Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a brilliant French philosopher and mathematician who offered a suggestion to those who struggled with faith. Since reason cannot be trusted and faith cannot be proven, he said, there is a choice: to believe or not to believe. Weighing the cost of being wrong in either choice, he argued that it is far safer to believe (and enter oblivion after death) than to reject God (and risk eternal damnation). Furthermore, living as though one believed is a gesture that cannot go unnoticed by God, who will surely provide the grace of sincerity in due time.
This concept came to mind as I considered how difficult it is to teach our children to prioritize virtue and the sacramental life. It has ever been thus, as the familiar story of St. Monica reminds us, but another saint noted on the calendar recently helped me to twist Pascal’s “wager” into a slightly different form.
In reading about the life of St. Basil (330-379), I learned that his mother raised three children honored by the Church: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and their sister, St. Macrina; two other brothers were bishops. His grandfather was martyred for the faith, and both parents were known for their piety. Nevertheless, Basil writes of his early life: “Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth acquiring the sort of wisdom made foolish by God. Then once, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvelous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of ‘the wisdom of the princes of this world, that come to naught.’ I wept many tears over my miserable life, and I prayed that I might receive guidance to admit me to the doctrines of true religion.”
Think for a moment of how rich their family life must have been, and how many times young Basil had heard accounts of persecution and courage. Surely he was offered excellent moral formation and enthusiastic catechesis — and yet he still proved vain and foolish for a time.
This brings me to my variation on Pascal, which may help parents find peace in this new year. Either God exists or He doesn’t. If He does — as witnessed by the resurrection of Our Lord — then He loves your children dearly, is intimately familiar with their inner journey, and passionately wants them to be with Him for eternity. Moreover, He offers abundant graces to make this happen. Conversely, if God doesn’t exist, then all that we’ve been trying to teach our children is virtually useless (other than the earthly benefits that some moral guidelines provide).
Basil said that his eyes were opened one day when read the Gospel — but surely he was familiar with it since infancy. What must have transpired was that “in the fullness of time,” he embraced the graces won by Christ (and for which his extended family, living and dead, must have begged).
When considering many conversion stories, one is baffled by what exactly supplies the critical piece for a soul — the “aha moment!” as it were. For some it’s a passage in a book, for others it’s a seemingly inconsequential comment, for others it may be a particularly scenic view. Rather than seeking “a silver bullet” (accompanied by hand wringing and anxiety — revealing our lack of faith) perhaps this should be a year of trust, for the grace is there. Surely, peaceful parents who pray and sacrifice with confidence are placing the surest bet of all.
In the words of Padre Pio, “Pray, hope and don’t worry.”
[The Anchor 1.13.12]