The Careful Convert

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Author: Marika Wilson Smith

Make no mistake about this, my dear brothers: all that is good, all that is perfect, is given us from above; it comes from the Father of all light; with him there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow caused by change.James 1:16-17.

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My father called me in early November with the words, “something is wrong with me.” He had seen his internist that day after he had suddenly lost his voice and developed an unusual sense of fatigue.

James Ricker Wilson, at age 84, was still working full time as an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. He also held an adjunct research position in physics at Notre Dame and visited us frequently in South Bend for this work. His research in topics of numerical relativistic hydrodynamics, such as the effects of star core collapse, kept him busy.

A month earlier, he had learned that he would receive the Hans Bethe Award in the spring, the highest honor in astrophysics from the American Physical Society. His career in physics began with a minor role in the Manhattan Project, working in Los Alamos while serving in the U.S. Army, and continued with work on the development of the hydrogen bomb at the Livermore Lab. He also built a parallel career of non-classified academic work in astrophysics for 40 years after he became interested in the much larger explosions of stars and supernovae.

Three weeks later, I flew to Livermore. My father had just left the hospital after having received a pacemaker. Prior to surgery, he had a scan to examine the throat problem, and he was waiting for identification of a tumor visible on the scan. Dad was discouraged with the slow diagnostic process. He recently had been backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with my daughter. In a two-day hike they had covered 24 miles on rough trails at high altitudes. Now he had trouble walking across the room.

So we sat and talked. My dad asked about a relative’s wedding in Chicago my family had attended. I described the ceremony, the food and the fun we had dancing. “That’s something I regret, that I never learned social dancing,” he told me. “I should have learned how because your mother would have enjoyed the events we went to a lot more if we could have danced. Instead, I refused to learn; I was afraid of looking silly. I could have learned if I’d put my mind to it.”

On the Sunday after my arrival, I asked my dad if he would like to go to Saint Michael’s Church with me. To my surprise, he agreed. In the previous 25 years since my conversion to Catholicism, he had never wanted to join me for church in Livermore. But that day, the First Sunday in Advent, we finally attended Mass together.

The homily was a beautiful explication of the Christian faith and a vigorous admonition to spend Advent neither in a frenzy preparing for Christmas nor in nostalgia for Christmases past. Instead, we should look forward and gather strength for the cross we would have to carry before our lives were over. The pastor told us to turn to the One portrayed on the crucifix to help carry such burdens.

How foreign these words must have seemed to my father. He grew up in a family in which the Catholic Church was anathema and entered a profession in which atheism was typical. A few years earlier, he had asked me about the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. After I answered, Dad said he wished he could believe in such a gift, so he could obtain forgiveness for his sins.

In the evening after we attended Mass, he told me about his childhood church-related experience. For a time he went to Sunday School at the Christian Science Church in Berkeley, California, which his parents joined some years after becoming upset with the Baptist church where they had met. “Mostly, I just looked around at the architecture.”

This particular church, a magnificent structure designed by Bernard Maybeck in a fusion of Gothic, Japanese and Craftsman aesthetics in redwood, concrete, stenciled decoration and factory windows, draped in luxuriant wisteria vines, was worthy of careful observation. To my father, the building itself was more intriguing than what was being taught. He spent his time admiring gargoyles and the complex geometry of the exposed timbers.

Dad said he had learned one thing and never forgotten it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him might have life, everlasting life” (John 3:16).

II

At the time of the exodus, the sea and the cloud led the people from amazement to faith, but they also typified the grace which was yet to come. “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things”: how the baptism in the sea, which brought about Pharaoh’s demise typified the washing which makes the devil’s tyranny depart. The sea killed the enemy in its waves, and baptism kills the enmity between us and God. — Saint Basil, “Treatise on the Holy Spirit”

The wait for the biopsy report was longer than we hoped. One day, I asked my father if he would like to seek instruction in the faith. “I have been reading about the Church, thinking, talking and joking about it for many years,” he said. “If I am ever going to get serious, maybe it should be now.”

I told him I would try to find a priest to instruct him and also mentioned that I would ask the prior of a Benedictine monastery if the monks might pray for his conversion. He liked that idea, and it reminded him that Ralph McInerny, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, had promised to pray for him a couple of years earlier.

I called a friend, a Catholic physicist at the Livermore Lab. With his help, we arranged a home visit from Father Matthew Bloomer, who had been a physicist at the Lawrence Laboratory at Berkeley before entering the seminary. Both men arrived late one afternoon for tea. After the introductions, my father told the priest, “I have met many former Catholics over the years, and I always tell them the same thing: Go back to Church. But I have never met a former physicist before, so I don’t know what to say to you.”

“I liked being a physicist, but I like being a priest better because I think the work is more important,” Father Matthew replied. That seemed to satisfy my father. “How long have you been considering becoming a Catholic?” the priest asked.

“Follow me,” my father answered. He led him to the front atrium and pointed proudly at a tarnished brass plaque to the left of the front door: Livermore Theological Society. “We meet every once in a while, and we have cigars, whiskey and a discussion about a book or article on theology that we’ve read.”

“How long has this been going on?” asked Father.

“Probably 30 years.”

Then my dad showed Father Matthew a lararium in the hall that contained replicas of icons, wedding crowns from my parents’ Greek Orthodox wedding, and several bottles of holy water from shrines around the world. My father pulled out a plastic jar filled with murky water. “This is water from the Jordan River, from when I was baptized.”

Father Matthew was startled. “Oh, from what your daughter told me, I thought you were not baptized. When was this baptism and who did it?”

“My Jewish friend, Sid the Baptist, as I call him. He baptized me in the Jordan River when I was visiting an Israeli university for a semester 20 years ago. I told him I had always wanted to be baptized, so since we were there, he did it.”

“Do you remember what he did? What words he used?” Father Matthew inquired.

“No, not exactly. I wasn’t serious about it at the time, so I don’t remember much. Do you think it was valid?”

“That depends on what really happened. The question is, are you serious now? Are you thinking of seeking baptism now?”

My father stopped joking, and we all sat down again. He began to tell the story of his youth at the Christian Science Sunday School and repeated the verse from John that he had learned. He described his marriage 56 years earlier in the Greek Orthodox Church in Oakland to my mother, a first-generation Greek American. He said he now thought he should have been baptized in order to be married in the church, but at the time he didn’t realize that, and the priest had not asked. “I didn’t know a word from the ceremony, because it was all in Greek, but I did know I was married. The ceremony left no doubt in my mind about that!”

Next, he described his years participating as one of the founding members in the Unitarian Fellowship in Livermore and of his stint as president of the group before dropping out.

“Why did you stop going?” asked Father Matthew.

“Because they have no liturgy,” Dad said. “And no sacraments.”

“What do you think the sacraments are?” the priest asked.

“A Catholic friend told me that they are symbols — symbols and metaphors that we need.”

Father Matthew paused. “You told me you were married, married in the Greek Church. You were married, for what, 56 years until your wife died last year? Is that right? You, having been married all those years, probably know more about marriage than I do, in practical ways, so tell me, do you think your marriage was just a symbol? Or more than that?”

“Much more than a symbol,” my father exclaimed.

“Yes, and the sacraments are much more than symbols,” Father Matthew said. He left us with a catechism booklet and an offer to return if my father would call.

III

Our focus shifted to dealing with the disease that was diagnosed shortly before Christmas, a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called Burkitt’s. My father had to decide whether to accept the recommendation from one cancer specialist for palliative care, with a life-expectancy of six to eight weeks and a probable death from brain lesions, or to attempt a course of chemotherapy under the direction of a different physician. This might extend his life, but no one older than 60 had survived the treatment.

The second oncologist asked, “How long are you hoping to live? Three months — or five years?”

“Would two years be too much to hope for? Would that be greedy?”

“We can try,” the doctor said. “The treatment is difficult on the whole body. We would do three things; a course of chemotherapy in the hospital; a course of chemo given by lumbar spine punctures to try to stop the spread into the brain by getting past the brain/blood barrier; and a series of outpatient chemotherapy. These three protocols would be given on a three-week cycle repeated five times.” The doctor cautioned that the first hospital treatment would be the most difficult; surviving it depended on his body’s reaction to the chemical assault.

Dad prepared for the chemotherapy with determination. Despite dragging a bottle of oxygen along, he hiked a mile or two twice daily. His children and grandchildren visited during the weeks before and during chemotherapy.

He barely survived, but he did. Each treatment cycle was more painful, and the nurses struggled to find veins for the needles. He had difficulty eating, swallowing and enduring the effects of the regimen of periodic steroids.

Between all this, he continued spiritual reading, including a compendium of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and had a few more visits from Father Matthew. My dad explained that he thought he should read all of Aquinas before becoming a Catholic, which dismayed the priest. “Do you know how many volumes you’re talking about?” My father laughed at the number cited.

One evening I started to read Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. My father soon interrupted: “There it is again! The passage from John!” Sure enough, the words my father remembered from his childhood were the second biblical quotation in the document. It reminded him that several people had mentioned his type of cancer was more common in children than adults. “I guess I have a child’s disease, so maybe I can be baptized like a child.” He quickly added that he was not yet ready for it and doubted whether he ever would be.

Later, he began telling stories about some of his Catholic friends. He recalled that a couple of his close physicist colleagues were involved in arms reduction treaties many years ago. My father thought that these two men’s Catholicism gave them an invaluable intellectual and ethical framework for the negotiations.

IV

The sorrows of death surrounded me, the sorrow of hell encompassed me: and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy temple.Psalms 17:5-6

Swallowing became increasingly difficult for Dad, and he grew weaker and weaker. My sister and I were taking turns to provide most of his care with crucial assistance from my three brothers. One day in March I arrived for another visit and my father demanded, “Take me to the hospital; something’s wrong.” After eight hours in the emergency room, he was admitted for pneumonia. As I left the hospital in the middle of the night, I told him I would return after some sleep. He enjoined in a whisper, “Go to Mass before you come back.”

Later that morning, I was at Saint Michael’s. When I got back to his room, my father looked worn and frail. “Guess what the alleluia verse before the Gospel was today?” I asked.

“Not my verse?” he asked. He recited it again slowly with tears streaming down his face. “That one?”

“Yes.”

After a few minutes of my own tears, I asked, “Dad, do you want to be baptized?”

“Yes! But I’m not ready. I haven’t finished studying. I don’t know anything yet.”

“Dad, I think what you need is the desire. Do you want me to call Father Matthew and ask him?”

He nodded and then added, “Soon.”

The next day the priest came to the hospital. He spoke with my dad alone for 20 minutes in preparation, then called my sister, brother-in-law and me in for the baptism. Dad was jubilant afterward and delighted in talking about the event. Suddenly he remembered his best friend. “What I am going to tell Dick?” he asked. “He will be so horrified. Are you going to tell him?”

“Why don’t we wait until his next visit?”

“All right. It won’t kill him,” he muttered, then returned to repeating details about his baptism. It became our joke, and whenever the word “baptism” came up as we tried to follow along with the daily readings for Mass it would give him another excuse to crow about his own.

Shortly after his baptism, I returned to Indiana for Easter. While the family was discussing my father’s joy in his achievement, one of my children said, “Grandpa should make a club for late converts! Those over 70 or 80.” Then they argued about which saint the club should choose as patron.

A few days later, I was back in California, and I related the idea of the club and the names of the various saints who had been suggested as sponsors. “The idea is good,” Dad said. “But there is no decision to be made — it is the Saint James Club.” He pointed to a small statue of Saint James on the mantle, a memento from his pilgrimage along the Saint James Trail in Spain to Santiago de Compostela that he had made with a grandson a few years earlier.

V

“For it is better to limp along the way than stride forward apart from it. Even if someone who is limping on the way does not make much progress, he draws closer to the end.” — Saint Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary on Saint John’s Gospel”

We continued to take walks in the parks near Livermore, but because his immune system was weakened from chemotherapy, my father was strongly cautioned against being among groups of people. One Sunday he decided he wanted to go to Mass, regardless of these warnings.

We went to an early Mass to be with as few people as possible and found an empty pew near the altar. My father listened intently, but midway through the Mass his body started to slowly curl up. Then he toppled over sideways onto the pew with a thump. He hadn’t lost consciousness, and I was able to get him upright. We crept down the aisle and found a bench outside where he waited for me to get the car. It was the last time he entered a church before his death.

VI

On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will provide for all peoples. On this mountain, he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples.Isaiah 25:6

My parents had met on a rock climbing expedition in Wyoming, and a love of the mountains was one of their strongest bonds. My father kept up his climbing much longer than my mother, but she always encouraged his trips and was serene about the outcome, even when he tackled difficult routes such as Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan in Canada’s Yukon territory or assorted peaks in Afghanistan.

One of his climbing buddies gave him a copy of Three Cups of Tea for inspirational reading during chemo. My daughter was reading it aloud to him one day, when the author described being alone, lost, without food or drink and almost frozen to death on an ice field in the Himalayas. The author felt he was at the end of his rope and would not survive. She paused to look at my father, and asked, “Have you ever felt like that?”

“No. Not yet,” he answered.

VII

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day pours out the word to day, and night to night imparts knowledge. — Psalms 19:1-2

We knew from scans by early June that the cancer was not gone, despite chemotherapy. Next my father tried a course of radiation at the recommendation of his oncologist. It was exhausting but not fruitful. With great effort, my dad prepared for a Fourth of July party, an event he and my mother had held for many years to enjoy the splendid view of the fireworks from their backyard. Each week he became weaker.

In early August my father was back in the hospital, his lungs filling with fluids. Intermittent treatments to relieve the pressure helped, but the discomfort returned rapidly.

Over the final 10 days of his life, Dad and I regularly prayed together in his hospital room. In the spring, when we prayed at night, my father recited the Lord’s Prayer but was silent when I said a Hail Mary. The first night when he was back in the hospital in August and I said that prayer, he commented afterward, “Yes. That’s right.”

Dad’s roommates changed often, but as soon as I would start to pray, his roommates, invisible beyond the floor-length curtains, would chime in, either with the words of the prayers or with a periodic and loud “Amen.” We became at these moments, “two or three gathered in His Name.”

One day a minister of Holy Communion visited and gave my father his first communion. He had been complaining off and on that day until the visit. Before his reception of the sacrament, he was asked to pray for all those who were helping care for him. The rest of the day he was in exuberant spirits and enjoyed telling his brother Bill and his friend Karl about his first communion when they stopped by to visit.

One evening my dad could barely eat dinner. He seemed weighed down with grief, so much so that even lifting a fork was too much effort. I asked him if he was feeling sad. He nodded in silence. I asked if he was sad because he was going to die soon. He shook his head as tears began to fill his eyes. “No. I’m not afraid to die. But I didn’t know it would be so hard to say goodbye. It’s so hard.”

We embraced and wept together. Then I asked if he was looking forward to anything about dying. “Seeing Ma, Pa.” He broke down and added in a whisper, “And your mother.”

After a few more moments, I said, “Well, in addition to the visiting you’re looking forward to, at some point, you’ll have to get to work.”

He looked up with the biggest smile I had seen in days. “You really think? I’ll get to get to work?”

“Yes, of course,” I answered. “I don’t know exactly how or when, but at some point you’ll have to help us here in some way. We’ll need you to get to work.”

“Good,” he said with a laugh.

A few days later his pain seemed worse. His body was failing as his lungs clogged and his limbs weakened. I said that evening, “Dad, this is so hard. You are so brave.”

He shook his head and whispered, “No.”

“You don’t feel brave,” I said, “but you’re setting us a good example.”

He nodded. “I’m trying.”

VIII

A relationship with God is not the private affair of each individual, something into which no one else can or may enter; rather, it is something at once wholly interior and yet wholly public. — Pope Benedict XVI, Faith and the Future

My father’s curiosity about other people continued to be striking even while he was hospitalized. While we sat admiring the distant view of Mount Diablo from his room, I recalled that when anti-nuclear activists attempted periodically to block the entrances to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, most employees would drive through the gates with windows closed and gazes downward. My dad, arriving on his bicycle as usual, would stop to engage protestors in conversation, sharing his opinions and bombarding them with questions.

One day I returned to the hospital from a late afternoon walk and found my father chatting with a nurse. I sat down and listened as he described how 40 years earlier he had gotten interested in Zen Buddhism and had founded a Buddhist Club in Livermore. The nurse asked, “Are you still into Zen?”

“No! I’m Catholic now.”

“Well, I don’t know much about religion, but I think it’s all kind of the same, Buddhism, Catholic, it’s all kind of the same sort of spiritual thing, right?”

“No — not at all the same! The Catholic Church is completely different.”

“Why? What makes it so different?”

“It’s got the liturgy.”

“The liturgy? How does that make it different from Buddhism?”

“Well, a physicist has to be a Catholic.”

“What? I’ve never heard that before. Why does a physicist have to be a Catholic?”

“Maybe if you’re not a physicist, you could be a Buddhist; I don’t know about that. But a physicist has to be a Catholic because a physicist is interested in action. That’s what he studies. Gravity, stars exploding, molecules. Action! And the Catholic Church has all the action.”

“What is this action you’re talking about?”

“In the sacraments! In the liturgy! There’s the action!”

“The action? Like in the Mass?”

“Right! That’s the action in the Church, right in the liturgy.”

“What exactly happens during a Mass? I’ve never been to a Catholic Church. What is this action?”

“Well, I’ve only been a Catholic since April, so I don’t know all the details, but I can tell you, the Catholic Church has all the action.”

IX

Then Moses summoned Joshua and in the presence of all Israel said to him, “Be brave and steadfast, for you must bring this people into the land which the Lord swore to their fathers he would give to them.”Deuteronomy 31:7

A week after that conversation, my father’s children and grandchildren filled the hospital room. Dad took special delight in seeing how pleased his two great-granddaughters were with the tiny stuffed animals he gave them. He did not need pain medicine until the last day, and his mind remained clear.

Each morning he would ask if I had been to church before coming to the hospital. Every night we would pray, and just before I left I would trace a cross on his forehead and say goodbye. One night he did not reply. He died a few hours later, while his nurse read Psalms.

Father Matthew came to the hospital and the family gathered around my father’s body to pray the beautiful words for departed souls. At the funeral Mass a few days later, Father Matthew explained the two obligations of a Christian, to be a disciple and to be a witness. He said my father had made progress on both counts.

Later when I relayed the conversation about physicists being captivated by the “action” of the Mass to the prior of the Benedictines who had prayed for my father’s conversion, the prior said, “He has it exactly right: the word in Latin is actio, which describes the act of transubstantiation at the core of the Eucharist.”

Some months after his death, Father Matthew wrote, “Since James passed away, I have often thought about how fitting it is that he was a rock climber. Climbers often have to pull themselves up a cliff to safety by the strength of their fingers. I think he was able, through God’s gift of faith, to pull himself into heaven on the strength of a few very solid convictions.”

May James Ricker Wilson rest in peace, and may his work include praying for acts of conversion.


Marika Wilson Smith lives in South Bend, Indiana. She serves as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) for Saint Joseph County and as a trustee for the South Bend Museum of Art.


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