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Theologian, author, and former U.S. ambassador, Michael Novak currently holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where he[…]

Professor Novak discusses how he was shaped by World War II.

Novak: Let me start at a different place first and then come to exactly where you want. I was born in 1933 as Adolf Hitler was being elected as Chancellor of Germany and some of my earliest images as a young lad in the movie theaters in 1940s was the opening of the concentration camps by allied troops, and then, more and more as the weeks went on, film became available and we could see these bodies being heaved like sacks of earth or something like that up on the trucks or off the trucks and that frightened me a bit when I was young. But it also impressed me that, you know, life could be a lot more meaningless than we think it is, not nearly as so comfortable. Who of those people thought a year before that they would be so treated? Hundred million people in Europe alone lost their lives by violence in the 20th century. So, when I read Hegel when he said, “history is a butcher’s bench” sure sounded true to me. So, you know, this sort of sense of the possibility of darkness and chaos and meaninglessness and cruelty and barbarity at the heart of things seemed always to be alive in my conscience, you know, I don’t remember a time when it hasn’t been there. And then I studied for a long time to become a priest and I, you know, spent more than a decade in the hmm... monastery is too strong a word ‘cause it’s a more modern order of the Holy Cross [for this], a little bit like the Jesuits. They teach, run Notre Dame in Stonehill College, my alma mater and so forth. But we used to pray on our regular schedule, regular hours of the day, long day, but we have about 4 hours or more set aside for prayer, much of it together, much of it private, alone. And, there often days and weeks where I just didn’t have any feeling for God at all when you and I, you know… I did so much doubt, but, nonetheless, I did wonder sometimes whether all of these are fraud or, you know, or am I kidding myself or deceiving myself. But I learned that this is a pretty common theme and you should be glad at these [dark] moments and learn to… Well, what do you do? I love the text of St. John’s Letter where he says, “How do you know that you love God?” And, you know, you wouldn’t be in the seminary or a convent if you didn’t think you love God, but how do you know? It’s not enough just to say that. And he said, “By this do you know, if you love God, if you have love for one another.” And so, the moments of darkness, what could lead you to be more kind and receptive to others, especially the ones that get on your nerves, especially the ones that are hard to deal with, yeah, God is in them too after all, and I say that just as a way of negotiating the darkness, it’s not that you suddenly feel light or consolation, but this seems like the North Star. This seems like the right, the true path. And some favorite saints of mine, Carmelites mostly, not Mother Theresa but St. Theresa [of Lucia], St. Theresa of Avila lived through this darkness, wrote marvelous books about it and guide books almost, if you want. And I think they’re on to something real and deep and inter-religious. You know, you find, in every religion, you’ll find the deepest people understand this very well and can talk about it very well. The more shallow people makes them nervous. But, religion that intends to be universal is meant to be universal as in different ways Judaism and Christianity are. It’s got to be shallow enough for ants to wade through and deep enough to drown giraffes, if you know what I mean. It’s got to have room for all types.