I often joke that, before I entered the Jesuits, I led the life of a rock-star accordion player. In some ways, this is hyperbolic: "rock-star accordion player" is an oxymoron! Nevertheless, in the world of Irish dancing, I had earned a solid reputation as being a good musician for Irish dancers. Consequently, many organizers of feiseanna, or Irish dancing competitions, would invite me to play at their events.
One evening, about seven years ago, I was forced to take an early-ish flight to a city in the Mid-West. I arrived at the hotel early, unpacked, but was too restive to take a nap. So I did what any reasonable extrovert would do: I headed down to the hotel bar to see if any of the other Irish dancing teachers/musicians/adjudicators had arrived. Much to my chagrin, I was the first to have arrived.
Never being one to allow being on his own to deter him, I sidled up to the bar and ordered a drink and asked for a menu. The bar itself was thoroughly unremarkable: small bowls of snack mix dotted the wood bar and an unkempt barkeep paced back and forth, looking for thirsty customers and an expansion of his tip jar. Even though it was early on Friday, I was surprised at how few people there were in the bar: certainly an ominous sign, portending a disastrous dining experience.
I ordered a burger and started to watch a hockey game that was being shown. A few seats away from me, a forlorn looking young man stared glumly into a half-filled beer. I couldn't help but notice him (he sat between me and the television) and, seldom being one to shy away from a conversation, I made a remark about the game on television. With a grudging turn of his head, the young man made eye contact with me and muttered an inaudible response. For a moment, our eyes met and I saw that this was a guy - just about my own age - who was experiencing terrible suffering.
Well, I did what any Irish musician would do: I bought him another drink. He acknowledged the gift and, slowly began to open up. What began as a trickle of information soon gave way to a deluge of information: I learned that he had run away from home ten years earlier due to an abusive environment, that he had turned to drugs and prostitution in order to make a "living" out on the street, and that he had recently been diagnosed with HIV. He was in the hotel hoping to see a family member about getting money for anti-viral medicine.
What struck me most was how he spoke of his erstwhile Christian faith. He told me that he'd been raised a devout Christian but, after he fled his home, he'd all but abandoned his faith. Indeed, he told me, "I've done things that would keep God from loving me." Being young and enthusiastic about the degree in theology I was pursuing, I tried to reason with him. It was for naught: the logic of the human heart runs far deeper than the theological skills I had acquired. And so I fell silent and listened. I listened to him tell of how he would never have a wife or kids. How he had squandered away his life. Of how he had sinned so grievously that God could not forgive him.
What was most jarring is that he shared that he often tried to imagine himself as the younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He said that for as many times as he had prayed with that text, he could not imagine himself being so welcomed by the Father. His sin, he felt, put him outside the realm of the Father's love and forgiveness.
As our conversation drew to a close, I had the insane notion to exchange email addresses with him. He obliged - he said that email was the only way he stayed in touch with his younger sister - and promised to write.
He left when a family member came in to see him. At about the same time, several of my colleagues arrived and my attention turned to catching up on the latest gossip in the Irish dancing world. But while my head was occupied with useless drivel, my heart was arrested by the man I had just met.
Several weeks went by and then, one morning, I found an email from him. He caught me up on the vicissitudes of his life and told me that he was staying with a family member.
Attached to the email was the following text. It was a prayer he wrote that has haunted me for years:
Dear Lord, I have wandered very far from you.
I am lost and alone. I am cold and scared.
I want to come home, but I don't know the way
and I don't think you will be there.
But if you are there, and if you will have me,
put a small light in the window.
If it is there, I will hope to find it.
I will come to the door.
I will knock.
It's cold out here.
(Disclosure: I formatted the text to look this way. The words, however, are original to him)
This little prayer has stayed with me for many years. Recently, when teaching my sophomores about the parable of the Prodigal Son, memories of this encounter returned to me. I searched mightily for the text of the prayer, finding it saved in a file in my John Carroll University mail (I was a grad student there from 2002-2004 and they still haven't deleted my email account).
As I was retrieving the email message, I had the thought to try corresponding with him once more. It had been years since I'd last heard from him and I reckoned that he'd have changed emails by now.
Well, I cannot express how excited I was to hear back from him several weeks later. Although he had changed his email address, he checked his old one periodically. We exchanged phone numbers and chatted on the phone: his life has made remarkable strides in the intervening years. He now is working on a college degree and his HIV is being managed with medicine. He has fallen in love with a young woman and is giving serious consideration to "popping the question."
Without being asked, he brought up the issue of faith. He remembered sending me the aforementioned prayer and shared with me a piece of marvelous news: after years of praying, after years of seeking, he finally allowed himself to be caught up in the Father's embrace. The years of saying, "No! God cannot love me" served as the true obstacles to God's love, rather than God withholding love from him. In a beautiful image, he said that he was "snagged" by God only when he was too tired to run any further or fight any longer. He fell limp into the Father's arms and has been raised to new life in a renewed relationship with God.
C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that Christianity begins in dismay: the dismay of knowing that we are sick and desperately need of healing. The dismay of having watched - and abandoned - the person you loved be executed and then huddling together in an upper room. I learned from this man - Chris is his name - much of the dismay that fills the hearts of so many. It is from Chris that I learned that no amount of words would dispel that dismay...only the patient silence of an ear and the abiding presence I could offer in prayer.
An ironic realization, to be sure, when you consider that I've expended many words to say that I had to shut up to hear the true story of God's work in this fellow's life.