Once as a young altar boy, I caught a glimpse of heaven. It was late fall, and I had drawn the assignment of serving the 6 a.m. Mass before school.
On the altar, I knelt on the left side of the priest, facing the tabernacle. A few nuns sat in the first pew, and a handful of old folks dotted the church. In front of me, a set of tall stained glass windows filled my view. Their deep colors awaited the sunrise to awaken their breathtaking beauty.
In the course of that Mass, I was drawn into a state of reverential bliss. The priest and congregation seemed to fade away until it was just God and me. A sense of overwhelming peace filled my entire being. Never before had I experienced such a profound presence of Jesus in my life.
As the years passed, an intoxicating cloud obscured that heavenly light. Out of school and heady with freedom, opportunity, and a good salary, I began to drink. The mantra of the day was “if it feels good, do it”—and I did. Alcohol helped me do it better, I believed. The liquid courage seemed to make me a better dancer, a more desired lover. Why, it even put more hair on my head!
Cunning, baffling, and powerful, alcohol cut the brake lines to my conscience. Situations that used to trigger an “all stop” response now signaled “full speed ahead.” I did things I would come to regret.
But during that period, God brought a wonderful woman into my life, his most precious gift to me. We were married, and after three years our first child arrived. Unfortunately, so did my alcoholism. Celebrations turned to confrontations, happy times to hard times, and trust to disgust.
We were on the brink of divorce when my wife said to me, “Bud, you are the most disgusting human being I’ve ever known.” I looked down at our six-month-old baby and asked myself, “What kind of a father do I want him to see me as?” This, plus a family intervention, left me no option but Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Called by Name.
Half-heartedly at first, I embarked on the journey of the 12 Steps. Slowly, I accepted God’s help and put my addiction in his hands. The fifth step was the hardest: admitting to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. As a Catholic, I knew I needed Confession, but I felt too ashamed and afraid to face my Creator. Finally, my deep desire to be made clean overpowered my cowardice. Trembling, I sat down with our priest, surrendered to God, and felt the tender touch of the Good Shepherd cleanse my soul.
Freed of my heaviest burdens, I resumed the path to that peace I had tasted as a young altar boy. My best friend in AA, Paul, introduced me to various spiritual activities, and my faith grew. So did the happiness in our home.
In March 2001, during an AA retreat that Paul had arranged, I experienced the Holy Spirit flooding into me and offering me a sort of covenant: If I lived the best I could, with honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love, God would call me by name at the end of time. Overwhelmed by my Creator’s intense love for me, I responded, “Absolutely!” With his grace, I made more changes in my life and committed myself to helping save the lives and souls of alcoholics, including myself.
There followed four and a half years of renewed family life and other great blessings. And then one morning, as I sat sipping coffee, I had a premonition that my deepening faith and reaching out to alcoholics had been a preparation for a monumental test. I was right.
The Next Right Thing.
Actions have consequences, and after so many years, my “minor indiscretions” finally caught up with me. My past misdeeds that I had once dismissed as merely improper turned out to be illegal. People I had angered in my long-ago drinking episodes emerged and took me to court.
“No big deal,” my lawyer assured me, saying that he had worked things out with the judge and I would likely get probation. And so I was totally unprepared for the prison sentence I got instead. I was numb with shock. It was bizarre, unreal. But though my brain said “no,” the feel of steel tightly clenching my wrists said “yes.” As I was led out of the courtroom, my eyes locked onto my wife’s. She, too, was in a state of shock.
Being torn like this from my family, my company, my AA friends, and my church brought crushing loads of shame and humiliation. I grieved for my wife and children, the innocent victims of my wrongdoing. Lord, please be merciful to them and provide for their needs.
Now more than ever, I had to be willing to trust God. It was no easy thing. Dignity, respect, and understanding are in short supply for the incarcerated, and I felt like no more than slime. How could I ever be worthy again?
Paul would often tell me, “Just do the next right thing.” But what was that? I fell to my knees in agonizing surrender and prayed, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… . ” And then I knew: The next right thing was to accept my incarceration as part of his divine plan and use it to serve him.
Here I Am, Lord!
In my first prison cell, I had a bunkmate, a Bible, and a ton of time. As I read, the Holy Spirit kindled a fire in my soul and gave me insights that I shared with my roommate.
Benny, another inmate, asked me what book I was reading every day during our recreation hour. When I told him, he confided that he had always wanted to read the Bible but didn’t know how to read. By the time I was moved to another institution, Benny had become well acquainted with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Acts of the Apostles, as well as the basics of AA. He was grateful, and I was blessed.
The transfer to my present facility was a blessing. It is a smaller, dorm-style institution for older inmates. Here there is no red tape and no long waiting for permission to attend Mass. There are numerous programs, including AA meetings, to help us better know our Creator and our fellow inmates.
But life isn’t perfect here. Frustration and despair occasionally boil over into arguments, tirades of profanity, and fights. A simple disagreement over a TV program can become the catalyst for a meltdown. In those situations, I pray for God’s mercy and peace. When the storm has subsided, a gentle pat on the shoulder goes a long way to letting a dispirited inmate know that he is still cared for and worthy of respect.
Sharing what God has given me—carrying the message of sobriety and salvation in a compassionate and loving way—has become a way of life. Here I have many opportunities and the promise of a plentiful crop, ripe for the Lord’s harvest.
Every night at “lights out,” I close my eyes in the semi-darkness and see those pre-dawn stained glass windows of my youth. And again, the loving heart of Jesus grants me peace and gives me rest for another day.
*Bud E. is “a grateful recovering alcoholic.”