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Patrick Madrid’s biggest life lessons (so far)

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Zoe Romanowsky - published on 07/22/16

The popular author, evangelist, and radio host talks about life in his 50s, and shares a funny story that never made it into his new book
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Some say 40 is the new 30, but when 50 rolls around, it’s hard to be a card-carding member of the younger generations anymore; you’re now sitting squarely in middle age — beyond that if you consider the average lifespan. By 50, most of us have (hopefully) learned a thing or two and are better at noticing the workings of providence in our lives. Patrick Madrid, a well-known Catholic author, speaker, and radio host, has shared some of what he’s learned in a new book called Life Lessons: Fifty Things I Learned in My First 50 Years. And as an evangelist, apologist, and teacher over the years, Madrid has many stories to tell.

Madrid has written or edited 24 books on Catholic themes. He currently hosts the “Patrick Madrid Show” produced by Immaculate Heart Radio, and runs the Catholic Apologetics Academy and Catholic Apologetics Summer Camp. His proudest accomplishments, however, are his 35-year marriage to his wife, Nancy, and their 11 children and growing brood of grandchildren. He sat down with Zoe Romanowsky to talk about the joys of being older, how to find God in daily life, and what he looks forward to about his next 50 years.

Zoe Romanowsky: What do you find most rewarding about being in your fifth decade? 

Patrick Madrid: The first thing I should say is that I turned 50 almost six years ago so I’m getting closer to 60. My 50s have been wonderful in ways life wasn’t before. Nancy and I are expecting our 19th grandchild and that definitely has a way of changing your perspective on life, and has changed mine for the better. I feel blessed with good health so I’ve been able to find a lot of time to be productive — writing, public speaking, and my work on the radio. Nancy and I are not quite at the empty nest stage yet — we have 11 children, the oldest 9 of whom are up and out and the two youngest will be finishing high school soon, so we’re close. I love this period of life.

Your book is essentially about the lessons God has taught you through many of the experiences you’ve had in your life and ministry… What do you think God is trying to teach you now?

I think one is ‘don’t forget what I’ve taught you, don’t unlearn the lessons you’ve learned’… We human beings are capable of doing that if we don’t keep our eyes on the ball. And something on my mind a lot now — and it tracks with the last chapter of my book —  is how valuable time is and how relatively fleeting is. Now that I’m getting closer to 60, I don’t have a whole to time left, even if I live to be an old man, so I need to make the best of the time I have for as long as I have it.

Were you always the kind of person who noticed God’s presence in his day-to-day life or did it take time to cultivate that practice?

Definitely not the former, and working on the latter. Personally — and I’m very upfront about this in the book — I always seem to discern God’s will for my life in the rear-view mirror. I look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s what was happening, that’s what God was doing.’ The feedback I hear from readers about the book is that they’re surprised at how mundane all the things are in life that actually are very momentous if we only know how to look at them. It has taken me a long time to get to that point and I’m trying to get better at it.

How can we learn to notice God’s presence in ordinary moments?

From my own experience, it’s knowing that first of all God doesn’t typically use grandiose gestures; usually it’s that ‘still quiet voice,’ as the Bible says, and we need to find it in our day-to-day life, relationships, incidents that happen. In the book, I talk about something that happened to me once on a roller coaster, which taught me something about myself that I never expected and have never forgotten. I realized later, wow, that was significant. And it was in the most unlikely of places.

The second thing is knowing what to look for, because the cereal I poured in my cereal bowl this morning is of little importance, but there are things that do happen… For example, a few weeks ago I was struck by the joy of a flight attendant when I was traveling back from a conference. She was from India — a very charming woman in her early 50s — and I was mesmerized by her because she had a kind word for everyone, smiled at people, was helpful. I realized I was looking at something unique and after a few minutes of reflection, I realized it was joy. She’s a joyful person and it was contagious —people around her were catching it, and I was catching it. And although it happened a few weeks ago, I still think about her and that little lesson she taught me that I wouldn’t have now if I hadn’t learned to notice. And I was just boarding an airplane.

You’ve been a Catholic evangelist and apologist for most of your adult life. What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned when it comes to sharing and explaining your faith?

Well, among the many lessons, it’s that simplicity is usually the most effective way of sharing something, rather than theological jargon or complicated arguments. The heartfelt simple message is often the one that has the most impact. One of the stories in Life Lessons is something I learned one evening with Nancy…

When our youngest was a newborn, we went out for dinner and the waitress started making a fuss over the baby, asking typical questions, and then she asked Nancy if this was our first child, and this was our 11th, so Nancy gives me a look like, “Do you want to tell her, or should I?”

So we say 11, and the waitress gasps, and brings a handful of other waitresses over to our table to see the freak show. And they were pretty negative, saying wow, 11 kids, why would you have so many? And all the typical things you get. And then they started talking about their own contraceptive habits and in the middle of it all, Nancy says, “My husband and I believe that children are a blessing from God and we believe in being open to life so that God will bless our marriage.” And it was like flipping a switch. Suddenly they got quiet, and turned around and went back to work.

And we just thought, well, isn’t it funny to have yet another story where people can’t get over the fact that we have such a big family, but the epilogue to this story is that after we paid the check and were getting into the car, I heard footsteps behind us and it was our waitress. Under the streetlight I could see tears in her eyes and she said, ‘Oh, I’m glad I caught you, I wanted to thank you…’ And I knew it wasn’t me because my tip wasn’t that big, and she said to Nancy, ‘What you said in there about children being a blessing from God and about being open to life, I’ve never heard that before. I’m on the pill and no one has ever said that as far as I remember, but it really stirred my heart and I’ve decided when I get home from work I’m telling my husband that I’m getting off the pill because I want to be open to life — I just wanted to say thank you.’ She gave Nancy a hug and went back into the restaurant and we’ve never seen her again. But that, to me, might be the best way to answer your question. That heartfelt simplicity is the best way to get through to people.

You can invite three people who are alive today to an intimate lunch and pick their brains about something —who would they be and what would you  ask them?

I’d like to meet Paul McCartney and ask him  — because I idolized him as a musician for so many years and as a young man wanted to be him and play the bass guitar just like him — ‘Now that you’re in your mid-70s what does all that mean to you now, in perspective?’ I’d love to hear from him about that.

I’d also like to talk to Steve Martin about how he sees life through a humorous lens. He’s not a saint or a paradigm of Christian living, but I think he’s brilliant and he has a lot of cultural insights that I find fascinating and I’d be interested in sitting down with him and talking about his perspectives now, too.

And I know this is probably a thoroughly disappointing answer because I’m not mentioning Pope Benedict or anyone like that, and I already know Scott Hahn, so I think the other person might be Stephen King… I’d be interested to know his take on life. He’s liberal and he stands for things I stand against and vice versa, but nonetheless I think I would be very enriched by spending time talking with him to understand how he comes up with so many stories, so many ways of telling a story that I’ve always found fascinating as I’ve followed his career. A lot of what I do every day on my radio show is tell stories and I’d like to get better at it so I think Stephen King would be an interesting person to draw from.

What’s one thing you want to do or accomplish in your next 50 years?

I’d love to live long enough to see my great-grandchildren. My oldest granddaughter is now a young teenager so I think I have a pretty good shot at that. Nancy and I would also like to walk the Camino [the pilgrim road to the shrine of St. James at Compostela, Spain]. We’d like to have that experience of following in the footsteps of all those countless pilgrims and the spiritual journey that would be for us. We’ve talked about it a lot and I’d really enjoy doing that.

Here’s a short and entertaining story from Patrick Madrid that never made it into Life Lessons:

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