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I Met God In Florida
By: Bonnie B. Hayes

I remember a specific time in my life, not all that long ago, when I teetered precariously on the edge of atheism. I was newly married to my husband Bill and living in Lynn Haven, Florida. Soon after moving there from my home state, New Jersey, I grew to hate the place. I had practically no friends or family, I missed not having a snowy winter, and I quickly realized that there just wasn't the great selection of food--particularly Italian and Chinese--that I was spoiled with in the tri-state area. Florida was easy to hate, but apart from my complaints I'm so grateful that I was given the experience of going there. That's where I met God.

The saying "it's always darkest before dawn" proved true in my case. When I was fourteen, I renounced my childhood faith in Roman Catholicism. It started when I became involved with a charismatic, non-denominational youth group affiliated with The Church of Grace and Peace. I was young and impressionable, so when my friends asked me if I ever prayed the Jesus prayer and I replied "no" they informed me I wasn't saved and I believed them. Immediately, I said the prayer and began going to the youth group. My involvement with the group was a whirlwind of bible study, praise songs, and door-to-door evangelization. My fervor didn't last long. A few months I was gung-ho, but then I became disillusioned by all of the hypocrisy I saw in my fellow group members. They preached well and acted just so in the group and at church, but the rest of the time they acted like ordinary kids in school and out. I saw a double standard and decided Christianity as a whole was a farce. That was when my older sister, Jen, introduced me to Wicca, Neopaganism, and the New Age Movement. All that she told me and all that I read about it thereafter sounded too good to be true. In fact, it was too good to be true, but I didn't accept that until I was twenty-two years old.

So from the age of fourteen to twenty-two, I became completely absorbed in all things related to the occult. I was a quick study and called a "natural" at many of the practices. I read tarot cards, palms, runes and pendulums. I spent a great deal of money gathering gem stones, metals, candles, incense, herbs, and oils with supposed magical properties to them. I couldn't read enough books that taught me how to empower myself, to embrace the greatness of my femaleness by claiming my inner goddess, to cast spells, to control and interpret my dreams, to meditate and visualize an array of things, and so on and so forth.

I soaked every lesson up like a sponge, all the while hiding it from my Baptist father and devout Catholic mother. It was a great strain hiding my new "faith" from Christians. I resented the fact that they couldn't or wouldn't understand the spiritual path of another. It didn't take long for me to become anti-Christian in sentiment. They were self-righteous hypocrites, intolerant and sexist blind followers in my eyes. I pitied and despised them for their ignorance and judgmental ways. I later found out that I shared these sentiments with a great many others involved with the New Age Movement. The strange thing was that despite my feelings, I fell in love with a Christian. I never believed that would happen until I met Bill. We met in school and were the typical high school sweethearts. He was the only Christian I could stand and the reason for it was that he was not an outwardly spiritual person. He had a quiet, deep, and abiding faith. Most of all, he never blatantly tried to convert me. Instead, he engaged me in peaceful, thoughtful conversation. The results had an impact on me, nonetheless. He was definitely a factor in my reversion. I remember one talk we had concerning our feelings toward our deities, at that time mine was "The Goddess." He told me flat out that he loved God so much that he would die for Him if it was required of him. I thought that was both admirable and ridiculous. My thinking was what kind of God would make you die for Him? I completely thought the Christian God was an egomaniac and a masochist. Then Bill hit me with a question that knocked me for a loop. He asked me, do you love your goddess? Would you die for her? As much as I wanted to say yes, my mind first answered NO! My verbal answer to Bill was a cop-out, I simply said I don't know. I went on to say that it didn't really matter, anyhow. She would never require it of me. He quietly replied to me that I should find out how I really feel about her. Deep down, I knew how I felt about her; she was like my personal genie who was there to give me power and whatever else I wanted. Still, I don't think I admitted that, even to myself, until a few years later.

My high school years seem dark to recall, but in truth they were the twilight of my journey. In any case, those years were very hard for me and no matter how much I thought the occult built me up, it was slowly tearing me apart instead. I suffered from long bouts of depression and spiritual confusion. Terrible nightmares, stress, and anxiety plagued me and eventually gave way to insomnia. I was a mess. During the day, I regularly went through outrageous mood-swings. At night, I tossed and turned in bed while deep questions about the divine raced about in my mind. The mood-swings were so bad that Bill dumped me. He said I was never happy, that he never knew how I'd react to anything. He even made a comment about me acting like I had multiple personalities. I tried to get myself together then and Bill came back to me on the condition that I work on my behavior. I started practicing yoga and even mixed some Buddhist practices (meditation and chanting) into my very eclectic New Age menu. It certainly wasn't the cure all for my problems, but my new spiritual regime did help me gain a semblance of self control and relaxation.

I sort of floated along, repressing my inner issues, after graduating high school. I worked as a nursing assistant while taking courses in massage therapy for the following two years while Bill took courses in auto and marine mechanics. My massage training bolstered my New Age faith. The class had many extra homeopathic aspects to study. We meditated on and visualized healing energy; we learned about shiatsu, acupressure, reiki, aromatherapy, etc. I thought it was all wonderful and reaffirming. In my second year, Bill proposed to me. Four months after completing my training, on September 11, 1999, Bill and I were married in a quaint pavilion looking out on a beach of the Atlantic ocean. There was a little trouble finding a minister. We got turned down by the first one we were interviewed by. It was at a Baptist church. The pastor concluded that we would be unequally yoked due to my resistance against believing in eternal security. He was adamant that I believe in accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and knowing I am saved by faith alone from there after. That turned out to be a fiasco. We got into a debate, while poor Bill sat their looking completely unnerved. I couldn't in good conscience submit to the idea that if one doesn't actually try to live their faith that they can still get into Heaven just because they said the Jesus prayer at some point in their life. It was painfully clear to me that such a belief proved to be the shallowest of faiths. It is basically saying accept Jesus in your heart for that moment and don't worry about the rest. Even as a Neopagan, I believed that philosophy was cheating Jesus out of some true devotion. At the same time, in my typical cynicism I thought no wonder so many people buy into this. There's no accountability after you "get saved." Other Christians would argue that their eternal rewards would be less due to their less-than-charitable actions. I only saw that as some fancy footwork dancing around the issue. Heaven is the main reward they're all seeking, right? So, after we got turned down, we lucked out by finding a pastor who happened to be a friend of Bill's family.

About a week later we were on our way to Florida. We chose to move to Florida for a few reasons. Bill's father lives there and could help him get a decent job with Ford. Also, it's generally cheaper to live there compared to New Jersey. Plus, we felt that it would be good to get away from everything while we were just starting out on our own. If my teens were the twilight, then this was the dark, but not yet the darkest before dawn. Soon after settling down in Florida, we bought a computer. The Internet opened up so much for my spiritual beliefs. Unless you find a nearby coven or Neopagan community, you'll find yourself starving for fellowship. It's not like Christian church shopping, for Neopagans it's more like a covert operation trying to find others like you. That was me for years. I was lonely, especially since my sister Jen was back in New Jersey. She had been pretty much the only other person in my life on a regular basis that shared my beliefs. The Internet immediately fixed that problem. I hung out in AOL's pagan chatrooms and eventually I created a cyber coven community through Yahoo's mailing lists that boasted about fifty active members. The site was jam-packed with New Age information, daily updates and tidbits, an assortment of related links, wavs, polls, and the topper was we had our own private chatroom in which we'd schedule chats for fellowship and specific topics of discussion. I became somewhat of a New Age guru and counselor and Reiki Practitioner to my members. I loved offering advice and training when it came to the occult. I thought I was making an impact on people while furthering the liberation of Neopagans and New Agers. I was also out to convert Christians, I wanted to show them the error of their ways! I would search for Christians to debate online and set out to plant the seeds of doubt with my oh-so-logical arguments.

What came next was the darker phase. After the initial invigorating months of shepherding my own flock (so to speak) I began to see problems with my belief system. The main thing was that there was no system. It was a make it up as you go along philosophy that I had been sucked into of my own free will. In the beginning, that was a very alluring aspect, but later it began to feel like the blind leading the blind. What it ultimately came down to was the truth. I wanted to know The Truth. I flirted briefly with subjective truth and morality and quickly discarded it. I saw that it could only lead to anarchy and individualism, there could never be peace or unity. It was plain to see in many of the different New Age chatrooms. Everyone had different gods/goddesses or just believed in their own divinity, they had different rituals and spells, they had different morals and politics. As far as I could see, aside from some forms of divination and their mutual anti-Christian attitude, they had no common ground. It was everyone for themselves. As much as I would have enjoyed believing myself to be divine, I knew I didn't create the universe and I really doubted that whoever was divine depended on my subjective beliefs. It came to the point where I knew that if there was a god or goddess, then he or she must've had some kind of plan for the universe he or she created. I didn't think anarchy and selfish pleasure were worthy enough to entertain as the outcome of a divine plan. At least, not from a benevolent deity.

This is when the darkest before dawn comes into play. Nothing, not even nightmares and anxiety attacks, could compare to the spiritual desert I found myself wandering lost in. I was desperate to find God, I was desperate to find The Truth. In my utter confusion, I began to read about any and every religion or cult I could think of. When I couldn't find any satisfactory answers, I went back and began to pick apart the bible, particularly the New Testament. Mostly, I was looking for loopholes so I could once and for all time disprove Christianity. The thorn in my side. I guess my search became more important than my anti-Christian fever because sometime during all of this I prayed the most pitiful prayer. It was the prayer of an almost-atheist. I was just about to give up on God even though I didn't want to. I was just so dejected, I couldn't take the confusion and all the unanswered questions anymore. So my prayer went something like this:

Dear God,

I don't know if your out there and I don't know your name. I think you're there somewhere, but I don't know where to look. I can't go on like this. I'm so lost I don't know which way is up or down. Please show me who you are, show me the truth. I don't care where I find you as long as I find you somewhere. If I don't find you soon, I'm gonna have to give up. Please, show me soon!

Well, He showed me. I suppose some might think I "found God" out of desperation alone, but after that prayer my desperation ended. I was resolved to wait and see if I got my answer. It's said that you aren't to put God to the test, but my prayer was not a test in my mind. It was the last straw. I flat out said I can't take anymore, show me one way or another and that's what I'll believe. Then the most amazing thing happened. I was doing my usual reading of all different spiritual writings, but when I would go to the bible I started to see scriptures in a new light. I would see verses I had read before but this time they seemed to hold different meaning. Things started to make sense and they began to reach into me. I paid a lot of attention to the Gospels, pondering Jesus' words. It was like a fog dispersed from my mind and I had to wonder why I ignored Jesus for so long. I couldn't find anything He said that I disagreed with. That's not to say that all of my questions were answered then and there, but I slowly began to feel that I did in fact find The Truth.

I was now in the light, however, there were many obstacles ahead of me. The next big question was which church is the right church? It was a small set back, I'll admit it. To come so far and then have to deal with this new question was daunting. Still, I feel lucky to have had some experience with both Catholics and Protestants from my parents. I had been raised Catholic and even went to a Catholic school for five years, though I'll admit that my childhood faith was pure faith with precious little understanding. How I longed for that simple and complete faith again, but I didn't want to find truth and then discard it for a twisted version. So, my next step was to compare the various Protestant teachings to the Catholic ones. I still held to not believing in eternal security and plain old logic told me that sola fide and sola scriptura were not enough. None of these three major topics are really supported by scripture when honestly studied. I knew from the start that the key to knowing this revolved around knowing who or what was the authority on the matter. And let's face it, the bible did not put itself together. Sola Fide in and of itself is a paradox. For true faith doesn't ever stand alone, it comes hand-in-hand with grace and works. Knowing this was helpful in my comparisons. I had an advantage over these issues that many Protestant converts to Catholicism really struggle with. With those big issues in mind, I decided I better see what exactly the Catholic church had to say about them. I was fascinated with the answers. We were in complete agreement. Then I tackled the other issues. Mary, Saints, The Sacraments, Apostolic Succession, Infallibility, Morality, Faith and Works, Purgatory, etc.

Mary and the Saints turned out to be a bigger problem than I first realized. Not because of some scripture or some thought that they are trying to steal God's glory. In truth, my mind had no trouble at all with Mary and the Saints. My mind gladly accepted the beautiful teachings of the Church about these awesome people. My problem went deeper than my mind. I came to the realization that my very essence, my soul, had been so traumatized by nearly a decade of rebellion against God within the occult that I was bothered by the idea of paying attention to anyone but God. Especially Mary, since she was a key player and a female which just reminded me too much of my idolizing "The Goddess." I had abandoned God for too long and I wanted to make up for it with my full attention. Like I said, my reasoning knew better. I knew that Mary and the Saints lead always to God, point always to God. Still, for a time, I had trouble actually allowing them into my faith. Slowly and surely, my soul has been healing and I've found that admiring and leaning on God's faithful family is just one of the countless, graceful ways God has provided a support system for growing in the faith and drawing closer to Him. If I've learned anything, it is that God is a family man!

With wonder and joy, my mind, my heart, and my soul found the answers they sought in the Roman Catholic Church. All of my issues with Church teaching have been resolved. I could give all the answers I found and make this a fine apologetics piece, but I'm afraid I'd end up writing a full book (and someday I just might at that) instead of my faith story. I've learned so much I wouldn't ever be able to finish this if I put in everything. As it is, I've had to skim over many events just to keep this readable.

I would like to thank Dave Armstrong for his website Biblical Evidence For Catholicism. This website helped me to understand the Catholic faith better and to overcome my reticence on some issues. I am indebted to Dave for providing me with so much wonderful information. I would also like to thank Scott Hahn for his brilliant writings such as The Lambs Supper, Rome Sweet Home, and an article I found online showing the connection between Passover and the Eucharist and our Lord's passion and sacrifice. Forgive me for that clumsily worded sentence. I would also like to thank my mom and my aunt, who I know were both praying for me during that difficult time even when they didn't know just how deep my problem was. Lastly, I would like to thank my husband, my son, and my God. Bill stood by me patiently and constantly without pushing but being an excellent witness to Christ. I was happy to return the favor by introducing Bill to the Church, he will be beginning RCIA soon. My son Willie, who came later, has managed to give me new insight into the parental role of God and so I thank both my son and God for this exquisite gift.

I still mourn for my uncomplicated childhood faith, but I now treasure my understanding of it. I ran the race as if I were chasing my tail by running around in circles, leaving home only to return. That's why I am grateful for moving to Florida that year. I truly needed to go into that darkness away from all family influence to learn the truth for myself. Doing so, I ran back to New Jersey and to the Church. I, too, have journeyed home to Rome and there I've found the peace that surpasses all understanding.

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