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Colombia is a very religious country. Even as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, Catholicism is still the predominant religion in the country, albeit with much less influence than it had during the years of my parents’ youth. Some of those who have abandoned the Catholic faith have done so due to the overwhelming scientific evidence against many of the religious premises in favor of atheism, but in Colombia the reality is that the vast majority of deserters from Catholicism have migrated to other religions, even more dogmatic, to new age belief systems or to other alternative creeds.
My spiritual experience arose in this context of cultural transformation and it was marked by a special interest I have always had in exploring the unknown, especially as it relates to human consciousness.
My parents made a special effort from the start to instill in me the Christian faith. Religious symbols abounded at home and Sunday Mass attendance was mandatory. Most Catholic feasts were observed and like most Colombian children, I learned to pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Guardian Angel prayer before bedtime. However, the Catholic holiday I enjoyed the most, was the celebration of Christmas, where in addition to popular Western Christmas traditions such as the Christmas tree and presents, us Colombians gathered for the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve to read biblical passages related to the nativity, to sing Christmas carols, and to share cookies and desserts.
When I was about six or seven years old, I remember thinking for the first time about the existence of an omnipotent Being. My aunt Otilia, one of my mother’s sisters who used to live with us, had taken me with her to an Easter Sunday celebration in a church in Bogota. That day I learned that the hundreds of parishioners who crowded around us, raising bouquets and wax palm figures, were eagerly awaiting the resurrection of the Son of God. What I didn’t understand was that this of course was a symbolic resurrection and that no one would see the risen one in person, so when the ecstatic congregation began to sing “Alleluia, alleluia the Lord is risen” I asked my Aunt where the resurrected Christ was. – Behind the Altar, there beneath that purple curtain is the risen Christ” she replied. I don’t know if she was referring to the tabernacle or the monstrance where the wafers are kept and displayed, or if she was making a joke, but the fact is that I imagined a glowing bearded giant hiding behind the curtain and waiting for the right moment to make his appearance in front of the attendees.
I then began to ask questions about this mysterious god who could compress himself into little wafers, get angry if I told lies and punish me through home accidents when I misbehaved. I thought it would be fascinating to meet a being that my parents said was infinitely good and powerful but who at the same time seemed very contradictory. My parents, always attentive to feed my intellectual appetite, especially if it was oriented towards religion, chose to enroll me and my sisters in weekly workshops of the so-called “missionary childhood” that took place after Sunday mass in our neighborhood.
That experience turned out to be very enjoyable; in addition to learning a lot more about God’s history, trying to untangle the conceptual skein of the holy trinity and doing sporadic charity work such as visiting the sick or delivering food to families in need, the missionary childhood was also an opportunity to make friends of our own age.
Either way, my relationship with God was on the right track. I learned that if I prayed with faith, God would always hear me, that the Virgin Mary would intercede for me when I fell to sin, that the Archangel Michael would protect me from harm, and that the Holy Spirit would put the right words in my mouth when I spoke of God. A whole team at my service! However, my favorite character was Jesus Christ: a nice, smiling and understanding young man who was there to guide me with love.
Truthfully, I never had any problem embracing faith. I felt the presence of these divine beings in my life and even though I could not see them or hear them, I sensed signs of their company. For a child with traits of anxiety and some terrifying fears, it was very comforting to have powerful beings looking out for me when my parents were not there to keep me out of harm’s way. It was only natural that I would take pleasure in professing my affection for these invisible friends through prayers, drawings and good deeds.
My parents at some point probably thought that I would eventually become a priest, as on more than one occasion they saw me recite extended portions of the mass while raising a cookie as a wafer in front of my sisters. On my own accord, I became an altar boy in the same church where I used to be part of the Missionary Childhood and later on I worked as a catechist for children who were being prepared for their first communion in the public school where I attended a couple of years of elementary school.
All these episodes were part of a search that nevertheless still did not bear the fruits I wished for. I had managed to get many answers that appeased my mind, but I was looking for a personal experience, an empirical verification of at least the most essential precepts of religion. The answer came in the form of a young Catholic missionary named Diego Garcia.
Diego was a handsome young man born to a well-to-do family from the colombian department Valle del Cauca. He was the nephew of Mrs. Martha Diez, a teacher friend of my parents, and he had lived a classic story of Christian transformation. Like many other young men of his social standing, Diego had spent the money provided by his family to procure material pleasures of all kinds and in the midst of this he had descended into a spiral of degradation that involved alcoholism and debauchery. His quest to fill emotional voids with worldly pleasures had caused him to hit rock bottom to the point that his family feared for his life.
By the time I met him in 1993, all those excesses were behind him, thanks, as he told me, to the tireless prayers of his mother, who begged God to rescue her boy. A priest who ministered in the ” Minuto de Dios” – a popular Catholic work founded by Father Rafael García Herreros – approached Diego and proposed him a challenge: Instead of conquering confused young women and getting drunk with poison, he should try to conquer the heart of the Divine Mother and get drunk with the love of Christ. At a time when he was no longer getting any satisfaction from his known habits, the misguided Diego decided to give religion a chance and he would never be the same again.
Renuévame, señor Jesús, (Renew me, Lord Jesus,)
ya no quiero ser igual. (I no longer want to be the same.)
Renuévame, señor Jesús, (Renew me, Lord Jesus,)
pon en mi tu corazón. (put your heart in me.)
Porque todo lo que hay dentro de mi (For all that is within me)
necesita ser cambiado, Señor. (needs to be changed, Lord.)
porque todo lo que hay dentro de mi corazón (Because everything inside my heart)
necesita más de ti. (needs more of you.)
Renew me – Christian Song by Marcos Witt
My mom had told us that we were going to visit her friend Martha and pray the Rosary with a nephew of hers who was a charismatic leader of “Minuto de Dios” Minute of God. Although I was used to religious activities, the prospect of praying a full rosary with its 53 Hail Marys would seem soporific to me. Upon arriving at our destination, we were met by a young man whose appearance immediately recalled the modern image of Jesus of Nazareth: Thick-skinned, tall, slender, handsome, with a bushy beard and medium-sized wavy hair. The most striking thing about him, though, was the unusual and sincere affection with which he spoke to people who, until a few minutes earlier, were complete strangers.
The Holy Rosary, which I had known as a tedious string of prayers crammed together with five stations mentioning the so-called joyful, sorrowful and glorious “mysteries” of Christ’s life, was typically dispatched in about half an hour. With Diego, however, the Rosary became a deep and meaningful meditation, where every word of every Hail Mary and Our Father had to be said and understood word by word. This, far from being simple, turned out to be enormously complicated and the first time I tried it: I didn’t even make it halfway through the prayer. I had the habit of reciting these prayers in a rush and in a jiffy, so doing it slowly, reflecting on its meaning, as if I were really communicating with God or the Virgin Mary, was a totally new experience.
Of course, a full rosary with Diego could not be finished in 30 minutes as I had done up to that point with my family. In addition, Diego, who also had a prodigious voice and was a competent guitar player, complemented the reflections that took place between the series of Hail Marys with beautiful Christian songs that he usually sang with his eyes closed, conveying a powerful sense of transcendence and mysticism. It was usual for the weekly prayer meeting, which we would then call “the prayer group Friends of Mary”, to take up two or three hours. Despite the considerable length of the ceremony, neither I nor my sisters, nor the other pre-teens who belonged to the group, ever found it boring to attend.
In addition to being pious and humble, Diego, who by then would have been in his mid-30’s, was a very charismatic young man and had a special ability to relate to and gain the trust of young people. That ability had probably been refined during his years of work with the Minuto de Dios Foundation and his apostolate with Christian youth, but in addition to that, Diego had a playful and joking personality with which he managed to fit in very well with groups of teenagers. It was not strange then that some of the kids who attended the prayer group became his close friends. I admired him, I saw in him many of the things I wanted to be when I grew up: eloquent, charismatic, assertive and wise but still funny. He also – as I previosly noted – had an appearance and attitude that closely resembled the Western image of Jesus of Nazareth, so it is no surprise that the older folks also saw him as a saint and attributed to him a “magic” that brought peacefulness just by standing in his presence.
It should not be overlooked, however, that despite Diego’s modern and progressive veneer, his thinking and discourse were totally in line with the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church of the late 1990s. Diego belonged to the so-called “charismatic” Catholic movement, well known for the prominence of pop music, the friendly and approachable attitude of priests and the increased participation of young people in the activities of the parish. Nonetheless, “progressivism” did not include any deviation from the Roman canon and therefore, all the dogmas of the Church, would be served by Diego in our weekly convites with a glittering youthful packaging.
One of those dogmas of that time was of course that all sexual activity outside of marriage was sinful and severely punished. I, who was 13 at the time, was particularly troubled by the overwhelming onslaught of adolescent hormones and my total inability to restrain the practice of “self-love”. The issue was also troubling another friend of mine of the same age who belonged to the group, so we agreed to consult Diego privately to seek spiritual guidance.
I remember that sunny afternoon when me and my friend met with Diego at his house in the north of Bogota. We spent a few hours talking about the human and the divine and when we got to the point that had us tormented, he smiled and comforted us with these words: “Don’t worry, these are small trials that God allows so that we can strengthen our will”. Then he explained to us that masturbation was one of the temptations of the Devil to keep us away from the love of God and that the cure consisted in imagining the Divine Mother taking away those impure thoughts, praying a lot and keeping our heads busy.
More than 20 years later and in retrospect, one can appreciate how damaging that message was, but for boys raised in Catholic families, without access to scientific information on the subject and with a very deficient formation in sex education, it all seemed to make sense.
That visit was the beginning of many other individual encounters with Diego, in which in addition to receiving his religious guidance, I learned to play several Christian songs and deepened my relationship with God and the Virgin Mary. I must say, however, that already at that time I had many conceptual conflicts with the idea of the Holy Trinity and the role of the Virgin Mary. The idea of three distinct persons and one true God became simpler when I heard it from Diego’s lips, who referred the confusion to linguistic problems of interpretation. – “Trinity is just a way in which the same God manifests Himself: for us to adore Him, to see Him as one of us and to receive Him in our Spirit” (…) As for Mary, the matter was on another level because from his words, one could conclude that in his cosmogony, Mary was the maximum expression of love and the best way to relate with God. Diego said of the Virgin that she is our intercessor, chief of the heavenly hosts that subdue demons and protector of humanity. He called me, someone who had never felt a particularly close relationship with the figure of the Virgin, “spoiled by the Virgin,” and in this way he got me more interested in connecting with her.
The seed of mysticism
The truth is that the experiences that I went through during the period of time that the prayer group lasted, which must have been a couple of years, cemented the beginning of my spiritual search. As a music enthusiast and lover of harmony, it was very easy for me to achieve states of mystical ecstasy through musical notes. My fascination and curiosity for the mysteries of reality were nourished by the extensive existential conversations we had during and outside the prayer groups, and my vocation for words and leadership were fostered by the protagonism that Diego eventually allowed me to take during prayer times, with spontaneous invocations and playing the guitar.
During those days I remember feeling, on more than one occasion, inexplicable moments of abrupt euphoria: I would suddenly wide open my eyes, look around and feel totally flooded by an indescribable pleasure. The first thought that came into my head at those moments was gratitude, I felt as though it was the presence of God in my heart, filling me with joy and love. Little by little I began to feel God’s presence as much more than something figurative, I really felt accompanied and protected. I was certain that God had chosen me for something important. The prayer group was just the beginning, so I had to find a way to figure out what my mission would be, the task for which God had sent me.
My masturbator friend and I also agreed on this thought. Both of us, who had become the members of the group closest to Diego, would discuss to try to discern what our calling would be. Sometimes we would find clues in the priests’ sermons after the gospel reading during mass or in some individual Bible reading. Once, my friend came home excited with his bible under his arm and told me “I found it, you and I are the two prophets of the Apocalypse”. I remember I was surprised but I didn’t think he was crazy or anything like that, rather, I hurried to take my own bible and look for the passage my friend was referring to.
It was Revelation 11 from verse 3 onwards:
“3 And I will give my two witnesses to prophesy for a thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth. 4 These witnesses are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the God of the earth. 5 If any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he shall surely be put to death in like manner. 6 they have power to shut heaven, so that it rains not in the days of their prophecy; and they have power over the waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with every plague, as often as they will.”
I no longer remember how many times I re-read those passages and how many times my esteemed prayer partner and I debated the best way to begin this work. We even discussed – although on my part at least, without seriously considering it – to leave our homes and dedicate ourselves to preaching the word of God in the streets of Bogota. It must be said that while my family life was very healthy and loving, my friend’s was not so much, so for me the idea of abandoning my warm home in favor of fulfilling an obscure biblical prophecy was all the more frightening.
The prospect, however, came to provoke in me a slight trauma because at some point I started to believe that it was inevitable that I would end up fulfilling the prophecy, in spite of my reluctance. I spent several nights of anguish and prayer asking God to “reduce” my prophesying in the streets in exchange for a more benign and effective form of apostolate. Who was I to negotiate with God the adjustment of prophecies written hundreds of years ago? However, I had to try, since the second part of the prophecy made the mystical bargaining even more worthwhile:
“7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them. 8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which in a spiritual sense is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified. 9 And those of the peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations shall see their dead bodies for three days and a half, and shall not allow them to be buried. 10 And they who dwell on the earth shall rejoice over them and be glad, and shall send gifts to one another; for these two prophets had tormented those who dwell on the earth.”
Needless to say, neither my friend nor I ever set foot on the street in the spirit of prophesying, but it certainly would not be the end of my mission search, which would continue to happen – at least for a while – within the confines of the Catholic religion.
What did indeed recur were the mystical events surrounding my apostolate in Catholicism. I strove to execute God’s plan through every opportunity for service that came my way and felt great satisfaction both in feeling that I was an instrument of God’s action and in making a positive difference in the lives of the people at whom I performed such actions. Such was the case of the work I did preparing children between the ages of 7 and 10 for their first communion. An important event in the life of Catholics, which typically requires an understanding of what it means to be Catholic, the ceremonies, commandments, sacraments, etc., as well as the memorization of the most important prayers.
I also had the opportunity to use my bible knowledge as well as the speaking and counseling skills I learned from Diego to mentor other members of the prayer group and friends at my school. These acts of service were partly to compensate for my irrepressible fondness for autoeroticism, in the hope that God would see me in a good light and that I could continue to be a “spoiled brat of the Virgin”. The business seemed to work well since Diego as well as the priests and nuns I knew immediately saw in me “something special”, a potential to achieve great things on a spiritual level.
This reinforced my own belief that I was destined for some important mission and my world began to get filled with clues and signs that I thought I needed to decipher in order to understand the path and be prepared for my big moment. One of these signs appeared shortly before the death of my maternal grandmother Ana Maria Rosa. I had been with her during the first days of her hospitalization in the town where she lived, after suffering a stroke that had left her bedridden and unable to move or speak. Although I never considered myself particularly close to my grandmother, I was probably the grandson who accompanied her for the longest time. I read to her, told her stories from home, prayed and occasionally helped the nurses with her care.
I remember my grandmother’s eyes saying goodbye with gratitude when it was time for me to leave and I would leave with the satisfaction of making her suffering a little more bearable, even if it just for a few hours. On the other hand, I felt that surely God had placed me there to keep her company in her final days and I felt that this was surely part of my divine mission. I confirmed this shortly after my Grandmother’s transfer to a higher level hospital in Bogota. I returned to the farm where my grandparents lived, to spend a few nights there while my mom and dad took care of my grandmother’s transfer and care. One night, I woke up startled by a strange sensation, like a mixture of fear and expectation. I noticed a bluish light in the room and looked where I thought it was coming from. There I found an orb emitting a faint indigo glow and when I looked at it, I perceived in my mind a communication coming from that strange object. I did not hear a voice, but I was certain that I was receiving a message coming from the floating sphere. The message told me to prepare myself for many changes to come and that I had been chosen by God for an important mission.
The sense of apprehension I felt then turned into an enormous joy, not only because of the message itself, but because I had experienced a supernatural event for the first time in my life. I tried to imprint the moment in my mind and for me it was proof that God not only existed, but that He was communicating with His chosen ones. However, as I recalled it the next day, it seemed too incredible to share with anyone else, but still totally real to consider any other explanation such as an hallucination or more likely a lucid dream experience.
The Medjugorje medium
A year after my grandmother’s death I was a senior in high school and the prayer group had received an interesting visitor. Coming from a neighborhood in the south of Bogota, a young friend of Diego’s arrived at our house. She claimed to have been receiving messages from Our Lady of Medjugorje in Herzegovina, also known as the “Virgin of Peace”. The young woman used to visit Catholic churches, the Minuto de Dios radio station and prayer groups to share the messages she said she received from the famous apparition in the Balkans. Most of the public messages from Medjugorje, in which Our Lady refers to her devotees as “little children”, deal with quite generic matters such as strengthening faith, opening oneself to Christ, praying and many other benign recommendations of good Catholic behavior. The young contactee from Bogota, however, shared more specific channelings directed to the prayer groups or parishes she visited.
Such was the case of her visit to our prayer group one Saturday in 1994 while I was out of town, participating in a Catholic spiritual retreat organized by the school where I was studying, for the upcoming high school graduates. The same day that the contactee visited our house, I attended with my schoolmates a beautiful Eucharist during which I had a new experience of mystical rapture. The following evening, when I returned home after the retreat, my mother told me that the young medium had asked for me – supposedly without knowing what a member of the family was away – and had said that the Virgin was very grateful to me for the work I was doing in preparing children for their first communion. She also told me that at the end of the group prayer, she had gone to an empty chair in the room and made a sign of the cross dedicated to the child who was not present.
My reaction to such a revelation was to lock myself in the bathroom and weep in humility. The Mother of God was thanking me for something so simple I did! I felt overwhelmed and fortunate and promised that I would do His will whatever it was.
Señor no deseo riquezas, ni los hijos ni el saber. (Lord I do not desire riches, neither children nor knowledge.)Song interpreted by Diego
Si tu así lo quieres nada deseo tener. (If You will it, I desire nothing.)
Concédeme sólo esto que pueda darte a ti. (Grant me only that which I can give to you.)
Sin esperar recompensas y con un amor sin fin. (Without expectation of reward and with endless love.)
To my friends
Shortly thereafter, I learned that Diego had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer and soon enough, he was no longer able to attend our prayer group. Some rumored that it was the consequence of several years of alcohol and perhaps drug abuse, others said it could be because of the frequent fasting he practiced. The truth is that cancer is unpredictable and attacks the pure and the ungodly with no qualms. What did seem a cruel irony was that a young man so similar to Jesus of Nazareth physically, in word and deed, was condemned to an early death after suffering physical torments that Christ himself had to endure.
Diego died at his parents’ home, far from chemotherapy and doctors, totally convinced that his task in the world was over and that he was on his way to the longed-for encounter with his divine Mother and the good friend Jesus. I did not get to see him during his last months, but I am sure he used the time comforting his parents, giving them strength and occasionally making jokes. When his strength finally left him, he left behind an indescribable pain in the heart of a mother who up to that point considered herself a critic of the Church and a father who said he was a total atheist. But most importantly, he left a legacy that will live forever in those of us who were fortunate enough to know him and share his love for the Blessed Mother, the Church and humanity.
I don’t know if his parents converted to Catholicism, but I do know that they continued the charitable works that Diego led. In particular, the delivery of food and clothing to the homeless who inhabited the then famous “Calle del Cartucho” in Bogota. My friend of apocalyptic prophecies continued to be a fervent Catholic with Mass every Sunday and prayer groups, but life would take me on other paths of apostasy and search, trying to reconcile the powerful burden of religious conditioning I adopted during my childhood with the scientific thinking and spiritual curiosity that drove me.
I was never able to say goodbye to Diego as I would have liked, however, he managed to say goodbye to me after his death in a very special way: a few months after his death, while I was already doing my mandatory military service in the Colombian National Police, Diego’s family made a pleasant discovery. Among his personal belongings, they found a cassette with an hour of songs played on guitar and sung by him. Each song was like a life lesson for his friends, but it was the last song on the B-side that broke the emotional dam I had since Diego’s death:
A mis amigos legaré cuando me muera (To my friends I will bequeath when I die.)“To my friends” – Alberto Cortez
Mi devoción en un acorde de guitarra (My devotion in a guitar chord)
Y entre los versos olvidados de un poema (And among the forgotten lines of a poem)
Mi pobre alma incorregible de cigarra. (My poor incorrigible cicada soul.)
It was as if at that moment I was suddenly awakened to the reality that my brother and master was gone forever. I said goodbye to his presence, but not to his soul, as Diego would become, for better or worse, an important part of my own personality.