Have you ever thought you were doing well in your faith, only to discover you could have been doing much better? Have you ever been confronted with a personal weakness or sin that made you long for transformation? Do you remember the discouragement and frustration? Well, last year I discovered a radical way to get focused and grow in God’s grace. Here is how it happened.
Word Wars. It was shortly before Lent, and I was trying to share my Catholic faith with Brent, a Protestant brother. I was in dire need of humility, among other things.
We were seated in the prison library, facing off like a pair of war-hungry generals. After a cursory prayer, we unsheathed our “weapons”: Bibles, concordances, commentaries, and assorted other munitions. We gave those who heard our heated discussion plenty of reason not to become Christian. Indiscriminately launching verses of sacred Scripture at one another, seeking only to topple the other’s doctrinal strongholds, we unwittingly made a mockery of the charity we both claimed to believe in.
If only I had been more sensitive to the church’s teachings about evangelization and respect for others. Then I might have avoided the long weeks of conflict that followed, and Brent and I might have become better friends later. The messy ordeal left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to be a know-it-all “spiritual mercenary” type who couldn’t empathize with other troubled souls. After a turbulent life like mine—a life of violence, loss, and incarceration—I wanted nothing more than to grow spiritually and share the peace I had discovered in the sacraments. But I didn’t seem to have it in me to listen to the people I spoke to. I did have a vibrant devotion to Mary and the rosary. I prayed, as my mother had taught me to, throughout the day. On Sunday and Tuesday evenings, I faithfully received Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and reaffirmed my commitment to holiness. And yet, some measure of pride repeatedly frustrated my attempts to walk humbly in grace.
A Different Kind of Lent. When Lent arrived, I considered a passage from a book of meditations by Bishop Kenneth Untener: “By wearing a cross of ashes on their foreheads, Christians ask God’s help to see things as they really are . . . and to set their eyes on what lasts forever.” Looking in the mirror at the gray cross smudged onto my forehead, I asked God to clear and redirect my vision during Lent.
That evening, with my little plastic rosary wrapped around my hand, I began praying the Sorrowful Mysteries. Usually I say, “I’m sorry” often as I go from one decade to another, meditating on the various sacrifices Jesus made for us; and when I get to the crucifixion, I make a lengthy pause of reverent silence. On that particular evening, however, I remained in silence at the foot of the cross. I could feel the emptiness of my cup: I lacked love.
The next morning I made my first true commitment to observing Lent. I had been Catholic for only about four years, but I knew that Lent was a season of solemn reflection and identification with the sacrifices Jesus made for us. I felt compelled to sacrifice, too, so later that afternoon and for the rest of the week, I gave away all my desserts at meal times. I also meditated daily on how much more Jesus had given away for me.
Within days, I experienced headaches, irritability, and muddled thinking. I hadn’t considered how dependent on sugar I was! The withdrawals passed quickly, though, and the next week I began giving away meals. At first it was just one per day, then two, and finally all three. I wouldn’t go for more than a day or two without any food at all, but the cumulative effect of this fasting worked wonders.
Breakthrough! As I ate less each week, my body was fatigued but my spirit strengthened. Not only did I lack energy to argue with others about the faith—I lacked the desire. Consequently, I was in good Catholic form when Kevin, an intelligent Protestant brother, began sharing with me several of his concerns about Christianity and the doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics.
The weeks of fasting and prayer prepared me to listen to Kevin and to better understand and appreciate his opinions. I certainly couldn’t agree with his interpretation of key Scripture passages like Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus chooses Peter to build his church upon. But rather than argue with Kevin, I listened.
I wanted to hear him. I wasn’t playing war anymore: I was making a friend. And so I learned more about Kevin than about his will to argue. For instance, I learned that many years ago his grandmother started her own church, that he regretted the shame his coming to prison caused his family, and that he truly wanted to follow Jesus. By the end of the week, we had concluded our series of conversations on a friendly note, and I was pleased to find my Christian dignity still intact. My Lenten goal had been to gain a respectful approach to sharing the faith; through prayer, fasting, and charity, God had enabled me to do so.
Now, approaching Lent 2008, I look forward to renewing my commitment to change. But probably not as much as Kevin does. Recently, he pulled me aside in the hallway of our housing unit: “I’ve been doing a lot of research and prayer since our last discussion, and I’ve decided to join the church. I want to be Catholic.” He’s scheduled to be confirmed in April.
How’s that for a commitment to change?
Bruce Micheals loves and serves the Lord in a correctional facility in the Midwest.
The pursuit of holiness goes on in more places than we know—including prison cells, where people like Bruce Micheals hear and heed Jesus’ call to follow him each day. The Word Among Us plays a part.
“Your publication is widely read by Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” says Bruce. “A daily devotion with The Word Among Us is often the first step many of us prisoners take in coming to Jesus and the church.
“Thank you for reaching out to us. Often we are wracked by guilt over our past misdeeds, but the daily readings, reflections, and articles provide many of us with the healing love of Jesus in a very real and meaningful way.”
Thanks to generous readers like you, 45,000 inmates in the United States and Canada have access to The Word Among Us. Since early 2006, Partners in Evangelism is also reaching out to Catholic service men and women around the world, including troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Please keep all of these people in your prayers. Pray for our 2008 goal, which is to reach and change 70,000 lives. And consider joining in this important work by becoming a Partner and making a tax deductible donation—online at partnersinevangelism.org, or by sending a check to:
In the U.S.
Partners in Evangelism 9639 Doctor Perry Road, #126N Ijamsville, MD 21754
Metanoia Outreach Attn: Partners in Evangelism Box 1107, Station F Toronto, Ontario M4Y 2T8
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In AustraliaEvangelisation Resources Down Under
A Ministry of Petrie Catholic Community, 38 Armstrong Street, Petrie, Qld 4502