Saint Anthony and me

May 23 2003 | by

A FAMOUS PSYCHOLOGIST by the name of Dr. Abraham Maslow wrote at length about what he called ‘peak experiences.’ Peak experiences are natural highs, like viewing an enormously beautiful sunset or observing a resplendent rainbow. Such experiences change our view of the world or aspects of it.

Those who experience a peak experience, and most of us do at some time or other in our lives, feel that life is worth living. Peak experiences take us out of our drab, pedestrian existence, transporting us to see the beauty and goodness in the world. Peak experiences make us feel more alive and, at the same time, make us feel more at peace within ourselves.

Peak experience take us out of ourselves. They give us a sense of wholeness, of oneness. At the same time these experiences help individuals attain greater identity, autonomy and selfhood. As a Christian I would say that peak experiences are often the result of being touched by the grace of God.


Renewed zest for life


This may all sound very theoretical and lofty, so allow me to speak of peak experiences in terms of my own life. About thirty years ago, I flew from J.F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Geneva, Switzerland. One of the pilots on the plane was a long-time childhood friend, Bobby Kavula, who regularly flew this route for Trans World Airlines.

Bobby made arrangements for me to stay with the crew in the Hotel President in Geneva. The next day the hotel packed us a lunch. We rented a car and drove to Chamonix, France. There we took the cable car up to the summit of Mt. Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe.

As we ascended the mountain in the cable car we could see glaciers because we were that high up. This was a peak experience for me. I had a feeling of exhilaration. My heart came up to my mouth. I was in awe of the majesty and beauty of the mountain and the sheer height of its cliffs. I was stunned because I did not anticipate that I would be so overwhelmed by the experience.

This experience will stay with me my entire lifetime. My zest for life was renewed. It was, indeed, a magical moment, one forever etched in my memory. We took photos of the glaciers. I have, however, never seen the pictures. In a sense I do not need to. The moment remains ever fresh in my heart.


A spiritual change of heart


I had another peak experience in the train station in Munich, Germany. At the time I was living in Munich completing my doctorate degree at the Ludwig Maximilians University. I happened to be walking from the train station, having just arrived from Wuerzburg.

Suddenly, I stumbled upon a man who was prostrate on the ground, spread out on a small rug or prayer mat. It was noontime, the time for prayer in the Muslim world. The man wore a turban and looked like he hailed from the Middle East. I watched him perform his prayer with his head pointed presumably in the direction of Mecca. I said to myself, then and there, there must be something to Islam if this man felt comfortable praying to Allah in public.

Here, in the midst of thousands of people, a man had the courage to witness to the power of the Transcendent. That scene has always stayed with me. Prior to that experience, I was a bit wary of Islam. Perhaps because I never spoke to a real Muslim. That experience completely changed my opinion of Islam. Now I have the greatest respect for Islam and Muslims.

And it’s a curious thing - the man said absolutely nothing. It was not his words that I found persuasive; it was his deed. In fact, he probably could not have convinced me of the truth of Islam intellectually. I may not have been open to his words. His deed completely turned me around. I was speechless, in awe. I received a powerful object lesson.


On holy ground


Another peak experience involved the great Saint Anthony of Padua. The year was 1970. I had taken the train down form Munich to Verona and then on to Venice. On the way back to Verona from Venice I decided to stop over in Padua. No sooner did I leave the train when I saw signs for the Basilica of Il Santo. I was a poor student at the time and took the bus, asking the driver in my poor Italian to “let me off at the Basilica of Saint Anthony.”

The bus driver obliged. And I found myself in front of this huge edifice known as the Basilica of Saint Anthony. Around the basilica there were small wagons and carts offering postcards of the Basilica, rosary beads and holy cards for sale. This turned me off.

Like thousands of other tourists and curiosity seekers I entered the great Basilica, anxious to view its art work and sculpture. In an instant a strange feeling came over my entire being. I felt I was in the presence of the Holy. I felt like Moses entering the Holy of Holies. Should I take off my shoes?

My heart beat faster. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I felt a sense of exhilaration within. I was touched by the grace of God. I had visited hundreds of churches and cathedrals such as Notre Dame in Paris, Saint Patrick’s in New York City but I was never before so conscious that I was on holy ground.

I went to the altar where the relics of Saint Anthony were kept and knelt on the ground. I prayed to God, thanking God for this awesome experience. The experience took me completely by surprise. I was like Saint Paul before the gates of Damascus. I had walked into the Basilica a tourist; I walked out a changed man.

I find it difficult to put this experience into words. It will be with me until I die. It knocked me off my feet. It thrilled and touched my entire being. I felt an expansion of heart. I knew that this Basilica was a very special place indeed. I had never felt the presence of God as strongly as I had felt at this shrine dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua.

In the fall of 1963, I had visited the church in Lisbon, Portugal on the site where Saint Anthony was born. I had prayed to St. Anthony as a teenager to help me find lost objects. As a young boy I was taken with the statues of Saint Anthony holding the Christ Child in his arms. I was also smitten with the gentleness and humility of this great saint. Never before or since did I have a palpable experience of the presence of God Almighty like I did in Padua.

I’ll never forget the feeling of peace and inner calm at the Basilica in Padua. The feeling inside the Basilica was just so different from the hustle and bustle outside on the street. This was for me a peak experience. I observed scores of people praying at Anthony’s tomb and silently joined their number. Power emanated from the relics of Saint Anthony. It was like electricity gong through me. It was as if I were shot through with a divine laser. I was branded by a divine impulse.

And it was all so unexpected. It took my breath away. What intellectual proofs did I need for the existence of God? I had all the proof I could bear. Ever since that day in the summer of 1970, I have felt an affinity to Saint Anthony of Padua.

When asked to write this column on Saint Anthony for Messenger of Saint Anthony: International Edition, it was a no-brainer. I knew that I should write this column. A friend of mine, Friar Philip Kelly called me out of the blue from Canada one day to consider writing a monthly piece on Saint Anthony for the Messenger of Saint Anthony. I immediately consented. The rest is history.


Charged prayer


I want to share another peak experience in my life. One of my students at Auburn University in Alabama was engaged to a young man from India. They were to be wed at his parent’s home in India and she was a bit apprehensive about the long journey ahead. She had taken several courses in Religious Studies from me and knew me well.

Before her plane departed from the Atlanta Airport she asked me to say a prayer over her that she was making the right decision. She also asked me to pray to God that she would have a safe trip. As I began to pray for her, she told me to stop and to put my hands on the top of her head as I prayed.

I thought that this was a strange request although I did put my hands on her head as I prayed that she would have a safe trip and was making a good decision by marrying this young man. After completing my prayers this student stood up and said, “Wow! Did you know that when you prayed over me such power went out of you that I was almost knocked to the ground? I had to do all I could do to keep from falling down.”

I was completely taken off guard by these words. I had no idea that power had gone out of me. To this day I wonder if my experience in the Basilica of Saint Anthony charged me with a power higher than this earth. I guess I’ll never really know.


Updated on October 06 2016