By Suzanne Hammons
Voice of the Southwest
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared July 7 on the Voice of the Southwest website, the official news outlet for the Diocese of Gallup.
One night, driving down a rural New Mexico highway, Martin Smith saw the devil. That encounter, which he recalls as feeling “like an eternity,” would change his life forever.
Smith, who lives in Farmington, New Mexico, will soon be ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Gallup. But his journey to the diaconate has been long and winding.
“My adopted father is from Paraje, New Mexico, and that’s where I was baptized. In 1958-59 they moved to Winslow, Arizona, and I attended Catholic school there,” he recalls. Smith’s father was a railroad worker, and his adopted parents raised him in the faith, but it didn’t settle. “Teen years, I discovered money … and more or less left the Church.”
Smith describes the next couple of decades of his life as “self-centered,” rooted in addiction to drugs and alcohol. He worked as a diesel mechanic, living in Farmington. He didn’t rediscover his faith until that encounter with Satan, and what happened next is what Smith describes as his “spiritual awakening.”
It was Christmas Eve in the early 90s.
“I was jonesin’ real bad for cocaine. And there was nothing that was going to stop me going down to Albuquerque,” Smith recalls. “So, I got in my car, I was half-lit, and right before Cuba, mile marker 82 — I’ll never forget this. I was driving a little Jeep sedan, 4-door. And what transpired in the next few minutes seemed like an eternity.”
He heard a crash, and suddenly a face he remembers as Satan’s burst through his window.
“He had glowing eyes, horns, just — an ugly, ugly face. A demon — just ugly. And there was an angel,” he said, comparing it to the old cartoon trope with a devil on one side and an angel on the other. “That’s what they were doing, they were bartering for my life.”
To Smith, it felt like the encounter went on for hours, and he watched as the angelic and demonic entities bartered for his life.
“The question was finally proposed to me: ‘Do you want to live, or do you want to die?’ And I had to make that choice,” he remembers. “If I continued to go down the road I am, I would die. If I turn around and go home, I would live. Well, I chose to turn around and live.”
Smith remembers “snapping out of” his vision. He was still alone, at night, on the highway between Farmington and Albuquerque. He was unhurt — but his car had collided with a deer, which was now collapsed partway through his broken window.
“But his head was triangular and there was fire in his eyes, and when he spoke he said, ‘I want your soul.’ And that was my spiritual awakening — it wasn’t a conversion, it was just an awakening, to realize the gifts I had within myself, and it was now my choice to make good.”
Smith was so shaken that he decided to talk to a priest, and for the first time in decades, he went to Mass. He recalls walking into the doors at St. Mary’s Parish in Farmington — worried that the building might collapse because of his presence — and taking a seat in the back.
“And I kinda knew the formulation of the Mass and all the procedures. Some things had changed, but not a lot — it was still the Mass. And after Mass, the deacon and priests were greeting people.”
Smith walked up to the priest and said “Padre, I really need to speak with you.” To his amazement, the priest looked at him and said, “Marty Smith, is that you?” It was one of the priests whom he had known as a boy in Winslow. Smith described what had happened, and the priest asked him to read the book of Hosea. Smith was immediately taken with the message of repentance of forgiveness: “I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely; for my anger is turned away from them.”
“Then I went back and made a Confession. And I came back to the Church full-blown,” Smith said. “I was on the road to ruin. I still say, because of the Confirmation, because of the Holy Spirit, because of Baptism, the gifts and fruits of the Spirit are always with you. No matter how long away from the Church you are, your baptismal gifts are there. It’s up to you to choose and recognize them.”
Renewed in his new-found spiritual life, Smith began volunteering at ministries in the parish. Through his service as a religious education teacher, he met the woman who would become his wife, Deborah. She has been a great source of faith and support in his eventual decision to become a deacon.
“[Deborah] has been a real backbone. She’s been a real influence on me. We’ve both accepted this journey to the diaconate. That’s another thing I would say — the wife has to be on board. You have to be together in this.”
But the obstacles in his life weren’t completely cleared away. Within a few years of his marriage, Smith was struck with Transverse myelitis, an inflammation of his spinal cord near his brain stem.
“It took away my mobility, my speech. I was able to think — that was about it.” To this day, Smith said, doctors still don’t know what caused it. “I was in rehab for almost two years, to learn to walk and talk again, all the mechanics [of basic movement]. To this day I still have a bit of neuropathy, I have a speech impediment now and then.”
Smith found solace in his reawakened faith.
“God got me through that. He strengthened me more, spiritually, in that way. I know it sounds weird, but He did. He brought me closer to Him, as a prayerful man. Because that’s all I could do — was pray.”
Eventually he recovered and returned to service at his parish. On more than one occasion, his friend Dcn. Frank Chavez asked if he would consider the diaconate program. Smith told Dcn. Chavez, “No thanks, I don’t think you want me. I’m not worthy to be a deacon.”
“Nobody is worthy,” replied the deacon.
By this time, the Smiths had been attending Adoration regularly for years. And Dcn. Chavez’s words stayed with him.
“That’s where I really find it peaceful in speaking to Jesus, and just listening. And one night He said ‘I think you’re ready,’” Smith recalls. “The thought was always there — it was present: ‘Can I be a deacon? Should I be a deacon?’ And every time I’d go to the Blessed Sacrament, the thought of the diaconate would pop up. And of course, I’ve been friends with a lot of deacons also, and the way they conduct their lives was similar to mine.”
He was attracted to the idea of deeper service to the bishop, to priests and the diocese. “That’s what I want to do, is serve my diocese. I want to serve my bishop, my priests. Because growing up in this diocese, I know how poor it is, and I know we need good, faithful men to step up to the plate. And I consider myself a good, faithful man — I’m totally, totally a sinner. But I’ve finally come to the point where I’m not worthy to be a deacon, but I’m accepting His confidence in me.”
Smith takes great encouragement from the John 15: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you, and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name He may give you” (16).
“The [Holy] Spirit just feels like He’s enveloped me. And it feels good. I was never like this before. I was hot-headed, quick-tempered, vulgar-mouthed. I’ve done 180 degrees. I’m joyful. I’m full of the Spirit.”
When he is ordained a deacon, he will serve at Holy Trinity Parish in Flora Vista, helping his friend Dcn. Matt Lamaroux in building and fostering the parish community. Smith says he is greatly looking forward to ministering to the sick.
“I’ve been one that overcame sickness, overcame the struggle of learning — as an adult, learning to walk and speak again. You have to have that kind of faith to overcome that. I can connect on that level very easily.”
He encourages any man who feels called to deeper service to consider whether they might have a vocation as a deacon.
“You are worthy. God made you — everyone — worthy to love Christ. And even though we feel unworthy, we are all worthy to serve Christ, and that’s what Christ wants us to do.”
Suzanne Hammons is the editor of the Voice of the Southwest and the media coordinator for the Diocese of Gallup. A graduate of Benedictine College in Kansas, she joined the Diocesan staff in 2012.