Franciscan Spirit Blog

Broken and Healed

Shard of Mirror | Photo by Ismael Sánchez

Faith can so often be invisible, clear as a morning whisper. Sometimes I just want to touch it. This is why I’m drawn to archeology, and how I fell in love with the big fat fish. He was unearthed in 2015 by archeologists in Israel who found a mosaic on the floor of the fifth-century Byzantine “Burnt Church.” That name alone calls to me. Burnt Church. Torched in the seventh century, the sacred space destroyed, the mosaic had been protected, paradoxically, by the cinders of the roof that sifted down and left a heavy cover of ash. The tiles on the ancient floor tell the story of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, spirals of bread atop baskets, fruit, feathers, birds, fish.

Of course, the news of a dig of this magnitude spread around the world, and scholars began to hypothesize about its meaning, searching for clues. Is this charred site perhaps the actual, true place where the miracle occurred? Not, as is commonly believed, across Lake Kinneret at Tabha? No one knows. They studied Scripture and matched it with images of the floor, considering the fish of the region, the split dorsal fins of Nile perch, the single fins of the tilapia from the Sea of Galilee. Me? I don’t need any historical confirmation to appreciate the gift of this reveal. What I would have given to be one of those conservators kneeling in the sun, cleaning away the dust of sixteen hundred years, and freeing the pomegranates underneath with a brush.

The fish I now feel is “mine” is the fattest of them all, with a face so cute, so expressive, he’s smiling. His eye has one gray stone in the center, surrounded by seven circles of widening gray and beige tiles, a few orange, a few russet. The scholarly articles judge the craftsmanship of his tilework “mediocre.” Not great art. This makes me become defensive of him and love him even more. Yes, the history of tilework is beyond any schooling I have. Even if he is ordinary and average, this little guy waited under ashes for sixteen centuries.

But I know what it is to wait for a long time to be found, covered in darkness. I began drinking at thirteen. I spent the following nine years in a haze of self-loathing, nakedness, wandering, and blackouts. A blackout is drinking and drugging so much you don’t remember where you were, who you were with, or what you had done. For several years, I would lose up to nine hours at a time.

Last remembering 8:00 p.m. and then coming to just before dawn, unsure of what transpired. I have details, many sharp pieces, of these years of ugliness and violence. Somehow, I managed to graduate from college with a BA in philosophy and religion. Those studies of God gave me a lifeline, I believe. I had moved to Hartford and sat in my car in a parking lot one night, eating fast food, unwrapping the paper around a Filet-O-Fish in my lap. I thought, “I’m going to end it.” And I could feel, at that moment, a dead-end. The end of the road. There was nothing more for me. Nothing left.

I was a body made up of pieces of despair. I could not bear to live with the weight of the shame crushing my bones. My addictions had shattered me. I’d been shattering myself. I figured why not just die, let it all turn to chalk. And by “it all,” I mean what remained of my life. I knew the wind that would carry my dust away would eventually not even remember it once held me.

It wasn’t a voice that came to me: it was words like on an electronic marquee. The letters went gliding, made of golden bare light bulbs. The words that moved right to left read, “There’s something more.”

I knew I was being given a message. I felt it in the void of my heart. In my ribcage where a hunger hung that had no beginning and no end.

The next morning, I got out the phone book and in the Yellow Pages I looked up therapists. The very first one was a woman named Lois Aaron, listed alphabetically. She had not just one A, but two, putting her at the top of the list. I called her. I was twenty-two. I thought my life was over until that message came. There’s something more. I made an appointment. In the months with her that followed, I began to see I was very sick. A drunk. An addict. I went to Twelve-Step meetings and stopped doing everything on July 21, 1983. I have not had a drink or drug since. I got married and had two children, a daughter and a son. My son’s name reflects the woman who helped me save my life. His middle name is Aaron: it means shining light.

There are reams of details left out, whole novels. But I don’t think the details matter. All that matters to me is that in order to keep the darkness at bay, I have turned to God for thirty-nine years. I know that using any substance would kidnap me right back into the blackness, and I have fallen in love with the light. All the light. I want to stay in it. I don’t ever want to leave it.

Perhaps it is corny to be writing about the Loaves and Fishes and to recount my lowest hour of bottoming out in a city parking lot in my broken-down car that didn’t even open on the driver’s side. Every time I got into that car, I did it through the passenger’s door. Sitting in the fluorescent light with a fifty-nine-cent sandwich in my hands, too poor to get a side of fries or a soda with it, and seeing that this is the beginning of my journey with God’s miracles. The thing is: Miracles can be kind of corny.

And so, I celebrate the Big Fat Fish they unearthed on the floor of the church after all those years. I see who we are together. Both of us are made of shards, yet somehow, still here. Somehow still whole.

Gather the Fragments by Maureen O'Brien

17 thoughts on “Broken and Healed”

  1. I had a moment like that (without the drugs or alcohol), and I remember the date: the night of Oct. 3rd, 2005, going into the morning of Oct. 4th. I find God so amazing and so helpful, every day still. And he is humble too, never taking the credit for our being able to actually “live” our lives. That’s why we have to continually give him the credit through thanks and worship, and let others know whenever the opportunity arises. Thank you for your heartfelt and personal story.

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      I am very grateful for your response to my work, Leon…I appreciate your support in my putting out this vulnerable story…and thank you so much for sharing your own journey!

  2. Very powerful. Thank you. I, one time, was railing at God. Telling him I did NOT want a task that was put in front of me. I just kept repeating, in anguish, that I did not want this. Suddenly the words, “ I did not ask if you wanted to,” came at me. Lighting Bolt.

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      Rosalie, I really identify with your story, as it is straight from the Psalms of lament, which have helped me so much! Our challenges can be so hard, and I appreciate you sharing one of yours! Blessings, Maureen

  3. Mary Ann Young

    Just what I needed today. I am coping with a recent diagnosis of osteopenia and scoliosis—trying to figure out, with God’s help, what He wants me to do. Of course I want my answers NOW but I am learning to accept and listen. I know that I can count on God—after all, He restored my body in 1987 after I had suffered a broken neck

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      Thank you Mary Ann for sharing your journey here…your words are welcome!

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      It means so much to me as a writer that my words have touched you…thank you for taking the time to share this!

  4. Thank you for sharing your road to recovery. We all are broken and covered with ashes of sin and regret. Thanks be to God for his love and mercy and the sacraments. God bless,


    1. Maureen O'Brien

      Julie, thank you for reaching out here and being a visible part of the Franciscan Media community!
      Blessings to you…

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It really struck home with me and my problems to help me remember that God always loves us and brings good things out of bad no matter what. We just have to remain faithful and let God bless us ????

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      And yet I forget this again and again! Thank you for sharing your faith here today.

  6. ‘Gather the fragments’ is such an evocative and lovely title. Your words are powerful and helpful and I am most appreciative of the vulnerable, hopeful and faith-filled tone, full of possibilities. Thank you.

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      Beth, this is such wonderful feedback…it sounds sort of hokey, but one day the title came to me and I knew I had to begin the book! I thank you so much for reaching out here.
      peace to you,

  7. What a beautiful, powerful story. I’m guessing you have helped many others in gaining freedom from addiction. God had and has plans for you, for a future full of hope and helping.

    1. Maureen O'Brien

      These words are so beautiful to hear Mary, I receive them with both humility and joy…thank you.

  8. Our God is a god of miracles. Thank you for these touching stories of human suffering turned to lives of light and love. So powerful.

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