This is my story of transformation and conversion.
Almost four years ago, on November 2, 2000, when my daughter Madeline was 18- months old and my wife, Julie, and I were both 32, our second daughter, Emma, was born. She was a preemie, she was five weeks early, and she weighed just under five pounds, but she was healthyóthank God.
The hospital put us up for a couple of nights while Julie nursed Emma in order to get her to a weight where we could take her home. I think that day or two after Emma was born was about the happiest Iíd ever been up to that point. I was married to the most giving, most beautiful person Iíd ever known, I had two beautiful daughters, a great job, and a safe comfortable home to raise them in. It was always important to Julie and I that we be the ones to raise our kids, so we sacrificed a lot of material things in order to live on one income so Julie could stay at home with the girls, and we both felt incredibly blessed and content with what we had.
I remember sitting in the hospital that night Emma was born and thinking of how absolutely blessed I was. Julie and I both loved the role we played: She spent her days taking care of, teaching and loving Maddy, and as soon as we left the hospital sheíd be doing the same with Emma too. I felt proud to go off to work each day before Maddy and Julie woke up and to come home to them at night. I kind of felt like a soldier and a hunterógoing into battle each day to provide for and protect my family.
Those were my thoughts that night in the hospital with Julie, Maddy and tiny newborn Emma. I didnít know at the time that that would be my last night of such idyllic thinking for the foreseeable future.
Within two days of Emma being born, Julie told me she thought she had post-partum depression. She said she didnít have the energy or will to get out of bed and walk to the nursery to nurse Emma. This was completely out of character for Julie, so I knew something was very wrong.
After talking to her doctor, I took her downstairs to the ER to be re-admitted as a patient. The doctors immediately did blood tests and told us there was something very wrong with her liver.
Over the course of about a week, they ruled out all of the obvious diseases that could affect a 32-year-old, did a biopsy and discovered that Julie had stage-four breast cancer that had spread to, and destroyed, her liver and pretty much spread throughout the rest of her body. They were very honest with us in telling us she would probably die soon. In the two minutes it took for the doctors to deliver this news, my world and that of me and Julieís families was completely turned upside down.
Right up until Emmaís birth, Julie had been the absolute picture of perfect health. She was tall and thin and very physically active. She never missed a doctor appointment and took very good care of herself. As the doctors explained, it was just the one-in-fiftymillion case of undetected cancer in a very young woman.
Julie died about 4 weeks later on December ninth, five weeks after entering the hospital to give birth to Emma. She had never left the hospital, except for a brief two- or three-day period during which she was at home. She was buried on December 12, my 32nd birthday, and I was suddenly home alone with a five-pound preemie and a 19-month old. And, the beautiful woman God had created just for me, the source of my strength and the person who inspired me to live each day well, was gone. Weíd been married seven years.
So, thatís the background for what Iím here to talk about: conversion.
I grew up Catholic and always believed in God. I went to 12 years of Catholic school and was always very involved in parish life: being an altar boy, playing guitar at mass and being involved in youth group activities. Over the years, as I grew up and went to college, I had the same questions and ups and downs in my faith life that everyone has, but in the end, I never had any life-shaking thoughts about whether God was really thereóthat is, until about a month after Julie died.
Within a week after the funeral, after the last of the family whoíd stayed with me to help out was gone, I was suddenly alone with Maddy and Emma. I still had family living in town, and they came by on a regular basis to visit for half an hour or an hour, but for the most part, it was just me and my girls, shut up in the house most days, riding out the winter and trying to recover.
So, my story of conversion begins somewhere in January of 2001, about a month after losing Julie. Two things began to consume me completely during this time. I suddenly, out of nowhere, developed an absolute need to know that God really existed, because if God really didnít exist, that meant that there was no heaven and it meant that Julie was gone forever. I couldnít fathom living in a universe where Julieís goodness could be completely snuffed out in an instant. But, I could accept living if I knew that she were somewhere where she could hear my prayers and somehow still be a part of our lives. The other thing that began to consume me was a quest to do whatever it took to feel good, or, as it more often turned out, to feel nothing at all, to feel numb.
I spent my days taking care of a newborn and a toddler: feeding them, which for Emma meant making a bottle every couple of hours, changing diapers, worrying, going to the doctor for preemie checkups, and going to the hospital in the middle of the night if Emmaís temperature was too high or too low, and trying to keep the house up.
This was my new routine, and I knew that this was how it was going to be for some time. Things had happened so suddenly with Julie that she and I didnít get to have any good, deep conversations before she died, but we did talk about what we wanted for the girls after Julie was gone. The one thing Julie insisted on, was that I stay home with the girls until Emma, the youngest, entered kindergarten, so thatís what I was doing. Although this new routine was a shock to my system, it kept me occupied during the first 12 or 13 hours of each day while the girls were awake. It gave me purpose. Even if I were just blindly going through the motions of taking care of the girls, cooking and cleaning, it got me out of bed and kept me from completely falling into a pit of depression and grief.
But, the grief was still there, and it would become unbearable at night after the girls were in bed and I was alone. When there were no more distractions or chores to take my mind off Julie, Iíd collapse on the couch or the floor and let the grief wash over me. The only thing that could bring me relief from this terrible nighttime darkness was that obsession that I mentioned earlier: trying to prove to myself that I absolutely believed in God, trying to prove that he was real, because if God was real, then Julieís goodness still lived on somewhere in the universe.
So, for the first few months following Julieís death, Iíd spend my evenings reading whatever I could find that might prove to me that God was really there. I also spent a great deal of time praying for a sign that he was there or for a sign from Julie that she was alive in a better place, praying for us and still loving us.
I couldnít understand why God chose to reveal himself so readily 2,000 years ago in the form of Jesus, and why he seemingly not only was aloof to me, but actively went out of his way to hide from me!
I read stories of modern day miracles where God revealed himself to ordinary people. I read of a man who prayed for a sign from God through St. Terese, and was rewarded with a miracle when his old, dead roses had all miraculously bloomed over night. I read of people praying for signs from dead loved ones who would find something special, like a rose or some other memento, laying on their doorstep the next day. I prayed constantly for these things, promising God and myself that if only he could let me know for sure that Julie lived on, I would live like one of his twelve disciples. Iíd be the best dad ever. Iíd literally give up all my material wealth and go out and tell the world of the miracle Iíd witnessed, and in so doing bring others to God. It sounds kind of silly now, but when youíre in a truly desperate situation, youíll grasp at anything that brings comfort, and youíll make any promise to get it.
After months of this praying and studying and trying to find something someone had written or experienced to definitively prove to me that God exists, I was no more satisfied than Iíd been at the beginning. I didnít get my miracle. I didnít get so much as a dream about Julie. Over time, although I continued to pray every day and go to church, I began, deep in my heart, to disbelieve in God altogether. I still talked a good game and would have never told anyone that I truly didnít believe, but that was the case. As far as friends and family knew, my faith had been shaken by Julieís passing in just the way one might expect. From what I told them, things were progressing in a textbook fashion. I was going through each of the stages of grief and would soon be back on solid ground.
I did still continue to pray--just in case. Eventually though, my prayers became fewer and I began to focus less and less on proving Godís existence. I pretty much threw in the towel, figuring, if God wants me to believe, let him figure out how to make it happen. At the same time, my grief was still as intense as ever and I still had to confront it each night after the girls were in bed and there was nothing to occupy my mind. Having given up on my nightly researching, reading and praying to prove Godís existence, I began to go out of my way to do things that would allow me to just be, to exist, without having to think or feel anything.
My mind-numbing drugs turned out to be t.v., food and alcohol. While these things in moderation are not inherently bad, they became very destructive to me, because I gave up several constructive activities in order to over-indulge in these things each night. Before Julie died, I would spend my free time at night working on the house, building furniture, staying in touch with friends and family on the phone, reading, playing guitar and exercising. All of these activities were healthy and they were things that propelled me forward in many ways as a person. But, in a short period of time, I replaced furniture making with staying up until three or four in the morning watching cable news or movies.
This was exacerbated by the events of 9/11, which I used as justification, in my mind, as to why I needed to watch at least three hours of Fox News each night. Since I was staying up four or five hours later than I should, Iíd also eat an extra meal and a couple of extra snacks in each 24-hour period. And, to top that off, I didnít have Julie there watching over my shoulder, not even from heaven (based on the way my prayers hadnít been answered) so I didnít have any particular guilt about turning my normal two or three beers a week into three or four beers or bourbons a night.
During the average day, I continued to function pretty much as normal. Iíd take care of the girls, do what I could to keep the house up and take on whatever kind of freelance work I could get and do out of my house. Everyone, family and friends, would tell me how great I was doing in keeping it all together and getting on with my life, but they werenít there at night to see me either pacing the floor, or in a rage, at first asking, and then demanding, that God show himself to me.
Things continued in this vein for probably two years, during which I completely quit asking for miracles and focused more on taking care of the girls and the house by day and trying not to think about anything at night. I canít say that there was ďa bottomĒ or a moment at which things definitely turned around. Looking back, I think there were many such moments. I do know that Iíd reached a point where I didnít think about God much. The only time I though of him was when I would be suddenly wracked with grief and missing Julie, and at those times I would pray for her soul and pray that she was in a better place, but my prayer wouldnít go any deeper than that.
Slowly though, without realizing it, I would reach a point with each of my new distractions or bad behaviors, where I would finally just decide that it had to end, for the sake of the girls and for the sake of my physical well being.
For example, after months of getting no more than four or five hours of sleep each night, and being not just grumpy but at times downright mean, I said, ďEnough is enough.Ē Iím not sure when I said it, but it was surely after blowing up at one of the girls for no good reason, and it may have been the night that Emma woke me up two hours into my short sleep wanting a bottle. I reluctantly got up, fixed a bottle and tried to feed her. After about two sips she quit drinking and started crying. I remember getting so mad and squeezing the bottle so hard that the top blew off, squirting formula all over both of us and the wall, and sending Emma into a choking fit. It was at that point or shortly after that I decided sleep was more important than staying up distracting myself with television.
Similarly, at some point, after waking up one too many times with a queasy stomach and a headache and having to feed, dress and otherwise care for two little girls, I knew it was time to learn how to make it through an evening and fall asleep without alcohol. Slowly, over the months, without having a conscious plan to do so, I began to change my habits, one by one, and before long, I was almost back to living the way Iíd lived when Julie was here. The grief was still just as bad as ever; the gains Iíd made in that regard due to the passage of time, seemed to be cancelled out by the fact that I was no longer focusing so much on numbing myself from the pain. I wasnít consciously living better for God or for Julie though, I was just doing it for the well-being of the girls and myself.
The most important part of my story began to occur at this time without my knowing it. Somewhere along the line, as I focused less on distracting and numbing myself, my faith began to return. I didnít know it was happening at the time; Iím only able to recognize it today. It was as gradual and slow a process as the process of removing my destructive habits and means of escape had been.
I began to pray more, and to pray more earnestly than before. My prayers shifted from asking things of God, especially from asking him to prove himself to me, to just being silent and trying to listen to what he might want to tell me.
Along with this, I somehow came to accept that it is not likely that anyone will ever be able to prove to me that God exists. In my mind, I finally felt at peace with the notion that scientists and philosophers canít explain how the universe came into being from nothingness, and based on that alone, thereís at least as much reason to believe in God as to disbelieve. Beyond that, I quit asking how it could be that God lets bad things happen, and why God readily reveals himself to some people while seeming to go out of his way to hide from the rest of us. To wonder about these things is to try to understand what God is thinking and what his motivations are. In the end I was able to realize that to try to understand Godís mind is to try to understand the infiniteóand that is just an impossible task for a finite human mind.
If I had to summarize what Iíve learned from the conversion Iíve gone through over the past four years, I think it would come down to these four points: One: God doesnít hide from us; we hide from him. As I was grieving and adjusting to my new life, I did everything I could to distract myself. The more I immersed myself in the material world and the more distracted I became, the harder it was to hear anything God might have been trying to tell me. It was only after I started peeling away the layers of distraction and hedonism that I began, slow and imperceptible as it might have been, to hear Godís voice again.
Two: Itís impossible and therefore foolish to try to understand why God does what he does. God is infinite. I am finite. I canít hope to wrap my mind around the infinite. The best I can do is to pray that God will reveal his will to me and that I will have the strength to follow. Looking back, I truly believe I experienced a miracle when I quit trying to rationalize how an infinite, loving God could have created a world full of imperfect and sometimes evil people, and instead began to accept that I will never understand the ďhowĒ and the ďwhyĒ of God, and should instead focus on the ďwhatĒ of God. That is, to start focusing on what God wants of me, and that can only be discerned when I stop focusing on myself and start listening to God; when I change my focus from avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, to simply listening to God.
Three: I think that faith is not something that we accumulate over a lifetime. Faith is something we gain and lose in varying degrees over the course of our life. It ebbs and flows and it is tested as often as it is rewarded. And, in my experience, when our faith is low and God seems nowhere near, our best, and first course of action should be not to beg him to reveal himself to us and question why he is so elusive, but to remove the selfcreated barriers and distractions that keep us from hearing his voice, which is always there waiting to be heard.
Finally: I should never assume that God is absent simply because I donít see any evidence of him at that moment. Itís not until now, almost four years later, that I am able to recognize that Godís hand has been on my shoulder every day of my life, even each of these past 1,200 days when Iíve had to wake up realizing Julie is gone. I wasnít able to see the miracle of my faith returning until I was very well into the process. I donít know why God set things up to work this way. I think probably itís because he has a perfect understanding of human nature, since he created us.
If Iíd known four years ago that God was working on me, if Iíd had direct evidence that his hand were guiding me through this process of sinking very low and then climbing back up, one painful step at a time, I donít know that I would have made the effort. If you know that someone is going to come along eventually and pull you out of the hole youíre in, why start climbing now? I think more often than not, God wants to see us take one, two, three, or maybe even four steps on our own, before he lets us feel him grabbing us by the collar as he pulls us the rest of the way out of that hole. Thatís how it worked for me, anyway.
Thatís my story of conversion. I donít think Iíve broken new ground in telling it. There are many, many more dramatic stories of people going through a process of conversion, with more grace, and coming through it with a renewed faith. But, I hope my story will be of some use if you ever find yourself experiencing a darkness and wondering where God is. Youíll at least have one real-world example of how taking the first steps by yourself can slowly but surely bring God back into the picture.
Thereís one more miracle Iíve experienced that Iíd like to leave you with. A year after Julie died I met another 33-year-old, Catholic widow. That alone is a miracle; there arenít many of us out there. Her name is Karen. We talked and occasionally got together off and on over the next 3 years. At first we were just two friends with the common experience of having lost a spouse at a young age. As was the case with my faith, getting where I was supposed to be with Karen took some time and it happened at such a pace that I didnít even know it was happening. We would talk off and on, sometimes going a month without talking and then picking up right where weíd left off. This is how things continued until, like a bolt of lightning, last April, we both realized at the same time, from out of the blue, that we had to spend the rest of our lives together. I honestly thought that I had gotten so lucky the first time with Julie, that there was no way I could possibly get that lucky twice in a lifetime. As it turned out, I did. Iíll be marrying Karen in this church in four days.
Life is very good again. I still donít understand God, and I know I wonít while Iím on this earth, but I feel God again. He ultimately gave me the miracles I was demanding of him, but he didnít do it until I stopped demanding and started listening. I will continue to be quiet and listenÖ
by Jason Jones
Renew Mission Speech
Delivered September 20, 2004
Our Lady of the Presentation Catholic Church