13 Jun TALES FROM THE JOURNEY HOME: Conversion at Auschwitz
Like many people, I struggled with the Faith in my youth. I never doubted, but from my teens to mid-twenties I violently resented and disliked God. These were strongly conflicted feelings and for every measure of resentment and dislike, I felt equal or greater parts love and desire for God. I defied and rejected God, yet craved Him at the same time. I alternately feared God would abandon me, then yelled at Him to leave me alone.
In 1977, when I was 16 years old, I spent a year in Austria as an exchange student. We toured Italy before settling with our host families in Salzburg. This wasn’t my first trip through Italy but it was full of memorable experiences – not all of them good. There were a lot of “firsts” for me. It was the era of sex, drugs, and rock n roll and I was riding the crest of that wave.
I was a mess when the bus pulled into Assisi. We’d been tripping on LSD in Florence and awake for 48 hours straight. In order to sleep, I’d drunk a lot of alcohol and taken sedatives the night before. I was badly hung over and sick to my stomach.
The priests at the parish where I was raised were OFM and we learned about the history of the order. Assisi had always been dear to me. I’d read and re-read The Little Flowers of St. Francis. The early Franciscans were my heroes. St Maxilimilian Kolbe and St Pio of Pietrelcina have played and continue to play major roles in my personal journey. (Only the Carmelites hold a greater influence over my spirituality. How could I draw breath without my beloved Little Flower, the intrepid Teresa of Avila, or that musician of divine love John of the Cross?)
We entered the Church of St Clare in Assisi. It’s a cloistered monastery where the nuns practice severe austerity. Like the women of Arabia, they were completely covered except for their fingers which protruded from the cut-off tips of their gloves. They stand behind very old lattice work and speak to visitors about the artifacts and relics on display.
An elderly nun approached as I stood at the grille by St Clare’s body. The only language we had in common was French because the Italian I knew then was my grandparents’ dialect from the deep south, and it was incomprehensible to her.
Proudly, I recited what I knew about the lives of Clare, Francis, and the early Franciscans, but she didn’t commend my schoolboy prowess as I’d expected. Something in my tone must have told her that I was in a deep spiritual and moral crisis and had already experienced far too much for a child of 16. She interrupted to ask my age. When I told her, she said, with a tone of urgent authority, “Donnez-moi vos mains!” (Give me your hands!), then she pried the lattice work far enough apart to get her fingers through. She laced her fingertips between mine, held them tightly, and repeated again and again: “Dieu vous aime, Dieu vous aime beaucoup!” (God loves you, God loves you so much!”)
I understood. Her tone was strong and clear. It was urgent. Even if we didn’t speak a common language, I’d have understood what she was telling me. Although her face was covered by the veil, I could feel her eyes piercing me.
This went on for a while. Although the church was crowded, it seemed we were the only people there. I was uneasy and fidgeted but stayed and listened. Just before she let go of my hands, she said she would pray for me for the rest of my life. I wondered how this could be since I was so young and she was elderly. Now I understand that she would continue to pray from heaven. I believe she has and will yet.
There began my conversion – or reversion to the faith. I hope one day to take her in my arms before the throne of God and thank her.
Over the next six years I continued to struggle and rage against God but held a secret love for him deep within. In 1983, I spent several months in Krakow, attending the university there. Poland was under martial law and the churches were always packed. There my conversion, which began in 1977 then lagged, took a second major step forward.
Some friends and I went on a tour of the Nazi death Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the cell block where St. Maximilian Kolbe was killed, I had an experience I still do not understand.
When the official guide began recounting the history of Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom on this site, I was right in front of the door of the cell where the saint was starved to death. That cell was smaller than a phone booth. Kolbe shared it with three other condemned men. The prisoners had to stand. They were left without food or water to starve to death. The guide pointed to the spot where the saint was injected with poison and died because the Nazis needed the death cell and he was the only prisoner of the original four who remained alive. I looked down and realized that my feet were on the very spot.
Then something happened. I’m still not sure what it was. At one moment I was in a group listening to the “official” Communist guide recount the “death of a Polish martyr in the heroic struggle against fascism”, and then suddenly found myself on my knees with my fingers and forehead resting on the spot of concrete where the saint died. My tears were splashing down onto the floor. The tour group was gone. A security guard was at the door, keys in hand, motioning for me to leave. Our tour group was right outside the building. No one noticed what had happened to me or that I’d remained behind. No one saw my tearful face.
What happened there remains a mystery. I’m not sure whether I prayed, or heard or saw anything. I didn’t receive any message. I don’t know how long this lasted – probably only a couple minutes. During the experience, I was outside of time and place. What occurred is hidden from me, but I believe it was a huge in-pouring of grace. There my conversion began in earnest, yet it was another year before I went to Confession and a couple more before I began attending Mass sporadically. It was only after my first child was born (I was 31) that I began going weekly. Within a year I was also going on several weekdays. Gradually I became truly committed to our Faith. I taught RCIA and was a lector. I received spiritual direction and doctrinal formation from Opus Dei. I knew and I believed, but it was all intellectual. As desperately as I wanted to feel the love of God, the faith had yet to reach my heart.
Finally, It took being crushed by divorce and 30+ years of alcoholism — I was a daily drinker from the age of 15 until just after my 45th birthday — to give myself completely to God and let him rebuild me. That was in 2005. I joined AA. They told me to pray. So I did. They said if I grew up in a religion and was happy with it, to stay with it. So I did.
My prayer life increased exponentially. It was no longer a chore – it became like pillow talk with the lover of my soul. Many of my destructive attitudes and behaviors ended. Then, in 2011, I began experiencing what can only be a gradual and deep conversion of the heart. The conversion of the mind occurred years earlier but it took hitting a rock bottom, surrendering, learning to trust God, and above all to LOVE GOD which allowed the faith to travel from my head to my heart.
Today I am IN LOVE with God. I’ve stopped arguing Church politics, judging, or trying to convince others to see things my way. Loving God, receiving the Sacraments, and transmitting God’s love to others I encounter is all that matters.
Am I perfect? No! Far from it. I’m still in great need of God’s assistance and mercy. I fall short and am often a bad example. But the process has finally begun.
“Late have I loved You. O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
– St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)