The National Catholic Review

Raised Catholic, I went to church on Sundays and served as an altar boy. I was spiritual, but I sought an intensity of experience I did not find in the Catholic tradition. Communion was my main problem. If this wafer truly were the body and blood of God’s Son (so I reasoned), I would receive it in an ecstasy of celestial visions. Instead, I was left with the dull taste of flat bread, and the feeling that God was a more miraculous sensation, found elsewhere. So when I left home at age 18, I put the church behind me.

 

City to city, around the world and back again, I pursued my dreams and managed to catch many of them. I stayed in contact with God through a free-form spirituality that spanned everything from Buddhism to Yoda. Mainly, I saw God as a Cosmic Bellhop I called to carry out my personal wishes. He was inconsistent at best, and I was a lousy guest, tipping rarely and ringing often for room service.

Jesus meant nothing to me. I never thought about him. I never reached out to him. He seemed like a Sunday-school story at best, a misguided myth at worst. Judging from the churchgoers I knew, people who followed Jesus were flawed, imperfect and, in some cases, complete jerks. I figured I could do better without their Savior.

And I did. Things went well for a while. The world is a fun place when you’re young, dumb and full of enthusiasm. I had attractive goals that burned within: awards to win, lovers to love, people to meet, places to find. I played hard, collected my stars and tore myself up in the grind. Each bliss and near miss fueled me further, and on I went, with Good Ol’ God fading into the background. Life was fast, my world spinning by in sensational, dazzling years.

Then something strange happened: things stopped working. First there were setbacks, then there were breakdowns. My life hit snarls that grew gnarlier with each tug I took at them. Momentum stalled, pieces fell away; but I’m dumb about what I want. On I went, charging walls so high they hid the sun. It is one thing to do nothing and go nowhere, but I was trying everything and falling back farther. I got mad, I got sad, I got tired, and then I got Jesus.

I got Jesus in the same way you catch a joke you never saw in a cartoon you watched as a kid. Maybe late at night, in a rerun on television, you find a favorite old animated episode. Viewing it again, you suddenly catch an entendre so sly and sophisticated it could never have been meant for kids. As an adult, you get it for the first time, a joke made even more hilarious by being hidden in a kids’ cartoon. By leaving your former level, then coming back, you were finally able to see it.

But to get Jesus in this way, I first had to hit the walls. The glamorous set of fun, frenzied friends who scored success with each stroke plowed ahead, and I was left behind. I spent days bitching, nights wishing and rang frantically for my Cosmic Bellhop. But he seemed to be enjoying a celestial cigarette break, and leaving me to handle my own bags. Weekends I stayed home, broke, making art and listening to my boombox.

On New York AM radio, there is a Christian station of sermons and hymns. I found it one night on a sliver of static, somewhere between salsa and talk. More amused than amazed, I tuned into the word of Scripture, as preached by an array of radio ministers. Some were profound, others crusty, many eloquent, a few were nuts. But they all truly believed, and in this their source was strong. My favorite was a bishop from the Bronx, who broadcast every Friday at midnight.

At first, his meaning did not matter. I listened for the sheer artistry of his oration. The bishop blasted out sermons that rocked like hip-hop, beat like boxing and soared in holy awe. His message was timeless, but his timing was right on. To me, it was a damn good show. I became a regular listener and eventually heard not just his way, but his words. For the first time as an adult, I began to “get” Christianity. This was a slow process for me; I loved my dreams and was enraptured with distraction. The message of Christ took years for me to understand, and courage to believe. Something in my heart did need Jesus, but it took time and that powerful Bronx preacher to blast past my critical mind.

When I did finally give in, it was a personal journey I did not wish to share with others. A new belief too precious to socialize, Christ also seemed silly in the sophisticated circles I had traveled. On the surface, the story of Jesus is the tale of a good guy who gets beaten bad. His teachings seem simple in the myriad, cynical maneuvers of the world. Winning here is everything: guys who get crucified are losers. Those who talk Jesus are old, weak, foolish or, worse, bigots from the sticks who bomb clinics.

But what was this world whose judgment I feared? The New York I knew crowned the brutal and chewed-up beauty. Mostly it mangled the simple ones, those who showed up with a smile and something to share. I had seen pretty souls scraped dry by drugs, talent muscled out by mediocrity, the naïve hustled to nothing by celebrated pimps. This world seemed shaped by our shortcomings and host to moments of fantastic tragedy.

For some time, my minor success and fabulous dreams had shielded me from seeing the sharper edges of my environment. But when I hit the walls of loss and displacement, a new view dawned. To achieve my dreams would be nice, but lollipops are nice, too; I would enjoy the treat but still be standing in a world of pain. From there, I did not quite know where to go.

Luckily, that’s when Jesus found me through a boombox radio. His life was cut short, his end dismal; but his resurrection pointed to a higher reality. After long meditation on his message and opening up myself to his grace, Jesus allowed me to see myself as a traveler. Yes, I was passing through a nasty world, but it was not my home. My home was in heaven, and Jesus could show me the way there through his teachings. In “getting” him for the first time, I was given hope. Yes, I still had to deal with the world...but I had dealt with high school, too. At the time, it seemed eternal, but on the day I graduated, it was over forever.

Within a few years, I was ready to find a Christian community. I said a prayer to find a church, and God answered me brilliantly. One evening while walking down Park Avenue, I noticed several very pretty, well-dressed women going up a set of stone steps. “Where are all those hot girls going?” I wondered. Stopping to look up, I watched them walk through the great, arched doors of a church. (Burst of angelic choir and celestial light here.)

God really knows how to get me. Following the girls, I found myself in a beautiful Catholic church. Sunday evening Mass began, and I fell easily into the familiar ritual: standing, sitting, kneeling, praying. It hadn’t changed since I was a kid, but now I saw everything differently. It was kind of like watching that kids’ cartoon again, and catching that joke I had always missed. But it wasn’t a joke I got, it was Jesus; his exquisite message ritualized in the Mass.

That night, for the first time in long years, I received Communion. Here, as in my youth, there were no divine wonders—just a subtle, dull taste of flat bread, slowly dissolving in my mouth. But now with Jesus, it was all I needed. And maybe that was the miracle I had always wanted.

Hugh Gallagher, literary assistant at America, is the author of the novel Teeth.

Comments

Susan Russell | 10/21/2004 - 1:37am
The Taste of Faith article was so ME that I felt like I wrote it. Circumstances of mine and the author's youths differ somewhat in the faith(s) we were brought up in, but the end result is the same. JESUS is the reason for it all! I went through years of 'being in the valley' without hope and came back from the 'valley of the shadow' after September 11. I'll never go back there! I've converted since then and have more faith than I could have conceived of. Thanks for putting it into words for me and others!
Susan Russell | 10/21/2004 - 1:37am
The Taste of Faith article was so ME that I felt like I wrote it. Circumstances of mine and the author's youths differ somewhat in the faith(s) we were brought up in, but the end result is the same. JESUS is the reason for it all! I went through years of 'being in the valley' without hope and came back from the 'valley of the shadow' after September 11. I'll never go back there! I've converted since then and have more faith than I could have conceived of. Thanks for putting it into words for me and others!

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