Alaina’s epiphany

Alaina, one of my readers and a frequent commenter on this blog, wrote the incredible story of how she found God’s grace on a dark snowy night in Maine when she had lost all hope and was preparing to die.

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My epiphany wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as Alaina’s–I could see her story as a novel or movie. I’m posting it not because of its drama though (God has a different plan for each of us–he appears in some lives more quietly) but because of how inspirational it is. My jaw was glued to the floor after reading it. I couldn’t help but think of the “Footprints” prayer.

Here is Alaina’s blog (about having PTSD). Please follow her!

On the night of January 14, 1990, I walked exactly 17 miles in a snowstorm down an isolated unplowed road not far from the coast of Maine, where I lived at that time. I know I walked exactly 17 miles because the next day, I followed my footprints in the snow in a car and that’s what the car’s odometer showed.

I had run out of the house to get away from my abusive husband, in terror for both my life and my sanity. I was emotionally very fragile, as a lot of things in my little world were unraveling at that time.

I half-ran, half-walked out of town until I got to the unplowed coastal road, where there was no traffic, no houses, no buildings of any kind, not even any electrical poles for many miles, just trees and more trees and lots of frozen snow and ice everywhere. When I got far enough outside of town to feel sure that no one could hear me, that’s when I began RAGING at God at the top of my lungs. About two and a half years had passed since I had left my job at Pat Robertson’s TV ministry, with my faith utterly destroyed, during that time when Robertson was running for President and the scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and other big TV ministers were making headlines. I had stopped believing in God then for all kinds of reasons and – if God DID exist – then I was extremely furious at Him!

I walked for hours through the dark night, with no streetlights or any other lights in sight, just a hazy sliver of moonlight shining through the snow clouds reflecting eerily off the white wilderness that surrounded me. As I walked and raged through the deepening snow, my face, feet, hands, and ears grew numb and my knees began to ache and throb so bad, I felt like I couldn’t take another step. And yet I kept going, having made up my mind to walk until I keeled over and died of exhaustion and hypothermia. That was my crazy plan, to die out there in the frozen wilderness at the ripe old age of 36. But FIRST, before I died, I wanted to tell God, if He really existed, exactly why I was so damn PISSED OFF at him!

So I yelled about all of the evil and horror and pain and disasters in the world. I yelled about children and tiny babies who suffer and die of cancer and other horrible diseases, I yelled about evil wars, I yelled about hurricanes and earthquakes and wild fires and tornadoes that kill and destroy, I yelled about rape and hate and trauma and abuse and mental illness and poverty and hunger and broken hearts and broken families. I yelled about every single thing I could think of to yell about that was wrong in the world, and I yelled about every single thing I could think of that had ever gone wrong in my life. I yelled and I yelled and I yelled at the God I did not believe in, with snow blowing in my frozen face and crunching under my aching feet and knees. I yelled and I yelled and I yelled until I finally yelled myself out. I had yelled about everything I could think of to yell about, there was nothing left inside me, not one damn thing.

At that point, feeling utterly empty and depleted, I kept walking, because there wasn’t anything else to do. And that was when my epiphany happened. It was as if a veil had been drawn back and I was given the temporary ability to see, feel, and sense what was already all around and within me, something too big and overwhelming to discern in ordinary time, with ordinary human senses. I did not see any visions, I did not hear any voices. But I felt: GOD. A huge presence, a great reality, as real and palpable to me as anything I have ever seen or felt or sensed in my entire life, before or since. God was simply THERE, in everything and through everything, part of all of reality, even, somehow, a part of me. And God’s huge, overwhelming presence was overwhelmingly perfect: perfect love, perfect goodness, perfect peace, perfect holiness.

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I was not given any answers to any of my questions, not a single one. There were no rebukes or rebuttals for anything I had yelled at Him through all those hours and miles. God just simply WAS, and God was perfectly GOOD, and God absolutely LOVED ME, unconditionally and completely, through and through, in spite of – and maybe because of? – everything that was “wrong” with me.

Not only that, but I got the very strong impression that God was letting me know that He understood, 100%, everything there was to understand about me. He “got” me. He “got” why I was the way I was, He understood why I did the things I did. God knew even those things about me that I did not know about myself, things that I have either forgotten or never known. God knew and understood and He loved me perfectly, faults and all!

Then I heard the sound of an approaching diesel engine. I did not want anyone to see me, because I knew I probably looked like hell – I had been sobbing during a lot of my yelling at God, and I have never been a pretty crier, my face gets all red and puffy and my nose runs. I have literally scared myself just by looking in a mirror after I cry. So, before the headlights of the approaching truck came around the corner, I slipped and slid off the road and hid behind a thick stand of trees.

The truck pulled up right beside me and stopped. Then I heard a male voice call my name.

It was an old Canadian lobster man by the name of Delwyn, a man I had just met and barely knew. He said he had wondered why I wasn’t at the AA meeting in town that night (although I had only recently started going there and wasn’t sure if I would continue). He said that all during the meeting he had a strong, nagging feeling that he needed to go look for me, that I was in trouble. When the meeting ended, as he was driving home, he noticed a lone set of footprints beside the road, heading out of town. So he had followed my footprints. Who would have guessed that my guardian angel would be an old weather-beaten lobster man?

He drove me to my home, and I have never had a drink of alcohol since that night.

However, I continued to be an agnostic-almost-atheist for the next 13 years. I did not come back to being a Christian until 2003!

grace

Alaina wanted me to put in a disclaimer about the possibility what happened to her could have been due to severe PTSD. I’ll just copy her next post.

I don’t know why my epiphany was so dramatic, maybe God took pity on me because of all the unusual amount of trauma I had lived through, who knows? And it’s crazy that I still did not call myself a Christian for the next 13 years, and even today I STILL have some doubts! Because honestly, nothing in my almost 62 years of living on this earth has ever seemed as real to me as this experience, and my second near-death experience that happened a little over 3 years later.

The problem is that I kept wondering if it was just me being crazy and imagining these extremely vivid occurrences, because… well, mental illness does run in my family, plus I had that 2-year post-traumatic breakdown when I was 14 – 16 years old – although, even during that time, I never once lost touch with consensual reality.

Still, it’s a terrible thing to go through so much trauma and to have such terrible PTSD as a result, that you get to a point where God could appear to you in a burning bush and you will be like, “Yeah, right, like I’m going to believe THIS is real. 🙂

But yes, to answer your question, feel free to use this as a post if you want, I am honored. Also, feel free to attach a disclaimer if you want to, about my mental health… However if you do that, you may also want to include the fact that after my last divorce was final in February 2003, I took my settlement money and checked myself into a mental health clinic, where I had to pay my way with cash, as I had lost my health insurance in the divorce. (I could have paid cash for a nice little house with that money, and I even had the house picked out – but I realized that having a nice house to live in, with me being so miserable that I wanted to die, was not going to do me any good, I needed some real HELP.)

Paul Meier, MD, is the founder of the psychiatric clinic that I went to, in Richardson, Texas. Dr. Meier, who I believe has several doctorates to his name and has been a psychiatrist for about 40 years, plus he has authored or co-authored over 80 books, many of which were best sellers, and he has been on the Oprah Show – Dr. Meier himself ordered a full battery of psychological and physical tests for me, and when he gave me the results of all of my tests, he said that I had severe PTSD and general depression and anxiety, and that I may also have something that he called Cyclothemia (However you spell it? It is a mild form of bipolar disorder, which my doctors since then have decided that I do NOT have, they say I only have the PTSD and depression/anxiety). Dr. Meier told me very definitely that, despite my almost two year incarceration in an insane asylum as a teenager, that I am NOT psychotic, I am NOT crazy, in fact he said that I am amazingly normal, considering my life history.

Dr. Meier is the one who told me that having a PTSD reaction to overwhelming extreme trauma is NORMAL, just as it is normal to bleed if you are stabbed.

So, yes… I realize there is always the possibility that the two most profound and vivid experiences of my entire life were somehow a result of something going briefly haywire in my brain. But I have been certified SANE, and I see a therapist regularly who also says I am sane.

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Today I cried.

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[My lame attempt at freeverse poetry, for whatever it’s worth.]

Softer, more buoyant than ocean water
Welcome as a warm spell in January
and sudden as a summer squall
hot floods of tears from some unknown cistern rise up and
caress my face like
the loving touch of the mother I longed for and never had and
my fears and doubts fade and dissolve

Relaxing, not scared and
Melting into this dark warm and unfamiliar place
I sleep but never forget.

Ascending to the surface through an ocean of dissolving dreams
I cry out to the stars: Where are you? Who are you? How did you know?
I wait and wait and wait and I
hear nothing but the endless silence of the stars and
the crashing of the waves on the faraway shore and
the beating of my heart and

I wait

moonset

Then the answer comes: I’ve always been here.
Look inside and then look up.
Loving arms reach down and lift me up and
hold me like my mother should have and then I hear these words:

“You have passed this test.
Now, armed with the twin swords of truth and light
the dangers you faced can no longer harm you.
You are strong, you are safe and
God anoints you
with every tear that falls.”

So apparently God accepted my deal… (Part Two of Two)

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As far as Catholic mysticism goes, I never had a problem with it and don’t now. In fact, I always liked the idea of Mary and the saints, not for any theological reason, but simply because sometimes the saints and Mary are just easier for the average person to relate to. According to Catholic theology, in no way does Mary or the saints replace Jesus and God. They are venerated and honored, not worshipped. They act as intercessors and do not answer prayers themselves, but pray on behalf of the person who is addressing them and those prayers are offered to God. Of course, belief in Mary and the saints is not a requirement for Catholics, but is encouraged. Mary is particularly venerated because, as the woman chosen by God to give birth to the human incarnation of Himself (Jesus), she is held in high esteem by God and deserves such honor. I happen to agree with this. I always thought Mary was sort of cool, actually. As far as her physical assumption into Heaven, I have some problems with that, but it’s a minor point and I’m willing to let it go. Again, this doctrine is not a requirement to be a Catholic.

Although unscientific, I really like the idea of transubstantiation (the literal transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ during Communion). Suspending scientific disbelief at the climax of the Catholic mass, Communion (which is considered a sacrament, not merely a symbolic ritual) becomes something very special and mysterious and seems an appropriate way to end such a solemn event as the Mass. I also like the “Peace be with you” ritual, where just before communion, parishioners turn to one another and offer this sentiment. If only this sentiment were more often followed in daily life! Throughout my life, I always felt a sense of great peace during this and the Communion rituals, something I never felt at any Protestant service.

In the Catholic faith, while we are saved by grace and Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, grace ALONE is not enough. Protestantism in part arose from Martin Luther’s idea that grace alone was enough to satisfy God, and works were not important. But works are very important. While works won’t give you salvation, they are important as a means to practice and use the grace Jesus gave us when he died on the cross. In evangelical Protestantism, you can be a murderer or a selfish, immoral person in life but will still get to heaven if you accept Jesus as your personal savior. There’s something wrong with that picture and it just seems very lazy to me. They get to have their cake and eat it too: say a few words in the “sinner’s prayer,” but not be required to show anything for it (although according to most evangelicals, accepting Jesus will change your heart so you won’t want to do bad things–of course this doesn’t always seem to play out in reality!).

I also found out that Catholics do NOT condemn other Christians (or even non-Christians who do good works in life) to eternal torment. (This is a sea change from what I understood the Vatican taught when I was in grammar school.) It seems the Vatican has changed their stance on this issue, and they now accept that ALL Christians who accept Jesus as their divine Savior will go to Heaven, regardless of denomination. (It’s okay to be Protestant!) Denomination is regarded as personal preference. It’s tragic how much bloodshed and misery has resulted between groups of Christians who couldn’t agree on the extraneous details of their religion, Catholics in the past having been one of the biggest perpretators (which the Church readily admits). Even if you’re not a Christian but are a good and moral person, you will not necessarily go to hell (although the greatest glories of Heaven may be barred to you). Hell itself is something Catholics can’t seem to agree on, and while some interpret it as a literal lake of fire, others do not (hell being merely a spiritual state of separation from God). However, there does seem to be a consensus that if you are a terrible person who spends most of your life deliberately hurting others, you will probably go to hell. And of course, there is also Purgatory, which is kind of a way station on the way to Heaven, for those who have been saved, but whose works don’t measure up. Purgatory has been one of the biggest bones of contention between Catholics and Protestants, but it makes sense to me, and it’s purpose has been misunderstood by many as one of temporary punishment rather than spiritual cleansing. According to fundamentalist Protestants, you are going to heaven or hell, with nothing in between. I just could never get on board with that because people aren’t all good or all bad. There are many shades of gray in between. In a nutshell, all that’s required to get to heaven is a belief that Jesus was born, lived and died on the cross to save us from our sins–something that evangelical Protestants also believe. All the other stuff (belief in the Bible as a literal document rather than allegory, evolution [divinely inspired] vs. creationism, veneration of Mary and the saints, participation in the sacraments, etc.) is basically window dressing that helps Catholics in their faith and their journey with God.

mary

Getting back to my own journey these past few days, the thing that happened that made me realize that maybe God had seen my post and was taking me up on my challenge to Him, was that suddenly I understood the concept of the Trinity in a personal way. In the past, I never could wrap my mind around how God could be three persons in one, no matter how hard I tried or how many Bible verses born-agains tried to make me read. Out of the blue, it all made perfect sense. There is God the Father (the one who created the universe), God the Son (God presented himself in human form because that was the only way we could truly understand each other and because only God in human form could deliver us from sin) and the Holy Spirit (which is basically what you feel when a hymn, sermon or religious work of art makes you teary eyed or overcome with awe–I also think the holy spirit can get through via ANY transformative experience, be it a work of art or piece of music, nature, encounter, etc.). I know I’m not explaining my revelation very well, but I could see how this concept does not negate science or logic. It was also very comforting. After reading the personal stories of conversion on WhyImCatholic.com and explanation of Catholic theology on Catholic.com, I realized that perhaps I could be “saved” after all–as a Roman Catholic.

Why Catholic? After all, there are a few mainstream Protestant faiths that don’t preach about hell and Satan, and are more “liberal” than Catholicism and may be in keeping with a progressive worldview like mine, but honestly I always found those churches to be kind of wishy-washy, as if they were cherry-picking what they liked from traditional Christianity and chucking the rest. Their theology seems like a sort of copout, a man-made compromise that has nothing to do with God. I don’t get that feeling about the Catholic church, even though they have updated many of their traditional doctrines for modern times.

It also holds a great deal of weight for me that the Catholic church was the first organized Christian religion, and all other Christian faiths emerged or split off from that. In spite of their bloody history and many transgressions, I felt Catholicism as it stands today could be something I could accept with both my mind and heart. That being said, I do need to point out that I don’t agree with all Catholic doctrine and there are several problems I have with the Catholic church:

–Their highly heirarchical structure. While I realize this is due to tradition and is perhaps the only way to organize and administer such a huge worldwide religion, I need to find out if talking to God directly is really not a possibility, and a priest must always be a mediator between myself and the Divine.

–Their stance on abortion and contraception. While neither affects me directly (I’m no longer of childbearing age) and as I already said, their rationale does make a type of sense, it’s hard for a liberal, politically progressive woman to accept such strictures on women’s reproductive rights.

–I need to find out more about their stance on homosexuality. While the current Pope (who is pretty cool) does not condemn homosexuality and thinks too much emphasis has been put on the entire issue by evangelical Christians, it’s my understanding it’s still not acceptable according to the tenets of the Church. As a mother of a gay son, this is important for me to find out.

–Celibacy of the clergy. While on a theoretical level this actually makes a type of sense (clergy who are not married or don’t have the option to be involved in a sexual relationship are less likely to be distracted by those things and can turn their energies into a closer relationship to God), on a practical level it doesn’t seem to work: witness the recent publicization of sexual abuse cases perpetrated by Catholic clergy–it may be unrealistic to expect a human being, regardless of how pious they are, to completely divorce himself from his sexual urges and the Church’s refusal to acknowledge these physical needs may result in inappropriate sexual behavior to “whatever or whoever” is available.

–Women in the priesthood. A no brainer. Women should be allowed in the priesthood, period.

There are other problems as well, but these are the ones that bother me the most. All that being said, overall I feel that I may have finally found a spiritual “home” that works best for me–one that’s been staring me in the face my entire life but I always dismissed for one reason or another. There are a lot of negative stereotypes about Roman Catholicism and some of them are deserved, but to my surprise I realized that most are not. There are a lot of misconceptions. The Catholic church may be one of the most misunderstood religions, but it says something that it’s been around so long and continues to have so many adherents all over the world. I’ll have to dig a little deeper and make sure this is really something I’m willing and ready to embrace. Tomorrow I plan to attend Mass and talk to a priest about upcoming RCIA classes.

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I’m completely blown away by everything that’s happened since I made that deal with God, and feel like he really is trying to get through to me. I haven’t accepted Christ yet, but I think maybe I could. One thing I have no doubt about is that God really does work in strange and mysterious ways. I’m on the quest of my life.