Tag Archives: Christ

Showing Your Wife You Love Her

From Catholic Exchange:


“The causes of this breakdown of marriage are many, but really, the solution is simple. We who are called to the vocation of marriage must love our wives. Let’s face it, we ultimately can’t change anyone’s marriage but our own. In the face of marital collapse on a massive scale, our Catholic marriages must be a prophetic witness of joyful life, fidelity, and love.”

The author gives 25 ways to show your wife you love her. Some samples:

  1. Listen to her and care about what she has to say
  2. Show her physical, non-sexual affection
  3. Surprise her with flowers
  4. Take her out to dinner (without the kids)
  5. Buy her a book she’s been wanting

Follow the link to read them all. I think, however, that a list like this, while a good starting point, won’t fit the bill in the long term. No checklist, can truly tell us how to love our wives. Christ did, however, through St. Paul. He said:


Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Ephesians 5:25-27

Total self-sacrifice, putting our wife’s needs before our own. It’s impossible, of course, being only human, but the more we strive for that ideal, the stronger our marriage becomes.

Creating Ourselves Through Our Actions

The Gospel of John says the following:

 
(John 3:16-21) For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Note the action verbs. “He who does what is true COMES to the light.” It doesn’t say “He who believes does what is true.” The light is Christ, and doing what is true – that is doing good rather than evil – brings us to Christ. In other words, our actions dictate who we become, not the other way around.
We have a certain amount of control over our destiny. We can choose, through our actions, whether to walk toward Christ or to walk away from him. This is true in the aspects of our life other than spiritual. We can become good spouses by acting like good spouses. We can become good parents by acting like good parents. We can become happy people by acting like happy people. If I despair that I am not the person I wish I was or that other people wish I were, then I am being disingenous unless I decide at that moment to start acting like that person I want to be. If I act that way, then eventually – and it takes time because “coming to the light” is not a sudden switch but a gradual and oftentimes painful transformation – I will BE that way.
Modern psychology glimpses this through CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy. They teach people with emotional issues to change their thought patterns, and the feelings will follow. More importantly, we change our actions, and the nature of the person will change to adjust to those actions.
This highlights one of the dangers of allowing ourselves to be immersed in the corrosive culture in which we are currently living. If I act the way our culture dictates – by enjoying the same hedonistic entertainments and pursuing the same self-centered goals – then I will become the kind of person that the culture celebrates, a secular moral relativist with no love for God. I have to reject the culture and live a counter-cultural life not BECAUSE I have achieved some level of holiness, but because I WANTto achieve some level of holiness.
If I want Christ, I have to act like it first.

Humility and the Holy Family

image

One of the virtues of the Holy Family that I try to emulate is humility. It’s a challenging virtue, and easy to forget in this competitive, success-oriented world.

It’s so easy, in the day-to-day effort to grow in holiness, to become judgemental and preachy, especially toward those who don’t seem to share my values. “I can’t believe she dresses like that for Mass.” “Their children are completely out of control. They probably let them watch too much television.” “You can tell they’re using contraception. Otherwise they’d have had another child by now.” “I’m just glad we’re not like that.”

It plays out in the abortion debate too, with some pro-lifers more focussed on condemning than saving, overwhelmed by their anger at the injustice of it all.

We all do this, to one extent or another. It’s in our nature, and it’s certainly an integral part of our culture. We like nothing more than holding up others’ faults to make us feel better about ourselves.

The thing is, we may very well be “correct” in our assessment of others. The young woman may be dressed inappropriately for Mass. The family may be letting too much culture rot into their home, with the resulting influence evident in their kids’ behavior. The couple may be using contraception. But self-righteously pointing that out – and basking in the pride that we aren’t like them – will win no converts and help no one get into heaven.

What that will lead to is our own humiliation. For when we sin – and we will – others will see that as a confirmation that we were full of hot air. That all that talk of holiness was just another attempt to one-up the next guy. That it was all a lie. And we will be like the television evangelist caught in adultery or theft or some other scandal. Just another holy roller with skeletons in our closet.

Instead, we have be aware of our own sin (the log in our own eye). And we have to publicly acknowledge it’s presence and our need to overcome. We have to be little in our own eyes, and our words and actions should acknowledge that littleness. Then we can become an example to others of following the path to holiness. Then any good actions we do point to Jesus and not to ourselves.

The Holy Family – Joseph, Mary, and Jesus – is a perfect example of this humility. Mary did not go around preaching to the other mothers in Nazareth, pointing out their faults, making sure they knew that God had chosen her to be His mother and not them. Joseph did not try to become the next great rabbi or get followers of his own. Instead they tried to obey God’s will the best they could. They suffered the humiliation and scandal of a pre-marital pregnancy. They lived the life of a simple carpenter’s family, all the while keeping knowledge that would change the world held close in their hearts. They knew their limitations, that all the good that was to come would come from God and not from them.

As parents, this humility is doubly important. Our kids know our faults. We can’t hide them. If we aren’t genuinely humble, our kids will think (and possibly rightly so) that all our “religion talk” is simply a way for us to control and manipulate their behavior. I think that a lack of parental humility is one of the quickest ways to ensure that a child leaves the faith as an adult. During those difficult, rebellious teenage years, they will be quick to jump on any hypocrisy, any “do as I say, not as I do.”

If I tell them not to drink but put down four beers every night after dinner, they will find no reason to avoid drinking when they have an opportunity. If I tell them to be pure and then they find pornography in my internet history, they will decide that porn must really be ok. If I tell them not to lie then brag about cheating on my taxes, lying and cheating will become second nature to them. If I tell them they better love Jesus but they see no love for Jesus in my actions, they will put Jesus in the box with Santa and the Easter Bunny and walk away forever.

If, however, I tell my children that I am weak. That I make mistakes. That I am a sinful man just as St. Peter was. If I tell them these things and say that with God, however, I am working to overcome those weaknesses and that He is making me a better man. Then they will see the reality of the journey that I am on and the journey that God is calling them to. Hopefully they will decide that is a journey that they want to take.

I wrote this post for the Feast of the Holy Family, which was this past Sunday. Obviously, I didn’t finish it in time. Just another example of where I don’t quite measure up to where I want to be. And that’s ok. If I was perfect, I wouldn’t be here, I suppose.

Substance, Person, and Nature: Trying to Understand the Triune God

(This is another entry in things I want to make sure my daughter knows at her confirmation – my little way to be more a part of this great event in her life.)

One of the most challenging aspects of Christianity is to accept and try to understand the nature of the Trinity and of Jesus himself. We hear “one God, three persons” and “both human and divine”, and if we really think about those concepts it is easy to descend into confusion and even doubt.

At one level, its like asking a color-blind person to understand color. It can’t be done. As created, temporal beings, how can we understand the uncreated and eternal? But that’s ok, because there are many examples of truths in nature which the human mind is incapable of grasping intuitively. For instance, in physics, there is a concept called “wave-particle duality”. Electrons and other particles are both waves and particles, depending on how they are looked at and which experiments are run. There is no way to picture that. We can, however, develop an understanding of what it means and what the implications are based on the science behind the concept.

Likewise, we can understand the meaning and implications of the nature of Christ and the Trinity without being able to picture it in our minds, but we have to look at the theology behind it.

In Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, the former Pontiff goes into detail regarding these concepts in a way that gave me understanding I hadn’t had before, and I wanted to share and summarize that here. This understanding revolves around the concepts of substance, person, nature, and will.

Substance

Substance is essence. It is being. Substance cannot be divided up. A family can be thought of as a substance. If a baby is born, it is still the same family. If a member dies, you aren’t left with half a family. It is still the same family. If a few members of the family attend an event, we consider the family to have attended.

God is one substance. This substance, we learn in scripture, is love.

Person

A person is a who. It is an identity that can communicate. Remember that God is love. God is also internal and unchanging. For God to have been love prior to creating any other beings, what did He love? He must have loved within his one substance, because nothing else existed. In order to have love, then, the substance that was God must consist of multiple persons capable of loving and communicating with each other. Otherwise God could not be love. We find in the Bible that there are three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, since God is indivisible (one substance), then each person must be fully God. But they are all different persons that can communicate with each other. It is the love for each other that define the persons.

Nature
Nature is a set of attributes that a being has. For instance, I am a father. That is my nature. I am also a husband. That is also my nature. I never stop being either one. These two natures can coexist in me because they are aligned. God has made them compatible.

Jesus has two natures: human and divine. He never stops being human, and he never stops being divine. He is not half human and half divine. He is fully human and fully divine. Just as I am not half father and half husband.

Will
God has a divine will. Jesus is God, so He has that divine will. But human beings have human will. If human beings have human will, and Jesus is fully human, then he must have human will. But how can he have two wills? How can he ever make a decision?

Pope Benedict XVI finds a clue to the answer in Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene. In that prayer, Jesus prays “not my will but yours be done”. His human will prays for deliverance, his divine will wants only to serve the Father. Pope Benedict says,

Jesus’ human nature is not amputated through union with the Logos; it remain complete. And the will is part of human nature. This irreducible duality of human and divine willing in Jesus must not, however, be understood to imply the schizophrenia of a dual personality. Nature and person must be seen in the mode of existence proper to each. In other words: in Jesus the “natural will” of the human nature is present, but there is only one “personal will”, which draw the “natural will” into itself. And this is possible without annihilating the specifically human element, because the human will, as created by God, is ordered to the divine will. In becoming attuned to the divine will, it experiences its fulfillment, not its annihilation.

So Jesus has perfectly aligned his human will with his divine will. They work in concert.

If we want to unite ourselves with God, something which we must do to be in Heaven, then we must align our wills perfectly with God’s will (preferably in this life, otherwise we’ll be doing it the hard way in Purgatory). We call this alignment of wills holiness. Pope Benedict goes on to say,

Human will, by virtue of its creation, tends toward synergy with the divine will, but through sin, opposition takes the place of synergy: man, whose will attains fulfillment through becoming attuned to God’s will, now has the sense that his freedom is compromised by God’s will. He regards consenting to God’ will, not as an opportunity to become fully himself, but as a threat to his freedom against which he rebels.

The Four Last Things

This article is part of my attempt to write down those aspects of the faith I most want my daughter to understand before her upcoming Confirmation. She has, I know, learned much of this at her Catholic school, but hearing my way of describing it will, at the least, make it a little more personal.

The Four Last Things
The Four Last Things represent what happens next. They are the answer to the puzzle of why we live this life and what comes next.

If you are taking a class with a final exam, it would be smart to put some thought into that final exam. What will be on it? How hard will it be graded? What is the grade curve? When will it be and how long will it take? What do I need to study to ensure I do well?

The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – are the final exam for life. Nothing, really, is more important. That is why we are encouraged to meditate on them regularly, even daily. Not in a fatalistic sort of way, and not in a morbid way, but with seriousness and with hope, putting our trust in Christ Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the four last things in paragraphs 1006 to 1041. You can read those sections here.

Death

“It is in regard to death that man’s condition is most shrouded in doubt.” In a sense bodily death is natural, but for faith it is in fact “the wages of sin.” For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection. (CCC 1006)

There are three key things to know about death:

1. Death came into the world because of sin. Before the sin of Adam, there was no death for men in God’s plan.
2. Christ conquered death. This means that he transformed death so that now, when we die, we share in Christ’s death and therefore earn the opportunity to share in His Resurrection. Christ has turned death into a blessing.
3. In accepting Christ and in choosing to die to self, we have already begun the process of dying. Physical death only completes that process. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week that those who believe in Jesus have already entered into eternal life, that death is just a part of that eternal life.

Judgement
Judgement is complicated because there are two judgements, the particular judgement, which comes to us at the moment of our death,

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation. (CCC 1022)

and the general judgement, which is that judgement that occurs at the end of time, after the resurrection of the dead.

In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life. (CCC 1039)

It is hard to understand why there is a general judgement when we have already received the particular judgement. There are three things to keep in mind to try to understand the difference:

1. The particular judgement is before the resurrection. The general is after, and so we go through the general judgement in our resurrected bodies.
2. Time after death is not the same as time on earth. God exists outside of time. It is not clear what our relationship with time will be in the next life, but the distinction as to which judgement came first may not be important.
3. We are alone during the particular judgement. The general judgement is in front of everyone, and we can see the effects of our sins on those other people.

One useful analogy is this: Imagine your senior year at high school or college. When you get your final grade, you know whether or not you have graduated and if you have received any honors. Weeks later, however, you still go through the formal graduation ceremony, where you are publicly recognized.

Heaven
Heaven is kind of the point of all this. The only real reason to practice religion is because you love God. And if you love God you want to be with God. To be with God after death means you will be in Heaven.

This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity —this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary,the angels and all the blessed —is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings,the state of supreme, definitive happiness. (CCC 1024)

But there is a catch. Nothing impure can be in the presence of God. The Old Testament is very clear on this, and it appeals to common sense. If God is perfect goodness, how could He tolerate any non-goodness in his presence? Put another way, Heaven wouldn’t be a perfect place if anything imperfect were there. If I retain some selfish traits, then sooner or later in Heaven I am going to act out on those traits, and someone else will be hurt. But if a person can be hurt, then it can’t be Heaven.

So, the natural consequence is that most of us – those of us where aren’t living saints – are going to need purification before we can enter God’s presence.

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified,are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030)

This purification, we call Purgatory. Purgatory is a process, rather than a place. St. Paul describes it as a burning away of the wood and the chaff, the imperfections, leaving behind only the gold. We don’t really know what it is like, though some mystics have seen glimpses of souls in purgatory.

Once we have been purified, we are in Heaven, in total intimate communion with God. Again, we have no idea what it is like – “Eye has not seen. Ear has not heard…” but we do know it will be the essence of joy.

Hell
Hell is real. Christ repeated that over and over. And many will go there. We don’t know who is in Hell. We don’t even know if Hitler is there. (He may have repented at the last moment.

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC 1033)

So if we die in mortal sin without repentence, we will go to hell. We will be separated from God. Again, it makes sense. If I intentionally separate myself from God in this life, what makes me think I won’t do so on entering the next? My main job must then be to learn to love God as much as possible to avoid that eventuality.

Ten Principal Virtues of the Blessed Virgin

According to St. Louis de Montfort:

1. Profound humility
2. Lively faith
3. Blind obedience
4. Continual mental prayer
5. Mortification in all things
6. Surpassing purity
7. Ardent charity
8. Heroic patience
9. Angelic sweetness
10. Divine wisdom

Worth reflecting on how we stack up against these virtues during these final days of Lent.

One of the Good Guys

I am taking a musical theater class with my daughter. (I find that participating in my kids’ activities – as coach, helper, or fellow student – brings us closer in a way that’s hard to get otherwise.) My daughter’s vocal teacher, who is leading the class, picked out a song for me: One of the Good Guys from the music revue Closer Than Ever. It is a remarkable song about temptation, mid-life crisis, and the truth about marriage.

Temptation

The song is sung by a self-professed good guy, who dotes on his wife and kids. It quickly becomes a confessional:

But there was a night in Hawaii
On a business trip,
That my mind has suffused with a mystic glow.
She was someone’s friend, and she had this smile…

They become close, but in the end he resists the temptation to cheat on his wife. (Though he should never have been on that beach in the first place!)  And in his reflection it gets interesting:

…one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat
To build a warmer fire;
Denies himself a treat
To shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know.

What is the “something higher”? Of course it is marriage, but it isn’t just any marriage. There are plenty of loveless and miserable marriages out there. It is a marriage that has realized something important. A marriage in which self-sacrifice is recognized as the highest virtue. A marriage built according to this guideline:


Husbands,love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife,and the two shall become one flesh.”

Ephesians 5: 25-31

This is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to the husband to give over his very life for his wife, just as Christ gave up his, a concept out of fashion in our no-fault divorce world. This sort of self-sacrifice, however, which is the definitive sign of real love, is what we were built for, what we are called to, and when we reach it, we have reached something higher. We have reached something holy.

I can honestly say, after twenty years of marriage in which we have seen our share of pain and in which we have failed to love more than I would care to admit, that what you get to after those 20 years of perseverance really is something higher, something transcendent. We have, even in a very imperfect way, attempted to imitate Christ’s love, and even imperfectly it is something wonderful.

But that’s not the end. There is more to the story.

Mid-Life

Fast forward and the singer is now 44 with everything laid out in his life as perfectly as he could ask. But…

Sometimes at night, in the stillness,
Lying wide awake
As the wife I still desire sleeps by my side,
I can feel the wash of the perfumed air
As my mind is drowning in billowing hair…

He is tormented by thoughts of what might have been, of what he gave up, and of the possibility that even now he could seize those fantasies and make them real.

Of course, he doesn’t. After all, he’s one of the good guys. And then he passes on the key piece of wisdom from the song:

It’s not which road you take,
Which life you pick to live in,
Whichever choice you make,
The longing is a given.
And that’s what brings the ache
That only the good guys know.

He has come to realize that no matter how happy you are, no matter which spouse or career or life you choose, you will feel the regret, the questions, the uncertainty, and the temptations. It is just a normal part of life. These things we find ourselves desiring – and the people – are mirages. Worse, they are lies. They promise something they can never give, which is completion. Total happiness.

But why? Why are we built that way? Why can’t we achieve that happiness we desire? St. Augustine understood:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

We have an emptiness inside us that only God can fill and that will not be filled in this life. We try to fill that need with pleasure; with sex or alcohol or excitement or food or other indulgences. We try to fill it with our spouse. But it is never enough. We always come back to that empty feeling.

Even our marriage cannot fill that God-sized hole, and if we persist in believing that it should, we may be tempted to throw it away and start over. But if we come to understand what marriage is and what its relation to God is, then we can feel that transcendence that I talked about earlier, even while tormented by the longing that never goes away.

And what is this understanding of marriage? Marriage is no less than a relationship, designed by God, to reflect both Christ’s love for his Church and the Father’s love for the son. It aspires to be the perfect and selfless love that is Christ’s love. Paradoxically, the only way to achieve total happiness is through a total outpouring of oneself for another, for in doing that, we begin fulfill our purpose, which is to be an image of God. Likewise, our marriage an family begins to fulfill its purpose, which is to be an image of the Holy Trinity, that most fundamentl and perfect of all relationships.

And that truly is the part that’s sweet, that only the good guys know.

Lost In The Fog

The fog was amazingly thick this morning on the way to work. So thick that my headlights could penetrate 30 feet at most. So thick that streetlights and oncoming cars were invisible if more than 100 yards away.

There were moments where I felt that the entire universe had been reduced to me, my car, and a thirty foot sphere of existence. I was alone in the universe, an eerie and frightening feeling that was somehow exhilarating at the same time.

It is easy to live that way, in such a fog that all I can see is my own existence. Especially (and unfortunately) as a husband and father, it is easy to ensconce myself in my own little world of responsibilities and worries. People, even loved ones, can become objects, providers of my inputs and receivers of my outputs. When they have needs (or I have needs of them), they enter my little sphere of light. When I have met their needs or they have met mine, they depart, and it is as if they are no more.

If I shine, however, with Christ’s light, the fog is dispersed, and I can truly begin to see and love those around me as they really are. No longer do I love someone for what they can do for me or how they make me feel. I love them for one simple fact: that they are images of God.

But I have to keep my guard up. That fog keeps trying to roll in.

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 3: My Own Little Damascus Moment

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described how I became an atheist but how I later began to learn that belief in God was not unreasonable. In Part 2, I described how I learned about the Catholic Church and even came to respect it.

I still did not believe, however, and I had no desire to believe. I was perfectly happy at the thought of dating – and eventually marrying – my cute Catholic girlfriend, and she was happy with her atheist but well-meaning boyfriend.

No Proof is Possible

Stuart Chase said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” I was definitely in the latter category. I had come to understand that you cannot prove that God does not exist. I had even seen scientific evidence for the existence of God. I had come to learn, in as first-hand a manner as possible, that the universe is delicately balanced in a way that science really can’t explain. I had come to see that science is a tool for understanding how the universe works, but it cannot approach the question of why.

But it wasn’t enough. I know now that it shouldn’t be. Faith cannot come from a textbook.

Advent

I didn’t know it then, but it was the Advent season.

In order to keep this very large physics experiment staffed, the project rented an apartment in Italy for the professors, post-docs, and graduate students and also leased an automobile on a yearly basis. The car was leased out of Milan, a two hour drive north of the laboratory. The lease was up that December, and as I was the last American on site that year – scheduled to fly back to the States shortly before Christmas – it was my job to drop the car off then return to the lab via train and bus.

So Christmas was coming. My return home was coming. Something else was coming that I definitely wasn’t expecting.

When Nothing Seems to Go Right

Have you ever had a trip where nothing seems to go right? This was it for me, at least until the end. It seemed simple enough. Drive to Milan. Turn in car. Take cab to train station. Take train to seaside town of Guilianova. Take bus from Guilianova to Paganica. Be home by bedtime. I had the train schedule and the bus schedule and the timing all planned out. Being a graduate student, I didn’t have much money (and no credit card), but there was cash for the cab, cash for the train, cash for the bus, and a little extra for food. No problem.

Well, some problems. Like delays at the rental agency. Like traffic on the way to the train station.

I raced into the station right at my scheduled departure. The train was about to pull out, and the line at the ticket booth was at least a dozen people deep, so I skipped the ticket booth and went straight for the train. I knew that, if the conductor came by for tickets and you had none, you could buy one, though at a penalty. I had done it before. Once safely on board, I carefully counted my money. There was enough to cover the penalty, but I wouldn’t be doing much eating the rest of that day.

The train was packed, and I was one of the last on board. Standing room only on a smoking car. Miserable and hungry, I stood and stared out the window as the countryside slowly went by. Very slowly. Then we stopped, and I didn’t recognize the station.

I pulled out my map. Yes, I was going the right way, but this station wasn’t on the map. In my broken Italian (which tended to be laced with a lot of French and a little bit of Russian, but that’s another story), I asked the other passengers and heard the word I had learned to dread in my days in Italy: Strike.

The express train conductors were on strike, and all express trains were out of service. I was on a local train.

I looked at my watch and made frantic mental calculations. I had to be in Guilianova by 8pm to catch the last bus out. At the rate we were going, I didn’t think we would make it.

The anxiety grew at each stop. A fold-out bench opened up, and I was able to sit. My mind rehearsed the remainder of the trip. Soon the conductor would come by and ask for my ticket. He would take the majority of my money. I would have the 10,000 lire for the bus ticket but little else. I would arrive in Guilianova with no money, no place to stay, and no way out till morning. And it was cold, likely to snow. I wondered what it would be like to sleep in an outdoor railway station in the middle of winter. I was scared.

Presence

I felt something set in that was an incoherent overlay of panic and despair. Would I suffer in the cold? Would I be arrested? Would I die? Would somebody, anybody, help me?

There are people that confront those questions every day of their lives. But I was a pampered graduate student who had never had to worry about food or shelter. For me a big horrible thing was about to happen to me, and I could not stop it. All I could do was wait and watch it happen, and more than anything else, I felt all alone in the world.

Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I don’t know what happened, what triggered it. The best way I can describe it is this. Try to think back to when you were a child and your mother gathered you into her arms. How did it feel? I felt gathered and held and comforted. I felt as if someone had come up to me and told me he loved me and would take care of me no matter what.

There was a physical sensation to it. A communication. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not alone. I don’t think I heard a voice, but I thought maybe I had. Words were in my head. Words of reassurance. Comforting. Like a parent with a small child.

I was told, in that voiceless way, not to worry. I was told that I was loved and would be taken care of. I was told to trust.

And so I did. I spent the rest of journey focused not on my plight but on this wonderful experience of being loved by something or someone I could neither see nor touch.

He Provides

Before I knew it, it was around ten o’clock at night. I was in Guilianova, and the conductor had never come by to collect tickets. If that was a miracle, it was a pretty low grade miracle – perhaps it was policy not to collect tickets during a strike, I don’t know – but it felt like a miracle to me. One of the things I have come to understand is that God works miracles for us every day, miracles that seem absolutely mundane until you look on them with the eyes of faith.

But now I had the next step of my journey. The last bus was long gone, and I was in a freezing cold and empty train station long after dark. I wasn’t worried. I was filled with a sense of wonder at what might happen next. I walked out of the train station into a dark and sleeping town.

Guilianova – at least the part I was in – did not have a bustling nightlife. Or any nightlife that I could see. I picked a dark street at random and started walking.

Soon I saw a light. As I approached, it resolved into a small bed and breakfast. Still trusting, I walked in.

No, there were no empty rooms. Then the owner hesitated, and a look of motherly concern came over her face. “You’ll take one of our rooms,” she said, “But it does not have a private bath. You will have to share with our family. Is that all right?”

I agreed enthusiastically, in my best Italian. While she prepared the room I spoke haltingly with a guest who claimed to be an alchemist. He was excited to learn that I was a physicist and wanted to share his theory on how to create gold.

The innkeeper had no food, so she gave me directions to a place that she thought might still be open. It was nearing midnight, but I set out again anyway. I was hungry, but I was more motivated to just live out this strange and wonderful moment of my life.

Several hundred twisty-turny yards later and I found myself in a pizzeria. I sat down with a pizza and a beer and watched the movie showing on the bar’s TV. I wish I could say the movie had a spiritual meaning. It didn’t, but it was comforting. I spent the evening watching Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, feeling like a little child whose Father loved him.

Next: The Way of the Cross

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church – Part 1: Tilling the Soil

Late at night, in the middle of winter, traveling from town to town through central Italy on a slow-moving train, with precious few Lire in my pocket, God talked to me.

But it didn’t start there.

As the Gospel says, the seeds of faith sprout and grow on fertile soil. For most of my life, though, I was the rocky path, where seeds fall and die. But eventually God, unbeknown to me, began to sweep away those rocks, one by one.

The Young Atheist

In high school, I decided I was an atheist. It wasn’t a momentous decision. It wasn’t a rebellion or a walking away from the youth of my childhood. It was more an acknowledgement of a state of being.

My family was nominally Methodist, but we never went to church. The only vague memories of church I had were of felt banners with pictures of doves and fish and loaves of bread and a few pleasant stories that sounded to me like tall tales. In my mind, Paul Bunyon, Sampson and Delilah, Jesus, and the Lone Ranger all had equivalent claims on historical verisimilitude. I saw the stories of Jesus as moral tales used by certain adults to teach their children how to live. That was pretty much it.

By high school, I was an avid reader of science fiction and I was taking my first physics class. I fell in love with science. Science – and physics in particular – could explain anything, answer any question. My newfound passion for science solidified a vague idea I already had, which was that religion was nothing more than myth. But that didn’t really matter to me either way. The important thing to me was that I had found my passion. I was going to be a physicist. A Newton or an Einstein. The fact that I had “decided” that I was an atheist was, to me, seemingly only a natural consequence of that.

Living the Lack of Faith

After high school, I moved on to one of the premier science and engineering institutions in the nation, a home to Nobel prize winners and other assorted verified geniuses. Everything there confirmed to me my atheism, as religious faith was found on campus about as frequently as bigfoot sightings. If I knew anyone who went to church weekly, they didn’t talk about it. Drugs, alcohol, and sex were everywhere and dominated the recreational side of student life.

I had been a wallflower, but I embraced the party atmosphere. I grew my hair long, got my ear pierced, stopped wearing shoes, and developed an unhealthy appetite for beer. The partying was soon more important than my classes – which I frequently overslept – but somehow I maintained a ‘B’ average. My mental state, however, didn’t fare so well. I was confused and lonely, and I didn’t know how to be happy without drinking.

Still, my love for physics persisted. I developed a fascination for that most basic of fields, particle physics, and I finished my bachelor’s and moved on to graduate school.

Clearing Stones from the Rocky Path

The first gift God gave to me in graduate school, though I didn’t realize it as such at the time, was to get me to a new school, off campus, and away from the party culture. Being away from campus meant I had nothing to do but focus on my classes and find a Ph.D. topic. I stopped drinking so much and began enjoying life again.

The first two years of graduate school consist of core classes, and that’s where God began to do his work. What I learned in these classes dispelled some of my more naive notions about science in general and physics in particular and opened my mind not so much to the possibility of God but to the understanding that science itself wasn’t a god.

Unanswered Questions

I found that science as wonderful and powerful and amazing as it was, couldn’t answer a handful of difficult and important questions.

– Why is the universe ordered the way it is and not some other way? Why is the universe here at all?
– Why are certain fundamental physical constants of such precise values to allow for a universe capable of sustaining life?
– Why does mathematics describe the universe? If the universe arises because of mathematics, then how does mathematics arise?
– What is this consciousness thing anyway?

Essentially, I came to understand that science explains how the universe works, not why it works in a particular way or why it is there at all. And while I wasn’t thinking too much about the issue of God, his existence having been so thoroughly dismissed from my mind for so long, I did come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my assumption that science could disprove his existence was false.

Science can’t disprove the existence of God because it can’t talk about God. Science, I came to understand, is a part of this universe. God, by definition, is outside of the universe. So science has nothing to say on the subject.

None of these things made me believe in God. They didn’t even make me think of God all that much. But they did prepare me for a later conversion. They made me see that the concept of God, at least in the abstract, was not unreasonable, and they made me see that the universe was more mysterious and complicated and wonderful than I had theretofore imagined.

In Part 2, I will talk more about my graduate research and that fateful moment when God stepped unmistakably into my life.