Re-Entering the Kingdom of God – Conversion Story of Paul Lambert http://chnetwork.org/2013/11/re-entering-the-kingdom-of-god-conversion-story-of-paul-lambert/
Re-Entering the Kingdom of God
by Paul Lambert
1968-1993 — The “Life” of a Spiritual Cadaver: The Possibility of Repentance
In the year 1968, the world was falling apart. Timemagazine blazoned on a cover April 8, 1966: “Is God dead?” And, two years later, the whole world was acting as if it had truly happened. In addition, it was the year that I realized my world was falling apart, if not ending. I was losing my faith and changing into a different person from what God meant me to be. Deceitfully, the world of 1968 was a world without God: confusion, hate, mind-numbing substances, raw power, and abuse aggravated an endless litany of daily insults to the dignity and sanctity of all men. All of this crushed my spirit and contributed to my personal loss of faith.
In 1968, I was at a crossroad in life. I was 23 and married for two years to Joan, a beautiful woman, and sharing life with a young newborn named Christina. We lived on the top floor of a three-decker off Washington Street in a working-class section of Brighton in Boston.
We both were going to school: she to Northeastern University to study nursing, and I to Boston College (BC) Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to study in a doctoral program in philosophy. At the time, I was taking four classes, teaching three classes on a fellowship, performing research assistantship work, and studying for comprehensive examinations. Joan also worked a 40-hour-a-week job in the Psychology department at Northeastern, and I with two part-time jobs for 52 hours weekly at a convenience store and the paint department of a nearby discount store. And, oh yes, we were raising a child. We both reminisce about reading in a rocking chair with a study book in one hand and the baby nested in our arms and neck in the other. Hardly idyllic memories, but nonetheless cherished now.
So, how did I end up losing my faith?
I came from a devoted Catholic Family, attended a Catholic elementary school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, went to a Catholic high school run by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, and before coming to BC, went to The College of the Holy Cross. Again, how did I come to lose my faith?
My attraction to the priesthood began in second grade as an altar boy at Julie Country Day School run by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. For six years, I participated in the Sacrifice of the Mass at 5:30 each morning. My moral and religious education was well crafted. But, I lived a rather sheltered and naïve life. I also served on the altar at my parish, St. Leo, and later in high school. In addition, I joined the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Confraternity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. All this activity nurtured my love of God. However, in many ways I was being overwhelmed with the conflicts, struggles, and aspirations common of a teenager. It seemed that being liked and accepted mattered most as a teenager. For the most part, my moral values wavered and adjusted to the levels of my close friends. Thank God for Confession.
I chose at the last minute in June of 1962 to pursue college at Holy Cross, because I felt drawn to the priesthood. Enrolled in a Latin-math major, my road to the priesthood began to map out: complete my A.B. degree in philosophy at Holy Cross, one year at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, and then studies and ordination at the North American College in Rome, Italy. I was advised to start hanging around with the men and to avoid any entangling relationships with females.
Ninety-nine percent of the priests I had encountered from childhood to college modeled what a follower of Christ should be and what I wanted to be. I highly valued the priestly role and I thought they could do no wrong. Sadly, I met one of the other one percent. I don’t believe the details of the abusive encounter really serve a useful purpose here other than a prurient one. However, the destructive effect on my vocation is important: I was stunned beyond reaction. I felt shock and numbness. I determined that I would never talk to another human being about it. I wanted to push this experience deep away and forget it ever happened.
What disturbed and confused me most was that the following morning, when we went to celebrate Mass, there was no hint of seeking God’s forgiveness, as if it did not matter. He gave me Communion, and I felt sick and overwhelmed with a deathly pall over my soul. I could make no sense out of it. Moreover, I sensed I wanted to hide from God, obsessed with crying out, “Why?” to Him, and sadly losing touch with my spirit within.
The problems in the Church after Vatican II actually contributed to a more quick and effective loss of my faith. There arose a slew of doctrinal theologians, particularly in America, who pridefully proclaimed that certain magisterial teachings were false. They promoted all kinds of heretical doctrines as truth, sometimes under the guise of re-defined conscience; they publicly dissented from the major teaching of Humanae Vitae, that each and every marriage act must be open to the transmission of life: that is, that the use of artificial contraception is morally wrong. In addition, many much-cherished and efficacious devotions and sacramentals (like statues and processions) went by the wayside as the years rolled on.
I prayed for truth in my vocation for months, but I was as yet unskilled at spiritual discernment; I did not seem to “connect” with God and, thus, felt abandoned. Now I realize that He had never left me and was always speaking to me through this crisis. I simply did not want to listen and found it easier to blame Him. I felt my own masculine identity questioned and sought solace and identity confirmation in female companionship and drinking. I gave up discerning the priesthood. As much as I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to get away from it more. I wanted to be a “man” and to prove I was a “man.”
What I failed to perceive was what would have made sense out of everything: that instincts and passions are God-given. Sin lies in the perversion of these God-given feelings and in the creation of obsessions. This affects both the sinner and the victim of sin. I could not recognize that Christ was the perfection of what a human was meant to be.
Falling into Hell
In the last two years of College, I had met Joan, who truly was the only woman who has ever meant anything to me and I love her dearly. We married in September of 1966.
My separation from God did not mean that I didn’t have a God — I was my own god and made gods out of addictions to satisfy my pride. I pretended to be the final and absolute arbiter of what was right and wrong. I adjusted my conscience to the way I wanted to live. I started deluding myself that the possessions of pleasure and money in the world were what I wanted. I thought that these things were essential for happiness and success. When I shoved belief in God aside, the universe became meaningless. Ultimately, I created nothing but sadness, distress, and emptiness. I was groveling in the quagmire of the world and dared not reach up to God to get me out.
Shortly after accepting a philosophy teaching position at the University of Scranton in 1969, and incidentally burning all the bridges to other possible teaching opportunities, they notified me that my spot was gone in a cutback in the department. This chaos changed my world: I put aside the university teaching profession and I chose the only “rational” solution — I joined the government! I took a Civil Service Examination and a Treasury Enforcement Examination and entered the Federal Government as a Drug Enforcement Agent in Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which later became the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The design of this type of employment is exactly for someone whose conscience is on the verge of death and who is living without the presence of God for protection. You work in the worst possible environments, with the lowest, cruelest, and most remorseless elements of society. Lying and devious thinking become a way of life. Cases take you away from your home and loved ones more than you ever thought possible. Mostly, I fled from my conscience by drowning it in alcohol, starting early in the morning at the time most normal people took a coffee break.
When a person is not right on the inside, there can be nothing truly right on the outside. Real and imagined illnesses plagued me. I would often justify myself by saying I was following my conscience when, in reality, I was only following my desires. Total anarchy raged within me and consumed my body and soul — I was at war with myself. In the midst of all this, my family, now with three children, suffered terribly.
Things got worse
Just when you think things could not get any worse, I went into work one day in 1977 and ended up in jail. It certainly reflects an instance where you make a bad judgment, not thinking in your mind that it was bad, and end up paying the price for it. I am not trying to justify the misjudgment on my part or deny the illegality of my actions. However, I felt that the charges in the case were grossly inaccurate. I committed to fight them. In the end, it was a costly and futile attempt to get out of having made a dumb mistake. After eight weeks of pre-trial hearings, a long trial of several weeks, two weeks of jury deliberations, screaming emotions, terrorizing feelings, and a lot of alcohol, I received a 10-year sentence. The U.S. Marshals ushered me off to a new level of hell in prison.
Prison harbors an environment of daily inmate beatings, stabbings, and suicides. While incarcerated, eighty percent of your conscious efforts turn away from constructive things and focus on preventing destructive forces from acting on you. Wasted years of suffering and family pain sum up the time spent in prison. Finally, it was over. It makes you wonder if anything good could come out of it. However, looking back, I know that nothing happens in the world that God does not will or permit, in order to draw from it a greater good revealing His mercy. Let me try to reveal some of the good that I now perceive.
When first incarcerated, a true sense of loneliness and helplessness pervades every fiber of one’s being. The smells, noise, and vibrations of an evil presence assault one’s nerves and senses and contribute to an overwhelming feeling of fear. Along side fear, a feeling of hate grows like an irritation. Hate festers all the time, like an open wound, waiting to erupt spontaneously at an errant word or glance. Within several weeks of incarceration, I realized that all this hate could consume me. If I was to survive, I had to find a way to fight against it.
By the grace of God and, although I was unaware of His presence, I found the power of forgiveness. I lacked the understanding that true forgiveness requires love and that such love could only be grounded in God Himself, but it seemed to make sense at that time to forgive in an imperfect way to prevent being consumed in hate.
In the population of inmates around me, I came to discover that there was some goodness deep within in most of them. They made mistakes and judged morally wrong in so many ways, but goodness was there in them. I began to care about them and their sorrows. There were some people truly consumed with evil whose presence allowed you to sense the stench of wickedness that seemed to exude from their pores. Today, I know that Jesus would have wanted me to see goodness in all of them. Now, I know that the intuition of goodness in all creation comes through grace. Unfortunately, I felt very far from grace at that time. Now, I pray for all those in prison with the love of Christ for all of them within me.
Free on the outside…
One day, I was set free! In October 15, 1981, the efforts of another former U.S. Attorney and friend, F. Mac Buckley, resulted in the lessening of my sentence. He did the workpro bono and I will always appreciate what he did for my family and me. I presume the judge felt he had made his point and let me out of prison. I really suspect that the tireless and unwavering efforts of my father-in-law, who almost daily called the U.S. Attorney to plead for my return to my family was as effective as the faith of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30) or the persistent widow who constantly knocked at the unjust judge’s door (Luke 18:1-8).
Upon my release, the light of day was blinding. I was able to walk through a doorway without a pass, to do things without first getting permission, to come home to my wife and children — these were all things that were both fearful and happy. It took quite a few months to deprogram from the survival regimen I used while away. My wife and children had pretty much the same problem, but we were just happy to be together after such a long time. However, I was still carrying around the millstone of my personal defects and sinful desires.
I became hooked on my obsession for alcohol — just as if I never stopped — and suffered the same devastating consequences as before. I deluded myself into believing that I was a “functional drunk,” who was able to work at a job as long as the alcohol did not wear off. With my inhibitions impaired, I tossed open the lid on the Pandora’s box of my sinful desires and sank into obsessive and compulsive behaviors. I loosed all this chaos on an unsuspecting family, who quickly reverted to the problematic existence of co-dependency. Sadly, I imagined I hid my behaviors from my family, when all I did was betray their trust and faith in me in ways that were obvious to them. My family would tell me that they loved me, but hated what I was doing to myself. Half-heartedly, I went to a self-help program. The one thing that immediately happened from going to the program was that it ruined your drinking, because you become aware that this habit is not normal.
Facing the disfigurement of sin
The real sticking point for me was when it came to turning my will and my life over to the God as a condition of sobriety. I simply could not be honest with myself. Often times, the best I could do was to be sober for a few days or maybe a week. The struggle for sobriety typified the real conflict I waged for control of my soul and conscience. Calling sins “disease” or “OCD” soothed my conscience since nothing was serious or grievous. Certainly, I had no need for Confession for real peace of soul. This delusion about my sinfulness controlled my actions for many years based on this absurd justification.
I had tremendous difficulty in recovering a spiritual life. My separation from church activity was my way of holding on to my godless and sinful life. And I occasionally went with my wife and family to church in literal fear of being in the presence of goodness. My own weaknesses and failings plagued me and caused many setbacks. My conversion was not a glorious one-time suffusion of grace with immediate life-changing impact, like many of the well-known saints. By contrast, I fought conversion tooth and nail, because I was truly afraid.
Finally, I arrived at a point, where the misery of my sinfulness confirmed my slavery to dark and evil ways, even to me. In my imagination, my own portrait reflected a horrible disfigurement caused by the addictions and passions that controlled me. I felt separate and alone from my wife and children, unworthy of them. My love was shallow and unfelt by those who still loved me. I was beginning to experience a reflection of the pain that I had inflicted on them. Nevertheless, I recognized nothing of the pains inflicted on Christ by my sin.
I also offer a reflection on the revelation of the powerful and prayerful influence of my Saint Monica, my wife Joan. In the early 1980s, she had had enough of me and sought priestly advice on divorce. The priest knew me and, as a result, suggested to Joan that she view the situation from the point of view of my having lost my faith, and that maybe Christ was asking her to bring me back. She chose to do that and I was wholly unaware that her constant love for me was predicated on that. She persistently nurtured our children’s education in Catholic schools and prayed for my conversion. How much I needed their prayerful intercession, and how blind I was to my family’s efforts. The focus of all of these inspirations and graces, truly God-given, resulted in a continual series of deepening conversions of my heart and soul.
I suffered a long and strenuous series of conversions from 1987 to 1997 to release me from hardened heart and transform my life. My conversions reflected, in part, all of the situations of faith in the “Parable of the Sower”: the seed on the path, the seed on the rocky ground, the seed among the thorns, and the seed on rich soil. My soul emerged in and out of darkness until embracing the light, which grew and withered like the parable’s seed of faith, but ultimately led to and deepened the intensity of my love for Jesus over years, helping to free me from the chains of evil and the world. My persistence in seeking freedom from alcohol led me to discover a broken relationship with a loving and forgiving God. I began to seek a return to my Catholic Faith to remove my fears and to immerse myself in his love. It was a slow process. It now continues to strengthen within me everyday by the persistent help of God’s Love and Grace.
1993-Present — Suffering and Conversion
On a very cold winter’s night in the beginning of January 1993, the phone rang at about ten-thirty. A voice told us that our son Paul had suffered an accident and was in the hospital. He passed away in the early hours of January 12, surrounded by his immediate family, loving him and caressing him. It seemed, in retrospect, that he had just fallen asleep. When we found out he was murdered, my first reaction to this information was certainly a human one — anger and grief seethed within me, reawakening emotions I had not felt for a long time.
One thing immediately came to my mind on the way home: I knew I needed to deal with my anger and, by implication, I knew that this meant coming to forgiveness so I would not be consumed by hate. I initially dealt with this problem with tears and anger, until I could summon up the courage to ask God for help. I was certain that I needed to forgive Paul’s attacker, which did not mean that I loved Paul any less, but, the more I loved Paul, the more I knew I had to forgive! I remember going to Paul’s grave one day after the funeral and kneeling in the snow, asking Jesus to hold on to Paul for me. This act of letting go finally freed a flood of tears acknowledging that I had released my son into God’s care. At the same time, I made a sincere effort in my heart to forgive Paul’s attacker and to ask God to forgive him too.
God’s cleansing mercy
Paul’s death destroyed any pretense of denial I had for the consequences of my sinful life. I discovered the damaged relationship I had with God. I became very afraid for my great sinfulness throughout life and the wretchedness of my soul. The words of Jesus came to mind that, with faith, we could move mountains and cast them into the sea. It occurred to me that He was speaking to me about my mountains of fear. By examining this idea, I also discovered I had hope for forgiveness and the possibility of true peace of the soul. I was comforted to discover that God had already forgiven me through His Death and Resurrection.
I began to feel an urgent sense to reconcile with God in the face of the abundant compassion and mercy He was showing to me in my suffering. Sadly, I never knew how hard it would be to break free from the slavery of sin. The trees of sin were now a forest and without God, I was lost. I became truly aware that I needed His help and grace, but I was still afraid to ask. I learned I just could not want Jesus to help me to stop sinning; I needed to actively convert to a virtuous way of life. When my son died, I questioned my life and my priorities. The moral life underlies the choices we make whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Right acts are still right if no one does them and wrong acts are still wrong even if everyone does them. Moral law grounds us and proves that freedom lies in the choices we ought to make.
My love for my son examined in light of the experience of his death transformed me through the graces given from God by this loss. Though I did not fully understand, I knew that I shared something from the experience that reflected the loss of the Son of God by God Himself. I began to sense the pains I had inflicted on my family for my wrongs and the pains I had inflicted on Jesus. I began to experience that in a very personal way, my own sins were the cause of Christ’s sufferings, passion, and death. All of this turmoil led to a full spiritual transformation in Christ by May of 2007, in which Christ freed me from the passions and defects which separated me from Him. I felt a mystical sense of true freedom, joy, and peace in a fully sacramental and mystical expression of His Love.
I began to read and devour the Word of God in the Gospels and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I needed to restore the true perspectives of the grossly false image I had developed of the Catholic Church. Instead of rebelling against the distorted view I had of the Church, I developed an attitude of realistically accepting the imperfection and deficiencies in myself, as well as in others in the Catholic Church herself. During 2000 to 2007, I began to rediscover my true conscience and spiritual identity and grew in God’s love. I cast off the distortions I had of what had taken place in the wake of Vatican II. Studying about our beloved popes and saints, reading their loving and insightful writings, gave birth in my heart to unquenchable fires of love.
On the human level, I had “lived” in a world where I was dead to those around me and unconscious of the reality of the evil. Moreover, without grace, I had no ability to affect that evil, much less, if I could, pray with satisfaction for those who suffer it. Finally, I could now begin to make amends for the suffering that I created in the world for my loved ones and the hurt I now realize I had inflicted on our Blessed Lord.
My conversion then became an opportunity to ignite the true fires of love within me for my wife and family and we have been together for 47 years. Within Christ’s presence, I began to share the richness of true love with Joan and my children. Christ is with me in this effort and I trust in Him completely.
Today I embrace my Church community in prayer and activities as a member of CCD, lector, extraordinary minister at church and in the hospital, and in raising a true Christian family. I experience a peace of the soul, wherein I give my whole personality to the will of God and seek to identify His will as my own. The Holy Spirit presents to my soul, in spite of my limitations and defects, what I can become through grace: the fulfillment of being perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, and the healing of my emotional life. I am perfected in Him and not by anything that I have done to merit it. It is His heart and love that I seek to dwell in.
The true joy of my Christian spirituality and prayer is responding in a world of suffering to the fears, pain, injustices, and failures of humanity. I must love as Jesus loves — until it hurts. In this way, I can live as a prayerful contemplative, mystic, in the world, always in the presence of God — bringing Jesus to others and witnessing the presence of Jesus in them. Amen!
Paul Lambert is a revert to Catholicism. His background includes a long and varied career in university teaching, working in the federal government, and many years of small business consulting. He is currently part-time teaching financial planning techniques in a community college. He is also primarily engaged in various parish activities with Joan, his wife of 47 years.