Back in my college days I was pretty dismissive of Christianity. To be more accurate, I was contemptuous and hostile. Though raised in a minimally Christian home, I had rejected the faith by my early teens. I remained spiritually curious, however, and spent the following years browsing the world's spiritual food court, gathering tasty delights. The core of my home-made belief system was "the life force;" the raw energy of life, I'd concluded, was the essence of God, and the various world religions were poetic attempts to express that truth. I selected among those scraps of poetry as they pleased me. My senior college year I gained a startling insight: I realized that my selections were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. If I wanted to grow beyond my own meager wisdom, I would have to submit to a faith bigger than I was and accept its instruction.
At that point I chose Hinduism. I can't say it was a mature decision. Frankly, there weren't a lot of Hindus attending the University of South Carolina in the 1970's, and I chose it in part because I thought it would look really cool on me. I enjoyed the vivid poetry and mythology of the faith, but can't say I engaged it deeply. When all the world's religions were coquetting to be my choice, Christianity didn't even make the lineup. I considered it an infantile and inadequate religion. I found it embarrassing, childish-probably because I associated it with my own naive childhood. A rhetorician could have told me which logical fallacy this was, to presume that since I was immature when I was a pre-teen Christian, the faith itself was immature.
I didn't become a Christian because somebody with a Bible badgered me till I was worn down. I wasn't persuaded by the logic of Christian theology or its creeds. I met Christ. This was, at the time, a big surprise, and pretty disconcerting.
It happened not long after my wedding. Gary and I were married out in the woods, me wearing sandals and unbleached muslin with flowers in my hair. You can picture it: the women in tie-dyed dresses and floating batik scarves, the jovial black lab with a red bandanna around his neck, the vegetarian reception under the trees. When archeologists discover my wedding photos hundreds of years from now, they'll be able to place the date within five years.
We'd saved up enough funds to stretch our European honeymoon to three months, as long as we traveled by hitchhiking and discount train seats, lived on bread and cheese, and stayed in the cheapest hotels. (In one northern Italian town we figured out why it was so cheap: all afternoon we sat on the little balcony and watched women go in and out with different men.) On June 20, 1974, we took the ferry from Wales to the Irish coast and hitchhiked up to Dublin. We found a hotel, dropped our bags, and went out in the late afternoon to see what we could sightsee.
In a block of business buildings we came upon a church and decided to go inside for a look; even declared Hindus can't travel Europe without being exposed to some church architecture. I strolled around the dimly lit building, admiring stained glass windows and stonework. Eventually I came upon a small side altar. Above it there was a white marble statue of Jesus with his arms held low and open, and his heart exposed on his chest, twined with thorns and springing with flames. This depicts an apparition to a French nun in 1675; she heard Jesus say, "Behold the heart which has so loved mankind."
It said, "I am your life. You think that your life is your name, your personality, your history. But that is not your life. I am your life." It went on, naming that "life force" notion I admired: "Beyond that, you think that your life is the fact that you are alive, that your breath goes in and out, that energy courses in your veins. But even that is not your life. I am your life.
"I am the foundation of everything else in your life."
I stood up feeling pretty shaky. It was like sitting quietly in your living room and having the roof blown off. I didn't have any doubt who the "I" was that was speaking to me, and it wasn't someone I was eager to get to know. If someone had asked me a half-hour earlier, I would have said I was not sure the fellow had ever lived. Yet here he was, and though I didn't know him it seemed he already knew me, from the deepest inside out. I kept quiet about this for a week, trying to figure it out. I didn't even tell Gary, though he must have wondered why my eyebrows kept hovering up near my hairline.
This wasn't one of those woo-woo spiritual experiences where everything goes misty and the next day you wonder if it really happened.It was shockingly real, as if I'd encountered a dimension of reality I'd never known existed before. Years later I read C. S. Lewis' novella, "The Great Divorce," which begins with the charming idea that every day a bus crosses the great divide from hell to heaven. Anyone who wants can go, and anyone who wants can stay. The thing is, heaven hurts. It's too real. The visitors from hell can't walk on the grass, because the blades pierce their feet like knives. It takes time to grow real enough to endure heaven, a process of unflinching self-discovery and repentance that few are willing to take. At the end of the day, most of the tourists get back on the bus to hell.
This experience in the church was real like that, like grass that pierces your feet. In that explosive moment I found that Jesus was realer than anything I'd ever encountered, the touchstone of reality. It left me with a great hunger for more, so that my whole life is leaning toward him, questing for him, striving to break down the walls inside that shelter me from his gaze. I am looking for him all my life, an addict.