Twenty men on retreat, each with a unique experience of recovery, share their sacred stories. They begin with litanies of struggle—years in addiction, crimes and sentences, broken relationships, and paths through homelessness. They also share counter-narratives of joy—recovery measured in months, work promotions and educational achievements, reunions with loved ones, and pride in their newly acquired housing.
During tears, laughter, confessions, and joy in these stories, I find my attention drawn to a man I will call “Jerry.” Jerry reveals the crimes which led to his two stretches of incarceration: money laundering and armed robbery, auto theft and assault, along with general “drugging and dealing.” Jerry shares the conditions that surely led to his transgressions: 26 years of heroin addiction; being a victim of unimaginable trauma as a child, including sexual abuse and witnessing double homicide as a teenager; and more than a decade of homelessness. Afterwards, struggling to hold back tears, Jerry simply whispers, “I don’t know how God can forgive me for what I’ve done.”
I am dumbstruck, not with the gravity of Jerry’s missteps, but with the disbelief that anyone, especially this magnetic Jerry I am getting to know, would hesitate to trust God’s love and mercy. Yes, all of those experiences would lead anyone to a place of doubt. But Jerry’s own counter-narrative illustrates how God wants to love him into perfection—reunited with his estranged daughter as he graduates from his rehab program, three strong years of addiction recovery, being a sponsor to others, and hired by the very shelter that helped him in the past as a part-time support to others living on the street. God entered Jerry’s life in the midst of chaos and now walks with him on a path of mercy and healing. I want Jerry to know that God forgave him, and me as well, long before our missteps.
Just as the sick man at Bethesda in today’s Gospel had longed for and been prevented from the healing waters for nearly a lifetime, Jerry waited for years for a path to healing, with many things blocking his way. Like the sick man encountering Jesus, Jerry met caring people and the God of his understanding, revealing a path to healing. And Jerry will still meet so-called “better people” who will judge and protest that his recovery doesn’t follow the prescribed course, as if he were “carrying his mat on the Sabbath.” But I trust that both Jerry and I will be able to ignore those voices as we come to know more deeply how the Creator loves us closer to wholeness.
- How do I respond when others block my journey toward healing? In what ways do I stand in the way of those striving for wholeness, or how do I offer help to others on their path toward the healing waters they need?
- When I reflect on the scope of my own life experience and struggles, what helps me recognize God’s mercy working tirelessly for and with me?
- How has the God of my understanding drawn me out of chaos and closer to healing?
Jim Broderick King is a Regional Director for the Ignatian Spirituality Project, a Jesuit ministry providing spiritual retreats and companionship to people in recovery from homelessness and addiction in more than 20 cities. He recently entered this work after 29 years in Jesuit high school education and spiritual formation. He is also a spiritual director at the Ignatian Spirituality Program of Denver.