I was born in 1968 to Catholic parents in a small, predominantly Catholic Belgian village. Jesus, Mother Mary, and the Church were ever-present in my childhood and youth. We attended Mass weekly, crucifixes hung in every room of the house, and the local primary school was run by religious sisters. I slept in the same bedroom as my grandmother, who was in her 80s. She suffered from acute rheumatism and used a cane. She would pray the Rosary daily while looking at the funeral cards of the many acquaintances who had passed away throughout her long life.
When I was young, my parents, four siblings, and I went to Lourdes, up in the French Pyrenees mountains, on a diocesan-sponsored pilgrimage in a train with sleeper cars. This was my first experience of travel. At certain times of the day, we all prayed the Rosary together; then pious songs were piped in over the train’s intercom system. Lourdes itself was a thrilling sight — all the pilgrims, young and old, entire families, the sick and the handicapped, the priests and the religious sisters … Mother Mary, the Grotto, the holy water, the thousands of disabled people in wheelchairs and litters. Then there was the site itself, the mountains, the charming city. It all made a deep and lasting impression on me.
In the years following, we returned three times to Lourdes. At age 18, I wanted to push the wheelchairs and take care of the disabled people like I saw so many other young adults doing. At the same time, my life was rather superficial, and my faith was not very solid. At home, we didn’t pray together or talk about our faith. In fact, our faith seemed more a duty than a joy; we had to go to Mass and to be good on the inside. At home, however, I daily witnessed my father’s alcohol abuse and rage.
During the years I spent in the school run by the religious sisters, we prayed at the beginning of class, and the sisters and lay teachers were very pious. A couple of the sisters combined their piety with a soft, joyful love. To prepare for Confirmation, I was taught the catechism, but it didn’t sink in; I’m not sure whether I actually believed any of it, I remember nothing of that instruction.
I blamed my lack of interest in school and church on my home situation. My father was often drunk and would rage at us, blaming our mother for his frustrations and terrorizing the entire family with his unpredictable behavior. I recall my mother, a simple housewife, trying to please him as best she could and shedding many tears. My father seemed to favor my two older brothers; it was as if I were invisible. Home was not a safe place for me, and I retreated to comic books, adventure stories, and a whole imaginary world. As the years passed, I built up a mountain of unprocessed loneliness, social dysfunction, and anger, making me an addict waiting to happen.
When I was ten years old, bad things started to happen: Without my consent, I was placed in a boarding school; my defensive shell grew thicker there in order to survive the concrete and brick jungle of 250 boys. A month later, my grandmother died, and nobody even noticed my devastating pain; another layer of shell formed. I turned my anger against God and soon stopped praying — praying was something my grandmother had taught me. That same year, while I was still a child, a family member and an older boy at school violated me sexually. This had a devastating effect on me. Over the next two years, another family member, two other boys at school, and a priest did the same. I felt it was unsafe to tell anyone, and I “became as sick as my secrets,” waxing ever more negative, secretive and defiant. When I discovered the vice of masturbation at age 13, I was immediately addicted and did it constantly, a drug to numb the emotions, to escape reality, and to construct a self-centered, cerebral world. With my ever-progressing fantasies to get a “high” — dreaming of girls, family members, teachers, pictures from magazines and television — I was a sex addict from the beginning.
My school grades plummeted as I became ever more defiant, arrogant, cold-hearted, and negative. I started smoking and drinking secretly, becoming addicted to those substances as well. A year later, when I was 14, I ran away from school with a classmate, hitchhiking and riding buses some 180 miles to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. We were so alienated from reality that we wanted to live with a gang as punks. I didn’t know what a punk was, but it sounded like a perfect fit for our ideal of a pessimistic, slothful, and hedonistic lifestyle. Thank God we were arrested that same night by the Amsterdam police!
I remember my anger when my father failed to understand that the problem was not mine alone, but had engulfed the entire family. Again, I retreated into myself out of fear. I was placed in another boarding school, where I conformed outwardly only. At age 15, I had all the earmarks of an alcoholic; once a gifted student, I now relied on cheat sheets to graduate from high school. And at that point, ironically, even as I still managed to get good grades in religion class, I had become a God-hater in my heart.
God had given me a talent for drawing, so I chose to attend an art academy. I did well the first year, but then was consumed by alcohol, cigarettes, lust, girls, sex, and drugs. I wasn’t able to finish the second year. However, during that first year, I discovered classical music. One day I was listening to the unearthly and beautiful music of J.S. Bach and felt that a being greater than myself was listening through me to the music. This was the beginning of my spiritual search for truth.
A boy from my class was attending a weekly yoga class. I went with him, desperate over my inability to control my depraved behavior. The classes were followed by Hindu music and meditation, wooing me into a new, exotic world which promised inner peace and ecstasy. I read everything I could find in the library on Eastern philosophy, devouring them with open heart and soul. I became a vegetarian and tried without success to leave my addictions behind. So I combined my meditation with drugs and sex. Those addictions led me ever further astray, now to the depths of depravity.
Then one day I encountered a Hare Krishna devotee on a busy downtown street and bought their flagship book. To be honest, I understood little of it, but it still seemed to be the summit of all that I had read before on Oriental religion — maybe even a better religion than the faith of my childhood. I was hooked on that movement for the next seven years, mainly because of their opulent food, the dancing and singing, and the exotic and unearthly side of it. I tried hard to become a monk, to encounter some kind of mystical experience, but I have to admit that I never had that. I never actually got anything more out of my time with them than an intellectual understanding of its philosophy.
Thanks to Hare Krishna, I was able to stop drinking and smoking at age 26, but my sexual problems continued, going into prostitutes and hard pornography. I felt extreme shame for leading this double life.
During those seven years, I read Hare Krishna books daily, prayed and meditated according to their prescription. Five times I went to India for several months to travel around and immerse myself in Hindu spirituality. I now thank the Lord that I never had the spiritual experiences I was looking for, never was initiated by one of their gurus and never got married within the movement. I believe that my grandmother in heaven and my mother on earth have been praying for me, and that the Lord has protected me from falling even further into the cesspool.
At age 30, I became desperate and suicidal. One day, I even knelt on the floor, invoking the devil and asking him for 5,000 years of selfish sexual indulgence in exchange for my soul. Fortunately, he didn’t show up. At least not in person. But the disease kept getting worse. My sex addiction had destroyed all my values, aspirations, and dreams.
Divine providence led me to a newspaper article about a self-help group for sex addiction, using a model similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I contacted them and participated with their group. For the first time in my life, I started bringing what was inside me out and sharing it with the others. What relief I felt those first months, realizing that I was not alone. I was not a pervert, but a sex addict. They said that the 12 Steps of AA would help if I worked at them. I did work hard for the next 10 years, but got only periods of partial sobriety and recovery, every time falling back even lower than before. I found myself, at times, “in a state of pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization,” as the AAs describe it.
I am grateful for this first 12-Step fellowship, which helped me to get out of Hare Krishna. I recall reading in the fellowship’s literature that “religious convictions are not the same as a real spiritual awakening,” and that really struck me. All my Hare Krishna convictions had not afforded me a spiritual awakening, had not brought me more life, but on the contrary, more alienation, dysfunction, and despair.
After my time in Hare Krishna, for another 10 years I delved into the various practices of New Age — different kinds of meditations, tantra, healers, astrologists — but none of it satisfied my hunger for God. None of it led to real sexual sobriety. One of the reasons I now see that working with this fellowship didn’t give me any long-term sexual sobriety was that members were invited to define their own personal sexual sobriety. That was like asking a group of alcoholics to define their own cure. No wonder it didn’t work!
My addictive thinking and behavior progressively worsened over the years. In my eighth year with the fellowship, I broke up a long-term non-marital relationship and was devastated to the core of my being by the experience. To distract myself from my misery, I decided to walk the Camino (“path”) to Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwest of Spain where, according to tradition, the remains of the Apostle James the Less are buried. When I started out, I didn’t even know exactly where that city was, but I felt that I was going to break down if I didn’t go. From Belgium, it was a three-month trek.
It was an enormous experience — as beautiful as it was hard, and as hard as it was beautiful. The first month I wept every day, crying out to the God that I resented and blamed for my misfortune. I kept going, only because I had nothing to go back to. I crossed Belgium, France, the mighty Pyrenees, then walked for another month to the western edge of Spain. I had time to think, to reflect, to look at nature, the endlessly beautiful and infinitely varied creation, and I encountered only kindness in the people I met.
I had set out on this journey to heal the pain of the broken relationship and to reflect on my life. I looked on it as a spiritual quest and a great adventure, choosing to walk the entire three months alone. I had money for meals, but not for lodging, so every night I would ask the local priest or mayor for a place to sleep.
Although my destination was a Christian shrine, I didn’t set out to make it a Christian pilgrimage. But God (or perhaps St. James — Santiago in Spanish) tricked me through one of my biggest weaknesses: on one of the last days of my journey, my lust pointed out to me a beautiful young woman, and I managed to walk a day with her. She had a golden cross around her neck, and I asked her about it, not really interested in it, but as a means to spur conversation. She turned out to be Greek Orthodox, of Greek origin but living in the USA. She told me about her faith and about the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) and also about a book, The Way of the Pilgrim.
That was all that happened between us, and we never saw each other again, but the encounter changed my life. Once back home in Belgium, I got the book from the library and began praying the Jesus Prayer. In fact, I prayed it non-stop for three days. It was such a sweet experience and praying the Jesus Prayer filled my being. All I wanted to do was repeat the prayer, again and again. Each time I wanted to utter it better, more clearly. I wished I had more mouths to say it and more ears to hear it. It felt to me like this prayer was the only sentence in the world that made any sense at all.
After those three days, I unwound, and my prayer life returned to a more normal rhythm. This prayer was the first thing that returned me to the path toward Jesus.
On that first pilgrimage, I met people who had walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela three, four, even five times, and I thought they were nuts to do it. I had made the journey to heal my broken heart, and that was it. But afterwards, I was bitten by the pilgrimage bug, and two years later, I walked the Camino again, this time in reverse, from Spain back to Belgium. Sleeping in monasteries and attending catechism classes along the way, I started remembering, bit by bit, my childhood experiences of the Catholic Faith: children’s drawings of Jesus walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee, the breaking of bread and fish, my own drawings of those times. I noticed the Catholic signs all over Europe: hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, schools, etc. that bore saints’ names. It became clear to me that the Catholic Church had for centuries been the largest charitable organization in the world.
In spite of the good impact of these pilgrimages, my sex addiction continued to drag me down. The 12-Step fellowship I had belonged to for a decade was no longer functioning, and I grew desperately fearful. Two months later, someone told me of another 12-Step program he had discovered on a trip to the USA. He described some eye-opening things that they taught: that the problem is not compulsive sex, but lust, something that happens “between my ears,” inside my head and heart. This related directly to the way I look at a woman, sexualize her, “drink her in.” Strong language! Just like Jesus in the Gospel (Matthew 5:28): “But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Intuitively, I knew this was true. For years, I had focused on trying to change my behavior, not realizing that my behavior was simply a consequence of the deadly sin of lust.
Another thing this man told me, something that hit me right between the eyes, was that I had to “stop drinking lust.” I saw here the striking parallel between alcoholism and sex addiction, and between their respective resolutions. As an alcoholic, I had to abstain from that first glassful — because “one glass is too much, and a thousand not enough.” As a sex addict, I had to abstain from the first “drink” of lust.
He also sold me a copy of a book published by the 12-Step program, which opened my eyes further. It described my problem in masterly detail: an “addiction and allergy” to lust. Another impactful point: it described sobriety as “no sex with self and no sex outside marriage between a man and a woman.” Until then, I had looked down on marriage and those who were married, but the disease had brought me to my knees. It must have been the grace of God that I was able to accept this definition of sobriety as a drowning person clings to a life preserver.
At noon on August 20, 2009, the thought came to me to pray to Mother Mary — Mary, who had made such a tender and good-hearted impression on my child’s soul in Lourdes. With my body and soul both wrapped in pain, I prayed the Rosary. And from that day forward, I have been totally sober, according to the definition I had found in that 12-Step book. No porn, no masturbation, or sex with anyone other than the wife I would marry some seven years later! By the grace of an inconceivably loving God and the amazing fellowship which I experience as “God with skin,” I was freed. Understand: I am not cured. I have a lifelong allergy with lust which, like alcoholism, is incurable, progressive, and fatal. But, fortunately, it is treatable. The best way I have found to treat it is by following the 12-Step program with the support of the Fellowship. I can only do it one day at a time, according to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
Let me emphasize that this 12-Step fellowship, like any other 12-Step fellowship, is not in any way affiliated with any sect or denomination. It makes use of the same spiritual principles which the first AA members started practicing in the 1930s. It works for people regardless of whether they are religious or not.
When I accepted the definition of the 12-Step program and actually put it into practice, I experienced, for the first time since my childhood, how my feet touched spiritual ground. I worked the Steps and began to have a gradual spiritual awakening. In the program, God is referred to as a “Higher Power,” or “God as each individual personally understands Him.” It became ever clearer to me that He is an unconditionally loving and almighty Person. All signs seemed to point toward the Jesus I had abandoned in my childhood.
In prayer and meditation, I asked my Higher Power which direction He wanted me to take in order to grow closer to Him and His will. He showed me an inner compass pointing to the Catholic Church. I objected, “Oh no, Lord! Can’t I return to Hare Krishna? or Buddhism?” But the needle kept pointing towards the Church. Again, I tried: “Maybe I can be Greek Orthodox, then, since they are more exotic and more into meditation?” But the compass and its needle in my interior remained unchanged.
After eight months of sobriety, I had the fortune to join two Catholics on a two-and-a-half month pilgrimage from Canterbury, England to Rome, Italy. One of these companions was already 14 years sober from sexual acting out and lusting, thanks to his ongoing recovery in the same fellowship. On the way, I asked the two of them many questions about the Catholic Faith. We crossed France, Switzerland, the Alps, and traversed Italy to see, one morning, the majestic dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. On the way, I had taken several evenings to write a general confession of the last 30 years of my life, since I hadn’t confessed my sins since my early teens. I wrote down all of the sins I could remember committing against each of the Ten Commandments. I had thought of making my general confession in Rome; however, when we arrived there, I didn’t feel inspired to do so. While my two companions flew back to the UK, I walked another week to Assisi, the smaller and more modest hometown of St. Francis. But there, too, I didn’t feel called to make my confession.
Two months later, I was in Lourdes, finally doing what I had wanted to do during my teen years: a week of volunteer work with the elderly and disabled persons of my diocese. When Mother Mary had appeared in 1858 to a 14-year-old illiterate cowherd girl, she had instructed her at one time to dig with her hands in some dirty mud and “drink of the water.” Although there was no visible water, Bernadette had obeyed Mary and had found some watery mud and drank it. A few hours later, other villagers found a spring there, which has since cured innumerable people on the physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. Pilgrims from all over the world come to drink of this holy water.
Many pilgrims bathe in this water. A bathhouse has been constructed for this purpose, where the infirm are aided by well-trained volunteers to immerse themselves, reverently and prayerfully, in the water. One can see long lines of people — sick, healthy, handicapped, elderly, even the young — waiting daily to enter the water. I, too, went to bathe in this cold water. I was helped by four respectful volunteers, who also poured water over my head. We prayed a Hail Mary, then I was helped out of the concrete basin. At that very moment, a lucid thought entered my head: “I want you to make your general confession here in Lourdes.”
I hadn’t brought my confession list with me to Lourdes, so I phoned my landlord to enter my flat, find the list, and fax it to me without reading it. The next day, I went to the place at the shrine where confessions were being heard in many different languages. The priest I chose turned out to be an 84-year-old Salesian priest from Belgium, who had served all his life in the Congo. To my right hung a replica of Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son,” very appropriate for my personal situation. My confession took about an hour and a quarter, covering everything I had done from my last confession as a child until the present time. During much of this time, the priest laid his hands on mine, and at the end, he told me, “Welcome back to the Church, my son.” He then instructed me to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion. He also instructed me to continue confessing my sins regularly, and he gave me the name of a Salesian priest in my home town in Belgium, who was to become my confessor for a number of years afterwards.
I started regularly attending Mass again, but initially found it difficult to adapt to the seemingly boring services and the lack of social interaction, compared to the dancing and communal meals of the Hare Krishna group. For nearly two years, I visited various churches, until I found a parish which exhibited a reverence and liturgy that appealed to my soul.
Since that time in Lourdes, I have read the Gospels several times, many saints’ biographies, and a weekly Catholic newspaper. I went annually for six years to spend a week in Lourdes, doing volunteer work. I also made a fourth walking pilgrimage, this time from Rome to Medjugorje, in Bosnia–Herzegovina. My faith journey is ongoing, as I experience an endless battle of conversion. Surrendering my old ideas, my past convictions, my self-will, my ego with its vices and defects, each day a little more, to become more like Jesus.
Because of my struggle with memories of the time before my conversion, I asked my confessor if I should see an exorcist. He told me that I wasn’t possessed, but if I thought it would help, I could see one. I made an appointment with the archdiocesan exorcist. When we met, he again assured me that I was not possessed, but taking into account my former lifestyle, I would probably remain vulnerable to various temptations for the rest of my life.
Some years later, I wondered if God wanted me to become a priest. A priest friend and a middle-aged seminarian encouraged me in that direction, and I prayed over it, but my confessor said it would be too difficult for me, because of my battles with lust. About that time, while doing more international volunteer work, I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. Immediately, the Lord showed me by various means that He wanted me to pursue marriage.
The woman was a Catholic convert with a whole life story of her own. After a year of exchanging emails, we started dating. This wasn’t easy, since she was living in Spain, some 800 miles from Belgium. We both prayed, talked to friends and mentors, seeking God’s will for us. God’s grace kept me chaste while dating, and we were married on September 12, 2016, the Feast of the Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was then 48 and she 45.
Today, after several years of marriage, I can say that getting married has been very challenging at times but equally rewarding. The AA slogan, which I had heard many times over the years, certainly rings true for me today: “Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up.” Marriage has given me spiritual growth and a solid grounding in reality. It gives me an (often painful) awareness of the need to let go of my ego and selfishness and to change into a more humble, forgiving person.
I have been blessed with a wonderful wife who has a lot of spiritual wisdom and a more innocent and untainted faith in Jesus and His Church than me. She is a spiritual companion and a good friend. When marriage becomes difficult, I focus my thoughts on Jesus and His Cross or I remember our engagement period or wedding day and feel once again the sacramental nature of marriage.
I see Jesus today as the Supreme Choreographer, the Director of the macrocosmos and the microcosmos, the immense and the miniscule, the loving Maker of all creatures. I thank Him for my daily discipline to pray the Rosary. Every morning, I ask Him how I can best serve Him and try to obey Him throughout the day. I am even grateful for my addictions and all the hardships I experience, since without them, I would probably not stay motivated to persevere on the path He has laid out for me.
Thanks to persevering in the 12 Steps, I have been able to let go of the blame and resentment against my parents that I had stored up inside me for so many years. We now have restored our relationship, and I am grateful that they brought me up in the Catholic Church, grateful for all the holy values they taught me.
I see the Church today with adult eyes. As Jesus’ institution for all of us, saints and sinners, addicts and criminals alike. It is His beautiful and holy Body. I don’t have to be ashamed. I am not worse or better than anyone else. We are all called by Him on account of His infinite love for us.
I am currently reading Divine Mercy in My Soul by Saint Faustina. It is the most wonderful book, with page after page telling me about the God I was looking for in the wrong places. He fills me on a daily basis in the proportion I connect myself with Him.