My Own Glimpse of Heaven

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.

Brigid's Cross

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.

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?”

“What 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.” 

-Isaiah 9:1

Liturgical Text for the Easter Vigil Service was copied from this document, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro.

Holy Moments – Day 26 – Come Clean

I love my dishwasher. No really. I LOVE my dishwasher. You can have all of my other appliances. I’ll even go to the laundry mat. I’m keeping this one. Forever.

We’d had so much trouble with the last dishwasher that I took a very long time picking this one out. I did tons of research and finally settled on – a Bosch. Not the fanciest model, but a basic Bosch – which still costs more than most other dishwashers, so I wanted to be very sure of this purchase when we made it 7 years ago. So sure that I carted my dishes into Sears and loaded them into the floor model to make sure they would fit the way I wanted them to. You should have seen the sales guy’s face.

Anyway – imagine my dismay today when last night’s gravy had become a gelatinous adhesive on the pots & pans, and the racks were decorated with spinach-leaf polka dots. Huh? This never happens. My machine does NOT let me down. Never in seven years had I seen such…such…ick when I expected sparkles!

I investigated. The culprit? A wooden chopstick jammed at just the right angle to block the lower wash arm. A little hold-up, and the mess remained.

Dishwasher

This got me thinking about what it takes for me to feel clean. To truly feel washed clean before God.

I know that I am a child of God, and that when I turned my heart toward Christ, the power of His love and mercy washed me clean of all my impurities and I stood before Him as if I had never done anything wrong. With my life, I want to show Him that I love Him. I want to thank Him for creating me, sustaining me, and saving me. But I still sin. And though I know He always loves me, in order to stay close to Him, in order to see His will for me most clearly, I have to clear away the debris that clouds my vision of Him – and that’s the stuff that I allow to get in the way of my relationship with Him. It’s my arrogance, my selfishness, my pride, my ego, my gluttony, etc. My sin. My sin might look slightly different from someone else’s, but it’s all dirty. And there’s no way to live a life of holiness when you’re sitting in muck.

So – what to do about that?

I was raised in mostly non-denominational Protestant churches. I’d heard about Confession. One of those things Catholics did. It sounded scary. And weird. Sit in a tiny dark box and talk to a priest about all the bad things you’d done? Hmm.

But then after a long spiritual journey, God led me to RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults from 2006-2007. It’s the process by which adults join the Catholic Church. In the course, I learned the Church’s views on Confession, also known as Reconciliation. And I came to believe that there could be grace bestowed in this sacrament. And so, near the end of the course, on a Wednesday night, I made my first confession.

I wish I could say it was easy – that I was cool as a cucumber. Nope. I was 35, I wanted to be as thorough as possible, and had made a very long list. So by the time I walked out of the confessional (which was actually quite spacious and bright), my mascara was smeared all over my face and my hair was a total wreck. I vaguely resembled a raccoon riding a motorcycle.

I was totally, utterly exhausted. I drove home and went right to bed.

The next morning I woke up and realized that something had fundamentally changed. An enormous burden had been lifted. I literally felt lighter. And miraculously – somehow – healed. 

What I didn’t know about Reconciliation – or rather, what I’d been told, but didn’t believe – had actually happened. It was mind-blowing. Powerful. For the first time ever, I felt CLEAN. 

The chopstick of doubt (so to speak) had been removed, and not only did I feel clean, I felt closer to God than ever before.

God will forgive me when I tell Him my sins – whether in this sacrament or on my own. But it is altogether different to vocalize my sins to a priest who helps me determine my culpability, and gives me guidance and hope. The sacrament also confers grace which strengthens me to resist the temptations that have mired me and led me away from the Lord. Most importantly, I know that yet again I have drawn close to the heart of God, and that this is what He wants most.

I can’t say that every Reconciliation experience is a powerful as that first one. But each one has enough amazing grace to keep me coming back.

Holy Moments – Day 14 – The Path

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From 2006 to 2007, I went through 9 months of RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the education and discernment process by which adults enter the Catholic Church. We met weekly to learn about the faith and the Church, familiarizing ourselves with terminology and concepts that previously seemed foreign. It was a deliberately slow but thorough process, designed to allow for reflection and consideration.

I had been curious about RCIA for years – ever since the 1999 wedding reception of two dear friends, where I was seated next to the officiating priest. He was the first person I’d ever met from Malta. But he really drew me in when he told me he was finishing up his dissertation at Catholic University, focusing on the role of imagination in faith.

In college, I double-majored in French and English, and I loved all things related to art and literature. If you bring up the topic of imagination, I will stick to you like glue. Almost needless to say, this priest and I had a lengthy, meaty conversation. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the other guests at our table.

This gentleman told me about RCIA. But looking back over my life now, I can see that this encounter was like so many others. The Lord had His hand on me, and had arranged this meeting to knock gently on the door of my heart.

On the first night of RCIA, our deacon’s wife led us in an exercise. She said something along these lines:

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Imagine you are walking on a quiet path, meandering over gentle green hills. The sun is warm but not glaring. There are light, puffy white clouds in the sky. A breeze blows across your face. You are, in every way, comfortable.

Someone is coming up behind you. You look back. It is a man. You turn to move aside but he does not push past. Instead, he looks you in the eye and smiles a friendly smile. Then, he falls in step with you. How do you feel?

As the script continues, we learn from the description of the man that this is Jesus. As I imagined the scene, I was overcome with a peace I’d never felt before. All my life, I’d seen paintings, sculptures, films – other people’s representations of the risen Christ, but I had never spent a long moment deep enough in thought to visualize Him for myself. It was a powerful experience. And a turning point for me.

I felt just like the two disciples who encounter Christ after his resurrection on the road to Emmaus.

Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”

-Luke 24:32 

Now, when I pray, I seek His face. I look for that same face that I saw on my walk.

What a day it will be when I can truly see Him.