On angels and addiction: My experiences with St. Michael

Imagine my chagrin when, at the height of my crystal meth addiction, I couldn’t stop hanging out in churches.

I was never baptized as a child and grew up in family where Christmas meant presents and Easter meant ham.

Nonetheless, there I was in the basement sanctuary of a church in Philadelphia regularly praying. Something kept drawing me there. On my way to obtain drugs or engage in survival sex or amid simple bad behavior and ill-will toward men, I would go there and talk silently to God.

Lots of these prayers were foxhole prayers. Please, let me not lose my money. Please, let me not get hurt. Please, help me.

Others, though, were more telling, foreshadowing of my eventual conversion.

Who are you? Why do I keep coming here?

I’m not sure what I expected, but I do know that I found great comfort in the silence of the sanctuary. And, the monks there never once made me feel unchosen — or unwelcome.

One day back then, I found myself Googling where I could get prayer cards. I walked there and immediately purchased a medal of St. Michael the Archangel.

Despite “not believing in angels,” I was captivated by them: Gabriel, the messenger of God; and, of course, Michael, the scales of justice in his hands standing on the neck of Satan.

I thought it was just a strange interest. It wasn’t an actual belief in something real. Besides, there are no mysteries in the 21st century. Right?

Yet, I viewed that medal of St. Michael with high esteem. For some reason, it was precious. It allowed me to more adequately imagine something that, using human eyes, is, at best, like trying to see through a glass, darkly.

To cloud the issue further, I used money I got dishonestly to purchase a silver chain on which to hang that medal of St. Michael.

It was a strange combination of the holy and the tragic. Still, I wore him around my neck every day.

Now and then, I would take refuge in my parents’ home. These small trips were little respites I would take when the drugs and money ran out, depending on on my parents’ love and charity so I could have food and a warm bed for a few days.

On my way there on weekend, I ran into two nuns at a bus station.

Inexplicably, I walked up to them. St. Michael was around my neck under my t-shirt.

“Sisters, will you pray for me?” I asked, shaking a bit. I was terrified — of two nuns who looked like grandmothers.

They immediately said yes. There was no question. They immediately got to work.

Their hands, worn with age and devotion, clasped mine and we prayed there on Filbert Street amid panhandlers, car horns, and sirens. I don’t remember what they said. I just remember being grateful. They recognized and shared in my humanity.

A few months later, I was homeless without any options. Everyone had cut me off completely — and for good reason.I had begged, borrowed, and stolen to the limit — with no real plan on changing.

It was November, and the weather was getting cold. Sleeping outside was getting harder. I began to feel extremely tired incessantly, never feeling safe enough to sleep restfully anywhere.

The raw edginess of being homeless is something you don’t know about until you experience it. Everything is antagonistic, frightening. My world narrowed. It was hard to focus on anything beyond my own hunger and how cold and tired I was all the time.

Everyone and everything was scary, a threat. I asked to die. I thought about killing myself. But, I had no way to do it.

I couldn’t stop living. I just kept going, shuffling from place to place listlessly.

I just wanted to go to sleep.

St. Michael, pray for me.

One night, I tried to eat cold cans of soup that were left outside a house with a sign that said they were free for anyone who wanted them.

They were expired, hopefully a mere oversight by the donor. Cold, expired chicken and rice isn’t something I’d recommend — though, that experience certainly affords me perspective today.

Later that day, after dawn broke, I found myself walking by an Episcopal parish near the Parkway in Philadelphia. It was Sunday. There was a priest in the churchyard. For some reason, I paid attention to him. He walked with grace and humility.

I approached him. He did not recoil. He smiled. I followed him. I had no idea what I was doing at the mass. I just followed along. When I heard about coffee hour during the announcements, I was relieved.

For an hour and a half, I felt like a person again. Those people at that church, and that priest, reminded me that I was a human being deserving of dignity and respect — not just from others but from myself.

I can’t overstate the impact this otherwise passing experience had on me.

Later that day, I checked myself into a homeless shelter. Eventually, and after a bit more struggle, I got clean and sober.

A few weeks after my clean date, the decisive day years ago I finally took a leap of faith to put all drugs and alcohol behind me, I walked to one of Philadelphia’s rivers and threw the silver chain around my neck into the water. I didn’t like keeping the chain; it was a relic from my active addiction.

I kept the medal of St. Michael, though.

At the time, I was making a small amount of money writing early in my recovery. Each week, I saved a few dollars. After several months, I had enough money to buy a new silver chain.

Now years later, the chain and St. Michael are still around my neck.

Throughout those years, I had a series of intense experiences leading me to Christ. I was baptized, confirmed, and became an active member of a parish in Philadelphia.

One of those experiences was running into that priest I met that fateful day that one November. We became friends. It’s a strange thing to know someone from what feels like two separate lifetimes.

Later, he stood behind me at my confirmation.

Recently, I attended mass honoring St. Michael and all the angels. The celebration, called by many Michaelmas, was an important one for me.

“Michaelmas,” says Episcopal priest and writer Broderick Greer, “is an occasion for us to remember that there are often invisible forces around, behind, and within us working for our good.”

Of course, there were visible forces that helped me get where I am today: doctors, social workers, governmental programs, friends, loved ones, mentors, kind people of faith, kind people of no faith.

Make no mistake: I would not be alive today and living the life I have were it not for the charity and good works of human beings.

Yet, I am convinced with absolute certainty that there were also invisible forces around, behind, and within me, too.

And, those forces were anything but human.