A few months ago, SPES Journalist Zane Williamson spoke with John Carmichael, the author of Drunks and Monks. Reading the book greatly impacted Zane so it was a real privilege to spend time with John and get to know the story behind the book. Below is Zane’s interview with John Carmichael. Questions are in bold and responses follow.
In the first part of your book, you describe attending a non-denominational worship service where so called “communion” was distributed. You participated, and then you heard a voice say, “Don’t ever do that again.” After that you went on to attend the TLM and were drawn into the true divine worship. Could you describe how all this unfolded a bit more?
I had been formed by secularism even though I had gone to Catholic school. I had accepted the secular message that “We can’t really know anything and anybody can do whatever they want. If you want to go do a whole Protestant worship service somewhere and you like that, that is just fine.”
So it was a great surprise to me when I went to a worship service like that — I won’t call it a church, because there is only one Church that was established by Christ as reflected in Matthew 16:18 — and had the reaction that I did. It was shocking because I didn’t value Holy Communion as a Catholic. It wasn’t something I thought nourished me, or that it was a channel of supernatural grace. I didn’t believe any of that at the time I went to this Protestant worship service.
When they put grape juice into little cups and offered “communion” something welled up in me that was not of my own making. The rebuke “Don’t ever do that again” was not coming from me, because I personally didn’t care what they were doing there, which is what made it so shocking.
Just to go back a little bit, I was an altar boy in the late ’70’s, and I remember when the changes to Holy Communion took place – I think that had an impact on me. For a few months I used the paten and then they took the paten away and everybody was standing. From a very young age, I just didn’t think that there was anything really special about Holy Communion. But seeing that non-denominational presentation of what they would call “the Lord’s Supper,” in my gut I knew what they were doing was a mere commemoration of a common meal. They had no sense of anything supernatural taking place there.
I didn’t have the language at that point to say, “What’s wrong about this is they aren’t recognizing either the supernatural character or the sacrificial aspect of what the Lord’s Supper prefigured and what it was all about.” It was only in my stomach at that point and it wasn’t in my head. No one had ever said anything really bad to me about Protestants or about what they do. There was no real prejudice in my reaction. What I marvel at is how real the sensation of wrongness was even though I had no real basis to understand it.
I had no plan after that, I only knew that I couldn’t go back there. I did wonder if my reaction was just because I was raised with a certain custom and their custom was different than my custom, but the sensation was deeper than that. In the modern Mass I grew up with, the communion that we did was only slightly more formal than the so-called Lord’s Supper at this worship service. It wasn’t the Tridentine Mass consecration that I was comparing this to; it was a very mellow, modern Mass in Redondo Beach during the late 70’s. Yet there was still something that seemed very different in character about the presentation of the bread and wine. It was very clear that it was only bread and wine to them.
Then, shortly after that, I got lost in a canyon and I didn’t know where I was. This is, again, something I couldn’t plan. Typically, it is hard to get lost in Southern California because it’s not like we’re in the outback. But I was turned around and I found St. Michael’s Abbey of the Norbertine Fathers and it had my mind really worrying. That was about the time that the motu proprio came out regarding the liberalization of the use of the Old Rite.
All this came in sequence over the course of maybe a month and a half. First this Protestant worship service, then me getting lost up in the hills and finding St. Michael’s Abbey, then the motu proprio – and suddenly I find myself at a Catholic Mass! Why did I go that Sunday? I don’t know! I was getting some real Divine assistance and I wasn’t that cooperative. I was still drinking and I was still very worldly. I didn’t know very much, but I was finding myself at the right places.
So I found myself at the Junipero Serra Chapel, and experienced the Tridentine Mass for the first time in my life. And that consecration is so High Church, so reverent, so transcendent, that it put an even sharper contrast to the Protestant idea of the Lord’s Supper vs. the Catholic Truth of the Eternal Sacrifice of God the Son back to God the Father. The metaphysical nature of it was really on display there. Apparently many people have had conversions in the Junipero Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. I didn’t know this, but I walked out of that Mass a Catholic. I still didn’t know anything about the Eucharist, really. I don’t know if I went up for communion — which I certainly should not have done since I was not in a state of grace by a long shot — I really don’t remember too much about it except what I wrote in the book. It is a bit of a blur.
Going from the Protestant worship service to finding the Abbey almost by accident and then somehow ending at a Catholic Mass where the Eucharist was presented with this high degree of reverence – you couldn’t write it. I would never write a book like that because it would be too cheesy. I wouldn’t write a fictional work like that because it seems too pat. It didn’t seem pat at the time, but I felt as if I was just kind of sleepwalking through this experience. And looking back, I could see the pattern that was in it. I was open: I was open to the Truth at that point. I just didn’t in a million years think it would be the Catholic Faith or even anything having to do with Christianity.
In your book, you speak often of the sense of sin, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and how coming back into the Church through that sacrament was so powerful. You had a number of devout Catholic friends who told you they were concerned about the state of your soul and strongly counseled you to go to Confession. You eventually did and received an outpouring of Sanctifying Grace. Could you describe that a little bit more, especially in the light of someone who has been away from the Church so long that it’s difficult to think about returning and going through a general confession?
Just like with Communion, I didn’t think much of Confession growing up. If you’d asked me when I was twenty, “Where in the Bible does Jesus talk about or establish the Sacrament of Confession?” I would have had no clue. I didn’t like going in there, and I didn’t really know how to do it, so I just never went. I would have never guessed that it was a channel of Supernatural Grace because I didn’t have a strong sense of the Sacraments and what they were – I didn’t know about Sacramental theology.
So I just drifted through life thinking generally that I knew right from wrong. I knew about justice, but I had no concept of holiness in the way that the Church always spoke of holiness. At this point of the book, the main thing is: I’m an alcoholic, and I’m basically dying.
As I’m really going down the tubes, this woman from the choir said, “John, you need a priest.” And that just fell really hard on my ears. I just did not like the sound of that. Why do I need a priest? What do they have that other people don’t have? And with all of the problems of the priests and all of these things that we’ve lived through, I had a very low view of the priesthood. I thought, “Certainly there was nothing that I could receive going to a priest that I couldn’t likewise receive going to a secular counselor.” I had this sense that they did counseling, and probably not very well.
But the look in her eye was just so sincere and so assured. And that language – the language of Sanctifying Grace, the language of salvation – no one had looked at me and spoken to me like that with a straight face, like they really believed, maybe ever – and certainly not with regard to Confession. I can confirm that nobody had ever looked me in the eye and said, “John, you need Confession; it’s real.”
So I prepared for this Confession on the strength of these two or three members of the choir that were urging me to do it. Finally, I went up there to the Norbertine Fathers who have confession every night and said to the priest, “Hey, I haven’t been here for twenty, thirty years, and I’m told that I should make a general confession. I don’t know – probably we can’t do that right this second – but I’m here to kind of just somehow start that process.”
He was a great young priest, probably 30 years old or thereabouts, and he just welcomed me back. He had this handy dandy pamphlet and examination of conscience. He said, “This is great! Praise God that you’re here!” Then we set a time roughly a month later so that I could be prepared. Some priests won’t do that, but that’s the way that we decided to do it.
In that intervening period my mother died, and when I saw her death it scared me enough that I ran back to the confessional. It really looked to me like she was staring into another world, as if she was conversing with people who weren’t in the room with us, and that she appeared to be somewhat shocked in the last few minutes of her death. It was really, really scary. It wasn’t that I made a judgment as to where she went, but I really felt that she went somewhere.
I was still drinking at this point, still using some drugs and things, but I just sprinted up there as soon as I could after her funeral. Again, I still didn’t have the theology to put this all in the right context. For example, I still didn’t know about John 20:19-23. But I made that general confession during Lent and it was otherworldly. The priest didn’t do any counseling in that moment. He just heard my confession, granted me absolution, and he performed a deliverance prayer. Whether we call it a minor exorcism or deliverance prayer, this young priest performed it and the very next minute I knew that I had to get sober. Like I said, the priest didn’t tell me anything. He listened, he granted me absolution, and he prayed that deliverance prayer over me that I described in the book, and I was sober a month after that. I haven’t had a drink or drugs since. That tells me that there was something demonic going on with my use of alcohol and drugs. But, through this priest, God intervened and broke the back of the addiction.
It was only at that time that I went and started to look up what this Confession thing was all about. And that’s when I read John 20:19-23. I had just experienced something that suggested that was totally true! I had been to all the secular counselors, I had been doing “self-help” and all this stuff, but none of it was helping. I was getting worse, and then I just went to a Catholic priest like the woman in the choir told me to do, and I have been sober almost six years because of that.
Now, I did get formal help with people who help alcoholics recover, and that was great, but I saw so much relapsing, and, frankly, I saw what I considered to be a lot of demonic activity in and around the people who were trying to recover. I really thought they could all use Confession, deliverance prayers, and the Eucharist. But you can’t necessarily run around in a secular recovery setting telling people that.
That gave me a strong belief that Confession is a channel of Supernatural Grace: it’s not a counseling session; it’s not of this world; it’s something Jesus left for us, and we can either use it or not. I came to the book knowledge of this after the actual experience of it, and I think that was actually very useful because the study that I did about the sacraments then just confirmed what I had lived through.
I’m still reeling from it, you know, six, seven years later. It was the turning point in my life – that confession. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done; and it was something that I didn’t value at all. It was my birthright; it was something that was given to me freely by my parents and by the Church, and I acted like it was nothing. Sometimes I think about how caviler I was and how important it is for us to evangelize, because if a confession could make a difference between somebody dying of alcoholism or getting sober, people should have that and people should know that.
You mentioned the demonic forces at work in the world and I know you are working with those in recovery – how have you seen people respond to the truths of the Faith and in what ways have you seen them being drawn out of their sin and into a life in Christ?
What I see is that people who wait or who have some inkling toward the Faith and recovery, but don’t act on it, are almost in more danger than people who are far from the Faith. From my own experience, I worry about people standing in the middle of the street too long, because that’s a moment when these demonic forces have to take more affirmative action to keep someone away from eternal life with God. Thinking in these sacramental terms, my buddy, who I’m still very friendly with, was a goner: He was still using heroine; he was facing multiple felony counts; he was totally suicidal; he was having panic attacks, seizures, and I was in no position really to help him. But when addicts and alcoholics go too far down the line there’s really no one else who can help them except other addicts and alcoholics. It’s often like the blind leading the blind at that moment.
I thought he was going to die, so I thought, “Well, he did say that he wanted to be Catholic and there’s no way that he can make it through RCIA.” I couldn’t get him a priest and I didn’t know what a priest would say, so I just baptized him at an old church. And again, even after my confession and seeing something that seemed to be of supernatural character, I still thought, “Okay, we all know that it’s a nice idea, baptism, it’s a beautiful thing”, but I didn’t expect much from it. And this is my own lack of belief really. I think it was partly God’s way of showing me that certain things are absolutely true, because after I baptized him a lot of those fears he had went away. Again, I didn’t counsel, there was nothing that I was doing differently, but the DA dismissed the charges against him, everybody got cooperative, he got a job, he got an apartment, and he started doing better than me! And I thought, “Wow – this stuff is amazing! These sacraments are amazing!”
There are people who report “miracles” frequently in recovery, and most people think it was a miracle they were able to stop drinking. But we of course distinguish between that which has a natural cause and that which might have some sort of supernatural intervention. I mean, baptism itself is of a supernatural character. I don’t know that it’s proper to call it a miracle, but the turnaround that I saw in this man’s life – there was nothing other than that!
I read Fr. Amorth’s books and he said, “While it’s good that we are very careful in sending people to psychologists and psychiatrists, sometimes the only way to tell if there is a demonic or preternatural cause for an infliction is by doing something spiritual in opposition to it.” Now I have a hard time working in recovery with people without the tools of the Catholic Faith. I see a lot of relapsing and we’re warned about things like that – that the demons will flee and when they come back to find the place swept clean, they’ll enter with seven more to make the condition of the person worse than the first time. That really looks like relapse to me.
I think the use of the sacraments and deliverance prayers in recovery is potentially a real key, a real goldmine, and it’s neglected. We need to start with the basics first. Start with confession, start with the Rosary, start with the deliverance prayer from the priest if you’re up to that, and get close to the Eucharist – and then see what’s leftover. What’s leftover may just be psychological, it may just be part of the trouble of living, and you have to apply natural virtue to it and all of these other things that we know of. But starting with the sacraments, with a sincere repentance, confession, absolution, a deliverance prayer, sacramentals and all of the tools – then you can see, “Ok, I’ve got all of these things leftover and they’re probably not demonic or preternatural; they’re just my personality.”
John Carmichael is currently working on a number of other projects which SPES, for one, eagerly awaits. Discussing those projects, he said, “I believe the Catholic Faith is true and I intend to tell people that…I’m fairly militant, I’m fairly traditional, and I’m fairly horrified at what I see is the loss of faith and the loss of the Great Commission.” If his upcoming books are anything like Drunks and Monks, they will clearly share the Truth of Jesus Christ in a delightful and vibrant style.
If you are interested in his book, Drunks and Monks, it can be purchased online from Amazon.