COMING BACK HOME
By Billy Gillespie
Life was good. Or so I thought. I was living in New York City on the upper Westside with my new bride, and working as an actor. Maybe you have seen one of my award winning performances: Dunking my face into a bowl of baked beans, singing into a chunk of Velveeta cheese, talking with a mouth full of cookies, or maybe as the bright neon orange and green live version the very popular toy at the time, “Big Frank.” As well as in film, TV shows, theatre, and something very dear to me, Third Rail Comedy, the sketch comedy group I was a founding member of. One of our reviews at the time said we were “rude, crude and lewd.” We considered that a badge of honor. I was auditioning or filming during the day and performing sketch comedy in clubs at night. Yes, life was good. But let me back up a bit.
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised Catholic. We went to Mass every Sunday and on holy days, and fasted from meat on Fridays. This fasting thing was not good for me. See, I hated fish at the time and I dreaded the Fridays when we had tuna fish casserole. I attended Catholic school for six years. I can remember when I was about eight, sitting in a dark auditorium at school with my mom and dad watching my older sister and younger brother in the school Christmas play. She was a candy cane and he was an elf. And while gazing up at their brilliant performance on stage I remember thinking, I would never, ever want to be on a stage in front of people.
I was an extremely shy and introverted child. It is nothing less than ironic that I wound up an actor. But that is another story. By this time, our family moved to Florida. In seventh and eighth grade, I attended weekly catechism classes while in public school. And I was an altar boy. My mom and dad, brother and two sisters and I were by all accounts a Catholic family. Looking back, I remember it all fondly and feel quite fortunate to have had a faith centered family. But in my early teen years, seeing kids in the neighborhood playing and having fun while I had to get dressed up and head to church began to be a real drag.
I began to realize that I went to Mass because that is what we did on Sunday, not because I wanted to go. My faith was not something I believed, but something I went along with. I began to wonder if what went on during Mass was real and true or just made up rituals and stories. I made half-hearted attempts to read the Bible, but found it all rather boring and hard to comprehend. I did not take the time or effort to investigate further.
So, like any good son, I just went along without complaint. Okay, maybe a little complaining, but inside I knew it would never really get very far. The more I went to Mass, the less sense it made to me. I mean, who is this God? This bearded man I imagined in my youth. I found it a challenge to grasp the concept of Who or what was God. If He was not an old man in the clouds, Who was He? I thought that if I could just get a picture of what God looks like in my mind, then I would be able to understand. But that image never materialized. Instead, my frustration grew and my doubt multiplied.
While at college, I moved out on my own and that is when the drifting really began. On weekends while at home, I would attend Mass. But for one reason or another I would not make it to church on many Sundays. There were times that I would make an attempt to seek out a Catholic church close by the college, but never followed through on showing up on Sunday. There was always an urge inside me that wanted to seek out God, to go to Mass, but I tried my best to ignore that feeling, thinking that it was just a habit from always going to Mass with my family in my youth. I also allowed negative news in newspapers or television about the Catholic Church to put a deeper wedge between me and my faith.
I thought that if the Catholic Church did not satisfy me, maybe a non-Catholic church or another religion might be a better fit for me. I tried non-denominational Christian churches, unity churches, found my way to a few different Buddhist temples and a Baptist church, but none of them satisfied me. So I decided to ignore that urge and enjoy college life. One thing for sure, I was spiritually adrift.
After graduating college as a newly minted theatre major, I began auditioning at professional theaters in the area. The local theater scene was coming into its own and I found a nice fit with a theater company and enjoyed performing in a number of productions.
One day, after a morning rehearsal for a play I was performing in, I joined my family in the hospital waiting room where my mom was having surgery. As we sat awaiting word on my mother’s outcome, I scanned the room and at the other end, I noticed a familiar face. A very attractive girl that I had gone to high school with, but never said hello to because I was very shy. As I was deciding whether to say hello or not, her aunt spoke up and said, “I think she knows you.” Two years later, Dede became my wife.
After meeting with some success locally with my acting, we decided to take a bite out of the Big Apple. That first year in New York City was an exhilarating and frightening time. What a rush for me it was walking the streets of Manhattan going from audition to audition! After about six months of beating the streets, I began booking commercials. I did thank God for my new found success, but did not bother to follow that urge inside me to attend Mass. On the surface, exploring what this island metropolis had to offer, with my wife, made that first year even more exciting. I began living the dream of every actor: Working only as an actor. And in New York City no less!
Then, without warning, my wife began experiencing neurological issues. After consulting with a neurologist and undergoing many medical tests, it was discovered that she had Lyme disease. A tic-borne illness which mimics multiple sclerosis and at that time was rather rare. There was controversy on the best protocol to effectively treat this illness. After two years of treatment with a doctor who was very knowledgeable with the disease and whom we both trusted, she was symptom-free. About a year later, our son was born.
As any new parent can attest, those first few months were joy-filled exhaustion. Bringing new life into this world, learning how to be a parent, hoping you do it “correctly,” whatever that is. I was smitten. That little guy filled me with a type of love I had never experienced. How I am going to guide and teach him was a constant thought in my mind as I would gaze at him asleep in my arms. One thing I knew for sure was to give him as much love as humanly possible. At my mother’s insistence, our son was baptized into the Catholic Church. That first year with our son was a blast and a blur working and enjoying our new family.
After our son’s first birthday, my wife’s health declined dramatically. Vertigo, exhaustion, difficulty walking, and temporary partial blindness filled her with fear. After many tests with her neurologist, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. We were devastated to say the least. After the initial shock of the diagnosis, with my wife’s positive attitude and constant smile, we began to find our way with this new wrinkle in our life.
Vaguely familiar with the disease and with the doctors saying symptoms are different for everyone, I began to research and learn all I could about this thing called MS. At that time, I felt invincible. I did not need anyone’s help, I could do it all: Assist my wife, care for my son, work, and so on. There was no thought of going to Mass, asking for or needing God’s help. I could do it all. And I did. For a while.
As an actor, there is time during the day between auditions that I could take care of our son, assist my wife, grocery shop, and do whatever else came up. I had tons of energy and relished the fact that I could do all that I did. I would get my wife and son situated, then go and audition or film, then come home and do what needed to be done. Then, I was off again. A few evenings a week I would rehearse or perform with my sketch comedy group at clubs around New York City. At times it seemed like I was always in motion. Living in New York City was convenient in that everything was a train, bus, or cab ride away.
About the time our son was two, the urge inside of me of going back to church was getting harder to suppress. I began to think that maybe we should go to Mass as a family because that is what I did growing up. So we began our half-hearted attempts of attending Mass. We were often late, I was easily distracted by my son who could not sit still for a second, and many Sundays we could easily talk ourselves out of going to Mass for one bad excuse or another. But, even through the distractions and excuses, that urge was ever present in my heart.
There were periods of time when my wife was almost symptom-free and could get around and have a “normal” life, which we did our best to enjoy to the fullest. As time went on, however, walking became more of a challenge for her and getting around proved more difficult. And that began to put a strain on both of us.
As time passed, I realized that life in New York City would become a major challenge for my wife because to her diminishing mobility. So we decided to relocate to California. Settling in the valley just over the hill from Hollywood, it had everything that we were looking for: Lots of space for my son to play, easier for my wife to navigate, and opportunities for acting work. After a time, we became acclimated to our new area, not to mention that we loved the weather.
I cannot remember how, but I found a church nearby that we would attend on occasion. When we attended, I found myself sitting in the pew questioning many things about the Catholic faith and the Mass. Why Mass? I mean, is all that takes place in the Mass necessary? At times I would be half asleep. I would complain to myself that the readers are boring or that the priest is boring. Does he really believe what he is saying? Other times I found myself getting very angry during homilies. So much so that I would get up and walk out of the church in a huff.
I was not happy. I did not quite realize it at that moment, but somewhere along the way, I developed an attitude that someone else was to blame for whatever was going wrong in my life. Impatience, frustration, anger, and many other emotions churned in my mind as more responsibilities began to pile up and I was becoming more resentful of my circumstance. My focus shifted from what I can do for my wife to, look at all this stuff I have to do for my wife.
Through the anger and frustration, I still had that urge inside pulling me to Mass. When my son was in kindergarten, I began to think if I should have him go through the sacraments, reconciliation and first Holy Communion being the first two. I really struggled with this decision. I mean, I was struggling with my faith or lack thereof, so why push him into something that I had many questions with? After much thought, I decided that I would have him go through the sacraments and when he finished confirmation, he could decide for himself if he wanted to continue.
After signing up for the Sunday morning class, I found out that the Holy Communion/Reconciliation class is a two year process and on top of that, parents had to “volunteer” two times in the class. And if that was not bad enough, the class began at 9AM on Sunday. I struggled making it to Mass at 10AM! Oh great, I thought. My plan was to “volunteer” the first two classes and get the obligation over with quickly, then I would not have to deal with it for the rest of the year.
My plan worked, sort of. I attended the first class with a few other parents and our job was to help keep the kids focused. A bit of a challenge, because there were thirty some kids packed in that classroom. I do enjoy children, so interacting with them and doing my best to keep them focused was a fun challenge. And something else began to happen, I found myself listening to what the instructor was saying. I remembered the Bible lesson she was teaching the kids from when I went to Catholic school, but somehow it felt like I was hearing it in a new way. I felt drawn to all she was saying. I went back the next Sunday and again, found myself listening intently to everything this catechist had to say.
My “volunteer” obligation fulfilled, I went back week after week to help out and get reacquainted with the faith in which I was raised. I ended up helping out the two years of required classes for Reconciliation/First Holy Communion. I actually looked forward to those classes. I was very happy for my son, but still very confused and had many doubts about my faith, the Church and if it was real and true. But that feeling inside of me, that urge, would not let go. I decided that if my son was to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, which was a two year program for ninth and tenth grade, then he should continue with the non-required catechism classes third through eighth grade. Even though I had my doubts, I felt that to give my son a fair shot of knowing the faith, he should have the benefit of those classes which coincided with a typical school year.
So, we continued our routine of my son going to catechism class on Sunday, then we attended Mass right after. We would take our position in the pew about three quarters of the way back of the church, sometimes further back but never closer. I suppose it felt safer back there, like the priest could not see that far back and we could get lost in the crowd. I doubted almost everything I knew about the Catholic Church. Does the bread and wine really transform into the body and blood of Christ? Was Mary really a virgin? And even more unbelievable to me—did Jesus really resurrect from the dead? Now come on, really? Week after week I would ask myself those questions and more. Is all that takes place in the Mass necessary? I would say to myself, “there has got to be more to this (the Mass) than just this (what I am seeing).”
After about five years of asking the same questions wondering if there was more to the Mass than what I am seeing…it happened.
There I was, in the pew with my wife and son, I am slouching, half asleep, and mind wandering when I began to feel an odd sensation in my chest. I began to feel a warmth, a heat in the center of my chest. I sat up, I looked around to see if anyone else might be feeling what I was feeling. In a matter of moments this heat intensified and my chest felt as if it was opening and this heat turned into an intense fire, burning in my chest. An incredible fire with the most amazing indescribable feeling of love. A love so intense, so beautiful, so unconditional just flowing from my chest along with this intense burning fire. I began saying to myself, “I get this, I get this, I get this,” but I did not know what I was getting. Then, in my mind I could see curtains opening. Curtain after curtain, one after another opening, deeper and deeper in my mind. Then, every question every doubt I had about the Catholic faith, about the Mass, about Mary, about, about everything—it was answered at once. YES! It is all true. It is all real.
As I was sitting there, having this life altering experience, I was unsure what to do next. I just had every doubt and question about my Catholic faith that I ever had, answered in an instant. I am sitting there, with my chest open with a roaring, surging fire ablaze with the most incredible feeling of love that I ever experienced and I am thinking, what do I do now? Should I walk up the aisle and stop the priest during Mass and tell him what is happening to me? Should I stand up and shout with joy of my experience? I wanted to, but thought the people would think I was a lunatic. So, I just sat there, trying to comprehend what was happening to me.
After Mass I did not say anything to anyone, not even my wife. I just was not sure what to make of this fiery love burning inside of me. It was with me the whole week and I could not wait to get back to church the next Sunday to see what was going to happen next.
Upon entering the church, I felt an instant connection in my chest, almost like I was being plugged back in. Although I had the fire ablaze in me throughout the week, it felt like this is where I needed to be. The church. Week after week it continued and I found myself moving up a pew or two every week. After about four weeks, we were sitting in the front pew and all I could say in my mind as this fire of love burned in my chest was, “How do I get there?” The tabernacle. I just wanted to be as close to the Holy Eucharist as humanly possible.
As I write this, I cannot help but think of the angels and saints desiring to be near and praising Jesus at the tabernacles in Catholic churches around the world. Oh to be near You Jesus, oh to love You, stripped of ego and all pretense!
Now, as challenging as this story would have been for me to believe if someone told me this over ten years ago, this part of the story would have been even harder to accept. As we sat in the front pew each week, a word or a phrase from a song, a reading, the homily, basically anything that was uttered or sung during the service, whatever the Holy Spirit needed me to think about, that word or phrase would burn in fire in front of me. Yes, I know, that is hard to believe. It took me a couple weeks to realize that this was really happening to me. Each week, I was not expecting, just accepting of what was unfolding to me and taking in all that was offered. This continued for about eight weeks. The fire and feeling of love in my chest stayed with me for several months, then slowly it began to dissipate with time. But to this day, almost every time I enter a Catholic church I feel that connection and a bit of the heat in my chest.
I have been asked, “Why did you get to have this experience?” My smart alec answer is, because I am super-duper special. But in reality, to God, we are all super-duper special. I honestly do not know the answer. It may be a combination of reasons. I was so determined to know what was going on in the Mass. Not just what we could see but, all that we cannot see. The spiritual, mystical, unseen aspect of the Mass. I just kept asking over and over and over again. Week after week, month after month, year after year, “There has got to be more to this (the Mass) than just this (what I’m seeing).” And on that day, God answered me. Maybe He was so tired of me asking that He finally said, “Stop your whining, here’s your answer.” For whatever reason, I am thankful. That gift brought me back to the fullness of the faith in a huge way. I am a full participant in the Mass, searching and opening myself to an ever deepening understanding of my Catholic faith. I expect to always be discovering more of this incredible Church that Jesus founded and handed over to Saint Peter, the first pope all the way through to Pope Francis.
As my son continued through the CRE program at church, each week I would sit outside of the confirmation classes. I would peek in the classrooms as I walked by and would become distressed at what I was seeing. Teens looking like they were half asleep, ignoring the teacher. In another classroom, the kids were clowning around with one another not even paying attention to the teacher. Each week the same thing. I would sit at the benches and think, oh no, when these kids get confirmed, they are never going to come back to church! Someone has got to do something. I began getting the urge to tell these kids my story, so that maybe they would understand how important their Catholic faith is. Each week I would think the same thing but resisted that urge inside of me.
Okay, yes I know, I am slow at understanding that God is speaking to me. It eventually clicked that I had to tell them my story. A friend introduced me to the director of religious education. The next year, I was teaching one of the confirmation classes and in the first class of each group of teens, I tell them my story. I have been a confirmation catechist for the past nine years and I continue to grow in passion about my faith and seeing the kids respond in a positive way to my story and classes is truly a blessing to me and I trust, a blessing to them. All thanks to God!
And yes, I am following the urging (yea I know, what took me so long?) to share my story through this story in the quest to help more and more people grow in their faith, come back to their Catholic faith or come into the Catholic Church. As the song says, “all are welcome in this place.”
© BILLY GILLESPIE (www.RedemptionStreet.net) is an Actor, Catholic Speaker, and Confirmation Catechist residing in Los Angeles, California.