(Letter to Kerry Zmatick continued)
Last week I ended with, “In a time when both the Church and I were forgetting the supernatural reality of the Christian life, I met people who never let me forget that to be a Christian is to live in a supernatural reality.” I shall elucidate.
In the college seminary I was attending at the time we were given a steady diet of “Christ as....” Christ as Marxist liberator, Christ as mythic hero.... Christ as weaver of tales and teller of stories..... Never Christ as son of God and Savior. We had a rookie professor fresh from a liberal German University who kept telling us all we really had was an empty tomb, nothing more. He used to gather us in the chapel to teach dreary songs about the empty tomb and other Biblical quandaries. We called them the Dead Sea Chanties.
He didn’t last long. Ran off with a nun, I think. We were fed a steady diet of Christ figures that included Easy Rider, Billy Bud and Cool Hand Luke. Nobody believed that there was anything supernatural about the Gospel. Jesus was a swell moral example and nothing more. Then I had this amazing experience and met all sorts of apparently normal people who loved Jesus, talked about Him like He was really alive and had more joy than any circus train I’ve ever ridden on. I remember going home for summer break and telling my parents that God spoke in our times, the Bible was true, God healed the sick and you could have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They looked confused and said “We’ve been trying to tell you that for 18 years.” That stopped me in my tracks. I realized that all this wonderful new truth I had discovered was the same as the wonderful old truth by which my parents and most of the Catholics I knew had tried to live their lives. The speaking in tongues and being loud in church were a little odd, but the rest was what we had always believed as Catholics. There really was no reason for me to leave the Church or the seminary. In fact, now I had a real reason to be in the seminary, having lost my purpose a few years back. It was all good....for about six months.
I went to house prayer meetings and home Masses that went till midnight. Hundreds of us would gather in a Presbyterian church for a glorious meeting where Pastor Floyd Weaver, a Methodist minister would preach and pray for the sick and those who wanted to receive the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit.”
Then the snake arrived in the Garden. Pastor Floyd would preach about how God was forming the perfect church (us). People started getting words from the Lord that we were to leave our stuffy old denominational churches and join the perfect church that God was forming (us). At one of the beautiful home masses, an Episcopalian woman who had left her stuffy old denomination came up to me and said, “Thus says the Lord: You are not to continue studying for the Catholic priesthood, You are to leave the Catholic Church and join the perfect new church (us).”
It was a starry night and I remember going out and lying down on the ground, looking up at the stars and saying, Lord, what do you want me to do. The still small voice inside said “Hold on.” It didn’t say to what, so I decided to hold on to the Roman Catholic Church because I believed that Jesus had founded it and would not forsake it. I left the group. They called and looked for me. In fact they kind of stalked me, but I made myself scarce. Just a side note. About a year after I got out of the perfect church (us), it was announced that no one was to prophesy or speak publicly in the meeting except the twelve apostles appointed by pastor Floyd. Then a while after, no one was to speak in the meeting except Pastor Floyd. Then Pastor Floyd announced that he would make the major decisions for the congregation. This included the buying and selling of real estate the arranging of marriages and even the purchase of furniture in the homes of members. There is now no trace of the perfect church (us). I can’t even find it on the web. I guess the west suburbs of Chicago just weren’t ready for perfection. I sure wasn’t.
Meanwhile, St. Peter tells us that the dog returns to its vomit (2Peter2:22) and I returned to life at Crayola University. Let the good times roll. They say if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there. There are very large hunks of the late sixties of which I have absolutely no memory. Enough said. I do remember a brief stint as a fashionable socialist, intrigued by the life and times of Leon Trotsky. A few things happened that separated me from my slide into the gutter. The peace committee of which I was a very active member had a big fight during peace week and split down the middle. The violently non-violent faction got into a heated argument with the non-violently non-violent faction. I decided the whole thing was nuts.
At about the same time a young woman with whom I was keeping company went home from a party with someone other than me and so I figured I should make up my mind about this priesthood thing one way or another. I went on a retreat at a Trappist Monastery and there I found a bunch of monks who led a charismatic prayer group and, having softened on the issue, I sat in. Four hours later, I was again a convinced Pentecostal or whatever we were calling ourselves at the time.
I started work at an orphanage where there two Charismatic nuns who stuck to me like white on rice. I had a car and they needed rides to prayer meetings. I would come back from the orphanage late at night and go to chapel pleading with the Lord to tell me what I was supposed to do. I kept asking “What’s my ministry Lord?” A couple of friends invited me to hear a Pentecostal Gospel singer/prophetess. She was great, an African American woman who had the requisites to really belt out a tune. After the meeting when she was praying over us, and looked at me and prophesied. She said, “Honey, you are going to be a Gospel teacher. It’s written all over your face.”
The nuns and I had started going to a Catholic prayer meeting downtown, and when the group found out that I was in the seminary, I was immediately appointed to teach the introduction seminar explaining what all this was to visitors. I was clueless so I did some quick research, gave the seminar and thus was born the future Reverend Know-it-all.
The rest is, as they say, history. I returned to the seminary and started to actually learn things. I studied History, Latin, Greek and Hebrew and became a truly fanatical Pentecostal in a liberal Catholic institution. I was the kind of fellow who glared at you if you so much as mentioned beer. I would tear the cigarette from your mouth, loudly protesting that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I made no converts and won no friends. By the time I was in the theology graduate school, there were some professors who suspected I was not ordination material. I wish I could say that it was because I was obnoxious, because I truly was and often still am.
Subsequent developments have made me think that they understood the real danger of Pentecostalism, not that it was fanatical, but that it was actually very traditional. Pentecostals worshiped the God who works wonders. They worshiped the God who gives seminars. I was hauled on the carpet for being too “proclamational” and not “incarnational” enough. That meant I talked too much about Jesus. I was distraught at the thought that I was not to be ordained. I remember how sad I was at the First Mass of a friend who had just been ordained, but a rather frightened looking woman came up to me and said, ”I don’t know why I am doing this. I don’t really know anything about the Holy Spirit. I’ve just started going to the prayer meetings, but the Lord told me to come over here and tell you that you are going to be a priest. They will ordain you, but whatever is happening to you now will happen to you the rest of you life.” I was thunderstruck. A few days later I got the news that most of the seminary faculty had rallied around me and I was to be sent forward for ordination. It was a great lesson to me.
First, I learned that you can’t bludgeon someone into faith. You have to be Christ before you speak Christ. Second I realized that no matter what happened I really wanted to be a priest. No one conned me into it or lied to me about its difficulties. I have no illusions about weak and sinful men like myself who are given responsibility in the Church; and third, I have learned to worry only when someone is NOT complaining about me. I had letter-writing campaigns directed at me, I had people march in protest.
I’ve had nasty letters written anonymously and have been hauled on carpet after carpet. I’ve even been vilified in the “Frostbaitske Foss Daglega Bull Tímarit” (Icelandic/ Frostbite Falls Daily News Journal). It was great. They accused me of being a Nazi. They were only the first to call me that. I know that when people are unhappy about what I’m saying, I’m saying something that they are hearing, unless of course I am being a jerk and they are unhappy with me for perfectly good reasons. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matt. 5:11)
Still, every once in a while I say something that gets a rise out of people in a way that I hope pleases the Lord. The difficult times have been made much less difficult because the Holy Spirit has sent people into my life who really spoke for God. To me, that is the heart of Pentecostal spirituality. It is not so much about loud prayer meetings and catchy music. It is quite the opposite. It is about hearing God.
Next Week: “My ministry among the ex-patriot Icelandic Cod Fishing Community of the Frostbite Falls Harbor District.”
“I can tell when a fish is rotten.”