The Cistercian in the Classroom

I always believed that miracles had to be grand and showy for them to be considered miracles. Unfortunately, I believed that for many years.

Generally speaking, I’ve been pretty oblivious when God has called me. Fortunately, God has always found a way to reach me--even when I wasn’t looking for him. The first time was at the site of the Temple of Athena in Delphi. I was twenty-years-old and newly divorced from a man that hadn’t loved me and would never love me. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t in a good place spiritually, emotionally, or physically. That trip to Greece fell into the typical “finding yourself” category, though I didn’t realize that I would be finding God in the process.

It happened in an instant, as miracles do. I sat down after a long hike from Apollo’s temple and rested under an olive tree. There was no epiphany or flashing lights—just peace. For the first time in months it didn’t matter that my life was in shambles or that I was completely directionless. It didn’t even matter that I had gotten evicted from my apartment. There was a peace that radiated throughout my body and I knew, even then, that it was God. He called me in a way that penetrated through all the noise and distractions simply by saying “I’m here.” A few days later, I found myself kneeling in a Greek Catholic Church and my lips formed the words that I had long abandoned: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

I’d like to say that that was my big moment of conversion, but that would be a lie. Two years later I was in graduate school surrounded by some of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known. The history department also enflamed my demons. I started my day with caffeine and ended it with an entire bottle of wine. The stress of school was compounded by the fact that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. It so happened that my area of expertise was the French Revolution, but I also loved learning about the Wars of Religion. God was an academic concept to me and I thought about Him a lot, as many agnostics are prone to doing.

It was during my first Texas history seminar that I saw him—a tall skinny figure with black hair and brown eyes. Oh and by the way…he wore the familiar white collar of my childhood. My jaw fell open and I quickly averted my eyes. No one else seemed phased by the idea of having a priest in the class. In fact, most of my classmates greeted him like an old friend—Father Augustine was well-known around the history department.

To be quite frank, I was intimidated by the thought of sitting directly across the table from a man who represented everything that I had abandoned since I was thirteen. At the time I wanted to believe, but I was too worried about what my friends in the history department and my boyfriend would think if I suddenly grasped onto my dormant Catholic faith. Three weeks passed and during each class I would grow more curious, until one day I asked a classmate about him. “Oh, that’s Augustine!” She told me. “He’s got such a dry sense of humor. You’ll like him.” A sense of humor was enough, so I resolved to talk to Father Augustine during my next class, which happened to be on Ash Wednesday.

“Hi Father, do you have any ashes for me?” I asked him.

Without missing a beat he smiled and said “No, but after class we can go outside and I can rub dirt on your forehead if you’d like.”

Even recounting the story brings a smile to my face because I remember the joy he radiated in that moment. I realize now that what I saw was the light of God shining through him and I didn’t turn away. I waited patiently until the end of class before approaching him again.

“Is it Augustine or Father Augustine?”

“Since you’re Catholic, I’d prefer Father Augustine.” He informed me.

I asked him if he wanted to actually rub dirt on my forehead and he told me that it was only a joke and a bad one at that. Instead he offered me a blessing and told me that as a Cultural Catholic, I was a part of “the world’s largest religion. There was nothing silly about the blessing he offered me though. I don’t remember the words, but I remember the kindness in his voice and suddenly I heard that voice in my soul saying: “I’m here.”

Before leaving class, Father Augustine told me that he hoped I found what I was looking for. I’m sure we talked a few times before the end of the semester, but I don’t remember specifics. Years later I told him how this moment affected me and he told me that he was grateful for “when God is able to work through me, even in simple moments like what we shared.” He’s right. That moment was simple, a joke between classmates, but it became a moment that defined my faith journey because of its simplicity. Looking back I realize that God was using Father Augustine to reach me.

Things have changed in the last six years. I graduated with my MA and left academia. I started a family and prayer is a part of my daily life. I feel His presence in the quiet moments of my life, as well as those when I need Him the most. I now realize that miracles come when you least expect them. But maybe, just maybe, they can come in like a neon sign. Sometimes there is a Cistercian in the classroom.