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God’s Healing Grace

Deacon Eddie Ensley
August 31, 2021 No Comments

God began working in my life the day I was born in Columbus, GA. It was 1946 and my mother had a distressed pregnancy. The doctor wondered if she would be able to give birth to a live child. I was born feet first, a breech birth. The umbilical cord was tightly wrapped three times around my neck. The doctor had to use heavy forceps, and I was blue from lack of oxygen. The doctor later told my parents that if the process had taken a few seconds more, I would have been dead. My family rejoiced at the miracle of my live birth.

However, I had a disability due to my birth injuries. The left part of my brain, the part that handled language, logic and reason, worked well, but the right side, the part that handled the visual-spatial and motor side of life, was impaired. This meant that I talked early and in sentences, but tasks like buttoning shirts, tying shoes, and keeping anything neat or straight were nearly impossible. I had learning disabilities and some degree of speech impediment. Today, they would call me bright but learning disabled. Although my parents loved me and at beautiful times showed that love, they thought that the way to cure me of my disability was to shame me for my difficulties.

My parents professed Christian belief but did not attend church, with the exception of several months. When I was four, my parents started going to a Baptist church with their close friends, Charlie and Mary Harris. My father had a profound encounter with Christ and was baptized. The night of his baptism, Mary took me from the nursery at the back of the church, and I watched with awe my father’s full immersion into the water. I was deeply moved with this first encounter with a sacrament — without, of course, realizing what it was. During that period, my father became my catechist. He prayed with me every night, read Scripture with me, and showed me pictures from the Bible. He taught me to pray the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father, as I call it today), the 23rd Psalm, and other prayers. God became alive to me. I could feel His presence, and I loved to pray. Even long after my father finished praying with me, I continued praying, often feeling the fiery presence of God in my little heart. The few months during which we went to church, I sat in the Sunday school room while the teacher showed us beautiful pictures of Jesus with children. I felt genuinely loved and comforted by the man in those pictures. My grandmother would read to me from her big white Bible. My Aunt Genella was a Baptist pastor’s daughter, and she passed on to me a great love of Scripture.

When I was five years old, mental illness struck my father. He became delusional and dangerous, telling me he would cut me with a knife if I misbehaved, pressing his finger down my stomach, simulating a knife. The doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. They hospitalized him for several weeks, giving him electroshock treatment. He was in and out of this illness until he had a nearly lifelong remission when I was fourteen, at that time becoming the best father any boy could want. My mother responded to my father’s illness by going into a clinical depression and verbally abusing me because of my clumsiness and disability. Later, she also turned to alcohol. I was overcome with shame and fear, thinking that I surely must be damned because of my issues. I thought that the terrible things that people called me were really who I was.

My paternal grandparents loved me dearly and became my substitute parents, providing me a stable identity. Both were baptized Christians. My grandfather was a Cherokee Indian; Granny had some native blood, too. Both were deeply believing Baptists. My grandfather carried on the old culture and customs, soothing me by singing Cherokee lullabies and Amazing Grace in the Cherokee language.

Even though my parents did not go to church, as soon as I could read well, I would spend hours in my room reading a New Testament. I was entranced with the figure of Jesus and with the wonderful pictures that made the stories come alive.

When I was twelve, despite opposition from my parents, I started attending Second Baptist Church, just two blocks away from home. Although broken-hearted due to the physical and verbal abuse I had endured, I found a healing stream of grace in the pastor, Brother Roberts, and in the hymns.

One Sunday, I walked up to the front of the church and professed my belief in Christ. I was baptized a few weeks later. This became one of the most powerful religious experiences in my life. That night, I dreamed of being in heaven and in the presence of angels, and in a mysterious and indescribable way, I felt I was in the presence of the Blessed Trinity.

When I was a teenager, I became more interested in the scholarly side of faith and joined Edgewood Presbyterian, where a friend from high school attended. The pastor introduced me to the writings of C.S. Lewis, who intrigued me beyond measure. Still, I yearned for more.

I felt the nudge of the Holy Spirit drawing me toward becoming a minister and was accepted as a ministerial candidate. I began my studies toward becoming a Presbyterian minister by attending Belhaven University, a Presbyterian liberal arts and pre-ministerial school in Jackson, MS.

I made many friends while majoring in philosophy and minoring in biblical studies and New Testament Greek. Still, something was missing in my life. Day after day I pored over dense philosophical books and scholarly Scripture study tomes. I read far more than was required, searching hard for something to fill my soul. I read daily about the love of God from masterful theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My head was crammed full of knowledge, but at least for the time being, my heart felt empty. To be sure, I had felt God’s love before, both as a child and as a young man, but now, I journeyed through a wasteland. My inner landscape was as dry as the desert. I yearned for more.

Then something happened that was to change my life forever. I passed through Selma, AL, after spending spring break with my parents in Columbus, GA. One of my high school teachers, who had remained a friend and mentor, had grown up in the Catholic Church in Selma. She told me that someday I should visit the beautiful church there. As I passed through Selma, I decided I would stop and do just that.

Part of my motivation was curiosity about what it was like inside one of those Catholic churches. For the first time in my life, I set foot in an empty Catholic church. To my surprise, it looked very much like a Presbyterian church. The difference was that up front was a gold box. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt mysteriously drawn toward it. It was as though God were whispering in my ear saying, “Come closer.” I sat down in a pew directly in front of that box. At that moment, love flooded my heart; tenderness, melting compassion, and healing for my deep wounds flowed into me. Warmth coursed through my body. A quiet came over me that was nothing less than the peace of God. This love was no theological abstraction. It was a powerful stream pouring into me from God’s very essence, an unending love. A memory was born that I would relish and draw on for the rest of my life.For the first time in my life, I set foot in an empty Catholic church. To my surprise, it looked very much like a Presbyterian church. The difference was that up front was a gold box. I didn’t know what it was, but I felt mysteriously… Click To Tweet

That moment in 1966 sent me on a six-year journey that would end with my becoming Catholic. Even though at the time I did not know what a tabernacle was, much less the Blessed Sacrament, Christ reached out of the tabernacle and kissed my heart with His love. After that experience, I grew more tenderhearted. It was easier to love others and be sensitive to their needs and feelings. I now knew that I had a great reservoir of compassion, God’s loving-kindness, to help me empathize with those around me. What started as a personal experience of God became one that included relationships with others.

Two Catholic priests, Monsignor Chatham and a young priest, Fr. Bernie, became my mentors. Fr. Bernie was deeply prayerful; his whole person radiated God. I felt comfortable enough to share with him stories of the wounds from my family, the first time I had shared such things with someone older than myself. I would go with him as he celebrated Mass for convents and the hospital. In those intimate moments I experienced the power of just attending Mass to heal my inner wounds and shame. I was finding in the Church healing solace for my wounded heart, a medicine in which my soul was being bathed. After this experience, my yearning for the Catholic Church grew deeper. I started attending St. Richard of Chichester Catholic Church in Jackson, MS while I was studying to be a Presbyterian minister, showing up at Saturday evening Mass, then waking up bright-eyed and cheery to go to the 11 a.m. service at the Presbyterian church.After this experience, my yearning for the Catholic Church grew deeper. I started attending St. Richard of Chichester Catholic Church in Jackson, MS while I was studying to be a Presbyterian minister, showing up at Saturday evening Mass,… Click To Tweet

I was conflicted. I made friends with two Catholic priests, who became mentors … yet something still held me back from making the decision to enter the Church. That was the Virgin Mary’s task. As a Protestant, I had been taught, since I was little, that praying to Mary was idolatrous, Mary worship, sinful, and wrong. It is so hard to unlearn such things! I thought, as I had been taught, that we can pray to God directly, that we don’t need angels and saints, and we don’t need Mary. It was a major barrier, but I had to get over it before I could finally move forward. Would I live my life as a Presbyterian minister, or would I become Catholic? My whole life depended on that decision.I had been taught that we can pray to God directly, that we don’t need angels and saints, and we don’t need Mary. It was a major barrier, but I had to get over it before I could finally move forward. Would I live my life as a… Click To Tweet

I graduated from the Presbyterian college and went on to Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Austin, TX. I preached at Presbyterian churches once or twice a month, and during the summers, I was a student pastor, leading the youth as well as preaching and filling in for the pastor while he was on vacation. Meanwhile, I made close Catholic friends, including a priest professor and many students from the Catholic school in Austin, St. Edward’s University.

Still, I was torn. I was drawn toward the Eucharist and attended daily Catholic Mass. I had discovered the Church Fathers and was deeply moved reading the words of people like St. Augustine and St. Ambrose. Reading the earliest Church Fathers, especially St. Ignatius of Antioch, I found a full expression of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of our Lord.

One quote from Ignatius, especially, moved me: “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [AD 110]).

It was clear, long before there was even a concept of the New Testament, that the Church believed in the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, leading the Church.

The utter beauty of the experience of God’s love, as described in the Fathers, still stirs my soul. Reading St. Augustine’s Confessions did this. The following words came from his innermost being: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient, so new. Late have I loved you. You were within me, but I was outside you. It was there that I searched for you.”

Mary remained a huge obstacle. From my early childhood I had been told that Catholics worshiped and prayed to Mary. Devotion to Mary was called sinful and idolatrous. One night, while I was still in the Presbyterian seminary, I was so distraught that I raised my hands toward heaven and prayed in a loud voice, “Dear Lord, if you want me to become Catholic, send me a sign.” I waited a few minutes, then the phone rang. No, it was not God. And it was not the Pope. Instead, it was something almost as good. It was a call from my friend Fr. Bernie, now Monsignor Bernie of the Jackson diocese. He had been appointed Secretary for Ecumenism at the National Chancery for the US bishops in Washington, DC. He was taking Cardinal Willebrands, a close associate of Pope Paul VI, with him on a tour of several dioceses in the United States. I had been corresponding with the monsignor about my struggles concerning becoming Catholic, my struggles about Mary, and the weighty decision I had before me.

He said to me, “I’m taking Cardinal Willebrands on a tour. We’ll be in Austin in three days. I filled him in on your struggles, and he would love to talk with you.” Talk about a sign! If you can’t go to the Pope, go to his right-hand man. I met with Cardinal Willebrands and put it to him bluntly: “How can you Catholics pray to Mary? Isn’t that idolatrous? Can’t we all go directly to God?”

The Cardinal, in a firm, warm voice, gave me this to think about: “Any Christian, day or night, can go to God, can talk to God personally, one on one, whenever he wants to. But Eddie, don’t you also ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you?” I said, “Of course I do.” He replied, “You can ask your brothers and sisters in Christ in heaven to pray for you, too. Because death does not separate the Body of Christ; they are part of us, and we are part of them. We never have to pray alone. We always have brothers and sisters in heaven who can pray with us. And Eddie, who was closer to Jesus than Mary, His mother? Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.”

That made an awful lot of sense, but it had to become a matter of my heart. I finally decided to do something spiritually mature. I made a week-long retreat in a Catholic monastery to decide once and for all about Mary and once and for all about entering the Catholic Church. I chose the monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe Benedictine Abbey in Pecos, New Mexico. The night I arrived there for the retreat, I was tired, but instead of just registering and going straight to my room, I went to the chapel. It was empty, but there was a light on, and on one wall, I spied a magnificent mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had never before seen Mary pictured as Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her face was the most beautiful I had ever seen. As I looked at it, it seemed that her eyes came alive. In her eyes, I saw an ocean of compassion. Love and delight thrilled me, body and soul, in her presence. A calm, gentle, feminine presence washed through me; it was the presence of Mary, and I heard this message from her in my heart: “My compassion for you, my child, is greater than all the great oceans, many oceans, countless oceans. I reflect to you an infinite love from God Himself. Find me in tenderness. Find me in compassion. Find me in love of neighbor. I am always there to take your hand, always there to grieve with you if you need to grieve, always there to catch your tears. Just as the angel told Joseph, ‘Don’t be afraid to take Mary home with you,’ do not be afraid to take me home with you.”

From that moment, I made a firm decision to become Catholic. A few months later, in 1972, a priest directed me in formally learning the basics of the Catholic Faith. Fr. Bernie was now back in Jackson, MS, and he received me into the Church at a Mass he celebrated at a Carmelite monastery. He asked me to cherish my Protestant past and theological education. Next to the day of my baptism when I was 12, my reception into the Catholic Church was the most important day of my life.

I then returned to my hometown of Columbus, GA. Now the hard part came: telling my parents, the rest of my family, and all my Presbyterian friends that I was now Catholic. I needed courage. Thankfully, I had a secret weapon: a large, off-white, glow-in-the-dark rosary that I had bought at the gift shop at the monastery in New Mexico. I had fallen in love with praying the Rosary.

To my surprise, my parents did not disown me. My father was supportive; my mother was angry, but still accepted my decision.

The day after I was received into the Church, I prayed a prayer that became my daily prayer: that both of my parents would become Catholic. I desperately wanted my family in the Church with me, but I decided not to try to talk my parents into the Church or pressure them in any way. I just quietly prayed a private prayer every day that they both would enter the Church. Months passed and nothing happened, then years, then decades, but they had no interest in the Church.

When my parents were in their mid-eighties, during the 1990s, they started attending a Baptist church, which they loved. Perhaps that was the answer to my prayer, that they were part of a faith community.

Then one day, I received a call out of the blue from my mother: “I was praying and had an inspiration. Can your dad and I start going to Mass with you?” I swallowed, paused for a moment and then answered my mother, “Yes, of course you can.”

They started going to Mass with me weekly, loving it, until Dad’s illness prevented them from attending. A few months later, I got another call from my mother: “How do you become a Catholic? Do you walk down the aisle and talk to the preacher like you do in a Baptist church?”

“No, Mother, you join something called RCIA.” Now this was difficult for my mother to understand. They were too elderly to get out at night to attend the RCIA classes. I took the dilemma to my pastor, Fr. Gerry Schreck, and he suggested sending out his pastoral associate, Sr. Alice Lovett, to give them instructions in the Catholic Faith in their home. Sr. Alice was a saint and just the right person for this. At 79, she was nearly my parents’ age herself. She was full of laughter and joy, as well as deep devotion and compassion. She prayed before the Blessed Sacrament two hours a day. The bishop’s nickname for her was Alice in Wonderland, because she could lead more Bible studies and visit more sick people in a day than most people could in a week. My parents fell in love with Sr. Alice and what she was teaching them about the Church. They were slated to enter the Church at Easter of 1996, but sadly, my father turned ill the Friday before Easter and died the Monday afterwards. Because he was under instruction at the time of his death, he received a Catholic funeral and was buried as a Catholic.

My mother strongly wanted to be Catholic before she buried my father, so the pastor received her into the Church in her home the day before my father’s funeral. She was a fervent Catholic, letting all her siblings and nieces and nephews know that she was Catholic and proud.

When we put Mother in assisted living several years after my father’s death, my Protestant cousins helped straighten out the house. They found rosaries here, there, and everywhere. I don’t know whether mother ever learned how to say the Rosary, but she did know that having rosaries meant you were Catholic, and she made sure to have a house full of them.

She died peacefully in her sleep at age 93. As an only child, I miss my parents terribly, but am so joyful that we were able to share our Catholic faith. Years before, there had been profound healing of hearts and forgiveness with my parents. In their later years, we thoroughly enjoyed one another, doing fun things like going on vacation together.

In addition, soon after becoming Catholic, I developed a great hunger for Catholic spirituality. I fell in love with authors such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. John of the Cross. An especially strong influence were the original writings on St. Francis and the early Franciscans contained in a gigantic volume called An Omnibus of Sources on the Life of St. Francis. St. Augustine’s writings were another influence.

The pastor at my parish, St. Anne, in my hometown of Columbus, GA, asked me to lead a series of seminars on contemplation and the spiritual life based on my experience and research. Ralph Martin, then editor of New Covenant, a wide-circulation Catholic magazine, invited me to write a series of articles on the history of spirituality and charismatic experience in the Catholic Church. Then an editor for Paulist Press invited me to write a book on the theme of expressive prayer and glossolalia in the history of the Church. Paulist Press published this book, Sounds of Wonder, in 1977. 

I began receiving invitations from many parishes and dioceses to lead spiritual retreats and be a conference speaker. A young man in my parish, Robert Herrmann, was a natural contemplative, leading a deep life of prayer and service. He felt called to minister with me and began speaking with me on these engagements. 

In the mid-nineties I asked my pastor, Fr. Gerry Schreck, for ways Robert and I could grow closer to the Church in our ministry. He discussed this with our Bishop, J. Kevin Boland and my spiritual director Fr. Doug Clark, STL.

Then I got an unexpected call from the bishop. He suggested that Robert and I join the deacon preparation program and become deacons. He thought that becoming clergy would show our connection with the Church and enable us to proclaim the Gospel and preach at Mass on our parish missions. Robert and I were ordained at the Cathedral in Savannah, on Pentecost 2001. My mother was present and carried my vestments.

Our ministry, called Deacons in Ministry, received canonical status as an official Catholic organization approved by our diocese, the general counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2016. 

Because I spend many hours in prayer each week, I have lived informally a life of celibacy, and this state was formalized at my ordination, where I made the same promises of celibacy priests make.

Lately, our focus in ministry has narrowed to our home parish, St. Anne. Our parish is a wonderful family that gives us the love connection that helps us stay in balance. 

Deacon Eddie Ensley

Deacon Eddie Ensley, Ph.D. trained for six years to be a Presbyterian minister, then became Catholic. He is a permanent deacon at St. Anne Catholic Church in Columbus, GA. Author of seventeen books, his most recent ones are Pause in Wonder from Ave Maria Press and Heart to Heart Talks with Jesus from Twenty Third Publications. Eddie has led over 400 retreats and parish missions and has spoken personally to over 350,000. He taught graduate school for many years at Josephinum Diaconal Institute, Pontifical College Josephinum.

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