I came of age in the Age of Aquarius. After a great fall and with the help of an inspired teacher, God converted me from Aquarius to Aquinas. I grew up knowing almost nothing about Christianity, but was nevertheless certain that Christianity had been disproved by science.
As a teenager in Marin County, California, I was involved in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The Unitarians, who trace their history—and their name—to a denial of the Trinity, believed in complete freedom of belief for their members. Each person was free to decide on his own version of reality: I looked to the East for religious inspiration and to the Left for political action.
The Age of Aquarius was exciting but left me discontent. My older brother and only sibling had cerebral palsy. His handicap was not immediately evident, and people often assumed that he was just clumsy and odd. Most of his peers and many adults treated him dismissively. I was not always kind to him myself, but I felt profound gratitude to those who treated him with compassion. His innocent suffering awoke a hunger within me to make sense of life. Although I did not believe in God and mocked belief in God, I still had a deep sense that there must be an answer to the riddle of life.
Do You Believe in God Now?
In 1971, the year I graduated from high school, I was rock climbing in Yosemite Valley. Showing off in front of my climbing partner’s younger brothers, I took the lead up a crack in the sheer granite wall. I had, however, misjudged the thickness of the crack and the protective devices I carried were too small to wedge in the crack. I managed to get only one of them secured, at a spot about 15 feet above the granite ledge from which I had started. After another 15 feet, I came to a slight outcropping, which presented a difficult move. Not wanting to admit defeat in front of my audience, I tried to finesse the bulge, with the worst possible results. I tumbled backwards into a headfirst plunge toward the granite ledge, now 30 feet below. Unless the rope stopped me, the 30-foot fall headfirst into granite would cripple or kill.
With a great jolt, the rope caught me. My feet were waving upward in the air and my skull was just 18 inches above the granite. After it was all over, I had another shock. One of my climbing companions jokingly asked, “Do you believe in God now?” His question reverberated within me. It still does. While plunging towards the abyss, someone had been present to me, someone who cared for me. But as yet I was not ready to admit it was God, whose existence seemed disproved by science.
More importantly, I was not ready to submit and obey. The meaning of life was supposed to be something passive, something I could find—and control. But now Meaning had asserted itself, stepping out of the shadows. Meaning was somehow a person. I had encountered this person in helplessness. But I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to know this mysterious person, but to know him on my terms.
Truth Belongs to All
As St. Augustine left his hometown in North Africa and entered into the stimulating but sinful world of Carthage, so I went off to the flesh pots and protests of San Francisco State College in the autumn of 1971. Although my rock-climbing arrogance had been tempered by experience, I was still trying to climb the wall of human ignorance by the power of my own judgment. I thought that psychology and cultural anthropology were promising cracks in that wall. They seemed to offer an understanding of the human mind and human society. But the classes I took did not get near the answers I sought.
In my senior year, I signed up for a class on Classical Greek culture. After all, I thought, it would be suitably generous to grant Plato and Aristotle a chance to make their case before I completely rejected Western Culture. The first day of class an old professor lumbered into the classroom, turned off the lights and, without saying a word, began showing slides of painted Greek pots. I figured the professor was as senile as Western Culture itself and I paged through my course schedule by the light of the slides to find another class. By the grace of God, there was no suitable alternative. I was stuck.
The professor, Dr. Matthew Evans, turned out to be the wisest man I have ever known. He opened to me not only the riches of Greek culture but also the light of the gospel. He became my father in Christ.
Dr. Evans got my attention when one of my fellow students made an observation that I immediately dismissed as foolish. Dr. Evans, however, listened carefully to the student’s point, clearly restated it and used the insight to illuminate the text we were studying. In amazement, I realized that Dr. Evans could hear my fellow student, and the ancient Greeks, in a way that I could not. This turned out to be my introduction to the idea of reason, which I had thought was an arrogant Western way of thinking that led to antagonism with nature and oppression, racism, and war. But Dr. Evans revealed reason to be a type of humility, a willingness to admit ignorance, to gather facts, and to listen to all of the evidence before forming conclusions. As the Greeks might say, reason requires us to be human, not knowing truth effortlessly like gods nor being totally unmindful of truth like beasts, but painstakingly working out knowledge by observation and logic. Dr. Evans, with the help of ancient Greeks, convinced me that I needed to listen humbly and to do the hard labor of thinking clearly.
One day in class, Dr. Evans mentioned that he was a Christian. The question about God that had continued to reverberate in my soul instantly amplified. If the wisest man I knew was a Christian, maybe Christianity was not so bankrupt. Maybe that someone was still calling me. I enrolled in the Masters program in Humanities and took every class I could with Dr. Evans. Under his tutelage, I also studied the Bible and various works of St. Augustine, including the Confessions. One passage from the Confessions struck me with particular force. St. Augustine talks about those who love their own opinion, not because their opinion is true but because it is their own. The truth, he says, is not our own but belongs to all lovers of truth (Confessions XII:24). I realized then that I had loved my opinion because it was my own and that loving my own opinion had kept me from the liberating truth that belongs to all. One night, driving home in my little Volkswagen bug after a late class, I began to pray for the first time. I parked the car and, with my whole heart, I prayed over and over: “God, I do not know if you exist, but if you do, forgive my prideful avoidance of you and let me know you.” I drove away with a sense of deep peace. From then on, my objections to Christianity fell away, one by one.
The Valley of Humility
I knew that the Christian faith must be lived in community. I also thought that the community established by Christ should be able to trace its history to the time and place the Lord entered history as a human being and to his choice of Peter and the apostles as the foundation stones of his Church. It seemed self-evident that this community, founded by the Divine Logos, would recognize that faith and reason are mutually dependent, that faith stimulates and guides reason and that reason illuminates faith.
One day I went with trepidation to Dr. Evans, who was a C.S. Lewis-style Episcopalian, to discuss baptism. I was so grateful to him that I would have joined the Episcopalians if he had so directed. For some reason, he suggested the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Catholic Church. I left rejoicing because I realized God was calling me to the Catholic Church, the Church which has a living, authoritative teaching office: the Magisterium. This was a joy because I had come to the distressing conclusion that, on some level, I had always known that God existed but I had steered around this truth to avoid obedience. If I was able to deceive myself about the existence of God, how easily I might deceive myself about the details of moral and doctrinal revelation. I was sure that God would provide us weak human beings with a reliable way of knowing the truth we need to be saved. This reliable way was evident from the beginning in the Catholic Church.
I began attending Mass and continued my spiritual reading. I knew that my faith was the most important thing in life, so I sought to discern if God was calling me to the priesthood. With the sufferings of my handicapped brother in mind, I also spent two summers working at a camp for handicapped children. The young woman in charge of the horses at the camp was a Catholic, great with kids, intelligent, sympathetic—not to mention beautiful. I sought guidance in prayer and felt certain that God was intending us to marry. I was baptized, confirmed, and received First Communion at the Easter Vigil Service in 1977. I finished my Master’s degree that year, a rare case of a graduate who had arrived at San Francisco State as a new-age pagan and had left as a Catholic. My horse lady and I were married the next February, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. We have been blessed over the years with five sons and recently with two daughters-in-law. In 1999, I was ordained a deacon and serve at my home parish in Marin.
God’s intervention is still miraculous to me. The question posed long ago, “Do you believe in God now?” still reverberates in my soul. But now I have an answer: I do believe. I believe in that Someone who reached out to me with love even though I was in rebellion against him. He brought me down from the wall of arrogance to the soft valley floor of humility. He taught me the humility of reason and humility of faith. On these borrowed wings, dependent on his grace, I am learning to soar.