The Damascus Road

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

My wandering had come to running and rebellion. My soul was crying out — I was lost, and could not find my way — but I was hurt, angry, fighting, and unwilling to humble myself before God, to lay down myself and seek in Him the guidance I needed.

Thank God for a praying mother — God’s messenger in my life, who would not let me go. She harped on (so I called it then) my need to get back in church and to get right with God — and I resisted. I said some cruel and terrible things to my dear mother during this time. But I remember one moment in particular when I retorted, not so much in annoyance as in desperation, “If God wants me to turn my life around, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul.” If only I had the certainty of such a direct encounter, I thought.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 9:1-8
Accident scene overhead

A satellite view of the accident scene. (Google Maps)

In August 2006, I set out on a misguided errand of mercy, one with good intentions but ultimately selfish, sinful motives. The insane plan was to involve a major road trip and multiple hops by plane, flying out of Cleveland, Ohio — only I never made it to Cleveland. A few miles north of Columbus, while attempting to make a U-turn in the middle of a two-lane highway, my car was broadsided on the driver’s side by a dump truck loaded with concrete going some 50 miles per hour.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

The damage area diagram from the accident report. My car (bottom) versus the dump truck.

I have no memory of the accident. I don’t know by what mercy — whether angels, or saints, or gifted safety engineers — my body was spared being crushed with the rest of the driver’s side of my car. I was airlifted from the scene to Ohio State University Medical Center with severe head trauma. Arriving in the emergency room, I was completely unresponsive — I bottomed out with a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep coma or death. “A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. It’s dead,” says a recent report.

It was August 15 — the feast of the Assumption.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew 8:5–9
Accident report: Crash diagram

From the accident report, the accident reconstruction.

I know that there were dozens if not hundreds of dear people praying for me from the moment of the crash — many even whom I did not know, thanks to prayer chains in half a dozen different churches. But most of all my beloved family — my parents and brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — were standing with me in prayer. And I have no doubt that my family in heaven, all my dearest saints, were praying for me, too. My parents came to my side as quickly as they could, and didn’t leave until I was home.

Wrecked Honda Civic

The remains of my car.

Somehow, I was still alive, but I remained insensible. The doctors offered no immediate prognosis. Given the elasticity and unpredictability of the brain, the best they could offer was “wait and see.” The only other injuries I suffered, incredibly, were a few broken ribs; a cracked sacrum; a nasty, black-and-blue bruise on my left hip, where the imploding car door had hit me; a sprained left wrist, which I tend by habit to thread through the handle of the steering wheel; and just a few deep cuts on my forearms and the left side of my face where I had been struck by flying window glass. My car, a 1998 Honda Civic (may she rest in pieces), had no side curtain airbag, but the driver’s side frontal airbag did deploy.

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Matthew 8:10, 13
El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind (1578)

Christ Healing the Blind (1578), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

I remained out of my senses for about a week. Then, gradually, I began to return. My memories from this time are very foggy, like a half-remembered dream fading in the light, or like my earliest memories of childhood. Just as my brain was still forming as a child, my brain then was snapping back from a major traumatic injury. The world seemed so unreal; it was another few days before I could admit that this had really happened.

Even after I regained consciousness, my prognosis remained doubtful. It would be a long road to recovery, the doctors said. I would most likely suffer long-term deficits. I was little aware of this at the time. I have little memory of my time in the hospital now at all.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4–6
The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

Some week and a half after the accident, I was released from the main hospital, but was still in no shape for travel. I was moved to the Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital on the OSU campus. After a week and a half there — with time spent with physical, occupational, and speech therapists — I was released to go home. Against medical advice, I returned to school, to the semester whose start I’d just missed, to hobble through a course I wanted to take, whose professor was about to retire. Within three months, I was back to driving and getting around on my own. The only lingering effects of the accident were a slight and occasional stutter or slurring of words, a minor impairment of my short-term memory, and an inability to process alcohol.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13–16
Brain scan MRI

An MRI scan of the brain (not mine).

Medical professionals are reluctant to label miracles; the most anyone would say was that I made a remarkable recovery. But over the next months, seeing rehab doctors for periodic checkups and reading literature online, it dawned on me just how remarkable it was. Only some 20 percent of patients with initial scores of 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale survive. Of these, less than half have what is termed a “good outcome” (a 4 or 5 on the Glasgow Outcome Scale); the gross majority remain in a persistent vegetative state or have permanent, severe disabilities. Even of those who do well, most face years of painful and difficult recovery, and never regain full function. A recovery as complete as mine, in the brief time in which I made it, is virtually unheard of.

As I was leaving the hospital, I signed up for a long-term medical study of traumatic brain injury outcomes. Every year or two, someone from Dodd calls me to ask how many hours a day I’m able to be out of the house, how much assistance I require getting dressed or using the bathroom or walking, if I’m able to drive a car or operate heavy machinery, etc. I think my answers — that I suffer no functional impairment at all — are entirely anomalous to their expectations and probably skewing their results. And I’m reminded just how blessed I have been.

Saints Damian and Cosmas, icon

Icon of Saints Damian and Cosmas, physicians used by God and martyrs to the Christian faith. (Wikipedia)

The fact that I even survived the impact of the accident; the fact that I sustained such a severe injury to my brain and lived; the fact that I recovered as completely as I have, in such a time as I did — convinces me with certainty that my survival was a divine miracle. I believe that God, more often than through extravagant or ostentatious wonders, works His healing and mercy through the mundane, through natural processes, through the hands of physicians and through medicine (Sirach 38:1–15). I know that my healing was for me, and that my testimony will not convince anyone else; but as a pivotal juncture in my road to Rome — as the turning point of my life — I am compelled to share it.

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
Psalm 6:1–5
1998 Ford Louisville dump truck

A 1998 Ford Louisville (L-Series) dump truck, the make and model of my fateful messenger.

Since my childhood, I’ve felt a close affinity with the Apostle Paul. I asked for his lot — and that, I believe, is what I got. I don’t know what I saw in the road that day — whether there was a literal flash of light, or whether a big blue dump truck was the message meant for me — but I was halted in my reckless path. I believe St. Paul was interceding for me even then.

Looking back today, I can only give all the glory to God. I have no doubt that I am here today as a testimony to His overpowering mercy and healing. I did not deserve this, by any merit of my own or due to any faith of my own. I am not even sure that if I’d died that day, I could have been saved. But the Catechism teaches that God heals the body when it is conducive to the healing and salvation of the soul: I was certainly in need of such healing. I can only credit the faith of the many who prayed for me — my parents who would not let me go — and the overabundant mercy of my God.

In the days and months that followed, as I fully grasped what had happened, the question began to eat at me: Why? Why had I survived when so many people die? Why had I been healed, when so many others are not? Why should God be so faithful to me, when I had all but abandoned Him? Who was I to deserve such a gift? My parents insisted that I owed my life to God — but rather than grateful, I was confused, even troubled. I did not have a true grasp of His grace and love and mercy. As I recovered, and yet continued my stubborn refusal to turn my life to God, my mother grew frustrated — and I grew angry. The accident had brought me to my knees, but I had not yet laid down the fight. There was yet one more showdown.

Confession and Healing

Today I made my First Confession.

I’ve heard from various friends about the sensations they felt the first time they took part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation — from joy, to peace, to release. For me, it was similar. I was very nervous going in. It was a new experience, and I would be laying my soul and my faults bare. I had written out my confessions beforehand. As I confessed them, I had the sensation of a pouring out of my soul — and in the end, catharsis. I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt clean. I didn’t smile; I didn’t skip away; I cried.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
Micah 7:18-19 ESV

This has always been one of my favorite Scriptures about God’s forgiveness. Today I truly feel that my sins have been cast into the depths of the sea.

What has moved me the most in approaching Confession is that it’s known as a Sacrament of Healing. I don’t know what I thought it was when I was a Protestant; but I conceived of it more as a burden, a legalistic obligation, than as an administration to the soul. Christ is the physician to our bodies and souls. Confession is the Sacrament of Reconcilation, the Sacrament by which we as sinners are reconciled to the Church, to each other, and to God. It is also called the Sacrament of Conversion, because through it, through Confession and Penance, we actively turn away from our sins and convert (turn towards) God and His path of righteousness (CCC 1423-1424). This whole chapter in the Catechism is powerful and poignant to me; I have quoted sections of it before; but to quote another:

“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.” Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of this sacrament. For those who receive the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation “is usually followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God (CCC 1468).

One of the key scriptural foundations for Confession is telling to this point:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13-16 ESV

Here, confession of sins is intimately connected with healing, both physical and spiritual. And it is paired essentially with the other Sacrament of Healing, the Anointing of the Sick.

In the Christian tradition from which I’m coming, miraculous healings, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, are at the forefront of the Christian experience. When someone is sick, especially gravely sick, there is so much prayerful petition, so much faith and hope that God will work miracles of healing through prayer, anointing, and the laying on of hands — inspired by the healing miracles of Christ and the Apostles, and by this same Scripture that undergirds the Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. There is a genuine belief and an active faith that God heals; but even beyond this, there is ready credence and faith given to faith healers, individuals who profess to have individual, personal gifts of miraculous healing through the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, in the Great Commission of the “Longer Ending” of Mark (Mark 16:14-20), that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” and that “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues . . . ; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12, writes of gifts of healing and other spiritual gifts. While Catholics and cessationists apply these passages only to the Apostles and believers of the Apostolic Age, many Protestants and continuationists apply them to wider Church, to all believers in all ages, and believe that these miraculous, personal gifts of healing continue to this day.

I have no doubt that God heals today — that He intervenes in our lives in miraculous and mysterious ways. If this weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be alive today. But I believe that more often than not, these healings follow the course of the mysterious rather than the miraculous: of God’s infinite love and grace, and not His desire to make a show or spectacle. My own healing was miraculous, but it was a private, personal miracle, more for me than for anyone else. My experience, and the faith it engenders in me, is of little weight to anyone else; and to me, that makes it all the more personal and precious. I believe God works through medicine, through surgery, through the unexplained, through paths that no one sees, that few appreciate but those that receive His graces. When it comes to professed faith healers, to individuals with professed gifts of healing, I tend to be a skeptic. Many of them, I fear, are charlatans and showmen. I certainly don’t believe “word of faith” teaching, that professes that we can “speak” or “declare” God’s blessings and graces into our lives.

Do Catholics believe in divine healing? This was one of the most pressing questions I faced as I made this journey. When someone is terminally ill and dying in the Catholic Church, I have never heard a priest or anyone pray for God’s divine healing. There seems to be a ready acceptance that death is imminent. In many ways I think this is healthy; earthly death is a part of life, as much as being born, and I have seen firsthand the crises of faith faced by those who believed they had “spoken” a healing and “received” it, only to face death in the end. But do Catholics believe in divine healing? Most certainly. Catholicism abounds with stories attributing healings and other miracles to the intercession of saints; even attributing intercession against certain ailments and diseases to particular saints. St. Peregrine Laziosi, for example, is the patron saint against cancer.

And in the Catechism itself, in the mainstream, established doctrine of the Church, there is also hope in God’s healing. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick — the so-called “Last Rites” — is not a sacrament of death or even strictly of preparation for it, but of healing (CCC 1499-1532). Though the emphasis of the Sacrament, as described in the Catechism, is the healing of the soul — on the gift of grace to face sickness; on the forgiveness of sins; on preparation to make life’s final journey — throughout is an acknowledgement that Christ is a physical healer. It affirms that Christ may heal the body to accomplish the salvation of the soul (certainly, this is what happened for me); but accepts that the salvation of the soul is paramount, and that crossing over into the next life is a grace in itself to those who belong to Him.

So do Catholics believe in divine healing? Yes, they do. Sometimes I think that there should be more faith and prayer for physical healing in this life; but what I see, more openly than that, is perhaps even more valuable: a full acceptance of God’s Will and Grace in our lives, that not ours, but His Will be done.

Cum Sancto Spiritu: A First Look

In the liturgy of the Mass, where it reads Cum Sancto Spiritu — at the end of the Gloria, where “You alone are the Most High Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father” — I have sometimes gotten the sense, from both the Latin and the English, that the tone of this is “and the Holy Spirit, too!” — as if the Holy Spirit were a tag-along, there gratuitously as a part of the Trinity, without a clear idea of what He’s doing there. Coming into the Catholic tradition, it often seemed as if the Holy Spirit was downplayed, a less important figure than in the tradition I’m coming out of. So I’m searching for the role of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic tradition, trying to understand who he is and what he does in the Catholic understanding. It seems rather more complex, and less visible, but nonetheless important.

The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

In the Pentecostal tradition, the Holy Spirit takes a central role in Christian life. Prayers are offered to the Holy Spirit, asking him to “fill this place” or “move in this place.” My feeling has always been that in this context, the Holy Spirit is an atmosphere of fervency and emotion that spreads and envelops. The Holy Spirit is said to have moved, for instance, after a service in which the congregation “gets lost” in emotional worship. But the Holy Spirit also fills, and overflows. He manifests himself in miracles and miraculous spiritual gifts, such as healing, prophecy, and especially speaking in tongues — the sine qua non of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” This “baptism of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues” is one of the hallmarks of the “Spirit-filled life.” This, and the moving of these spiritual gifts, define the Christian life for Pentecostals, who call themselves “Spirit-filled Christians.”

This understanding of the Holy Spirit is based primarily in the Book of Acts (especially Acts 2Acts 10:44-46 and Acts 19) and Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12 and 14). Being “baptized” or “filled with the Holy Spirit” is something that takes place separate from believing in Christ or “being saved,” as seems to be the case in Acts 19, in which “disciples” had “believed” and been baptized (in water) but had not yet “received the Holy Spirit.” (Another way to read this, as my ESV Study Bible notes suggest, is that these people clearly didn’t know very much about Jesus or his teachings if they had never heard of the Holy Spirit, and had only been baptized with John the Baptist’s baptism. So receiving the Holy Spirit was merely the product of receiving the fullness of Christ’s message and being baptized in his name.) Certainly 1 Corinthians 12 lists spiritual gifts, and 1 Corinthians 14 speaks at length about the gifts of prophecy and tongues. But these are the only places they are mentioned in the New Testament.

The Catholic Church, and most non-Charismatic Christians, believe that these miraculous spiritual gifts ceased with the passing of the Apostolic Age — this view is called Cessationism; the opposite view, that the gifts continued, is Continuationism. I have never read much in the way of this theological debate — like most theological debates, I’ve found it dizzying and threatening and detrimental to my spiritual health. I have a book on the debate I’ve never gotten through; perhaps I should try again. I feel that it, like most doctrinal debates, is a rabbit trail that distracts believers from more important issues of Christian life — but I am curious about the reasoning here. I wonder if there are any Catholic books on this issue?

Anyway, I’ve gotten completely off the track of the well-meaning, and I thought well-settled, outline I set for this post a couple of weeks ago. I’m tempted to delete all of the above distraction, but I think I will leave it just to illustrate how confusing an issue this is for me, and to hope that some helpful reader might stumble upon it and offer me book recommendations. It’s nearly midnight, but I will leave you with what I meant to reach: a summary of what I understood, in the Pentecostal tradition, to be the roles and functions of the Holy Spirit. (I would give Scripture references, but I’m tired and it’s late. Consequently, this list may be flawed or incomplete. So this does not represent a studied effort, just my off-the-cuff understanding.)

  1. The Holy Spirit enters the heart and life of all believers, as part of “asking Jesus into your heart” or “getting saved” — but this is different than the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
  2. The Holy Spirit, indwelling in one’s heart, is a Counselor. He leads the believer to decisions or courses of action, and urges him to act.
  3. The Holy Spirit is a Comforter, consoling and assuaging the heart of the believer.
  4. The Holy Spirit also convicts the believer of sin and guides him to repentance.
  5. The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets and inspired the writers of Scripture of the New Testament also.
  6. The Holy Spirit illuminates Scripture for the believer, leading him to a correct understanding of it and allowing the Bible to function as the living Word of God and a continuing revelation.
  7. The Holy Spirit gives the believer words to say in ministry, speaking for him or through him.
  8. The Holy Spirit bears the virtuous fruits of the Spirit in the believer who walks by the Spirit (Galatians 5:13-22).
  9. The Holy Spirit moves one to zeal, joy, or other high emotion, leading one into worship.
  10. The Holy Spirit baptizes or fills a believer, granting a more intimate connection and manifesting in miraculous gifts, especially speaking in tongues.
  11. The other gifts of the Holy Spirit (all of which Pentecostals believe continue), as enumerated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, are:
    1. Word of wisdom.
    2. Word of knowledge.
    3. Miraculous faith.
    4. Gift of healing.
    5. Working of miracles.
    6. Prophecy.
    7. Discerning of spirits.
    8. Speaking in tongues.
    9. Interpretation of tongues.

Next time, I’ll attempt to tackle Catholic doctrine about the Holy Spirit. But that’s requiring a good bit of studying of the Catechism, and I’ve been busy with school. So this post has been delayed, and will probably continue to be.