[Note: This is a draft. It took me much longer to write this mammoth piece than I expected and I’m not even close to getting all the kinks out of it. I welcome any and all thoughts and comments for how to improve it, from typos I missed to entire sections that have to be reworked or eliminated.]
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What has been is what will be, and what has be done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes
After prayerful consideration, I’ve decided to try and tell the story of why I’m choosing to make a lifetime commitment to the Catholic Church during this Easter Vigil. There is an arrogance to my aim, and I believe that is partly because my words are always imperfect expressions of the Truth. I might even go so far as to say that giving voice to what is within me is both necessarily harmful at the same time that it is good. I can only pray that what I write does more good than harm. Lest I continue my mental masterbation without saying anything of worth, I began this section by paraphrasing Ecclesiastes who expresses better than I ever could what I’m trying to say here. Writing this is vanity. There is nothing new here that has not already been revealed. If there is any insight to be gained from my words it comes not from me, but from the One.
Why write if that is the truth as best as I can humbly express it? Primero Dios, I have three overlapping reasons for doing so. The first is that I feel an obligation to disclose my conversion to those who know me through my meager public life as a migrant advocate, organizer, and blogger. Secondly, I’m hopeful that writing this all down will help me better explain my newfound commitment to those both inside and outside of the faith. Finally, and this reason is easily the most vain, I hope that describing the beginnings of my path towards God will help others see their paths more clearly. Whether that dissipation of the fog comes through revulsion or inclination is not for me to decide.
“And any man who knows a thing knows he knows not a thing at all” – K’naan
I want to get the politics of my newfound commitment out of the way first because they are the most difficult for me to write about. At the same time, politics is probably the most insignificant part of the commitment I’m making, which speaks to how corrupt my soul is. I say that not to take away meaning or power from politics, but to put the arch of the universe in perspective. The political battles we fight with each other over at this specific nanosecond are grains of sand in the desert of eternity. That of course, is in stark contrast to the choices we make about which battles to fight and how to fight them, in politics and perhaps most importantly in our every day lives.
The only histories I felt described the world I grew up in were the histories of the Latin American left. Traveling back and forth regularly between rural and urban Guatemala as the country was emerging from civil war, and spending summers in the U.S., I was confronted daily with wrenching inequality and unimaginable suffering. The histories of the right in Guatemala never really felt like a narrative to me so much as it felt like an erasing of history altogether. Coming of age as a Latin American leftist has generally meant that I tend to identify with the left side of the political spectrum, radically at first and more pragmatically, as of late, as I’ve increasingly started to take responsibility for the change I want to see in the world.
Though trying to identify with the left in the U.S. has often felt like building a house on a foundation of sand I would say that I am firmly pro-choice and in favor of equality for the LGBTQ community. I identify those two issues among many because they are the issues that the Catholic Church is most publicly associated with and they are the two issues who those who know me through my public life would be right to ask me about. I will be the first to admit that those political positions come not from God, but from my experiences on this flawed Earth. I wish I could provide a religious defense for those two political stances but, for the time being, all I have is a lot of questions that have to be answered through prayerful consideration. I am humbly open to changing all my political stances through prayerful consideration, which I’d like to believe is a sign of strength, not of weakness. I hope saying this still allows me a place among my feminist and queer friends at the same time that it offers me a place in the Church.
I also hope writing that out illuminates how ridiculous it is to bracket off the depth of universal Truth into the stunted public debates of our times. Again, that is not to say that these debates aren’t important. If anything my life and actions are a testament to just how important these debates are. I’ve willingly put my life on the line for these debates because I know that lives are hanging in the balance. Still, public debates are necessarily limiting, even moreso when they are bracketed off into specific issues. I can only hope that people who do not agree with me on those two issues do not write off the depths of my soul.
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” St. Paul
There is, of course, political stances that the Catholic Church takes which I greatly admire. I am most proud to identify with the Church’s welcoming treatment towards migrants, regardless of legal status.
I truly wish we could all embody the idea of “welcoming the stranger” of seeing the divine in the unknown when our usual reflex is fear. It is always possible to do more but I’m proud to say that the Catholic Church does more than most to embody this idea.
It is important that I emphasize, though, if I have not done so already, that I am not committing to a faith because of politics, and I think it’s deeply flawed to do so. I would be lying if I didn’t say that the Catholic Church’s treatment towards migrants didn’t draw me to the faith, but only in the most superficial of manners, especially at the political level.
This, thankfully, is where I will try to leave politics behind and focus on questions of the soul.
As I grew older and moved away from the comfort of my family and my home in Guatemala, I began to suffer increasing bouts of anxiety and depression which I believe, in retrospect, were always present in me to a certain extent. For years, I denied that I was suffering from these neuroses in part because of the stigmas associated with mental illness. I used to believe, as I think many do, that people who suffered from neurosis were failures who were removed from reality.
A great deal of study and prayerful contemplation has lead me to believe (Ernest Becker’s book ‘The Denial of Death’, which I quote above, was particularly helpful for me) that it is just the opposite, though. I suffered from these neuroses not because I was removed from reality but because I was seeing it more clearly and was unable to cope with it. Our existence is terrifying. In one realm we are constantly reminded of our finite existence, and in another we can expand into infinity.
To put it another way, we are reminded of our finite existence daily by our need to eat, drink, breathe, excrete, and procreate. A poetic way of putting the bookends of our existence in this world is that we are dust and we will return to dust. What I find more terrifying is what is in between. We are worms in the constant process of consuming and excreting dirt every moment of our lives. If we stop we die.
I wouldn’t find my worm existence so terrifying if it wasn’t for the fact that my mind, heart, and soul can expand into the realm of eternity. One of the reasons I enjoy spending my life emersed in words and ideas is because there is a sense of infinite possibility within them. Whenever I am forced to reconcile my finite existence with infinite possibility it manifests itself in the form anxiety or depression. The worm in me would either move through the dirt as quickly as I could, or stop altogether almost in protest of my finite existence.
To be clear, I think of dirt as everything I’m forced to do just to exist, which includes bodily functions, yes, but which can also expand out into things like cleaning or even earning a living. These tasks can of course be filled with great joy, as they should be, but I refer to them with the image of a worm traveling through dirt (which I borrowed from Becker) because there is something suffocating and limiting about being forced into these tasks.
That’s just one of the most helpful ways I’ve found to describe and think about both the terror and beauty of my existence, but there are many ways to do so of course, expressed by poets and prophets in words much more beautiful then mine. As much as it helps me to identify and describe the sources of my anxiety and depression, I’ve also come to realize that no words produced by a human being, no matter how great, will ever help me to cope with the terror of my existence.
Ernest Becker, whom I borrowed these ideas from, is not a saint. Becker describes himself as a scientist and he believes that the best way to deal with the terror of our existence is through religion or a belief in God. I reference him almost reluctantly because although his book, especially at the existential level, provided helpful descriptors for me, I wouldn’t read him if you are looking for answers. Half of his book is psuedoscientific psychobabble. I think it’s because he stands on the shoulders of giants when he discusses metaphysics, but he’s squashing maggots when he discusses psychology. Even if he’s able to convince you of the value of believing in God through psychological reasoning, what does that mean?
I’ll try to explain how I came to be certain of the existence of God, but in many ways knowing that God exists, as difficult as it might be for some, is the easiest part. The hardest part, especially in these times, is finding a path that leads even in the vaguest sense towards God. There are many paths which advertise themselves as religious or spiritual which only lead me away. Even within the Catholic Church there are many paths that might lead me away. The only comfort I have is that the Lord wants me to be close to Him and if I want it enough I know He’ll show me the way.
“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but He eluded me. I sought my brother and I found all three.” – Testament of Hope
In many ways, how I came to be certain of God’s existence is atypical and unhelpful. I had what I would characterize as three near-death experiences in quick succession, some more harrowing than others, but each extremely significant for me. What is important is about these experiences not how close to death I was but how each of those experiences made me feel. I will try to explain how these experiences made me feel a certainty in the existence of God but I will necessarily fail. For those repulsed by my proclamations here, I humbly ask that you skip to the second half of my story where I will convey what I believe is most important about what I’m trying to say.
My first near death experience is easily the most public. I almost lost my life trying to retrace the route of a Guatemalan migrant into the U.S. I have yet to write the definitive story of that experience, and the blog I originally wrote about it on (Immigration Orange) is now gone. The most complete and accurate telling of my story was written by Alven Powell at the Harvard Gazette, which I often link to.
I won’t recount the entire story, except to say that I now realize how stupid what I did was. It’s difficult to say whether or not I’d choose to do it again because of how much I learned doing it and where it brought me, but I can say that if the goal of my trip was to make change, then I was an idiot. What is important for the purposes of what I’m trying to relate here is that it was in the darkness of the Sonoran desert, outside of the border town of Altar, Mexico, that I first became certain of the existence of God.
I never really felt fear during the hours I was dealing with the smugglers who would eventually rob me and threaten to shoot me. That is mostly because my mind was too busy analyzing how best to get out of the dangerous situation I put myself in. It was only after I rolled out of the car they robbed me in and into the desert that I felt overwhelming fear. I didn’t know where the car went or if they were coming back for me. I felt both fear and overwhelming anger at myself for having put myself in that situation. Those intense feelings probably had something to do with what became my certainty in the existence of God, but it manifested itself more in an overwhelming certainty that the entire universe had conspired to put me in the very situation that I was in at that moment in time. One way to express it is through the cliche, “I’m here for a reason,” but the word “reason” doesn’t even begin to describe what I felt. I’ll try to describe the other two experiences briefly so that I don’t turn this into a novel.
After I finished my trip and returned to my home of Guatemala, one of the first things I did was jump into the enormous waves that crash into the black volcanic sands of the South Pacific coast of Guatemala. It’s a dangerous stretch of ocean, but I had been swimming in it my entire life without any problems. That day, however, I got caught in wave after wave, unable to breath. I was already praying for God to take care of my loved ones when a large wave tumbled me all the way back into the beach. My father who is not a religious man witnessed this entire situation unfold and said, “Kyle, it was like God just spit you out of the ocean.”
The last experience occurred when I returned to Cambridge, Mass., to give college another try. I tried to stop a group of kids stealing bikes late at night outside my dorm when one of them came at me with what I believe was a knife. If drowning in the ocean was the closest I came to death this was probably the least dangerous of my experiences but it was significant in two ways. I had always been taught growing up, almost had it ingrained in me, that Guatemala was more dangerous than the U.S. To be reminded of my finite existence in the U.S. was a reminder that my time in this world is limited everywhere. Interestingly, I also felt more intense fear dealing with someone who couldn’t have been older than fifteen then I did dealing with smugglers. There’s probably many reasons for that, but mostly I’ve felt it’s because young people generally don’t understand the consequences of their actions as much as older people do.
These stories are contracted, of course, but it was as if every time that I strayed from a deep feeling of the existence of God, I was slapped back into place with the realization that my life is in God’s hands and I exist only at His behest. Three times I almost lost my life, and each time was imbued with a depth of meaning that I cannot hope to describe here. What is most important is that three times over I was injected with certainty about the existence of God, and much of my six years, since, have been spent trying to recapture and honor those feelings.
Obviously, not everyone can have three near-death experiences in order to become certain of the existence of God, but once I became certain of it, the Truth just seemed so obvious to me. For those doubtful or uncertain about the existence of God, I can provide intellectual defenses of His existence, but I think the most helpful way to relate that certainty is the fact that I felt God’s existence long before I was certain of it. There’s a Light that we all know before we even have the words for it. God shines through feelings and convictions that we learn to describe through words like Love, Truth, and Justice, just to name a few.
If you’re uncomfortable with the word, God (I still am), it’s only because God is greater than the letters and the sound of the word ‘God.’ I refer to God as a He only because that is how the tradition I’ve chosen refers to him, but anyone who knows anything knows that God isn’t a ”he” as we understand it. If the Truth of the existence of God is shrouded in darkness, it’s only because we are incapable of absorbing the full spectrum of His Light.
I think in our hearts we’re all certain of the existence of God even if we don’t call it that. There are certainly times when it’s difficult to see God. I go through those “times” at least once a day. There will always be people in this world who refuse to recognize God. Those are only the shadows to God’s Light. Primero Dios, I don’t write for the shadows. As I said earlier, knowing that God exists is the easy part, find a path towards God and walking it is what is hard.
“Often enough, as Faust said, in the beginning is the deed: practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace.” – Kwame Anthony Appiah
This is probably a good time to explain the quotes I’ve used to break up the sections of this story. They’re meant to be points to take a break and reflect on the over 3,000 words I’ve written already. I do not mean to put people like K’naan, Becker, and Appiah on the same level as the Word, which I have chosen to represent through Ecclesiastes and St. Paul. Unlike the Word, for example, I believe Appiah’s large body of words, though undoubtedly wise, are imperfect in the same way all of our words are. Even the Perfection of the Word is impossible for our limited beings to absorb. I heard this particular quote as I was listening to the radio show, On Being, and it struck me as a useful jumping off point for what I’m going to try and say, here.
It is difficult to know God’s will, but I believe I can say, generally, that God doesn’t wish us to do violence to each other. However, honoring that requires more than saying so. As Appiah says, peace is a practice. We can write long essays or speeches on the meaning of “Thou shall not kill” or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount into eternity but those diatribes turn into nothing every time that we choose to close our hands in violence instead of opening them in peace.
In order for me to choose the Light over the darkness, Primero Dios, I need not only the ever-vigilant focus of my entire mind, heart, body, and soul, but also the support of an entire community around me, and whenever possible interaction with divine art, music, scents, events and places. There are those chosen few who have found the Light without all of that help, but to think that I am one of those chosen few is the height of arrogance. It means I’m putting myself on the same pedestal as the greatest prophets, or even worse God Himself.
“The earth is but one country and mankind it’s citizens.” – Bahá’u’lláh
I’ve written that it is much easier to know God exists than to walk towards God, and what follows is how best I’ve learned to find my path in my short life. I believe my path, as I have already revealed, is through the Catholic Church, but I am not so arrogant as to believe that is everyone’s path. All I can do is hope to relate why I believe this is my path in hopes it helps others to ask the right questions of God so that He can illuminate your path.
It has taken me five years and lot of searching to determine what I believe is my path towards God. I’ve explored and been enamored at different turns by Buddhism and the Baha’i faith. A Sufi Muslim was actually the person who set me looking in the right places. I eventually settled on Christianity mostly because it is what I knew growing up and it provided me with what I believe was my most direct route to the Truth. However, I can see how others who had bad experiences growing up with it might need to look somewhere else to see the Truth more clearly. Within Christianity I became extremely attracted to the Eastern Orthodox branch of our faith. Though I never fully committed to it, I’m already finding ways to breath it in through Catholicism. When I finally settled on Catholicism it just felt like putting on the right pair of pants, an expression I heard Matisyahu use when describing his conversion to Orthodox Judaism.
How is it possible to respect all of these different faiths at the same time that I believe with all of my heart in the Word made flesh? It is difficult to say without allowing corruption to enter into my words. It helps me to think of different religious traditions as pieces of a broken mirror strewn all over the Earth. I first heard this metaphor through a Mormon friend, actually.
Put together the mirror reflects God, but in it’s broken form we have to find the piece of the mirror with God’s help which is the largest or reflects the Light at the best angle for us. Once you see God’s reflection all other pieces of the mirror become irrelevant, and that’s a helpful way to think about how I can believe so firmly in the Word, at the same time that I respect the possibility of other pieces of the broken mirror. I’ve also heard the metaphor of religious traditions being different spokes of a wheel, where the center is God, but I like the mirror metaphor because it allows for different sizes and degrees of reflection.
How do I determine if a religious tradition reflects God or not? The metaphor of fruit is useful for me here. While you might not be able to initially see God through a specific religious tradition a helpful way to judge it is through the fruit it bears. I’m not speaking here of whether or not a faith just produces nice people, I’m talking about spiritual giants, saints in the strongest sense of the word.
If it’s difficult to know God, they say it’s even harder to know a saint, but I’ve been told knowing a saint overwhelms you with the divine. Aside from maybe the love I feel from my mother, I can’t say that I’ve known a saint in my lifetime, but I mention it because I’ve heard people of all different faiths describe similar experiences to me. We do have the benefit of knowing some saints from our past, though. The spiritual giants that I am most fond of citing in the Catholic Church are St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. These are people who have brought all of us closer to God through their paths. When I say the fruit of a religious tradition is helpful in determining whether it reflects God or not, spiritual giants are the fruits I look for.
“No one is self-made” – Isaac Newton
With these two metaphors I already have some helpful tools for determing how to find my path towards God, but I still haven’t determined how to overcome some of the most difficult barriers to approaching God. In this postmodern age, by which I mean an age where everything sacred is torn apart until nothing of the Truth is left, where invidualism reigns supreme over the ways we think, act, and consume, there is a real danger of elevating the self to the level of God. That is to say, we might think we’re finding the mirror and the fruit which illumate the path towards God, but in reality we’re just picking out shadows that reflect our own darkness. How do I know that I’m not reflecting my own shadows in commiting to Catholicism? The truth is that I can’t be entirely certain, all I can do is pray everyday that I’m shown the Light and hope for the best.
I believe the best way to prevent the serious and common flaw of turning ourselves into gods is by committing to a living religious tradition with a rich history. That’s also why I believe it’s important not to try and mix and match different religious traditions, because once again there is a real danger that we are picking and choosing only that which reflects our shadows. It’s important that the tradition is living because it’s extremely difficult to produce fruit from a dead tree and a rich history can pass on thousands of years of shared wisdom that can’t be learned in any other way.
There’s other important aspects to look for in a religious traditions. It should be able to engage and require the participating of every facet of the self. That is to say, if you’re idea of a religious tradition is a place where someone talks to you the entire time, no matter how beautiful the words, you’re not engaging your full self. There’s parts of the Truth that can’t be expressed in words or ideas. Because I’m so easily enamored by words and ideas (my shadows) I tend to emphasize and value other elements of religious traditions, like religious practices or rituals. Developed religious practices is one thing I look for as well as the presence of sacred art, music, and even scents. A developed way of ordering time, whether it’s throughout the days or the years, is another way to engage the full spectrum of our being.
In addition to engaging the full spectrum of our beings, I believe there should also be a strong communal element to religious traditions. It’s easier to recognize our own personal shadows when we interact with other supportive people who are dealing with their own unique shadows. There is a danger that the entire community will fall for a shadow, and there are many instances throughout history of the great harm that can do, but I also think that history shows them as flare-ups which are quickly brought into check.
These are just some of the elements I look for when I try to judge whether a religious tradition helps people move towards or away from God, but I recognize that my experience and knowledge is limited. Perhaps these vagueries will make sense when I describe how I ultimately decided on the Catholic Church.
“It’s like ‘Simon Says’ without a winner.” – Marge Simpson
When I first told my uncle I was committing to the Catholic faith, he quoted Marge Simpson to me. Again, I’m not so arrogant to believe my path is for everyone, but I can’t help but laugh at both the truth and the falsehood of Marge Simpson’s quip about Catholicism. It can be a little like Simon Says, or better yet, God Says, but I believe there are lots of winners.
When I became certain of God’s existence one of the most difficult things for me to do was to try and pray to God. Sure, I can try and talk to Him like he’s an old friend or a family member, and there’s nothing wrong with praying like that. Still I couldn’t help but feel that just speaking to God as I would any other person didn’t sufficiently honor Him. I also knew that I was looking for a form of meditation that would teach me how to focus my thoughts and feelings and hopefully help me to overcome some of my depression and anxiety.
Years of asking God to teach me how to pray and to bring me closer to Him might seem like a long time, but it’s essentially the only thing I was initially looking for. I finally started to settle on Christianity when I came across the Lord’s Prayer. I was asking God how to pray and we are essentially told exactly how to do it by Jesus through the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t think I committed to Christianity right then so much as I felt that it wouldn’t do me any harm to learn it.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”
I started by praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day usually before or after asking God to bring me closer to him or her, I wasn’t even sure about that at the time. Sometime’s I’d switch in “our mother” for “Our Father” to see how it made me feel. It generally didn’t make me feel good. That’s not because there’s anything wrong with conceiving of God as a mother, but because I felt like I was altering something divine. The only reason I memorized the prayer in the first place was to find something divine worthy of saying to God (I’ve come to know Mary as the Catholic expression of the femine aspect of God).
There’s something about saying a divine prayer over an over again. It can get boring, yes, but meditating on a specific prayer day after day can expose depths of meanings to it that would never be uncovered otherwise. It forces you to reflect on every word and sound of the prayer and to say it in many different contexts. When your not fully engaged and are just reciting it to get through it it can be boring, but each time you say it you expose a new layer of meaning. Before long you have a deep well of feeling that you can draw from as needed when you pray, which in turn adds more depth to the prayer.
Before long I found myself exploring different Eastern Orthodox churches. I have great admiration for Orthodox Christianity. It traces back to the very roots of Christianity at the same time that it has avoided some of the shadows of the Catholic faith. There is a much stronger wisdom tradition in Orthodox Christianity which is something I greatly value in all Eastern religious traditions. If I had the will I might have been able to explore the tradition more deeply but I was in such darkness that it was difficult to overcome the unfamiliarity of it. I didn’t grow up around Orthodox Christianity. It was difficult for me to penetrate some of the arcane language and rituals that I’ve sort of learned from the Catholic Church by osmosis.
“Hail, Hail, Holy Queen”
After exploring several Orthodox churches, though admittedly not as deeply as I would have liked, I started looking for a form of daily meditative prayer that I could use to help focus myself. A Google search actually led me by chance to the Holy Rosary. After initially looking in vain for an equivalent to the Holy Rosary in Orthodox Christianity (It was only later that I learned of the Jesus Prayer though I would still argue that’s different) I decided to just give it a try.
Learning all of the prayers of the Rosary as well as the many Mysteries you have to reflect on as you say them is no small feat. Though I have gotten to a point, now, where I drone on through the many prayers without ascribing the meaning to them that they deserve, I can say that it is only now, over a year later, that I’m truly accessing the depths of the Mysteries of the Rosary, and that’s only really with the Sorrowful Mysteries at this point.
I realize the Rosary isn’t for everyone and there are many Catholics who never pray it, but I can truly say, at least for myself, that it was the Rosary that saved me. The Rosary is what led me to the Catholic faith and ever since I made the choice to commit it truly has felt like I’ve come home after a long time away. I waited to make my final commitment to the Catholic Church until after the fight for the DREAM Act died down, because I was invested so heavily in that, but I’ve made it now.
“If you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans.”
Where my journey will take me, I do not know. I still have a lot to learn and many layers to unravel, but I can say with the utmost certainty that I’m ready to make a lifetime commitment to the Catholic Church. The time is right and while there’s still a great deal I don’t know this is a step I have to take if I’m ever going to come close to knowing.
This has already gone on for much longer than it should have, but I hope that those who have read this far have found my writing useful. If not, I’m just thankful for your time and the opportunity to have shared a part of myself with you. Most of all, I pray that expressing and sharing these words does more good then harm and that everyone reading this is able to find what they’re looking for in the universe.
I’ll probably publish this as a draft first, and after touching it up and showing it to a few people, I might look to see if someone else might want to publish it.