by John Powell, S.J.
John Powell, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, writes about a student in his Theology of Faith class named Tommy.
Some…years ago, I stood watching my university students file into the classroom for our first session in the "Theology of Faith" course.
That was the first day I first saw Tommy. My eyes and my mind both blinked. He was combing his long flaxen hair, which hung six inches below his shoulders. It was the first time I had ever seen a boy with hair that long. I guess it was just coming into fashion then. I know in my mind that it isn't what's on your head but what's in it that counts; but on that day I was unprepared and my emotions flipped. I immediately filed Tommy under "S" for strange ... very strange.
Tommy turned out to be the "atheist in residence" in my Theology of Faith course. He constantly objected to, smirked at or whined about the possibility of an unconditionally loving Father/God. We lived with each other in relative peace for one semester, although I admit he was for me at times a serious pain in the back pew.
When he came up at the end of the course to turn in his final exam, he asked in a slightly cynical tone, "Do you think I'll ever find God?"
I decided instantly on a little shock therapy. No!" I said very emphatically.
"Oh," he responded, "I thought that was the product you were pushing."
I let him get five steps from the classroom door and then called out, "Tommy! I don't think you'll ever find him, but I am absolutely certain that he will find you!"
He shrugged a little and left my class and my life. I felt slightly disappointed at the thought that he had missed my clever line, "He will find you!" At least I thought it was clever.
I really began banging bloody fists
against the bronze doors of heaven.
Later I heard that Tommy had graduated and I was duly grateful. Then a sad report. I heard that Tommy had terminal cancer.
Before I could search him out, he came to see me. When he walked into my office, his body was very badly wasted, and the long hair had all fallen out as a result of chemotherapy. But his eyes were bright and his voice was firm, for the first time, I believe.
"Tommy, I've thought about you so often. I hear you are sick." I blurted out.
"Oh, yes, very sick. I have cancer in both lungs. It's a matter of weeks."
"Can you talk about it, Tom?" I asked.
"Sure, what would you like to know?" he replied.
"What's it like to be only twenty-four and dying?"
"Well, it could be worse."
"Well, like being fifty and having no values or ideals, like being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women and making money are the real 'biggies' in life."
I began to look through my mental file cabinet under "S" where I had filed Tommy as strange. (It seems as though everybody I try to reject by classification, God sends back into my life to educate me.)
"But what I really came to see you about," Tom said, "is something you said to me on the last day of class." (He remembered!) He continued, "I asked you if you thought I would ever find God and you said, 'No!' which surprised me.
Then you said, 'But he will find you.' I thought about that a lot, even though my search for God was hardly intense at that time. (My "clever" line. He thought about that a lot!). But when the doctors removed a lump from my groin and told me that it was malignant, then I got serious about locating God. And when the malignancy spread into my vital organs, I really began banging bloody fists against the bronze doors of heaven.
"But God did not come out. In fact, nothing happened. Did you ever try anything for a long time with great effort and with no success? You get psychologically glutted, fed up with trying. And then you quit. Well, one day I woke up, and instead of throwing a few more futile appeals over that high brick wall to a God who may be or may not be there, I just quit. I decided that I didn't really care ... about God, about an afterlife, or anything like that. I decided to spend what time I had left doing something more profitable.
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