I’m back from a very powerful, emotionally draining weekend. It was absolutely wonderful. I came closest as I ever have to crying a few times. More on that later. For now, here’s the talk I gave Saturday morning.
I’ve embedded no links and all typos and rough edges are included. I’m sure you’ll give me a pass on that this time. Everything my new brothers shared this weekend stays between us. I’m only posting this because you, my friends, already know this stuff.
The Rollo on Study, Men’s Cursillo Weekend, St. Basil’s:
Good morning, my brothers. My name is Bill Brenner, and this talk starts like many stories do: With a girl.
I live in Haverhill with my beautiful wife, Erin and our 2 boys, Sean and Duncan. This is largely a talk about them, because God put them in my path as a way of taking me to school. And, really, it starts with Erin.
First, though, let me confess that I chuckled when I was assigned this talk because I was always a bad student growing up. The dog always ate my homework. When they gave us aptitude tests I was like that Sean Penn character Jeff Spicoli in the film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He sat there coloring in the little holes on the test form until it was in the shape of a shoe print. At the end of the film, Mr. Hand, his long-suffering teacher, visits his house and makes him go over all his lessons before he can go to the dance.
Instead of sending a teacher to my house, God sent me Erin and, later, my kids. It’s through them, not necessarily a stack of books, that I have studied my relationship with Jesus and realized why I need a Savior in my life.
That’s the Holy Spirit for you. IT acts through the people and experiences around ME.
It wasn’t always this way.
I grew up in a Jewish household. We followed Jewish traditions because that’s what my parents were taught. But since God wasn’t really part of the proceedings.
I did have conversations with God as a kid, but it was purely selfish on my part. I had a fierce case of Crohn’s Disease and often spent nights sitting on the toilet passing nothing but blood. The abdominal pains you get from this sort of thing are the type that MADE ME turn to God for help.
Of course, the conversation always goes something like this:
“God, I swear to you, if you make me better I will change my ways and devote my life to you. At that age, such a promise meant I’d share my toys instead of lighting them on fire to see what burning plastic looked like. Yeah, I was that kind of kid.
Fast forward to 1993 when I met Erin.
Like most love-struck guys, I would do anything to impress her. She was editor of the Salem State literary magazine and her staff had to read hundreds of submissions and decide which ones to put in the next issue. I did it even though it meant reading what I thought was a lot of bad poetry, until I read my own poetry a few years after writing it.
It also meant I would go to Church to impress her, because she went to Church every Sunday without fail. Her parents taught her well on this score, and now she would start teaching me. Not that we saw that as the plan. It just sort of happened that way. The Holy Spirit was taking me to my first class. I just didn’t know it at the time.
I can’t remember a word of what the priest said in his Homily. I just kept staring at Erin. Still, a feeling came over me in that church, a feeling of peace and belonging that I’d never felt before. It would be many years and many struggles before I understood what it was.
We dated for a few years and married in 1998. She kept going to church every Sunday. Not me, though. I was too busy getting a journalism career off the ground and on Sundays all I wanted to do was walk around the parking lots around the area of Chelmsford we were living in at the time, drinking coffee and pondering the week ahead. Other days, I preferred to lie on the couch and watch the talking heads on those Sunday-morning political news shows.
Essentially, I was cutting class again.
Then my son Sean was born, and I started going to church every Sunday. I wasn’t hungering for a more spiritual life. Indeed, my head was full of selfish things at that point and parenthood felt like more of an inconvenience at first. But something in me said I should go to church each Sunday and set a good example for my son. So that’s what I did.
I went through the motions of the Mass but didn’t really understand it. I had a still-undiagnosed case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at that point (I was officially diagnosed in 2006). So I’d go to church and sit their inside my head, focusing and seething over the merry-go-round of obsessive thoughts. Now, I don’t mean for this talk to be about those struggles. But MY struggles HAVE DEFINED ME and MY Faith, so I really have no way around it.
I started to really deal with the mental baggage and related addictions around the middle of 2004. And that’s where Erin and my children – and ultimately JESUS – come back in. This is where I REALLY started to study my Faith, and I haven’t been the same since then. I say that in a good way.
I dove into it in a very sloppy way. I tried studying my spirituality in all the wrong places. I drank a lot, thinking there was something about alcohol that brought me closer to God. I felt the same way about pot and pills. While intoxicated, I would discuss things like religion to my drunk buddies, but for all I know we were really talking about how to bake a cake.
I remember none of the conversation, except that we were getting into so-called deep stuff. My main addiction — compulsive binge-eating — took me as far away from God and the study of Faith as I could get.
All I was studying was how to stuff the biggest amount of food into my belly and then hide the amount I was eating and what I was spending on it from my family. God had nothing to do with it. It’s not that he didn’t want to show me the way. I just wasn’t letting Him in.
In the fall of 2005, I enrolled in my church’s RCIA program. That acronym stands for the Right of Christian Initiation for Adults. For nine months, I was immersed in study about the Catholic faith, I studied everything: Why Catholics believe what they believe, what all the rituals of Mass are all about, and – this was the biggie for me, the match that lit the fire in my heart – the concept of redemption, WHICH I needed. I had some fun along the way. On the first Sunday of Lent everyone in RCIA does what is called the Right of Election. We take buses to the Holy Cathedral in Boston and sign our names in a book. Cardinal Sean O’Mally presided over the ceremony. It was particularly cool because he had JUST been made a cardinal. Everyone was called to stand in front of the alter in alphabetical order, by name and by parish. Since MY parish starts with an A – All Saints – and my last name starts with a B, I got to be front and center, three or four feet in front of Cardinal Sean. I noticed him dozing off as the proceedings went on, and I chuckled. The poor guy was probably on his third big ceremony of the day, he had just been made a cardinal and he must have been toast by that point.
That was a powerful lesson. Service can be a tiring thing. It GIVES energy, but it TAKES energy as well. And even a bishop gets worn out. Because of that realization, the Right of Election was all the more special for me. I FELT LIKE JESUS WAS STANDING NEXT TO ME, TAPPING ME ON THE SHOULDER AS I CHUCKLED AT THE DOZING CARDINAL, REMINDING ME THAT WE ARE ALL HUMAN.
In April 2006 I was Baptized a Catholic. I had the crazy idea that this meant I’d be happy forever after. Nope. My deepest period of study has been in the time since then.
I’ve heard it said that when a junkie gets clean from their addiction, it doesn’t mean they instantly become a good, functioning member of society. Having been there, I know it’s true. But for me it can also be said that being Baptized DID NOT instantly make me a good Catholic. I still had too much baggage in my head to let Jesus in with complete abandon.
As the years have progressed, I’ve grown deeper in my Faith because I’ve been more open to studying everything around me.
God continues to put people in my path to HELP ME LEARN. I also believe he gave me the struggles of addiction and OCD to help me a long. Five years ago I would have seen these things as a cruel lesson. But that was before all the joys that have since come my way.
I needed the 12 Steps of Recovery to get me through that addiction and find my way. I can think of few areas of study that are as powerful and effective. THE 12 STEPS ARE BUILT ON CHRISTIAN PRINCIPALS. FROM THE VERY BEGINNING, I HAD TO LEARN TO SURRENDER MY WILL OVER TO THE CARE OF JESUS AND TRUST THAT HE WOULD LEAD ME OUT OF THE MESS I HAD CREATED.
The act of going back to people you’ve hurt and people who have hurt you back and mending the rifts, that is powerful stuff. It’s the Holy Spirit in action, and I’ll tell you something else: It’s like lightening in a medicine bottle.
My teachers are the people in program. JESUS WORKS ON ME, TEACHING ME NEW LESSONS EVERY DAY, THROUGH THESE PEOPLE. They are the people in church. And just as it’s been in the beginning, my wife is my homeroom teacher. I look at how she lives her life and it makes me want to be a better man.
My kids are teachers too. My kids blow me away with acts of kindness every day. It’s almost like they are there to remind me to do my prayers, get to church, get to those 12-Step meetings. WHEN THEY WERE SMALLER, THEY WOULD HAVE ME READ THEM THE CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATED BIBLE AT BEDTIME. IT MAY SEEM CRAZY – OR MAYBE IT DOESN’T – BUT THAT CHILDREN’S BIBLE WAS A HUGELY IMPORTANT STUDY GUIDE FOR ME AS WELL. I SOMETIMES GET LOST IN THE DENSITY OF BIBLICAL LANGUAGE, ESPECIALLY THE OLD TESTAMENT. BUT WHEN THE BIBLE IS LAYED OUT FOR YOU IN THE LANGUAGE OF A CHILD, A LOT OF THINGS BECOME CLEARER.
They are guardian angels.
THAT CHILDREN’S BOOK HAS OPENED ME TO A DEEPER STUDY OF SCRIPTURE AS WELL. I WILL ADMIT THAT THE NEW TESTAMENT SPEAKS TO ME MORE CLEARLY THAN THE OLD. BUT ONE OF THE GIFTS OF BEING A LECTOR AT MASS IS THAT I HAVE TO STUDY AND READ 2 READINGS – ONE FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT AND ONE FROM THE NEW. THEN I NEED TO PAY CAREFULL ATTENTION TO THE HOMILY, WHICH MOST OF THE TIME WILL TIE THE TWO READINGS TOGETHER.
I ALSO HAVE A GROWING APPETITE FOR EVERY READING I CAN FIND ON ST. PETER, THE ROCK OF THE CHURCH. HE MADE MANY BAD DECISIONS IN HIS LIFE BEFORE GETTING IT RIGHT IN THE END. BOY DO I IDENTIFY WITH THAT.
Our pastor just DIED OF cancer, BUT BEFORE CALLING HIM HOME, JESUS USED HIM TO MAKE a permanent mark on me.
It’s not that he was a brilliant Homilist. He’s WASN’T ALWAYS. It’s not that all his decisions as pastor WERE perfect. They WEREN’T. But he set the ultimate example and gave me the ultimate education in honesty and striving to be better. I’ve met many priests, some good and some not-so-good. People criticize priests because they’re athiests or they’re angry about the sex abuse scandal. Father Dennis Nason made a believer out of me by coming clean about his own sins.
HE LAID HIS SINS BARE AND ACCEPTED JESUS’ LOVE AND FORGIVENESS.
You would have to be sick in the head NOT to be outraged by the sex abuse, and especially of the cover-up. In the end, though, people forget that priests are human, with all the sin-making embedded into their genetic code just like the rest of us.
When a priest is able to lay his own flaws bare for all to see, I think it takes an extra level of courage, since there has to be a lot of pressure around the lofty standards they are held to. BUT THEY ARE LIKE THE REST OF US. THEY NEED JESUS’ LOVE AND GUIDENCE. THE KEY IS IN ACCEPTING JESUS’ OUTSTRETCHED HAND.
Father Nason rose to the occasion.
I met Father Nason about 11 years ago. He took over our parish, All Saints, when several other churches were closed down and consolidated into the All Saints Community.
He had a lot of angry people on his hands. One’s church becomes home, and when you close it and force them to go someplace else, trouble is inevitable.
Then the priest sex abuse scandal burst open like an infected sore, shaking the Faith of a lot of people like never before.
I started going to All Saints regularly in 2001, the year my oldest son was born. It would be another five years before I chose to convert, but by then the church had become a source of comfort at a time where my mental health was starting to snap off the rails.
At one point over the summer, Father Nason vanished. Few knew why.
Then at one Mass, the deacon read an open letter from him.
In the letter, Father Nason revealed that he was in rehab for alcoholism. It would be several months before he emerged from rehab, and while he was there the sex abuse scandal really began to explode. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also happened around that time, and people’s souls were tested like never before.
Once he did emerge from rehab to rejoin his parish, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. It was like a weight had been lifted. Then another weight dropped on him. It turns out one of the priests in our parish was one of those sexual predators we had read about in the papers.
Something like that would test the sobriety of anyone forced to come in and deal with the mess. Father Nason met it head on.
He was angry with his archdiocese over the fact that pedophile priests had been enabled for all those years; cases swept under the rug like dust. You could hear the anger in his voice and see it in his eyes. He would rage about it in more than one Homily.
His reaction is a big reason I stuck with the church instead of bolting.
Around that time we also had trouble hanging onto the other priests. One left after less than two months, apparently freaked out by the amount of work this parish demanded of him.
Through it all, Father Nason kept it together and brought his parish through the storm.
I don’t always see eye to eye with him. Sometimes I think his administration is disorganized and that his Homilies are all over the place; though when he nails it, he really nails it.
But those are trivial things. When he came clean about his addiction, it hit me deep in the core. At the time, my own addictions were bubbling in my skull and preparing to wipe out what was left of my soul. I just didn’t know it at the time.
His honesty kept me going. And now that I’ve spent the last few years getting control of my own addictive behavior, I have a much better appreciation for what he went through.
God gave me another teacher, and to show you God has a sense of humor, it happens to be someone who came to me for help. He needed a sponsor in Overeater’s Anonymous, and there I was. But he has probably taught me more than I’ve taught him.
In 12-Step programs anonymity is a big deal, especially in OA, because there’s an extra level of awkwardness that comes with being a binge-eating addict. So I’m changing this friend’s name to Dan.
I first talked to Dan on the phone a few months ago. He got my number from someone else in program and called me out of the blue. I picked up the phone and heard the following:
“Hiya Bill. My name’s Dan and I’m a compulsive overeater!”
The exclamation mark is appropriate, because that’s how he said it.
He proceeded to tell me that he needed a sponsor and I was it.
“Uh, ok,” I said. I had just started sponsoring and this guy was asking for help, so in I went.
The first time I met him in person, I was picking him up for a Saturday-morning OA meeting. He needed help getting the seatbelt on. His legs were purple from diabetes.
“This guy is going to be a lot of work,” I thought.
Then, at the meeting, I start to realize that he knows a lot of people there. He was greeting and hugging people like it was old home week. It turned out that he had been in OA before.
What’s more: He was a 20-year veteran of AA. He had done it all. He was once a drunk and a drug addict. He shot heroin. He had lost just about everything. After kicking booze and drugs, he turned to the food. He needs a truck scale to weigh himself and last time he did, he was an even 400 pounds.
But it didn’t matter. He was and still is one of the more cheerful people I’ve ever met.
And since then, of all my sponsees, nobody works the program as hard as he is. We talk every morning. Sometimes we talk several times a day. He’ll bend your ear for hours if you let him. Sometimes, it can get exasperating.
Here’s the problem: I can still be selfish AND egotistical. It’s not hard for me to think I’m better than other people. I’m pretty sure that’s why God put Dan in my life. That’s what He does, I know: put people in MY life who will help ME, but he sneaks them in as people who need MY help.
Ever see “It’s a Wonderful Life?” It’s like the angel Clarence. He dives in the water and acts like he’s drowning so George Bailey, who is standing on the bridge contemplating suicide, will jump in and save him.
I guess you could call what I’m experiencing the Clarence Syndrome.
Dan, you see, is teaching me a lot more than I’m teaching him. I may be his OA sponsor, but he’s my own Clarence.
So for me study hasn’t been about burying my head in a pile of books. It’s been a study of people. To that end, each of us is a book to be studied.
I’d like to conclude by sharing some of the things I’ve learned through my studies. This is something I wrote for the 2010 RCIA class at my church. I was trying to drive home the fact that Faith is all about study – every moment of every day. I focused on the things I’ve learned SINCE becoming a Catholic:
1. Don’t Succumb to “Happily-Ever-After” Syndrome.
Even though I knew deep down that it wouldn’t be the case, I approached the days leading up to my conversion in a high of sorts; feeling like it would be happy forever more once I was Baptized. In some ways that is how it turned out. But for me, things got a whole lot worse before they got better.
The sins I had accumulated up to that point were forgiven that night, but the demons remained a few steps behind me, ready to trip me into another garbage can. I continued to suffer from the paralysis of OCD. I continued to give in to my self-destructive impulses. I continued to indulge my over-sized ego and stay absorbed in all things me. Oh, yes: Some of my most self-destructive, addictive behavior took place AFTER my Baptism.
It turns out school was still in session, and the lessons could be a real STRUGGLE.
2. Peace IS NOT The Absence of Chaos. It’s a State of Mind
My own world used to be pure chaos. Self-loathing dripped from my pores and I had a craving for peace. I wanted all the violence and worry to go away. It didn’t. But that’s OK.
I’ve learned that peace is a state of mind, not the absence of chaos. It’s a feeling and mental clarity that comes over ME as MY Faith deepens. It didn’t just smack me in the back of the head one morning.
It’s a state of mind that slowly grew over time, with lots and lots of study about the church and the people I knew who were living an active Faith life. Learning that also meant I had to shut my mouth and listen to what the priests were telling me.
3. What I Get is Only As Good As What I Put In
Here an open secret: spiritual well-being isn’t just handed to ME like an entitlement or a birthday present. I have to work hard at it everyday.
Working it takes many forms. Service is a big one. Getting to Mass every week is important. But I have to do more. I have to go on retreats like Cursillo, which will be as life-changing an event for those who go as the Baptism was.
I’ve been on two retreats since my conversion: Cursillo and an ACTS retreat the year before that. The soul searching and sharing I do on these weekends is priceless. It is study in the purist form. Then there are programs like ARISE, where I keep studying Scripture and discussing it in a group, in context with my daily life struggles. I’ve gotten a lot from lectoring as well.
By getting up in front of everyone and doing the readings, I’m better able to actually understand what the readings mean. And when I actively participate in the Mass, I’m less likely to fall asleep. And I go to Confession often.
I can’t believe how good it feels to get rid of the mental trash until I do it. In purging MY sins, I learn a little more about yourself and God’s love.
4. Plan to Fight the Good Fight to Your Dying Breath
I’ve come a long way in my spiritual growth. With God’s help I’ve overcome crippling addiction and depression and I know more peace today than I ever have.
But boy, I can still screw up with the best of ‘em. Each screw up is another lesson, not that I’m trying to justify my bad decisions as a pursuit of study. Truth is, I usually learn a lesson without setting out to do so.
My most destructive addictive behaviors are under control, but I’m always tap dancing from one habit to another. There are still days where I come to church with a crappy attitude.
My mind will be on everything else but God. I still let my ego get the best of me especially in my career as a journalist. I’m easily distracted by shiny objects. They are all things I need to work on. I can do so much better than this. But I used to be a lot worse.
In summary, it’s a life-long journey. We keep making mistakes.
But if we keep our heart and head in the right place and stay in school, so to speak, everything else will fall into place.
ENDING SONG: “Holy and Anointed One.” Performed by Robbie Barton