Sunday, April 6, 2014

Welcome

Thank you for visiting my site.  You can find my complete conversion story by scrolling down the page, a shorter version by clicking here on the Why I'm Catholic site, and a Spanish version here.  If you'd like to listen to my story, then click here for an entertaining radio interview with Gus Lloyd on the SiriusXM Catholic Channel.




As I've mentioned before, I've been walking the streets of Portland as an urban missionary for the last several months.  I've been encouraged by a few people to share that experience, and so I'll occasionally write about it (and hopefully recruit other men) at www.urbanapostolate.blogspot.com  Please join me over there.  I have some interesting stories to tell, and it should be worth your time.  Pax Christi.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Our Sunday Visitor interview

I was interviewed by Brian Fraga of Our Sunday Visitor for a couple of articles on prison and prison ministry for the November 3rd issue.  Brian has done excellent work in the past for OSV on juvenile offenders, and his latest work admirably navigates a complex topic.  Here is his article on ex-con conversions, From Prison to Peace, and his article on prison ministry, Freedom Behind Bars.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Interview on RadioMaria about my Conversion Story

Today I was interviewed by Roy Schoeman on his show "Salvation is from the Jews" on RadioMaria.  We had a great discussion about my conversion story, the mercy of God and the reality of demons.  Roy provides an intro (including a prospective seminarian singing a beautiful Ave Maria in Hebrew), and then I join him at the 11 minute mark.  You can listen to our conversation by clicking here.  You can also listen to all the podcasts of Roy's new show here.  Roy does great work, and his books and talks have had a profound impact on both converts and "cradle Catholics" alike.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 1 of 7: The Path to Prison


Introduction


At the age of 18, I was a high school dropout who robbed three banks, and was on his way to maximum-security prison.  There didn’t seem to be much reason for hope.  But ten years later, by excelling in academics after my release, I would begin my doctoral studies in political philosophy at the University of Michigan.  On the surface it appeared like I was living the American dream: I had a good comeback story, a bright future, I was young and physically fit and I always had a girlfriend.  By our cultures’ standards, I should have been happy.  But I only loved and trusted myself.  There was no room for God in my heart and in my understanding of the world, and so I was slowly dying from the inside out.  And I knew it.  Then one day in April 2007, while doing yard work, God reached down and reversed the course of my life with the resounding intervention: “I love you and I forgive you”—followed by an infusion of his divine love.  From that moment on I set aside everything I thought I knew, and pursued this love.  I was surprised to soon find that the source of this love was Jesus Christ, and that my home was the Roman Catholic Church.


An Escape Into Prison



So let’s start with the obvious question: How does an eighteen year-old come to the shocking decision to rob banks?  For it was a real decision, a decisive break that I carefully considered and turned over in my mind for months.  So unlike many robbers, my crime was not a crime of opportunity or an immediate response to the ache of a drug addiction.  But I suppose I robbed banks for the same reason that many poor souls turn to drugs or suicide: because I was without hope, saw no path forward and needed out.  My mind had become uninhabitable to myself as I was deeply estranged from myself, from others and from God.  At that time I thought I was at an impasse: I dropped out of high school after being suspended seven times my senior year, and I’d just quit my job because I couldn’t manage my anxiety amongst the ups and downs.  I thought that robbing banks and the prospect of prison would be my escape—for I assumed that I would get caught since I knew that nine out of ten bank robbers end up in prison.  I know it sounds crazy—a wild paradox—but I was making an escape into prison as a last attempt to salvage myself.  And believe it or not it actually worked and exceeded all of my desperate hopes.  But we’ll get to that later…

Before I robbed banks I’d been committing an escalating series of petty crimes: vandalism, fistfights, and large and small thefts.  I’d prowl about at all hours of the night with like-minded friends and seize opportunities to destroy or steal property from anonymous strangers.  It was a very strange thing to do night after night, and so what was I up to here?  On the one hand, the thrill of danger briefly made me feel alive and in control, and I knew that robbing banks would just ratchet up the thrill.  On the other hand, I was striking out at the very anonymity of strangers—the fact that I was alienated and disassociated from others.  They had their lives that were separate and totally unknown and unconnected to me, and I hated that separation. This view had its origins in the troubles in my home.  When I was a child my home was marked by conflict and instability, and I felt isolated in my fear and helplessness.  I always fantasized about escaping into the woods to live alone, but I knew that was impractical.  And so I wanted someone to intervene—some neighbor or stranger—but no one ever did.  And so I viewed that separation as a threat, a betrayal, a sign that notions of justice were a fiction since real justice depends upon the fact of interconnected lives—a genuine community.  Since I had no hope that life was ultimately just, and found no consolation from others, I gradually retreated into myself as into a fortress.




In this way, I responded to my experience of suffering and the evil in the worst possible way: by recoiling in my pride, ashamed of my wounds and human weakness, by vowing never to be tread upon again, and by spreading my hidden pain.  Shortly before I started robbing banks I had taken to heating up a knife on a stove and pressing it against my bare chest.  I thought the searing burns would harden me and replace or cover my deeper pain.  I had burns on both sides of my chest and I thought that they looked like a pair of wings, and that they were a promise of liberation—that I was freed from those past years of fear and helplessness.  And so I liked the fact that the burns would bleed when I lifted weights, and coupled with the pounding of the barbells, it re-assured me of my own strength, and filled me with confidence.


Posing with money--note the scars on my chest


Not surprisingly, harming others and myself didn’t release me from my misery, but just deepened my sense of turmoil and despair.  Finally, I became alienated in some deep sense from life itself, from existence, from the ultimate meaning of things.  Of course now I know that all of these things add up to the fact that I was alienated from God—who I didn’t even believe in at the time.  Even so, I couldn’t bear this alienation, and so I held the strange view that the radical act of robbing banks would help me break through the gray facade of life and scratch the bottom of existence.  I thought that robbing banks was so out of the ordinary, such a break from the normal, that it would cause a kind of metaphysical rupture and I would finally see life for what it was.  I was like Captain Ahab who thought he could storm heaven by hunting down Moby Dick, the white whale.  His famous whale hunt was a metaphysical revolt, a supreme act of self-will—of egoism—against a seemingly indifferent and cruel existence.  Fortunately, unlike Captain Ahab, I didn’t take a crew down with me.


Captain Ahab cursing heaven



Well, robbing banks didn’t offer any metaphysical breakthroughs, but I did find the first two robberies novel and exhilarating.  But the third robbery did not have the same effect, and I was once more thrown back upon myself—as upon a dead thing.  And now, unlike many drug addicts who want the high and escape to continue, I just wanted out.  Fortunately, by this time a fellow criminal tipped off the local Portland police that I had been robbing banks in Washington in exchange for the reward money and other considerations.  The police soon raided my house, but they made an error and apprehended a friend standing outside the house instead of me.  I was inside the house at the time and heard the screech of converging police cars followed by shouting.  I immediately knew what was happening.  I grabbed a semi-automatic rifle from under my bed and held it waist-high.  I didn’t have a desire or plan to shoot it out with the police—it just seemed like that’s what bank robbers are supposed to do when the police arrive—you go and grab your gun.  I held the gun for a moment, and it was cold and heavy.  Then a bright thought of hope flashed through my mind, “I don’t want to die—I’m young!”  I threw the gun back under the bed and ran out the back door wearing only boxer shorts.  I was arrested a short time later.


I thought bank robbers wore fancy suits


After my arrest I was immediately full of joy and relief.  I suppose I looked like someone who was just released from prison, and not someone who was going away for a while.  In fact, the in-take officer at the jail found my behavior so unusual that he wrote on the back of my in-take form that I might be crazy, or what he called “a little 1…2…3…4”.  What the officer didn’t know was that I had a new lease on life.  I was alive, young, and would now spend the next few years trying to put myself back together.  And so I happily told the detectives everything they wanted to know, and was relieved to confess and hold nothing back. I threw myself on the mercy of the court, and though my complete cooperation was not a strategic move, it actually had the effect of netting me the lowest possible sentence.  The Federal government had the option of prosecuting my case with an automatic minimum sentence of fifteen years, but since I had no prior felony convictions they had mercy on me and turned me over to the State of Washington for a lesser sentence.  Now I was worried when I was assigned the county’s so-called “hanging judge”, but during my sentencing hearing the normally dour judge could not restrain some smiles and laughter as he examined me. I had spent most of the money on silk suits and a fast car like some character from a 1930s gangster movie, and so the judge realized that I was not so much a dangerous character as a pathetic young man who was almost playing at being a bank robber.  Unfortunately, while the judge had some hopes for my rehabilitation, the state did not, and so they opted to send me to a maximum-security prison.  The prison officials thought it was best to gather most of the “bad apples” in the same place, and so they stocked one particular prison, Clallam Bay, full of angry young men and hardened cons.  It was known among inmates as a “gladiator school”, and that would be my new home.  

Clallam Bay prison on a rare sunny day


Now the common view is that getting sent to a maximum-security prison is the worst thing that could happen to an eighteen year-old, but like most things in life, the truth is more complicated.  In prison there are basically two kinds of inmates: those who are welcomed into and enjoy the benefits of convict society—that little society that convicts create for themselves despite whatever the prison staff are up to—and those who are effectively ostracized and serve their time on the edge such as sex offenders, “snitches” and the “weak” or “scared”.   If you’re welcomed into convict society you live according to a rule of convict justice known as the “convict code”, and it creates the benefits of extensive black market trade, mutual protection, and some degree of respect for persons and property.  It also helped to create a shared worldview, and that furthered a sense of solidarity and provided the building blocks of friendship.  Since there is a dramatic difference in the quality of life between the outcasts and those on the inside—the so-called “solid cons”—my future depended upon where I would come to stand. 

I knew it was crucial to make the right first impression since mistakes have a long shelf-life in prison and your reputation can follow you from prison to prison.  Part of me welcomed the challenge of being eighteen and in a maximum-security prison.  I knew that fear is easily sniffed out, and in truth, I wasn’t afraid.  I had vowed with an icy resolution that no one would ever bully or dominate me again, and I had boxed enough and been in enough street-fights to like my chances.  The solid cons—the inmates who basically ran the prison—watched me and gradually put me through a series of subtle tests in order to sift through my character and determine what kind of inmate I was.  They observed whom I sat with in the chow hall, how I acted on the weight pile, and how I reacted to tense situations.  They kept me at arms length as they weighed whether this “youngster” was one of them: someone who was dependable, cool-headed, tough, honest and respectful to fellow cons, or whether I was a loudmouth or frightened or undisciplined.  After watching me for several weeks, I was grudgingly welcomed into convict society.  At first, I was just welcomed as a matter of justice and mutual advantage.  Since I seemed to be a solid con, the other solid cons had a kind of ethical obligation to accept me, and it was also to their advantage because the more solid cons then the more buyers and sellers in the black market as well as the greater the group security and oversight.  But what began at first as a grudging acceptance, turned into real friendship and a sense of community and solidarity.

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 2 of 7: A Double Life


A Zeal for Convict Justice


I had come into prison haunted by a sense of isolation and alienation, and now I found a real community with the bonds that come from a shared life and friendship.  And I wasn’t the only one.  A convict friend who was nicknamed “Bull” because of his stubbornness and simplicity, was released from prison and then complained to us on the phone that he wanted back in, that he missed his friends and solid cons.  We just shook our heads at that.  The fact that I found my place in a perilous environment also laid to rest, once and for all, my childhood legacy of living in fear and uncertainty.  I didn’t need to prove my toughness anymore; there wouldn’t be any more random fights with strangers or self-inflicted knife burns.  That was all in the past.  For if I could make it in prison, then I could make it anywhere.  Living under the convict code had also restored—however flawed—my moral sense: the fact that people and their possessions were owed a certain amount of respect and care. Though I had enormous blind spots, I actually became a partisan for justice, an enthusiast for the convict code, and I burned when some inmate would cause an injustice.  When I first got to prison, whenever I heard the sounds of a fistfight I would eagerly race to the scene to watch.  But after six months of that I became disillusioned and would just hang my head at the sound of a fight, since a fight meant that someone had violated the code—had been selfish and disrespectful—and now a friend might be going to the “hole”.  Though convict justice is not a Christian ethic, the code did a remarkable job of achieving relative peace amongst a society comprised of robbers and murderers. Moreover, the very harshness of the code was familiar and resonated with hard men who largely came from homes without mercy or gentleness.


Inmates working out in "the yard"

A Life in Books


My secure place in convict society gave me the peace to try to sort out who I was and find my place in the world.  I thought that by reading books that were considered wise or meaningful, I could clear away my confusion and set my life on a clear path.  And so while I was fully immersed in convict society and the ideals of the convict code, I also led a second life, a quiet life absorbed in books in a search for truth and meaning that transcended my circumstances.  This double life sometimes created an inner tension, and since I wasn’t willing to give up my status as a solid con, whenever there was a real dilemma I always gave the nod to the convict life. 

As soon as the fog cleared after my arrest, I began my self-rehabilitation by picking up a Bible.  I thought it best to give God—if He even existed—the first shot at my redemption, and so I began by revisiting my Catholic roots.  I attended a Catholic communion service and read the Gospels day and night.  I was really taken by the Gospels—the words seemed to zip off the page as though they were gently charged with electricity.  There was only one problem.  I understood that the Gospels were calling me to a life of simplicity, patience and mercy—a radical offering of the self—but I had already vowed that I would never be at the mercy of any one again.  This created a visible tension within me, and as I would walk around the prison meditating over the sweet words of Jesus, my fists would pulse and clench, ready to pound the first person that disrespected me.  Believing in the Gospels made me feel vulnerable and now something had to give.  At last I decided to walk away from Jesus, and not because I was convinced the Gospels were untrue, but because I thought, ‘Who can follow this?’  As time wore on, I would occasionally drop by for a Sunday service to see if that same electricity was there, but the service seemed bland.  Moreover, other than some solid Chicanos or Hispanics, most of the participants were sex offenders or other “weak” inmates that I usually avoided.  Only a handful of the solid cons attended the various Christian services, and it was understood that their faith was to be kept strictly private.


Judas walks away from the Last Supper


Once I walked away from grace, I quickly found the path that I desired.  I found a way to build myself up by relying on my own strength and talents, and not some unseen God.  At first I studied for my GED, and was pleasantly surprised when the lady who administered the test told me that I’d achieved the highest score the college had ever seen.  I then began to read widely: new age, Eastern religions, classics of literature and philosophy.  I quickly realized that new age classics like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and “The Teachings of Don Juan” were ultimately shallow and didn’t offer a coherent worldview.  On the other hand, the popularized versions of Eastern religions were too esoteric, and I needed something concrete and practical since nothing brings a person back down to earth like living in prison.  I soon settled into a long romance with the largely secular classics of Western Civilization, and this romance would last fifteen years or up until the day of my conversion experience.  I eagerly examined these books for answers to all the big questions: the nature of human life, the way to happiness, the life of virtue and integrity and so on.  And so I devoured Voltaire, Rousseau, and tried to understand Hobbes; I read Tolstoy, James Joyce and Camus.  These authors were my daily companions as I spent long hours in my cell taking notes and offering written commentary.  Eventually I came to memorize over one hundred poems—some of them lengthy like T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.  I thought of these efforts as laying the foundation stone for after my release; when I would set aside the solid con and build a life around college studies.



A clever depiction of a line from the "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"


I had to scramble to find good books in prison, and so in order to help build the prison library, I wrote to various institutions and think tanks asking for free books.  My efforts were mostly wasted, but a kind gentleman by the name of George Weigel at the Ethics and Public Policy Center sent me an encouraging letter and an offer of a few books.  I didn’t know who he was at the time or that he would soon become Pope John Paul’s best-known biographer, but it meant a great deal to me because it freed me from a sense of intellectual isolation and gave me a sense of connection to a wider body of scholars.  When I bumped into Mr. Weigel many years later, he recalled the letter and was amazed that our paths had crossed once again.  

Unfortunately the delicate balance between the life of a con and the life of the mind began to crack when I was told that I would be transferred to a minimum-security work camp.  For most inmates this would have been excellent news, but I was determined not to go.  Like my friend “Bull”, I wanted to stay with my solid cons, and I was ashamed to skip off when some of my friends had a life sentence.  Moreover, I knew that work camps were not governed by the convict code, but were more like a boarding school for unfocused, immature adults where sex offenders and snitches freely mingled with everyone else.  Since I had come of age in prison, had became a man with a sense of my self and my place in the world—however flawed—I didn’t want to lose that in a “Boy’s Town”, and so I decided to foil the transfer by publicly beating a child molester.  At dinner the next day I solemnly broke the news and told my friends of my decision.  Two of the most influential convicts briefly glanced around the table and spoke on behalf of all the solid cons.  “King”, a nickname that was both his real name--Robert Haden King jr.--and indicated his influence in convict society, spoke first.  He looked like a pasty businessman with his Polo shirts and Vaurnet sunglasses, but he was a captain for an Atlanta crime syndicate who was convicted of arranging contract killings on the West Coast.  The syndicate lawyers continued to flood the courts with his appeals, and he was hopeful of his imminent release.  King simply said, “No.  No.  You don’t want this life…you don’t want to be like us.  Go to the work camp.”  Danny Tash, a high-level cocaine and meth distributor who killed an associate for being dishonest, finalized the decision, “King’s right.  Look around…you don’t want this.”  And that was it.  They made the decision for me and I knew I couldn’t challenge their judgment.  I didn’t understand the decision at first.  Why did they so easily say goodbye to a friend, a dependable con, and some ready “muscle”?  Then it hit me: because they really were my friends, and against their own interests they acted in real love.  Please say a prayer for them. 

Life after Prison


My two-year stay in the minimum-security work camp prepared me for a relatively seamless transition back to “civilian life” when I was released in 1995.  The State of Washington exempted me from any probation or oversight since I was headed back to Oregon, but they ordered me to make financial restitution and kindly asked that I stay out of their state.  Although I was still rough around the edges, people sensed that they should give me a wide berth, and so I was able to avoid bar-fights and other mischief.  I was still only twenty-one, and so I left prison full of hope and determination.  I dreamed of a career as a professor or a fellow at a think tank, and this seemed possible as I had finally achieved a certain self-mastery and discipline with the help of long hours of daily study.  I began work as a waiter and bartender, and enrolled full-time at Portland Community College.  After two years of perfect grades and a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT, I was accepted into Reed College, a small, local liberal arts college.  It is best-known as the college that Steve Jobs dropped out of to found Apple Computer, but it also offered an elite program in the very books that I had come to love, and was known as a breeding-ground for future professors.  Once again I was surprised by my success there, but this was owed more to my maturity and level of focus than exceptional brainpower.  Finally, after my graduation and a surprising year spent working for a non-profit in the re-development of closed Catholic parishes, I was accepted into some doctoral programs in political science, and chose the University of Michigan. 


University of Michigan was a far cry from prison


At this point it would be thought that I was at the zenith of my life as I had marched up the echelons of higher academia, but just as I achieved my greatest success, my sense of drive and optimism began to falter. The problem was that while my life after prison looked great on paper—and one free-lance writer actually tried to pitch it to Reader’s Digest—in my moral life I had practiced one betrayal after another.  Now instead of believing in my future and the story of an ex-con made good, I had come to the point where I could barely look at myself in the mirror.  All of my earnest attempts to re-build myself in prison had slowly been undone in the eight years after my release.  I know it’s a startling claim, but I was actually a better person when I first got out of prison than when I left Portland to pursue my Ph.D.  How could that be?  At my release, I had a sincere inquiry into virtue and the pursuit of truth for the sake of the common good, but this slowly died as I became progressively narcissistic and closed in upon myself.  The solidarity and concern for the other inspired by convict society had faded and I had few friendships outside of whomever I happened to be dating.  Like many young men of today, I single-mindedly pursued exhilaration and intense pleasures wherever I could find them: some were honorable pursuits like mountain hiking, lifting weights and rugby, but others were dishonorable ones like spending all night dancing shirtless in music clubs, and dating an endless string of women.  In either case the point was to maximize the pleasures that could be extracted from my mind and body or those of others, and these resources were finally running dry.


Hiking alone with my dogs


Things finally fell apart shortly after I arrived at the University of Michigan.  One by one I became disillusioned with all the ideals and all the goods that I had strived after in order to give my life hope and meaning.  With the end of yet another long-term relationship, I finally knew that a woman’s beauty, charm, intellect, care and comfort—as well as having children someday—could not give me peace and joy if I didn’t have some of those qualities first.  I also came to lose hope in the prospect of a fulfilling career and the joys of the life of the mind.  My field of political and moral philosophy was hopelessly splintered, and even though we were all secular humanists, there was very little consensus on the worth and relevance of particular philosophers and their programs.  I had longed for a community of scholars, but we barely spoke the same “language” or held the same values, and so we weren’t in a real conversation.  It was as if a new Tower of Babel had replaced the Ivory Tower, and everyone was talking past each other.  Finally, the last ideal that failed was my health—my sense of vigor and strength.  At first I was stalked by endless stomach maladies, and then a depression as black as hell descended upon me.  For a year and a half I endured a nearly complete desolation and despair, and all I could do was hold on by my fingernails and try to make it through the night.  Whenever I reflect on that time, I’m still amazed that I held on.  

While many find God at their very bottom, God did not reveal Himself to me at that time.  I did visit confession once when I was at my most hopeless, and the gentle old priest in his eighties practically jumped out of the confessional when I told him I was suicidal.  In any event, God has perfect timing, and perhaps He knew I was too proud and would later question such a conversion as the last hope of a desperate man.  And perhaps my suffering was necessary as a partial atonement for my past life.  In any event, the depression took a lot of the vinegar out of me, and I emerged from my depression a more kind and patient person.  I would continue to slog through my doctoral studies until the day of my conversion, but without the passion that I had known while poring over books in my prison cell.


Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 3 of 7: Moments of Grace before my Conversion


Four Episodes of Grace


Before I explain my conversion experience, I’d like to describe four episodes of grace that closely preceded my conversion.  I didn’t recognize them as moments of grace at the time since I didn’t believe in God. But looking back on it, I firmly believe and insist that its only because I responded favorably to these graces, and began to imperceptibly move toward God, that I was then given the grace of conversion.  I’d also like to recount these moments so that people might recognize how God is reaching out to them in their own life, and also give them hope that God is working and will continue to work in the lives of their loved ones and those they worry about.  After all, God never stops trying to draw us to him.

The first grace concerns how I acknowledged that devout believers in my doctoral program were much happier than non-believers.  Doctoral studies are stressful and tiring.  You work 60-70 hours per week as you teach, take classes, do research, write papers, and pass qualifying exams.  Now all of us secularists—those whose hope was in the world, and regardless of whether we were radicals, progressives or the rare conservative—we were often weary, joyless and walked around with strained faces.  But among the handful who put God at the center of their life and who lived moral lives according to the natural law, they had a peace and a joy that we secularists didn’t have.  


This is what peace looks like

This was true even if the believers had a defective understanding of God because they didn’t hold the faith passed down by Christ’s apostles and their successors.  So I recognized their peace and that was a real moment of grace.  I could have dismissed the serious believers as some of my colleagues did.  I could have snickered and rolled my eyes, and labeled them “happy fools”.  But I was honest and thought, “I know these people—I’ve had classes and conferences with them—they’re not fools and they have something I want.”  So the first grace was recognizing the fruits of devotion to God, and when you respond to God’s grace, He then leads you to another grace—often a greater grace.  It’s kind of like the fairytale notion of following a trail of bread crumbs: one crumb leads to the next and you can get all the way home that way, all the way to the kingdom of God.

The next episode of grace is more dramatic, and occurred while I was driving to work in Ann Arbor at nine am.  I’m not a morning person and so I was groggy and my mind was empty and simply focused on driving.  I came to a four way stop and paused before going forward.  There were no other cars, but a UPS truck was parked to my left and was partially blocking my view.  Just as I was about to proceed through the intersection, a calm but serious voice that came from outside of me said, “Don’t go”.  I was shocked and didn’t go forward, but not because I wanted to obey the voice, but because I was stunned that I’d heard a voice at all.  There was no one there; the streets were empty.  Just then a man in a red pick-up truck appeared from behind the UPS truck and barreled through the intersection at about 35-40 mph.  He ran the stop sign and I never would have had a chance.  He would have hit me flush on the driver side door, and he either would have killed me or hospitalized me.  I still remember the blank look on his face as he passed—I think he was drunk.



This event shook me out of my daze, and I immediately told everyone I knew about it.  In a way, I had an evangelical impulse.  My attitude was, “Look at this piece of evidence! There must be some unseen, intelligent beings around us that protect us—something like angels.”  I also briefly considered a science fiction-type explanation, but I thought kindly aliens and helpful UFOs were less plausible.  Once again I was intellectually honest even though I hadn’t believed in the divine or supernatural.  In this way I welcomed and responded to God’s grace.  I didn’t revert to the skeptical philosopher and chalk it all up to natural instinct or intuition.  I heard what I heard.  I don’t know if it was an interior or exterior voice, but it couldn’t be explained by our scientific means.  This episode didn’t lead me to a commitment to God or to any faith tradition because I didn’t know what to do with this evidence of the supernatural.  But I kept it in my heart and wondered.


The third moment of grace happened after an argument at a bar.  Some doctoral students and I were settling down to enjoy a night at a pub during the long winter.  One of my colleagues thought it was amusing to play the bully, and he would always belittle a dear friend because she was a large woman.  He would insult her behind her back and even when she was with us in company.  I had tried in the past to reason with him and tell him that it wasn’t funny, but he never listened.  So he started on her again, teasing and subtly mocking her.  I saw the pained look on her face and I exploded in rage.  I channeled my inner ex-convict: I abruptly rose and pounded the table with my fist.  I let out a string of expletives, and I belittled him and challenged him to a fight right there in the back room.  Fortunately he just stayed seated and looked very small.  Realizing the matter was done, I apologized to my friends at the table, left money for the bill, and stalked out into the night.



I had only gotten about seventy-five yards when a man in a wheelchair with shattered legs—a paraplegic—approached me.  I could immediately tell he was angry and agitated, and so here we were, two unpleasant people on a cold biting night.  He wheeled in front of me to block my path and said, “Hey, can you help me with something.”  He was dressed like one of the panhandlers that live around the campus, and I could have just blown past him as people often did, but I stopped.  I made a decision to set aside my rage, and I ignored his anger and just listened to him.  He said that he was a research fellow on campus, and that he was shut out of his vehicle—a special van that he drives with his hands.  Someone had illegally parked next to him, and blocked the door that accessed his wheelchair lift.  He asked if I could back up the van so that he could use the lift and drive home.  I was happy to be of help, and as I was trying to figure out the van controls, I marveled that my anger had completely disappeared—as if the bar episode had never happened.


So what was God up to here?  Although I didn’t realize it at the time, God had set up a sharp contrast of events, a juxtaposition designed to show two ways of living.  The way of the old Scott: the fierce ex-convict who hated bullies and seethed over injustice, and who was willing to use whatever means—including force—to set things right.  But there was another path, another response to injustice: the way of Christ.  Christ’s way of patience, charity, and integrity of word and deed; the path of setting aside the self and the thirst for vengeance and accepting God’s designs and His peace.  It was a “Quo Vadis” moment: a Latin phrase from the early Church that means, “Where are you going?”  God was prompting me to consider who I was and what path I wanted to follow, and of course I wasn’t aware that he was calling me to follow His way, the way of truth and life.

St. Peter has a 'Quo Vadis' moment while fleeing Rome

In the days after the bar incident, several of my friends told me that they were glad that I humiliated the bully.  One said, “Boy, you were scary, but I’m sure glad you did that.”  Another simply shrugged and said, “He had it coming”.  My friend who was the target of the bully called it “awesome”, and said that it was the first time anyone had stood up for her like that.  But I knew they were wrong.  The right thing to do would have been to interrupt the conversation, and firmly but patiently tell him that it was unacceptable.  But instead I just used one cruelty to respond to another, and it was ugly, and I had been ugly, and I wanted no part of it.


The final episode of grace I’d like to talk about brings us right up to the time of my conversion.  I used to spend long hours in coffee shops grading papers and working on my dissertation.  Late one Saturday night, I was talking to one of the baristas, a young woman who worked at the shop, and she asked me if I wanted to go to church with her the next morning.  I was caught off guard, and so I paused for a moment until I realized that I didn’t have a good excuse to say ‘no’.  And I thought a church service seemed like a refreshing change, and besides, the young lady was cute.  The next morning I found myself at an evangelical Presbyterian Bible study followed by a worship service.


Ward Evangelical Presbyterian Church


I had always been curious about evangelicals, but it was more of an anthropological interest.  I wanted to observe them as a professor might study a "lost tribe" in the Amazon: to see what they did and what they were like.  I found it fascinating that they studied the Bible in an academic manner—as I might study Aristotle or Machiavelli.  They took the text very seriously and closely considered each paragraph with the help of historical and linguistic sources.  While some of my colleagues at the university would have immediately dismissed their scholarly efforts, I had the grace to see that they did it well and so they earned my respect.  I also found these evangelicals to be friendly and honest, and so it was easy for me to say ‘yes’ when the young lady asked if I wanted to accompany her the next week.  Since I didn’t feel the pull of faith or have any desire to become a Christian, I was open and honest with them about that.  I thought that my days of looking for God were long since past—a distant time when I still had a sense of romance and wonder.  But I enjoyed the company of these evangelicals because they were different, and I respected that.  The young woman at the coffee shop even described herself as a “born again virgin".  This was certainly a different crowd than I was used to, and that was God’s point.  Like the other episodes of grace, God was showing me that there was another way of seeing the world, another way of living.  I didn’t have to continue on the same path that had left me a shell of a person; there was an alternative, and I was on the cusp of seeing it.


Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 4 of 7: A Sudden Conversion



An Experience of Divine Love



And now for my experience of God’s love.  It was an April morning in 2007, and I had just begun to mow my lawn.  I had finished grading final exams the night before to close out the regular school year, and I looked forward to a summer full of milestones.  I would be teaching my first class at the university as the sole instructor, and I was excited that the only other work I had was my doctoral dissertation.  But my heart was troubled.  Through typical selfishness I’d begun to spoil my friendship with the young woman who had invited me to church.  I was frustrated and even disgusted with myself because she needed real friendship.  She had had six different stepfathers growing up, her brother was dying of muscular dystrophy, and she had known plenty of lousy men.  So I kept saying to myself, “What is wrong with you?! Are you ever going to learn?  You’re 33, grow up!”  I’d often had that conversation with myself in the past; hating how I treated people and who I was becoming.  But this time really was different.  Before I had been like St. Augustine: “O’ Lord, help me to be pure, but not just yet.”  But this time I was of one mind. 


Blessed Fra Angelico's "Conversion of St. Augustine"

I had been through twelve years of non-stop dating; where relationships would end once the magic ended.  In other words, once the romance and sex began to fizzle.  The mystery and beauty of women had been my great idol, and like all idols, it was a god that failed.  All that was ever left after a break-up was loss, frustration, and an even deeper loneliness.  But now I only sought what was good for the young woman and I committed myself to a new path.

But God had had enough of my plans—plans that were always self-contained and relied on my own resources, my own designs and my own upside-down worldview.  But He honored my spirit of repentance, and so from this episode full of ugly habits God brought forth His beauty, His purity and His mercy.  As I turned a corner with the lawnmower, all of a sudden, my whole person resounded with a divine intervention.  A calm voice displaced all other thoughts and sensations, and, presented fully and clearly on my mind, the voice said,

“I love you, and I forgive you.”

As the words concluded, an immense love that I had never thought possible ignited in my chest like a smoldering furnace.  It was a consuming love, but also gentle, and it slowly spread from my heart up to my head and down to my toes.  Along with this love, God placed in my mind—as one places things on a shelf—two thoughts or convictions.  The first thought was that I simply knew He removed the chip on my shoulder: the mistrust, the wariness and the fierceness of an ex-convict.  And the second thought, that God’s promise—His intention—was to eventually restore me to the little boy that I had been 25 years before.  He was giving me back to myself.  Although sin is usually thought of as something that alienates us from God and neighbor, I had also become a stranger to myself. 

My older brother and I

Although everyone wants signs and wonders, the greater miracle is the renewal of a broken person —the re-ordering and inner transformation that only God’s grace can accomplish.  A few years after my conversion, I was amazed to find a verse in the “Book of Revelation” that describes this promise.  As the city of heaven descends to close out this world, God says,

God Himself will be with them.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall their be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”  (Revelation, chapter 21)


For those who have been victims of abuse, those who have lost a child, those struggling with heartache, loneliness, or despairing because of captivity to sin: the loving embrace of God does annihilate all tears and all sorrow.  Once you feel that embrace, you don’t even need an explanation from God.  He is enough.

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 5 of 7: A Vision of Demons


The Holiness of God


If my neighbors had been watching me mow my lawn, they could never guess that the Divine Creator had reached down and changed my life forever.  But that is the mystery of God’s work among us—it often goes unseen.  They would have only seen me pause in place for ten seconds or so, and then resume mowing the lawn, but this time at a greater speed.  For God had not left me in a peaceful ecstasy.  My body smoldered with His love, and my mind raced accordingly, desperately trying to move beyond shock into understanding.

Who was this God?  This God who intimately knew me, and loved me—even when I seemed unlovable?  With hindsight, with understanding of Christ who loves us, even unto death on a cross, it’s obvious.  But at the time I couldn’t cut through the popular stereotypes and misconceptions about Christianity to get to the heart of the faith.  I couldn’t imagine what this simple God of love had to do with all the baggage of revealed religion—all of the contested doctrines and history.  And so since He had not revealed His name, what religion He authored, or even what He wanted of me, I clung to my experience of God, what He was like, the sense He gave me of His nature.  But this left me vulnerable to error, and I had already begun to slip in the first twenty-four hours into a na├»ve and safe theism.  I imperceptibly settled into the view that God is up there and He loves me, and I just need to be a better person, but my life wouldn’t substantially change.  That’s a common view today, but it’s a false one: for we are called to radical conversion, to put aside the old self and put on the mind of Christ.  And so God promptly shocked me out of this through two experiences.


St. Paul "put on the Mind of Christ"


The day after my conversion experience I decided to wash the dishes since they had been piling up as the semester ended.  Since I had no dishwasher, it was going to take a while, and so I walked over to my stereo to turn on sports talk radio.  That was just my routine and I was happy to cool off my mind after spending a restless night deep in thought.  But as the radio tuned in, the usual music, the banter from the hosts, immediately filled me with intense disgust.  I rushed to turn off the sound—fighting off nausea.  Music and words that I had always found edgy and pleasing and funny—instead sounded lurid and like gears grinding.  I thought I was just going to listen to some talk radio—something guys do everyday—but instead I was involuntarily rocked by a moral disgust—a moral and spiritual disgust that immediately caused physical disgust.  How did this happen?    


So what's wrong with a little guy talk?

The divine love dwelled in every part of me, and that love was perfectly pure, unspotted.  It could not be mixed with a radio program that was basically locker room talk: men at their most arrogant and crass, reducing women to playthings.  And since the divine love was in me, my body, my soul, convulsed in the presence of these things.  Nothing unclean can be in the presence of God because it is not of God—who is all perfection, all beauty and all majesty.  From then on I knew that I would have to surround myself with the things of God, those things that He delights in, since He calls us to his beauty and perfection.  God’s ways are not our ways, and we are often lulled into a moral and spiritual sleep.



Christ reveals his majesty and perfection during the Transfiguration

A Vision of Demons



The second experience was two days later.  I spent those days puzzling over this God who defied all of my expectations, committing who He was to memory day and night, barely sleeping or eating, but sustained by God’s love.  But over the course of those days the divine love slowly drained out of me—like a bucket with a small hole.  Finally, on the third day, the love passed, and I decided to go running late at night with my dogs at a wooded park.  Just as I arrived, an evil thought passed through my mind, and then another, and then another.  Each thought was more outrageous than the last—like a rising crescendo of evil.  I was stunned—not just by the wickedness of the thoughts—but that these thoughts clearly came from just outside of me—as if some unseen entity was subtly pushing them into my mind.  I immediately guessed that there must be something like evil spirits, and that God was allowing me to clearly distinguish their actions on me from my own thoughts.  I got out of the car and started my run—at a frantic pace—talking and shouting the whole way in praise, adoration and a desire for greater understanding.  That may seem strange, but I was excited because God had not left me an orphan—as I had feared, but He was continuing to show me more—even if it wasn’t good news.  As I ran I kept saying over and over,  “Are there demons?  There must be demons.”

Then just as I emerged from a hollow of trees into an intersection of paths and dirt roads, God answered my question.  Spread out below a large moon wrapped in smoky yellow clouds—like a scene straight out of a horror movie—a thousand or so furious demons streamed down the road toward me.  Some ran, some flew; some were husky, some thin and angular.  They looked like animal humanoids: like a thousand different failed genetic experiments.  Their skin or hides were burnt orange, dirt brown, lime green, electric red, but all ugly.  Though they looked monstrous, and though they strained to reach me as if they wanted to seize me, I was not afraid.  They were restrained at a distance of about fifty yards.  There was a kind of spiritual de-militarized zone between us, and I knew I was in God’s care—that He was showing me something under His protection.

Demons harass St. Anthony of the Desert


Someone might wonder, “Is that what demons really look like?  Has God given these pure spirits an eternal appearance as animal humanoids?”   No, I don’t believe so.  They appear that way because the point is they are grossly deformed—at war with their own angelic nature.  They were given perfect form when they were created—they were the stars of heaven: shining lights of purity, intellect, power and order.  And now they are formless in a sense, and so they usually appear like a rumpled sheet of deep blackness moving through our world.  They have lost their shining purity.  Their intellect is warped—no longer disciplined and perfectly rational—and so they often prefer a small short-term victory over us to a greater long-term advantage.  God has stripped them of most of their raw power.  He has largely neutered them, and so they rage because they have a memory of their former self.  They yearn to de-form the things of God—what God has lovingly given form to.  So they want to deform our souls, our families, our sexuality, our relationship with neighbor and the material world.  And they want to deform our holy liturgies and Church traditions.

Scott Woltze's Conversion Story, part 6 of 7: An Image of Christ



For several seconds, God had raised the veil that separates the natural and super-natural—revealing a cosmic drama that earlier ages had taken for granted, but that for me was unthinkable.  Three days before, I was not shocked that there was a God; after all, something like an angel had saved me from a car accident some months before.  And before that I had typically been a wobbly agnostic who was willing to allow for the impersonal “clockmaker god” of the Enlightenment—the god who created and set the world in motion and then simply stepped away.  Now of course I was shocked that God knew and mercifully loved me, and especially that he would reveal a small part of Himself to me, but the fact of demons—that was the greatest shock of my life.  The very first thought I had when I saw the demons was that the typical medieval farmer had a more accurate understanding of our human condition—its perils and possibilities—than all of the smartest people I’d ever known.  Modern philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, and artists had got the basic picture wrong because their eyes were fixed only on this passing world.  But those ancient prophets—scorned for their “desert religion”—they understood the beauty and danger, the staggering importance of our human choices.


St. John chose the desert over this passing world


Just as our “best and brightest” can’t fathom the infinite love, mercy and purity of God—and our invitation to share in the divine feast—so they can’t fathom the reality of evil.  A spiritual, personified evil that wars against us day and night whether we know it or not.  And make no mistake, those demons wanted to destroy me.  From the fact of demons, and the fact that God was one—a monotheistic God—and not part of a pantheon of gods, I reasoned that one of three “desert” religions, or religions that claim Abraham as their father, must be true: Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and so that ruled out the Eastern religions.  I had reasoned that if God bothered to reveal Himself to me, He certainly would have more fully revealed Himself to our ancestors over time, and preserved that revelation in some form.  After all, He wasn’t leaving me an orphan, and so why would He be an absent father throughout history?  But now which religion?  They couldn’t all be true since they each made important claims that the other would deny; particularly over the question, ‘who was Jesus?’.  With that thought I went to bed.


Looking into the Sun 


When I awoke the next morning I was exhausted.  Everything had changed in such a short time, and I just wanted to quietly sort things out.  But God had a different plan.  As I lay in bed, I was startled to find that a small, circular image obstructed my field of vision.  In the upper left corner of my line of sight, about the size of a silver dollar held twelve inches away, was the likeness of a man set against a brilliant gold backdrop.  The image was present no matter where I looked—like it was stamped inside of my mind—and it was there even when I closed my eyes.  When I focused in on the image, concentrated on it, the colors would seem to literally come alive and the man would sharpen into focus.  But when I was focused elsewhere—like driving—the image would gradually dim until it was like a colored splotch on a pair of glasses.  The man in the image was about my age, and he appeared from the waist-up dressed in a wine-colored robe.  His arms were at his side, but all you wanted to look at was the man’s face.  He had this presence—to say he was handsome would be true, but it would miss the whole point of what was to be seen here.  Just as the colors in the image were unusually alive--the wine color was an ocean of burgundy and the gold was the purest gold I had ever seen--so the man had an immense vitality that was life itself.  And yet I could never fully see his face when I focused on it.  When I switched my attention elsewhere, I was conscious of the fullness of the face, and yet when I tried to focus in on it, the mouth and the eyes were always obscured.  It was like the problem of looking into the noonday sun.  When you see the sun indirectly, you see it simply and completely there in the sky, but when you try to look directly into it, your eyes fail.



I knew the man was from the ancient Mediterranean because of his robe, his tan skin and his dark, shoulder length hair.  I thought the image was a picture, and that God was showing me that I should read or study this person.  But who was he?  God was silent on that point.  I hoped it was Socrates, Plato or Aristotle—after all, our minds want to stay with what’s comfortable and that’s what I knew.  But I immediately dismissed the thought because of the fact of demons, and the fact that the man didn’t have Socrates’ pug nose or Plato’s broad forehead.
 



I knew he must be a religious figure of some sort: Elijah, John the Baptist or even Mohammed.  Deep in my gut, I wanted it to be anybody but Jesus—even one of his disciples!  I wasn’t thinking very clearly at this point.

This aversion I had to Jesus was something new.  Usually I was just indifferent, and so it surprised me because I had never been anti-Christian for very long.  But looking back on it, I had been living in the dark for two decades, and my soul had made its home away from the bosom of God.  Now that I was being called completely out of it, my old self protested.  I’ve noticed over the years that many sudden converts have an “anybody but Jesus” reaction.  This comes from sin, from alienation—both our own and from demonic influence —and it is actually a sure sign that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.”  For if Jesus was not the truth and life, there would not be a mysterious aversion to Him—and only Him—among so many of us sudden converts.  So make no mistake, demons have an order of preference when it comes to religions, and they’ll try to lead you anywhere but Christianity—and especially Christ’s mystical body, the Catholic Church.

The image would remain in my mind for ten days.  After a few days, the persistence of the image began to weigh on me day and night.  I was distressed to have an image of a man fixed in my sight at all hours of the day.  On the one hand, I felt like I was failing God—missing a clue that was right in front of me.  On the other hand, I felt like I was being pursued without a chance of escape, like the man was staring at me, and that I was being branded or claimed in some way.  It was not a comfortable thought.  What was I to do?  In a state of desperation I focused again on the picture.  The image grew radiant as always, and then something happened.  The man’s thick hair lightly blew as if in a gentle breeze.  I couldn’t believe it.  So I looked again, and again wisps of his hair wafted in a breeze—while the air around me was still.  The thought hit me: “That’s not a picture of a man—that’s a real man.  That man’s alive!”  And it was obvious that he wasn’t simply alive in our familiar world, but that his life transcended all of our scientific categories, and that he must be alive in Heaven.  This increased my desire to know who the man was, but the truth is, I knew who He was—even if I did try to hide it from myself.  And now that I knew it was a living man looking at me, I couldn’t keep up the self-deception.  Even if I couldn’t see Him clearly, I knew He could see me clearly, and so I admitted, “It’s Jesus.  Yes, it’s Jesus.”



Looking back on it now, with the eyes of faith, much of the significance of this experience was lost on me at the time.  If I had such an experience now, I would rejoice like the disciples after He appeared to them resurrected.  But the significance of His being alive was lost on me at the time.  In a similar way, I was not comforted when I was marked by the image, nor did I understand what it meant.  But looking back on it, the Lord was in effect saying, “I have chosen you out of the world—work for my kingdom and follow me.”  Now how I wish he’d just said that!  But now that I know, it is something that I often come back to, and remind myself.  I may not be the best speaker or writer, my heart may not be His heart, I may not love as He loves, but He trusts me to do His work, and out of my weakness He will add to His Kingdom.  All of us can say that, all of us who try to follow Christ without counting the cost.