This is part of a series in which I present a cumulative case for why I don't believe in god. The series index is here.
This particular post presents my personal story as background information and is one of five parts. Part 1 covered my early life through some of high school. Part 2 and Part 3 present my experience at a Twelve Step boarding school and initial conversion. This posts documents my time at college, further conversion, and early marriage. Part five will present the events surrounding my deconversion.
Edit/Preamble: This post got looooooong. My apologies if that's an issue. I'd like to state upfront why I put so much detail into my story. For one, I especially put detail into this post because I want to paint an accurate picture of what kind of believer I was: one sold out for God. I lived an attempt to be saturated by the Gospel. I believe I was a "Real(TM) Christian." I also want to present some of the more "miraculous" things that happened to me because I think it would be dishonest to gloss over them. If I am to part ways with my former worldview, those occurrences deserve reinterpretation. Perhaps in the future, I'll attempt to write where I stand on those events at present. In any case, I at least added a bunch of pictures to support my God-centered life, so the scenery should at least be nicer than my previous blobs of test. Good luck in making it through.
Please also comment if the picture sizes is a huge pain (I can make thumbnails for the post body and full sized pictures if you click) or if Google docs is not showing the pictures or asking you to log in to see the pictures below. I've been having issues with that...
Time to pick up the story again. This one will feature lots of pictures and I think this will be the most enjoyable to read of all my posts. When I left off, I had just described my initial conversion experience. As you'll recall, I had become Catholic (from non-faith) through RCIA, but that was purely to fit in and done in the midst of a fairly tumultuous time of life. My "saving experience" at boarding school was the first time I began to take faith seriously. I wanted to live for God. My life became God-centered. My thoughts and motivations were about pleasing Him and living out the fact that He had given me a chance I did not deserve.
There was a parish priest who was a huge part of my conversion. He gave a homily at Mass one Sunday evening about an Eastern Orthodox icon featuring Jesus standing on the gates of hell and pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs, where they were waiting for his resurrection to free humanity. It's known as "The Pascha" and one version is HERE. I fell in love with the symbolism, probably in part due to how fantastic the priest's homily was. Jesus trampled the gates, broke loose all of the locks and chains (which are shown strewn about in the icon), and offers his hands to even those who brought about humanity's enslavement to death and sin at the beginning. The message: No one is too lost to be saved; all are offered redemption. It was beautiful and for my next birthday, I requested that this icon be my gift. It still hangs on the wall in my room (along with Lazarus, St. Michael, and an icon of an angel)
On the back of it, I wrote the meaning of the icon for me:
Yes, I'm an engineer with an artsy side (which will only become more obvious in this post!). In any case, I finished out my semester of working as a staff member at the boarding school and went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, with a small group of graduates. It was fantastic. We were there for almost two weeks and worked as members of what's known as the "Hospitalite" -- a monstrous organization of volunteers who, essentially, help Lourdes run. There are six million visitors a year, many of whom are sick, and the Hospitalite loads and unloads them from the planes, trains, and buses they arrive on, wheels and/or carries them to and from the baths, Masses, and other sites, helps organize the evening Rosary Procession (all the little lights are people holding candles). I got to assist the sick into the baths (called the piscines) where many pilgrims immerse themselves in the water believed to have healing abilities. It was an intense time filled with much prayer at the grotto where Mary is believed to have appeared to the young St. Bernadette.
Following my time at Lourdes, I went home for the summer before I was to start college. I got a job doing landscaping as well to keep busy. I don't recall an awful lot from that summer other than it being a bit frustrating to be back home with my parents. I think after leaving at 16 and not returning until two and a half years later took a bit of a toll. I recall really hating when things would be asked of me that I thought were below my newfound maturity. I wanted equality and think anything that felt like they were dealing with the snapshot version from years past grated on me quite heavily.
Then, off to college it was. The University of St. Thomas was wonderful. I studied Mechanical Engineering, and lived (as said in Part 3) a house with other devout Catholics who were part of Saint Pauls Outreach (SPO), an evangelism-focused organization in St. Paul that has chapters (i.e. student clubs) at several local colleges/universities. It was a bit of a shock for me, though. My current faith life had been very "traditional", and I soon found out that SPO was highly charismatic. In other words, they prayed in tongues, prayed "expressively" (hands raised, dancing, spontaneous prayers out loud), believed in healings, gave prophecies, etc. It was a little weird at my first event to vaguely recall the leader saying something like, "Let's pray," me bowing my head in response, and then to hear everyone around me start praying out loud very... passionately. I sat that one out.
Eventually, however, I grew to love charismatic prayer. It seemed to make sense (at least in how it was explained to me). The Psalms feature fantastic examples of using one's whole being to pray -- clapping, dancing, singing, raising one's voice, etc. We have been given bodies and find it natural to express ourselves with them. Why not do the same for God, who gave us our bodies? It also was an outlet for the emotional side, I found. I had extreme gratitude and felt a need to be very strongly devoted and humble before God. Praying in my own words seemed more satisfying than using something like the Our Father. I became quite a committed member of the group. I went to their prayer meetings, participated in small groups, helped lead events, tried some "recruiting", and went on the retreats.
One event I want to relate has to do with my first retreat, which occurred about six months into my first year with SPO. It was called a "Fan into Flame" retreat, named after 1 Timothy 1:6. The retreat featured about 6-8 talks which essentially walked participants through salvation history. God created perfect, we fell and are without hope, which is why God sent Jesus. Jesus' life, death and resurrection brings about an offering of salvation, and through acceptance of that gift we are able to have new life in Jesus that is made alive through his gift of the Holy Spirit. The retreat climaxes at the Saturday night prayer meeting where participants are "baptized in the Spirit." Essentially, you make a profession of faith and then retreat leaders lay hands on you and pray that the Holy Spirit be released in your life. The profession of faith is much like a renewal of baptismal vows where one is asked if they believe in God the creator, that Jesus is the son of God and rose from the dead, and if they reject Satan and all his works and empty promises. For the first time (I had said these promises before), I felt a twinge of doubt about whether I believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. It wasn't a "real" doubt -- I just noticed for the first time that I wasn't sure I had ever really swallowed that truth. I told this to the prayer leader and he told me to pray the verse from Mark 9:24: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief." I did that repeatedly but it didn't seem to help. They finished praying over me with no real result and I went back to my chair and the doubt began to envelop me -- did Jesus rise? Is the Bible true? Is God real? All kinds of things. Everything had been yanked out from under me.
But, I need to point out something odd about those doubts. They were never doubts that actually wondered if they were true (religion/Catholicism/Christianity was false). I recall distinctly that they were all essentially doubts that I thought implied something was wrong with me. I didn't actually question whether everything was true... just that my doubting meant I wasn't getting some piece of the puzzle. The rest of the retreat was miserable. Tons of people shared that night and the next day during "Glory Story" time that they had been brought to God-given uncontrollable laughter, been given the gift of [praying in] tongues, a gift of prophecy, and the like. I had been given the gift of... doubt?
Over the next two or three weeks, I became obsessed with trying to fix my doubt. I strongly recall not debating if any competing religions were true. I was sure of Catholicism due to the surety of those around me... I just didn't understand why I didn't get it. Particularly, I wanted to understand why we earned death through original sin and why Jesus' death fixed that. It was suggested that I read Stephen Clark's Reddemer, a hefty volume on this particular subject. I know Steve personally and have met with him post-doubt. He is insanely knowledgeable and his book seemed to help at the time, but I was still confused. After about three weeks, I was talking with the leader of the house I was living in who was a probably 15 years my senior about my dilemma. Despite the seemingly intellectual nature of my issue, I think it really came down to the fact that I didn't feel inside what I saw externally in those around me. I thought that if I really "got it"... then I would also feel the charismatic excitement and jubilation they seemed to be saturated with. The house leader seemed to sense that I was pretty torn up about this, and I was. I felt like I was broken somehow and was extremely frustrated that I couldn't "learn myself out of this." He said that faith was a gift and that I couldn't will it to come about. I was relieved on one hand (not something wrong with me), but confused on the other (when would this gift decide to give itself??). He said we could pray for that gift, and so we did. He said some prayer over me that I don't recall, and then I just balled my eyes out while proclaiming that I wanted to know Jesus personally and just knew he was there but couldn't find him. I remember expressing that through those three weeks I just knew that I could live powerfully for Him if I could just bypass my doubt.
This moment of prayer would fuel my next several years of Christian living. I felt tremendous relief and consolation in that prayer and took that to have been me experiencing the risen Lord personally. I no longer doubted his resurrection, as I believed he was clearly alive and well. I became bolder in prayer (out loud, expressive, etc.), my prayer shifted to more of a discussion and constant awareness of His presence. I attempted to prayer constantly. I was set on fire.
So it would be from the spring of 2004 until Christmas of 2010. I lived in those household programs my entire four years at college, right up until the summer before I got married in December 2007. I became a Student Missionary, which meant that I gave a certain number of hours each week to help explicitly with the mission of evangelization at St. Thomas -- event administration and setup, setting up coffee and handing out ads for upcoming events, giving talks, leading praise and worship, etc. I attended all the retreats and even led/assisted with some. I gave up my only income -- summer work -- in part or in full to participate in the longer summer training programs SPO offered. I was sold out for the mission. Granted, I had my issues. I often debated about whether it was in fact a good idea to give up practical needs like money for theological training. But I always gave in for the mission. It seemed like the trusting thing to do.
In fact, at one point when I was out several thousand for a particular semester, my parents suddenly said they would give me a no-interest loan to cover my debt!
On another occasion, I had been praying about tithing and spent hours trying to figure out how much I needed to donate to make up for all the times in my life I hadn't tithed. I arrived at $750 (I'm positive I rounded up). I made the decision to be generous to the Lord and wrote out two checks for two different causes. $750 was about all I had to my name. I walked out of my room and checked the mail. There was a letter from my grandma, from whom I had also borrowed money from, in the amount of $4,000 for school. I always half-hoped that a letter from her would announce the early forgiveness of my debt to her, but it was always just a nice card or letter. I opened up the letter this time, however, and there in front of my eyes was the agreement I had signed and sent her, signed by her and annotated, "Paid in full." Not only that, but apparently she was "liquidating" and sent each of her grand children $5,000. She had cancelled my $4,000 debt and included a check for $1,000. This was minutes after deciding to give away all I had to tithe. Unbelievable, huh?
During another extremely brief bit of doubt, I did a classic "Bible-flip-open" and landed at the the closing of Matthew 28 where Jesus announces, "... and behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Seemed too perfect.
Many things like this happened. Perfect scriptures, perfect "prophetic words" given, perfect song played at a prayer meeting, perfect conversation at the perfect time. It really was an amazing time.
Right after my "meeting of Jesus" in 2004, I met my future wife. We started dating shortly after -- probably too soon, and definitely against the counsel of those in the outreach. "If you're not ready to be married, you shouldn't be dating" was the common prescription. I think it's good advice to this day. In any case, we were quite serious very fast, but immaturity (at least mine) was also quite quick to surface. Awesome highs, horrid lows was the defining characteristic. I thought she was wonderful and would be brought to tears at the thought that God might entrust such a beautiful soul for me to care for. I made her this the following Thanksgiving while I was home on break:
Cheesy, I know. It now hangs in our kitchen. We dated for about a year and then decided to break indefinitely. There was no [stated] expectation that we would get back together. I always hoped for it, but we both knew that to grow we couldn't crutch along thinking that no matter what happened, we would end up back safe and sound in a relationship. That began the most miserable year of my life, though this past one has debatably topped it. I was in anguish. Primarily, SPO taught a process called "discernment" -- discerning one's vocation, or call, based on God's will rather than assuming it was one particular path or another. In layman's terms, does God want you to be married, a religious (priest, nun, brother), or "single for the Lord" (which essentially means to profess lifelong chastity but to serve God's kingdom from the position of laity). I had never done this, and it gnawed at me while dating the more I heard talks about it. What if God wanted me to be a priest, I would wonder? I should mention that the summer after my sophomore year, I returned to Lourdes for another pilgrimage with the graduates from the boarding school and my favorite priest. It was fantastic again. I loved unloading the trains. You were lifting the sick and disabled from the train cars about four feet up down to the platform so they could be wheeled to buses and taken to the pilgrimage site. You were lifting humans from fairly high heights again and again, but I never felt tired. The joy on their faces was fantastic. You were the first person they saw on what might be the best trip of their entire lives. It was also humbling to see individuals in physically worse shape display such joy when contrasting that to my own negativity despite being perfectly healthy.
In any case, several "oddities" occurred on that trip -- people asking me if I was a priest, or suggesting it -- that added to my confusion about the "discernment" thing. That, along with the increasingly bad valleys of immature emotional displays (stupid fights more frequently and longer reconciliation times) led us to split for a time of growth. Nothing ever swayed me from the hope I saw in our relationship. She was a fantastic potential wife -- great with kids, unselfish, attentive to the needs of others, etc. We also (in our highs) got along unbelievably well. There was no one I'd rather spend my time with. But... I knew I had a lot of things that contributed to the "muck." I spent that entire year apart trying to "detach" from her. I thought that to truly grow and seek what God wanted, I needed to be completely free from any desire to be together again. I prayed for God to remove my attraction to her, to make it clear if we were never to be together again, avoiding her, etc. It was awful. I never got an answer. I would have rather had God just tell me I'd never be in a relationship with her again and cry for a week and be done than go on not knowing for a whole year. Eventually, I found some solace. I was particularly inspired by reading Frances de Sales, Finding God's Will for You. He was the first person I ever heard talk about the integral nature of passion and desire in God's will. I always thought my passion was to be crushed. de Sales made the point that God has no intention of trying to constantly combat our own passion and desire -- He's the one that gave them to you. John Eldredge's Wild at Heart contained a similar message. Essentially, don't sin... but otherwise, do what you want.
Toward the end of that year, I embarked specifically on a time of intentional discernment. I spent most of the year just trying to work on myself, develop virtue and habits of daily prayer, etc. A year from when we parted, I specifically started praying about marriage vs. single/religious life. I set a date to decide -- I picked the eve of my Confirmation saint's feast day, July 31st, the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
For some time, I had been in the practice of meditating through one chapter of the Bible each day for my daily prayer. I started with the Gospels and when I finished, I looped back to Matthew and made it two chapters per day -- one in the Gospels and one in the NT. Then I added a Psalm. When I finished all the Psalms, I started in Genesis (continuing to loop the Gospels and NT all the while). I did the same on July 30th in Adoration when I had my night of discernment. I simply read my readings for the day. I happened to be on the story of how men were wicked and God flooded the earth, which I decided wasn't something that particularly spoke to me that night! The Gospel reading was about the Parable of the Talents, but what was interesting is that it struck me in an entirely different way that night. I had always heard the spin of being wise with your time, talents, and treasure, not squandering them, etc. For the first time, however, what stuck out to me was the fact that it must have been extremely hard to double your money back then -- even moreso than today. In addition, I was intrigued by the fact that the master was angry specifically because the third servant did nothing out of fear. My NT reading happened to be 1 Timothy 1. This chapter contains his verse about fanning into flame the gift of God which I'd heard from the Fan into Flame retreats I mentioned above, but what I hadn't ever heard was the verse that followed: "...for we have not been given a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-control." I was speechless -- my entire year had been one of fear. I had never felt a call to be a priest but agonized over it anyway specifically because I didn't want God to be disappointed in me for choosing wrongly. I paralyzed myself and as a result it was hard to do anything, just like the third servant. 1 Tim, though, brought me the message that I could trust that God had given me his Spirit and could be confident in acting -- he had given me the gifts to live marriage out and I should trust that call. It was quite a powerful night for me.
I went on to ask my future wife on our first "re-date" on September 2nd, 2006. On Feburary 25th, 2007, after a fancy steak dinner, I proposed from bended knee in a chapel filled with candles via a song I sang while playing guitar. I don't think it could have been any better:
I also made another signature art piece out of a picture of her newly ringed hand and a small bit of my proposal song lyrics for her birthday a few weeks later:
We were married on December 1st, 2007 and had our honeymoon daughter on September 15th, 2008. I worked for Saint Paul's Outreach for my first year out of college. I was fairly sure I was going to end up in engineering (my degree), but wanted to serve God in this capacity while we were [shortly] childless and able to sacrifice financially like that (I received a stipend... but it wasn't much). My wife was the Executive Secretary for the same organization and worked up until a month before our daughter was born. I landed a job at a fantastic company as an engineer and started on September 2nd, not two weeks before out daughter was born! We had morning prayer in our apartment, prayed together, kept attending various religious events and retreats together, and so on. I strove for daily prayer and holiness. We wanted to be saints together. A kind of "parent" organization to SPO features a community of Catholic families who are also charismatic and get together bi-weekly to do praise and worship and listen to talks. It would be complicated to describe it all, but just think extremely committed religious people who do small groups, lots and lots of prayer, and pretty much have as their social circle those in this community. We somewhat passed through SPO into that group and discerned becoming lifelong members. I publicly committed to be a member of that group for the rest of my life along with my wife the summer of 2009.
I think I need to bring this train to a halt -- it's getting harder and harder to figure out where to end it! This has obviously been quite a monstrous post and I think I'll end up bumping things to a definite 5th part to describe my onset of doubt and may even break this post up so that it's more digestible. Thanks if you stuck around this long. Maybe its irrelevant, but I at least enjoy reading about other people's lives, especially those who have entered a time of similar doubt. Perhaps some will enjoy my story as well.
Here's one last artsy piece to finish things off... For our 1st anniversary, I engraved our wedding vows into the picture glass of on of my favorite wedding pictures. Here's the whole thing:
And here's the closeup where you can see the "frosted" calligraphy of our vows in the glass: