Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. (Luke 14:13)
The Lord has always blessed me with generally good health and a solid physique. But I don’t mind telling you: 22-23 years ago, I walked the streets of my hometown spiritually very poor, morally somewhat crippled. As a man of prayer, I was lame. And when it came to the future, I was blind.
Seems like a good day today to recount what happened to me during the noon hour on a rainy Washington day in February of 1991. Maybe that seems like a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. But we would not be chatting here together like this–were it not for the events I am about to recount.
First of all, I love hotdogs. Always have. When I worked as a scrubby office temp, filing documents for a subcontrator for the Federal Department of Transportation–when I was twenty years of age, and even goofier and more ridiculous than I am now: I would emerge from my dreary office building at high noon every weekday, lay down a $1 bill at the Sabrett vendor, and take my little tinfoil-wrapped lunch with me for a walk.
You can cover a lot of territory during a lunch hour, especially when you have legs as long as some city blocks. NE, NW, SE, SW: I got to know it all, all four quadrants of downtown Washington.
During those walks, I was pretty sure that God existed. My parents had taken me to our Lutheran church every Sunday of my life. I was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had more to offer than Richard Simmons, Al Sharpton, Mariah Carey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Prince, Shaquile O’Neil, Bob Dole, and Oprah Winfrey put together. I had even thought–when I was a kid sitting in the first pew, timing the minister with the stopwatch on my Casio–I had even thought that someday I might like to give a sermon. And that I would make it shorter.
But those dreams had faded away by this particular February lunch hour when I was twenty. Like I said, I had become spiritually very poor, morally crippled, existentially lame, and ambitionally blind. Like most contemporary Americans, I found myself deeply confused about the meaning of life.
Then it began to rain. Pretty hard. I had long since finished my hotdog, but a few blocks still separated me from my office. I did not particularly want to get soaked. I looked for an awning or an open door.
What’s here? St. Dominic’s… Let’s see if this side door is actually unlocked.. It is! Out of the rain, into…
Cool. Quiet. Shadowy. A little light from the cloudy sky flowing in through stained-glass windows. What am I looking at here? Of course I had been in church a thousand times. But never a Catholic church. Wait…
I will kneel down.
I saw a candle burning in the front of the church. God gave me the greatest gift of my life. I saw the candle burning, and I knew. I felt it.
I felt it. Not like you feel that a leather jacket is soft and supple. Not even like you feel that the singing of the national anthem is the appropriate thing to do at the beginning of a baseball game. No. I felt it more like you feel that gravity attaches your feet to the earth. I saw the burning lamp, and I felt it–God gave me the gift of feeling it–maybe like an eagle feels the air–I felt it: God was there. I was in the presence of God.
I was in the presence of God like I never had been before in my life. No room for ifs, ands, or buts. No room for fudging or flimflamming. No room for “yeah maybe You exist, but I’m gonna hedge my bets and do things my way.”
No. I felt it: “You kneel down now. You are now in the presence of the Almighty. Everything will be fine. You thought you were in charge of life. But that is just a little fantasy of your ego, with which you must now dispense. You know now that I am here, and I am in charge.”
The divine love radiated into my soul from the tabernacle. I didn’t even know what a tabernacle was, when I walked into that church. But you don’t have to know. You just have to step inside and see the light burning.
It happened to me, and I became a priest. It has happened to others. Just for the fun of it, I did a quick Google search and found the account of another conversion to Catholicism just like mine, all the way down to a sudden rain shower forcing the person to seek refuge and enter a Catholic church for the first time in his life.
The tabernacle contains the infinite, loving power of God. The Blessed Sacrament exerts power over us–power for good, power to heal, to invigorate, to guide and enlighten.
He comes to us in the Holy Mass, when we gather as a family around the altar. But the power of Christ’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament cannot be contained solely by the celebration of Mass. He exerts His power of love from the tabernacle all the time. He draws souls to Himself, living in the tabernacle, all the time. As Matthew Kelly puts it, “All the answers are in the tabernacle.”
The greatest thing that ever happened to me was to stumble aimlessly into a Catholic church and find a tabernacle–without even knowing that it was a tabernacle that I was looking for.
May everyone who needs to—may the poor, crippled, lame, and blind people like me—may they find God in the closest Catholic church, maybe stumbling in like I did. And find the lamp burning.