Words by Matthew Talamini
There's one moment, for me, that sums up Jason Valente's character. It's not one he might have picked for himself.
It’s early evening, at a prayer meeting. The windows of the church's upper room look down onto the sidewalk. We hear loud arguing from outside, then it quiets. We go on praying.
Then more yelling, and a loud pop.
"That was a gunshot," Jason Valente says. He and our pastor get up and go down the stairs and outside. The rest of us are looking out the window, or calling 9-1-1. From where I'm sitting, I can't see anything.
A few minutes later, our pastor returns. The shooter had fled; an ambulance was on the way; the victim was conscious; and Jason was praying with him.
I suppose that night sticks in my mind because he did two things that I, in my timidity, would never, ever do.
One: Hear gunfire, and go toward it without a second thought.
Two: Pray for a stranger. In public.
So it makes sense that I would want to record some of the details of his spiritual journey. He has a rare bravery, and that wasn’t always the case.
Jason’s Early History
Jason didn't grow up in church. He immersed himself in drugs and alcohol from a very young age: marijuana at 12 years old, alcohol at 14. He connects it with fear. Insecurity. He talks about his "man's man" upbringing, that equated emotional vulnerability with weakness.
(Recall the Jason I just finished telling you about. The fearless one, who walks toward gunfire while the rest of us stare out the window? The one who's strong enough to be emotionally vulnerable with a stranger, on the street? How did that man come out of this child?)
Like most young people, he was searching for love. He longed for the romantic relationship that would make him feel complete. But he kept getting his heart broken. He kept building his identity around those relationships. And when they didn't work out, he was devastated.
The drugs were a coping mechanism.
And they had almost ruined him: In 2007, Jason emerged from rehab, over $100,000 in debt. He had two DWIs, no driver's license, and was on probation. But he was lucky: he got a job at a Navy base and he started working hard, putting his life back together. He doesn't call it luck; he sees the hand of God, arranging events on his behalf, even before his conversion.
So to all outer appearances, his life was getting better. He made deals with his creditors and never had to file for bankruptcy. He wasn't drinking anymore, wasn't using drugs, wasn't smoking cigarettes.
He was doing a lot of online dating, and he slept with some of the women from that world. But he was still lonely.
The Cracks Begin to Appear
He injured his back. He was open with the doctors about his history of drug abuse. He didn't want anything narcotic. So they gave him Tramadol, which, to be fair, is one of the mildest opioids. They were doing their jobs.
As soon as he took it, he knew it was dangerous. He finished the prescription, and thought he would leave it at that.
But a few months later, his back trouble flared up. "I've got a legitimate injury," he told himself, and got more Tramadol. When that ran out, he got another prescription.
While all this was going on, the online dating paid off. He met someone, and there was real chemistry. They moved in together.
Around this time, Rhode Island changed the law about Tramadol. Jason's doctors told him they wanted him to transition off of it. Fearing withdrawal, he started buying it off the street. Worse, his girlfriend would go to the hospital pretending to be hurt, to get more.
And then he was drinking again. And then he was smoking cigarettes again. And then marijuana.
Addiction will tell you that you can use one substance to get your mind off another. Learn from Jason's example what a lie that is.
This is when God began unleashing what Jason calls 'fortunate events'.
He was finally getting off the Tramadol. Stuffing himself with Imodium for the withdrawal symptoms. (Please don't do this, it's very dangerous; get real treatment instead. Withdrawal feels bad, but you need to poop to live.)
He shattered his clavicle playing football. He remembers seeing fear in his girlfriend's eyes. Oh no, she was thinking, another injury. More Tramadol.
But he didn't get more Tramadol. He stayed home for three months, with plenty of Imodium, weed, alcohol, cigarettes, pornography... and now Adderall, too.
But that was a secret. The Adderall prescriptions were for his girlfriend and her daughter. He had gotten curious. There was a way to sneak a tiny bit out of each pill, to get enough to get high. Stealing Adderall became a terrible, compulsive ritual: one more addiction for the pile.
Then a foot infection, from standing in water at work. Then a skin-blistering sunburn. More shoulder pain from the clavicle. More back pain. ‘Fortunate events’.
In that downward spiral, every physical pain seems to have its answer in one substance or another. But in reality, that's not an equation that ever balances. All the pain is still there, beneath the numbness, and it has to show itself somehow.
Jason has short black hair and a medium build. There's a hint of New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain around his jaw and brow, if you've ever seen pictures of that. 'Craggy' is what some writers would say. I notice how quickly his features can flicker between joy and seriousness. Laughter and intensity, right next to each other.
He speaks with a medium-thick Rhode Island accent that's forceful—even loud—when he's laughing or joking, but which softens to a smoky, compelling smoothness when he gets into a storytelling rhythm. His words are colloquial and well-chosen; he talks like everything he says is something he saw himself. Several times he stops me when I press for more details or suggest an alternate expression. He's not willing to fly off into guesses and theories, but sticks to his own experience.
His humility won't appreciate the comparison, but it feels a bit like talking to Peter. Not the mellow old Saint Peter with the book and the giant key you see in stained-glass windows, but the rough fisherman with the sword. Like it says in the book of Acts:
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
That's the Peter I'm thinking of.
The Dam Breaks
There was one day when the clouds that had been gathering finally broke. He was doing something terrible, and his girlfriend caught him. During our interview, Jason avoids specifics. Whether to spare me, shield somebody else or some other reason, I don't know. But I'll respect it.
The nature of the offense is less important than his reaction to being caught. Like a tiny crack in a dam widening suddenly, everything he had been doing came pouring out. He told her about the drugs, the theft, the pornography, everything. It was a messy, grand confession, a scorched earth confession. A relationship-destroyer. An atom bomb.
They decided he had to move out. How could she trust him, after this? How could she live with him? How could her daughter be in the same house every day?
In shame and sadness, but beginning to feel the first antiseptic sting of confession and the pull of God on his heart, he started packing his things. It would be a few days before he would leave the house, so he was still there when the cinematic moment occurred that he would use afterwards to describe his transition.
The Mystic Experience
It was 2 a.m. when Jason woke up, not knowing why. He felt the house sway beneath him, as though a semi-truck had just blown by.
Something—the Holy Spirit, he knows now—prompted him to go out onto the balcony.
When he got there, time stopped.
In a 2008 paper, Professor Douglas Shrader, Chair of Philosophy at SUNY Oneonta, lists this as number 6 in his catalogue of the seven essential characteristics of mystical experiences. During our conversation, Jason also recounts numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7.
I have my own theories about mysticism—and don't take this too seriously—but I'm fairly convinced by Kant's idea, in the Critique of Pure Reason, about time and space and causality being less like the way things are, and more like the way human beings perceive things. That our minds take the round pegs of experience and hammer them into the square holes of time, space and cause. So if you were to experience something—anything—as it actually is, it would have to be a mystical experience: timeless, bodiless, eternal, essential, characterized by universal oneness and peace.
Jason misses out on one common aspect of the mystical experience, and I think it's significant. Many mystics talk about feeling a deep sense that the separateness of things is an illusion. Our impression that one object can be different from another, according to them, is a mistake. Everything is one. You can find this idea in philosophy, both Western and Eastern. It's number 5 on Professor Shrader's list.
But it's nowhere in Jason's testimony. Because what Jason is looking at, out that balcony, is a distinct line of division. He's not seeing universal oneness.
The sky in front of Jason is split exactly in half. A surgically-clean cut across the belly of the night. The right side is a mass of dark and roiling clouds, lightning flickering whiplike from thunderhead to thunderhead. Chaos, tumult, discord, confusion.
On the left of the dividing line is the cold, clear blackness of night, and the steady twinkling of the eternal stars. Calm, harmonious and clean.
This experience came from God, and Jason knows it. After that night, he no longer wants alcohol, weed, cigarettes, Tramadol or Adderall.
Instantly, Jason knows he has to stop sleeping with his girlfriend. He doesn't do it right away, because of the terrific difficulty of such abstinence, but he knows it. He has a dream in which a devil with Angelina Jolie's face, grappling with him, is crushed by a foot from heaven. After that, no more pornography, no more lust.
He moves out, at last.
That summer, he does not experience hunger. He doesn't sweat. He sleeps like a rock and wakes up beaming with energy. When he cuts a sheet of metal, it comes out perfect without any effort. He punctures his thumb with a shop tool and doesn't notice any pain. He interprets dreams, and floods social media with declarations of God's greatness.
He has a changed heart. He calls it a heart of flesh, that God replaced his heart of stone with. For instance: everybody laughs at Internet videos of kids wiping out in hilarious ways. But when Jason sees them, he's filled with compassion, as though it was his own child.
Jesus in Jason’s Life
The accelerated spirituality following his conversion begins to fade once he joins a local church. My church, luckily. If you visit us here in Providence, he might be the one who greets you at the door.
We have a lot of ways to volunteer, and he's involved in most of them. He comes early to pray. He leads the youth group. He mentors kids through a neighborhood non-profit. He helps people move, and carries tables, and cleans things and grills things and laughs and worships and lives life as part of our community. I'm glad to know him.
There's a Bible verse that says that if you were to write down all the things Jesus did, the whole world wouldn't be big enough to hold all the books. And I've spent more than my share of pages here on the things Jesus did in Jason's life.
But let me say one more thing. If you think what happened to Jason is rare, you should understand that it's not. There's a Jason in your town. And if you think you'd have to see these things for yourself to believe them, let me tell you that they're available to be seen.
We put big steeples on the buildings where we keep them, to make them easy to find.
Matt was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and leads the CityLove writing workshop.