Her hair was red, but not nearly as red as the area rug that sat atop the aqua-green carpet in her living room. She was short and plump, yet not as round as the peanut M&Ms we ate while drinking coffee and discussing theology. Though nearly sixty years old, her Irish eyes sparkled with a childlike joy that, for a long time, I didn’t realize was caused by an opioid coursing through her veins. Her name was Mary Elizabeth, she preferred to be called Liz, and one day, high on OxyContin and almost-as-expensive Hawaiian Kona coffee, she exclaimed, “How come you’re Lutheran instead of Catholic? Jesus founded the Catholic Church, not the Lutheran Church! Why would you want to be part of a church an ordinary man started just five hundred years ago?”
A decade after my conversion, when recounting this incident to a priest, he said, “Ah… an OxyContin evangelical moment.” And indeed it was. For as surely as OxyContin had loosed her tongue, Liz’s questions prompted me to more seriously investigate both Catholicism and my own Lutheran tradition. By that time I had started watching EWTN, inspired by the homilies I could hear every day, especially those of Father Angelus Shaughnessy, an aging Franciscan whose love for Catholicism flowed through the television like sunshine through a stained glass window. Why God chose an Irish opioid addict to help an Irish priest nudge this German across the Tiber remains a mystery, but their disparity proves the wind blows where it wills—that God can use anyone, and any circumstance, to accomplish His purposes.
I met Liz the autumn of 2002 because after nearly twenty years in education I’d just started selling real estate, and hers was the first house I listed. A friend of hers I’d taught with at the local university—she, a full-time professor, me, one of countless adjuncts—had called and discreetly said Liz needed to sell her house. Thrilled and thankful for the referral, I quickly learned the situation was a bit more dire: Liz was in danger of losing her house because she suffered from neuropathy, no longer drove, and therefore couldn’t keep her job as a social worker and pay the mortgage. It took me several months, however, to discover she was addicted to OxyContin, which had been prescribed for her illness.