It was heartbreak and family tragedy that brought me closer to Christ. When my world was turned upside down I didn't know how to regain balance. I experienced post traumatic stress. I was going through the motions, but my spirit was crushed. I received two traffic citations within the month, one for going too fast, the other for going too slow. I was depressed and didn't know how to climb out of the hole that I had sunk into.
I am what is known as a 'cradle Catholic' and definitely took my faith for granted. Only when I tasted desperation did I genuinely seek answers. I arrogantly asked God for a sign of His presence. I was having difficulty sleeping, eating, and being happy. I began to read all kinds of books, including the Bible. I decided to follow my parents example and turn to prayer.
An excerpt from a letter written a long time ago:
In my frantic pursuit of resolution I was told to "relax and be calm". Then like the little bread crumbs that Hansel and Gretel left in the woods to find their way back home, I started to see little 'coincidences' that only God could have known and left for me. I felt a calling to 'let go' of my plans and trust in Him.
Things slowly began to change like watching hair grow. I always had a 'military hair' style since my mother used to shave our heads with clippers as children. I started growing out my hair instead of the usual bi-weekly trim. I looked ridiculous in the mirror and would wear winter hats (even in the summer) hoping to subdue my frizzy mane before work. After a few months, even my managers would comment that I needed a hair cut; however, my production was growing higher than ever so they let me be. With my extra free time I began to diet and exercise to get back into shape. I continued to pray and search for answers.
Life slowly started to get back together. I left my job and started my own company. I made new friends and found renewed purpose to begin each day. My faith grew strong as I put more trust in God. Sometimes I would revisit the traumas of the past in dreams and wake up in a cold sweat. After one such experience (nearly 18 months since 'letting go'), I woke up in a dreamy haze and stumbled to the bathroom to wake up. It must have been pretty early because it was still quite dark and my now long hair was in my stubbly face. When I reached for the light switch on the bathroom wall I must have been scratching my chest and yawning because the moment the light shone, I saw not myself, but the reflection of Jesus Christ compassionately staring at me from the mirror. I paused for a second or two, let my eyes adjust, and remembered my request for a sign. I started laughing uncontrollably, got down on my knees, and thanked the Father for loving me...
It's funny how traumatic events can be transformed into our greatest victories. The Church is founded upon this very idea. The trauma and humiliation upon the cross has turned into a symbol of triumph and redemption. His impact on this planet which amazingly occurred within three years in such a small part of the globe has astounded mankind for millennia.
It's been nearly ten years since that awakening moment in the mirror and I've shaved my hair completely off several times since then, but it's nice to be able to go back to looking like my hero. It's like dressing up for Halloween everyday. No one alive actually knows what Jesus looked like, other than those who have seen Him in visions. Our Heavenly Father sent Him for us at a time when photographs or even painting portraits were not readily available. Even if there were talented artists, I'm not sure that He'd sit and have his portrait taken. He wasn't concerned with vanity or worldly recognition as much as He was focused on his spiritual mission. The images we do have come from various cultural biases, but the archetypes of a bearded young man with long hair and a sun-kissed brown complexion seem to be the most renowned.
Often times people will mention that I remind them of Jesus, especially children. Adults might say something, but children will often stare and then smile when I give them a wink. This amuses me to no end...
Besides resembling the Man, it has made me think and wonder what He must have been like to be around. What was His personality like? I wondered about His sense of humor? Sometimes I would even practice His stare. Despite being the most famous human being to have ever existed, I don't run into too many look-alikes. Where ever I go (all over the world) people will often give me nods of approval. Strangers will strike up random spiritual conversations and sometimes confess their thoughts while I listen. It is really weird and awesome at the same time.
Who is this Man that even thousands of years later still carries such mystery, intrigue, and devotion?
In a recent family pilgrimage to the holy land I got to experience walking in the footsteps of "the most interesting Man in the world". After spending nearly 20 hours in air travel, we arrived in Tel Aviv, during the feast of Sukkot in Israel. From there we connected with friends and family for an hour bus ride to our hotel in Bethlehem, Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus. For starters, I was blown away by the amount of faithful pilgrims who had gathered from all parts of the world to see the land famously celebrated for its spiritual activity. We visited the cave where Jesus was likely to have been born. We visited another cave, the "Milk Grotto" where it is said He was nursed by His mother. We visited the sea of Galilee, where He met his first apostles Peter, Andrew, James, and John as well as calmed a storm, and walked on water.
Speaking of walking on water, we visited the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, to experience "bathing" in its concentrated salty waters. It was incredible, almost like swimming on the moon! The water is 10X saltier than the ocean, which causes an unusual buoyancy effect which lifts one up almost out of the water up to their shoulders without effort. We were warned not to get seawater in our eyes, not to splash, or even swallow the poisonous solution. They recommended that once in the water to "sit back" and float as if you were reclining in a chair. I tried to test the buoyancy by swimming down into the water, but was forced back up to the surface. My eyes burned as I tried to wipe them dry, but the salt from my hands only made them burn worse. I finally made it back to the beach where there were fresh water showers to wash out the burning salt. Once again, I gingerly made my way back into the water, this time cautioning my parents and friends to prevent burning their eyes. One older gentleman, Tony from London, panicked while he was floating and I saw his head go into the water as he turned onto his stomach. He called out to me and I was able to pick him up by his shoulders and pull him back to the shore. The poor guy was rubbing his burning eyes and may have even swallowed some water. He thanked me and left me with the memory of saving a drowning man from the Dead Sea.
One of my fondest memories from the pilgrimage was the day we went inside the city walls of Jerusalem to walk the path Christ walked as he was sentenced by Pontius Pilate to death on the cross. It is known as the Via Dolorosa, or sorrowful way, as we shuffled in procession stopping at each station of the cross to meditate and reflect on the gravity of each step. A photographer took pictures with a large wooden cross that guests could carry as they marched to Golgotha, the spot of the crucifixion. We entered the large building that housed the Holy Sepulchre [sic], the tomb where Jesus was buried. There were thousands of tourists everywhere from all over the world, many of whom waited in the three hour line to go into the actual burial cave. Luckily I brought along a book and passed the time reading while my family and friends inched their way closer to the holy site. Visitors were only allowed to enter two people at a time as the opening was quite small.
Tourists began to push, shove, and argue. In fact this behavior happened many times while tourists waited in line to visit holy places, which made me feel sad. I get it, but sometimes I wonder how people can forget the message. When we finally made it to the front of the line, I got to enter the tomb with my mother as we crouched down to walk through the narrow entrance passageway. It was small inside. I walked through, knelt on the ground in gratitude, said my prayer and got up to leave so that others could come through. On my way out, I managed to bang my head really hard on the keystone of the archway causing me to undo my hair tie and rub my bruised scalp. With my hair down, some Asian tourists caught sight of my "Jesus emerging from the tomb spectacle" and started laughing and taking pictures as I too felt the humor in the situation. I think the Holy Spirit was laughing as well.
On a different day, we visited the place where Jesus gave his first mass teaching which became known as the 'Sermon on the Mount'. Each holy place has a church or several churches built upon the grounds where each event is said to have taken place. We often got to say mass ourselves in each holy venue, which was pretty cool. After feeling the exhaustion of waking up early each morning and walking everywhere I decided to sit and rest on a bench in the garden of the 'Beatitudes". I people-watched the masses of visitors from all over the world gathered to see this revered spot. I was casually relaxing in the shade when suddenly an Asian woman approached me with her friend and asked to take a picture in broken English. I thought that she wanted me to take a photo of her and her friend, but as it turned out she wanted to take one with me. I started laughing and soon some friends from my tour group came to see the fuss. She was so happy and sincerely grateful to see me that I decided to ham it up and let down my hair for our picture. She hugged and kissed me and told me that she loved me, which I was unsure of how to feel but I laughed and played along. I decided to leave shortly after that because we were attracting too much attention so I tied my hair back up and joined my tour group. It made me so happy to see how strong her faith was to the point of embracing a stranger.
On our way to Galilee from our hotel in Bethlehem, we stopped in Cana for a wedding mass where my parents renewed their wedding vows. Cana is the place where Jesus is said to have performed His first miracle of turning water into wine during a wedding feast at the request of His mother.
"Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come."
― John 2:4
Something that made me laugh was immediately after mass we walked out to a gift shop selling famous "Cana wine".
One afternoon for lunch we were treated to 'St Peter's fish' a type of tilapia found in the Sea of Galilee. We ate with our hands much the way it was done two thousand years ago together in a large feasting hall as a big family. The food was delicious and afterwards we boarded a large wooden boat which took our group out into the Galilean waters. There we got to experience the tranquility of the sea, see some fishes jumping from out of the water, and feel the breeze rock the boat. The boat crew turned off the ship engines and allowed us a few minutes of silence to appreciate the moment which I thought was pretty cool.
Probably the highlight of the trip for me was our visit to the Jordan river where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. When we arrived at the facility, which very closely resembles Barton Springs here in Austin, we were able to rent or purchase white baptismal robes so as to respect the solemnity of the waters. There were many people from all over the world gathered with ministers to baptize them in the cool water (some asked to join our group as we had an ordained priest). Our group traveled with a priest from London, Father Oliver, who performed the renewal ceremony. While waiting in line to rent a gown, a new friend from South Africa traveling with our group gestured for me to join him outside. I didn't want to lose my spot in line, but he seemed to have a plan. I reluctantly joined him as he revealed that he already purchased a white tunic earlier and offered it to me since his wife decided not to go. Everywhere we went on our travels there were toilets or changing rooms for rent, but rather than pay the few shekels for a single use, like boys we mischievously changed outside away from the security cameras. There were cameras randomly filming that people could choose to purchase video footage of their spiritual dunking (mysteriously the video had interference when it was my turn). I remember little fish nibbling at our feet while we waited our turn to get immersed. The idea of being baptized as an adult in much the same manner Christ was when He visited St. John struck a nerve and sent shivers of excitement down my spine. We were told to exhale as we went under the water backwards and when we struggled for air the priest brought us back up to breathe in fresh new air into our lungs to signify the new life breathed into our bodies by God when we are spiritually cleansed at this ceremony. Afterwards, me and some friends decided to swim around in the water and enjoy ourselves a bit before heading back to the hotel.
In closing, this was a very special trip for me. I'm glad that I got to experience this pilgrimage with my family while we were all relatively strong enough to make the journey traveling many hours by plane, up and down hundreds if not thousands of steps, and getting up early each day. I'm grateful that I got to witness this holy land with faithful people who helped me feel that despite living in far away countries and never having met before that we are ALL one family together in our faith.