This story begins about 25 years ago.
I was just about 13 or 14 when I stopped believing in God. The reasons are numerous but they aren't particularly relevant to this testimony. What is relevant is that my disbelief in God was total. He did not exist. Period.
As the years went by I saw no reason to change my mind; if anything, I just grew increasingly certain that God was nothing more than an invention by people to explain the things they couldn't explain. The philosophers that I read only further reinforced my belief. And if intellectual certainty wasn't enough, my life itself seemed to bear witness to the nonexistence of God.
If you had met me a couple of years ago, you'd have seen a man who had just about everything a man could possibly want. I had a beautiful wife and two lovely children. I ran a successful business with offices in three countries. I had a house with everything in it - home theater system, microwave, dishwasher, the works - I even had a fully stocked liquor bar. I had three cars. I had it all.
But more than this, I was a man to whom nothing bad ever seemed to stick. I got into fights, accidents, and other situations that should have seen me arrested, injured, or even dead. But I walked out of each and every one of them without anything to show for them other than an increasing feeling of invincibility. I never even fell sick, other than for a rare cold once in a while. Even if something bad did happen - like, say, I lost a job - I would get a new job, ten times better, almost overnight. It was like I had an invisible cloak of protection around me, keeping me safe, making me invulnerable to any kind of harm. And I thought that the protection was something I generated myself. I began to get arrogant in my belief that I was untouchable, that I was a power unto myself, that I could do anything I wanted.
And for a long time I could.
Then one day things started changing. I lost my business. I started losing my money. My friends started disappearing. Bit by bit I began to lose everything I had in my life, until one day all I had left was my freedom and my family. And then came the day when I lost that too.
One night in July, as my life continued to collapse with great rapidity around me, I went out drinking. I wasn't an alcoholic but I was a rather heavy drinker, and like most drinkers - heavy or otherwise - I thought that I had control over alcohol. I was to find out just how much control I had that night.
I don't remember returning home. I don't remember anything that followed other than a few hazy images, until some time in the morning I found my bedroom suddenly filled with policemen and I knew I had done something terrible. Within fifteen minutes I was in the police station. Five hours later I was behind bars, locked up with rapists and drug pushers and murderers like an ordinary criminal.
I found out a little later what I had done. I had torn up my house, smashing some of those very symbols of prosperity I had been so proud off. I had hurt my wife so badly she had to be taken to hospital. And I had pulled a knife on her threatening to kill her and my little daughter. I was not a very good man, and not the best of husbands or fathers, but I loved my family in my own strange way and it seemed impossible to me that I would do anything like that, but in one of those rare flashes of brutal honesty, I realized that in a rage - especially a drunken rage - I just could have. The thought was horrific.
When I spoke to my wife later, I told her that I was sorry and but she wasn't interested in accepting my apology. She said she was going to take the children and leave me. And I knew she meant it because I could hear the fear in her voice and knew she was scared witless of me.
And I knew my life was over.
In less than a year I had lost everything I had. There was nothing to live for and I knew that when they let me out of there, I would go for a swim one day on the beach and keep swimming. It was all over for me.
I sat down in the corridor (all the cells were full) and I wondered how things had reached this point where death became the most appealing of options.
As I brooded, I happened to notice a young man in the cell facing me. He was reading a Bible and there was a look of such peace on his face he looked almost beatific. I found myself envying him, and even more so a moment later when I realized I had never known peace, not one day's peace in the twenty five years gone by. How did this guy manage it? Especially in a place like this which was sheer bedlam. There were three radios blasting three different kinds of music. There were people yelling and fighting with one another. There were people stomping up and down the cell block. But none of it seemed to bother this guy. I went up to him and asked him how he managed it and he smiled and said, "Jesus".
At any other time I probably would have been scornful, but then I was just conscious of this tremendous feeling of sadness. "Jesus," I thought. "Do you even exist? To be able to give people anything, much less peace?"
I didn't believe it any more than I had a day earlier, but hope springs eternal in the human soul and death was too final a solution not to turn to one final possibility of saving myself. And I did.
"Jesus," I whispered. "Help me get out of this mess." I almost imagined I heard someone sigh.
The next time I spoke to my wife, I told her that I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep the family intact, and that included getting back to God. She didn't quite believe me, which was not surprising given my previous antipathy toward religion, but she seemed prepared to give me a chance. And I was grateful, because despite her skepticism, I meant it and the very first morning after I was released I went for mass.
It was the first time in 25 years I was walking voluntarily into a church. I stood when everybody stood and sat when everybody sat, but I just couldn't bring myself to kneel. I was still too proud, too arrogant.
When mass got over I went to meet the parish priest, one Fr. John, who had served the mass. I told him that I wanted to get back to God. The priest gave me a long studied look before saying he wasn't sure of my sincerity and that I should go back to church and meditate for a while.
I stared at him in complete disbelief. Wasn't the fact that I was there an indication of my sincerity? But I was tired and wasn't inclined to argue. Besides, there seemed to be an element of truth to what he said so I returned to the church and sat down, not quite sure what I was supposed to do. My heart wanted to accept Jesus, my heart needed to accept Jesus, but my mind rebelled. I hadn't believed in God for 25 years! I had been so sure that he didn't exist, I hadn't even let my two kids, one 14, the other 6, be baptized. How was I supposed to suddenly start believing he existed? I wanted to, but it was so difficult.
I looked around the church helplessly, glancing at the various images hung on the walls, wondering what I should do, when I found my eyes drawn to a gold and black mosaic of Mary holding the baby Jesus in one corner. It was a beautiful picture and I was admiring it, thinking how lovely the lady in it looked, when suddenly I heard her say, "Aneel, come to me."
I looked away, thinking my imagination was running wild, but then a moment later, I heard the voice again. This time there was no denying that I had actually heard it. It was so clear, I can still hear it in my head. "Aneel, come to me," she said. For a man who had lived his life on the altar of reason, this belonged to the story book world of fantasy but to deny I heard that voice was tantamount to denying my very existence. Or my sanity. I began to get a trifle scared.
"Aneel, don't be afraid. Come to me," the voice said for a third time.
It is perhaps fortuitous that there were only five or six people in the church at the time otherwise I might never have done what I did. I got up and walked across to the picture. I found myself unable to look up at it for a long moment, but when I finally raised my eyes I suddenly felt a wave of fire run through me filling every pore of my body, only the fire wasn't hot, it was cold, and was the most delicious sensation imaginable. It went on and on for nearly half a minute and was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced.
And then I believed!
It is said that all you need to do is take one step towards God and he will cross miles and miles to get to you and I saw evidence of that in the church that day. I was a man who wanted to get back home but was unable to find his way back. God didn't wait for me to ask for directions; he came and took me home. And even as he did that, he gave me the gift of faith.
That was the first miracle.
I stayed on for the next mass, and this time when people knelt, I knelt too. It felt the most natural thing in the world. I went for communion and received Jesus in me for the first time in twenty five years. And I experienced a feeling of peace in my heart like I had never experienced before. It was like I was one with the world, one with the universe, one with God. The sensation was utterly amazing.
I went back to the priest after the service and this time there weren't any questions about my sincerity. Very graciously, he took me under his wing and over the course of a week he gave me instruction on various aspects of the faith, before he finally said I was ready to make my confession.
I wanted to make a good confession, so that night I went through my life calling to mind my sins. They went on. And on. And on. I discovered I had committed every sin imaginable, short of murder, though I was perhaps guilty of that too. When you think something in your head and want it with your heart, the deed is as good as done, and I had committed genocide in heart and mind!
I was horrified! Not so much by the sheer volume of my sins, but by the fact that I hadn't even realized that I had been doing anything wrong.
The next day I went to Fr. John and made my confession. At the end of it, he told me to say a rosary as penance. I was shocked. A rosary! Just a rosary! For 25 years of sinning!!
"That's not enough," I said.
"What do you suggest?" he asked mildly.
"I don't know. Make it 25 rosaries; one for each year I've been away from God."
The priest said okay, but I couldn't help feeling I was still getting off light. This wasn't justice in my world. I wanted to be lashed, scourged, made to carry a cross, even be crucified; to be punished for the things I had done.
Fr. John was a wise man and he seemed to discern what I was thinking.
"Aneel," he said. "I want you to know something. This is penance, not punishment. Your sins have been forgiven. All of them. Jesus paid the price for them when he died on the cross."
It was at that moment that the full love of Jesus struck me and I swore to myself that I would never, ever do anything in my life to hurt this wonderful man again.
I returned home and began dismantling my old life, systematically burning, smashing and otherwise voiding myself of anything that I felt would be an offence to Jesus. Bootleg CD's and video cassettes, pirated software, and a collection of pornography that was as vast as it was depraved, were all destroyed along with letters and photographs from old girlfriends.
As if in appreciation of my efforts to purify myself, Jesus himself stepped in and performed a second miracle in my life. He totally wiped away my desire for alcohol. A single drink at that stage might have blown my new life to bits, but now there was not the slightest temptation to imbibe, not even when I was in a room full of people who were drinking.
A few days later, on the first of September, less than two months after my conversion, my wife and I were at the Divine Retreat Center in Cochin, South India.
The Retreat Center is supposed to have brought about amazing transformations in the lives of those who attended. I figured I already was transformed, but if there were to be further improvements in my life, I would only be too happy.
When we reached the retreat center I saw a large sign at the gate that said smoking was strictly prohibited inside the premises. I grimaced. I still retained much of my contempt for rules - arrogance dies hard - and I had no intention of following this one. Besides, I wasn't sure I could follow it even if I wanted to. I was a chain smoker and I used to smoke three packets of cigarettes a day, five in the days when I drank. That is sixty to a hundred cigarettes a day!
I had heard that people who attended the retreat quit smoking and if that happened in my case I would be delighted, but I wasn't taking any chances: I had four cartons of Benson & Hedges in my backpack!
We checked in and then went for the first session. After it was over I rushed up to my room and in the twenty minute break we had been given I smoked five cigarettes one after another. If I ever needed evidence as to how hopelessly addicted to tobacco I was, this was it.
During the next session, one of the speakers spoke about the sanctity of life and how it was an unforgivable sin to take life, even if it was one's own. The statement was made almost in passing, but the effect it had on me was enormous. It dawned on me that when you smoked - just like when you drank or did drugs - you were taking your life. It wasn't instantaneous death but you were killing yourself just as surely - and as deliberately - as if you were ingesting a little poison every day. And that made it a sin! By this time, the moment I discovered that something was a sin, I no longer wanted to have anything to do with it. I wanted to quit right then and there, but quite honestly didn't know how to. I had been a smoker since my early teens and had never quit for more than a couple of days at a time despite trying my best several times.
We broke off for lunch. I returned straight to the retreat hall after we had eaten. My thoughts were still very much occupied with how to give up smoking when I heard Jesus say, "Aneel, give it up."
By this time Jesus and I were good friends and we spoke constantly so I had no difficulty recognizing his voice.
"I don't know how," I replied.
"Just quit," he said. "Leave the rest to me."
That evening, there was a session called "Surrender" where you surrendered something to the Lord. This could be a weakness that you had, or a burden that weighed you down, or - as in my case - a habit you couldn't give up.
This seemed to be my cue. I got up, went to my room and after collecting all the cigarettes I had, I returned and dumped everything into a trash bin that was placed for this very purpose.
And my addiction was gone! There were no withdrawal symptoms. There was no unbearable craving for a cigarette. There was no moodiness or grumpiness. And a habit I had thought I could never break was broken with only the effort it took to make a decision, a decision to surrender it to the Lord.
The following morning we were in the middle of prayer when I suddenly felt a massive wave of electricity shoot through my body. It is an experience that goes beyond words, and the closest I can come to describing it is by comparing it to electrocution. It was like I was plugged into an electric machine and someone had turned the juice on. I had no clear idea what was happening, except I knew that something momentous was taking place. When it ended, I felt more alive than I had ever felt in my life. But at the same time, strangely empty, as if I had been given a taste of paradise only to have it taken away.
I waited for the experience to recur, wanting it, needing it, but the day passed into night without anything happening other than a few shivers that might have been from a breeze that had begun blowing from seemingly nowhere. Just before the session ended, I engaged Jesus in some intense conversation, mostly impassioned appeals for him to repeat the experience. I promised him a total surrender of self in return; I promised him I would never sin again if I could help it; I promised him that I'd do anything and everything he wanted me to do, even die for him.
"Are you sure?" Jesus asked, before adding softly, "You might have to."
"Yes, Lord," I said with utter and complete conviction.
And then I got blasted again, this time nearly off my feet. For about five minutes - it could easily have been ten or twenty - I had this current pouring through me, unceasingly. The experience I had in the morning was wonderful but it was nothing like this. This was raw, naked power. This was the power that parted the Red Sea. This was the power that smashed the walls of Jericho. This was the power that helped Samson bring down the temple. This was the power of God himself. And it was in me!
And I knew that my life would never ever be the same again. And it hasn't.
(Testimony written on September 30, 2002)
Aneel Aranha is the founder and director of Holy Spirit Interactive (HSI), a Catholic lay apostolate recognized as an Association of Faith and Outreach by Bishop Paul Hinder, Apostolic Vicar of Southern Arabia.
An atheist for twenty five years, a series of catastrophic events that took place in his life in 2002 led to a powerful encounter with Jesus, transforming him from a hedonistic unbeliever to a fiery proclaimer of the gospel across the globe.
A renowned international preacher and retreat leader, Aneel has spoken to thousands of people in hundreds of parishes and prayer groups around the world, including the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and several countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Over five dozen of his talks are now available on DVD.
Aneel leads HSI’s flagship Discipleship Program, a powerful 7-hour retreat that has served not only to transform the lives of the thousands who have participated, but to empower them to take the gospel message to others as well. Aneel has also preached retreats to priests, politicians and prisoners, and addressed millions of viewers on international television.
Aneel conducts leadership programs and mentors spiritual growth communities, also called Schools of Discipleship. There are flourishing HSI communities now in the USA, UAE, India, Trinidad and Canada with more to start soon in England, Thailand, Lebanon, the Caribbean and other parts of the world.
Aneel is the author of several books, including the inspirational School of the Holy Spirit, The Armor of God, The Seven Deadly Sins and A Guide to Personal Prayer. He has written scores of articles and reflections, many of which can be found on the HSI website. He also maintains a few blogs, one of which is the insightful Christianity and the Art of Mountain Climbing.