One hot summer night when I was 8, I woke up in the front yard of our house in North Hollywood, looking up into the night sky. I had no memory of how I got there. My mom appeared and led me back in, murmuring words of comfort. I was scared. This had happened several times and I had no control over it.
I didn't know it then but I was in the middle of a religious experience.
I was that weird kid who pondered questions like, "What if the world didn't exist? What if I'd never been born?" lying in bed at night in existential angst. My family was supposed to be Catholic. My dad's family was, but after an incident in Catholic school, he turned his back on the church. One day, during a catechism lesson, the sister announced, "God made everything," and my dad innocently asked, "If God made everything, Sister, who made God?" She slammed a steel-edged ruler across his hand, slicing it open. So, my parents refused to baptize us. The only time we saw the inside of a church was when we attended a wedding or a funeral.
But being a big reader, I found myself devouring my best friend's catechism book. Her first holy communion was approaching and the prayers and passages in that pristine white book with gold lettering on the cover fascinated me. It was magical, and I loved magic. I memorized the prayers and decorated my headboard with pictures of the Virgin Mary. Every night before bed, I talked to her.
Riding my bike one glorious day, I stopped and looked up into the sky. Through parted clouds, the Virgin Mary smiled down on me. My body filled with what I can only describe as bliss—a feeling of profound calm and happiness. It was an extraordinary feeling and one I've only experienced twice in my life, no matter how hard I've tried to recapture it over the years.
But this lightness had a dark side. I was also experiencing unusual paranormal activity in my bedroom. Occasionally, as I drifted off to sleep, someone would call my name. I was punched in the leg a couple of times and woke up with a bruise—physical evidence I hadn't imagined it.
One incident has haunted me for my entire life. I woke up in my sister's bed one morning, not knowing how I got there. When I went back to my room, my sheets and blankets were spread out into the hallway like someone had carefully arranged them. I suppose I could have been sleepwalking but I always ended up in the street during those episodes. This was different.
I started having nightmares about going to hell. Who me? I was only a little kid. What did I do? Catholicism says we're born with original sin. Baptism forgives it. I wasn't baptized and no matter how good I was my whole life, I was going to go to hell and that's not fair. I took my Virgin Mary cards down and ended my love affair with the Catholic Church. Yet I still had questions. I turned to Judaism. I had lots of Jewish friends and rabbis were cool—like your favorite uncle, approachable and kind. But I soon lost interest and chucked organized religion for good.
I didn't revisit my spirituality again until my 30s. After years spent as an atheist and through an astounding series of synchronistic events, I became what I call a casual Buddhist. Unhindered by the dogmatic and rigid tenets of organized religion, it felt right. I meditated, read spiritual books, lived mindfully and in the present. Karma and reincarnation made sense to me. And I had another religious experience. This time, my heart opened and I fell in love with everyone—on buses and subways, in restaurants and grocery stores. I walked the streets of New York City blissed out in a cocoon of love. This lasted a couple of weeks. I highly recommend it but have no idea how or why it happened or how to experience it again. Damn.
One night at a therapy session, the night I ended up in my sister's bed came up. What really happened that night? My psychologist put me under hypnosis and I saw myself in bed, asleep. A beautiful woman appeared and guided me out of my room, down the hallway and tucked me into my sister's bed. Apparently, the Virgin Mary had been duking it out with the dark side on my behalf in a tiny bedroom in the San Fernando Valley.
She was protecting me.
It was odd. She'd recently come to me in a meditation and I hadn't seen her since I was a kid. She offered no earthshaking prophecies or brilliant advice. But her serene face floated in my mind's eye and I felt warm and comforted.
How magical and mysterious life is. How complex we are. Why would the Virgin Mary visit a lapsed Catholic, atheist, agnostic, sort-of Buddhist person who loves rabbis and Jewish weddings?
We're all searching for answers. And they're offered to us in sparkly, eye-catching packaging. But when you look inside, you'll find they're all selling the same thing.