I was born in Bakersfield, California, a small city that sits in the San Joaquin Valley. It happened at Mercy Hospital, a Catholic facility, and the first nurses to caress me were nuns. This is significant because our family was not Catholic. We were from a long line of English Methodists. Yet, I appeared on February 18, 1959, held by nuns of the Roman Church. I suppose that this was a foretaste of what would come for me. In time, I will tell you a story about another nun, one who saved my life, a young French nun who was in heaven already when I was born at Mercy Hospital. I love nuns for this and many other reasons that you will discover as I tell my story. However, it began with the nuns at Mercy. Afterwards, my parents brought me home to Shafter, a small, modest community about twenty or so miles from Bakersfield.
My father was in the agricultural business. When I was only one year old, he moved the family from California back to his home state of Oklahoma. Both my father and mother grew up there. It is in Oklahoma that I really begin the story of my journey to Christendom, notwithstanding that significant precursory grace of Catholicism at Mercy. We moved to a town called Guymon, in the very far western reaches of the state, in the Panhandle, which is the very long and thin piece of western real estate that drives itself like a wedge between Kansas and Texas and stops just at New Mexico and Colorado.
I want to fill you in only on the most necessary facts in order not to be too dry and boring, for there are plenty of exciting dark forests, unnerving bridges, life threatening storms, and majestic castles of which I will speak regarding my journey to the spiritual land of Christendom. I am telling you a little about the earthly land from where I came to allow you at least to frame who I am and how my journey happened. With that in mind, I would like to say a few things about Guymon, Oklahoma and my life there; for, this small community truly blessed me in my childhood.
The population of Guymon was approximately six thousand in the nineteen seventies. It is delightfully remote geographically and, as a consequence, seemed to be culturally more “motherhood and apple pie” than many other areas of the country. The community sits isolated on the high plains that are flat and dry prairie lands sweeping up to the Rocky Mountains further west. The communities around Guymon are smaller still and with few exceptions take up to an hour to reach by car doing sixty miles an hour and this with nothing in between! Amarillo, Texas sits quietly south about two hours and fifteen minutes away. A major city such as Dallas, Denver, or Oklahoma City is a full day’s drive.
Weather on the high plains can be delightful or deadly with beautiful spring days and very hot summers that might occasionally threaten with a tornado. Winters are cold with the occasional high plains blizzard, and one should be careful not to be caught traveling about on those lonely country highways when one hits. Peering over the landscape, one would see dry and sandy riverbeds longing wistfully for the occasional flash flood.
By far autumn was my favorite season on the impressive rolling plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle. How peculiar that the Panhandle would bring me to love autumn, as there are very few trees across that land. One normally thinks of autumn in colorful areas such as New England, Michigan, or Wisconsin, where a vast number of trees turn beautifully in red, yellow, and orange leaves. The Oklahoma Panhandle will never compete well for fall foliage tourism! The few trees there sit shivering in seasonal fall brown cloaks and the grass simply goes dormant. Yet, I loved autumn on those broad, flat high plains! Autumn was cool, with air so crisp, it raised your spirits just being in the season. Autumn filled the air with energy.
Farming and ranching drove the area’s economy with all of the supporting businesses ranging from agricultural supply stores to the local boot and shoe shop. Guymon had a brick, or cobble stone type Main Street. Main Street was the central artery we drove up and down after school each day, a social activity we referred to as “dragging main.” The local bowling alley was a significant ancillary meeting place. I heard a remarkable story one time; though, I cannot tell you if it is true. However, I can tell you that if you lived in Guymon, you would believe that it could be true. The story is that it remains illegal to drive on Main Street because the noise from the car engines might scare the horses! It has been a while since anyone “moseyed up” to a bar on Main Street and tied a horse. Apparently, there is no process in Guymon for cleaning up old, unused laws, just as one tends to let papers stack on a desk without review.
What I remember most about growing up in Guymon, along with the wonderful people there, was the huge sky streaking across the landscape from the distant horizons. Standing on a country road, you would see nothing but farm and ranch land for miles and miles in any direction. I loved to stand and look at the beautiful landscape that was huge and empty all at the same time. Guymon gave me this as another gift. While staring out over the vast, empty, beautiful landscape of farmland and prairies with occasional booming thunderstorms in the distance, I had the first stirrings of the contemplative inner life. It was there that I remember contemplating the great things of the world. Later on, I surrendered fully to these inner longings and directed them to God in prayer and contemplation. However, it was on the high plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle that these feelings first moved in me.
Culturally, the town was what most would describe as conservative with a lively Christian religious life (not to mention, though, an equally lively bar and saloon life!). The residents shared similar, bible-based moral values. It was a mostly Protestant town with the First Baptist being the largest church in town. Most other denominations represented the community, such as our family’s church, Victory Memorial United Methodist, as well as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, Church of Christ, Church of the Nazarene, and so forth. There was a small Catholic Church in town, one to which I paid little attention while growing up.
On Friday nights in the cool autumn, you could hear the roars and cheers of the locals at the high school football game and could not miss the band’s fight song no matter where you were in town at that moment. It was Guymon, Oklahoma; Guymon, USA; and small town America at its very finest! I loved Guymon, and it was very good to me.
Our family partially owned and managed a well known agricultural tool manufacturing company. I was a straight “A” honors student, the class President, and an all-state basketball player. I am sure that life was not always as good as I remember it, but I do not care about that. I look back often with sweet nostalgia on my childhood in that great town of Guymon, Oklahoma.
My family traveled occasionally. Between my eighth and ninth grades at school, we made a trip to Europe that included a one-day drive behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary. I studied French in high school for three years and participated in a French summer cultural program in the Normandy region of France, where we students lived with local families and participated in their culture for six weeks. It always struck me as uniquely interesting that a school in the southwestern region of the United States, with such a high and growing population of Hispanics, had no Spanish courses at that time, only French! Yet, like my early contemplative yearnings while looking out over the high plains, the fact that I would study French and journey to France as a student proved to be providential. I would discover later in life, and you probably already suspect this, that French Catholic spirituality guides my inner life. The most influential saints in my life would come from France, and I love that land to this day for this reason. I am French in spirit if not by birth.
Finally, I will mention one other very important moment from my youthful years in Guymon. One day during the hot summer, just before I was to leave town to start college, I drove in my flashy sports car to the local swimming pool and went to the upper deck to see if my friends were swimming. I noticed a beautiful young woman in the pool. We flirted with each other from afar. For weeks after that I drove back to the pool “looking for my friends” always hoping to see this young woman again. I frequently did. Sadly, I was too shy to approach her, and the result was that it would be seven years before we would see each other again. However, the eye contact we made that summer was the third providential design that had future ramifications for my life.
Having shared all of the above, I will now begin to re-focus on the spiritual journey and how it was that my childhood in Guymon helped shape it.
There are three key spiritual discussion points coming out of my wonderfully simple but warmly remembered childhood in that small, isolated community. I will speak of each one. Each point is crucial to understanding the significance of later spiritual junctures on my journey. When I look back now, from high on the castle towers of Christendom, I see these principles very clearly, ideas and concepts that I could not perceive earlier in time. With the clean air from my spiritual highland, I can look back over the landscape of the years and see connections between the various paths, rivers, mountains, and valleys that I could never associate in my youth.
The first of these is that Guymon, similar to Joan of Arc’s French childhood village of Domrémy, was quietly and sleepily aware of a greater war going on around it but still somewhat removed from the associated bloodshed and vulgarity. Here I do not speak of the Vietnam War. I speak of the more terrible and deadly spiritual war mentioned in the first few chapters. In Joan’s time, with notable exceptions, the children of Domrémy played innocently out of reach from the Hundred Years War. Nevertheless, they heard the stories and feared the tales of how the English with their Burgundian allies fought their way deeply into the French homeland. Despite being generally surrounded by Anglo-Burgundian forces, Domrémy, remained relatively unfettered for Joan of Arc and her childhood friends.
In a similar fashion, Guymon sat isolated from but aware of that awful social, religious, and cultural war of The Sixties, the war that spread a viral spiritual disease in a mere decade with the impact of a Hundred Years War. Watching their television sets, many residents heard the stories and feared the tales of radical demonstrations, music festivals malignant with the spiritual cancer of revolutionary anarchy, and a general degradation of morality most commonly witnessed in fashion and language. This revolution destroyed one bastille of moral and religious modesty after another. The revolution in music, television, magazines, and the entertainment industry in general swept into power and degraded our public standards to what is now brazen, fist-in-the-air blasphemy. Many in the town could sense that this vulgarity and irreligion clawed deeply into the fabric of our country. Yet, Guymon remained unfettered America for us; it was the way America was supposed to be. It was, perhaps, “New Domrémy.”
The second point to make about my childhood in Guymon is that of the naturalness of our religious denominational associations. We lived in a somewhat smooth cease-fire of religious relativity. Most would acknowledge that it did not matter what church you attended as long as you were sincere in your beliefs. The fact that the community as a whole held to a unified bible-based morality enabled this kind of easy-going tolerance. No matter what your individual denominational association, all would agree that the bible was our foundation and the Ten Commandments were the moral rules set, literally, in stone. I would come later to understand this more generally by the name Natural Law. There was a sense that your community obliged you to attend church and defer to the Good Book even if you were not sincere in doing so. The community expected you to act as if you were of a Christian mind, even if you were not. In that sense, Christianity was the culture of Guymon, if not always felt sincerely by each individual. In a more profound sense, Guymon vaguely represented a similar social structure to the chivalrous Christendom of old; though, I was unable to formulate that concept in my youth.
In the core years of Christendom, Europe was Catholic and Christian and were you to blaspheme, as people do today, a vigilante mob made up of your own neighbors might hang you well before a King or the Church hierarchy could call you before an inquisition. Inquisitions, for that matter, were attempts to invoke judicial and civil order to prevent such vigilante justice or even regional religious war.
“The Inquisition of the thirteenth century did not strike fear into the people of Western Europe. Its scope was limited, its trials and punishments more lenient to the accused than its secular counterparts…Every recourse to law and the courts is a calamity. But the Church then, and people today, seem to assume it is better than vigilantes and war. There is no accounting for some taste.” (Crocker, 2001)
This is where I differ from many who came out of blessed little communities like Guymon, who believed that those communities oppressed them with Christian culture and who wanted to leave and quickly gorge themselves on the “freedoms” promised by the revolutionary spirit. A society ruled by the Christian ethos is well ordered and blessed by God. The heavy hand of the Church in Christendom was a loving hand, a blessing to the people. Obedience to the law of Christ brings order, goodness, virtue, purpose in suffering, merit in sacrifice, and, ultimately, eternal salvation, were one to act in sincere faith.
If these last sentences seem hard for you, I will prove my point easily. Simply look at our modern society that is far from Christ’s law and far from the hand of any Church. You see that the hearts of men are frighteningly cold, and what warmth they might muster each day comes temporarily from either a pharmaceutical company or a liquor bottle. That is the revolution’s major contribution to mental well-being. God bless Christendom! No matter how you come back at me to criticize the imperfections of the old civilization, I simply will throw up a mirror on this one and have you defend what value the modern secular, atheistic mind brings us. Strong anti-God influences in attitudes, arts, media, and laws ruled us for many decades and continue to do so. Our world is dark today as the result of falling away from the social values of Christendom. Those life-affirming values are the very ones that the hellions of The Sixties so arrogantly mocked. Throw the spirits who guide the hellions and revolutionaries back to hell from where they came. A republic ruled by the hellacious revolution is about as promising as the old Soviet Union. Bring us a Christian Republic or bring us a Catholic King.
You might note that I jumped with radical fury from the anarchic, revolutionary spirit engulfing the West today to establishing a Catholic King to crash the gates of hell and resolve it all. I will slow down a bit. Going back to my second point, let us simply say that Guymon, though religiously relative, based its society on a somewhat unified Christian culture. I say, God bless that!
The third point I would like to emphasize regarding my childhood days in Guymon is that growing up, I had little notion of tradition, either secular or religious. I mean tradition that would explain to me Western civilization and the action of history that resulted in the reaction driving this revolutionary mess. I learned matters like the American Revolution of the eighteenth century. What happened in the other seventeen centuries? In addition, the only religious tradition given to me was the result of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, an event to which I refer more accurately as the Protestant Revolution. There was no reforming of anything; there was only bloody religious war:
“More than 130,000 of the peasantry – let alone people of other classes – died in two years of civil war (1524 to 1526). That is sixty-five times the number of deaths the Spanish Inquisition claimed in its first ten – and by far its worst – years…. True terror was to be found less in the inquisitional courts of Spain than wherever Protestant reformers did their work.” (Crocker, 2001)
Here, I do have a criticism of my childhood influences in Guymon. Being in a relatively young town in a relatively young country dominated by Protestantism, which is a relatively young religion, no one taught me about the real tradition of the West and of Christendom. No one emphasized the glory of Catholic Europe, the rise of the Church as the foundation of culture, universities, scientific discovery, education and so forth. In my crowd, the only real Christianity worth discussing began one thousand five hundred years after Christ. All of the reformers, to whom I refer as revolutionaries, who threw out the first millennium and a half of Church history were heroes. No one mentioned that Luther called for the German state to be the new religious authority, that the Pope and his cardinals should “have their tongues torn out by the backs of their necks, and nailed in rows on the gallows,” (Crocker, 2001) or that the peasants’ minds must be “unbuttoned with bullets, till their heads jump off their shoulders.” (Crocker, 2001) Nor did we hear of John Calvin’s police state in Geneva.
“But there was another model. To the raucous freedom of the Catholic Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the subordination of Church to state under Luther, John Calvin responded with the invention of the first – and only – Christian police state.” (Crocker, 2001)
In the eyes of those with whom I grew up, these revolutionaries were heroes who saved Christianity from the worn out “man-made” Catholic Church. I would learn only later in that little Catholic Church mentioned above that Christ established the Church as his own with a visible hierarchy that has on-going authority through an unbroken chain of apostolic succession. The gates of Hell will not overcome this Church. (Matthew 16: 18-19) St. Francis of Assisi saved the Church in the thirteenth century at Christ’s command. He was a real reformer, not Luther or Calvin. I never heard anything about St. Francis.
In summary, I have wonderful memories of Guymon and the town’s people who supported me. It is not any individual’s fault that we were ill informed about real Christian and cultural tradition. Like many, I thought growing up that our way of life lacked the progressive ways of the sophisticated world, which in retrospect simply were the ways of the revolution. I believe now that our way of life was the very thing about which we were right. We held to Christian morality and made those who opposed it feel discomfort. Praise God and long live Christendom!