Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes an email with title “Is this normal?”:
I converted to Catholicism about four years ago. Recently, I broke up with my girlfriend. Having lost my job and having dropped so many friends during the relationship, I really didn’t have a lot going on and was in a lot of pain. So I began to pray five decades of a Rosary each day. During that time, not only have I been healed emotionally, but certain ... um, graces have happened. Once, while contemplating the Ascension, I had ... not a vision, but a grace that I can’t describe. It wasn’t a vision, but it was clearly God moving in me in a direct way that showed that Christ is in fact on His throne next to God ... Christ is.
I felt a false persona—my sense of what’s important and what’s not—push away. Not completely, but mostly, and a sense of Christ come in. Nothing was resolved as far as my life ... my problems, but there was a sense that this relationship with Christ was far more important; in fact, all I need. Not only that—maybe I’m going too far here, but it seemed as though everyone to an extent has this false persona—this curtain covering up Christ with distractions and emotions that are on the surface. But that in our true selves we’re united—or can be—united in His mystical body for all eternity, and to an extent, we already are. We’re both one and distinct in the next world (and to some extent, already are in this one.).
There was also a sense that to avoid being a person who chases after mystical experiences (the false persona in me seemed willing to grab onto “look how special I am”), I need to learn to love and be willing to let this false self die and trust God completely. In fact, it’s the only way. I also got the sense that I am only scratching the surface ... this was not a deep experience of God at all ... just a pushing away of myself so that I saw Who’s on the other side.
I had this “grace” happen several times,. It was like who I thought I was just parted like a curtain, and a true self that Christ knows and loves. Following was joy and peace. Later, I had an experience of the Eucharist in which I was “there” the entire time. Our new priest, who I did not like, was suddenly transformed into my eyes into a beloved man of God, a priest of God. The curtain parted again. Within a few hours the curtain closed and I lapsed into sin. But I haven’t forgotten it.
Is this Catholic? Normal for praying the Rosary? Is this a useful thing to talk about or not? I am a writer by trade, but I feel different about writing about this. Anyway, your perspective and any thoughts might be helpful.
What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it! I think your second question is better than your first. The question is not “Is this normal?” but “Is this Catholic?” All sorts of things are “normal” in this world (namely all the sins of mankind), but they are not from God. Conversely, saints are not normal (in the sense that you don’t meet a Francis of Assisi every day), but they are certainly from God.
In the case of what you describe, my basic rule of thumb is to ask concerning such perceived “graced moments”: “Did this make me more open to the love of God and neighbor?” If so, then thank God for it. The proof of the pudding, of course, will be in our actual obedience, not in our feelings. The feelings are, make no mistake, wonderful when they come and we should be grateful for them (the technical term is, I believe, “consolations”). But mere feelings are not particularly indicative of anything good or bad. You are not a sinner if you feel bad and not a saint if you feel good. However, healing of emotions, like all healing, can be a wonderful doorway into a new path of obedience to Jesus and it sounds very much like you have been being given important help to start you down that path.
Your description of putting off your false self and embracing the Real You is very strongly reminiscent of what St. Paul says to the Romans:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:3-14)
It sounds like you have been given a grace to see just what the effect of baptism really is. Now you are called to walk in the truth of what you have received. You can take that to the bank as the truth. And that’s another reason I suspect this private revelation was from God: namely, that it refers you back to the public revelation we receive from the Church and Scripture. My advice: follow the signs. Your grace appears to me to point you to growing in the grace of baptism. Baptism points you to the Eucharist. And the Eucharist points you to the love of God and neighbor. As you have already discovered, being given a grace like this does not mean you will never sin again. That’s okay. The Catholic life has been well described as “We fall down and we get up”. Our first Pope was given the extraordinary grace to see that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God and to be the first to say that out loud. A few minutes later, Jesus was rebuking him as Satan (Matthew 16). So it’s par for the course for us to receive a grace and then to be reminded that we are fragile jars of clay. Don’t despair. Instead, get to confession when you need to and then soldier on in the sacraments and in such acts of obedience to Jesus as you can see to do. What that will look like, I don’t know. But I suspect as you keep praying the Rosary and attempting to practice the virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love) and do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that come to hand, the Holy Spirit will keep sending light.
Thanks again for sharing your story!