Somewhere between the steel framed bed racks, fluorescent lights and linoleum tile, I lost my sense of self. It wasn’t a permanent thing. I remembered who I was just as quickly. In that Navy compartment, after doing jumping jacks for so long that the pain no longer felt like pain, all of me dulled away. It was a lot like meditations I’d done before, but also totally different. The heat steamed from our bodies, and we watched in confusion as our sweat condensed on the ceiling above us and began to rain. Rain from inside! It was miraculous, but I couldn’t enjoy it then. Only later, when I had a sense of who and where I was did I find it beautiful.
In that brief moment when I ceased to be me, when I was empty and void as much physically as mentally, something changed in me. Some deep question that I had thought I would never answer was answered. It was like I found some tiny piece of a puzzle so large, I’d never be able to see it all at once. But just having the one piece proved there was a puzzle. And so, before I did jumping jacks, I was Agnostic, and after I did them, I was Catholic again.
It’s a simple way to put it. It suggests that all in one moment, I was converted from not believing to believing; in the blink of an eye, I found God. That’s not the way of it at all, though. In fact, my division already called me Reverend long before those jumping jacks. I led the nightly prayer just after lights out. I was the one people confided in.
So what changed, then? I didn’t find God in that moment. I didn’t recognize or necessarily believe in the divinity of Christ, yet. I had always been interested in religions, especially in Gnosticism, and metaphysics. This was different, though. Something changed the Sacred from an aspect of my intellectual desire, manifested through the numinous, and experienced through hierophany to a totally inhabited presence around and with me. And most importantly, I felt it very strongly.
It was strong enough, in fact, that I felt the need to explain to my old friends as soon as I talked to them. I told them I considered myself Christian again, setting it up before them like a sign they could either accept or walk away from. Despite all of my previous observations on converts and the ridiculous over-zealous acceptance and implementation of their new faiths, I walked right into the same trappings. I am a little embarrassed now about that time, but I think it’s necessary for some people.
So this strong presence was upon me, and somehow I knew it was God, and I knew what the message was. It was as clear as day, but totally inexpressible in words. I was called to something, I had a vocation. I didn’t know what it meant, precisely, and even now I still see only tiny pieces of the puzzle. I assume it will always be like that.
Part of me always expected that the Saints felt something overwhelming and precise when they had their revelatory moments. Something in them should have snapped and separated the one day sinner to the new day saint. I always thought that was how things happened, quick and absolute, like in Bible stories. But even those stories didn’t happen overnight. Long years of oral tradition may have made them seem that way, but things always seem to have taken their time.
As an example, though not Biblical, Saint Ignatius Loyola was a soldier in the army when on May 20th, 1521, in the citadel of Pampeluna, a cannonball passed between his legs, crushing the bone and muscle. While he was recovering from his wounds (a process that nearly killed him) he read the stories of Christ. After a long time, the true message was finally revealed to him and he realized that he had been living for the things of this world, but he was being called to live for the eternal. From the story, it sounds like there and then he was a changed and holy person, destined to become a saint, but that’s only the beginning. Just like me, Ignatius found his calling while he was injured in the military, and just like me, he had no idea what to do with the knowledge when he left. He traveled to Jerusalem and back again and to all manner of places for six years before he decided to seek formal education. During those years, he starved himself next to death in hope of finding revelation of God’s intentions for him. He ran wherever he felt called and did whatever he could. In the end, time and prayer brought understanding. Later, St. Ignatius would organize that time of careful reflection and self examination into his Book of the Spiritual Exercises.
If God causes you to suffer much, it is a sign that He has great designs for you, and that He certainly intends to make you a saint. And if you wish to become a great saint, entreat Him yourself to give you much opportunity for suffering; for there is no wood better to kindle the fire of holy love than the wood of the cross, which Christ used for His own great sacrifice of boundless charity.
- Saint Ignatius Loyola - The testament of Ignatius Loyola, being sundry acts of our Father Ignatius, under God, the first founder of the Society of Jesus, taken down from the Saint’s own lips by Luis Gonzales (1900)