“All of God’s people will eventually have to go underground. You do know that in the end times, the Vatican will try to round up the real Christians, don’t you?”
I waited to see the reaction on John’s face. He briefly turned away, then looked down at his menu again, pretending he was still undecided about what to order. It was a chilly September night in Boston, and we had spent the past several hours wandering through the city, solving the world’s problems while in search of ten-cent wings and happy hour drink specials. Exactly how our conversation went from getting saved, to struggling with pornography, to the Vatican being the pinnacle of all that is evil in the world remains a little cloudy.
John and I met while fulfilling our culinary externship programs on Nantucket Island and had only known each other for a few weeks. We were both in our twenties, in serious relationships with the women we would eventually marry, and trying to figure out the next phase of life while commiserating about our journeys up the ladder of the kitchen brigade system.
I spent much of my twenties attempting to redefine what it meant to be a Christian living in the world and not of it — allegiant to a misguided, unspoken decree that being under the grace of Jesus Christ meant I could dip my pinky toe into the deep end of the pool whenever I pleased. In an industry where alcohol, drugs, and partying are commonplace, as Christians, John and I often found ourselves standing at the edge of such a pool. Being churchgoers in the service industry made us feel like outliers — caught between two kingdoms. One where “anything goes.” Another where “nothing flies.” For this reason, John and I likely bonded out of necessity. We must have known somewhere in the back of our minds that, even if we decided to flirt with trouble, we could somehow manage to keep each other from doing something stupid.
John is not his real name, but that’s not important. He was really more of an acquaintance. One of those people you know for a short season before they disappear, like ripples of water from a rock dropped into a still pond.
In a small Boston bar, over several plates of greasy chicken wings and pints of Sam Adams beer, John poured his heart out to me. He was in what he called “a dangerous spot in his life spiritually.” He admitted he had battled with pornography for years, and his fight was not getting any easier.
Of all people, I don’t know why he chose to tell me all this. After all, we barely knew each other. But the one thing John made perfectly clear was that he needed someone to throw him a lifeline. This whole “Born-Again Christianity” thing was still relatively new to both of us, and although I hadn’t yet experienced what I imagined a radical “coming to Jesus” transformation should feel like after accepting Him as my personal Lord and Savior, I remained confident there would come a day that I would. In the heat of the moment, I felt led to say something to John.
Coincidentally, it turns out we were both cradle Catholics, and had both recently left the Church. It was Sunday evening, and John had broken from his routine of attending services at the new non-denominational church to take his mother to Mass earlier that day in Quincy — something he still did on occasion when he was in Boston, where she lived.
I went on to tell him that there was a way to experience freedom from the bondage of pornography. I threw a few Bible verses into the conversation and told him that I would pray for his mother and her salvation. I applauded John for going to Mass with her, but strongly advised him to distance himself from the dead, false religion of Catholicism if he really wanted to experience an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m sure I said many other things that night, too.
Come to think of it, I’ve said many things like this to many people.
When Jesus “Took it Away.”
John seemed rather intrigued by what I said to him, but I hadn’t closed the sale just yet. Sure, he also accepted Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, but he needed to know if my understanding of Christian doctrine was the golden ticket out of captivity from pornography. He needed something more personal than a three-point sermon doodled on the back of a cocktail napkin. That’s when he made it really personal.
“How about you, Jay? You said you struggled with porn. But what about now? Do you still struggle?”
The question was simple and honest enough, but it made me squirm. Even though I had been speaking about my issue in the past tense, this was the first time in my twenty-some years of inhabiting the earth that the words, “Yeah, I’ve looked at porn” ever came out of my mouth. The words came up bitterly, unexpectedly, like bile in the back of my throat, and burned with conviction and shame.
I’d never had a conversation with anyone about pornography until then, and I would not have another one for at least ten years.
I didn’t know what to say.
I looked him square in the eyes and responded, “No, John. By the grace of God, I no longer look at pornography. It’s in my past.”
It humors me today, at the age of forty-three, to recall a time I was in my early twenties and talking in the context of the past. At that age, the past might as well have been two hours ago. Still, John seemed pleased with my answer — that we can simply leave a sin as powerful as pornography at the proverbial foot of the Cross and Jesus would simply take it away — and I was really pleased as well, believing somehow that the Holy Spirit used me that night, despite the fact that I had just lied through my teeth.
Although I was a “work in progress,” having accepted Christ into my heart meant I could declare myself a winner even though I hadn’t quite crossed the finish line. I was the quintessential poster child for what recovering addicts like to call “faking it till you make it.”
Distance Makes the Sin Grow Farther
I remember leaving the bar on the evening I last saw John in Boston. I had to go into work early to prep the following day, and I had just enough time to catch the last slow ferry from Hyannis Port back to Nantucket Island.
As the lights from Hyannis Port faded into the horizon, I began to feel a sense of closure. I knew I would not see John again before completing my internship, but I was suffering from a case of confessor’s remorse — feeling uncomfortable with the thought that my sin was exposed and out there with someone I didn’t know well. I thought the distance represented liberation, each mile of land and sea between myself and the Boston bar a symbolic departure from my old self. I felt like I was on top of the world. That although I was lying, by admitting it to someone, the sin of porn would become as distant as the bar I admitted it in.
Sadly, it didn’t happen that way — and for years, pornography, among many other issues, would slowly rot and decay my very soul. It infiltrated my spiritual formation, it robbed me of time I will never get back, it warped my mind in ways you can’t begin to imagine, and it poisoned my marriage. For years, I kept my problems cloaked beneath a shroud of false righteousness, and at times, I used the King James version of the Bible as a weapon to deflect the doubts of those who may have suspected that I was not the Born-Again Christian I claimed to be.
Coincidentally, I ran into John again several years ago. I was walking the floor of the Restaurant Expo at the Javits Center in New York, and I caught the glimpse of a familiar face out of the corner of my eye.
“Wow! It is you!” he said, with surprised laughter.
After we cut through the small talk, John admitted to me that his life was spiraling out of control. His face got a little crooked, as he looked at me with a smile,
“What can I say, huh? I’m still pretty much the same old John.”
I didn’t know John that well, but I knew enough about his history to sense that it couldn’t be good. After witnessing John’s zeal for God in the Boston bar years ago, it was disappointing to hear that he was still the same old John. I thought back to the conversation we had that September evening. It would be pompous of me to believe my words could have impacted or influenced his life in any way. Other issues were certainly present there, but what a disaster! It was the blind leading the blind. If I had the opportunity to have that conversation over again today, it would have gone much differently.
When I ran into John at the trade show seven years ago, I was experiencing my own season of spiritual distress. I wasn’t attending any church, and I was on the brink of no longer believing in anything. John thanked me for my boldness that night in the Boston bar, encouraging him to turn away from the Catholic Church. I was neither hot nor cold on the subject any more; I just smiled and shrugged it off. Once again, I missed an incredible opportunity to set the record straight.
The greatest irony was in discovering, several months later, how the very Church that I had rebuked and spat on for years would become my refuge in my darkest hour.
Faith under Fire
I was raised Catholic, but I left the Church for twenty-plus years. It’s not enough to say I slammed the door and walked away. If you want a more accurate picture of my sentiments when I left, just paint an image in your mind of a disgruntled kid walking off into the sunset with his back to the Church, making a gesture of contempt. It’s not something that I’m proud of.
A person might suspect that a departure so caustic and abrupt would have to be justifiable — a scandalous “incident” involving a parish priest, perhaps — but that was never the case. Sure, there were reasons I could point to for walking away, but none so severe as to generate such vile hatred toward Catholicism.
Long before any of this happened, I had a healthy, innocent fear of God and a genuine love for Jesus Christ. I held my head high with confidence as a child. I loved my faith, and served for five years as an altar boy at a church in the Diocese of Rockville Center, NY. Weekday Masses at seven AM, funerals, weddings, Mass on Sunday. However, when I hit the teen years, throughout my golden age of impressionability, that childlike faith underwent a siege. I was challenged by everyone, from the pastors to the preacher’s kids. From the yuppies-by-day turned deadheads-by-dawn, the so-called hippies, the freaked-out hippies, the so-called hippie Jesus freaks, and so on. If it wasn’t other Christians trying to convince me that my faith wasn’t what it appeared, it was the atheists telling me that belief in any religion was a fallacy altogether.
I can’t blame others for challenging my faith, but when it came to this notion that I had to ask Jesus into my heart, a place I already believed He resided, and only then would I have the real truth within me, I didn’t really comprehend at first what was going on. Thinking back, I don’t know if I ever really understood. How does a person like me come to terms with the idea that it’s possible to suddenly acquire something I thought was in me all along? It was a difficult thing for me to explain, but everyone I surrounded myself with seemed to do a much better job of explaining it for me.
I quickly discovered that making a sincere declaration that Christ was living in my heart as a Catholic through Baptism and Confirmation was not a sufficient response for some. While it was only a select few people, right or wrong, these particular folks spoke with such a contagious degree of passion and conviction that it was impossible to ignore them. Rather than trusting in the Holy Spirit to work out our differences, through the relentless, well-intentioned efforts of these particular folks, I would begin to believe my faith was coming from a place that was more sinister and diabolical than I could have even imagined.
Before I left the Catholic Church, I wore imitation Doc Martens, played guitar in a punk band, and kept a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook hidden under my mattress. By the time I left the Catholic Church to worship God elsewhere, I was transitioning into my next phase of formative years, one that allowed me to mask my teenage angst under the guise of peace signs and “free love” — the kind of “free love” that placed me in a sexually active, volatile relationship for four years with the very girl who took me to a Baptist church for the first time. I traded in my Docs and flannel shirts for sandals and dashikis. I couldn’t get through a conversation without interjecting the word “dude” into a sentence. I became interested in things like Nicaragua, apartheid, resurrecting has-been groups like the Weather Underground, and a host of other subjects that a white kid living in suburbia in the mid-nineties had absolutely no good reason to meddle in or discuss.
I was another young, impressionable teenager trying to find his place in a world that failed to give his life any substantive meaning.
Like too many young and impressionable kids, I made several bad decisions. And those bad decisions led to a series of other bad decisions, which eventually took me to some much darker places spiritually. I found myself confronted with a common dilemma that I would imagine many young guys who claim to know Christ as their Savior experience:
My actions were simply not at all lining up with what I professed to believe.
One can make an argument that a faith yielding so readily to persuasion from others couldn’t have been so adamant to begin with. In hindsight, I can see that the efforts of those who successfully persuaded me couldn’t have come at a worse time. I was experiencing culture shock following a move from New York City to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had recently lost a loved one. I was hurt, broken, and in a phase of rebellion. I was in a toxic relationship that I had taken much too far. I was ripe for the picking and just naïve enough to show it.
I needed Jesus more than ever. The problem was, I felt duped and betrayed, thinking that the Jesus I thought I already knew through my Baptism and Confirmation was an imposter.
I thought that it was never Jesus who flipped on the No Vacancy sign in my heart, and if I searched the room long enough, I would discover that it was just some false messiah squatting in there all along.
I’ll confess, at times I thought it would have been easier to just turn away from Christ entirely for those twenty years. To have felt the totality of darkness and separation would have left me no choice but to run back to Him, falling on my knees, weeping. Instead, I wandered through the desert without a clue, boxing my own shadow, and sprinting toward every mirage that formed in the distance. I invested years of my life chasing issues far from my reach and out of my control, while blatantly ignoring the darkness within my own soul. I found myself attending dozens of churches, with a broad spectrum of doctrines and dogmas, each claiming to have a piece of the truth that the other churches were lacking. To make matters worse, I just made up the rules as I went, picking and choosing what formulas of faith “worked best” for me and turning Bible lessons into my own private circus act. It was a constant rope walk of bad choices, riding on a carousel of sin, recommitting my life to Christ over and over again, hoping to have landed on the correct formula each time. If I did something wrong, I could always find a verse to make it seem right.
I’ve always had a bit of an addictive personality. Consequently, like many people raised in a first-world, self-indulgent country, I have at times been guilty of loving something way too much. Maybe a few recreational drugs here, and a little too much alcohol there; a codependent relationship, or an obsession with a person or possession. As the vices have come and gone, the one that always seemed to rear its ugly head in my weakest moment was pornography. In hindsight, one of the reasons I adopted such a hatred toward the Catholic Church was through an association I made between the issues I was secretly battling and the Church I was raised in. I was connecting dots from two different pages that later, through the help of the Holy Spirit, I would discover were not connected in any way.
The Irony of Idolatry
Ironically, I would often curse the Catholic Church for practicing idolatry. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Idolatry is committed not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war, or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” It’s ironic because, for one season of my life, I made anti-Catholicism an idol. For another season, I made politics and conspiracy an idol. I did it all in the name of Christ, fighting an enemy I couldn’t quite see in the distance, never slowing down enough to consider the debilitating effect my own sinfulness was having on my soul. Although I preached “grace alone,” I found myself making extraordinary leaps and bounds in an attempt to make up for my shortcomings. Like a bull, I broke a lot of fine china. I misguided, betrayed and hurt many people. Just like St. Peter, who drew his sword on the high priest’s servant Malchus, then went on to deny his Savior Jesus Christ three times (see John 18:10), I cut off many ears. I strained my voice screaming, “Burn, you great whore of Babylon!” at the very Church I was raised in, for no good reason, other than I needed someone besides myself to blame for the trail of wreckage I was leaving everywhere — like lying to John and bashing the Church in the same breath. Like everyone else, I had the best of intentions.
The bitterness of my own heart was so palpable, out of fear of disappointing God, I was reduced to denying my very own fallen nature and embellishing those very intentions.
As For Me and My House… When it all came tumbling down.
For all the horrible things I was dealing with, there was always something stirring within me that never shook my Faith in God.
That all came tumbling down in the spring of 2013, while I sat in my basement one night. I had finally hit a spiritual rock bottom, measuring the vast, invisible chasm between grace and damnation, wondering if I had now gone too far and tipped the scale in the enemy’s favor.
“It’s over,” I thought.
“Maybe there is no God.”
My wife, Chelsea, and I had two daughters at the time and were early into the pregnancy of our son. I couldn’t shake it from my head. “Daddy doesn’t believe. How am I going to explain this to my children?”
One part of me thought, “I’ve been stringing my so-called faith together for this long. What’s another 18 years?” Another small part of me thought much worse things I don’t dare put into writing.
I somehow managed to keep inside all of this darkness and misery I was feeling, but I couldn’t hide it for long. Chelsea, who was a devout believer (and now, after several years of her own journey, a convert!) eventually began having nightmares that there was an evil presence in the house. She knew something wasn’t right.
The murk in my soul had brought an oppressive darkness into our house, and I knew full well where it was coming from. I still get chills on my spine when I think about that season of my life.
Then, something happened.
It was something so beautiful, I can’t explain it.
As St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
In hindsight, I can only attribute it to my parents’ decision to raise me in the Church.
To the One, True, and Living God, in His perfect time, returning another lost, injured, wandering sheep, branded with the mark of Baptism, back to the flock. Back to the vast and abundant meadow, to be received with arms wide open.
Somehow, five years ago, I came undone.
Somehow, five years ago on Christmas Eve, I found myself all alone at midnight Mass, with tears streaming down my face. There was no more doctrine to squabble over. No more arguments to make. No more enemies to confront.
I thought the Church would be a mess. I thought I left the place in shambles; but there She was, exactly as I remembered Her — reverent, gentle, forgiving, and true.
I was right where I needed to be all along, and once I realized it, I never looked back.
There were certainly some intellectual hurdles that I had to get over, some doctrines that seemed unclear to me, but overcoming an internal intellectual debate was hardly the issue. If you want a more detailed explanation of that part of my journey, I would encourage you to look up my interview with Marcus Grodi.
That said, returning to the Catholic Church was not a simple matter of feeling some warm, fuzzy sensation of nostalgia, either. I truly believed that the Catholic Church was the church of Satan. While that idea was spawned from the mouths of fallible men, to say I was “brainwashed” would be unfair to those men who planted the seeds in my head. To this day, I believe many of them meant well, and it was, after all, I who had allowed that seed to grow into a rapacious weed. I was a prisoner in my own mind, and when I first walked through the heavy wooden doors of St. Ursula’s Church, there were some thoughts that would creep into my head. “Is this the house of Satan? Did I forfeit my soul to him when I doubted God’s existence? Is that what drew me here?”
It took time to get over this, but watching the fruits of the Holy Spirit begin to bloom and grow within me destroyed any doubts about my decision to come home to the Church. I can tell you that I have a better relationship with Jesus Christ now than at any time during my entire adult life. I have that same healthy fear of God today that I had as a child. I feel such a sense of clarity, peace, and understanding of Scripture today. It’s a peace and clarity that was virtually unknown to me during the years I spent away from the Catholic Church, despite reading the Bible daily. Most importantly, I have an appreciation and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament that I cannot see myself ever taking for granted again.
Jesus does heal all wounds. Since I came home to the Catholic Church, He has healed the wounds I inherited from generations of sin in my family. He healed the wounds that were inflicted upon me throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. He healed the wounds I inflicted upon others when I brandished a sharp sword, with the intention of righting all of my wrongs, in my own strength, brought about by my own wounds.
Just as He healed the ear of Malchus, just as He forgave St. Peter, and said, “Upon this rock, I will build my Church.”
He heals us through that very Church He established.
He heals us through prayer and sacrament.
He heals the wandering sheep when we finally listen long enough to hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit whispering, “Welcome home.”