Then a strange dream, an old friend, and a disturbing psalm woke me up to reality.
I met God in a dream. He arranged the encounter; I was not looking for him. At the time, I was 41, and I considered myself wildly progressive. As a college professor, I had been teaching critical theory, radical feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism since the early ’80s. One colleague reported to another that I was “the party girl of the department.” I was “spiritual but not religious,” which meant I could be good without God. In my spare time, I would attend all kinds of “paranormal seminars”—the kind advertised on Whole Foods bulletin boards.
As a graduate student in the ’70s, I had attended transcendental meditation classes and experimented with marijuana and psychedelic drugs. Then, as a professor in Los Angeles in the ’80s, a colleague and I would regularly explore the city’s weirdest religions. I would collect crystals and study strange spiritual books. (Authors like the feminist Neopagan Starhawk were among my favorites.) Eventually, I would dabble in workshops where we bent spoons and practiced hypnosis on each other, while the braver ones tried walking on coals.
A central image in my life was the actress Shirley MacLaine, dancing on the beach in free-spirited fashion. I was seeking happiness, self-fulfillment, and freedom from restraint, all the while deluding myself about my own “goodness.” We were children of the ’60s, products of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” culture.
In my mind, I was like Shirley, dancing freely on the beach, but in certain moments—in the middle of the night or in the darkness of depression—I could see glimpses of who I really was. I was not growing freer. My heart was growing harder, my emotions darker, and my mind more confused. But I was unable to admit this candidly.
Filled with Filth
In late November 1992, I had an unshakeable dream. When I awoke, I remembered every detail—sights, sounds, colors, thoughts, and feelings. It was there that I met Jesus and saw who I really was, all at the same moment.
I was in a line of people, so long I could see neither beginning nor end. We were dressed in gray robes, marching ahead very slowly. Suddenly we reached an area where a yellow light was emerging. As we approached it, I saw the scene of the Last Supper (recognizing it from Sunday school).
The disciples were eating and drinking and talking to one another. Jesus was not at the table with them, but standing up ahead—we were in a reception line. When I got to Jesus and looked into his eyes, I grasped immediately that every cell in my body was filled with filth. Weeping, I fell at his feet. But when he reached over and touched my shoulders, I suddenly felt perfect peace!
The next morning, I called the most spiritual and peaceful person I had ever met, a former graduate student living 120 miles away—and the only man who ever took my class on feminism. Over dinner, I described the dream, confident he would recommend a sweat lodge or some new sort of New Age experience. I was wrong; he immediately asked if I had a Bible—I didn’t—and he then suggested we go find one.
He encouraged me to read one chapter of Proverbs and five psalms every day. Then he casually added that, since Jesus had been in my dream, I might try reading the New Testament.
From the beginning, I liked the Proverbs and cautiously enjoyed the New Testament. But the Psalms made me somewhat uneasy, particularly Psalm 137, a poem of protest against Israel’s Babylonian captors that culminates with a disturbing vision of vengeance. Not long after confessing this uneasiness to my friend, I had an experience like scales falling from my eyes. I suddenly realized that evil exists and—more importantly—it is in me.
I remembered a popular New Age teacher I had once seen holding court in a California restaurant, aglow with light and love. Afterward, this woman had gotten into an altercation with the owner of a car she had backed into accidentally. Amid her angry shrieking, the man kept telling her, calmly but firmly, “This is who you really are.” When I heard this, I knew I was just like her: pretending to be good, yet filled with bile.
My friend handed me two brochures—one for Bill Gothard’s Basic Life Principles conference, and another for a charismatic Benedictine monastery. Though totally foreign, I went to both and came away feeling blessed. Gothard’s lectures were effective at bringing Scripture to life and illuminating the reality of human nature. At the monastery, I was touched by the devotion of believers who spent days seeking closeness to God.
On the first Sunday in January 1993, I was sitting in a very small Methodist church where my mother had grown up, listening to the pastor invite the congregation to Communion. When the time came to go forward, I prayed to God, “If you are real, please come and get me.” Suddenly I felt the same peace I had known in the dream.
To clean up my soul, God taught me what a good friend of mine calls the “bar of soap” passage—1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I asked God to forgive me for having watched pornography, and I felt no desire to see it any longer.
But forgiveness wasn’t always easy to accept. I had undergone two abortions, and over three long years of prayer, I doubted whether God had truly forgiven me. Some counselors and fellow Christians had encouraged me to “forgive myself,” but the more I searched Scripture the more confident I was that forgiveness could only come as God’s gift. Like Paul, I had to learn to “[forget] what is behind and [strain] toward what is ahead,” toward “the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).
Finding My Kolkata
Coming to Christ changed not only my personal life but my intellectual life as well. My scholarly work has always focused on the best ways to educate the poor. So in 1996, after seeing a documentary about Mother Teresa, I decided I would volunteer with her organization, Missionaries of Charity, in Kolkata (then Calcutta). I spent two months tending to sick infants, performing some cleaning tasks, and running supplies to the mother house, where we would begin each day with Mass and a simple meal. One day, as I was sitting on a bench, waiting on some materials to take back to the orphanage, Mother Teresa herself walked straight up to me. She shook her finger and instructed, “God does not call everyone to serve the poor like he calls us, but God does call everyone to a Calcutta—you have to find yours!”
When I resumed teaching later that year, I experienced a profound intellectual crisis—my Kolkata, then and now. I would weep before entering class. Midway through the semester, I realized I was still teaching the same things I had always taught, even though I knew they were untrue. I was allowing secularism to define my intellectual boundaries. But the more I read the Bible, the more I could see how Christ’s wisdom reaches beyond secular thinking, even where it poses no contradiction. For example, almost every culture and religion believes that we should not do to others what we would not want done to us. Christ goes further: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12, emphasis mine).
There is physical water, and there is spiritual living water. In Christ, there is always a higher rationality.
Mary Poplin teaches in the School of Educational Studies at the Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews (InterVarsity Press) and Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service (InterVarsity Press)