Thursday, April 17, 2014

That Time JPII Saved Me From Myself

Let's rewind about a decade or so. It's the spring semester of my 'first' senior year (I'll explain later) in college, and I'm living the dream. Sort of. I'm 22 years old, living in a crappy 2-storey victorian house off Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado with 2 roommates (one of whom is a guy) and a collection of pets and beer bottles. Both my roommates are ROTC cadets and all three of us work part time at restaurants and bars. We party often, and we party hard. Like black out every single weekend night, hard.

Looking back, it still boggles my mind that I somehow skated through most of my undergraduate life without suffering any real violence (I did get tear gassed after a football game descended into rioting once) and without having been sexually assaulted. Truly. I was in such a dark place in my faith and in my life, and I made so.many.bad.decisions. There is no reason I should have been spared the fate which so many of my girlfriends suffered. Date rape. Abortions. Physically abusive relationships. It was a mess of a town, and we were living in the thick of it, happily drinking ourselves into a kind of perpetual numbness that made that sort of life tolerable.

A few weeks before the new semester had started, my little sister was home for a visit from the uptight, conservative Catholic college where she was a freshman, and she thought it proper to have a little "come to Jesus" conversation with me at our parent's house after Christmas. She challenged me to stop drinking for a month, betting that I wouldn't be able to quit the party train, and basically broke down in tears telling me she didn't know me any more, didn't recognize the sister she had always looked up to, and knew I could be doing something so much greater with my life.

I.was.pissed.

Here was this 18-year old freshman who had chosen to attend a private school and who had very little experience with working or with the real world telling me that my life choices were disappointing to her…what did she know? She knew nothing about reality, nothing about the world outside her fairytale campus where she was protected from all the things I saw on a daily basis, and she certainly didn't understand anything about my life. So basically I was really receptive.

She did know me well, though, and was right to irritate my competitive response by throwing down a gauntlet. "I bet you can't…"

Oh hell yes, I could. And I would, just to prove her wrong.

So the spring semester began. And I took a 30-day hiatus from partying. And … it was eye opening. After the first week the novelty of what I was attempting began to wear off, and my roommates started begging me to come out with them again. They reluctantly headed out to the bars when Friday rolled around, convinced that I would join them the following night. Or the night after that.

But I didn't.

2 weeks went by and my phone stopped ringing. I mean really stopped ringing. Nobody called. One friend met me at a coffee shop for what I thought was going to be a nice catch up (and a reprieve from my temporarily leperous social status) and instead proceeded to "dump" me. "I have to focus on school, my internship, work, and my social life right now. I don't have time for lunch dates or other bullshit; if you won't come out with us, we're done."

I was shocked. And most of all, really confused. This was my best friend. And we were done, because I was done partying.

As the one-month mark approached, I found myself staring down the barrel of Lent, a season which I still knew existed, but whose passage I had certainly neglected to mark for several years. (An aside: I never physically left the Catholic Church during my troubled college years, though I ache at the thought of how many times I unworthily received the Eucharist. I somehow couldn't quit the Sunday Mass habit, hangover or not. Thanks, Mom.)

So Lent. Feeling pretty convicted that I was on the right track from a personal growth perspective, I decided to continue my little social experiment as a form of fasting. I gave up alcohol for Lent, and I let the party-less weekends keep piling up. Bored and lonely in the evenings, I found myself on a website I'd heard my mom talk about and ordered a couple of cassette tapes (I am seriously aging myself here, but they were like $1.00 and the CDs were $3.00) and then forgot all about it. Imagine my surprise when a manila envelope from Catholicity.com arrived on my doorstep a week later. Feeling like I was smuggling drugs, I hustled it up to my room where I locked myself in with my roommates' ghetto blaster and put in the first tape I laid my hands on: "Scott Hahn: A Protestant Minister Converts."

I must have listened to that tape 3 times that first night. I just kept hitting 'rewind' and starting it over. My roommates eventually stumbled home from the bar with a group of revelers and people were pounding down my door at 1 am, screaming for me to come out and take shots with them, and I'm lying in my bed pretending to be asleep, tears streaming down my face, listing to this Scott Hahn guy talk about becoming Catholic. And it was just too much.

Holy Week came and went that year and I'm sure I went to Easter Mass, but I don't really remember. I was coming to the end of my little experiment and still debating whether I wanted to reenter 'normal' college life or not. The past 12 weeks had certainly been more peaceful, but I was still in a lot of pain that I was no longer medicating with alcohol, and I was really lonely.

Suddenly the media started cranking out tons of stories about the Pope. John Paul II had been sick for most of my teenage years and young adulthood; I hardly remembered a time when he had been healthy. Fascinated, I watched the coverage coming out of Rome in between classes and before work. I found myself wondering about him and his suffering and racing home to check the news. On the day he died, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, I sat rooted to my couch, tears streaming down my face and in shock. He was really gone, and the pain I felt was so inappropriately disproportionate for the relationship I had with him (I mean he was some random church leader half a world away) but so raw. I literally felt like I'd lost my own father. Blinded by tears, I left the house and started walking towards downtown. I didn't know where I was going, but it was mid afternoon and I'd been glued to the television for hours. I found myself walking towards the Catholic church north of downtown, maybe a 15 block distance from our house.

When I reached the church I hesitated outside the front door, wondering what I was doing there. I'd never been to church outside of Sunday Mass, at least not for many years, and I wondered if they even kept churches unlocked during the week. I tried the handle and it yielded.

As I made my way into the darkened sanctuary I noticed only 2 other people on the premises: an older woman wearing a headscarf, sitting near the front with her head bowed, and a guy holding camera equipment, lurking off to the side. I made my way down the center aisle and noticed an easel surrounded by candles in front of the altar. As I got closer I could see that it was an image of John Paul II, and I burst into tears. Without even realizing what I was doing, I covered the remaining distance to the altar and found myself on my knees in front of his picture, crying embarrassing, public tears. The camera guy must have smelled them, because suddenly he was right there at my side, clicking away as I knelt there before the altar, sobbing and embarrassed and so overwhelmed by a grief I couldn't understand.

When my torrent of tears had slowed to a sniffle, he gently asked whether he might ask me a few questions, holding out press credentials and identifying himself as a reporter for the local paper. Sniffling, I nodded and stammered out an explanation of JPII being like my father, my grandfather, the only pope I'd ever known…and then gave him my name and occupation. The next day my mom called crying and telling me I was in the Denver Post, and I still have a yellowing copy of the piece filed away somewhere.

After that day I knew with certainty that I couldn't go back to my old life.

Without telling any of my friends or co-workers, I applied for a transfer to Franciscan University of Steubenville, the school I'd mocked my sister for attending months earlier. 2 weeks later I was holding a  letter of acceptance in my shaking hands. The rest of the school year and that summer in between were  hard. I felt like I was living in two worlds, and I was seriously doubting my hasty, sober decision. Nevertheless, when summer came to an end, I packed up my white Kia Sephia and headed east, to a decrepit little town on the banks of the Ohio River, reeking of industrial waste and blue collar pride. And life has never been the same.

JPII, I credit you.

See you next week in Rome.

22 comments:

  1. Oh! This made me so happy! And sad that so many are still living that lifestyle and have yet to find their faith. What a wonderful story: enjoy Rome! It will be wonderful. We'll be celebrating back here with you! :)

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  2. That is so beautiful...I've heard so many awesome stories like this of his life has radically changed others. How amazing you get to be there with your family!!

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  3. Absolutely beautiful. Praying for a wonderful trip. I can't wait to read all about it.

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  4. this is AAAA-MAZING Jen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I know how you feel...I had never met JPII yet I randomly weep when I realize he's gone and it also, LITERALLY, feels like I lost my FATHER..like I lost someone that was so CRUCIAL to my life! It's pretty amazing what JPII can do to a soul.

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  5. That's a beautiful reversion story! Thank you for sharing. JPII was very influential in my spiritual life as well.

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  6. Such a beautiful story!! Scott Hahn, JPII....some of my favorite guys :)
    And cassette taps. HA!

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  7. This is beautiful. So, so happy you're getting to go next week.

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  8. Thanks for sharing this beautiful experience.

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  9. Beautiful....Thank you for sharing :)

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  10. So thrilling! Who said that every man's life is a fairy tale written by God?

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  11. This is so beautiful, and wonderfully written. I was a huge partier in college and graduate school. I wish I had had a Catholic (or even strongly Christian) background to return to or to ground me in some way. I didn't end up finding Catholicism until just about a year ago. It's been such an amazing experience, and I'm being received into the Church tomorrow. Thank you for sharing this story.

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  12. AHH this made me tear up! I'm in Rome right now waiting for the canonization!

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  13. So, so, so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. It made me cry into my coffee a little. Have a blessed and safe trip. And bring tissues.

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  14. Lovely & heart-warming.
    I'm sure this was a challenge to share Jenny and I thank you for doing so.
    Have a wonderful time in Rome with JPII.

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  15. I love this, Jenny. You made me tear up!

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  16. Well, jeez. Sobbing like a baby over here. I had a very similar college experience (hello, UC Santa Barbara) but it took me longer to wade my way out of the hellhole I dug there. Still, JPII was like a grandfather to me too, and I never really felt like I left him, even if I too received the Eucharist unworthily countless times. What a beautiful story, Jenny. I hope you and your family are having the time of your lives in Rome. Can't wait to hear all about it.

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  17. This is so heartbreakingly beautiful. If I didn't have to get up and go to Mass in a minute, I'd be sobbing like a baby, too. As it is, I'm sniffling wildly. Thank you for posting it.

    And by the way, I'm here because of your link-up. My daughter Meg (piercedhands.com) linked her post to it. I'm going to a canonization party this afternoon and will tell people your story.

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  18. This is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing this with us. It is so amazing to me how JPII touched so many lives of people he never met.

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  19. I have tears in my eyes reading your story. I too credit John Paul II for my conversion - although for me it didn't happen until after nearly a decade of college and post-college hard-and-dark living. But I rejoice in God's mercy and the way he is able to "make all things new". God bless you and thank you for sharing!

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  20. Wow. Your sister and mother must have been praying for you the whole time you were in college. I bet is was them who gained the graces you were given to just stop and take a look.
    I remember when my own life came to the same point of just stopping the partying, and I had a very similar experience to yours. I would go out with my friends but not drink alcohol, only soda. I didn't say anything to them about their drinking (or drugging) but after a few weeks I wasn't invited out anymore. Just like you, the phone just stopped ringing. I recall one friend just turning on me in fury, out of the blue, saying I was NOT better than her. Yikes! I didn't think I was. I didn't say I was. I didn't act like I was. All I was doing was drinking Cokes! After about a month or so I just wasn't included anymore, and didn't see them anymore.
    Interesting how much social pressure is exerted on young people to drink and drug, or else lose your social circle. What a choice! It's a hard thing. The graces you received to just challenge yourself to look at the world without alcohol clouding your perspective were amazing. All God asked you to do was to look at life without alcohol. When you did, you saw.
    I recall also JPII's illness and death. I also didn't feel exceptionally close to him, but when he died I wept as if my own family member had passed away. . I remember I had a call into our family doctor (he's Catholic) and when he called back, the first thing I said was "Our Pope died!" He said, sadly, "I know." Only after he died did I realize how much I loved JPII.
    The other day, just a few days before the canonization, I had a dream part of which was, I heard a commotion in the hallway outside my apartment, and when I opened the door here was JPII, in golden vestments with a gold mitre on his head, carrying the cross he used as a staff, and coming down the hallway toward me, followed by a few seminarians or priests in cassocks and surplices. I knelt down and kissed his ring, and he made the sign of the cross over my head to bless me, then he proceeded down the adjoining hallway. I figured I dreamt this because of the upcoming canonization, but it still sticks with me, as if he really did come to me and bless me.
    Pray for us, St. John Paul II. Bring us all home to the Father.

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  21. This is an awesome testimony. I had a similar experience at the University of Northern Colorado about 10 years ago ;). I feel very blessed to have stumbled upon your blog, as I am a military spouses who has traveled a bit over the past several years it is nice to feel less alone. Our little Catholic AF chapel group recently started a Bible study and your posts frequent our FB page. Thank you for being a light in the darkness of the world today. Your recent NFP post was so helpful for everyone in our group. You have a gift, we thank you for sharing it with us.

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