A Change of Priorities: Witness
by Anthony Keith Whitehead
Brought up an active Catholic, a number of things went wrong in life shortly after being married. Nothing to do with the relationship between my wife, Iris, and myself. But I blamed God, either directly or indirectly for what happened. Of course, blaming God for things soon turns into doubt about God, and doubt is then the second step into unbelief.
So for the next twenty-plus years I found myself without any real belief in God. I was not an atheist. I could not say that God did not exist. But I could not say that he did exist either. For all that time I was really an agnostic. But I continued going to church - just as insurance! In case he did exist. I though I would then be okay. Both a foolish and illogical position, but...
Without any belief in God my values became determined by self interest. I began studying again and then went to university for three years, to read economics. That was followed by a years Postgraduate Certificate in Education to qualify for teaching. I moved into university level teaching and worked for a Master of Philosophy, a research degree. So I became almost totally
focused on my career as an academic.
All that mattered was making a reputation, promotion, publishing learned papers, earning more money and so forth.
After a piece of prolonged research, I felt that I needed a temporary change and knocked-off for a short while. Suddenly, after years and years of having my mind preoccupied in sorting out academic problems of one sort or another, my mind was free. But all these mental problems had been rather like a hand holding a ball down below the surface of water - as soon as the downward pressure was taken off the ball shot to the surface. The "ball" was the problem of God's existence.
The problem had always been there but I had never allowed it to get in the way of all the other things to which I had given priority. In Mass one Sunday, one of the Scripture readings included Luke 11:9 where Jesus tells his disciples to: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you".
It was as if I had never heard this before. Perhaps I never really had. But then, of course, the reading went on, because Jesus added that "everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened".
It seemed to me that, if God did exist, then these promises should be worth all that they claimed. So I said to God, quite literally: "Okay, I'll take you at your word. I will seek, and ask, and knock. But if I don't find you, it will not be my fault. It will be yours, because you will not have kept your promises. So you will not be able to take me to task for not doing what you wanted".
My first problem was: how do you find God, find whether he exists or not? As a Catholic, the first thing that occurred to me was to begin going to Mass each day. I did that surreptitiously, without telling Iris. She had always had a very close relationship with God and I felt a bit self conscious about what I was trying to do.
What else? It occurred to me that I had never actually read the Bible through from one end to the other. So I decided to do just that. We were coming towards Christmas and when my two sons asked me what I wanted as a present, I told them, "A Bible". They thought it was hilarious that I should want a Bible! I suppose they did not consider me to be quite the bible-reading type. But I began reading it at night when everyone else was in bed.
I sometimes had a strange experience in the New Testament part. I would read and, although not understanding much of Paul's letters, for example, nonetheless it was as if my mind took over and began to explain to me what I was reading. How that happened, I did not know.
Two and a half years after I had begun this search Iris developed a serious illness: emphysema. Her lungs were filling with fluid and, because of other conditions, the doctors could do nothing. They gave her six weeks to live.
On the Friday of Pentecost a nun from our parish persuaded us to go to a healing service at a Catholic church about twenty miles away. We went and my wife was
instantaneously healed from the emphysema when she was prayed over by the parish priest, Fr Lenard May. She "fell in the Spirit" and was down for about half-an-hour. It was as if all the excess fluid in her body was evaporated away for, when she got up, one could see a damp outline of her body on the floor around where she had lain. Our doctor was staggered by the event: it subsequently led to his own conversion.
It was an amazing event, but it was not my own personal experience and did not change my agnosticism. But it did something, and we continued going down to this church every Friday evenings (as it turned out, for the next five years or so without missing once).
A few weeks later I saw a five day conference advertised for August on the church notice board. Much against her better
judgment, because she felt we were not ready for a full five days of praise and tongues and all that went along with it, I persuaded Iris that we should book.
The conference turned out to be interesting and entertaining but by Wednesday we were both somewhat disappointed. We had both gone with our own very specific questions. Iris was asking the Lord what the meaning and relevance of this outpouring of spiritual gifts was about; and I was still asking if there was a God. Halfway through, neither of us seemed to be getting any answers.
But that afternoon was given over to the youth - a prospect which did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm. So I groaned inwardly and slid down in my seat when one of the two youths who were to speak fell up the steps to the stage. Which of a thousand better places could I have been at?
But the answer to that was soon apparent: no better place existed for me at that time.
I was completely stunned at the witness these two lads gave as to how God worked in their lives. It had never occurred to me that God would ever use any "ordinary" person in this kind of way. Then, towards the end of their witness, I felt something almost physical sweep over me from the two young men on the stage. I can only describe it as waves of sanctity, washing over me again and again. I went out of the hall in tears, hanging on to Iris' arm because I could not see where I was going.
The period from there up to the healing Mass on Thursday evening passed pleasantly enough. When the prayers for healing began, there was an immense sense of the power of the Spirit present and some people were "falling in the Spirit" even before they got to be prayed with. I joined the queue in the isle and when I was prayed over... experienced absolutely nothing! I felt deeply disappointed, but it was some years before I could admit to myself that I also felt jealous of what these others were receiving and I was not. And that let Satan in, albeit without my realising it, for I went to bed with just a sense of unease, yet sure it would be gone by morning. But it was not.
When I arose, it was still there and quickly became a deep, black despair. It was so black that, as I realised afterwards, the depression could not be natural. It stayed all through the two hours of praise during which I sat like the proverbial lump of stone. We then went into the chapel for the final mass. I remained in utter dejection. I had gone there looking for God and was now, so it seemed, further away from him than ever. I felt that I had to do something, make some effort at entering into the praise when the Mass began.
I steeled myself for a superhuman attempt and as soon as the entrance hymn began, made the effort. But the effort was taken from me as soon as I made it, for it was as if someone lifted me onto my feet and my hands went up in the air. The great weight of depression fell away, just like a cloak falling from my shoulders, and I was praising God.
Then, it was as if I stood before God. Though without seeing him, he was, as it were, about twelve or so feet in front of me. The Holy Spirit. His love drenched and saturated me, quite literally, and it flowed out to others for days afterwards It was indescribable. All that everyone had ever said about the purity of that love, its infinity, it all-encompassing nature, its complete endlessness was all so totally inadequate.
It changed my life completely, as it had changed so many lives before. And not one of those people could ever tell another what that love is actually like.
About The Author
A K Whitehead
Web Site: www.christianword.co.uk
Experience: Over twenty years in Christian healing and teaching. Qualifications: B.A., M.Phil., Camb Univ Cert in Religious Studies
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