Patrick B. McGuigan
Oklahoma City – As a lad, the Sisters of Mercy taught me and classmates at Bishop John Carroll School these words of Jesus: “I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20 New American Bible)
In my childlike way, that seemed impossible. Tiny faith? Moving mountains? Nothing impossible? I wanted to believe, but it seemed too much.
In high school, at Bishop McGuinness learning history from Sister Margaret Landis, I was transported by the “Confessions” of St. Augustine of Hippo, especially this practical-sounding assertion: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
It worked alright for a time: accepting the need for faith, as a critical spirit sought evidence.
The seed was truly planted through academics. Studying Medieval Church History – the good, the bad, the ugly and ultimately the beautiful – at Oklahoma State University, I moved beyond reason toward faith.
I was drawn to the ultimate Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, who wrote the best sentences ever about the fusion of reason with faith.
And yet, it was from the Angelic Doctor that I discerned the limits of evidence and reason. While celebrating Mass (December 6, 1273), he experienced what has been described as “an unusually long ecstasy.”
He was so moved by a transcendent encounter with his Savior that he refused to continue dictating yet another essay to a friend who was assisting him.
When that colleague begged him to return to work, Thomas said, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.” He learned something beyond the power of words.
In his magnificent book about Joan of Arc (who lived 19 years), American writer Mark Twain described happened when she was executed (on May 30, 1431) after an unjust trial:
“When the fires rose about her and she begged for a cross for her dying lips to kiss, it was not a friend but an enemy, not a Frenchman but an alien, not a comrade in arms but an English soldier, that answered that pathetic prayer. He broke a stick across his knee, bound the pieces together in the form of the symbol she so loved, and gave it to her; and his gentle deed is not forgotten, nor will be.”
How can any human being have that faith – prayer and praise as flames of death consumed her? What could move the heart of an enemy to be her comforter, at the hour of her death? Perhaps a similar interior spark converted the great skeptic, Samuel Clemons, into the world’s least cynical man as he contemplated Joan and her faith.
It was as I absorbed Twain’s masterpiece that my affection for Joan deepened into a kind of love. The facts say a lot. The mystery says even more.
Before I headed to the East Coast for work began the reign of Karol Wojtyla (who took the name John Paul II) as head of the Catholic Church.
He crafted an Encyclical (teaching document) called “Fides et Ratio” (Faith and Reason).
While affirming the Church’s Magesterium, he evoked (with honor) great minds from every corner of the human experience I have found teaching history classes:
“Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of … Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.”
In a time of grace, 19 years ago at a public charter school (the original Seeworth Academy), I labored in the old Corpus Christi School on the northeast side. Many children at that alternative school came from impossibly difficult backgrounds. One day, as I grew frustrated with behavioral problems, I had a moment of grace.
Mind and memory went to facts about my dear mother, who in 1954 bore me into life in Corpus Christi, Texas. My father was in the U.S. military, stationed at Kingsville’s Naval Air Station.
Mom told me stories as a boy. As a man, I was privileged to serve in a building that had, at least previously, bore the name – Corpus Christi means, in Latin, “The Body of Christ.”
Saint Paul, in Christianity’s founding generation, was for a season the greatest persecutor. After conversion, he wrote (first letter to the Corinthians) that each part of the Body of Christ – the Church – serves a purpose.
Paul also crafted the perfect narrative for the human trilogy of love, faith, and hope.
Growing in faith did not mean I avoided challenges. Grace came again, through the prayerful reflections of a woman whose economic philosophy is socialist, but whose vibrant heart beat in concert with all the faithful who desire to know God.
Dorothy Day once wrote: “I suppose it is a grace not to be able to have time to take or derive satisfaction in the work we are doing. In what time I have, my impulse is to self-criticism and examination of conscience, and I am constantly humiliated at my own imperfections and at my halting progress.
“Perhaps I deceive myself here, too, and excuse my lack of recollection. But I do know how small I am and how little I can do and I beg you, Lord, to help me, for I cannot help myself. … But we are sowing the seed and it is up to him to bring the increase. It is all in his hands, and we must keep ourselves in peace, first of all. That is where peace begins. He is our peace.”
For one recent season in life, I have regularly visited the Dorothy Day Center, adjacent to St. Charles Borromeo Church and School.
Still, today, I am seeking. I have returned to the mustard seed, passing days ‘distanced’ from regular activities.
It wears on the heart, sometimes, but memories help: As a lad, I saw (on black and white television) the Baptist preacher Billy Graham come often to Oklahoma City. The dear nuns at John Carroll — parish school at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help – honored Rev. Graham because, they told us, “he honors Our Lady.”
I found this gem from Brother Billy: “Your faith may be just a little thread. It may be small and weak, but act on that faith. It does not matter how big your faith is, but rather, where your faith is.” And this, as well: “Fear can paralyze us and keep us from believing God and stepping out in faith. The devil loves a fearful Christian.”
Thus, to these present times, in the course of human events. I hope to dispel my own fear, and help alleviate that of others, if possible.
The doctrinal guardian who guided a revised modern Catholic Catechism emerged during the years of John Paul II. After John Paul’s death, the guardian became Benedict XVI. As pontiff, he held a series of audiences in which he reflected on St. Augustine.
In one of those sessions, Pope Benedict said, “The harmony between faith and reason means above all that God is not remote; he is not far from our reason and life; he is close to every human being, close to our hearts and to our reason, if we truly set out on the journey.”
In that Catechism, rooted in the past yet relevant now, came these pearls:
“By love, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. He has thus provided the definitive, superabundant answer to the questions that man asks himself about the meaning and purpose of his life.”
This heart, still searching but not as restless, shelters at home.
The journey is not over, at least not yet.
My favorite writer of all, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago,” his history of communist tyranny, to offer words of soothing counsel:
“Do not pursue what is illusory – property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life – don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness.”
Lord help me, I fear misfortune, and desire happiness. Yet I know reasons to rest in Him.
My rest comes those nuns, as I embrace the faith of my Mother and my Father.
The seed of long ago took root and grew.
The branches that came forth seek a purer light, that place where faith will govern heart and soul, forever.