by Kevin Luksus
From my earliest memories, I recall going to Sunday Mass. Mom and Dad raised me in the Catholic faith and sent me to Catholic schools. Catholic practices were a routine part of my life. Outside of church and school, however, I didn’t think about God much.
Life had its ups and downs. Schoolwork and baseball were positives. My home life was a negative. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom likely was depressed during most of my childhood. My dad had financial problems with his business, where he worked long hours. By the time I was a teenager, I felt disconnected from my parents.
Throughout high school, I continued to do well academically but had almost no social life. For much of my high school experience, I was miserable, lonely, and felt worthless. During one dark time in my junior year, I thought about suicide. But something happened that night. I couldn’t explain why, but I suddenly felt hopeful. I knew I didn’t want to give up; that somehow there was something more. I am sure that was the Holy Spirit. From that point on, I was a bit more optimistic, although I didn’t have any reason for it. I felt like I was in a hole. I wanted to get out; I just didn’t know how.
My journey toward God started in a surprising way, and it didn’t have anything to do with church. At the end of my junior year in high school, I went to a one-month summer program at an engineering college. The program gave students experience working on cool science projects. I signed up to build a laser communication system along with another student from southern Indiana. I began to hang around with him and two other guys. The group accepted me readily. Their good sense of humor provided lots of joking around. We did have some serious conversations. That month I discovered what it was like to have people accept me for who I am. They even liked me. Those friendships helped me loosen up and develop a sense of humor.
The day we said goodbye, I cried most of the way back home. Something had changed in me. I knew there was more to life — something healthy and good — and I wanted more of it. Although I wouldn’t have put it in these words at the time, I wanted more than just to exist. I wanted to live.
I tried new things, sometimes acting crazy or goofy. I wasn’t trying to make people laugh. I was letting go and being different. But no matter what I did, the happiness I felt at the time was short-lived.
Hunger for God
Sr. Joan Marie, who taught the first semester of my senior religion class, was a little firecracker. Her great sense of humor helped her connect well with students. I remember going through Fr. John Powell’s book, A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die, and developing a hunger for God.
My high school had evening class retreats twice a year, but I had never paid any attention to them before now. A poor experience on an 8th-grade retreat left me thinking these were a waste of time. But Sr. Joan Marie asked my class to go on the senior fall retreat, and with my new-found openness, I was ready to give it a try. During the sessions, I heard other kids talk about God in their lives. We read and discussed the Scripture in a way I had never done before. The Gospel passages came alive for me.
During Reconciliation at the end of the retreat, I remember thinking, “If God is really there, then it makes sense to live 100 percent for him. But if he isn’t, I might as well just live for myself.” I wanted my life to be different, but I was afraid. The enormity of the commitment and the changes it would mean for me were just too much.
SEARCH retreat brings freedom
As January came around, I heard about a weekend retreat called SEARCH. That name fits me because I was searching. This time I was ready for something more. Of the many remarkable experiences that weekend, three, in particular, were very special.
The first came on Saturday afternoon during our free time. I went to the chapel to talk to God alone. Sitting there, I began to see that God was real. I knew that he was present with me at that moment and that he loved me very much. No matter what happened in the rest of my life, he would be there. It was the most powerful moment of my life. Then and there I decided to let go and give my heart and life to Jesus. I immediately felt at peace, but the full impact of that event was yet to come.
Later, that night, at Reconciliation, Fr. Jim Kelly took a long time with each student. When it finally came to me, the depth of all my struggle, alienation, and sin poured out. When I received absolution, I knew I was free. I WAS FREE!
I should have been tired the next day from lack of sleep, but I felt alive — and yet apprehensive. My decision meant a lot of changes were coming. I wasn’t sure if I could go through with it, especially the part about talking to my parents about what happened to me on the retreat. The leaders taped a large sheet of newsprint to the wall, and we drew as a symbol of what the retreat meant to us. I made a rising sun. I felt that I had a new start on life and from that point on I have considered it a symbol of my new life in Christ.
When I got home, I tried to talk to my parents. That didn’t go well. They didn’t understand what I was trying to say, and Mom thought I was telling them I didn’t like the way they had raised me. While that was a disappointment, I was still encouraged because I did something I thought I could never do. From that point on, I prayed and read Scripture for an hour every night. I just gobbled up God’s Word. It spoke such words of life and made so much sense in how to live — to really live.
No going back
I went to retreat follow-up meetings every other week. For the next six weeks, I experienced a tremendous peace that I had never known — like someone who had been lost for years and finally found his way home. When I would face challenging situations, I would do what I thought God wanted no matter how painful or embarrassing it was for me, because I had decided there was no going back.
Summer arrived, and the retreat meetings ended suddenly. But I wasn’t ready to quit. I still had such a thirst for God. I began to go to an evening prayer meeting at my high school. Most of the time I was the only student. Through those gatherings, I experienced a different and yet moving way of praying with others. One of the adults told me about a charismatic prayer meeting at a Catholic church in a nearby town. That was a different, but powerful, experience. I occasionally still got together with Fr. Kelly. His listening and advice were incredibly helpful.
Joyful college prayer group
I left for college at the end of the summer, not knowing anyone in my college or new city. One of the nuns in the prayer group had given me the name and address of a contact for a prayer group. I was determined not to give up.
The first day at college was busy with placement exams, but on the afternoon of the second day, I rode my bike across town to meet my prayer group contact. When I returned, I met Bill. He had his door open, and I just decided to walk in and say “hello.” When he heard where I went, he invited me to join him for a progressive dinner with the Union of Baptist Students. Why not? I went, had a good time, and made some new friends. Arriving back at school, we saw a notice from someone offering to give a ride to midnight Mass at the Catholic Student Center in town. It was my turn to invite Bill.
I discovered the celebrant was the contact for the prayer group. After Mass, Bill and I met Mary, who was hanging out in the lounge. Our motivation for talking to her wasn’t spiritual, but God used that meeting to reach my new friend, Mary. One week later she went with us to the prayer meeting. The prayer group was full of people who loved God. Their worship was full of joy.
In my sophomore year, their core group invited me to join them as a student liaison. The leaders were mature disciples, and they helped me grow. Once I struggled with a situation but told no one. A godly woman spoke a word from the Lord that I knew was for me. I knew what to do. The chain of events that followed changed my life, and God once again demonstrated his love and power.
Principles of conversion
All of this took place forty years ago, and my story continues. Reflecting on my experiences reveals several principles about conversion. First, God is the initiator, but we need to respond. Most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing, but that wasn’t important. It was doing what God set before me at the time.
Second, his Spirit aroused a hunger within me. God uses the events of life to get our attention; sometimes he speaks in a quiet voice. We should never ignore these movements or let something else take their place. Keep seeking the Lord where he may be found.
Third, when presented with opportunities to surrender to God — let go! I believe the mindset where I told myself, “I’m not turning back,” kept me making the hard choices that allowed God to work in my life.
Kevin Luksus is a Catholic parish leader, family physician, and author with over 35 years of experience in adult faith formation, youth ministry, men’s ministry, and creating guide materials for small groups. He is passionate about seeing the Catholic parish reach its potential and has developed an innovative approach to parish transformation. Additional areas of interest include parish leadership, mentoring, evangelization, discipleship, and spiritual growth. Kevin is married and stays active with a variety of hobbies including amateur astronomy, gardening, piano, sailing, and woodworking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to his website at http://parishdynamics.com.
Read more Joy Stories of conversion and renewal.