|St. John chose the desert over this passing world|
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 6 of 7: An Image of Christ
For several seconds, God had raised the veil that separates the natural and super-natural—revealing a cosmic drama that earlier ages had taken for granted, but that for me was unthinkable. Three days before, I was not shocked that there was a God; after all, something like an angel had saved me from a car accident some months before. And before that I had typically been a wobbly agnostic who was willing to allow for the impersonal “clockmaker god” of the Enlightenment—the god who created and set the world in motion and then simply stepped away. Now of course I was shocked that God knew and mercifully loved me, and especially that he would reveal a small part of Himself to me, but the fact of demons—that was the greatest shock of my life. The very first thought I had when I saw the demons was that the typical medieval farmer had a more accurate understanding of our human condition—its perils and possibilities—than all of the smartest people I’d ever known. Modern philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and artists had got the basic picture wrong because their eyes were fixed only on this passing world. But those ancient prophets—scorned for their “desert religion”—they understood the beauty and danger, the staggering importance of our human choices.
Just as our “best and brightest” can’t fathom the infinite love, mercy and purity of God—and our invitation to share in the divine feast—so they can’t fathom the reality of evil. A spiritual, personified evil that wars against us day and night whether we know it or not. And make no mistake, those demons wanted to destroy me. From the fact of demons, and the fact that God was one—a monotheistic God—and not part of a pantheon of gods, I reasoned that one of three “desert” religions, or religions that claim Abraham as their father, must be true: Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and so that ruled out the Eastern religions. I had reasoned that if God bothered to reveal Himself to me, He certainly would have more fully revealed Himself to our ancestors over time, and preserved that revelation in some form. After all, He wasn’t leaving me an orphan, and so why would He be an absent father throughout history? But now which religion? They couldn’t all be true since they each made important claims that the other would deny; particularly over the question, ‘who was Jesus?’. With that thought I went to bed.
When I awoke the next morning I was exhausted. Everything had changed in such a short time, and I just wanted to quietly sort things out. But God had a different plan. As I lay in bed, I was startled to find that a small, circular image obstructed my field of vision. In the upper left corner of my line of sight, about the size of a silver dollar held twelve inches away, was the likeness of a man set against a brilliant gold backdrop. The image was present no matter where I looked—like it was stamped inside of my mind—and it was there even when I closed my eyes. When I focused in on the image, concentrated on it, the colors would seem to literally come alive and the man would sharpen into focus. But when I was focused elsewhere—like driving—the image would gradually dim until it was like a colored splotch on a pair of glasses. The man in the image was about my age, and he appeared from the waist-up dressed in a wine-colored robe. His arms were at his side, but all you wanted to look at was the man’s face. He had this presence—to say he was handsome would be true, but it would miss the whole point of what was to be seen here. Just as the colors in the image were unusually alive--the wine color was an ocean of burgundy and the gold was the purest gold I had ever seen--so the man had an immense vitality that was life itself. And yet I could never fully see his face when I focused on it. When I switched my attention elsewhere, I was conscious of the fullness of the face, and yet when I tried to focus in on it, the mouth and the eyes were always obscured. It was like the problem of looking into the noonday sun. When you see the sun indirectly, you see it simply and completely there in the sky, but when you try to look directly into it, your eyes fail.
I knew the man was from the ancient Mediterranean because of his robe, his tan skin and his dark, shoulder length hair. I thought the image was a picture, and that God was showing me that I should read or study this person. But who was he? God was silent on that point. I hoped it was Socrates, Plato or Aristotle—after all, our minds want to stay with what’s comfortable and that’s what I knew. But I immediately dismissed the thought because of the fact of demons, and the fact that the man didn’t have Socrates’ pug nose or Plato’s broad forehead.
I knew he must be a religious figure of some sort: Elijah, John the Baptist or even Mohammed. Deep in my gut, I wanted it to be anybody but Jesus—even one of his disciples! I wasn’t thinking very clearly at this point.
This aversion I had to Jesus was something new. Usually I was just indifferent, and so it surprised me because I had never been anti-Christian for very long. But looking back on it, I had been living in the dark for two decades, and my soul had made its home away from the bosom of God. Now that I was being called completely out of it, my old self protested. I’ve noticed over the years that many sudden converts have an “anybody but Jesus” reaction. This comes from sin, from alienation—both our own and from demonic influence —and it is actually a sure sign that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.” For if Jesus was not the truth and life, there would not be a mysterious aversion to Him—and only Him—among so many of us sudden converts. So make no mistake, demons have an order of preference when it comes to religions, and they’ll try to lead you anywhere but Christianity—and especially Christ’s mystical body, the Catholic Church.
The image would remain in my mind for ten days. After a few days, the persistence of the image began to weigh on me day and night. I was distressed to have an image of a man fixed in my sight at all hours of the day. On the one hand, I felt like I was failing God—missing a clue that was right in front of me. On the other hand, I felt like I was being pursued without a chance of escape, like the man was staring at me, and that I was being branded or claimed in some way. It was not a comfortable thought. What was I to do? In a state of desperation I focused again on the picture. The image grew radiant as always, and then something happened. The man’s thick hair lightly blew as if in a gentle breeze. I couldn’t believe it. So I looked again, and again wisps of his hair wafted in a breeze—while the air around me was still. The thought hit me: “That’s not a picture of a man—that’s a real man. That man’s alive!” And it was obvious that he wasn’t simply alive in our familiar world, but that his life transcended all of our scientific categories, and that he must be alive in Heaven. This increased my desire to know who the man was, but the truth is, I knew who He was—even if I did try to hide it from myself. And now that I knew it was a living man looking at me, I couldn’t keep up the self-deception. Even if I couldn’t see Him clearly, I knew He could see me clearly, and so I admitted, “It’s Jesus. Yes, it’s Jesus.”
Looking back on it now, with the eyes of faith, much of the significance of this experience was lost on me at the time. If I had such an experience now, I would rejoice like the disciples after He appeared to them resurrected. But the significance of His being alive was lost on me at the time. In a similar way, I was not comforted when I was marked by the image, nor did I understand what it meant. But looking back on it, the Lord was in effect saying, “I have chosen you out of the world—work for my kingdom and follow me.” Now how I wish he’d just said that! But now that I know, it is something that I often come back to, and remind myself. I may not be the best speaker or writer, my heart may not be His heart, I may not love as He loves, but He trusts me to do His work, and out of my weakness He will add to His Kingdom. All of us can say that, all of us who try to follow Christ without counting the cost.