In 1989, when I was a 12 year old 8th grader, I was one of the winners of the SC Lieutenant Governor’s essay contest, and I got to meet and shake the hand of then-Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore (D), a few months after he shook the hand of Barry Manilow, which I thought was really cool at the time, even though Theodore was a Democrat.
The essay was called “My Experiences in Faith.” I revised a few times, this latest version below coming from 1992. Here’s a picture of me with the other winners
I am writing about my personal experiences in faith. I have had a great adventure on this exciting voyage to God. Having the Marfan Syndrome has been a fact since I was age two, so it has always been part of my life, and although I don’t know what life is like for “normal” people, I can’t see my own life without it. Death doesn’t bother me, but I do tend to fear the concept of blindness or deafness that might occur sometime in the future. The LORD has seen fit to give me a wide variety of experiences in the sixteen years I have already lived, and I have already gone through the process of personal development that most people spend their lives on. Sometime around age five, I became an agnostic, doubting God’s existence on the grounds that I couldn’t see Him, when I could see Santa and the Easter Bunny at the Mall (what a Modernist!). At age seven, I was suicidal, tired of being a wimp, and figuring I’d be re-incarnated. Eventually, and with the help of my parents, I got things straightened out and became a good little church-goer. My religious education has been almost entirely self-directed. I spent two years in CCD from First to Second Grade, and then dropped out because I could teach myself just as much at home. I returned again in sixth grade, and didn’t come back after Christmas break for the same reason.
Radical change at various points in my life stirred on a more radical revelation of my place in Mother Church. The most important of these changes is that my family moved to South Carolina, where my life almost instantly and quite unexpectedly took a turn for the better spiritually. I had grown up a member of the Cathedral in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, and I long had a fascination with the Church, which to me was mysterious and full of ceremony. Everything at the Cathedral was much like it would have been a hundred years ago, save the fact that the language was changed to English from Latin. There were beautiful and solemn hymns played on the pipe organ. The church itself was dark, with light coming from the small ceiling lights up in the dome, and the torch-like lamps that hung from the rafters. The Mass was begun and ended with a long procession. There would often be at least two priests at Mass, one to say Mass, the other to read the Gospel and preach.
When we moved to South Carolina, I began to develop a spiritual side that I had only known very lightly before. A week after arriving to live in Sumter, I took an interest in the Rosary. I started to read religious books, including the Bible, and I began to go to daily Mass. I started to find religious meanings in books, television programs, movies, and songs. I became familiar with the divisions among Christianity, and spent my first year in Carolina (1988-1989) at a fundamentalist academy where I learned Protestant theology, and where my father (who taught there) and I, in conjunction with our dynamic pastor, introduced the school to Catholicism. I then spent a year at a public school, where I openly spoke out for the Church, despite any fear of persecution, and found none. Rather, in both cases, I found several people who were “closet Catholics” and brought non-Catholics to abandon old prejudices.
In February 1989, my grandma called from Erie, and told us that Grandpa had cancer. I began to pray constantly for Grandpa, whose health had become the main concern of my family. We spent our Easter vacation in Erie, because the situation looked grim, and that might have been our last chance to see Grandpa alive. We decided that all we could do to help was to bring Grandma and Grandpa back to Sumter so that Grandpa could enjoy what little time he had left. The days they spent here were filled with joy, and I spent as much time as possible with them, walking, talking, praying, and just sitting out back enjoying the weather. Grandpa got somewhat better, and they returned to Erie on May 18. At about the same time as they left, I began to have a series of problems related to my Marfan Syndrome, which began with back pain and the start of scoliosis. I spent the summer in pain. Soon after my back problems settled to a natural thing, I began to have heart problems, and was almost constantly visiting doctors and hospitals. The prayer list increased, and everyone was offering support to Grandpa and I in our times of trial. Prayers were answered, as Grandpa’s condition stabilized, and I overcame the period of suffering, although I ended up on a reduced workload at school. We went to Erie at every available occasion, finally returning over Easter 1990 to see Grandpa for the last time on Earth. All I wanted to do, I said, was to say one last Rosary. We got to Erie, and quickly worked our way through the house to Grandpa’s room. The first thing we did after saying “hello” was kneel down, and say a Rosary together at Grandpa’s bedside. He was semi-conscious throughout the day, and eventually went into a coma. For the next few days, we kept vigil, and he awoke occasionally. On Palm Sunday, in the early evening, after everyone had gone home for a while (for the first time since our arrival) and the only people in the house were myself, my parents, my grandparents, my uncle, and my great-aunt, Grandpa awoke for the last time. When I heard him moan, I knew that this was the Moment we had waited for. A very spiritual moment saw the passing of Grandpa into the next world, and I will never forget the feeling that evening. The next few days were a time of mourning for most, but I found myself experiencing what C. S. Lewis called Joy. I was in a great communion with God, and it was a time of happiness in a deeper sense. When I was in Ninth Grade, to add to the problems our family faced, my mother’s health problems, which had grown gradually over the past few years, were diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis. We were now a family suffering great illness, and offering it up to the LORD.
All the while, as this went on, my faith deepened, and I came to a close relationship with God. In my high school years, I attended St. Jude Central High School in Sumter, where I encountered many people of deep faith and religious convictions, and where the influence of the experiences that my well-rounded teachers brought to us each day in class greatly affected my outlook on the world. I came to meet several very caring people, and some wonderful priests with a deep faith. As I noted before, my religious education was mostly individual. Three years of high school religion were about the best formal religious education I’ve received. I went to two classes for Confirmation, but ended up asking for (and receiving) an individual Confirmation at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston by the Most Rev. David B. Thompson, who served as another inspiration and in whom I saw a truly great Christian leader. I achieved a better level of religious thought through reading the works of such as C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, St. Augustine, T. S. Eliot, and many others whose religious writings have impacted my very way of being. I have studied the messages of several great devotions, such as the Infant Jesus of Prague, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, and the lives of the Saints. All this has been tied together by an avid interest in the official practices, beliefs and traditions of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church.
Misfortune after misfortune compiled the sufferings that we underwent. Over the years, we’ve gone through a lot, yet our faith is stronger. My health has not gotten any better over the years. I would get a few months where I am overwhelmed with pain, then I got a few months of relief, and back again. Now, the pain is almost constant, and whether I feel “good” is a matter of how I feel at that given moment. I know that it is my Cross to bear and the “whip” that God uses to keep me “in line”. I also know that I have to accomplish my work in this world as soon as possible, because I don’t know when I will be taken to the Next, but my life isn’t going to be a very long one. Therefore, I write these papers as a document to one young man’s dream of a world where Christ’s sacrifice comes to mean something in the minds and hearts of all men and women; where the Holy Church stands as a binding institution of all races and cultures, and where we live in peace and harmony with our God, His Mother, the Angels and the Saints.