Sunday, February 20, 2011

Encountering God

   How one relates to God depends largely upon their image of who God is.  Since we cannot truly know as He is, it is necessary for us to use allegory and images in order to develop an understanding of God.  God as Judge, God as Shepherd, God as Father, God as Lawgiver, are among the more popular images that people have of God.  Some view God as a grandfatherly figure with white hair and a long white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds.
   Since childhood, God has played a major role in my life.  I have always felt was Jewish theologians would refer to as the Shekinah (the Divine Presence), even though I was never able to put it into words.  At the age of ten or so I felt a call to become a cantor, the chief liturgist and singer in the synagogue. I was raised in a Conservative synagogue on Long Island and after five years of Hebrew school and five years of religious education, I was bar mitzvahed in 1978.  The call to becoming a cantor would qualify as my first encounter with God.
    Over time my connection to Judaism waned and I began to turn to elsewhere for that same feeling which I experienced when I encountered God as a child. Initially I turned to philosophy; however, I found Aristotle’s notion of God as “the unmoved mover” to be completely contrary to what I had been raised to believe and it did not appeal to me.  I could not make the connection between the God who spoke to Moses in the burning bush and Aristotle’s unmoved mover.
    As a result I started drifting away from religion completely.  While I loved the liturgy in the synagogue, particularly the High Holy Day liturgies, my parents did not raise my sister or me with deep sense of faith.  God was almost never spoken of at home (unless I brought the subject up), there was no prayer life in our household, and after my bar mitzvah my parents decided to stop paying their dues since most of the money went for religious education, so we no longer had a synagogue which we belonged to.
   Throughout my teenage years and into my early twenties, I had a sense that God was still with me; however, I would never have been able to put that sense into words.  In my mid-twenties I realized that I needed to reconnect to religion and began looking around to see where I would feel comfortable.  I tried returning to the synagogue which I had earlier been a member of; however, so much time had gone by that I no longer knew anyone there and no longer felt at home.  Most of the guys I had been in Hebrew school with had left the synagogue years earlier and even their parents were no longer there.
    I had been working very long hours five days a week and my doctor told me, “If you are trying to give yourself a heart attack, you are doing a good job!”  Therefore, I decided to cut back on my hours and one night while I was watching television I came across the Eternal Word Television Network.   I watched a show in which they were talking about the importance of developing a relationship with God and how He has made us to know Him, love Him, and serve in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next.  This idea appealed to me. I would certainly see this as a Divine encounter, even though it took place through a television show since my heart was moved by what I had heard. 
    My next major encounter with God took place on August 15, 1990.  I remember the exact date and circumstances like it took place yesterday.  My parents had received a call that my sister had gone into labor.  My mother and I went to the local hospital to be there for her and my brother-in-law.  We were up all night and I had plenty of time to think.  As I sat there in the waiting room a quote from St. Augustine which I had heard a day or so earlier on television kept playing over and over again in my mind.  “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  Around six in the morning on August 16th my sister still had not given birth, so I informed my mother I was going to go home, get changed, and come back.  Instead of taking the most direct route home, I was inspired to go “the long way” and ended up passing by St. Brigid’s parish in Westbury, NY.  This was the closest Catholic Church to my home and after what I had heard on that television show on EWTN I thought it was time to see for myself what go on in a Catholic parish.  I stopped into the parish about five minutes before Mass was about to start.  I remember sitting in the pew and saying, “Jesus, I have heard so many things about you.  If only half of them are true, I will do anything you ask of me, even if it kills me.”  I got up and left the parish before Mass began and I felt wonderful.  Then it hit me, “Who can I tell?”  My Jewish parents would not be pleased by my encounter with God in a Catholic Church.  I was forced to keep this incredible encounter with God a secret. 
    I went home, got changed, and returned to the hospital about an hour before my sister gave birth to my oldest niece.  At this point my father had also arrived, so the entire family was there to celebrate her arrival with my sister and brother-in-law.  This was a very special day for my sister, but it had also been a special day for me.  I felt like going to the roof of the hospital and shouting, “I gave my life to Jesus and I feel wonderful”, but I could not say anything.  This was very challenging and painful. 
    I returned to St. Brigid’s parish to speaker to the pastor about what was involved in becoming a Catholic.  He spoke to me about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and invited me to attend a “Rock Mass” which apparently was popular with some of the younger people in the parish. I attended the Mass, but had a difficult time with the idea of the liturgy being set to rock and roll music.  As a result I was not inspired to attend that parish.  Instead, I went to the neighboring parish, Our Lady of Hope, where I met with the pastor on August 27th.  He invited me to attend Mass as soon as possible, so I returned the next morning and heard about St. Augustine of Hippo.  In fact, the pastor, Fr. Frank, actually used the same quote which had been in my head all through the night of August 15/16. 
    Even though I could not receive Communion, I attended Mass every morning and every Sunday.  I began the RCIA in September and was ready to be baptized by the following March.  My sister was present at the 1991 Easter Vigil when I was baptized; however, my parents did not come.  In fact, when I finally told my parents that I was going through the RCIA it did not go well.  My father got very annoyed and told me how disappointed he was that I had thrown away my Jewish heritage and that he did not want any mention of Jesus in his home.
   While in the RCIA I began to feel that God might be calling me to religious life. I started investigating various communities; however, as expected, none would consider me because I had not been baptized and needed to be in the Church long enough. 
    I became a member of Our Lady of Hope parish and an active member of the parish Right to Life committee.  I began reading the lives of various saints and others who have had an impact on the Church. As I read the life of a particular saint I thought that perhaps God was calling me to the order he founded so I would write to that order for information. I was deeply moved by the life of St. Ignatius Loyola. 
     A priest I knew at St. Brigid’s parish introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton. I purchased a copy of The Seven Story Mountain and once I started reading it I was hooked.  I was inspired by Merton’s conversion story and his desire to want to serve God as a Trappist monk.  I decided to write to Holy Trinity Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Utah, in 1993 for some information and they invited me out for a visit.  I took AMTRAK to Salt Lake City in March 1993 and spent a month with the community.  After my return home I received word that they had accepted me into the formation program.
    I left home and my career as a life insurance agent, and travelled to Utah in June to begin my formation.  Coming from suburban New York City and ending up on a 3,000 acre farm at the base of the Rocky Mountains was quite a transition for me.  In addition, there is a great deal of silence, no television, and the community rises every morning at 3:15am for Matins (Office of Readings). I went from selling life insurance in New York City to wrapping loaves of freshly baked bread which the monks sold daily in the abbey gift shop. 
    While I loved the monastic life and I found that cloistered life was a bit too much for me.  In July 1994 I left Utah and returned to Long Island to live with my sister while I determined where God was calling me next.  In mid-August I received a call from a friend of mine who is a Benedictine monk at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, KS (about 80 miles north of Kansas City).  He encouraged me to come out to Kansas for a visit.  I spoke to my godparents and they told me that they would pay for my airline ticket to Kansas City.  I arrived there on September 7th and became a novice on January 30, 1995. 
    The novitiate is designed to last one year and one day; however, four days before Christmas 1995 I was informed by the abbot that things were not working out as he had hoped and I was asked to leave.  I returned to Newark, NJ (my sister was living in the Poconos at this point) and was picked up at the airport by my sister during the blizzard of 1995.
    I had graduated high school in 1983, had gone to college for two years; however, I never graduated.  With all this free time on my hands now, I decided to pursue my college education once again.  Since I had no car, I would borrow my sister’s car to go to the local parish, St. Vincent de Paul, in Dingman Hills, PA.  The pastor, Msgr. Ward, was very supportive and he agreed to drive me to Scranton to check out the university and begin the application process.  I arrived at the University of Scranton in the Fall of 1996, a 31 year old Freshman living in a converted YMCA (known as Leahy Hall).
    My initial college experience did not go particularly well, so I did not hold out much hope that this would go any better.  However, by the end of my first semester I had made the Dean’s List and repeated that accomplishment the following semester.  In addition to my studies, I also volunteered to tutor other students in Philosophy and Theology (my two majors).  Looking back I can see that my time at the University of Scranton was another encounter with God.  
    I felt a sense of belonging there. I had a wonderfully supportive spiritual director, Father Royden Davis, S.J., and even became active in Campus Ministry as a member of the choir.  This was my first experience of Catholic education and I blossomed in it. 
    While there I began to feel that God was calling me back to monastic life. I had given religious life two tries and believed that it was not for me.  I spoke to Father Royden and he encouraged me to be open to the call I believed I was experiencing. A friend of mine informed me about St. Mary’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Morristown, NJ, which owns and operates a boys’ college prep school. 
    My friend, Tom, drove me from Scranton to Morristown and I met with the vocation director, Brother Christopher, who was very supportive.  I applied for admission to St. Mary’s Abbey and received word that I should arrive on August 28, 2000 to begin my formation process.  In the meantime, I graduated from college on Memorial Day weekend 2000 and my entire family was there to see me receive my diploma.  I am only the second person in my immediate family to ever graduate from college and it made my parents very happy that I had accomplished this goal after being away from school for so many years.
    I arrived at St. Mary’s in August and after six months as a postulant became a novice on March 20, 2001.  One year and one day later I professed my simple (three year) vows in the presence of the community on March 21, 2002 (the Solemnity of St. Benedict).  After professing my simple vows I was assigned to serve as assistant manager of the Delbarton School bookstore and teach in the Religion department. 
    After teaching for two years, I was sent to the Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, IN to study for the priesthood.  I arrived at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in the Fall of 2004 and from the first day I felt like I belonged there.  I spent the next four years at Saint Meinrad and was ordained to the priesthood in the Abbey Church in Morristown, NJ on April 12, 2008. I graduated from seminary the following month.
    After my ordination I was assigned to serve as a weekend associate at a parish in the Archdiocese of Newark and returned to Delbarton School to teach in the Religion department. I taught “Introduction to the Pentateuch” to our freshmen and the “Senior Ethics Seminar” where I introduced our students to the subject of Medical Ethics.   Being able to function as a priest and minister to the needs of the parishioners as well as teacher our students were certainly ways that I was able to encounter God which I could not do before my ordination.
    Before graduating from seminary, I applied for a doctorate program in Medical Ethics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and was accepted.  After teaching for one year at Delbarton I left the monastery again and lived at St. Paul of the Cross, a Passionist monastery, on the south side of Pittsburgh, while attending class at Duquesne.  I had no weekend assignment there, but would frequently celebrate Sunday Mass for the Pittsburgh chapter of the Catholic Medical Association and then attend their breakfast meeting.  This experience gave me an opportunity to address some of the issues we had been studying in class with practicing physicians and they had also agreed to review my writings which I had been posting at on various topics in medical ethics.
    While I was in Pittsburgh I was invited to spend time at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA (about one hour from Pittsburgh) in order to reconnect with a Benedictine community.  Saint Vincent founded St. Mary’s Abbey in 1857.  This opportunity gave me a chance to get to know those monks as well as allowed me to do research in their college library. Spending time with the monks from Saint Vincent was a very positive experience.
    Another way that I have encountered God is through my writings.  My writing not only gives me the opportunity to do research and explore various topics of interest, but has given me an opportunity to reach out to others through my writing.  Writing and publishing my homilies has led to more than one encounter with God as put the homily together.
    My prayer life is rather simple.  The psalms have always been a major source of inspiration for me.  They express the entire realm of human emotions and often allow me to express what I am feeling even when I cannot put it into words. Being raised in a Jewish family, the psalms have meant quite a bit to me long before I entered monastic life.  Recently I was told by a friend that “You are the most Jewish Catholic priest I know.”  Much of my own personal spirituality is a compilation of Jewish and Catholic tradition. 
   Over the past twenty years I have shared my conversion story with a number of people.  I was much more open to sharing my story after I first became Catholic; however, after I entered religious life that changed. The feeling I got was that my conversion was more a source of contention for many “professional religious” that I knew instead of a source of inspiration.  As a result, I rarely ever tell my story anymore.
   My hope is that my conversion story will have a beneficial impact on my readers.  I did not become a Catholic in order to give glory to myself by telling my story.  I had a profound encounter with God and responded to His invitation. The past twenty years has been quite an experience.  Three different religious communities, return to college, ordination, and graduate school.
    Each one of us is encountered by God at different times in our lives.  Often he speaks to us in our dreams because it is then that our defenses are down and we are more open to listening to Him.  While none of us may have a “burning bush” experience similar to Moses, the truth is that God is speaking to us at various times throughout our day and throughout our life.  Saying “yes” to God may involve going places and doing things that you had never even thought of doing; however, these experiences can help to make us more loving, caring, and open to the needs of others.  It is not always easy to say “yes” to God, but the benefit is certainly worth any amount of risk.

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