Though it's clear to us only after the fact, God usually works on people over a long period of time
The snotty assistant professor stood in front of his political science class ragging on religion. Thirty-five years later, I still bristle.
I thought how dare he so easily dismiss the thing that has occupied the greatest minds of all time. I think the same thing today, but with gratitude, too. This comment led me into a search, not for God but for religion.
I believed in God but was a fallen-away Methodist. I spent my college years ghosting my way through classes, chasing girls, dabbling in politics. Religion? No thanks. This stupid comment, though, was the beginning of my search for Catholicism.
Dodging coursework as usual, I discovered the novels of Anthony Burgess and found that Burgess was Church-haunted. Many of his books, particularly A Clockwork Orange are about free will and the argument between St. Augustine and the heretical British Monk Pelagius. Did the Methodists know about this? At a book-signing Burgess told me my name was derived from Augustine.
One college summer I was playing golf in my hometown of St. Charles, Missouri. On a day easily close to 100 degrees, with not a cloud in the sky nor a whiff of air, I noticed a man dressed all in black, slumped against a tree, his pathetic bag lying crippled beside him. He was an elderly priest, dressed in clericals, playing golf on the hottest day of the year. I drove Father John home. He invited me to stay and talk and I am still ashamed that I didn’t. I never saw him again, but have never forgotten what I saw as an encounter with Christ.
Some years later, laying on my back near the Carousel on the National Mall in Washington DC, I watched clouds scud across the sky and listened to the Carousel’s music, Laura’s Theme from “Dr. Zhivago.” At that moment I had an interior vision of old-me looking at young-me and young-me looking back at old-me and this was a vision of eternity.
Years later still, I sat in the living room of a dusty old house on Long Island, a summer house my friends called the Duck Farm. Sitting on the floor and leafing through the Sunday Times, Erica DeMane spoke to her husband Fred Allen about the review of a new book by a man named Mott, a biography of someone named Thomas Merton. I read the review, bought the book and read it like electricity coursing through copper wire.
Not long after, I sat an outdoor café near the Louvre smoking a Cuban cigar, drinking scotch, and reading the Seven Storey Mountain. After years of consideration and study, I decided finally in that instant at long last to find a priest and join the Catholic Church.
A woman I knew in New York recommended a young and brilliant priest to me but I was waiting to get a recommendation from Bill Buckley to whom I had written about Catholicism. I heard he answered his mail, particularly about Catholicism. He sent me Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and much else. I asked him for a priest but he had not yet written back.
Waiting for Buckley, one Sunday I watched “Firing Line.” Buckley had two priests on talking about liberation theology, Father William Smith of Dunwoodie (St. Joseph’s Seminary) in New York and Father George Rutler, who simply blew me away with how smart and holy he was. I decided then and there he would be the one to bring me in. Here’s the providential thing. Turns out he was the same priest my friend had recommended many months before.
All through these years I tried to find my way into the Church. I knew I could not knock on the any parish door and get the straight stuff. I knew there was heterodoxy in the air. So I spent years in reading, which was not easy since how do you know what to read? Still, all along there were these moments, these tugs upon the line.