Now I am getting to the event, the moment in my life permanently branded from the surface of my being to the core of my substance. This moment forever changed the course of my life in a way that I immediately sensed transcended space and time. In that moment, an eternal power touched me. It simply Was; it was the I Am. This was the moment when the living power beyond space and time struck me consciously.
When this happens, you do not simply understand an eternal truth outside of space and time in an intellectually satisfying way. That would be to speak of it far too superficially. We might perceive that as a natural development in the mind, a mere psychological change. Conversely, what happens is that you experience it as a living power outside and beyond yourself. It strikes you as a bolt of spiritual lightning. It is the work of an objective God with a will and a personality, reaching into your soul to touch it and leave a branded mark wreathing in smoke. It is like staring at a black and white picture when suddenly you see colors splash onto the canvas in a sudden but completely orderly manner, leaving you stunned. You realize that this is the way the picture really looks, should look, and always looked for those who could see, and you no longer imagine, nor do you even want to re-experience, the old one. Life is just different. You can never go back.
That is what happens when the Holy Spirit of the almighty God, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, touches your soul. It is a beautiful transformation, an event that leaves you fearing the great God. At the same time, you understand that this fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10) You love, adore, and fear God all at the same time. You fall to your knees in the presence of Someone great; you realize that you are an unworthy sinner; yet, you know that you are loved, all in a paradoxical but enormously dignifying manner. You realize that this Someone is an objective reality because Catholics down through the ages described the same experience. That experience was for me the real beginning of my journey to Christendom. It was the moment when God took those stirrings and providential inspirations from my youth, energized them, and put them into an orderly movement forward to my destiny.
Events like these are very difficult to communicate to others. It is like debating philosophically with someone about the reality of lightning after lightening recently hit you. How do you explain the effect of a lightning strike when the other party refuses to believe lightning exists, or believes that lightning hit you as a subjective experience but did not really hit you as an objective reality? What do you say?
I face that difficulty here. When I tell you what happened, it likely will not appear too extraordinary, making my task even more difficult. It will not sound like a lightning strike. However, this moment affected me as if it were. I have never shaken it, ever. Every time I venture too close to a deceptive philosophical edge, this experience snaps me back to safety like a bungee cord snaps back a body fallen over a bridge.
I will start by briefly telling you what happened as soon as I left Guymon to go to college. Relating this experience will help better frame the Great Event when we get there.
I chose to attend Princeton University after other very fine schools such as Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Rice, and Stanford all accepted me. I started in the fall of 1977.
The Ivy League atmosphere thrilled me. My peers were intimidating and the professors were often notable scholars. Burt Malkiel, the former Chief of the Council of Economic Advisors for President Jimmy Carter and author of the famous finance book A Random Walk Down Wall Street gave my first lecture in Economics. My head spun with the satisfaction that I was at a school that put me far above the masses. As a senior, I unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the most recent Nobel Prize winner in Economics that he should be my senior advisor. He refused to be anyone’s senior advisor and rudely informed me of such, but that did not faze me. How many people walk the halls where a recent Nobel Prize winner turns you away?
Intellectual pride was not the only thing that took hold of me at Princeton. It was there, during my sophomore year, that I joined an Eating Club (Princeton did not have fraternities back then), and I had my first ever drink of alcohol. That would be the next thing that got a hold of me. Intellectual pride and heavy alcohol use began to turn me inside myself, in an involution and shrinking toward self-centeredness and an eventual slavery to my senses. The people of Guymon would not have recognized me, much to my shame. The Revolution took birth in my soul.
Clouds began to form on my horizon. I sacrificed the innocence of my youth on the altar of the Revolution. I heard the subtle whispers of the dark netherworld, and they attracted me with their promises. Spiritual darkness began to obscure the stirrings of contemplation I acquired while staring out over the vast horizon of the Oklahoma Panhandle as a young man. I was beginning to die; though, I did not know it. It would be a slow and agonizing death march for years to come.
After graduation, I began my professional career with a large Fortune 500 company but eventually ended up back in Guymon to help my father in the family business. I moved home in January of 1984. This year would be the most important in my life. The Great Event happened in 1984. Important events led up to it. That beautiful young woman I watched from the swimming pool deck during high school reintroduced herself. Her brother worked in our plant while attending night school at the local college. He remembered me from the days when I played basketball at the local high school. He walked into my office one day and told me that his sister was in town. I had slightly more nerve then than in high school, or perhaps it was mere bravado, and I asked to meet with her. Within a day or two, we saw each other for the first time in seven years. That eye contact from high school held firm for seven years and now blossomed into our first date. Some things take a while to germinate! I found out later that all through those seven years, she prayed for us to get together.
In the fall of 1984, I attended classes for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA, at the local Catholic Church in Guymon, the same church I ignored in my youth. How I came to attend RCIA at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Guymon is really quite simple, and I think every man reading this will certainly understand. The reason I was there was that I wanted to marry the very beautiful young woman whom I finally asked out after seven years, and the woman who is my wife today. She is a cradle Catholic. Here is how she explained the situation to me. She informed me that she would marry me, but that she was Catholic and would always remain Catholic, all of our children would have to be Catholic, and I would have to attend the Catholic Church with the family. However, other than that, I was free to be whatever faith I desired! She did not position this as a question or a request for dialogue. It was perhaps the first real dogmatic pronouncement I ever had to take seriously! I, being at that time caught up in the viral revolutionary spirit, did not really believe anything with any fervor. The one thing I did know was that I wanted to marry her, so I agreed to all conditions on the spot. There were no negotiations of any kind; in fact, to hear her say that she would marry me convinced me that I was already victorious! I was not going to let a petty thing like religion rain on my parade. A few weeks later, the priest who would marry us suggested that I might want to know something about my future wife’s faith, an argument that sounded quite reasonable to me, and suggested that I attend at least a few RCIA classes in preparation for marriage. I agreed.
I was a nice sort of fellow, even if quite arrogant in my self-perceived intellectual superiority, and I did listen to the very fine priests and deacon who ran the program. The program started in September and met every Monday night for approximately six months, ending around Easter so that those who wished to go ahead and join the Faith could do so then. I ended up attending every session but one. I was quite fascinated since no one ever spoke to me previously about this Faith, and, as I pointed out above, no one ever told me there was any kind of worthwhile Christian belief prior to the sixteenth century.
Even beyond the historical context of Christianity and Catholicism’s proven role as the true Mother of all Christianity, they spoke in a very reasonable way, meaning, I thought it all made some kind of intellectual sense. Prior to this, I typically viewed Christian beliefs as merely emotionally driven and only for people who lacked the intellect to think for themselves. However, this was more than emotional; it was reasonable. I kept going.
Just prior to the Great Event, something happened that softened me up to Catholicism. It was the prayer of the Hail Mary. The reason that this prayer affected me so profoundly was that the words “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” really struck me. I honestly never heard that prayer before the Monday night we studied it, at least not that I remember. I thought, “These people actually see themselves as and know themselves to be sinners in need of help!” That was different for me because I always perceived, rightly or wrongly in fairness to those other denominations, that Christians saw themselves as already “saved.” They were on the inside yelling out. Their witnessing was more like recruiting. I was “not saved” in their eyes and needed to get inside quickly, and it could, in fact and deed, be done very quickly by confessing Jesus as my Savior. I could go from “not saved” to “saved” in about 15 seconds. Conversely, these Catholics asked the Mother of God for help because they were still sinners.
These Catholics did not view themselves as perfected yet; they were on a journey! They asked the Mother of God to help them. Now that was interesting. It was the most interesting thing I had heard yet. A journey is a real commitment! A journey is something to which you truly give your life! Most importantly, I knew deep inside that I lived a very sinful life. Could even a sinner make this journey? Could even a sinner pray to the Mother of God? That was a very heart-warming thought. I assumed that she would be out of my reach. Strangely enough, I think my real question was, could even a sinner be saved? My heart warmed to the idea that sinners could pray to the Mother of God for help. I understood that I might need a little of that help. I took all of this from the prayer of the Hail Mary that I never heard before that evening.
However, could these reasonable and well-meaning Catholics show me the path on which to journey? How could I know that this path was any more reliable than the others were? The Great Event loomed, and the Blessed Virgin Mary softened me up to receive it.
It was the first Monday in October of 1984. The day of the Great Event arrived though I was completely unaware that something big would happen. The doors to Catholicism opened. Saints opened them for me. They are more alive than we are for they live now in heaven. Saints are just one of the wonderful objective truths you will discover on the path of freedom, something I call the Trail of the Dogmatic Creed. Recall the story of my birth, where I refer to a nun who saved my life even though she died over sixty years earlier. Her name is St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and her Feast Day in 1984 was the first Monday of October, the day of the Great Event.
That night the priest began a discussion on apostolic succession. This may seem like a rather dry topic, but it splashed the colors onto the canvas for me. It was a new concept for me. I knew nothing of institutional authority regarding the Christian religion. Growing up, we had no Creeds, really. We did read the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday in the Methodist church but never discussed it. The more evangelical denominations eschewed a Creed outright. Remember that nothing noteworthy happened anyway for the first one thousand five hundred years of Christianity in the Protestant mindset. However, now I would hear about something very noteworthy that happened during those centuries. I was going to hear about how the Catholic Church guarded the whole Tradition of Christianity.
The priest made a very casual a comment. He said that apostolic succession granted authority to every Catholic Bishop through an unbroken chain of ordinations originating from the first Apostles. Every Pope in succession to St. Peter maintains Peter’s authority through an unbroken chain. There might be a few historical controversies about competing claimants to the Papacy, but there always was a legitimate Pope. Later, I came to learn on my own that this was, in fact, historically accurate. Cardinal Newman converted to Catholicism because of this very point. He was a devout, Oxford educated, Anglican who wanted to end all of this Catholic nonsense about it being the original and true Church. He wanted to put a stop to this superstition of the uneducated masses and review the history of the Church himself. He converted in the process; for, he came to see that the Church is the historical bearer of the Traditions originating from the first Apostles. In fact, at one point he would say:
“Whatever be historical Christianity, it is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this.”
“To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” (Newman, 2008)
The priest did not say all this in a loud voice; he did not jump up and down, beat it into our heads, or do anything like that. He just said it. Yet, I had a most electrifying intellectual moment. If this were true, and I had no reason to doubt it, then that changed everything! These Bishops and Popes were, in fact, the true authorities! It matters not if they are worthy, scandalous, saintly, charming, or dull. Though we would hope that our great Bishops and Popes would be saintly men with attractive personalities, none of that really matters when it comes to authority. For this had nothing to do, in my mind, with the cult of the personality, a particularly aggravating notion in our culture and one with which the modern mind is entranced. If one is charismatic, the modern mind will trample over women and children to worship this person, at least for a day or two, until the modern mind is again bored. That is true whether or not it is journalism worshiping a beautiful, rich, famous person, or whether it is an evangelical Christian group entranced with a particular minister. This Catholic hierarchy business was something bigger, I thought. It seemed to transcend personalities or even moral character for that matter. You could have a mishmash of good and bad hierarchy yet retain the treasure of the Faith based on Christ’s authority, which is not the authority of the mere men themselves.
This historical truth removed any objection I might have had that unworthy men in the history of the Church invalidated the Church herself. This hierarchy was, and is, an authority extending over two thousand years, good, bad, or indifferent be her key holders. As an analogy, if those who hold Joan of Arc’s history in Domrémy happened to be corrupt, that would not change the fact that they have the authentic history. Claiming that I will therefore make up my own history of her because I do not like the men running the historical society would be ludicrous. I saw this principle at that moment.
In about one second after the meaning of apostolic succession descended upon me, a number of key claims made by the Church splashed in living color onto the canvas of my mind, and, as if the splashing colors gave life itself to the picture, the entire Church opened up to me as a colorful, living, breathing entity. The very first thought to enter my mind was that if the Church were really the authoritative voice of the first Apostles, then everything else they said was true as well, including the claim that the Eucharist was truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Only a second or two after the first colors lit up, I immediately came to a full understanding and belief in the Real Presence. This was a true miracle of grace. Since that moment, God’s gift never wavered in me through the thick and thin of life. Even later, when I went through very difficult periods in my faith life, this fundamental belief in the Eucharist and the authority of the Church who proclaimed it never failed me.
Years after this, we lived in the New York City area. One night we visited my cousins who lived in the same area. They introduced us to a couple visiting from San Francisco. This couple was clearly a very non-religious, liberally minded pair. Our discussions that evening were delightful and entertaining even though it was obvious that our thinking contradicted theirs. At one point in the conversation, the woman looked at me very seriously and with an almost far-away look. I will never forget it. She went from playful to very serious in just a second. She startled me as she matter-of-factly stated, non-judgmentally, “You have faith.” She saw it. She saw something real, something objective, and she called it out in an almost eerily prophetic manner for what it was. The God of Christian revelation is an objective reality.
That was the Great Event. It was the love of God handing me, without any merit on my part, the magnificent grace of submission to the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church and to the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It was the torrent of Dogma and Faith pouring into my soul. I submitted my intellect to the authority of the Church that night; though, I did not know it at the time. I soon understood that submitting my intellect to the authority of the Church in Faith was the same thing as submitting it to Jesus Christ. For this Church is his body on earth, and he guides his Church through the Holy Spirit. Once this happens to you, you can never go back.
That moment, on a fall evening on the Feast Day of St. Thérèse, forever changed my life and ultimately led me on a journey that would result in what you read here. You might now begin to see more clearly why it is that I told you I must write this book. For I do truly have that fear of the Lord about which I spoke to you in the first section, that I should not go to the gates of heaven seeking entrance if I have failed to tell others about the great things Our Lord and Our Lady accomplished in me.
This Great Event was only the beginning of what I introduced to you in the beginning as the Freedom Dance. I soon met those saintly friends who called me to the path of freedom and life. They danced with joy and took me by the hand on a very mysterious journey, one that I now see is the only path to eternal life. It is a path that goes ultimately to Calvary, to suffering and death on the Cross, and then, I hope in God’s promises, to glorious resurrection.