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A Secular Guy Comes to Christ

David McHugh
February 3, 2021 No Comments

I was born to a Lutheran mother and a Catholic father, grew up in Bavaria, Germany, and was baptized Catholic as an infant. My parents divorced when I was nine years old. Since my mother took custody, I was not raised as a Catholic, nor did I receive Catholic Confirmation. Instead, my sister and I attended a Lutheran church growing up. After high school, I moved to Los Angeles to reconnect with my father. There, I met my first wife, Dina. I adopted her daughter, Olivia, and we had two more children, Anya and Quentin. Since church did not play a large role in our lives, we were married in a civil ceremony. Eventually, we started attending a Methodist church, where Dina and the kids were baptized.

Although I liked many of the Methodist church hymns, I never felt any urge to begin a prayer life. At one point, I joined the church choir. However, most of the sermons I heard did not resonate with me, and they were quickly forgotten. Besides attending church, there were the occasional volunteer efforts: making sandwiches for the homeless, sorting groceries and cans into paper bags for delivery to needy families, that sort of thing. I never sought a personal relationship with God or Jesus Christ. In hindsight, I am sure there were many promptings by God’s grace; however, I did not cooperate with them, at least not consciously.

January 2017

I am sitting in the Evangelical church in Davis, California, with my second wife, Maya, and her two children, Priya and Reeve. Dina and I had divorced about eight years ago. The split had been friendly, and I was currently doing my best to harmonize our blended family. It’s just a normal Sunday. The pastor is talking about the stiff-necked Israelites of the Old Testament. I can be stubborn and pig-headed, I think to myself. I can relate to my ancestors in that trait. It turns out that God does not suffer the stiff-necked Israelites lightly. He visits upon them many chastisements and punishments.

The next Sunday, it’s more stiff-necked Israelites. I don’t know what to make of them, really. Their sinfulness appears to me to be just like my own. As I reflect, I start to get more certainty about them. I am definitely related to them, I think to myself. In fact, I am them.

Suddenly, while the pastor is still talking and everyone is paying attention to the sermon, I am gripped with a sort of fight or flight sensation — a physical reaction.

I do not act on it immediately. I am sitting there, trying to understand what is happening, while the pastor continues to deliver his sermon. Everything seems normal. There is no need for alarm. Yet, I am having a hard time staying in my chair. I want to leave. I try to intellectually understand what is happening but can’t figure it out. Then, I can’t take it anymore and bolt for the exit.

It seems like I was confronted by the presence of something or somebody. Somebody with authority, somebody that called me to account. Never had I experienced such a thing. Well, I suppose I may have felt somewhat like this, to a smaller degree, when confronted by a parent or some other authority figure, like a teacher or a police officer, about something I had done wrong or a rule or law I had violated.

After a few minutes, it seems like the presence has left, but the message of accountability reverberates and echoes inside of me. I start pacing the hallway. My mind seems to get some clarity. Then it hits me: I have sinned. I am being called to repent like the stiff-necked Israelites. The presence was the Holy Spirit.

Shaken, I make my way back inside and sit down. I start to worry. What if I am not up to the task? I start to feel overwhelmed. I listen to the rest of the sermon without incident, but not hearing a word of what is said. Shaken, I exit the church.

February 2017

The Evangelical church library is well stocked. On most Sundays, I stop by the library. The librarian is very pleasant. I borrow some audiobooks by C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters) and listen to them during my commute. The explanations seem simple, yet profound. I am energized and want to learn more, take everything in. I feel nervous about what is happening, want to understand what I am being asked to do and how I should do it. With each re-playing of the audio tapes, my anxiety lessens a bit. I listen to them two or three times over. The material is rich. The explanations are encouraging, full of promise. I am not able to grasp everything on the first playing of the tape, so I spend the next several weeks listening to the calm, engaging British accent of the voice actor reading the C.S. Lewis books.

June 2017

One Sunday, I observe a congregant with his smartphone in church. It takes me a moment to realize that he was not checking his Facebook account, but using an app to follow along in the Scripture reading. Ah, that was the way to do it, I thought. After the service, I download a Bible app onto my phone. I am amazed at the versatility and functionality of this device. I start to use the app to read along on Sundays, and within a couple of weeks, I have signed up for the “Read the Bible in One Year” program and started reading a passage of Scripture each day.

July 2017

During my commute, I see a bumper sticker for Catholic Radio on the car in front of me. Having satiated myself recently on C.S. Lewis, I still hunger for more information about the Christian Faith. I turn to Catholic radio. After a couple of weeks of listening, I find the explanations are coherent, providing clarity. I also start to become aware of a different lens through which to view the world. A lens different from the standard, secular worldview. I continue to listen over the following months.

After sharing my Catholic Radio experiences with Maya, it turns out that she, while not religious growing up, has always had a strong affection for the Catholic Church, mainly through her interest in Catholic authors, such as Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton. Also, the overly expressive ways of worship and praise in the Evangelical church, involving body gestures and catchy songs, were not taking root with Maya. We decide to begin attending the Catholic Church. At this point, we did not engage the children, thinking that we would lead the way and bring them along.Shortly after our decision to attend the Catholic Church, I find a string of wooden beads on the ground at the park, all tangled up... . I realize it is a rosary. Click To Tweet

August 2017

Shortly after our decision to attend the Catholic Church, I find a string of wooden beads on the ground at the park, all tangled up. I untangle the odd string of beads and find a chipped, plain cross in the middle of the tangled knot. I realize it is a rosary.

I put the rosary in my pocket. Odd coincidence, finding this rosary, I think to myself. Now that I am going to the Catholic church, I would need to look up how to pray the rosary. A week later, I purchase a small booklet on how to pray the rosary at the local Catholic store. Using this small booklet, which contains the Rosary prayers and illustrations of the Mysteries of the Life and Passion of Jesus Christ, I start praying the Rosary each day.

December 2017

I have been praying the Rosary for four months now and have a rudimentary understanding of the Mysteries and how they relate to growing in holiness and virtue. While reciting the Rosary’s repetitive prayers, I try to meditate on the Mysteries. On the Friday before Christmas, while praying the second Sorrowful Mystery, The Scourging at the Pillar, I look at the Rosary booklet’s illustration of a grim-looking man beating Our Lord with a wooden stick.

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”

I have been looking at this picture on and off for months. Sometimes I close my eyes during prayer, but today, I look more directly at this man’s face, the one swinging the stick at Our Lord, and linger there for some moments.

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”

Suddenly, it occurs to me, through God’s grace, that I am this man. I am swinging the stick. I look at His face again, trying to understand. Yes, that’s me. Through my sins, I am doing my part to cause suffering to Our Lord.

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”

I reflect that if I had not sinned so much in the past, if I could stop sinning now, I could perhaps at least save the Lord a few lashes at the pillar. My past, present, and future sins are causing this violence to our Lord. I bear responsibility. I need to stop sinning, I think to myself.

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”

So far, my intellect has been busy making these connections. Now, my heart engages in this reflection. Tears start to flow. I am quietly crying. I ask the Lord for forgiveness. Time passes. I come off my knees and just sit on the carpet. It’s very quiet. There is no one in the house. I am breathing heavily from the crying. I start to recount many of my past sins and offenses. I whisper, “Forgive me, Lord. I am sorry.” Some more tears. Then, I get back up on my knees.

“Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”

I reflect further. Despite the injury I have caused, the Lord’s love and mercy becomes evident to me. I am forgiven. I vow to do better going forward, not exactly knowing what this will look like, but thinking with some small degree of confidence that if I stay close to the Lord and cooperate with His graces, I can face the trials that lie ahead.

As I continue to pray, I move to the other Mysteries. When I am finished, I come back off my knees and sit on the floor. I think about what just happened. There is a certain fear present, an awe. Was I just touched in some way by a wisdom and authority infinitely greater than my own? A loving authority, yes, but also a just authority. An authority that holds me to account and would continue to do so. I feel small. Yet, despite the fear and awe, I also feel deeply cared for, loved, and at peace in a way that is indescribable.I don’t remember how long I stayed there, sitting on the floor. God is real, I thought. Jesus died for my sins, for our sins. He is Savior, Lord, and King. Click To Tweet

I don’t remember how long I stayed there, sitting on the floor. God is real, I thought. Jesus died for my sins, for our sins. He is Savior, Lord, and King. Not a distant King. Not a King who is aloof or indifferent. A King that we can go to in prayer, who hears our cries and petitions.

January 2018

I continue to read the Bible daily. In RCIA, the Catholic Church’s introduction to the Faith, I learn more about its beliefs and practices. I learn about the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control.

I take a personal inventory. Through God’s grace, I appear to have been blessed with a small measure of some of the fruits. I realize that His grace has been working in my life all along. Until recently, I was wholly indifferent to it, even ungrateful. I never thanked Him.

Recently, I have started to become aware of how, through the sins of the past and present, I had offended God. Now, I am prompted into action. With His help, I will attempt to stop sinning and thank Him for His graces and for the trials.

I make a list of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit and carry them in my wallet. I pull it out often. In the grocery store checkout line, while waiting for my car to finish gassing up. I memorize the list and reflect on the Fruits often. I make them the wallpaper for my smartphone and post them near my computer monitor at work, meditating on them frequently.

February 2018

In RCIA, I am handed a one-page, folded handout called “A Guide to Making an Examination of Conscience and a Good Confession.” It offers details on the Commandments, the capital sins and opposing virtues, the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, and instructions for making my confession of sins. There is a lot here. Where do I start?

Under the Second Commandment, it asks “Have I used God’s name as a curse, out of anger, or in a careless way?” In a careless way? Yes, I would say so. Over the coming months, I go about trying to scrub any careless references to God or Jesus out of my speech. It’s harder than I thought. One week, I resolve to stop using a certain remark. It seems like it’s gone, but then it reappears the very next week. Eventually, through God’s grace, I am able to scrub nearly all of those frivolous references to God or Jesus from my speech. It’s not one hundred percent, but it’s a huge improvement.

After a month or so of declaring victory over careless references to God and Jesus, I realize that there is an added benefit. My overall speech, not just the parts I was aiming to correct, is more carefully considered. Specifically, I find myself here and there consciously holding back from ill-considered remarks which do not include any references to God or Jesus.

March 2018

Maya and I complete RCIA and receive Confirmation. Our children, however, have not been interested in the Catholic Faith. For myself, I start expanding my daily prayer beyond the Rosary. There are so many great prayers. I add Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”), St. Teresa of Avila’s signature prayer (“Let nothing disturb thee, let nothing dismay thee…”), St. Francis of Assisi’s signature prayer (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…”), and others.

May 2018

I pick up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and start to read it. It seems like a reference book, but I am resolved to read it from start to finish, like one would read a novel. It’s spellbinding. It provides clarity about all the big questions.

A friend asks me, “Was there anything in there that you disagree with?”

“Not a thing,” I reply.

I go on to say, “It’s an amazing read. The part on prayer is great. All of it is great. You should read it.”

A week later, Maya and I attend a Catholic wedding and wedding reception. We are sitting at a table with some of our RCIA instructors and a few others. The same friend mentions to the table in general that I recently read the Catechism of the Catholic Church straight through, from beginning to end.

“I have never heard of anyone doing that,” someone said. I look up from my salad. A few nods, a few smiles. Then we all turn back to our salads.

A month later, after the annulments of our prior marriages were completed, my marriage with Maya is convalidated in a beautiful ceremony at our local Catholic parish.

August 2018

I read St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Francis de Sales and others. I start adding vocal prayers, removing others. The prayer of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Divine Mercy chaplet. Devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary.

October 2018

One Saturday afternoon, I am cleaning between the couch cushions and, among loose change, pretzel parts, two pencil stubs, and a handful of popcorn, I find a small prayer card with a picture of a stern-looking nun. That’s odd, I thought. I don’t remember picking up this prayer card anywhere. I certainly have never prayed that prayer — I would remember that. It’s a beautiful prayer, asking for St. Faustina’s intercession with the Lord. Not believing in random coincidences anymore, I add the card to my daily prayer regimen. I can certainly afford the extra few minutes it will take to pray this each day.

About eight weeks into asking St. Faustina daily for her intercession, I receive a consolation. While praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, like a gust of wind, a torrent of love and mercy washes over me. I am stunned.

This consolation seemed like a momentary touch of the goodness of the Lord. Overwhelmed, I stammer out, “You are good, you are good,” or something similar. It was unplanned, spontaneous speech. I think my intent was to acknowledge His presence, but I was tongue-tied. Then, my heart reaches up to Him and tears start to flow. I become silent, unable to speak or even to think properly for what seems like a long time. I feel completely at peace. Eventually, I resume my prayers.

I was reading St. John of the Cross at the time of the consolation. St. John advises caution with consolations due to both a possible spiritual pride that can set in if one starts feeling like he has become privileged in some way, and also because certain consolations can be “false flags.” That is, they can come not from a divine origin, but from a demonic influence. St. John’s recommendation is to seek spiritual counsel. So that is what I did, in order to better understand the importance of remaining in faith and not relying on consolations.

April 2019

I am reading Therese of Lisieux. Her love for the Lord touches me. She has such a simple spirituality. Thinking about my tendency to take things very seriously, too seriously at times, perhaps St. Therese can help me, so I begin to ask for her intercession. Also, I start a habit of asking Our Lady and the Lord to allow me the grace of an increase in charity. I ask for this so that I may love the Lord with all my heart, strength, soul and mind. I ask for it, too, that I may love my neighbor as the Lord loves him.

I pick up a prayer card in church and start praying to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. St. John states, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). While my love is far from perfect, I start to notice that my prayer life is bearing a few positive fruits in the way I relate to others. My interactions seem to be more loving, less focused on myself, and more focused on others.

There is still plenty that goes wrong, mind you. I am not always recollected and at peace. I get irritated and angry, just like everyone else. I get into petty arguments; I sin against charity. However, there is some marked change, not only with regard to the frequency of when my passions and emotions get the better of me, but also in the length of time they run unchecked, and in my increased awareness of always trying to do better next time.

October 2019

About two weeks prior to a family gathering, I pray to Our Lady of Sorrows, Mary, and ask her to show me my predominant fault. Through this prayer, I am trying to find out more about myself, so that I can continue to grow in virtue, holiness, and the Christian life.

I had forgotten that prayer to Our Lady of Sorrows until I got into a massive argument at the family gathering. The next day, still worked up over the prior night’s events, it occurs to me that I was just shown my predominant fault: a lack of meekness. Rather than being quick to forgive and not carry resentment, I sometimes hold a grudge, especially when I feel I am not being treated well. I reflect on past comments from family and friends, pointing out to me, when we would have disagreements or arguments, that I was being passive–aggressive. Now, I realize that they were right. I do sometimes act in a passive–aggressive manner. That’s part of my predominant fault, what I need to focus on. Thank you, Our Lady of Sorrows.

Humility, meekness. These need to be my focus. I pray the Rosary and some other prayers. Having gained clarity and a feeling of remorse for my angry outbursts, I also apologize to my family and promise that I will do my best to avoid such behavior in the future.

January 2020

I start to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet in the car during my commute to work. It’s a chilly day. I left my house in the dark, but by the time I begin to pray, the sun has started to rise, creating a beautiful sky of different shades of orange and pink, interspersed with narrow, white cloud bands. Beautiful, majestic.

“For the sake of his Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

I advance one bead and look out to my right to take in the sunrise. It hits me suddenly: He died so I could see this. He wanted me to see this beauty of His creation.

“For the sake of his Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

I advance one bead. The car is warm with the heater on. My thermos bottle with tea is waiting for me once I have finished my prayer. A beautiful sunrise to my right, I feel gratitude welling up inside me. “Lord, thank you for this sunrise, for the many graces you have shown me.” Tears well up in my eyes.I have treated the Lord with indifference and given offense — much offense. Yet, in His mercy, He was patient with me. Once I was ready, He called my name Click To Tweet

“For the sake of his Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

I advance another bead. My voice was different on this last “For the sake…,” I noticed. Lower, quieter, more reflective of my unworthiness. Why me? What have I done to deserve this grace? For most of my life, I have treated the Lord with indifference and given offense — much offense. Yet, in His mercy, He was patient with me. Once I was ready, He called my name, I heard Him and started on the way home.

“For the sake of his Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

I advance one bead. I think of my children. I think of their tender faces, the privilege of being a father, the many joys we share. More tears. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for the gift of my children.

“For the sake of his Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

I advance another bead. Time passes; my mind is quiet. I can’t find anything else to say. Divine gifts without any chance of reciprocity. Graces beyond measure, undeserved.

David McHugh

David McHugh grew up in Germany and currently lives in northern California. He is married to Maya and enjoys spending time with their blended family. David works in banking and helps with RCIA in his local parish. He enjoys tennis, reading, and religious and creative writing. In 2020, he self-published a short suspense novel, Point of Convergence. He also writes a religious column for St. Peter’s Church that is published in the Dixon Tribune.

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