October 22, 2019

The Art of the Witness

St. Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941)

I recently read Deacon Kurt Godfryd’s incisive article, A Gentle Breezein this publication. It was a powerful witness for the faith and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It led me to wonder just how many times I have felt that gentle breeze in my life.

In a similar vein, lately I have been thinking about the concept of witness a good deal. I remember reading a book while I was at Holy Cross, entitled And Your Young Men Shall see Visions. Though they did not always have a religious context, in a couple of memorable baseball instances I think I might rightfully have been called a visionary.  

Since the book only focused on men my approximate age, I was not aware that the last part said old men shall dream dreams. I would guess that the dreams old men have would be more of the dreams left unfulfilled than those to come unless they were of the Life to come.

As I have aged, my energy level has waned. Consequently, I have had more time to concentrate on just how important the art of the witness is to faith. I believe it is an art that can be developed and even improved. While I believe that while young men may see visions, old men should witness the truth of their lives, including their journey of faith and their relationships with family, friends, acquaintances and yes, even their adversaries or what Jesus called our enemies.

In fact, I have been witnessing for the Faith since I was a sophomore at Holy Cross and started to participated in the frequent bull sessions that often popped up on campus like campfires at a college picnic.  

While I taught history on virtually every level for several years, the very first test of faith I had was during my 28 years as a part-time radio talk show host. Though the first 22 years were on a public station, I made certain that people knew being a Catholic was a vital part of my personal identity. 

After a brief honeymoon on WGNU for this new and inexperienced radio host, the religious bigots and dissidents hit me with both barrels a blazing. Every personal belief I had was challenged in one way or another. I quickly realized what I understood about the Catholic faith and what I had failed to grasp. So it was back to my Catholic Theological and Philosophical blackboard for some extra reading in our catechetics. 

Over the years, I also became a prolific contributor to the letters to the editor of our progressive paper, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I was fortunate that many of my letters were published.  

My next opportunity to explore that idea of witness was for our only Catholic newspaper, the St. Louis Review, when I said I was an American Catholic and not a Catholic American. Surprisingly to me at least, the editor challenged me on that, mainly because the priest who was responsible for the publication questioned my logic. I wrote back and made my case that the two words were not hyphenated, like Irish-American so that there was no implied equality. And it was a question of grammar and not semantics.  

A noun is ordinarily the subject of any sentence, thusly what is the most important part of that sentence. To me, my noun will always be Catholic, one who practices the faith and witnesses to it when the opportunity presents itself. American in this case is an adjective. It tells the reader what kind of a Catholic I am or at least where I practice the faith. It should go without saying that the Review printed American Catholic in my short essay. 

I also found another outlet as a Catholic witness with Eleanor’s Schlafly’s The Mindszenty Foundation. I spent 11 years writing virtually every one of our monthly issues. This experience furthered my understanding and respect for the faith because no more devout Catholic ever lived during my lifetime within the circle of my personal relationships.

I found one of the most power examples of how to witness the Gospels is to be a married couple. This was a very new idea that I first comprehended after my first wife’s demise after 50 years of marriage. In the film, Shall We Dance, a delightful film about a lawyer’s ennui as he journeys into his later years. His career and even his wife and family did not satisfy some inner yearning inside his soul. In other words he was in a rut. 

Played masterfully by Richard Geer, while on the the way home, riding in one of Chicago’s El trains, he spies a forlorn woman gazing out over the tracks from a window two stories above the train platform. Above her was a neon sign that advertised a dance studio. While the woman intrigued him, it was not a pure sexual attraction that prompted him to sign up for lessons. He did not want to have a sordid affair, as so many men in his situation might seek, but merely, to try something uncharacteristic for him. In a word, he just wanted to dance.

Dancing can be a wonderful metaphor for what we do when we are happy or doing our thing as they used to say. Charles Schultz’s playful and blissful dog, Snoopy, has often been compared to Jesus because he loved to dance to express his joy. I remember a sportswriter describing in poetic language why O. J. Simpson electrified so many people when he was on the football field. As the writer so lyrically put it, he loved to watch OJ dance!

To take a full slate of lessons, Geer had to conjure many excuses or white lies for his late arrivals at home for a few months. His wife, played by Susan Sarandon, started to get suspicious and hired a private detective to tail him after work. After finding out that his nocturnal activities were innocuous, still she had that emotional hurt that he inflicted by not confiding or sharing with her. As the screenwriter so profoundly had her say:

We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.

Would not it be effective if we could transfer this marital gift to our witness of the Catholic faith? And think what could conceivably happen to our faith if we all stopped telling others about our good news, or just stopped defending the Church when we should publicly address the evils that crop up every so often, such as the notorious and very harmful sex scandal of the last two generations?  

Apathy would happen and might have already established a beachhead on the battle grounds of Belief vs. Unbelief. So ominous is this situation that it might take the Church several generations to restore the fervor we once exalted in the late sixties.

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Written by
William Borst

WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.

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Written by William Borst
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