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Adventures of a Stumbling Saint

Shannara Johnson
October 28, 2022 No Comments

I was born and raised in Germany in the mid-1960s. My adoptive family was Protestant, but not very religious. We were CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only), and I don’t remember any praying or Bible reading at our home.

In secular Germany, everyone I knew was either Protestant or Catholic, but no one I knew was really into the faith. Most people dutifully paid their monthly church tax — a 10 percent payroll tax — as a sort of insurance policy against going to hell.

As an only child, I was quite pampered, a privilege I dearly paid for when I entered elementary school. I didn’t know how to relate to other kids, how to roughhouse or play in a group, and that I was a straight-A student didn’t win me any brownie points with my peers.

Four girls from my neighborhood graciously accepted me into their clique, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that I was at the bottom of the pecking order. Over the following years, I spent a lot of time being pushed into the stinging nettles, dunked in the pond, pelted with snowballs, made fun of, and once, at a New Year’s Eve party, I was hung out of a third-floor window by my feet.

Shortly after my tenth birthday, my beloved Omi (grandma) passed away, which shook my world to the core. But God reached out to lift me out of my misery. That summer, a tent revival mission opened its flaps in the field across the street, and I — desperate for a sense of belonging, love, and inner peace — spent every free minute there. I remember the scent of warm hay, Sunday school teachers, flip charts with illustrated Bible stories, and sing-alongs with a twenty-something guy who played the guitar and looked a lot like Jesus.

By the time the mission packed up and left, I was on fire for God. I joined the German YMCA, regularly attended church, and went to Bible studies and youth retreats. I became such a fervent believer that Mama feared I was turning into a “fanatic.”

But Satan, seeing that he was losing me, pulled a Job on me and began to throw more and more rocks into my path. At 12 years old, I was an early bloomer, and adding to the constant bullying from my classmates, my uncle/godfather began to sexually harass me. As much as I hated and feared him and his lewd advances, what was worse was Mama’s reaction when I finally mustered the courage to tell her about it.

I had envisioned her standing up for me, cutting all ties with my uncle, maybe even pressing charges. Instead, she urged me to keep it a secret: “Don’t talk to anyone about it. And be a little nicer to your uncle; people are already figuring out that you don’t like him.”

I felt abandoned and betrayed. Practically overnight, I turned into a belligerent teenager who constantly argued with her parents. One time, I even told them I wished they’d never adopted me.

Along with this came a crisis of faith. Just like Mama, God pretended to love me then why wouldn’t He protect me from all this pain and suffering? Maybe He was just as fake as everyone else. It didn’t help that I observed our YMCA youth group leader, several parishioners, and even our pastor acting in quite an un-Christian manner. Eventually, my disgust became so great that I dropped out of church.

“Free Spirit” of the New Age

At the age of 17, I started a relationship with a man nearly twice my age. I think the main draw about being with him was that my mother couldn’t stand him. He introduced me to the great non-religious mysteries of the world: the paranormal, UFOs, ghosts and poltergeists, cryptozoology, and unexplained phenomena like spontaneous human combustion.

We broke up when I was 21. I had moved to the city to start an apprenticeship as a copywriter in advertising, and the long-distance relationship didn’t hold. I did not lose interest in the paranormal, though. On the contrary, I broadened my intellectual pursuits to add conspiracy theories, channeling, Tarot cards, Celtic runes, Native American spirituality, and the Law of Attraction. I read everything in the genre I could get my hands on; I joined New Age groups and attended New Age workshops and seminars.

One night, I listened to a paranormal radio show and followed their instructions on how to “contact the dead” with a makeshift Ouija board and a pendulum. As a result, I brought a real-life haunting on myself, one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. By the grace of God, I managed to get rid of the specter, but it returned seven years later to haunt me again.

The second time, a Reiki master came to my rescue and helped me drive it out. He emphasized my need for spiritual protection, so I went through the attunements to become a Reiki practitioner — and some years later, a Reiki master — myself.

The pull of the New Age was irresistible; it was so loving, accepting, and tolerant. Everyone was welcome; there were no restrictions, no rules, no commandments you had to obey. Unlike Christians, New Agers believed there was no such thing as sin. We were all spiritual beings in a physical body, and we kept reincarnating on Earth for the purpose of soul evolution. Good and evil didn’t really exist; everything just was, without judgment.

God, too, was softer. Yes, He was the Creator of the universe, but he was also the Universe itself. He was pure, unformed being and didn’t want or need anything from me, so I could just love him, unfettered by all that pesky obedience stuff. I felt closer to him than ever.

Over time, my high-pressure career as a copywriter in advertising led to burnout. After some failed attempts to start a TV/radio career and two years of studying clinical psychology, all I wanted was to get out of this fake-glam lifestyle.

In 1999, at the age of 34, I sold everything I had and moved to Sedona, Arizona, the New Age mecca of the American Southwest. I lived frugally on a shoestring budget, sharing a small apartment with an old friend from Germany and her boyfriend. Money was tight, but I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. I loved my new, enchanted life.

The supernatural and paranormal experiences that I had gotten used to over the years now became an almost daily occurrence. Some were uplifting and inspiring, others dark and scary, but I embraced them all because to me they were proof that God existed, that there was truly a world beyond our five senses. It was all true; it was all real. And having this close connection to God made me feel special, like living in a fairy tale.

I dove head first into my Law of Attraction practice and became so good at it that my friends started to call me “the manifestation queen.” I learned to read Tarot cards and for a while worked as a professional Tarot reader at a New Age center in town. With the free-spirit life came a plethora of boyfriends, flings, and one-night stands. I was finally living the unburdened, “spread your wings and soar” lifestyle I’d always dreamed of.

Of course, there were downsides. I couldn’t seem to find the committed relationship I wanted more than anything. I also discovered that my New Age friends, those sweet-natured and saintly “light workers,” were exceedingly shallow. Real-world problems weren’t well tolerated because they “brought the vibration down.” According to The Secret, the bible of Law of Attraction disciples, people attracted misfortune by projecting negative thoughts into the Universe. Therefore, it was best to give anyone who suffered a wide berth to prevent contamination.

I encountered spiritual darkness and danger as well. Black magic, Satanism, and witchcraft were rampant in the area. I got myself into a few risky situations — both physically and spiritually — managing to escape unscathed only through God’s mercy.

So I knew God existed, the devil existed, and I knew demons were real. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to pursue this line of thought to its logical end. If the devil was real, didn’t that mean hell existed, too? If the devil was real, didn’t that mean the entire love and light, nothing-can-hurt-you New Age narrative was a lie? And if hell was real, heaven would have to exist, too… which meant the concept of reincarnation, which is so central to New Age religion, had to be wrong as well. Better not think about it.

The Godless Years

In 2001, I married my boyfriend, whom I had met in Sedona, and soon after, we left town. For the next eight months, we moved around the country — Oregon, Washington, and finally New Jersey. I soon found out that the east-coast Yankees were much less receptive to New Age beliefs than the Sedona crowd.

One Christian woman in New Jersey, upon hearing about some of my spiritual adventures, stated flat-out that I was in league with Satan, whether I knew it or not. I tried to argue with her that some of my experiences had been direct encounters with the divine, but her only response was, “Even Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light.” Another woman lovingly handed me a pamphlet quoting Exodus 22:18 (King James Version): “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Though well meaning, these two accomplished what the “Dark Side” hadn’t managed to do: They completely turned me off to Christianity. Hurt and outraged, I swore I was done with the church for good… and with Jesus too.

But God refused to let go of me and was gradually breaking down my defensive walls.

When I got pregnant, my husband and I moved our little family to Vermont. I noticed that every time I entered a church, I’d get weepy and melancholic for no apparent reason. I secretly envied the Christians and their tight-knit communities that I could only observe from the outside.

One day, I received a major wake-up call. A small pagan group I was a part of was met at my house. My friend L. complained about pain in her left knee that had started when she had visited some ancient temple in Peru. I had learned to use Reiki to draw out “spirit fragments” lodged in parts of the energy body and felt something in one of L’s knees.

As I applied the Reiki energy, L., who was lying on my couch with eyes closed, said she felt queasy, like something was moving from her knee through her stomach and farther up. Then her mouth opened, and she let out a hair-raising groan. It sounded like a voice from the abyss. I got scared but managed to stay calm. When L. came to, I smudged the room with sage to cleanse it.

Everyone left, and I was smoking a cigarette out on the porch when my three-year old son screamed. I jumped up and ran inside. He was sitting up in bed, pointing at a dark corner of his room and sobbing hysterically. I comforted him, cleansed his room, told him everything was fine, and he went back to sleep. He had never been prone to night terrors before.

That incident made me realize that my occult practices were putting my own child at risk, and I stopped attending the group meetings.

Jesus wanted me back, and he patiently kept nudging me, no matter how stubbornly I resisted. What I didn’t know was that he didn’t want me just anywhere — he was sneakily maneuvering to get me into his One True Church.

When it came time to send my son to kindergarten, I chose to enroll him in a Catholic school that had a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. I also wanted to get him baptized, for safekeeping, and I figured that, since he was already learning about the Catholic faith, he might as well be baptized in it.

It was also important to me that the Catholic Church had exorcists: Here were people who believed and knew that Satan really existed as an entity, unlike many other Christian denominations that had reduced the “Dark Side” to a mere metaphor, an analogy for the psychological evil in humans.

My resistance was seriously crumbling now. I started attending services at a nearby Congregational Church. Having been raised in the closed religious “caste system” in Germany, it didn’t even occur to me to consider becoming a Catholic myself.

At first, I loved being a member of the Congregational Church, but it soon started to bother me that all the focus seemed to be on the social-justice part of Christianity, and the God part was taking a back seat.

In contrast, the few times I took my son to Sunday Mass at the Catholic church (he usually attended Mass at his school) were like a balm for my soul. It was all about God, the worship, and the sacrifice, not about my experience, my feelings, or my wishful thinking.

I loved the Catholic Church’s proclivity for miracles and the supernatural, things which were familiar to me. I also noticed that Catholic kids were much more respectful and better behaved than those at the liberal Protestant churches, where they were often allowed to run wild, with no attempt by the parents to restrain them.

The Two Straws

The two final straws that led to my decision to become a Catholic were a feminist service and an “urban legend.”

On Easter Sunday 2017, my son and I attended a local community church. In her homily, the pastor stated that the most important thing in the Resurrection story was not that Jesus rose from the dead but that “it was the women who found him.” That was the last time I ever set foot in a liberal Protestant church.

The second straw was evidence that something I’d always brushed off as an urban legend was true: the story of the “Hat Man,” a shadowy spook wearing a Fedora and a long cloak who terrorized people at night and sometimes even physically assaulted them.

Some thought he was the devil himself. One survivor of a suicide attempt said he woke up in the hospital to see a man with a Gaucho hat sitting on his bed. The horrible figure smirked and said, “I almost got you.” Then he disappeared.

One day, my friend G. — a mental health counselor and no-nonsense agnostic — told me about something that had happened to her in the 1990s: a shadow-like man with a Fedora and a long cloak had entered her bedroom, zoomed (without actually walking) to her bedside, and choked her to an inch of her life.

I cried, “You saw the Hat Man!”

“The what?” she queried. She had never heard of him.

She believed it had all been a dream, but to me, it proved yet again that the Dark Side was not to be trifled with. It only strengthened my resolve to become a Catholic and slip under the protective mantle of the Church.

Many New Agers who dabble in the occult experience so-called “astral attacks,” which are really demonic attacks. I knew all too well what it was like to fear the dark, to feel watched from behind in empty rooms, to sense a malevolent presence, and to recite the Lord’s Prayer under the covers until the break of dawn.

Most New Agers learn at some point how to ward off evil spirits by smudging with sage, surrounding themselves with “divine light,” and so forth. But these measures aren’t bullet-proof; none of them ever made me feel totally safe.

In the meantime, my marriage started falling apart and eventually dissolved, though we parted on friendly terms. After my divorce, I entered RCIA. I pity the poor deacon and his wife who ran the class: I was belligerent and stubborn, and I refused to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, or Mary and the Saints as intercessors.

Even after my Confirmation, I maintained some New Age beliefs and practices. What was the harm in doing a few Tarot readings for myself? And the “sustainable manifestation” advice I dispensed online was all about aligning our will with God’s will. Surely, God didn’t mind.

A Stint in an Evangelical Church

In 2020, I ran as a Republican for a seat in the Vermont House. Then COVID hit, and the Burlington Diocese closed all the Catholic churches for several months. When the chairman of my GOP county committee invited me to his Evangelical church, I jumped at the opportunity.

The people were warm and welcoming, and we didn’t have to wear the dreaded masks during the service. I loved it so much that I almost stayed — but God had other plans. Suddenly, my car wouldn’t start when I tried to leave home on Sundays. Shortly before Thanksgiving, the pastor announced that from now on, everyone would have to wear a mask all the time. I cried through the whole service. I intuitively knew that this was my last time there.

A Divine Kick in the Butt

I was still a lukewarm Catholic, though. I didn’t agree with the stricter parts of Catholic doctrine, like no contraception, no gay marriage. I didn’t believe in Jesus’s Presence in the Eucharist. My house was filled with Buddha statues, Tarot decks, and books on the Law of Attraction — and I thought nothing of binge-watching Lucifer on Netflix.

My final wake-up call — or rather, divine kick in the butt — came on November 4, 2020, the day after the election (which I lost). I was on Amazon, reading the blurb for a book on artificial intelligence for work.

Suddenly, the page started to scroll down all by itself and stopped on the horizontal bar, “Books You May Also Like.” As was to be expected, most of them were AI books, but one stood out from the others, because it had a glowing cross on the cover. It was a book that focused on the reality of sin and the need to see the weight of our transgressions in the light of eternity.

Intrigued, I bought the Kindle version… and was swept away by a tidal wave of shame and grief. For the first time, I realized how much my actions were offending and hurting Jesus. Every act of disobedience, every word of gossip, my pride, vanity, and selfishness — they all made his Cross heavier, the nails sharper, his pain more excruciating. Even my faith was all about me. I knew that if Jesus were to return that day, I’d be going to hell.

Reading that book was the turnaround I needed. I booked a general confession (a confession of all mortal sins throughout your life, starting with your childhood) with Father J., our parish priest, and spent over four hours recounting my most severe transgressions. I bought copies of the book and handed them out to everyone I knew. I started praying the Rosary every day and consecrated myself to the Holy Mother, though I was still unsure of the benefits of such a thing.

My Eucharistic Miracle

In early March 2021, our parish hosted a two-day Sisters of Life event. Seeing the joy those young Sisters radiated, I could tell they were deeply in love with Jesus. I so badly wanted what they had. I still didn’t know what all that “Adoration” stuff was about — literally, people worshipping food — but I was about to find out.

When Father J. announced that he would walk around with the monstrance so that each of us could have “face time with Jesus,” I felt an odd tension build up inside me, like the electricity before a thunderstorm. As he came closer, I started to tear up for no apparent reason, and then — my face only inches away from the small, round window of the monstrance — I just knew.

This was really Jesus Christ, our living, breathing Lord and Savior. Receiving Holy Communion meant truly receiving his Body and Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Going to Adoration meant to visit him, to spend time with him. And now I could feel him looking at me through the glass, with love, sorrow, and pity.

Tears streaming down my face, I cried out, “Jesus, have mercy on me!”

The people around me shot me worried glances; one woman in my pew asked if I was okay. I didn’t care. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

The Eternal Now

After this epiphany, you couldn’t keep me out of church any more. I attended daily Mass as often as possible and sometimes even visited Jesus when the church was empty, just to get some alone time with him. I also discovered that, during Adoration, he’d often talk to me in my heart and tell me things to further my spiritual growth.

I had never taken a Lenten season as seriously as in 2021. On Holy Thursday, another personal revelation shook my world.

After a beautiful evening Mass, the congregation moved to the parish hall, where the monstrance was set up among some greenery for three hours of Adoration. I settled in for some quiet prayer and meditation but I still didn’t quite understand what was going on until the worship team started chanting: Stay here and keep watch with me; the hour has come. Stay here and keep watch with me; watch and pray.

Suddenly, I knew: We were there to keep watch with Jesus in the Garden. We were the ones who would stay awake while the disciples were dozing off. We were first-hand witnesses to the Passion of the Christ, outside of time and space.

In that Eternal Now, Jesus was still in the Garden, agonizing over what was about happen to him.

In that Eternal Now, he was still dying on the Cross.

In that Eternal Now, Pilate was still washing his hands, the crowds were still jeering, Mary was still wringing her hands at the sight of the pain and humiliation her only child had to endure.

All happening in one moment, and yet happening forever.

As I began to meditate on the first Sorrowful Mystery, the Agony in the Garden, in my mind I saw a foggy window open, giving me a clear view of the Garden. There was Jesus, pacing back and forth in a moonlit spot, praying, groaning, crying — being in such distress that he sweated blood.

I silently repeated, “Jesus, I’m here. I’m not sleeping. I’m keeping watch with you.”

I saw him stop in his tracks and slowly turn around until he faced me. I gasped. He heard me. HE SAW ME. Right then and there, in the Eternal Now. There was no barrier between us.

His eyes held my gaze. Sobbing, I talked to Him. I encouraged Him. I told Him that He was our only hope. His eyes didn’t stray from mine. He appeared to listen intently. After a few minutes the vision was gone, and I was back in the parish hall.

After that night, I was convicted, as they say, feeling closer to Jesus than ever. Nothing could keep me away from him. A few weeks later, I also realized that all those amazing revelations occurred right after I consecrated myself to the Holy Mother, the woman I had completely shunned before.

My journey continues, and I keep reveling in the amazing gift of God’s love. How many graces and miracles he showers us with — if we only care to pay attention!

Shannara Johnson

Shannara Johnson is a financial writer, copy editor, author, and Catholic blogger. She currently lives in Steubenville, Ohio. Her blog, Diary of a Stumbling Saint — A Catholic Convert’s Meandering Path to Holiness, can be found at

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