by Don Smarto
Early Signs of Grace
As a child I wished the annual visit from our priest would have some magical power. I knew the event was important by the way my mother cleaned the house and my father put on a clean shirt. The conversation was casual and the priest would always end with a phrase like, “I hope to see you in church Sunday.” The highlight of the thirty-minute visit was the priest’s blessing of our house and us. We would all kneel, including my father, and the priest, using a small container of holy water, would spray water while making a large sign of the cross, intoning his blessing in Latin.
For the first twelve years of my life, my mother was my sole source of religious instruction. Even so, the details of Christianity were not very clear in my mind. My mother often talked to me about the pope, whom she said was “the closest thing to God on earth.” But there was no Bible in our home, and we never attended church except at Easter and Christmas. I did see God favorably, however, like the statue of Mother Cabrini which my mother kept under a glass dome and constantly dusted. Mother Cabrini was an Italian immigrant who was the first American to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. The day of her canonization was a proud day for the Italian community, both in Sicily and in the Italian communities in the U.S.
Only a Hope
There was a lot about my home life the priest never got a glimpse of during his short visits. He was unaware of the frequent, almost daily, arguments between my parents, which usually centered round my father’s gambling. His gambling brought little prosperity and no joy to our home. I remember one time when my father entered the house and threw a fistful of ten and twenty-dollar bills in the air, telling my mother that she could buy a new dress and we were going to eat at a restaurant. But these times were painfully few.
The part of my father’s Sicilian personality and temperament that saddened me the most was his ability to hold longstanding grudges. He would have fierce arguments with relatives that I loved; then they were put on his blacklist, meaning my mother, my brothers and I could not see or talk to them. The final straw came when my godparents, who were very important to me, were put on his blacklist. My mother and I would sneak over to see them on Saturdays while my father was at the racetrack, but I never liked the feeling that we were doing something wrong behind my father’s back.
The dysfunction and pathology of my family made growing up difficult. I couldn’t talk to a school counselor about the problems at home because one of the cardinal sins was talking about your family. I simply had to keep things to myself. I shared my mother’s fantasy that someday my father would win so much money he would stop gambling altogether. And I continued to hope the priest’s annual visit and blessing would bring an end to the arguments and trouble.
A Journey Begins
In many ways my family situation drove me to God; I learned I could share with him things I couldn’t tell anyone else. One day I was sitting on the grass in our back yard when a little rabbit hopped close and came within my reach. I appreciated the beauty of this little creature and became aware that I too was a little creature that had a loving God who cared about me personally. In later years I would often think back to this experience and assure myself that if God cared for this rabbit, he cared about me too.
When I was thirteen, during the priest’s yearly visit, my parents agreed that I should receive private catechism instruction from the priest. This was the beginning of the vast influence the church would have on me. As an insecure teen badly in need of guidance, everything about the Catholic Church was awe inspiring and amazing. When I received my first sacrament of penance, I had written a long list of sins I had committed during my life. And with every visit thereafter, I grew in my desire to pay for my sins. I was totally caught up in the legalism of confession and fasting, though my overriding desire was to have an intimate union with God. I loved the mass which communicated to me the presence of a mysterious and powerful God.
Growth during my four years of high school was like that of a flower trying to push through barren and dry soil. I continued with my religious devotions, including spraying holy water on the bed each night and wearing holy medals. My religious practices increased in direct relationship with my family dynamics. I had no relationship with my father, one brother announced he was an atheist (I loved him and couldn’t contemplate his not going to heaven.), and my other brother married outside the church.
Most days after school, instead of riding the bus home, I would sit alone and unnoticed in a dark corner of the balcony of St. Gertrude’s Church. I would gaze at the large cross with the body of the crucified Christ on it that hung over the altar, and try to figure out why Jesus died. No one had ever told me why. I would pray, asking God to stop my father’s gambling habit and to stop the quarreling at home. Though my theology was misguided, through my experiences in the church balcony, God was inviting me on a journey.
I chose to attend Elmhurst College because of its strong music program, unaware that the college was tied to a religious denomination. As one of a few Roman Catholic students on campus and the only one singing in the choir, I dreaded the times we toured and sang in Protestant churches. I sometimes opted to sleep on a wooden pew in the balcony of a church rather than stay in the home of a church member. I studied every Protestant church we sang in. Without the body of the crucified Christ on the cross, the churches seemed empty and barren. To me, the Protestant faith lacked discipline—no penance, no kneeling for hours, no sense of urgency to do the things that would get one to heaven. My classmates were good people, but on the wrong road, I thought.
During college, my private spiritual rituals increased. I would sometimes stay on my knees for two or three hours, trying to get a clear sign from God what I should do with my life. Finally I came to sense God calling me to be a priest. As a priest I hoped I would bring some sense of peace and harmony to my family. Years later I realized there was also a lot of escapism mixed in with this decision. The world was a frightening place, my home life was unsettling, and I couldn’t picture myself in a good marriage when I’d never seen one lived out. Religiosity and ritual seemed more comfortable to me than risky relationships.
At the end of my first year of monastery life, I was recommended for tonsure, the ceremony in which I would be ordained a cleric. I would officially be a member of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church and could wear the Roman collar. I had not actually earned the title of Father, yet many people in the community, especially the elderly, used the salutation, and I would accept it gratefully. I liked the idea of being set apart, even above other people. I told God that if ever I became a cardinal, or even the pope, I would use power wisely. I had a sense that I was holy. I simply didn’t think I was a sinner. I felt confident that my works pleased God—that he was pleased with me because of the penance and sacrifice of giving up possessions and marriage.
Looking back, I can see that I was enveloped in pride. I loved the institution of the church without deeply loving God. I had no real interest in Scripture—just in canon law and traditions, pomp and ceremony. I depended on theophany, expecting God to privately reveal his will to me. Yet a patient and pursuing God was with me even as I became more and more like a Pharisee.
A few days before my tonsure ceremony a phone call came from my brother Anthony saying, “Dad died.” During the two full days of visitation before my father’s funeral, repeatedly, people told me how he had supported my being a priest. I would never have guessed that he talked about me or was proud of me. Why couldn’t he say those things directly to me? I wondered. I tried to remember one time—just one time in the twenty-two years of my life—that my father had said to me, “I love you.” I wanted so much to remember good things and to have good memories. I gave vent to my tears, mostly for the sadness of lost opportunities, knowing I wouldn’t have any more time in which to hear him say just once, “I love you.”
The funeral service was held in a cemetery chapel and no one went to the grave. After the service, I found my way to the greenhouse, behind the neat and carpeted chapel, where the caskets were kept, and I put my hand on the bronze casket where the body of my father lay. In that moment I made my peace with my father. I realized I didn’t hate him, and in a sense, his death meant relief, even freedom. I knew I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about grudges and fights. I didn’t know if my dad was with the Lord. I had to cling to God’s mercy.
The Corn Field
Several classmates and I formed a Saturday social group as well as a solid study group, tackling some of the more difficult theology issues. On one particular afternoon none of my friends wanted to drive with me a hundred miles to see a film in a neighboring theater, so I went alone. I was quietly enjoying the film to a certain point. The film, a satire of priests and nuns in Rome, showed a bishop dressed in a beautiful vestment studded with sparkling gems. As he walked, a large gust of wind ripped open his vestment, revealing a rotted skeleton underneath.
In an instant, my mind said, That’s me.
The film was no longer funny. The long ride back to the monastery gave me too much time to think about Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, “…on the inside you are full of dead men’s bones.” I kept talking to myself and to God, trying to make myself feel better. “I am not a hypocrite. I am not an actor. I’m a good person!”
When I arrived back, I started to walk up the stairs to my room. Then I stopped, turned around, and walked outside instead. The night was completely dark—darker than I could imagine. I began to walk and as I walked, I encountered cornstalks. Sometimes stumbling, I held my hands out to move the brittle cornstalks in front of me. With racing heart, I cried out to God, Tell me that everything I do pleases you! I longed for a voice that would say, “I am pleased with you.” I wanted to write God’s lines for him. I wanted God to tell me that everything was okay just as it was. What I didn’t want to admit was that such a statement would allow me to continue strutting around in religious garments, embracing legalism and feeling justified in all I did.
I seemed hopelessly lost—literally—in this cornfield. Moving in the direction of a humming sound, my hand touched a solid object. Suddenly, to my amazement, I could see a pole—a telephone pole! As the moon emerged from behind the clouds, I saw the wooden T-bar that held the phone and power lines at the top of the pole. They formed a huge cross.
I had come to the most important moment of my spiritual life. My Father in heaven was answering the prayer I’d prayed as a high school student in the balcony of the church. Now I knew, I really knew, that Christ had died for me, and that I was a sinner—that I was not the good person I thought I was a moment before.
I hugged that piece of wood for nearly an hour, imagining Jesus nailed to a pole, blood dripping from his wounds. I felt as if his blood were dripping over me, cleansing me of my sin and unworthiness. For the first time in my life I knew that works would not get me to heaven and that my own merit could never make me good enough or acceptable before God. I realized how much I had loved myself, how I had used religious garments as costumes to imply I was more important than others, and how I had hidden behind the laws of the church as a substitute for total exposure to God’s Word.
A Clear Call
My new understanding of who Jesus is and who he wanted to be in my life was so clear. My most pressing question was what I should do with my experience. I wanted to become more involved—to bring about change to the church. I wanted to put Jesus first and discard any doctrine that wasn’t biblical. But the new creature I was didn’t fit in well with the institution I had grown up in. God had given me a sign, and that sign had led me to a personal transformation. My experience in the corn field remained in my mind and my heart. There was no turning back.
I was almost twenty-six when I finally made the difficult decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church. I could see so much good within the church—its use of the arts, symbols and architecture to represent the transcendental. I admired the parish system, the church’s respect for tradition and its sense of sacred place in the sanctuary. In the monastery I had learned invaluable habits of meditation and contemplation, and the value of listening for God’s voice. Yet when I did hear God’s call to me, it took me away from many traditions I had held dear. The irony that I, “the priest,” would become a Protestant—and a Baptist pastor—was compounded by the fact that many of the statues my mother displayed in her bedroom had come from me during my years as a cleric.
I know now that God’s grace is a greater force than meeting anyone’s expectations and is able even to overcome culture and family tradition.