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A Spiritual Autobiography

By Nicholas Redmond

Introduction

                Just like everyone else in this world, I am on a journey that began long before I was born and will continue into eternity. Where I am and where I will go on this journey has been shaped by immeasurable influences in my past and will continue to be shaped into the future. My awareness of this journey starts with my earliest memories in a loving family of six in Silver Spring, Maryland. The journey continued as I went to Catholic high school in Washington, DC. When I moved to Charlottesville, VA, to attend the University of Virginia my story continued. Since those college days, I have kept on this journey here in Charlottesville and in the many other places I have visited over the years. I know that my future will land me in other places, and thus my story will keep on going. I could divide this story in any number of ways:  from these locations of my life, to the friends I have had, to the movements of my spirit, to the major events of my life. I will stick to dividing it according to these locations because in many ways I find that I associate these various locations with every other aspect of my life. And so I begin…

Growing Up in Silver Spring, MD

 I grew up as the third of four children to my parents, Daniel and Suzanne Redmond. My oldest brother Matthew is about seven years older than I, my other brother Sean is about three years older, and my sister Bonnie is about a year and a half younger than I am. We grew up in what I considered a very normal, fun, and action-filled family.  There is no question that my family life shaped me more than any other single factor.

Life for me as a kid was fun, but not the easiest thing in the world. My brothers and their friends tormented me pretty much every day after school. They chased me around the house and the neighborhood, they chucked handfuls of pennies at me, they tackled me to the ground and performed the “Chinese typewriter torture” on me until I almost urinated, they would fold me up into the futon and then sit on it watching tv as I gagged and struggled to get out of what they called the “fresher cooker.” I yelled for my mom, and she usually protected me for a little while; but I imagine that this was exasperating for her. The protection only lasted so long. So I ran about, developed my own defense moves and martial arts, and developed a pretty good sense of humor about it all. Looking back, I think my constant smiling and laughing only made it easier for my brothers to torment me.

In one attempted act of kindness towards me, my oldest brother Matt tried to teach me how to ride a bike on a bike with no pedals or brakes. So I broke my femur and spent several weeks in the hospital and even longer in a full body cast. The hospital was fun, the food was great, and the attention I got was exciting. Having my brothers steal my urinal and bed pan was not as exciting, but I think it built character. I was in second grade, and that is what life was like around that time, until I was in about fourth grade.

When I was in fourth grade, my brother Matt was around 15 or 16 years old. In the prior year or two he had become more argumentative with my parents. There were constant yelling matches, but I do not remember the substance of these fights, I just remember that it was tough on my parents, and consequently, on our family as a whole. Suddenly, Matt was no longer living at our house but in Texas with my aunt and uncle. Peace was restored in our house, and I kept on living my life as a happy kid. In the years that followed, I observed arguments between my other brother and my mom.  After witnessing the fights of my brothers over the years, I became quite good at avoiding arguments, respecting my parents’ wishes, and doing whatever I could to add peace to our home..

Being on the sidelines of these intellectual and emotional conflicts made me rather moralistic, with a clear sense of what was right and what was wrong. I observed it all very closely and made my own judgments. In my mind, I knew when my brothers were right or when my mom was right. My sense of logic was honed during those years of intellectual battle, but so was my desire to avoid the battle if at all possible.

Life at St. John the Evangelist - Silver Spring, MD

Throughout these years of family excitement, I attended St. John the Evangelist Elementary School in Silver Spring from first until eighth grade.  Our family also went to mass every Sunday at St. John’s Parish. Growing up Catholic was just a given to me, without any thought of anything different. We had Protestant and Jewish neighbors and friends, but being Catholic was just who I was. I had my First Communion and First Confession with the appropriate sense of reverence, and I remember feeling happy after my first communion and feeling lighter after my confession; but I cannot say that I understood any of it at a spiritual level. I did those things because that’s what we did. I learned about religion in school and absorbed it all, again without truly understanding it. The God that I knew at this time was the “la-la-la” God of the cute songs we would sing. I was an altar boy from the age of about 9, and I worked diligently at the job: ringing the bells when I was supposed to, folding my hands appropriately, holding the communion paten as instructed. I frequently got to leave school in the middle of the day to serve as an altar boy at funerals. I think it was at these funerals that I can say that I became more aware of my faith and its implications.

Most every funeral mass was said by this one priest, Fr. Meighan. We all liked Fr. Meighan because he said the fastest mass (he also had an unusually deep voice, a strong Washington accent, and an odd habit of sticking out his lower lip like some sort of fish). Fr. Meighan gave the same homily at every funeral, except for changes in pronouns to account for whether the deceased was male or female. So, besides trying to avoid laughing due to having heard the same homily a hundred times, I came to have his homily pretty well memorized. He always finished with a prayer that “we too may enter into that eternity of perfect happiness where we will see and know God as he truly is and be so satisfied we could desire nothing else.” This phrase stuck with me and I thought about it all the time. Despite the crying at the funerals, especially the depressing ones with very few people, I was reminded again and again that both sadness and joy were proper reactions to death. I grew to understand that death was not to be feared, that it was similar to the temporary separation that we feel when a loved one goes off to college, and that we will be reunited once again. All of this was from Fr. Meighan, and it came to transform my entire life.

As I continued at St. John’s grade school, I found myself more and more aware of my Catholic faith. Because of the stuff at home, I found myself increasingly moralistic, I never did anything to get myself into trouble, and I worked hard to keep the people in authority happy with me. I excelled in school and I respected and even held in awe the teachers at my school. I found myself looking at years-old faculty directories and admiring all the teachers, especially the ones who were still at St. John’s. I knew that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. The moralistic side of me took form in my volunteering to be the referee at recess whenever the teams were uneven, it did not matter the sport. I knew that I also wanted to be a referee when I grew up. Every now and again the priests at mass and the teachers at school would talk about needing more priests, and I knew they were talking about me. I knew it, but I always ducked my head and avoided eye-contact. I secretly read our parish history, and always skipped to the little mini-biographies of all the priests, past and present, from St. John’s. I knew I was supposed to be a priest, but I did not want to acknowledge that one publicly.

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As I prepared for Confirmation in eighth grade, I found myself praying most especially for the gift of wisdom. I do not remember why this gift appealed to me, but I know I wanted that gift more than the others. So I prayed and prayed, and, like most of my prayers at this time, these prayers were always lists of requests that I had for God. I cannot say that it was very personal and, looking back, it definitely did not seem very spiritual. I had a desire and I relied on God to answer my supplications.  So I prayed, and I felt well-prepared for my life in high school. I made several mini vows to myself, including that I would not have sex before marriage (if I ever got married) and that I would never smoke a cigarette.

As grade school came to a close, I found myself to be a happy kid with a goofy sense of humor  who thought a lot about the future, who respected his parents, teachers, and priests, and who did the stuff Catholics are supposed to do, without necessarily understanding the why. I had a very clear sense of right and wrong, and I also found myself with a pretty optimistic view of death (and consequently of life, as well). I did not understand the personal nature of my relationship with God, and the concept of spirituality was not on my radar; but I think the foundations of my spirituality were all laid in those elementary school years in Silver Spring.

High School in Washington, DC

                For the next four years, Gonzaga College High School was to be my home away from home. I was already in awe of priests, but I was entering a tradition-laden school where not only priests ran the administration of the school, they taught the classes as well! These Jesuits taught anything and everything, not just Religion. My first encounter with one of these intellectual giants was with my math teacher, Fr. Woodward. Fr. Woodward was an old genius with a shaking voice, but a rock-solid sense of logic. He led each class with the Our Father, and we all knew the wrath of our Father would fall on any who fell out of line. That sense of fear dominated my growing spirituality. During our freshman retreat, I remember the leader asking if we believed in God. I answered that I better believe in God, because if I didn’t and there was a God, I’d be going to hell. And if I did believe in a God and there wasn’t a God, there was no harm done. I later learned that this was Pascal’s wager; well, it was my wager as well.

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                Religion was infused in most of my classes. My biology teacher, Fr. Lelii, connected everything we were learning to God the Creator. Fr. Lelii was a crazy teacher, but it only added to my awe of these teachers who seemed to know everything and who were priests as well. Despite their eccentricities, despite their seeming ability to do anything they could ever want in this world, despite their genius, all of these giants of men made a decision to be teachers and priests. I found myself scanning yearbooks from decades past just to see what these men were like through the long history of Gonzaga. I wanted to follow their example.

As high school progressed, I increasingly challenged my classmates on their moral choices, especially in the area of sex, alcohol, and drugs. I found my reasoning for such things was not so much spiritual, but rather intellectual. For almost any issue, I could argue the logical reasons for doing one thing and not the other. In my ethics class, led by another Jesuit giant, Fr. Longtin, we debated every conceivable issue. While Fr. Longtin wanted us to trust more in the Lord and the scriptures, I remember making the point that God gave me an intellect and reason, and that if I could make the leap of faith more narrow by my use of logic, God would want me to do so. So my understanding of the wonders of God and His creation were dominated by my intellectual side. To me God was the obvious solution to a very complicated but ordered mathematical problem.  My relationship to this mathematical God was unsurprisingly impersonal.

This began to change during my senior retreat, Kairos. Before the retreat, I felt most loved by my parents, especially my mom. Love coming from friends was not something I really had felt. My relationship with friends involved us hanging out at school or after swim practice and either goofing around or me moralizing on whatever topic came up. I did not feel that I had many close friends.  But on Kairos I came to learn that friends could truly love each other despite personality flaws, despite different circumstances, despite anything. I received letters from classmates whom I barely knew, many of them the “cooler” kids, who told me they loved me. I received letters from the kids I hung out with more often, and they loved me too. I was overwhelmed with this sense of being loved and that this love was from God. God was Love. He was more than a mathematical solution. And so I decided that I loved everyone, even the people I disliked, even the people I thought strange, even my enemies (even though I don’t think I had any). I loved everyone because God loves everyone, and my love for God thus grew more personal.

My friendships became much deeper, and I found that my friends came to me with all their problems. I truly felt that my prayers for wisdom at Confirmation were beginning to take fruit. I tried to give advice, and instead of moralizing, I tried to mix in this new sense of love that I felt. I loved my friends and would do anything for them. I gave out advice anytime I was asked and even when I wasn’t asked, and by doing it with love I found that it was always welcome. I found myself with more and more friends, with more confidence, and with more love.

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In senior year, I also became more involved with the community service aspect of Gonzaga. It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed working the soup kitchen in the basement of Gonzaga’s church, going over to the projects across the street and tutoring little kids, helping mentally handicapped kids for the Special Olympics, and visiting the low-income nursing home near the school. I really made a point to see God in every one of those people. I loved them and grew to appreciate that they were children of God just as I was. And amazingly, I saw that they loved God, despite their circumstances, seemingly more than I did. I began to learn what a relationship with God could really be: one of joy and thanksgiving despite any obstacles.

I left Gonzaga a completely changed person, but not changed in the sense of being 180 degrees opposite, but a person to whom a ton of cool stuff had been added. I still had a good sense of right and wrong, and to that was added the logic behind those morals. My understanding of God went from the “la-la-la” God of elementary school, to the mathematical God, to the loving God. The loving God was the mathematical God who was the “la-la-la” God, but this loving God was so much more.  I still had my goofy sense of humor, but now I had more friends to share it with.  Life was great, and it was only going to get better.

Off to College at the University of Virginia – Charlottesville, VA

                I applied to and was accepted to two universities: Georgetown and UVA. My brother Sean was at Georgetown  and my best friend from Gonzaga was also going to go to Georgetown. I had never been to UVA and was not very close friends with any of the kids I knew who would be going there. But I decided to go to UVA. One of the major reasons was that I felt like I could be used better by God at a public school as opposed to the Catholic school Georgetown that was loaded with priests. So I moved in in August of 1996 having never visited the campus and knowing barely anyone.

                It was tough at first. In the first few days, before my roommate from Barbados arrived, I felt incredibly alone. I cried at night and prayed for it to get better. My roommate Chike came, we became friends, and I finally got to know more and more people in the dorm and in my classes. My workload was tough, and I got a job in the Intramural Sports department as a referee. I went to church each Sunday at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, and that, in combination with my History of American Catholicism class, taught by another Jesuit giant Fr. Fogarty (I couldn’t get away from them!), left me feeling that I was getting a good dose of Catholicism. I did not have or make time for doing anything else spiritually, such as the Catholic Student Association or retreats, et cetera. I have to say now, that while my knowledge of Catholicism grew immensely, my sense of spirituality, if anything, waned. The spiritual high of Kairos became more distant, and although I would occasionally re-read the Kairos letters I had received, I became wrapped up in the world of college life.

                My loving moralistic side still came out frequently, though. On one occasion my good friend and hall mate had brought back a random girl to his room, kicking out his roommate who was another friend of mine. Seeing this, I decided to knock on his door repeatedly until the girl felt embarrassed and decided to leave. It worked and my hall mate was angry with me at the time. But he later thanked me for it. I frequently invited my friends to come to church with me, and often they did.  Spiritually, though, I still did not find or seek growth. My most spiritual moments came occasionally when I would make an early morning walk through the graveyard or late at night when I walked home from refereeing.

                During breaks, I volunteered in the emergency room at Walter Reed Army Hospital in DC. I saw some people die, and death and hospitals did not scare me at all. I came to value life all the more. And so during my second year at UVA, early one morning I got a call from one of my friends in the ER telling me that my dad had come through. I was concerned, but not scared. I drove up to DC and saw my dad before they were to perform open-heart surgery (this was his third such episode in 15 years). He told us his favorite scripture passage, and I remember being surprised that he even had a favorite scripture passage. I should have known that he would have a favorite passage since he went to daily mass during Lent and he and my mom were very involved in the Teams of Our Lady. But I was surprised, and my eyes were open to a spiritual reality that had always been there but I had not seen: that my dad, while religious, was also spiritual. This was brand new to me.

                My dad did well after the surgery and my life at UVA continued. I made more friends, and became adept at defending my faith in good-natured debates with my fervently Protestant roommate Mike (who is now a minister in his non-denominational church). Later in college, Mike and I would do Bible studies. Those ended after one of the sessions where he decided that I should try speaking in tongues. He proceeded to speak some garbled language, and I earnestly wanted to follow suit. But I could not get past the strangeness and forced nature of it all, so there were no more Bible studies after that. My religious life of going to church each Sunday was sufficient for me, and there was nothing more to it in any spiritual sense besides my nightly prayers for my family and friends.

                The notion of the priesthood had never completely left me; I just chose to put it out of my mind. It resurfaced during my fourth year at UVA when my grandparents died within a month of each other. The Knights of Columbus in Dallas gave our family a chalice and my aunt and uncle bought the matching ciborium. A great uncle then bought priest’s vestments. My aunt and my mom told me that these were for me to have when I became a priest. I had not discussed such things with anyone in my family, so said “No way! I’m not going to be a priest. I’m gonna get married!” But inside I hoped those things would be for me. My relatives tried to give those items away to various potential recipients in Dallas, in Houston, in Czechoslovakia, in South America, but to no avail. I found out recently that those things are still waiting for a good home.

                My college years were great for me socially and personally; however, my faith, while never truly stagnant, did not grow immensely either. My spirituality probably lessened from the highs that I felt on the Kairos retreat. I wanted to experience that closeness again and I wanted to emulate the spirit I saw in my dad before his surgery, but I found myself too busy to allow it to happen. I know that I made a difference in the lives of many of my friends and other people I met, but my own spirit had a lot of work to do.

Life After College – Teaching and Travelling

                I loved Charlottesville and refereeing in the Charlottesville area so much that after earning my master’s in teaching from UVA, I decided to stick around. I always thought I’d return to Gonzaga and teach there, but I had developed too many ties to want to leave. So I got a job as a Spanish teacher at Albemarle High School. I quickly found that kids wanted to talk to me about their problems. Even though I gave them my unabashed views against premarital sex, underage drinking, and drug use, they continued to come to me to talk to me about these issues. I prayed more and more for my students and found that spiritually I was growing.

After that first year of teaching, I decided to take a month-long solo trip to Spain and some other countries in Europe. I was frequently surrounded by temptations and Godlessness. I had experienced that before on many occasions during college, but in another country far from home, these temptations were very strong. To combat it, I found myself yearning to go into churches and cathedrals at every opportunity. They were nothing like anything I had ever seen before. The gold, the statues, the art: it was all overwhelming. I am confident that a guardian angel hung by my side during that trip, because as great a trip as it was, it could have been disastrous for my soul; instead, I grew in love for the beauty of God’s creation. I had felt that my soul was under attack and that God’s Church was my refuge.

 

                I thought more and more about the priesthood during that time after the trip, and I told several close friends about it as well as some priests in confession. One priest told me I should go to mass every day and really pray hard for help in my discernment. I thought that was a great idea and agreed I should do that. I never did it. Another priest suggested that I devote myself to the Virgin Mary and ask for her help. I thought that that too was a great idea and agreed to do it. I never did. Everything in my life told me that priesthood was the path I was called to, but my spirituality simply was not where it needed to be. So I kept on with the routines of my life: teaching and refereeing. Sunday mass and nightly prayer would usually be there, but I often did not feel particularly close to God. At times I felt as though I was going through the motions.

Youth Ministry and My Mom

                In the spring of 2007, another giant in my life, Mike School, invited me to go to the Life Teen Conference in Phoenix that June. Not truly understanding the consequences such a trip would have on my life, I agreed. I was thus sucked into the world of Youth Ministry at a formal level. I had always been there for my kids at school, but now I was going to be working with a team of college students and young adults from St. Thomas Aquinas in order to teach highschoolers religious education. That fall, I suddenly found myself with an energetic prayer group of fellow leaders who prayed for each other and with each other. I also found myself now leading a small group of teenagers, again praying for and with each other. The closest I had ever come to anything like this was back when I was on the Kairos retreat my senior year of high school. Well, little did I know it at the time, but I would come to need these groups like never before within two months of the semester starting.

                Towards the end of October, I got a call from my mom that she had been diagnosed with cancer in her uterus and that it had spread to her lungs and liver. I knew that it was not good. But that began six months of the most constant praying I had ever done in my life. I also had a ready-made support group there for me at St. Thomas Aquinas. I found every opportunity I could for Adoration. My prayers were for my mom, but not necessarily that one outcome or another would come about. I really just prayed that God’s will be done. I felt increasing peace about it all, and I saw in my mom an immense spirituality that, like my dad’s years before, I never knew existed. I talked to her about possibly dying, and though she was afraid, she found strength in her relationship with God. Somehow, after several bouts of chemotherapy, my mom was strong enough that she was able to fly with our entire family to Lourdes, France. It was a special trip that brought our whole family together. I knew everything would be alright when, while driving back into the city where my mom and dad were, my aunt, my brothers and I saw the largest double rainbow I’d ever seen, perfectly framing Lourdes ahead of us. My mom’s health got worse shortly after we got back, but Easter was early that year and we were able to celebrate it together. The night before my mom died, the church choir came to visit us and sang in the living room. Somehow my mom got the strength to come out of her room and thank everyone for coming. That was spirit! My sister and I slept by her side that night, holding her hands. The next morning, a close friend came and prayed with my mom. We called our parish priest for the Anointing, and with him there and with our entire family, including my mom’s only sister, my mom passed away peacefully. It was the perfect death for a Christian. I truly felt both sadness and joy. And those waves of sadness come over me even now, but I then ask my mom for strength, and I can’t help but feel joy in my heart. With my mom in heaven praying for me, my spirit has finally been able to thrive.

                Since my mom’s death, I have felt the grace of God so much more than I ever had before. One thing after another has shown me God’s presence in my life. I have seen that this “la-la-la” and mathematical and loving God is also my friend. He loves me constantly. As such, he is showing me signs of that love unceasingly. More and more my eyes are being opened. Big signs and little signs of that love I have recognized… and I know there’s more to come.        

An Unmistakable Sign

                Towards the end of 2010 I began dating a girl named Claire. I grew more and more in love with her and began to think that I could marry her and have a big family. Still, the priesthood idea had never completely left my mind. In June of 2011 I went with some other youth leaders from St. Thomas Aquinas to the annual Life Teen Conference in Phoenix. The theme of the conference was “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” so I found myself praying to the Holy Spirit much more than I ever had. On the third night of the conference, I attended the Adoration service being held in the big conference hall. As that got started, I decided to go to confession, which was being held upstairs in the ballroom.

While in the long line for confession, I kept praying to the Holy Spirit to “send me to the right priest” out of the dozens of priests stationed at the many ballroom tables. I was sent to one priest and proceeded to give my confession. After the confession I told the priest about the dilemma in my mind regarding the priesthood versus marriage, telling him that I wished God would just give me a sign. He then told me that it was like a dance and that while I was dancing with my girlfriend, the Church could come along and tap me on the shoulder to dance. If the Church did that, I should be willing to dance with the Church. While I viewed this as a nice analogy, it was not the sign I was hoping for. 

I went back down to the Adoration service, said my penance, and then found myself praying to the Holy Spirit as hard as I had ever prayed in my life while the music played in the background. Praying for some sort of sign, I felt sure something was going to happen where I would know God’s calling for me, whether by the lady behind me or someone tapping me on the shoulder as the priest suggested or some other sign. When the music ended, I opened my eyes and there was no sign: no tap or anything else. I was disappointed. So I sat down with everyone else and forgot about the sign business. I leaned forward and began praying in general. Unbeknownst to me because my eyes were closed, the lady to the left of me, Julie Balik who is the director of the St. Thomas Aquinas middle school program, reached behind me and tapped me on the right shoulder three times, saying “Hey Father Nick.” I was shocked and opened my eyes. I had said nothing to her when I came back from confession, and she had no reason to tap me on the shoulder or call me Father Nick. When I asked her why she did that, she said she just felt like it.

Mike School, the man who had recruited me to Life Teen four years prior and who now works for the Richmond Diocese, happened to be sitting right in front of me when this happened; so he happily gave me the contact information for the diocesan vocations director. This tap on the shoulder just minutes after I was praying as hard as I had ever prayed in my life can only be interpreted by me as the sign I had been waiting for and the impetus for me to follow through with the notion of the priesthood that I had been pushing aside for over twenty years. Several other things happened that night, including the fact that thousands of miles away, at the moment I was being tapped on the shoulder, one of my Confirmation students was praying for me “to help me figure out what I would do with my life.”

In the days, weeks, and months since that night, other remarkable “coincidences” occurred that just reconfirmed my tap on the shoulder. Most importantly, I have discovered depths of my own spirituality that I never knew existed. I have begun the Spiritual Exercises for Everyday Life and have experienced consolations in many forms. Daily Mass, instead of being the chore that I once thought it was, has become something I have sought. People whom I have told about my intentions to apply to the seminary have been amazingly supportive, including the many students at the public school where I teach. Feast days and solemnities have taken on new meaning as I have tried to enter into the Saints’ lives. Jesus’ own life has become more alive in me as I have delved into scenes from His life. Consequently, I have lost a lot of inhibition in proclaiming my faith to friends and strangers alike. I feel a great excitement and passion that never had surfaced in me before.

The God that I have known my entire life has become a God willing to tap me on the shoulder, to breathe new life into me. He was a “la-la-la” kind of God in my childhood who became the mathematical God I knew in high school. God grew more personal as I got older, but still that was not enough for me. I was not ready to heed his call. It took a tap on the shoulder and a series of remarkable events last summer for me to finally accept God’s call and really see that God had been giving me signs of His love all along. Every aspect of this story and of my entire life is rooted in God’s incredible love for me. Now, I am finally ready to accept that love. I am ready to dance.

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