears and mistrust and depend on God.  These last three years may have been the hardest of my life, but they've, also, been among the best.  God took me out of a horrible situation of my own making and has made these last three years a kind of intense, personal retreat.

My relationship with God is much better than it ever has been.  I've lost a lot of my cynicism and anger, but there is still some there.  My situation in life right now is not at all what it should be, but I persevere in my efforts, my prayer and my hope in God.  Honestly, I don't understand my suffering.  I don't like it, but I endure it knowing that I can't suffer more than Christ did just by becoming human, let alone suffering His Passion and Death.  I am a wimp about it, a lot.  It's the loneliness, I think, the lack of human touch.  And the unemployment.  I'll make it one way or the other, because I don't think God will let me have it any other way.  He's gotten me this far through a whole lot of crap that I piled on myself.  He seems pretty determined to get me the rest of the way.  I just have no idea where this is heading.  Uncertainty is a pain.  It makes trust difficult, but then there would be no merit in it.  All in all, Jesus and I are a lot closer and we're getting closer all of the time.  Maybe, just maybe, I'll make it yet.

I have to state without equivocation that my Catholic faith, especially the Sacred Liturgy and the sacraments, are responsible for getting me to where I am now.  The Church has been the means by which God has kept me close to Him and has allowed me to grow.  Without the grace He has given me in the Sacred Liturgy and in the sacraments, I would probably be dead now.  I am Catholic, because I choose to be.  It is in His Church that I know Him as my Lord, my Savior and my Brother.  I cannot know Him anywhere else than in His Church where He has given me all that He is.

This is a brief account, not of me coming to Jesus, but of finally allowing Jesus to come to me.  Jesus has always been there.  I've held him away from me until now.  My story is not about a destination, but about a journey where I have pushed Jesus away and drawn Him closer as I matured and changed my perspective.  It's a journey that will continue until I die.  I hope this answers my friend's question.


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