It was nearing the end of my sophomore year. I had a pretty similar life to everyone around me. I’d wake up in the morning way too early than what was healthy so I could get to my 7:30 AM class at my school 30 minutes away. My dad would usually have eggs and bacon ready for me by the time I was out of the shower and my mom always made me a smoothie that tasted exactly how it looked, like slop.
I finished up classes for the day, and then came my favorite part of the day, hockey practice. Earlier in the year, I made it onto my school’s hockey team which was the hockey team of my dreams. Playing hockey was the one thing that got me through the school day because I never felt more free than when I was skating. The cold air against my face while my feet glided across a smooth surface of ice.
It was all great except for one problem. I was suffering through an abdominal hernia that was only discovered several months after hockey season. The hernia flared up every now and then to the point that I couldn’t walk up stairs because my left leg hurt so much. I had no idea what was wrong with me at the time so I played hockey whenever I could and I tried to play through the pain. Well needless to say, that didn’t work and it got worse and worse. The worst part of it though was the treatment I received from my teammates. I was a complete failure to them and I was ridiculed for it. They didn’t fail to show me and tell me how they felt too. That didn’t stop at the hockey team though.
The whole school knew about it so I could never leave that realm of rejection. Combined with these issues I also had a face that was riddled with pimples. I was always afraid to show my face because of how others would judge me. I was so wrapped up in trying to impress, please, and receive praise from the exact same people that despised me. My apparent inadequacies crushed my pride. I remember driving home in tears several times with one thought in my head “somebody love me.”
It was at this moment that I should have turned to God in prayer, but I didn’t. The stubbornness of my youth, the immaturity of my mind, and the simple lack of effort I wished to give to God were my true inadequacies. Paired with social rejection was the whirlwind of teenage testosterone stirring within me. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted intimacy.
The praise, desire, and intimacy that I should have given to God, I gave to pornography. The natural sweetness of sexual intimacy that God gave to us as gift, has never been more twisted than in the world of pornography. This was how I learned to cope with all my problems. How easy it was for me to feel comforted in that fictitious world of intimacy. It required nothing of me: no self-sacrifice, no commitment, and no regret.
I thought I knew what loneliness felt like earlier in the year, but it was nothing compared to where I was at. I did not see God in my life anymore. I realized my radical separation from him in the way that I saw others. After continuously using people for my own pleasure, I began to see people as objects and things to be manipulated instead of as children of God. I did not see God’s goodness in others and I especially didn’t see it in myself. I had never felt so alone and abandoned.
It was on that one spring day that everything changed for me. It started off like any other day with the dad special, bacon and eggs, the mom special, a healthy smoothie, and a pretty rough school day with a couple tests. By this time, the hockey season was over so I went home, did homework until dinner, and then went back to my bedroom.
I was beginning to feel like there was no way out from what I was feeling, until my phone dinged. I reached over and I saw a text from the priest down the road whom I had grown to admire. It read, “I don’t know why Anthony, but God told me to pray for you today to remind you that you are not alone.” And there it was. I saw God in another person and I felt joy. He spoke to me in a tongue that I could understand and he took pity on me.
Instead of falling back into my habits that night I ran over to the church across the street . . . I entered into the dark church where the only light was one wavering candle illuminating the tabernacle. It looked like a pillar of fire in the darkness of my heart leading the way . . . I opened the Bible next to me and my eyes fell upon Psalm 51, the psalm of David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, and read:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin . . . Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
I sat there in shock as I wept.
I wept until my body ached, because I realized how alone I really felt. It was in the deepest darkness of my condition that God’s presence illuminated me with hope. I felt God reach out and embrace me. It felt like he was sitting next to me in that church pew, holding me up with his arm around me as I continued to pray to him. By his presence, he repaired the brokenness inside of me.
He picked up the pieces of my insecurity and made me feel secure in him. He took my desire for intimacy and He became intimate with me. He reminded me that I was not alone and that he was always there, ready to pull me out of the ditch that I was in. He replaced my desire for the flesh with a desire for him.
I spent another hour in the church, full of self-reflection and looking to the future. I was overcome with an immense sense of joy despite the sweet pain of coming to terms with God’s unconditional love for me. It was like the pain of a thorn being pulled from a wound to prevent infection. The necessary pain of being healed. This joy found in pain could only be described as the realization of love. God’s unending Love. God’s ever abiding presence had never been so vivid as it was in that church and I hurt with joy.
I slept like a child that night because I no longer was sleeping alone but in the comfort of God’s presence. The following day I met with my priest and went to confession where I let him know my struggles and how I desired to come be in God’s presence. Although my troubles at school and in life did not end, Christ carried his cross along side of me through it all. He pulled me from the ditch where I was beaten and broken and he took care of me. Whenever I felt the temptation to fall back into my sinful habits, he was there to catch me. God taught me to find the sweetness in the cross to cope with the bitterness of my afflictions.
This reflection is the 18th installment of the popular Stories of Grace Podcast:
Editorial Note: This month Church Life Journal will tackle healing within the Church. The Church is a hospital for sinners. Even if recent media coverage of Catholicism has rightly converged upon the diseases within our communities, it all too frequently overlooks the healing that is simultaneously going on. A hospital is not just a collection of sick individuals, but also the community of doctors and staff around them devoted to helping the sick return to health. Therefore, throughout February Church Life Journal will concentrate upon healing within the Tradition (Bible, liturgy, popular piety, devotions, after scandals, within the home church, and miraculous cures). Please click on the following link to follow us in our exploration of the healing imagination.
Featured Image: John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.