I found myself on a cold washroom floor, distraught, sickened, trembling, my heart-rate pounding, as I spat into the toilet after vomiting senselessly due to another day of alcohol abuse. My addiction was getting severe. I could feel the stench of vodka in the pits of my stomach, the poison that was getting the best of me was becoming a part of me. I couldn’t go a week without getting completely wasted on hard liquor at least two or three or four times, sometimes it seemed daily.
I was a 17 year-old kid in high school. I attended a bad, inner-city school in Chicago.
My addiction began with a bad relationship.
She was a drinker.
She was a drinker partly because she had a troubling upbringing. She was abused by her father, physically and, at times she implied (though felt too ashamed to admit it directly), sexually.
“There’s no shame in that,” I would say to her today, if I could, attempting to console the wounds of her past: “In being a victim of something so horrific. There’s no shame in that.”
But back then I was far from a mature individual, my character was weak. So we became “drinking buddies.” Instead of helping her with her own addictions, I indulged with her and joined in the escape from reality that was our mutual intoxication.
We were in love. …. Needless to say, it was far from a healthy love. I noticed that around this time, as my infatuation with her and with alcohol grew, my prayer life (though, in those years, it was never that great to begin with) completely deteriorated. I stopped praying altogether.
Here, with her, with the love that we had, with the highs that we shared, I felt an ecstasy; an ecstasy that I didn’t feel in prayer. I felt a communion. I replaced one with the other, elevating the creature over the Creator through my actions. Notwithstanding, as the severity of my alcohol abuse intensified and as I eventually found myself in a darker, hellish pit of misery, I slowly started realizing that it was a false ecstasy and a false communion that I was experiencing, that I was seeking: a deceptive, superficial high that came from an empty and senseless place, leading to nothing more than a path of ruin.
I struggled in school. Sometimes I showed up to class intoxicated, once even vomiting, my state was so bad. It was horrible. It was depression, it was darkness. It was low and cold and lonely. The anxiety led me to troubling thoughts, thoughts of ending it, thoughts of the cruelty and emptiness that constituted my life, my existence. At times, the desperation was unbearable.
I couldn’t continue on this road for much longer. My body couldn’t take much more of it. If I did continue, I knew – as I do know today – I would be dead. There were times when I could have died from the excessive amount of substance abuse that my body, my system, took in.
It is a great irony, if not mystery, that we most often feel closest to God when we hit rock-bottom in our lives. That is when we encounter the mortality of life in a deeper way. Through the prism of melancholia, through the dark night of one’s soul – sometimes the darkest of nights – we cry out for help, a cry that is evoked from the innermost depths of our being, a cry so sincere and so desperate and so lonely that a merciful God, a merciful Father, can only see it for what it is: a prayer.
I started praying again.
There is nothing more powerful than a prayer that comes from the deepest, at times darkest, places of one’s heart. …places filled with hurt, with angst, in need of great healing and consolation.
At the time, someone gave me a prayer card. It was a prayer card dedicated to St. Rita of Cascia. They called her “the Saint of the Impossible,” or “the Saint of Impossible Causes.” My cause, I felt, was impossible. I needed her help. I needed her intercession. I needed the hope that this woman, a mystic and stigmatic, symbolized.
married at an early age, put up with unbearable circumstances under an abusive husband. When she was widowed, this prayerful and devout woman decided to join a convent of Augustinian nuns. It was during a mystical encounter, praying in the convent before an image of the crucified Christ with the words, “Please let me suffer like you, Divine Savior,” that Rita became a stigmatic, receiving a wound from the Crown of Thorns on her forehead. The immense pain of the wound would remain with her for the rest of her life. At her death, the odor from the wound turned into a beautiful scent of roses. Rita developed a reputation after death as being a holy woman whose intercession was responsible for numerous, widespread miracles.
A miracle is what I needed, I thought to myself. My life, at that point, seemed to be going nowhere. Nowhere good, at least. I felt hopeless, a soul without a future. Yet, in reawakening prayer, in responding to God’s mercy, in asking for St. Rita’s intercession, I slowly started feeling spiritual consolations within me, and a gradual detachment from the addictions that possessed me formed.
Our Lady was instrumental in this process, too. I began carrying a prayer card of Our Lady in my pocket every day, asking for help and strength; a prayer card with those famous, timeless words:
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.
Oh, what words of hope! The beauty of the prayer radiated and touched my sinful and sorrowful self. It is not, by any means, incidental or insignificant that one of the 12 steps of recovery in the Alcoholics Anonymous program includes a spiritual experience. The story goes that the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was largely responsible for this discovery and insight. Treating a patient who suffered from chronic alcoholism, Jung found the man’s condition to be hopeless – with the exception, he thought, of the man encountering a spiritual experience. Jung understood astutely, throughout most of his life, the transformative effects that spiritual experiences have on us.
Though my own experiences with alcohol abuse were not quite that chronic, they were bad. With prayer, however, things began improving. Not only did I stop drinking but, towards the end of my senior year, I was accepted into a good private university, choosing to study political science. Coming from a high school wherein few graduates ever go to college, this was a great blessing. The chances of having a future were, all of the sudden, improving. It was not until my senior year in college, however, that I experienced the profundity that is transformation through a spiritual experience. It was not until that year that I fully understood the timeless words of John Newton’s famous song:
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed
For me, that hour came when I was handed a book. The book had a title so alien and foreign to me. I’ve never heard such a word before. It was called Medjugorje: The Message by Wayne Weible. As I look back, I realize that I had no idea what I was getting myself into in picking up that book and reading it.
That book changed my life.
It was my mother who encouraged me to read it. Both of my parents are Polish immigrants who can barely read a word of English. She read a Polish edition of the book and, though being a religious woman throughout much of her life, was transformed. There was something different about her. It was noticeable: an intensified spirituality, a deeper joy in prayer, a sense of hope that was previously lacking was now awakened in my mother, for she too was someone who had to put up with many difficulties and hardships in life—not least of which, a troubled marriage. Now she seemed to bear those hardships with a greater ease, a deeper contentment.
That book changed me.
The story of six Croatian children who began receiving apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1981, three of whom continue to claim to do so as adults over 30 years later, gripped me. Slowly the act of reading was no longer simply reading. As I read, something began happening inside of me. The act of reading became a spiritual experience. A glowing warmth overcame my body. My soul began to rise up to a higher presence. I felt the presence and depth of God’s love in an intense and beautiful way. I was gripped by the messages of the Virgin: the messages of prayer, peace, fasting, repentance and reconciliation. I was gripped by the remarkable example of these children who were experiencing the apparitions. How they were changed by the experiences. How they began to attend daily Mass to be in the presence of Christ and then, as everyone left, remained in the church for hours in personal prayer. I have never heard or seen such devotion amongst young people before.
And they carried themselves with so much joy and humility, a joy and humility that came from a deep, soulful place borne of their supernatural encounters. My prayer life changed drastically after that, for I too wanted to experience that joy, that peace. In Medjugorje Our Lady identified herself as the Queen of Peace. Returning to prayer, returning to her Son, reawakening the discipline of fasting—the Medjugorje visionaries fasted on bread and water twice a week, sometimes more— these were the means to true interior peace and transformation.
In college, I studied politics. Political change is about changing structures. But I soon came to realize a profound insight: if there’s no interior change in us, if there’s no spiritual transformation, then external change will also be lacking legitimacy. Structures can be changed, true. But that in itself will not lead to transformation. The human soul longs for things deeper and truer than material comfort. The human soul longs for its meaning, for its purpose: for God.
My prayer life changed completely. There was a deeper sincerity and interiority now, fostered by a greater faith, a deeper dimension of belief. Before reading that book on Medjugorje, I recall how much doubt I had even when I did pray and feel consolation. I remember praying before an icon of the Virgin and Child in my local parish in Chicago and, frequently, asking myself whether I am simply wasting my time, whether I am simply speaking to myself. I hoped that that wasn’t the case. I hoped there was someone on the other side, someone listening to the cries and pleas of this wounded soul. However, I had so many doubts.
After Medjugorje, I never doubted again.
I discovered something so special, so pure and holy in that remote Bosnian village: a reawakened sense of the supernatural. I once read these words from Pope John Paul II. They were words that pierced my heart, touching to the very roots of my spiritual conversion. Addressing a group of Italian physicians on their way to medically study the experiences of the Medjugorje visionaries, the blessed Pope explained: “Today’s world has lost its sense of the supernatural, but many are searching for it – and find it in Medjugorje, through prayer, penance, and fasting.”
With his prophetic words, the great pontiff, someone who possessed such an interior understanding of the supernatural life, nailed it.
Medjugorje illuminated not only my soul but also my skeptical mind in a supernatural way. It was not only the sublime spirituality of Medjugorje that touched my heart, but my intellect was also moved – moved by the facts, by empiricism: by how many scientific and medical investigations were performed on the visionaries, throughout the years, while they entered their ecstasies and experienced their apparitions, and yet no one—not one test, not one doctor or scientist—could disprove or cast doubt on their experiences. On the contrary, the science, ranging from EEG brain scan tests to psychological, neurophysiological, and polygraph exams, all showed that the seers were perfectly healthy, that they were not lying, and that they were, in fact, experiencing something scientifically unexplainable during their apparitions.
This was unbelievable! This was groundbreaking stuff.
As a former girlfriend of mine likes to say, we live in a world that worships at the altar of science. In this case, the science supported the integrity of the spiritual experiences. For the first time in human history neuroscientific technology was used to test visionary encounters and could not diagnose those encounters as pathological in any way. My mind was as stimulated by these findings as my heart and soul were by the spirituality. This phenomenon was fascinating on every level.
My spiritual life changed radically. I started praying at least an hour a day, sometimes a couple hours. I wanted to emulate the visionaries and live the messages Our Lady was giving. I started fasting on bread and water Wednesdays and Fridays. I started praying the rosary daily. Eventually I began attending daily Mass and going to confession regularly. God was touching me in a powerful way through Our Lady and slowly my life was experiencing a transformation.
I decided to apply to Divinity School as a graduate student, hoping to deepen my knowledge of the Christian faith and perhaps discern my vocation along the way.
A few months later, to my great surprise, I received an acceptance letter to Yale Divinity School.
To this day I remember that letter: not only did it speak of admission but it also proudly announced that Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, would begin teaching classes at the Divinity School that following year: the year I was to arrive.
This was unbelievable. The joy was overwhelming. God was too good to me, I thought; just too good. Our Lady was too good. At the time, I was developing a deep devotion to the rosary and praying for her intercession constantly. Yet I never expected anything like this.
My life had taken a remarkable, 180-degree turnaround.
It seemed impossible.
Only a few years back, I was in a wretched state, an absolute mess, an addict; depressed, frustrated, and lifeless, without hopes for any real future or goal in life. Now I would be attending one of the most prestigious Ivy League universities in the world: Yale, a university that has produced American presidents, Supreme Court justices, senators, governors, not to mention theologians and religious minds as prominent as Jonathan Edwards, William Sloane Coffin, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
After Yale, I hoped to continue my studies in religion and spirituality by applying to Ph.D. programs around the country. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to get in, most doctoral programs only take a handful of applicants a year, some as little as one or two, amongst hundreds of applicants.
Then something happened: Our Lady decided to intervene by sending me a Cardinal, so to speak.
As I was sending out my applications in the winter of 2010, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, the influential Archbishop of Vienna, and former protégé of Pope Benedict XVI, made national news for making a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. I admired him for it, knowing he would experience a lot of opposition for visiting an ongoing apparition site. About a month later, Cardinal Schonborn decided to make a trip to the United States. He would be visiting the Catholic University of America – a place that I was applying to.
Immediately, I decided to hop on a Greyhound bus and make the trip from New Haven, CT, to D.C. to see the Cardinal speak. Deciding to kill “two birds,” I also made an appointment with a CUA faculty member who was on the admissions board, hoping to interview.
Getting on an excruciatingly uncomfortable Greyhound bus overnight to get to D.C., transferring buses at 3:00 a.m. in New York, and witnessing a number of obscenities and perversities that one can only see at the darkest hours of the creepiest stations in America, I was exhausted in the morning, finally arriving to Washington.
Yet the interview went well. I decided to go for it, speak about Medjugorje to the professor (notwithstanding the taboo-nature of the subject within Catholic circles) and tell him how remarkable the neuroscientific evidence is, testing visionary experiences for the first time in human history and disproving a number of pathological theories. The good man didn’t look at me like I was crazy. He was, in fact, impressed with my interests.
Afterwards, I went to see Cardinal Schonborn speak. Giving a lecture on the secularization of Europe and the need for spiritual renewal, he was asked – during Q & A time – by one young lady: “Your eminence, you’re talking about the need for spiritual renewal, will what about Medjugorje!?” she shouted out after her microphone mysteriously went dead.
You could have heard a pin-drop at the moment, the packed hall permeated with an eerie silence at the comment.
Schonborn, sharp and with a bright sense of humor, slowly replied in his thick Austrian accent: “Easier question you don’t have?” He spoke safely, at first, about the importance of the Church to make its final decision on Medjugorje. But then, he opened up, from his heart, emphasizing that if it wasn’t for Medjugorje he would have to close down his seminary in Austria for almost all of the seminarians have received their vocations through Medjugorje. So many young people have converted there, the Cardinal emphasized, his voice breaking a bit from emotion, so many have found their faith there. He had to, he admitted in the end, go for himself as a pilgrim and see what the big deal was.
It was a moving answer—a testimony, in essence—coming from the man’s soul. He did not hide his heart that day. Many of us were touched in the room.
A few months later, I received an acceptance letter to start the doctoral program at the School of Theology and Religious Studies at CUA. It was the one program that accepted me. The letter of admission emphasized that the professor who interviewed me had been made my adviser. We would be working together. If it was not for Cardinal Schonborn making a pilgrimage to Medjugorje that year and then coming to Washington, D.C., to speak, then I would have little interest in making the road-trip down there for an interview. It was another blessing, one which Our Lady was, once again, leading me to.
A deeper point here should not be lost.
I like to think that my problems began not when I started drinking but when I committed the graver sin of halting prayer in my life; in other words, erasing the final traces of hope in a time of trial. Notwithstanding how lukewarm or dry my prayer life was before I started drinking, it still existed. God was still in the picture. Today, God encompasses my entire life, spiritual, moral, and professional—my entire being is (on my stronger days, at least) oriented toward, and around, Him. I tried to replace God by searching for an ecstatic experience in all the wrong places. Through the divine will, and through unfathomable mercy, I slowly discovered that true mysticism, a true experience of transcending one’s self, is impossible when one excludes the Creator from the act of mystical union. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Capuchin friar and papal preacher, uses a great term to describe the deeper, experiential union with the sacred (especially with the Holy Spirit) that we should strive for: sober intoxication.