Baptized Catholic, But…
I was born on June 4, 1942 in New Haven, CT as my parents’ first child. On June 21, I was baptized at St. Mary’s Church there. My Baptist Dad was immersed in his medical school studies at Dartmouth College, so we lived in Hanover, NH, where my Catholic Mom attended Mass at St. Denis Catholic Church. We then moved to Chicago, where Dad continued his medical studies at Northwestern University’s medical school, earning his M.D. in 1945.
Dad’s constant unavailability led to tension in the family and eventually to physical abuse. This affected my concept of who a biological father is and later of Who God is as heavenly Father, One who loves His children. Notions of God the Father did not come, either, via any Catholic catechesis. So I lost connection with Mom’s Catholic faith well before age seven, when my parents divorced. Mom remarried a year later without seeking a Decree of Nullity for her first marriage, thereby becoming an exile from the Catholic Church.
Our reconstituted family then moved to Norwich, VT. At first we five — Mom, Stepdad, my sister, my half sister and I — were happy, but over time Mom fell into alcoholism and became addicted to the pain medications prescribed for her arthritis. Her health broke, and she increasingly abused us children.
Mom never explained the divorce, nor did she advert to the fact that I, in childlike fashion, had thought I was to blame for it. So a father wound took hold. Bullying by classmates during most of my public school years aggravated that wound. Resulting lack of control over mood and thought stunted cognitive, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development, with the ability to reason correctly blocked early on by fears of physical and emotional harm. Mental illness was also a genetic strain in my family tree. So the stage was set and the play begun.
Still, there were positive aspects to life. Up to graduation from high school, I followed in the footsteps of my parents. I entered the Episcopal Church when they did, then switched over to the Congregational Church when they did. Also, as they both were active in Scouting, so was I. For example, under Congregational Pastor Loren House, I earned the God and Country Award.
Entering the University of Vermont (UVM) in 1960, I frequented the campus Protestant Center. It was there in my senior year that one day, aware of being in a profound state of depression, I took the advice of other members and saw a psychiatrist at the campus infirmary, receiving some medication and also talk therapy.
But while at UVM, I also regained interest in my original religion and spent time at the Newman Center. Mass was still celebrated in Latin in those days. The women wore white lace mantillas upon entering the small chapel. Two priests were in residence, and the place had a vibrant and healthy family feel to it. This was going on during the time the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962–1965). My spirits were lifted by all that activity, plus meeting my future wife, Bev, there. She was a convert from Methodism.
Career-Minded and Too Busy for God or Family
In May 1964, at age 21, I was confirmed in the Catholic Church in Burlington, VT. A month later, the day after graduating from UVM with a B.A. and commission as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve, Bev and I married in the Catholic Church.
After Army basic officers’ training in Maryland and specialty training in Huntsville, AL, where our only child Harry was born in 1965, I spent two and a half years, mostly as a staff officer, in New Mexico, where we lived on-post. A crisis occurred when my wife Bev was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, requiring two operations at the post hospital, including a radical hysterectomy to remove the tumors.
By this time, I had given up active practice of the Catholic Faith. I threw the baby out with the bath water in disagreeing with Catholic doctrines that I did not understand: papal infallibility and exclusion of artificial contraception.
While in New Mexico, I made plans to earn a Ph.D. in physics to jump start a research career. So, honorably discharged from active duty in December 1967, the next month I entered graduate school at UVM, receiving a M.S. in 1969 and a Ph.D. in 1974. These degrees readied us financially in case my wife, a recent cancer survivor, should have a recurrence. It also qualified me for a fellowship, and I received one to do Ph.D. research full-time, thus moving me more quickly toward a real job, a year’s post-doctoral at the Air Force Cambridge Research Labs near Boston.
I now had a self-made identity, but it was based insecurely on who I wanted to be rather than on who Jesus wanted me to be. So I continued to build up a résumé from job to job from 1975 through 1983. Finally, in August 1984, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Los Alamos, NM hired me as a physics researcher where off and on I was employed until early 2001.
Like my earthly father, I was egocentric, not Christocentric, too busy with work, not providing time to be a family man, not even attending Harry’s Catholic Baptism in 1965 nor his later Confirmation. Nor did I help my wife seek services for Harry when he was diagnosed in his secondary school years with Learning Disability or years later with Asperger’s syndrome and then autistic disorder.
Return to God
Mysteriously though, in early 1985, after a 20-year hiatus in my Catholic faith, I returned as a willing, even spiritually hungry, revert via Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Parish, in Los Alamos, NM. It was the longtime pastor there, Fr. Charles “Charlie” Brown, a Ph.D. psychologist, who helped me over the next decade or so to come closer to and better serve God. This return to my Mom’s first faith was marked by the singular fact that IHM is the only Catholic parish in which I was ever registered and took part in as a “family” member in good standing. Starting in the late 1980’s, I kept a prayer journal. Prayer and an active parish life helped me to focus more on Jesus. Meanwhile, I served as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, a Reader, and was a member of the music ministry at the parish. In addition, I joined the Charismatic Renewal.
Especially important in this active service in the Church over the period from 1985 to 1999 was my participation in the December 1992 Rocky Mountain Marian Conference at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Indeed, over the 40 hours at the conference, I fasted from all food, prayed the Rosary, listened to talks, received the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist, and prayed for the Pope. Afterwards, I drove alone to the nearby Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, CO, where on a clear night I prayed on a mountaintop, knees on the snow, at the foot of a 22-foot high statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for success of the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, whose spread-out city lights sparkled far below.
That next year, after driving up all night to Denver from Los Alamos, two friends and I arrived at World Youth Day on August 15, feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We witnessed the pope arriving by helicopter and circling the crowd — 300,000 strong — twice before landing.
In those orbital flights he prayed the Rosary for the sea of us below, a fact gleaned later from George Weigel’s biography, Witness to Hope (Cliff Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1999, 2001, pbk.; pp. 680, 686). Those prayers and then Mass with the Holy Father included us three as part of the immense crowd — and they had their effect.
In early 1994 at Mass in Los Alamos while serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion I had a sense of interiorly, impetuously giving my all to Jesus — Christ Crucified — asking Him to give His all to me. He met me where I was at the time, still deeply into myself, thinking it was I who had called out to Him to exchange vows of love with Him. Only much later did I realize it was He Who had called out to me, and I had simply answered. This impromptu annunciation marked the start of my life and conversion in the family He wanted (Mt 12:46–50), a family modeled on His Holy Family.
The Onset of Mental Illness
I progressed to going to daily Mass, even serving the celebrant at the Altar. I also started receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation monthly or more frequently, plus the Eucharist at every Mass, and increased my hours as a Eucharistic adorer.
Outside of Mass, I represented the parish at a few archdiocesan events and took in retreats at the nearby Pecos Benedictine Monastery. Other parish activity signified a greater explicit recognition of the role the Blessed Virgin Mary plays in bringing us to Jesus. For example, for a while I was substitute leader of the Rosary Prayer Group meeting weekly at my parish.
In my interior life, however, I struggled with who I really am as God had made and begot me to be through birth and baptism. This struggle included fear of going to confession. The fear spilled over into other areas, such as at nighttime after my 1995 layoff from LANL after a massive reduction in force there, when I was stressed by happenings that day, nearly to the point of collapse. This included fear that my employer might punish me for my public outspokenness in the local newspaper and my appearances at protests staged over that layoff by Citizens for LANL Employee Rights (CLER).
Indeed, I took a chance on taking my faith more into the public square as a member of CLER. The group met weekly at the Unitarian church in Los Alamos and lobbied the U.S. Department of Energy over labor issues stemming from that layoff. My wife also took part.
In February 1996, CLER suggested I file an official grievance at LANL over my late 1995 layoff. A hearing panel of three LANL peers was then formed on LANL property, tasked to see if I was to be reinstated as a LANL employee. I was not on the layoff list for poor job performance, but for my preference stated on health and religion-related grounds that I not work directly on nuclear bomb parts. My Catholic conscience had played a role here. All three panel members urged management to reinstate me, but their recommendation was rejected without comment.
This final outcome became public knowledge. I was then treated as a pariah in Los Alamos, a one-company town. Even a fellow parishioner, initially stating willingness to help me locate another job at LANL, backed off upon learning that my cause had been rejected. I could not even find a job elsewhere in Los Alamos. My wife also received a cold shoulder from the Los Alamos community, so she became more active in CLER.
To help deal with the stress, shame, fears, pain and long-term unemployment, almost nightly I went to adore Jesus reserved in the Tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at IHM. Though my difficulties had brought me, the time spent there deepened my relationship with Jesus.
During these hours with Jesus, Christ Crucified, He bestowed graces, including a closer relationship with His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and gradually seeing that to follow in His footsteps meant not only carrying a cross, but a cross of His choosing, fashioned from travails after my upcoming return to work at LANL. In late 1998, I was rehired at LANL, but now only as an at-will, two-year-term staff member in a high-pressure, high-profile, and even dangerous job of cleaning up nuclear waste.
My stress level really started climbing now. In this at-will job, I was afraid of making a mistake, afraid of being assigned to a task beyond my ability as a trainee. Then, in June 1999, after only half a year on the job, I was reported by an anonymous co-worker for not having worn safety shoes after deciding on my own to help a fork lift operator move a sealed drum — contrary to safety regulations. My boss did not ask me for my side of the story nor give the name of the accuser; he simply took the report as fact and censured me.
I took a few days sick leave to deal with the pressure, seeking out advice at a field office of LANL’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for managing stress and complying with safety rules. Reaching out to EAP eventually backfired, though, as it turned unexpectedly into a “Psychological Consultation.” An improperly administered fitness-for-duty evaluation followed, requiring me to make seven more visits to EAP.
In this rising crisis, I stopped attending CLER meetings and serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at IHM parish, although Fr. Charlie urged me to stay on. Then I stopped going to Sunday Mass; a baby crying or a sudden noise from someone in a nearby pew rattled me now. Many so-called friends in my parish stopped supporting me. Spiritually and religiously, I was reduced to those quiet, solitary evening visits to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel or listening on a short wave radio to broadcasts of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) from Alabama. Even those practices ended when my wife and I moved from Los Alamos to Española, 30 miles distant, to get away from the toxic atmosphere.
Matters came to a head in September 1999, when a memorandum was handed to me at LANL’s health clinic. Based on that “Psychological Consultation,” a short sentence in it declared me to be “not fit for duty.” Asking why, I was told that anxiety affects one’s ability to think. Almost immediately I took an emotional and cognitive nose dive, thinking unsoundly that now I was not even fit to serve Jesus any more than I was fit to work for LANL.
The workplace declaration was followed quickly by acute depression and anxiety disorders, plus a frozen shoulder. The crisis prompted me to seek medical help. As a result, I received medications and counseling for the acute depression and anxiety conditions, plus diagnosis and treatment for the injury.
Return to Vermont
In May 2000 we moved back to Vermont. There, I continued medical treatment for my mental illness under the care of a psychiatrist and a counselor. Weekly, in the crowded waiting room at the mental health facility, I met others in agony similar to my own. But faith in God was also important for my recovery. I began going to Mass occasionally at a couple of local parishes. Over time, I settled on St. John the Evangelist Church in St. Johnsbury. In a sense this was a religious return home, since Saint John’s was where Bev and Harry went to Mass when we had lived in St. Johnsbury back in the 80s.
While in those days I was functional but chose not to go to Mass, I now was utterly unable to participate in parish activities. I experienced symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder when exposed to crowded rooms or halls, such as at Mass. I exhibited anxiety symptoms or cognitive dysfunction such as scrupulosity or inability to remember to examine my conscience before confession. Further, I tried to sing in a music group at Mass but was unable to concentrate without a build-up of stress. Finally, I effectively stopped going to Mass and confession.
But since returning to Vermont in May 2000, it has been as if the Holy Family has been looking out for me. In New Mexico, I had begun to paint abstracts using oils and acrylics and writing poetry in free verse. My themes often dealt with my relationships with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Some of my poetry was published, and in 2007 I had a successful solo exhibition and review of dozens of my canvases.
In June of 2002, the 60th anniversary of my infant baptism, I renewed my baptismal vows by the same font where I had been baptized, at the same St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, CT. In the spring of 2003, I made a solo two-week trip to Rome, Italy that opened up my eyes to how universal the Church is. For years, the Blessed Virgin Mary had been urging me to do this. The trip included a miracle impromptu visit to the monastery on the Caelian Hill where Mother Teresa of Calcutta stayed when in Rome to see Pope John Paul II.
By spring 2005, I had recovered enough mentally to do research again, first in pure mathematics while auditing a number theory course at nearby Lyndon State College, then in theoretical physics via unpaid research appointments at the University of Vermont and Dartmouth College. I also did pro bono scientific consulting. I wrote many unpublished reports of research results over this period and sent them privately to colleagues.
Through Divine Providence, I had several sources of retirement income. Nowadays, the energy I formerly possessed for writing physics research papers seems to be redirected by Jesus to writing both personal and objective works on religious, spiritual, and educational topics. For example, in 2006 I published a small book on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary.
In early 2010, I made a 40-day private retreat at Kahili Mountain Park on the island of Kauai in the State of Hawaii. By the end of the retreat, I had become that “little one” which God wanted me to be. I had let go of the last shred of my big ambition — to be a famous physicist. Then I flew to Oahu, rented another car, and stayed in a studio room in Waialua near the Benedictine Monastery of Hawaii that I had been visiting since 1992.
Upon return to Sheffield, VT, I was now willing, after Bev’s third request, to allow our (now 51-year-old) high-functioning autistic son Harry to live with us. We converted an attached barn, which I had previously used as an office and art studio, into an apartment for him. He is with is now progressing towards an independent life style.
Recently, my work activity has shifted its aim to the Catholic Church, urging better protection of the rights of mentally disabled lay members, including full access to the sacraments. Too, because I cannot pray for myself as I would like, I have also requested the intercessory prayers of consecrated religious, of deacons, priests, and bishops while the Lord works out my holiness through my current service to others.
My outreach is motivated in part by a hope that the Church will better meet, especially in rural areas, the underserved pastoral and liturgical needs and aspirations of wounded children of divorced parents and those who suffer from mental illness or developmental disorders and syndromes
My interior life has also a deepened awareness of a supernatural relationship with St. Joseph as a fatherly role model I can emulate. Furthermore, while I can no longer do mental prayer without stress, I can be present in the core of my being to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the one I really am, as well as to Jesus simply as the one that He wants me to be for now — small, resigned, deferring my place in life to others as one who has reverted mystically to a childlike state. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus know what is in my heart, which I gave to Him so long ago, in 1994. Out of their great love, they offer to God the Father a prayer of intercession for those to whom they send me.
Dedication to Rev. Mr. Bernier L. Mayo (1938–2016)
This story is dedicated to Deacon Bernier Mayo who served at Corpus Christi Parish in the Diocese of Burlington (Vermont). He helped me when my family and I moved back to Vermont from Pennsylvania in 1981 and enrolled our son Harry at St. Johnsbury Academy in St. Johnsbury, VT, where Bernier was the new headmaster. This assistance took place over 1981–1984 and then in 2000–2016 when Bernier helped me to see that I was still a part of the Church even though I was so diminished and orbited on the periphery of its formal structure. He also prayed for me daily in his Liturgy of the Hours.