Tag Archives: Life in the Spirit

God-Encounter 2: The Drug Dealer

85On Ash Wednesday in downtown New York City, everyone who is even remotely Catholic turns up to get his ashes.

For a time, I lived and helped out at a church near Times Square. The pastor was an enterprising little Asian priest who knew how to get things done, especially on Ash Wednesday. With his army of volunteers, he transformed the church basement into a prime location for getting ashes New York-style: in-and-out in five minutes. With equally New York-like mercantile savvy, he provided ash-getters plenty of opportunities to spend their money for a good cause by setting up an easily accessible religious book shop.

Our pastor’s keen business sense was complimented by an even keener awareness of the opportunity that Ash Wednesday provided for conversion and repentance. He had a special area set up for prayer in front of the Eucharist and he strategically placed priests in locations where they could be easily approached for advice or for confession.

Not being a priest, I was assigned ash duty with a confrere. I stationed myself with ashes, ready for a long day of reminding the People of God that “from dust they came and to dust they shall return.”

A Reluctant Ash-Getter

About midway through the morning, as my ash-covered thumb was635598855312440450-161626591 just beginning to ache, two guys got into line; the older of the two was probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s with a frank look and callous-covered hands, the type of burly New Yorker that you would find working hard at a construction site. Following behind him was a bling-adorned, younger man in his twenties who was making it loud and clear that he did not want to be in church. The older guy told him to shut-up and get his ashes.

I gave both of them ashes, giving the younger a smile and pat on the shoulder.

As the older guy went to buy a raffle ticket at the book shop, I noticed the younger one hanging close by me. Thinking that he may want to talk, I left my confrere to handle the line (which, thankfully, had died down) and went to chat.

An Unbelievable Story

Just a quick glance was enough to know that this was a street-hardened kid: his young face was worn with premature suffering, and deep black bags flanked his crooked nose. A diamond-studded cross hung on a gold chain against the background of an obscenely designed t-shirt, while an expensive leather jacket and sagging baggy pants convincingly completed his gangster-look. His eyes constantly wandered, shooting from place to another with suspicious unease.

I broke the ice with a light comment, and asked him where he was from. He responded that he was from Queens and told me that the only reason he was in church was because his friend forced him. Despite his tough-guy aura, I could tell that he wanted to talk, so I asked him more about himself. He slowly opened up and began to tell me his life story. What he had to say astonished me.

“My mom and dad were the streets,” was one of the first things he said about himself. His real father was doing life at Attica and his real mother was hopelessly addicted to crack.

He grew up in the projects, and, as a young boy, saw things no kid should ever have to see, the worst of which was the violent death of his brother whom he saw be executed by a rival gang. I will not go into the details that he shared with me, but you can only imagine the horror of such a traumatic event.

Deprived of his only real guardian and guide, he eventually joined a gang himself and started dealing drugs.

“I did what I had to do.  I needed the money.”

Attica State Prison

The police caught him, and he went to prison for five years. During this time, his only consolation was his wife who remained amazingly faithful to him, despite the fact that he had had a kid with another woman. Every month of his incarceration, she traveled a total of 12 hours on bus to visit him for one.

She waited five long years for him. When he finally got out, they had only a few weeks together before she was tragically killed by a drunk driver shortly before Christmas. She had just given her husband a present. He finally brought himself to open it three weeks later – it was a diamond-studded cross.

“What does it mean when the bullet jams?”

He looked at me with tears welling in his eyes and told me that he had been so devastated by his wife’s death that he tried to kill himself.

“What does it mean when you shoot yourself and the bullet jams?” he asked.

The response came automatically: “It means God didn’t want it to happen!”

As he shared with me his life of suffering, his distress became intense. I invited him to come with me upstairs to pray in the church. He accepted, and as we went up the stairs, he told me something that I had already noticed, “I can’t look people in the eyes.”

“You can look Christ in the eyes,” I responded, “He loves you more than you can imagine.”

For the first time in the entire conversation, our eyes met.

We ended up talking for well over an hour, and I could sense that thehugging-jesus Holy Spirit was at work. The young man began to settle down, his eyes averted mine less and less, and his expression became calmer. I encouraged him to keep coming back to church, to allow Christ to be a part of his life. He told me that he would.

The time came to say good-bye, and he said something that said a lot about how he had entered the church that morning and how he was leaving, “You might have just saved my life.”

Again, the reply came automatically, “I didn’t! God did.”

We live in a hurting world, so it is likely that we will have encounters like this with broken and suffering people. We must look at those people with the eyes of Christ and strive to allow Our Lord to work through us. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile or a pat to initiate a conversation that could change a life forever.

Surfing with the Spirit: Two Lessons Learned on California’s Coast

Surf’s Up!

SurfingI have lived most of my life east of the Mississippi, but two of my best summers were spent on the West Coast, in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area. Naturally, no one can be so close to the coast without going to the beach, so during those summers I spent a lot of my down time enjoying the sun, sand, and surf – although I enjoyed the latter less than the former two. My first time at a California beach, I enthusiastically went clad in a wet suit and armed with a surfboard, quixotically thinking that I would be able to surf by the end of the day. Little did I know.

Surfers have developed a rich vocabulary for describing different nuances of their pastime, one of which is a noun-turned-verb: “to pearl”. I am not sure of its etymology, but I soon became all


too aware of its meaning.  “To pearl” is to lose one’s balance while on top of a wave in such a way that the front of the surfboard tips downward depositing the surfer and board into the trough below. As you can imagine, the higher the wave, the deeper the trough, the more painful the impact – especially with a 6-foot surfboard attached to your ankle. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time “pearling” and ended my day with numerous bruises and a new appreciation for the power of the Pacific Ocean.

Letting Go

Thankfully, God uses even painful and humiliating circumstances to speak to us, and my failed effort to surf was no exception. What he was trying to say came clear to me as I read the following quote from Fr. Walter Ciszek:

By renouncing finally and completely all control of my life and my future destiny, I was…freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.

Fr. Ciszek was an American Jesuit priest who lived as a clandestine

Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. I highly suggest his books "With God in Russia" and "He Leadeth Me".
Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. I highly suggest his books “With God in Russia” and “He Leadeth Me”.

missionary in the Soviet Union from 1939 until 1963.  The challenges that he faced are enough for a whole other blog (hopefully to be written in the near future), but for now I will just say that the piece of wisdom written above came to him only after many years of incredible hardship and frustration that brought him to the brink of despair more than once. All he wanted to do was bring people closer to God, yet everywhere he turned, he was rebuffed. It was not until he realized that the success of his work was up to God, not him, that he finally found peace. When he finally let go, he found serenity and freedom.

So, what does this have to with surfing? The image that Fr. Ciszek uses of “floating serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence” seemed to me a pleasant alternative to my unsuccessful attempts to harness the Pacific tide on top of a surfboard. My time at the beach, I realized, would have been so much more peaceful and enjoyable if I had let go of the unrealistic dream of learning how to surf in a single day. Sure, if I had the time and money, I could have hired an instructor and learned how to surf, but that was beyond my possibilities. I should have simply let go and enjoyed what God had seen fit to give me: a beautiful day at the beach.

Letting God be God

I experienced the positive side of this lesson late in my last summer in California. Desiring a personal retreat day, I got into the car and drove down CA – 1 to Point Lobos State Reserve, a beautiful seaside park about an hour and a half south of the Bay Area. I spent the day hiking around the gorgeous coves that can be found there, admiring the abundance of marine wildlife. The reserve includes a massive kelp forest around which a diverse ecosystem flourishes. Besides a wide variety of sea birds, I saw a large number of sea mammals as well, including seals, porpoises, sea lions and sea otters.

I enjoyed watching the animals (especially the playful otters), sea_otter_raftbut I had been hoping to see whales more than anything else. I had seen orcas before at Sea World, but I really wanted to see the massive humpbacks that dwell along the West Coast. I got fixated on this desire and started thinking of ways to make it happen, even considering the possibility of spending money to go on an overpriced whale-watching boat. But as I was getting worked up trying to force things to happen, I remembered Fr. Ciszek’s quote about letting go and trusting in God’s providence. Why ruin my day worrying about something beyond my control? If God wanted me to see whales, He would arrange it!

So, I let go of that desire and I settled down to enjoy what was already more than enough: beautiful weather, beautiful animals, and a whole day to myself. Finding a nice ledge to sit on, I got out my binoculars to watch a large colony sea lions, which turned out to be quite entertaining. Male sea lions are very protective of their harems, so they are always looking around suspiciously, barking at and bumping into any male who gets too close. As I was enjoying the spectacle, and thanking God for the opportunity to enjoy His creation, when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. Grabbing my binoculars, I scanned the horizon and, sure enough, I saw a big spout:A humpback whale is seen near the coast of Mazatlan a humpback whale! It got closer and closer until it was within 300 yards of where I was sitting, moving along with slow majesty. It turned out to be the first of a whole of pod, so I ended up getting a close look at 10 in total. Someone who was sitting nearby looked at me with amazement and said, “They never come in this close!”

So, I learned that if you stopped worrying and just let God be in control, He will take care of everything – even the small little things that make us happy. As it says in Psalm 37:

Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.

Just Let God Love You!

We waste too much energy trying control the uncontrollable when all we have to do is relax and let God love us. The next time you feel yourself getting anxious and tense about something, say a prayer and leave the rest to God. Do what is within your sphere of influence, but then forget about everything else. You will be

Floating serenly
Floating serenely

surprised at how well things will turn out when you give God room to act! He really does all the work; all you have to do is  “float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul”. That’s how much He loves you.