Toward the end of high school, I entered a dark period of my life. The wounds from this time have now mostly healed, but their scars are still a tender, vulnerable part of my soul. Let us not linger here very long.
I had built my faith upon emotion — upon the conception of a Christ who moved in ecstasy, whose presence was marked by thrills and good feelings, by a “high” I saw all around me in my friends at church. The high was an idol, a false savior I pursued with everything I was. Wrapped up in it were all my feelings of self-worth, my feelings of acceptance by my peers. Pastor Pat, our youth pastor, kept us pumped up to the heights of that high; he had us at the church every day of the week for youth group or prayer or youth choir or drama team; he sent us on a mission to “take our school for Jesus.” Meanwhile, I was struggling with the sins of youth. Every week after I left church that high would fade, to be replaced by emptiness and guilt: and I thought that Jesus was forsaking me, that I must be the most wretched of sinners, worthless in my savior’s sight. Every week I would go down to the altar to “get saved” again; I would sing and dance that I had been forgiven and redeemed; I would return to the high again, only to fall again.
I often wonder if this cycle, being buffeted constantly by the most exultant highs and the most infernal lows, wasn’t itself at the root of the onset of the mental illness that impacted me during this same season. In any case, the two went hand in hand. By the end of high school, I was barely functional. Nonetheless, because I had been offered full scholarships, I felt it was imperative that I pursue a college education immediately. But I was in no condition, psychologically or emotionally, to be on my own. My cataclysm was all but foreordained.
A photograph I took at my first university.
The one or two bright spots I recall from my time at my first college were harbingers of my future path. My major, in theory, was biology/pre-med, but I don’t think I ever actually studied any biology. On this lovely, old, southern campus, I was immediately taken with a deep fascination with my school’s history. I spent most of my time copying buildings’ dedication plaques, and researching the people for whom the buildings were named, and the subjects of the portraits who watched over me. I explored local cemeteries, learned the names and biographies of all the past university presidents — meanwhile, I entirely neglected the courses for which I was supposed to be studying. The root of all this was a paralyzing, pathological anxiety and avoidance; I was unable to face my work; but even through it all, it never occurred to me that I would rather be studying history.
The Good Shepherd (Pastor Bonus), an early symbolic representation of Christ, from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome, mid-third century.
I also remember, in this, the golden age of the History Channel, seeing a show one night that captured my imagination and has never let go: In Search of History: “The Catacombs of Rome.” (In Search of History now seems to have been absorbed into History’s Mysteries; I haven’t watched the History Channel in years.) The fascination with the Apostles and Early Church that had briefly taken hold a few years earlier was now reignited, and joined to my obsession with cemeteries. Here was a tangible, visible record of the earliest Christians in Rome. Here were the oldest, the original, Christian cemeteries. The antiquity of the art and belief compelled me; that eerie feeling of death and eternity and continuity; the realization that this was where my faith began. Little did I know then that my path would someday take me to that place.
In time, not very much time, my fall did come. I returned home in disgrace. The feeling that this had been my destiny, that my twelve years of schooling had brought me to this point, and that I had failed, hit me with a finality and fatality. I sank into a deep despair. I naïvely expected my friends, my pastor, my church family, to care for me and support me; but they were all a bunch of kids, caught up in their own world; they took no notice. In the midst of all this, Pastor Pat had unceremoniously left Calvary. I was not the only one whose faith, for so long confused with emotion and hype, abruptly collapsed when the man was no longer there to keep it pumping. I felt abandoned by my friends, my church, my God.
I had entered the wilderness. Though the darkest part of it lasted only a couple of years, for some eight years, I didn’t pray, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t go to church, with any regularity. I was angry, hurt, and bitter from my experience at Calvary. Though I still called myself a Christian, I had turned my back on God, and convinced myself that God had forsaken me. I was the man insisting that he was blind, all the while unwilling to open his eyes. Not looking where I was going, I fell into a ravine of sin, and rather than striving to get out, I only wandered deeper and deeper into its recesses, and got myself more and more lost. In time, I made myself comfortable, and deceived myself into thinking that this was the lot God had set aside for me; that he was okay with where I was; that even my sin was not really sin, but a necessary salve to my wounded soul — that I was only human and weak, and Jesus understood and forgave me.