Tuesday, July 20, 2010


My math skills are a running joke in my family. I found an old SRA test from third or fourth grade, and I scored in the 7th percentile. I never learned my times tables. I remember trying to memorize them, a few stuck. But I didn't know what I was memorizing. They were just random numbers to me. I took the college prep math courses in high school and I think I may have even managed a B- one semester. That had to be in geometry which made a bit more sense. The Algebra was like Greek.

The first math course I ever liked was Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometry my senior year in college. I had a great professor and the benefit of three and a half years of liberal arts education, you bet I waited until the last possible moment to fulfill that requirement. The professor required no prerequisite knowledge but asked us to use logic to figure out the proofs. I had my first glimpse at the Incredibly wonderful world of math.

When my oldest was five, one morning at the breakfast table he asked, "What is three plus three plus three? Is it nine?"' "Why yes" I answered after quickly using my fingers to check. "What is three plus three plus three plus three? Is it twelve?" "yes, why do you ask?" With a shrug he answered, "I don't know, I just think about it when I go to bed at night."

We were doing kindergarten math, but I decided to skip subtraction for awhile and move on to multiplication since he was interested in it. I quickly learned that if I asked him, "What is Three times Two?" He would answer, "Five." But if I asked him, "What is three two TIMES?" "He would answer, "six." Oh, so that is what the times tables are. I am sure I knew this, but to see how the changing of one word made it clear to a five year old made it clear to me. It became clearer when I would watch him double the answer to four times six to get the answer to eight times six.

Having taught math to a math kid for four years, I have learned a lot. Watching how his mind calculates and figures things out has shown me the incredible order of math. No longer just random numbers, I see patterns, lines stretching infinitely in two directions, parts of wholes and wholes made out of parts. He of course hates math. But because of him, I have come to love it.

I have always believed that because the Universe was created by God, everything in the universe could tell us something about Him. From an ant hill to the genetic make up of a human being to the rotations of the planets, we can catch a glimpse of who He is. I have never believed that anything, not even the Incarnated Word, could teach us everything about Him. Though the human mind is amazing beyond anything else in the Universe, it can never fully grasp the Divine in its entirety. I think if it did, it would explode into a million pieces. Perhaps this is why we enter His presence first as pure spirit.

I have just read an incredible article in this month's edition of First Things titled "The God of Mathematicians." In it, David P. Goldman reviews the work of Kurt Godel. Much of it is over my head, I admit. But one thing struck me as incredibly wonderful. "Godel's incompleteness theorems, critique of the continuum hypothesis, and examination of general relativity all have theological implications...He considered mathematical objects to be real and his research therefore to be empirical. He thought his theology thus to be an empirical one, founded on man's experience of the infinite fecundity of the creator's mind."

Godel believed in a personal God. According to Goldman, "Godel's personal God is under no obligation to behave in a predictable orderly fashion...we cannot construct an ontology that makes God dispensable. Secularists can dismiss this as a mere exercise within predefined rules of the game of mathematical logic, but that is sour grapes, for it was the secular side that hoped to substitute logic for God in the first place. Godel's critique of the continuum hypothesis has the same implications as his incompleteness theorems: Mathematics never will create the sort of closed system that sorts reality into neat boxes."

As I worked with my four year old this morning on math, it occurred to me that our's is a ten based system. How ingenious that we also have ten digits. From laying in bed and thinking about threes, to seeing how many different ways we can arrange our fingers, our Good God has given us so much to work with. But in the end, not even math can tell us everything about God. As human beings who can never truly know another human being, how many of us ever even master a decent self-knowledge, can we ever hope to master the Divine?

No, but our God has not left us to be bored. To contemplate the human mind's capacity to search for Him is to me the greatest sign of His existence. We could each spend one hundred life times searching a different part of His Universe and still not find all He has left for us to discover. And sadly, we could spend our one lifetime never looking for Him at all.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Book Review and So Much More

I needed a miracle. My son’s Godfather just received a year to live. For some reason, the news did not devastate me. Immediately, I had a sense of hope. I don’t know from whence it came or why I reacted such. I just had a feeling we could get a miracle.

I began a google search for a potential saint who needed a miracle for canonization. Several times my search came up with nothing current. I kept changing the words I used and hitting enter. Finally, I came upon an article from Catholic News Services dated March 12, 2010. The title was "Chicago Archdiocese begins sainthood process for first black US Priest". My friend had returned home a few weeks earlier to Chicago for his treatment. This looked promising.

I ordered the book of his life, From Slave To Priest by Caroline Hemesath. Following is a summary:

Fr. Augustine Tolton (1854-1879) was the first black American priest. His mother, Martha Jane Chisley, was taken from Kentucky to Missouri as a wedding gift for the youngest daughter of a Catholic Slave owner where she met a fellow Catholic slave of a neighboring farm, Peter Paul Tolton. They were married in Brush Creek, MO at St. Peter’s Church. The couple remained the mutual property of their owners and had three children.

During the Civil War, Peter Paul escaped to St. Louis to join the Union Army. Martha Jane escaped to Illinois a few years later with her three children, Charley, Augustine and Anne. Augustine was only seven years old. The family settled in Quincy where they learned after the end of the war of the death of Peter Paul.

Augustine was raised in Quincy where he began working as a very young child in the tobacco factories to help support his family. His older brother died at the age of ten. His youth was filled with the support of German and Irish clergy who took an interest in his education combined with a bitter resentment and hatred from many of the whites in the Catholic community. The majority of his education was from private tutoring.

At his First Communion at the age of sixteen, he felt a calling to become a priest. Then began his long journey to ordination. Even with the support of the many clergy who had taken him under wing, he was unable to gain acceptance into any American Seminary. His education continued under private tutors as the search for a seminary to accept him continued for eight years.

During this time, Augustine worked in both the Quincy factories and in the church as a custodian and alter server. He continued his education and worked as a lay apostle with his priests to establish a Catholic Mission for the black children. He was a cheerful, faithful and spiritual young man known to many in the community. Though the long wait tried his courage, he persisted in the belief that if God wanted him to be a priest, he would be one.

At the age of twenty five he was accepted into the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in Rome with the idea that he would be a missionary to Africa. He counted these years as a Seminarian as the happiest in his life. He was ordained in 1886 and sent back to the Diocese of Quincy.

In Quincy, he first was accepted and cherished by both the white and black communities. But as he gained success, he was attacked by both white clergy and black Protestant Ministers. His work suffered and he was unable to see much fruit for his tireless labors on behalf of his people. He requested a transfer and was sent to Chicago to be the Pastor of the first black church there.

In Chicago, he worked to the point of exhaustion for a people who faced poverty, illiteracy, and racism. Through all of his trials, he remained cheerful and faithful. and deeply spiritual. He died of a heat stroke at the age of forty-three.

I have recently adopted an Ethiopian little boy just a bit younger than Fr. Tolton was when his mother stole across the Mississippi River to freedom. The desire for an African American Priest as a saintly role model is more important to me than it would have been just a few months ago.

Everything was just too uncanny: My need for a miracle, the Chicago connection, the black connection. It bothered me, no that isn’t right, it motivated me. I desperately want my miracle. I pray daily for Fr. Tolton’s intercession on behalf of my dear friend. But there was more. I wanted to help Fr. Tolton’s cause. I wanted to increase the devotion to this potential saint who our country could so desperately use; who I could use in my family as an example of holiness, dedication and charity. Thomas Jefferson once said, “In regard to the institution of slavery, indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” But God is also merciful, and He may be giving our country a heavenly advocate in the person of Augustine Tolton.

I have felt a friendship with many a saint. I hope for this kind of friendship for all my children. When I was a high school theology teacher, I had my Juniors do a saint report to prepare them for Confirmation. I told them that their sponsor was their representative on Earth, their Saint their advocate in heaven. I told them not to pick a name they liked, but to look deeper, to find a saint who held their strengths or overcame their weaknesses. I encouraged them to find a Saint to whom they felt a connection.

Why we connect with certain people and not others is hard to say. I know I have an affinity for the Irish and the Polish Saints because of my heritage. I love Joan of Arc because of her femininity (Read Twain’s Joan of Ark) and to St. Joseph because of his deep love of Mary.

My African son does not need Saints that share his skin color. I don’t need Irish and Polish saints either. But it is sure nice to have somewhat tangible things in common with those holy men and women who have gone before us. It just helps to make that connection that we all need with the Heavenly members of Christ’s Mystical Body.

I write this today because I have made a connection with Fr. Tolton. If it is God’s will, I want to do everything in my power to further his cause for Sainthood. I also want my miracle. I know they are not necessarily one in the same. I know my friend’s illness led me to Fr. Tolton. If his cure is not in God’s plan, then I will pray for another divine acknowledgement of Fr. Tolton’s sanctity. And I will ask Fr. Tolton for a different favor. I will ask that he beseech heaven for all the spiritual graces available to shower upon my friend for the remainder of his precious life on earth and that he be there to welcome his fellow Chicagoan into the light.

Fr. Tolton Prayer cards can be requested from Bishop Perry’s office at dragonese@archchicago.org, From Slave to Priest is available at barnesandnobel.com