As a child I lived in a secret and holy world. It was as if no veil existed between me and the great mystery. I often played alone in my room while my brothers played football on the front lawn, and my two sisters, a year apart, spent hours together in imaginative play. As if angels surrounded me, a calming solace and quiet hum of silence engulfed this secret world.
Yet, somewhere along my journey, I lost this precious, pious child.
Throughout my life, I often imagined her shipwrecked, abandoned on a distant island where the sun shines all the time. I imagined a tranquil haven like the Garden of Eden —a lush paradise dotted with coconuts, lemons, mangoes, and papayas hanging from trees rooted in rich, ancient soil.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I lost her. Perhaps it happened when, without warning, my parents left the Catholic Church when I was ten years old. Although I don’t know why they fled the church, I imagined that maybe they broke some of the Ten Commandments.
Or, perhaps I lost my holy self a few years earlier, when at 7 years old, I first went to confession.
I remember sitting on the cold, hard wooden pew outside the dreaded confessional waiting my turn, my heart thumping wildly against my chest.
Slipping my clammy palms under my buttocks, I recited sins I’d been fabricating in preparation for the big day. “I lied to my mother and father. I fought with my brothers and sisters.” When a hunched, elderly woman passed through the confessional’s maroon velvet curtains, making the sign of the cross, my heart jumped. I knew it was my turn.
Moving aside the heavy curtains with my small, damp hands, and squeezing through the thin space into darkness, I entered the tiny wooden room. For a moment I found comfort sitting on a already warmed spot on the hard bench, until the confessional screen screeched opened revealing the dark profile of a shadowed priest. I thought he’d speak, instructing me to begin. Instead, a stale silence stood between us.
Managing to blurt out between chattering teeth, “Bless me father for I have sinned, this is my first confession“, I started a trail of weekly confessional fibs.
For a moment, a blank, chilly silence filled the confessional. My hands and nose now felt frozen, as if I sat in a freezer. I hoped mom would rescue me and bring me home so I could run upstairs to my bedroom, cover my body under warm covers, and wail into my pillow.
Finally, the priest offered instructions for penance, which I didn’t hear because my heart beat too fast and hard. But that night before falling asleep, I knelt by my bedside. With my hands clasped in prayer, I recited The Hail Mary and Our Father a hundred times,praying my lies wouldn’t stain my soul.
But then again, my holy child self might have checked out during catechism class weeks before. About to announce the winners of the Hail Mary spelling contest, my teacher, a stern nun, walked up and down the rows between our desks holding in one hand a delicate hand-painted glass statue of Mary and child, and a cheap plastic one in the other.
Her face, full of dichotomies, confused my visual sensibilities. On one hand, her baby soft skin made her appear approachable and kind–I sometimes wished I could touch her skin ever so gently. Yet, at other times, her perpetual frown rigged between a rigid jawline, and her furrowed brows, and stark, almost black, almond shaped eyes, that somehow reminded me of two shallow baby graves side by side, frightened me to the core of my little soul.
The sweeping sounds of her long, black habit dragged on the floor behind me. How I longed to win another glass statue! Stopping at my desk, she bent her tall, thin body over me, covering me in black cloth. Whispering in my ear she said, “You already won a glass statute last time”, and handed me the plastic one. The statue’s potent, plastic scent reminded me of burning my brother’s green army men when we played war by the fireplace on cold winter Long Island nights.
As she stood tall, her heavy, black habit fell off my body, landing heavy to the floor. I looked up to her as if to say, but I wanted the glass statue. Returning my glance, she looked at me with stone cold black eyes as if to say, don’t be so greedy.
When I grew up, I left the church and religion far behind. Dressing for success, pulling up my panty hose and bootstraps, I ventured onward toward the American Dream: a Bachelor of Arts degree, a career in New York City, and finally landing my dream job–producing for a leading television network.
What more could I want? I made it. I got to the top.
Yet, arriving, I asked myself the haunting question, “Is this it?”
I admit, at times, a career as producer for television was exciting, but it was also downright exhausting, and often lonely. I kept up a crippling pace. Endless days of air travel from city to city, lonely nights between soft hotel sheets, criminal hours in edit suites, and far too much take-out food. The highs never seemed to transcend the crashing lows I faced each time I finished a project.
Fantasizing about abandoning my career, I dreamed of living a carefree life on a sailboat, on an island far away.
Pursuing insatiable yearnings for ‘something more’, I traveled the world: Mai Tais in paradise; silky, soft, pearl colored sand, collecting shells on tropical beaches; sipping cappuccinos in cafes on Rome’s ancient cobblestone streets; sitting beneath the Sistine Chapel’s dome shaped ceiling, staring at Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam — wondering.
A hard-working, tough talking acquaintance may have been right calling me a ‘vacation queen’. The world exhausted me, and I always needed ample vacations to rest from the tug of war I waged with the world.
One dismal winter, I stunned my colleagues by resigning from my promising career as a producer for the Discovery Channel, and within weeks moved west to San Francisco. The laid back city and happy evenings sipping cappuccino in North Beach’s Caffe Treiste, or slumped between bookcases at City Lights bookstore reading the beat poets, appealed to my bohemian spirit.
I thought I reached heaven jogging across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, and hiking the sweeping, winter green hills of the Marin’s headlands with a view of the city that made my heart soar.
However, I missed ‘something’ in my California dreamin’ life that I couldn’t put my finger on.
While waiting for my NIA dance classes to begin at a Sausalito dance studio, I often scanned the bulletin board jammed with flyers advertising spiritual workshops with titles like, Women who Run with the Wolves, Release the Shaman Within, and Dancing with the Goddess. Soon, jumping aboard the spiritual train, I began a long-winded, circuitous, kaleidoscopic spiritual journey traversing deep and sometimes lonely valleys spanning diverse spiritual traditions and therapies: shamanism, hours of Zen Buddhist meditation, exploring the exotic mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism, Jungian counseling and body-centered therapies, watermelon fasts in the Sierras and twisting in yoga poses to the Beatles.
At first these fascinating spiritual adventures gave me a sense of hope and adventure. I also benefited from stretching my tangled muscles into yogic poses, learning through meditation to slow my racing mind, and unearthing and healing buried childhood wounds. Yet, an incessant yearning for ‘something more’, and a deep, emptiness still pierced my soul.
Even after I married and became a mother, loneliness and restlessness tagged behind.
Until a dream that changed my life.
Only days before, I’d been to our neighbor’s house picking up my son from a play date. A perplexing, contradiction, our neighbor, a Christian who homed schooled her three young children, stood on the porch with a Marlboro in one hand, and a glass of white wine in the other. (No doubt, Chablis from the familiar jug of Gallo, with the spout, hanging off her kitchen counter.) Sponge Bob blared from the television in the living room, where the kids sat in a semi-circle, hunched over, looking zoned out.
My neighbor knew our family was going through a challenging time. This evening, particularly distressed about financial concerns, I felt a heavy weariness hanging from my shoulders like an old, worn bag of laundry. Taking a long inhale from her cigarette, and squinting as if looking right through me, she exhaled, pointing her lips toward the sky so the smoke streamed upward.
Again, she looked at me long and hard, and said, “Kathy, you need Jesus. You need Jesus.”
I didn’t have a problem with needing Jesus, anything with potential to offer help sounded good at that point. I just didn’t know Jesus — or how to need Jesus.
Several nights later I had the big dream.
I stood, a twenty-first century woman in the first century Israeli desert, watching, from afar, the Twelve Disciples walking barefoot through the dry, hot sand in a meditative cadence. Swells of peace, billowing from within like the dust from beneath their feet, rose from my soul.
Jesus followed behind.
Noticing me watching, Jesus walked toward me. Standing before me, warm pools of agape love poured from his eyes, filling me with an overwhelming sense of contentment.
Then he simply asked, “would you like to follow me”?
As a child, every night I prayed to the Virgin Mary, and always felt God close. But Jesus? Jesus, the obscure, pitiful man hanging dead on a cross? I didn’t know Jesus. My church emphasized the Mary, not Jesus. When kneeling by my bedside at night, I prayed to Mary.
Yet, after this unsettling dream, when I began studying the historical Jesus and his teachings, I realized his unusual invitation to follow him was a grace infused opportunity to embark on an adventure in a whole new way of living — the way of holiness he taught centuries ago. It struck me the way of Jesus is to live a life counter to the American Dream that I had been hopelessly striving for. His invitation meant a life with God as my source of contentment, one filled with rivers of generosity, humility, kindness, forgiveness, and peace –a life that trumped the striving, greed, materialism, worry, anxiety and troubled relationships that plagued my life.
My husband wondered why I was suddenly so peaceful, so content. Where were my anxious phone calls fretting about bills, my late night complaints of discontentment, always wanting ‘something more’? Why, when our life was falling apart did I have such hope? Why did I know everything would be alright, and why did my eyes shine?
In essence, Jesus’ invitation led me to reclaiming the holy child I once was long ago.
This was not an invitation to follow Jesus to some religion, but rather, one to discover the true meaning of religion – religare (Latin) – meaning to bind back. His invitation was a divine calling to return to God, to my holy self, and to my rightful place in this world as a child of God.