By Roxane B. Salonen, Forum contributor, Published March 30 2013
Poet Murphy tells of road to reversion to Catholic faith
A friend from Yale who hadn’t been in touch since graduation looked him up after envisioning a suicide attempt; the phone in Murphy’s Fargo home rang just as the local retired farmer, hunting enthusiast and poet loaded his double-barreled shotgun.
Instead of ending his life, a two-hour conversation led him to relinquish the gun.
The life-changing incident nine years ago really only constitutes the first stanza of Murphy’s conversion story. What happened after the phone call – the agonizing year that followed and the climactic moment that brought a spiritual rebirth – is where his true transformation began.
A year to the day from the fateful call, a second sign came to convince a former skeptic that God is real.
Born in Hibbing, Minn., Murphy came to Moorhead with his family as an infant. The oldest of six children, he was active as an altar boy at St. Joseph Catholic Church.
Leaving the church his junior year of college wasn’t difficult, he said. As a homosexual, he’d felt alienated for some time.
His entire family – mother, father and siblings – drifted away, as well.
At 22, Murphy met his longtime literary partner, Alan Sullivan, then 24, and the two joined forces as poet and editor/
Together, they pursued everything from Tibetan meditation and Zen Buddhism to Daoism and Confucianism.
“We were spiritual seekers, but we never looked to the Catholic Church because of their position on gays.”
After his conversion, Murphy became what he calls “a nut-job, evangelistic Catholic revert.”
It was a spiritual change his partner would later share, for similar reasons.
Life running amok
Though his physical life was spared March 4, 2004, inside, Murphy was a mess.
He’d just lost a huge sum of money on a business venture gone bad and “was drinking harder” than ever.
One day, he read an email from the same friend who’d pulled him from the brink – a former atheist who’d once convinced Murphy to join him but now was trying to convert him back to Christianity.
“I was responding in my usual defensive fashion when – bam! – I was blown out of my chair.
“And I heard this huge voice saying, ‘My son, my son, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” Murphy said, adding with a laugh, “Which proves that the only time God spoke to me out loud, he used the King James English.”
Murphy rushed to his keyboard, “typing as though by dictation” the quatrain that became part of his still-unpublished work, “Requited.”
The Lord of Hosts exists. I’ve heard his mighty angels sing.
When I toppled from his ramparts I heard their anthems ring.
I heard their wings beat round me in the centuries I fell,
and God means for me to sing my way from hell.
Two days later, he walked into Sts. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church in south Fargo and was received by a young pastor, the Rev. Robert Pecotte.
“He took one look at me and gave me the sacrament for the sick,” Murphy said. “I was shaking like a leaf from detoxing.”
After three weeks of confessing sins and receiving forgiveness, Murphy was admitted to full communion with the Catholic Church. He attended daily Mass for the next six years, having missed the previous 35.
His conversion is reflected in his double-volume book, “Mortal Stakes and Faint Thunder,” which includes as its first poem a suicide letter but ends on a high, hopeful note.
The big resolve
After his conversion, Murphy still hadn’t completely resolved his past, he said, including sexual abuse by an altar boy at age 6 and by an almost-ordained Jesuit priest he met in college at age 18. He also had lingering questions about his homosexuality and the church.
But four weeks after he heard the booming voice, he found peace.
It came by way of a dream about Pope John Paul II, he said.
“I walked him down to the waterfront, and he said vespers and heard my confession, but mainly he heard me bitching about the Catholic attitude toward gays,” Murphy said. “At the conclusion of the dream, all he said was, ‘Te Dominus amat’… He didn’t say, ‘Ego te absolvo,’ ‘I forgive you,’ but simply, ‘God loves you.’ ”
The next morning, Murphy turned on the radio and heard the bells from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome alerting the world that the pope had died.
Despite his years of grappling with the church, Murphy said, in the end, he was welcomed with open arms.
“I have encountered no prejudice whatsoever,” he said. “It also helps that I’ve practiced chastity for 20 years. I would hate to be a 20-year-old, sexually active gay Catholic. It’s still a very difficult position to be in.”
Soon, Murphy was not alone in his conversion.
Two days before Pentecost in 2005, Sullivan was diagnosed with a form of leukemia that was expected to develop into lymphoma.
“It was a death sentence,” Murphy said. “They told him he had two years to live.”
To Murphy’s great surprise, Sullivan responded to the bad news by asking him to read from the book of Psalms.
In early December 2008, Sullivan realized the cure was becoming worse than the disease, Murphy said, prompting him one day to grind up his storage of painkillers. He planned to add the toxic powder to a glass of rum and consume it.
But he, too, was interrupted by a booming voice. It said, “My son, you are not alone.”
“He called me the next day and said, ‘Tim, I’ve had an epiphany. I want to join the Catholic Church.’ ”
Murphy said his new spirituality has opened a vein of thoughts and words. He’s now at his most prolific as a writer.
His newest book, “Man of Sorrows,” a collection of all his devotional poems since his reversion eight years ago, will be out later this year.
“Meter and rhyme are just automatic for me now,” he said.
“… I am so much in and of this blessed place of North Dakota that it’s important to me to address my fellow Dakotans.”
And what is the message he most wants to share with those of the prairie and beyond?
The same one that gripped his own heart, he said: “Te Dominus amat.”
Readers can reach Forum contributor Roxane B. Salonen at email@example.com