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To Witness Something Greater

Updated: Jun 26, 2020


| This is the 387th story of Our Life Logs |


Where do I begin? Well, I was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1957, and was the third of five children. Although my parents worked very hard, we were a poor family. We often didn’t have the money for heating in the winter, which was unfortunate because it gets quite cold. I shared a small room with two of my brothers, always wore hand-me-downs, our father worked two jobs—all that. Still, having a tough childhood does not mean it wasn’t happy.

My mum stayed at home and cared for us all. Often, she took in sewing to make extra money, which she would often use to buy small gifts for us. I remember receiving rosary beads as a surprise gift one day. Shiny blue beads on a silver chain. It was beautiful. As the tiny silver charm of Jesus on the cross hung from my palms, my mother encouraged me and my siblings to say our Hail Marys and Our Fathers every night before bed.

I could see that my parents were good, hard-working people, and their beliefs in God helped them to get on with life. My mother sang in the choir and took us to mass every week. My parents both enjoyed serving others when they could and always had a lot of empathy for people. I followed their values and looked up to them. I also wanted to help others and thought that the best way of doing this would be to become a Catholic priest when I grew up.

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When I was 16, I left school and joined a religious college, and my parents were proud of the path I was following. However, my experience there was nothing like I thought it would be. Some of the nuns and priests seemed hypocritical, often preaching one thing but not living by it. So many of my peers and teachers seemed to be just going through the motions.

Then, I made friends with a young nun who, not long after meeting me, made sexual advances toward me. I resisted her, knowing that God wouldn’t have approved, but in all honesty, her affection had made me happy.

By the end of my first year of studies, not only had I become disillusioned with most of the religious teaching of the Catholic faith, but also, I grew a desire to get married and perhaps have children one day. For these reasons, I decided not to continue with the rest of the course. In my heart, I knew it was the right decision, but after giving up on a goal I had for all my life, I felt abandoned by God and didn’t know where to turn.

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Eventually, I decided to study psychology at a university in Belfast instead, as I felt that I would still be able to help people, and I threw myself into my studies. I still wanted to give back to the community, so, when I graduated, I entered a monastery as a counselor, working with alcoholic priests. But some of their stories were hard to hear; some just made me angry. For example, I had two priests who confessed to child sexual abuse.

Now, as a counselor, I had signed a confidentiality statement. This meant that everything a client said to me was kept confidential so I couldn’t report the priests unless I felt that a child was actually in danger. As the priests were confessing to abuse that had taken place in the past (in one case almost two decades before), I didn’t report it. Still, it made me feel uneasy and I did sometimes wonder whether one of the priests was a danger to children.

I left the monastery and moved to Glasgow in Scotland, where I had been offered a job as a psychologist and later worked as a lecturer at university. Not long after I moved, I phoned a helpline anonymously and reported the priests. Their confessions still haunt me.

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After moving to Glasgow, I met a wonderful woman, got married, and together we had four children in quick succession. After my children were born, I started attending church again but found it stifling and didn’t like following outdated dogma. I wanted to believe in God but felt like there were too many rules and rituals. Although I had achieved many of my career and family goals, I remember one night looking at the chain of my rosary and realizing that, there was something missing in my life.

I began to search for that missing link by looking into other religions. I studied Buddhism, spent time living in a Hare Krishna community, and then met and studied with Mormon missionaries. I went to every church in our local area but felt that there was nothing there. I had every religious text, from copies of bibles from many religions to an English copy of the Koran that some Muslims had given me. I was giving up hope. I was disturbed by a lot of things that were going on in the world, including sexual abuse in the Catholic church. I struggled to find meaning in my life but still felt such an emptiness.

I decided to give up on my search for God and concentrated on my job and my children. I was a very angry person. I felt like the world had done me over.

But somehow, after working hard all week, I could have a lay-in on a Sunday morning and still feel guilty. I felt that there must be a church out there for me somewhere.

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In 2010, my mum passed away, and this affected me deeply. Some days I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It didn’t make sense to me how I felt as I knew that she was old and had had a good life. It was time for her to go. During this time, I completely gave up on my religious search, as it felt too hard. I accepted that I would never have a religion or feel spiritually complete. I started drinking heavily for a while to make myself feel better.

I had been close to my mum throughout my life, and she had always been someone who I could talk to about religion. I remember once asking her why bad things happened in the world and why I sometimes felt so sad. What she told me had made sense at the time but, now, I saw it in a new light as an adult.  She said that we had to have darkness in order to enjoy the light. Just like day and night, nothing stays the same forever and these sad feelings will pass. She told me we need the darkness so that we can see the stars. As a child, I found that comforting.

A year after my mother’s death, I had to pull myself together, otherwise, I realized that if my children grew up with a dad who was  an angry alcoholic, then it would affect them deeply. I didn’t want them to have bad memories of me. I stopped drinking and told my wife to wake me up early when she got up. I went to the gym every morning before work and even lost a bit of weight.

After a few months, I felt fit and healthy and better than I had in a long time. Although I still missed my mum, I didn’t feel it so painfully. I realized that I had been spending too much of my time studying different religions and had let other areas of my life suffer. I started to make positive changes in my life and rekindled my relationship with my wife.

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Then one day, two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our door. They asked if I would like to talk about the Bible with them. I wanted to close the door on their faces as I had had enough of religion, but my wife was polite. She invited them in, as she knew that I hadn’t looked into that particular religion and thought that I would be interested. It turns out, that she knows me better than I know myself.

I knew a lot about religion, or I thought I did. I only talked to the Witnesses because I felt I could prove them wrong. I asked them questions that I thought they wouldn’t be able to answer as I was feeling quite grumpy that day. The Witnesses were very patient with me and used the Bible as a resource to give me good answers. I soon realized that maybe I knew very little.

In the following weeks, I was very busy and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study the Bible again, so the visits ended. I concentrated on getting my life back on track and focused on areas such as health, fitness, and hobbies. I had loved photography as a child, so I bought myself a new camera and started taking photos again. I also used the psychological techniques that I had been teaching others to help myself. As a result, my emotions became more stable, and I started to think that perhaps the key to a happy life was purely psychological.

However, it wasn’t long before the empty feelings returned. One night when I was feeling particularly hopeless, I got down on my knees and prayed to God. I said, if there’s a God out there and you’re listening to me, please help me to change my life. Please help me to find more peace and find my place in the world.

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One year after meeting the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I’d talked to previously, I bumped into them again in the street. They recognized me and offered to recommence our Bible studies. I felt ready to continue with my spiritual search, so I agreed.

We sat together for hours, going through my big notebook full of difficult questions that I asked them at the first meeting.  Again, the Witnesses were able to find examples from the Bible to answer them. I asked questions such as, how does your organization handle child sexual abuse? How do you earn money? As their answers were from the Bible, it was the authority of God, not just the organization’s rules. I found this comforting and reassuring.

In 2016, I was baptized and became one of Jehovah’s witnesses, this has allowed me to become a better person. I have made positive changes in my life and no longer feel angry or empty. I have learned so much about how everyone, from all walks of life, is the same.

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As a child, I dreamed of helping people and becoming a priest. I now feel that I live a more meaningful life. I am so grateful that my prayers were answered and that the Witnesses came into my life. God was patient with me, as it took me a long time to find him. Spirituality is already inside of you and within your grasp. Once I realized that, I was able to have a deeper connection to God. The Witnesses finally taught me to look within, which is what my mum was trying to tell me all along.


This is the story of Leo O’Brien

Leo O’Brien grew up in a Catholic family in Belfast in the 1960s. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a priest so that he could help other people. After spending one-year training, he felt disillusioned by the church and left the priesthood. He then trained as a psychologist and joined a monastery where he counseled alcoholic priests. After hearing child abuse confessions, he again felt angry and put religion behind him. He moved to Glasgow, where he was offered an excellent job, met and married his wife and had children. However, he always felt that something was missing in his life and started to resume his spiritual search, looking into all the world’s major religions. He has now become a Jehovah’s Witness and finally feels that his life has the meaning he was so desperately searching for.


This story first touched our hearts on May 1, 2019.

| Writer: Abi Latham | Editor: Colleen Walker |

To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)
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