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.
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.
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.
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