The Day a Red Bird Sang St. Thomas Aquinas

I was coming to the end of my first year as a college professor at Mercer University Atlanta. I was still a Southern Baptist though I had been wrestling with that affiliation since being introduced to St. Augustine at Princeton Theological Seminary.

One of the greatest Protestant theologians, Soren Kierkegaard, had provided the base motif of my dissertation, a critique of Romanticism. But after dismantling the Romantic pretenses to spirituality, as I thought then, Kierkegaard had not offered me the tools to put my worldview back together. (The target of my dissertation had actually been my own pretensions.) Nothing much was left after seeing through the limitations of aestheticism and ethical earnestness.


What was left of the Romantic in me, however, still yearned to view the totality of things, the truth behind the appearances. This desire comported with my fledgling knowledge of the Catholic faith which had been acquired through the agency of two friends at Emory University where I spent three years getting my Ph.D. Like a Gothic cathedral, the Catholic faith appeared to teach the fundamental connectedness of things. Faith, rather than being a leap into the abyss, could be assisted by reason both before and after conversion.

That spring day I put a chair in the back yard under a bird feeder and went inside to find a suitable for book to read and relax. I noticed the red spine of a paperback by St. Thomas Aquinas on the top shelf. It contained the Question 2, the Treatise on God, from the Summa Theologiae (Gilby trans.), which I had been assigned to read at Princeton but had failed to do. Feeling pangs of guilt, I took it down and decided to settle my debt with that class on Medieval Theology at Princeton.

It look me a while to realize that St. Thomas always started out stating positions he did not agree with, but once I got a handle on reading the article form I found him easier to read than I had anticipated. Then I got to the section in God’s goodness (ST 1a.2) and, specifically, to the question, “Whether all things are good by the divine goodness?”

I’ll be honest and say that this led me to think about myself and ask whether I was good. The tradition of Christianity I knew best did not have a very positive view of human nature. The propensity to sin — human fallenness — took St. Paul’s notion of carnality, in thinking and behavior, to its extreme. In practical terms that creates a negative attitude towards oneself, especially towards one’s sinful practices.


St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)

As I read through St. Thomas’s reply to his own question, I came to the final paragraph, “Everything is therefore called good from the divine goodness, as from the first exemplary effective and final principle of all goodness.” And as I read a red bird started to sing standing on the bird feeder overhead — it seemed as if the words of the Saint and the song of the bird merged into one. That day not only did I discover the source of my own goodness but I experienced a heaven-sent joy mediated by the beauty of this bird and the song.

What had stunned me was this: the goodness I possessed, and all creation possesses, could not be taken away from me, or destroyed by my own agency, even my sins and vices. It was goodness, St. Thomas says, added to my being by the Creator. Even the fallen angel, Lucifer, could be said to possessing goodness through he lives eternally separated from God. The connectedness of things was grounded in God’s own goodness which He chose to share with His creation.

Some might smile and think that the moment I describe was imagined, or was the product of young man struggling with his own penchant toward Romanticism, finally merging it with the teaching of a medieval doctor of the Church. I’m not given to mystical experiences, per se, but I’ll never doubt what was given me that day, a moment of sensual beauty and intellectual clarity that led me into the Church and rerouted my life completely.

I couldn’t let my Saint’s day pass without paying him tribute and expressing my gratitude.

Published at The Christian Review, January 28, 2016

The Exorcist Author Learns Death Is a Lie

Published April 29, 2015 at The Christian Review

A Book Review:
William Peter Blatty, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death
Regnery Publishing, March 30, 2015
256 pages, $27.99

Honesty is rare, and when it’s found in a book such as this the effect is quite arresting and compelling. I rarely read a book at one sitting, as I did Blatty’s Finding Peter. The author amazes me for several reasons, the foremost being his ability to engage the most religiously skeptical reader to reflect on the possibility of the supernatural.
Blatty accomplishes that, in part, by not talking directly about the supernatural or the theology it belongs to. Rather, his book is a memoir of a distinct kind — a recounting of the providential moments in his life and the tragic death of his teenage son, Peter, who continued to communicate with his parents from beyond the grave.

Thus, it’s not an accident that the narrative begins with a hilarious and touching homage to his Lebanese mother, Mary, or that he casually mentions the copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions he carried in his “battered old G.I. footlocker” on the train from NYC to Georgetown University for his freshman year.

The book’s subtitle, A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death, tells the reader what Blatty intends to convey, but how he conveys it is never didactic or sentimental. In fact, Finding Peter can aptly be called humorous because every story Blatty tells he tells with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as if thinking, “How can this be happening to me?”

His memoir begins with his impoverished childhood in New York City, where he helped his indomitable mother sell quince jelly on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. From there we follow Blatty as he adjusts to the upscale surroundings of Georgetown; heading the Policy Branch of the U.S. Air Force Psychological Warfare Division; his years working in Beirut, Lebanon, for the United States Information Agency; and the chance beginning of a writing career, which led him to Hollywood and the life of a successful screenwriter, novelist, and, eventually, film producer.

Blatty talks about his Hollywood years, and especially The Exorcist (novel 1971/ film 1973), with some reluctance. His stories about friends Shirley McLaine, Danny Kaye, Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Blake Edwards, J. Lee Thompson, Darryl Zanuck, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, among many others, are told by a master of comic writing but with the purpose of revealing “only so much of it as I think may be needed to convince you of my truthfulness and credibility.”

In other words, the reader learns William Peter Blatty was a successful man of the world, succeeding in one of the deepest shark pools of contemporary existence, Hollywood’s film business. Blatty, the reader is assured, is not “some gullible New Age wacko who wasn’t born on this planet but, in point of fact, landed here with the manuscript of The Exorcist tucked under his arm.”

The heart of this book is Blatty’s account of the life, death, and afterlife of his Peter, who in 2006 was found dead sitting in front of a television with a remote still in his hand — a victim of viral myocarditis, an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.

Peter was the first child of Bill and Julie Blatty, born on May 17, 1987, in Stamford, CT. He was a child who seemed infused with the love of God. At age three he said to his mother, “Mommy, do you know why I came here . . . I came here to help people.” Other comments followed, such as the question, “How do you learn? I learn from the sky, God teaches me.” But the most touching of all is what he said to Julie Blatty at age 5:

“You know, Mom, when God was making me I was a little bit sad and a little bit scared. But then I saw you.”

In the year before he died, Peter was diagnosed with Type One bipolar disorder, which led to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. But things were looking up for Peter when he was found lifeless in front of the TV. Blatty doesn’t shy away from describing the agonizing pain visited upon him and his wife. However, in the midst of that suffering, very quickly things began to happen that could not be explained, until enough of them happened that they realized Peter was communicating to his parents that he was alive, happy, and loved them.

Among the many “paranormal” events Bill and Julie experienced was the lost, and then found, miraculous medal that once belonged to Peter. Bill had taken the medal and worn it around his neck after Peter’s death, only taking it off to get through airport security. One morning he woke up to find the medal was missing, and only the chain lay around his neck. He and Julie scoured the house, paying special attention to the shower, going over and over the small space several times.

A few days later, Bill got in the shower very nervous about a speech he had to give to a large audience. He saw something shiny on the floor and reached down to find Peter’s miraculous medal.

“Let’s go over it again: the glassed-in, brightly-lit shower stall measured a little less than four feet by four feet. Julie and I had separately entered the shower and meticulously searched it in broad daylight at least three times, in my case at least five.”

Here’s another: Julie went to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Bethesda. Seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk across from the restaurant, she told her friend that Peter, with his bipolar disorder, could have ended up like that. At that very moment, the homeless man shouted, “My birthday is May 17!” Julie froze, that was Peter’s birthday. Bill later went to talk to the man, got to know him a bit, and learned that his name was Pee Wee. Pee Wee’s birthday was May 17, but he didn’t remember shouting it out to anyone.

Then there were other surprising experiences involving cats, stuffed dolls, dreams, light bulbs, a lost rosary, a dried-out sunflower, and a recently planted tree. These went on for eight years after Peter’s death. Some of them were experienced by friends of Peter.

William Peter Blatty is by nature a skeptical man, and it was his own skepticism he had to overcome before accepting the meaning of these unusual events. At a certain point he could no longer hold out against the insistence of the son who was determined to touch him from the afterlife. He knows now that all the unexplainable happenings were, in fact, explainable because they were caused by Peter. As Blatty told me in our radio interview, when these things happen so regularly over such a long time “it’s not rational to conclude otherwise.”

In recounting these stories in Finding Peter, Blatty hopes to provide comfort to parents who have lost children or other loved ones. He is telling those who grieve, “They are not dead, talk to them, they will hear you.”

Writer’s note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to a special fund at the high school Peter attended — The Heights School in Bethesda, MD.

The Worst Book I Ever Read

Deal W. Hudson

A Review of Conversations With God ( Book 1)

When I wrote a book on happiness in 1995, I was required to read a number of the popular self-help books on the subject. It was only dogged persistence and several strong cigars that got me through them.

But lo and behold, at the suggestion of a friend, I took a look at the best-selling Conversations with God and found out I had not yet tasted the dregs of pop spirituality.

All you need to know about the book can be gleaned from its acknowledgments, where he thanks John Denver, “whose songs touch my soul”; Richard Bach, author of that influential epic, Jonathan Livingston Seagull; Barbra Streisand, whose singing causes him “to feel what is true”; and Robert Heinlein, “whose visioary literature has raised questions and posed answers in ways no one else has dared even approach.”

The first line of the introduction declares that we “are about to have an extraordinary experience.” Walsch claims the book just “happened.” He does not mean this metaphorically – these are supposedly God’s words as dictated through his hand! “Abruptly, the pen began moving on its own.”

Private revelation is nothing new, but these claims should always be met with a healthy skepticism. Hardly anything that serious kicked in when I read what God says on page 3:

My most common form of communication is through feeling. Feeling is the language of the soul. If you want to know what’s true for you about something, look to how you’re feeling about it… hidden in your deepest feelings is your highest truth.

Walsch’s God definitely aims to please. Is anything potentially more popular than to convince people that their feelings are all the product of divine infusion? That simplifies a lot of dilemmas. In Walsch’s defense, however, there is nothing in John Denver’s songs, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or elsewhere in pop culture to suggest otherwise.

What makes this book worth talking about is the fact that it is still selling quite briskly. Its success tells us once again how dumbed-down we have become on religious issues, and how easily we are seduced by a spirituality completely stripped of moral requirements.

For example, we are told never “supplicate” before God, but “appreciate.” Evidently asking God for help creates a “Sponsoring Thought” of the negative (watch out!) variety. Saddled with negative thoughts about our relationship to God, we are forever placing conditions on our lovability. Walsch’s God makes no demands except that you consider your feelings as ultimately justifying anything they are connected with.

Walsch gives people what they want, specifically, what they want in their weakest moments. He caters to the worst in people while assuring them it is their best. At times, his God sounds like a West Coast Nietzschean – “You are not discovering yourself, but creating yourself”; at other times a mad medievalist – “My purpose in creating you, My spiritual offspring was for Me to know Myself as God.”

This book is so incoherent that it’s a struggle to get through its two hundred-plus pages. So it’s not without some irony that his God remarks, “Words are really the least effective communicator.” But many more of God’s words are still to be revealed. Book 2 covers “more global topics of geopolitical and metaphysical life on the planet.” And Book 3 deals with “universal truths of the highest order and opportunities of the soul.”

Such a book is easily parodied, but sadly, over the years, many people have taken it seriously. Walsch will mislead them about important matters: the nature of God, the self, and morality. His alternately bossy and mystifying tone will give them the impression of profundity while communicating something rather heretical.

After putting it down, annoyed and exhausted from the effort of reading so much nonsense, I thought of the serpent in the garden. What else attracted Adam and Eve than the temptation to feel themselves elevated above the demands of their Creator: “you shall be as God.” Walsch makes the same slimy pitch: “If I say to you, you are God – where does that leave religion?”

There’s another conversation with God called the Bible – we should be reading it daily. But maybe that’s just how I feel!

What Cradle Catholics Take for Granted

Deal W. Hudson

Our Holy Father, John Paul II, has called us to participate in the new evangelization of the Catholic Church. These very personal remarks are offered in the spirit of that evangelism. Perhaps hearing from someone who discovered the Church for the first time as an adult will be helpful to those who have lost heart in their faith or who have given up. Surely there are untapped resources still available in our shared faith to help them turn toward home.

It’s only human nature for us to take things for granted, such as family, country, and religion. But there’s a special problem among Catholics about taking their faith for granted. I didn’t know this when I entered the Church more than a decade ago. I found out about it in the course of answering the many questions that came my way about my conversion.

I was constantly asked, for example, how would a Southern Baptist minister from Fort Worth, Texas, make his way to Rome? As I would share my story, enthusiastically as any ex-Baptist must, I found that enthusiasm doesn’t get you very far among Catholics. I was met with blank stares.

I started classifying those blank stares. The first classification was, “What is he talking about? Aquinas, Natural Law, Maritain. I’ve never heard of that!” The other set of blank stares I classified as, “I thought we’d done away with this kind of Catholicism.”

Discovery of Catholic Tradition

So as I moved through the first decade of my life as a Catholic, I began to realize that some Catholics did, in fact, take their Church and its great legacy for granted, specifically: Catholic wisdom, Catholic doctrine, and the Mass.

I used to look forward to questions on my conversion until I started meeting incredulity and hostility. I loved to tell the story about my discovery of Catholic wisdom at Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the great Protestant seminaries in this country, through the work of St. Augustine, On the Trinity. As I read this treatise, I encountered something I had never seen in any of the Protestant theologians I had read—the perfect cooperation of natural and supernatural intelligence. In St. Augustine I met a command of history. A command of classical learning. The invention of the psychological method.

This encounter with St. Augustine led me to more years of reading than I care to admit. I’m embarrassed it took me so long after that to enter the Church. I should have known better. I read Aquinas. I read the Church Fathers. I read the great Reformation and post-Reformation debates. I read the great Catholic novelists, whom I still recommend to you. I read the great Catholic poets. I listened to your music. I tried to learn your language. Have you tried to learn your language?

This culminated in a reading of the two volumes of the documents of Vatican II. I devoured those documents because a book by James Hitchcock called Decline and Fall: Catholicism and Modernity made me worry that the Church I wanted to enter was becoming Protestant. When I finished the documents of Vatican II, I realized very clearly that the Church I had first glimpsed in the life and work of St. Monica’s son still existed. It hadn’t changed.

When I went to my first Mass and tried to get a grip on all of that moving around, all of that unexpected motion, all of those unconsecutive page numbers, it was a lot harder and it took a lot longer to assimilate. But, finally, it dawned on me that just as there is tremendous power in your wisdom and in your doctrine, the greatest power of all is in the Eucharist. Catholic worship culminates an encounter with the objective presence of Christ on the altar.

I know that enthusiastic stories of converts are met with a little bit of suspicion. Ronald Knox, bless his soul, wrote a great book called Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. I sometimes wish it had never been written. Every time I mention to my Catholic friends, one exception being Mother Angelica, who agrees with me on this, that we need a little more enthusiasm in the Catholic Church, I hear, “Oh, Ronald Knox, Ronald Knox.” I don’t think he meant to expunge all of the energy out of our faith. I think we know the kind of dangers he was warning us against.

Most Catholics, I think, are baffled why anyone would choose to carry the baggage of this old, outdated faith. I’m living proof that this is not a religion acquired only by birth. In fact, if you think back through Church history, isn’t it true that large families alone didn’t make the Catholic Church great? Large families alone didn’t make the Catholic Church endure. It was evangelization that made the Catholic Church great. Evangelization made it the universal Church universal—global in its scope.

The Church grew because missionaries shared the faith, told its stories. We can’t just rely on having large families to keep the Catholic Church great. Large families are wonderful. They’re a blessing. But what will keep the Catholic Church great is a commitment to telling its stories, to evangelization, to witnessing. When is the last time you did it? When is the last time you were able to articulate to your alienated Catholic friends why you remain a Catholic?

We all take things for granted. We take our families for granted. We take our country for granted. We take our religion for granted. But in this case of family and country, I’ve noticed there’s kind of an automatic correction that goes on. You get older, you have children, and you think, “My mother and father, how great they were. How grateful I am to them. Why didn’t I realize it until now?” It happens almost automatically, at least it did for me. The significance of last Veterans Day hit me very hard. On that day I thought about thousands of people who have died or risked their lives, including my own father, so that I could be free, so that I could raise my daughter in a free country. I’m sure as I grow older, this love of country will just get stronger.

The Mind of Christ

But there’s a special problem with the Catholic Church. There’s no evidence that cradle Catholics who fall away, who lose heart, there is no evidence they return. When I ask them why they haven’t returned, they sound inarticulate. They don’t really know why. They use phrases about the irrelevancy of an authoritarian masculine church, about the lack of women priests, about nuns who were mean to them in the third grade. But in all of this they’ve not taken on the mind of Christ. They’ve taken on the mind of the media. The mind of Christ was never imparted to them.

We have to take this indifference seriously, because the fate of our children is at stake. We now live in an era we call “modernity.” Modernity is defined by options—an almost unlimited range of options for young people. Our young people are not automatically going to choose the faith of their parents. Protestant evangelicals are wooing them. The culture at large is wooing them—the secular culture—and they have very powerful tools on their side. They have the movies on their side. They have films on their side.

Why would your children, when they come to an age of decision—and of course ages of decision arise all through life—why would they want to return to a lukewarm, lethargic, inarticulate Church? Why, when there’s so much passionate commitment elsewhere? Don’t tell me the Catholic Church should be a place where enthusiasm is excluded. That’s nonsense. We should be just as excited about the gifts we have in our Church as about any other gifts, any other pleasures.

Another sign of a special problem in the Catholic Church is what I call the “post office phenomenon.” People who can’t explain what they are doing hide behind a posture. People who think they alone deliver the spiritual mail but can’t explain why, will make you stand in line until they’re ready to serve you—but don’t ask any questions in the meantime! How can the Church expect people to remain faithful, devoted, and grateful when they’re being treated like that?

Catholic faith is old, yes. It is venerable, yes. But it still needs to be explained to each new generation, your children and their children. May I remind you that the older generation needs a refresher course from time to time? That’s why you’re reading Crisis magazine and other Catholic publications.

Wisdom, doctrine, and worship—the very reasons I became a Catholic—are being taken for granted.

Catholic Liberation

What did it mean for me to discover the Catholic Church? First, it was totally liberating for a Baptist to realize that Christian intelligence is not limited merely to citing texts from Scripture to support arguments, but rather that Christian intelligence takes in the whole of the natural order and that God speaks through the natural order to the prudent eye. This was nothing less than the recovery of my intellect, the intellect that God gave me to use in making man in his image and likeness.

Second, it was liberating to realize that the biblical revelation, the revelation through the prophets, through Christ, had been contained, reflected, and commented upon throughout the history of the Church, which is the body of Christ. That a weighing and sifting had gone on for all of these centuries gave me the confidence that I didn’t have to jump back nearly two thousand years every time I wanted to know what Christ calls me to do. This, for me, was nothing less than a recovery of human history.

For a Baptist to come into the Catholic Mass, to realize that the culmination of worship does not come in response to a man’s voice, however melodious, however articulate, but comes in response to the objective actual presence of Christ, was nothing less than a recovery of the full meaning of the Incarnation.

I maintain that all human beings hunger for this kind of liberation—for the recovery of the whole person and all of human history. Notice there’s nothing extraneous about these issues. These are not intellectual issues. These are not academic issues. These are the very issues that distinguish us as Catholics, not Protestants; Catholics, not Jews; Catholics, not secularists. It’s what makes us Catholic.

These are the very issues—wisdom, doctrine, and worship—that give us our advantage in the public square. Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition has welcomed Catholics to the public square. It should be obvious that we have much more ammunition to bring than anybody else. Pope John Paul II’s speech on human rights at the United Nations is a paradigm to which we should all aspire.

The Catholic Advantage

For the last ten years, I pursued a research project on the meaning of human happiness. It was a project inspired by my entry into the Catholic Church. This is an example of what I mean by the Catholic advantage in the public square—in politics, in the arts, in the humanities, in the social sciences. If we look at the way the meaning of human happiness has been misrepresented and made superficial in the twentieth century—the way it has affected our political life, our moral life, our family life, and our education—we realize that the corrective is to go back to the Tradition. Back to Catholic wisdom. Back to the Bible. Back to Augustine and Aquinas. To Jacques Maritain and Christopher Dawson, Martin D’Arcy, and G. K. Chesterton. We must go back. What we will find there is a way to correct our problem. There is a wisdom there. There are ideas there that can have consequences for us. We can change things not just by adjusting public policy but by fixing ideas that we live by.

How can you take for granted a legacy that has everything we need to know about telling the story of the good life? Not just the good life in private, at home, but the good life lived publicly. The good life in the world of work. The good life in the world of the arts. The good life in the academic world. It is not a story to be divided between public and private. It is a story to be brought to bear on the whole of civilization. It has been brought to bear on the whole of civilization. The books in my library are rows deep. They’re all there: Dawson, Maritain, Chesterton, Guardini, Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel. I’m perplexed by Catholics who know nothing about the amazing influence, the formative benefit of the Catholic Church on world civilization.

Certainly you know about the role of the Catholic Church in the formation of hospitals, universities, libraries, social services of all kinds, the growth of economics, the development of democracy, the emergence of freedom. The next time someone trying to intimidate you brings up the Inquisition, don’t resort to some sort of misplaced notion of charity or tolerance and apologize for your Church. Say, “Sure we’ve made mistakes, but what about universities, hospitals, and democratic institutions, the notion of the human person itself, which arose right out of the heart of the Church—nowhere else?”


When the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. talks about the self-correcting aspects of Western civilization, he could have well said that Catholic wisdom had a great deal to do with that self-correcting dimension of Western civilization.

Catholic wisdom particularly protects the family. Catholic wisdom, which draws upon both divine revelation and reflection on the world of nature, testifies to the ordinate union of man and women in marriage, not random arrangements. These ordinate unions are the ones that should be protected and nurtured by law.

Consider the situation now in the state of Hawaii. What we need to realize—those of us committed to public Catholicism—is that the problem there is not just same-sex marriage. The problem there, which is growing among Catholics in Hawaii, is that many issues are coalescing into one horrible stew that is about to boil over. Same-sex marriage, allied with the gay rights movement, with multiculturalism, with national sovereignty, with new-age liturgy and spirituality, is making it very difficult for our brothers and sisters in Hawaii.

Public Catholicism of the type the Catholic Campaign for America is espousing requires us to be well armed with wisdom and doctrine. We must start with the writings of our pope. We must read his books, his encyclicals, his speeches.

Converts go through a kind of Catholic retooling process. That’s why some of us have a fairly explicit, if not always entirely accurate, grasp of its principles. I once asked my wife, who is also a Baptist convert from the South, if her meeting me had anything to do with her becoming Catholic. She said, “Yes, meeting you and your circle of friends in Atlanta. . . . The one thing that kept coming through as I listened to your discussions is the fundamental notion that life is good: life is good regardless of the pain of that life, regardless of the suffering, regardless of the obstacles to be overcome, regardless of what is missing materially from that life, regardless of the fact that a life may not be loved by some human being that should love it.”

That life is good is one of the first principles of Catholic wisdom. It is the principle we invoke to save our unborn children. It is the principle we invoke when we explain our position on birth control to skeptics. It’s the position we invoke when we discuss euthanasia. Life is good.


You might be thinking now, “I can’t accuse my friends of taking things for granted that they never knew about.” In that case, it’s partially the responsibility of those people who formed you in your faith that they didn’t pass it on. We all know there’s been a great confusion about Catholic doctrine in the last forty years, but what do we have now that we didn’t have two years ago? We have the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The amateur experts in your parish and your Catholic schools can’t invent theology on the spot anymore because you can look in the Catechism yourself. You read the section on the sacraments. They are not psychologized; sacraments don’t exist to make you feel good. In fact, they exist to make you feel bad sometimes. That can be good for you, that can lead you to happiness, that can be part of your happiness. The sacraments in the Catechism aren’t politicized or communalized. The sacraments are the power of God sustaining us from conception to eternity—not to death—through death to eternity. They are the participation in the life of God that can be lost only by outright rejection—not by sin, not by failings, not by death.

In my journey to the Church, one of my most important moments was a passage that I read in a book by Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World. It read something like this: “Because of Christ and His sacraments, none of us can fall so low that we don’t fall into the arms of God.” It was a very powerful message for me then, and it still is.


This brings me to my last point. Worship. What can be done to revitalize it so it can’t be taken for granted? It’s a more difficult question because we just can’t hand people a book like the Catechism; we can’t just ask people to read John Paul II’s Documents on Liturgy and Worship, because worship is something that is done in a particular place, at a particular time, among particular people. Books aren’t enough. Something else has to happen.

I have a hunch what that is. I don’t have any survey data to support me on this, but I’ve noticed that whenever there is vital worship, there are people who pray. The common denominator that I have seen between a vital worship, something that works, something that draws me in, is that people are at prayer. It is the power of prayer at work through the celebrant, the power of prayer at work through the people that is transformative. It’s a transformation that is immediately intuited by everyone present.

This reminded me of a great lesson I was taught by Jacques and Raïssa Maritain. In one of the first books they ever wrote—they wrote it together in the 1920s, Prayer and Intelligence—they argue, indeed they celebrate, that prayer, intelligence, and worship reach toward the same source. That each act is bathed in the same iridescent and illuminating light—a divine light.

I hope by now you realize that I’m not saying that cradle Catholics are at a disadvantage. After all, my wife and I have made a long journey to have an opportunity to lay a Catholic in our cradle. It’s not easy to enter this Church. You don’t make it easy. And you shouldn’t. I thank God that our seven-year-old daughter, Hannah Clare Hudson, is a cradle Catholic. I make you these promises, these promises in gratitude for your Church that has received us, the Church of your forebears. I promise you that I will share with her, my daughter, all the wisdom I’ve learned. I promise you that I will do my best, with the help of our wonderful parish school, to make sure she understands the glories of Catholic teaching. I promise you I will pray with her each and every day and at Mass. And most of all I promise that I will pray to God that neither Hannah Clare nor her parents will ever take the gift of his Church for granted.

Reprinted with permission from Public Catholicism: The Challenge of Living the Faith in a Secular American Culture, edited by Thomas Patrick Melady, 1996, © by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana 46750 (text is slightly revised).

Unicorns in the Toybox

Deal W. Hudson

A friend of mind, a cradle Catholic who doubts her faith, asked what she should teach her four-year old about religion. “Everything,” I said, “Heaven, Hell, God, Angels, Sin, Grace, Forgiveness, don’t leave anything out.” “How can I do that,” she responded “When I’m not sure myself.”

Such attempts at parental honesty can leave a child in the lurch. Consider what children lose when they don’t learn Bible stories. They are deprived of a framework in which to think about the big questions — life, death, good, evil, and most especially, God. Their natural spiritual curiosity goes unfed.

Stories of fairies and goblins are not enough. As C. S. Lewis shows in The Chronicles of Narnia, stories and myths can prepare the mind for understanding spiritual reality. The day comes, however, when unicorns are packed away in the toybox.

Thinking about the immaterial world comes easily to children. Last weekend, on a long car trip, my six-year old suddenly asked me “who made God?” She insisted God, like everything else, must have a cause. I countered that God’s being was unique and uncaused. We argued back and forth, laughing, but her mother and I were appropriately dazzled by this flash of metaphysical intelligence.

My friend also pressed me about how to talk about death. Her child was easily frightened; she didn’t know whether to take her daughter to visit her grandmother’s grave. Wouldn’t death come to mean being buried under the ground? I suggested she use it as an opportunity to talk about eternity, about heaven, about the soul rising to God. “But I don’t really believe that,” she said.

We all know mothers and fathers like this, torn between the urge to pass along the religious training they received, but held back by their own doubts and disappointments. Among Catholics in this country there is the added fear that their children will be infected by the old prejudices and parochialisms of an immigrant church.

As a result, the children get little or no spiritual formation, certainly no spiritual information, before they are let loose on the culture. What happens? Lacking the intellectual measure of a basic catechism, lacking the affective measure of religious awe, they accept whatever the culture at hand serves up to them. Evolutionary materialism becomes the last word on the “scientific truth.” Media images of soulless self-gratification become the height of personal ecstasy. Whatever the pitfalls of early religious training they must be preferable to these!

As a convert from Protestantism, I am always asked, especially by cradle Catholics, what made me enter the Church. They are often perplexed when I tell them about my discovery of Catholicism, the benefits of its sacramental system, the priesthood, the Magisterium, and its unparalleled gifts to the development of our culture. The look in their eyes tells me I am describing a church they have left without ever really knowing it. This is not the church they vaguely hoped would arise from the backdraft of Vatican II — democratized, therapeutically sound, willing to bend with the times.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of Vatican II it must be admitted that Jacques Maritain’s prediction has come true: the new pastoral emphasis of the Council was used to subvert Catholic intelligence, character, and culture. Maritain, who was the darling of the young intellectuals and religious who attended the Council until he published The Peasant of the Garonne in 1966, was suddenly branded as a senile, embittered old man who had lost touch with the modern age.

His point was simple and profound — if you lose the mind of the Church you will eventually lose its faith as well. Catholics who cannot affirm intellectually that God exists, created the world, and sent his Son to redeem us will struggle to remain faithful. They also will not know what to tell their children, thus passing on confusion to the next generation.

Some will argue that this is not so bad, at least these children will be able to make up their own minds. On this point, I can only say that children’s religious training is precisely what enables them to make up their own minds when they are older.

Others will argue that these children will lack the vices of the old Catholic ways — they will be more tolerant, more sensitive, more open to different perspectives. Flannery O’Connor commented that our age has achieved its gain in sensibility through a loss of vision. The post-Vatican II generation has not flocked to the new Church with its greater sensibility. Like children of every age we hunger for vision, even if it keeps us awake at night.

Published October 1, 1995

Mortimer J. Adler, Catholic

Deal W. Hudson
Published July 1, 2000

The most influential American philosopher of the 20th century was received into the Church this past December. Those familiar with the trajectory of Mortimer Adler’s work, not just the Great Books Program, should not be surprised. Born December 28, 1902, Mortimer has been a catholic philosopher all his long life, and now he will spend his final years in the arms of the Church.

Mortimer’s conversion must not elicit any Catholic triumphalism. There is no need to besiege him with requests for his conversion story. The story can be written—most of it can be found in his books, especially his two volumes of memoirs. The rest can be filled in by his friends.

I spent three summers with Mortimer at the Aspen Institute in the early 90s, serving as the institute’s first Adler fellow. In addition to assisting with Mortimer’s fabled seminars, I would meet him in the late afternoon and talk shop, and naturally the conversation would turn to Catholicism. Mortimer had been a practicing Episcopalian since 1984, when he was baptized in a Chicago hospital room. He had resisted becoming a Christian, saying he had the “will to believe” but lacked the gift of faith. Finding himself, miraculously he says, repeating the Lord’s Prayer in his hospital room, Mortimer asked for a priest. His wife Caroline, an ardent Episcopalian, helped her husband of many years to join her church.

Mortimer became very active in his Aspen parish and started writing more explicitly about religion, even risking his longtime friendship with Bill Moyers by criticizing his interviews with myth-guru Joseph Campbell. Mortimer was a man of prayer, to the one true God, and a reader of Scripture, about the revelation of His only Son, Jesus Christ, and made no bones about it.

It was clear that Mortimer the Christian was a great gift to the Episcopal community, and his conversion must have deepened his bond with his wife and their two sons. Catholics, like myself, who kidded with Mortimer, in front of his Aspen friends, about failing to “cross the Tiber” were treated with unfailing politeness but slight discomfort.

Only one time did this discomfort with the Catholic question become public. During my third summer at the Aspen Institute, I organized a conference on Mortimer’s legacy to celebrate his 45 years at the Institute. Some names familiar to Crisis readers were there—Ralph Mclnerny, Russ Hittinger, Jeff Wallin, and Otto Bird. During the question-and-answer session, an Aspen Institute official complained that most of the invited speakers were Catholics. I’m still not sure why that was objectionable, but my reply was obvious: Nearly all the philosophers who continue to read his work and pass on his legacy are Catholic. Why? Because they are metaphysical realists in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas! Bird, I remember clearly, was quite eloquent later at the banquet in his explanation of Mortimer as a catholic philosopher. Bird’s tribute, however, left the Aspen audience puzzled.

Mortimer’s fans have forgotten, or never knew, that his entire career was propelled by an initial encounter as a Columbia University undergraduate with Aquinas’ “Treatise on God” from the Summa Theologica. His earliest works were written in a densely scholastic style, and although he learned to communicate with a broad audience, the Thomistic habit of dialectical thinking was infused into everything he touched.

It may have been this dialectical gift that allowed him to be beloved by both relativists and realists. Relativists could revel in his unparalleled gifts for comparative analysis and safely avoid any conclusions. Realists could devour books like How to Think About God and be grateful that there was still a philosopher who followed rational inferences to conclusions about what is real and not another half-baked version of radical doubt.

Why did Mortimer become a Catholic? He followed the path he started at Columbia in the early 20s all the way to the end. Mortimer would not stop, as long as he drew breath, with less than the entire truth. That’s the man I came to know during those memorable summers in Aspen.

At the closing of our final seminar, I noticed Mortimer sitting alone and looking sad. I thought he would be feeling nostalgic, so I went over to say something about his great legacy. He waved these comments aside saying, “Why did all those philosophers listen to Kant?” That’s Mortimer J. Adler, always wrestling with the truth, never looking back. We should know better than to be surprised.