Do you know you are seen?
Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that God is watching over you?
Do you believe God hears your cries of weariness, your frustration, and your desperation of silent dreams unfulfilled? The whispers of your soul?
I didn’t. Not really. I mean, I was trying….to believe. But I’d been through enough of life to know that true faith is a leap off a ledge. And God only knew what would happen if I actually took that step, instead of inching along the crumbling path of so-called certainty.
My mother-in-law was just trying to make happy plans when she said, “Then there will be Gretchen’s confirmation. We’ll have to celebrate that.”
It was sometime in the fall of 2006 and she was looking ahead to Easter. I was going through RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – the process by which adults enter the Catholic Church.
“No,” I said, perhaps too forcefully, and looked at my husband.
“No,” he affirmed, “We’re not going to have a party for that.”
Because I didn’t want one. I wasn’t ready. The journey to get to this point in my life had already been so difficult that I sort of wanted the day to be just about…. me. And God.
As I’ve explained to many, many women in my Bible study groups over the years, I truly believe that discord and division among Christians must break the Lord’s heart. And my feelings on this subject stem from having been raised in a variety of churches, combined with the fact that my parents divorced when I was eleven, and subsequently pursued divergent paths in Christian denominations. Because we had also moved around frequently, we had never had a ‘church home’ to help guide me, and as my parents’ marriage deteriorated, my ability to understand God’s unfailing love, did as well.
As a child, the only message I retained from many homilies I heard was the “hellfire and brimstone” picture of life without Christ. My fear of God was deep and real. And it wasn’t the “fear” mentioned in Scripture, which is respectful – the kind one should have for a loving father whom you don’t want to disappoint. No – this was abject fear. How could I love this God?
For years, I couldn’t sit through any church service, of any denomination, without crying. In a way I couldn’t explain, my soul seemed drawn to be there, but hearing the Word brought tears my eyes and terror to my heart. My family was torn apart and it seemed that God was at the center of it all. I just couldn’t make sense of how I felt, of how my story was being written. So much healing was needed.
So when I began RCIA, I truly embarked upon it as a period of discernment. Bless the heart of Deacon Moore, who led our program, because a tiny part of him probably wanted to get rid of me by the end. Every time we met, I asked more questions than a six-year old boy watching his father work on a car.
As I’ve written in other blog pieces, RCIA was one of the greatest experiences of my life. By Holy Week, we had reached the end, and I was to be confirmed at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.
Holy Week was full of exciting opportunities to prepare our hearts for the sacrament we would soon receive. Sunday – The last time our RCIA group would leave Mass together before the Eucharist to discuss the day’s Scripture readings. Monday – Mass at the Basilica in Baltimore, when the parish’s Chrism oil for the year would be blessed and brought back to our church. Thursday – The Maundy Thursday service – where priests would wash the feet of RCIA candidates, as Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper. Friday – The Good Friday Service – where the deacon would carry a full-size cross to the front of the church for us to touch….and remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of pure, selfless love.
I missed every single event.
During stressful times I get migraine headaches, and that week I had one of the worst migraines of my entire life. I spent every day in bed, silently crying about what I knew I was missing. On Saturday afternoon, my husband came into our darkened room. He said, “Try to tell me what it is.”
“I feel like I’m turning my back on my upbringing and my family. And I’m still not ready to tell them,” (It would be awhile before I did.)
“You don’t have to do this.”
“I know. But I want to. I really want to.”
That’s when he gave me a beautiful cross necklace – St. Brigid’s cross – and I was so surprised. It never occurred to me he might give me a gift for this occasion.
I got myself dressed, put on my new necklace, and popped one more of the useless precription pills I’d been taking all week. The sitter came. And my husband (who was also my sponsor for the sacrament) and I left for the church.
In the narthex to the large sanctuary, the deacon approached me. “I’m glad to see you here,” he said gently. “I was worried about you.” I told him I just hadn’t been well, and I smiled through the incessant pounding in my head. Our group processed in and took our seats.
At a special point in the ceremony, I was asked to stand and profess my faith. I stared with glassy eyes at the altar as the priest spoke these words to me and the others.
Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?
Candidate: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried,
rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?
Candidate: I do.
Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
Candidate: I do.
In the millisecond after I said the last “I do” the splitting pain in my head vanished.
I felt as good as I’d ever felt on an absolutely perfect day. No worries. No concerns. Nothing but an absence of pain and a clear, refreshed mind.
A few moments later, I moved to the front of the church and stood, with my husband behind me, his hand on my shoulder, as our pastor, Father Kingsbury, stretched out his hand and prayed for me and the others:
All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.
Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide.
Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
In my hand was an index card with my confirmation name: Gretchen Elaine. Some people take a saint’s name. I hadn’t settled on one and figured my own was sufficient.
I handed the card to Father Kingsbury when he stopped directly in front of me, with Deacon Moore on his left, and another of my teachers, Father Harrison, on his right.
“Gretchen Elaine,”I heard Father Kingsbury say as I closed my eyes and he anointed my forehead with the Chrism oil, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
I opened my eyes.
It is very difficult to explain what I saw – but it just may be my first glimpse of heaven.
Brilliant, white, and golden light surrounded the three men. The space seemed positively filled with it. And I was filled with, and surrounded, and bathed, in this radiant light. All my fear was gone. Head to toe, I was flush in a spirit of wonder and awe, and I knew I was smiling broadly into the glowing faces before me. I was warm and comfortable all over. It was pure bliss.
I didn’t want to leave that spot before the altar, but it was time to return to our seats.
As we settled in, I said to my husband, “Did you see that light?”
“Up on the altar. All around them.”
He looked in the direction where my eyes were searching – the spot where the second miracle of my night had occurred.
“The lights are on,” he said quizzically.
And then I knew – the light had been for me. And the healing had been for me. Me alone. Because He sees me. He knows my story. He knows every last bit of it, and no matter what has happened or just might happen yet, He is in control. And He loves me.
In time, I would tell my parents about my faith journey, and their responses would be more grace-filled than I ever could have dreamed. Both of them are fellow travelers on the road to eternal life with the Lord, and we have wonderful discussions about how He works in our lives. Christian unity is at the heart of my relationships with them.
If you seek Him with your whole heart, you will find Him. He sees you. And He loves you. Regardless of whether you know Him, feel Him….whether you doubt His existence or not. He’s real. He is listening to the whispers of your soul.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.”
Liturgical Text for the Easter Vigil Service was copied from this document, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro.