‘Am I blacking out?!’ I couldn’t tell if I was having an asthma attack or just hyperventilating, or maybe I was having a heart attack. Regardless, I was losing control. I learned the next day that I had experienced my first panic attack, and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. It was both the lowest and most transformative moment of my life.
How did I get there? Well, after having all of what I thought were my close relationships decimated, avoiding church for several months at a time, and inadvertently isolating myself from my family and the people that care about me, I threw myself into my schoolwork; or so I thought, until I was informed that my grades had gotten so low, I was likely to lose my scholarship. It was the final straw. I had never really had trouble with school before.
I felt like I had lost everything and it crushed me. With nothing else to do and in need of a distraction, I decided to go to a church where I didn’t know anyone. It was the first time I had set foot in church in what was almost 6 months. I sat in my seat, tears streaming down my face, listening to my own story, as told through that of Onesimus. Onesimus was a servant of Philemon in Colossae, who, after robbing his master, decided to run away. After a 1200 mile trip, tired, broke, and hungry, he found himself in the home of St. Paul who, at the time, was under house arrest in Rome. Paul preached to him about the unconditional and overreaching love of Christ. Onesimus developed a close friendship with Paul and, more importantly, began his transformation in Christ. St. Paul goes on to write the epistle to Philemon, begging him to take Onesimus back, as opposed to punishing him for his disobedience. The punishment at the time for a fugitive slave was death. Despite his reservations and fear of death, Onesimus obeyed St. Paul’s instruction and returned home where Philemon accepted him as one of his own. Onesimus went on to become a bishop in the church.
In that moment, I realized that in addition to distancing myself from my family and friends, I had distanced myself from Christ through my own sin and anger. I knew my first step had to be confession. As I reluctantly waited for the person ahead of me to finish talking with Abouna, I kept telling myself that if Onesimus can face death to own up to his mistakes, I can talk to Abouna for 20 minutes. Besides, he’s probably heard it all any way, right?
As I opened my mouth to begin speaking, tears streamed down my face. I rattled off what I needed to say as fast as I could and braced for impact. “I’m so proud of you”, he whispered. My confusion was unreal. In case he had forgotten, I told Abouna that some of these things were unforgivable! I learned two very important things here.
One: the difference between holy guilt and shame. Holy guilt is what leads us to repentance. It pushes us to acknowledge our wrongs, do what we can to fix them, take them to confession, and then leave them there.
Shame is a different kind of monster. Shame traps us in our mistakes and convinces us that there is no forgiveness for what we’ve done. Shame attempts to hide us from the Love of our Father. It is one of Satan’s simplest traps, masked as humbleness and repentance. It is neither of those things.
Two: To say that something is unforgivable is to say that the sacrifice of Christ was not enough. This was such a profound statement to me. Imagine how much it must hurt God to hear us say that the sacrifice of His Son was not enough, especially when it’s so far from the truth.
There is no sin greater than the sacrifice of Christ.
As time went on, grades fixed, and reparations made, there were more lessons to be had.
Not only was my low point a chance for God to call me back to Him, it was an opportunity for Him to weed out the things that were not a benefit to me. They say you become like the five people you hang out with most. Look for those that elevate and edify you. The removal of those that were a hindrance to me made room for some of the best people and biggest blessings in my life. These are the people that push me to excellence in every aspect of my life. The standard for those I allow myself to grow close to has elevated.
Finally, there is no where we can go where Christ’s love can’t find us. His love for us is unwavering and indiscriminate. That’s not to say we’ll get to bypass our earthly circumstances or be excused from the consequences of our actions, but there is so much freedom to be had when we remember that regardless of our condition, we are loved by the ultimate Comforter, the Prince of Peace Himself. All we have to do is accept it. It took copious amounts of work and prayer to fix my academic standing. I still have anxiety and the occasional panic attack, but that’s okay. When I’m in the darkest of places, He meets me there. He has proven to be all I need.
As I reflect on my story and those of the people around me, one major theme holds true: Our God is the God of the transformation story. Onesimus was transformed from thief and slave, to bishop and leader. St. Moses the Strong was transformed from murder and adulterer to monk and servant. Christ transformed death to life. He accepted our death sentence so that we could have the opportunity to reap the blessings of our own transformation stories and be with Him eternally.