by Derek Olsen
I went to a Methodist seminary in the South. In describing their call to ministry, a lot of people there talked about a conversion experience. Several of my friends had “mountain-top experiences”—which is its own genre of conversion story—where they gained a real sense of God’s loving presence in their life. As they struggled through seminary or ministry, they would look back to this mountain-top experience to give them a renewed sense of purpose, an affirmation of the goodness of the God whom they serve.
I have something like this—but it’s just about the opposite of a mountain top.
This was about fifteen years ago. I had graduated from seminary and was serving as a pastoral intern of a large Lutheran parish south of Atlanta. One evening, I got a call from the senior pastor: one of our parishioners had been arrested and was in the Fayette County jail; I needed to go down, talk my way in, and see how he was doing.
I can’t say I was terribly surprised when I heard who it was. He was a troubled young man with some developmental delays and a history of anti-social behavior. What did surprise me was the circumstance of his arrest. He had been apprehended after a 911 call from two boys whom he had approached in a wooded area beside the golf cart trails that snaked through the community. In his golf cart was a coil of rope and a roll of duct tape; he had intended to kidnap and molest them.
I must have spent an hour and a half with him that night. Through halting words and tense silences he told me of his own childhood, about the abuse that he had suffered, and the nights of loneliness and fear. About his craving for affection and the warping of his understanding of love. In that time, he revealed a tortured world where his actions made a kind of sick sense. Physical abuse was the only way that he knew how to express his own desires for intimacy; he was only doing what he had been taught by bitter experience.
Leaving the prison that night, I stood in the parking lot as the darkness fell around me. I was suddenly confronted with a vision of what faced me. Like a serpent, it wound its coils through generations, crushing innocence, suffocating love. Like a virus, it replicated itself, broadcasting itself through acts of violence and betrayal. Like a plague, it drew power from darkness and secrecy and from those who would turn their heads, unwilling to gaze directly upon its virulence.
That night I had a conversion experience. But it was not a vision of God. I gazed upon one of the myriad faces of Evil.
Just as I was convicted by the presence and reality of evil, I was equally convicted with the understanding that this is what the Gospel calls us to fight. Our preaching of the Gospel is not about the proclamation of moral platitudes; it is about shining the harsh light of the truth into the shadowed corners and driving out the things that that feed on darkness. It is about naming and confronting abuse and addiction and vice and the comfortable complacency that would rather turn its head to look upon more pleasant diversions than to confront the darkness in our midst. It is about resisting the powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. When I get fed up with church committees and the petty politics that are an inevitable part of parish life, I am reminded of the reality of that against which we struggle. Remembering my own moment of conversion recommits me to a proclamation of the whole Gospel.
As the Church turns toward Lent we are called to contemplate not only mortality but sin. We are asked to search out the dark places of our own souls. Where are the corners of our being that block the light of Christ and create the shadowed nooks where the darkness can fester and breed? Where are the alleys of our hearts that we resolutely avoid for fear of what we would find lurking there?
I know that in the coming days I will see Facebook posts of friends proudly announcing that they are giving up chocolate for Lent. Predictably, I will be annoyed. I will take a breath, pray for patience, and remind myself of the words of Leo the Great and John Chrysostom, two of the greatest preachers, West and East. They remind us, in different words, written to different times and places, that—among other things—our fasting from food is a sign of a deeper fast: a fast from sin. That in the days of Lent in particular we strive to uncover in ourselves those things that draw us from the love of God and neighbor, to root them out, and to let the Gospel take seed in our hearts in their place.
This Lent let us choose the deeper fast. Let us commit ourselves to love the light more than the darkness. Let us commit ourselves to look at our own behaviors from which we would gladly turn away—where we harbor the seeds of darkness. Let us turn towards the light of Christ and look with honesty on what it reveals in and around us.
Let us learn love again.
Dr. Derek Olsen is a layperson in the Diocese of Maryland where his wife is a priest and his daughters are an acolyte and boat-bearer respectively. He serves on the vestry at the Church of the Advent, Baltimore, and as Secretary of the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music. An IT specialist by day, Derek created and maintains the online Daily Office site The St. Bede's Breviary. His reflections on life, Anglo-Catholic identity, and liturgical spirituality appear at Haligweorc.