A Grace-Full Moment

Our thanks to Paul Beirne, Director of Heart of Life 2013-2021, who describes “an encounter on a dirt track that took place 50 years ago, yet it feels like it happened yesterday. At age 75, I am confident that it will continue to stay with me—and hopefully with those with whom I share it—for the rest of my life.”

In my final years of preparation for the priesthood, I was a member of the Divine Word Missionary community in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. Hyde Park is a very cosmopolitan neighbourhood, nestled into, and surrounded by, Lake Michigan on one side and miles and miles of multi-storied high-rises on the other. At Hyde Park’s centre, in a relatively small space, one of the most prestigious universities in the world—the University of Chicago–plies its learned trade, cheek by jowl with four-story apartments in which live a broad range of people from all around the world. In addition, Hyde Park is host to a consortium of ecumenical institutions which combine to form the Chicago Cluster of Theological Schools, two of which–Catholic Theological Union and Chicago Theological Seminary—I attended. This was a wonderful time in my life, living in a dynamic, cosmopolitan community and embracing all the enrichment that this implies.

That said, there were other sites within the confines of Hyde Park which carry more challenging appraisals. For example, it was at 3.53 p.m. on December 2nd, 1942, that scientists at the University of Chicago created the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Whilst the location at which this historic event took place may appear mundane—a disused squash court under the stands of the Stagg Field athletic track–the implications of this ‘achievement’ for humanity are more opaque. For it was only three years later that the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated from the face of the earth by nuclear chain reactions.

 

(Artist’s impression of the nuclear reactor and a monument on the site of the nuclear chain reaction)

Yet, truth be told, I have a soft spot for Hyde Park, even in Winter, when Lake Michigan freezes over, the temperature drops way below zero and the wind blows daggers right through anyone who, like us students, had to trudge 8 city blocks to attend classes and repeat the journey on the way home. One of my Aussie class mates, John Brick, had cultivated a fiery red beard, which was covered from top to bottom with icicles when we made our daily Winter trek, and back again. It took John at least an hour to defrost, both ways.

But Ah! when Spring came and trees and flowers blossomed in all their majesty and beauty, we Aussies in particular experienced a new lease of life, celebrating Easter’s Resurrection in sync with nature, rather than the opposite. It was on one of these glorious Spring days that I met someone very briefly who affects my life to the present day.

In the section of Hyde Park in which we lived there was a small park which featured a circular running track at its centre. In Spring, the track became a welcoming space in which one could clear the Winter blues from mind, body, heart and soul. It was on one of these halcyon Spring days that I went for a jog at about 2.30pm, when the local school was still in session and I had the track more or less to myself. Relishing the freedom, I did a couple of rounds of the park, some reasonably fast, others slower. With this rhythm, the sunshine and the silence, I became lost in a reverie which focussed primarily on the short time I had left in Chicago, on what was going to happen when I took the next step of priestly ordination and then received an appointment to one of the 70 countries around the globe to which my Order would send me.

As I pondered where in the world I might end up, my attention was drawn to an unusual sight—a magnificent gold Rolls Royce parked randomly at the side of the road with the driver’s door open and no one in sight.

“Strange”, I thought, as I had never seen a car like this in Hyde Park, nor anywhere in Chicago for that matter. I pondered what kind of person would leave such a car with the door open and possibly the keys still in the ignition. It was then I became aware of a jogger wearing a faded blue track suit shuffling along in the opposite direction to the one I was going, rolling his head around as if listening to his own internal symphony. As we approached, he looked up and, with a toss of his head, invited me to jog with him.

I did.

“Where you from, son?” he asked, looking me in the eye.

“Australia”, I replied.

“Ah, Australia” he said, “I’ve been there. I like the place. What are you doing in Chicago?”

“I’m in the final months of formation to become a missionary priest” I replied, “getting ready for ordination and my appointment to somewhere around the globe.”

My companion didn’t say anything—we just kept jogging our way around the track in comfortable silence, which was suddenly broken by the tolling of the school bell signalling the end of the day’s classes. Moved to action, my companion looked at me and put out a huge right hand which easily engulfed mine.

“I will pray for you, Son, in thanksgiving to God for all the good that you will do in your life. Please pray for me as well.”

Before I could reply he was swamped by dozens of school children, jumping up and down, and pulling him away. I watched him go, then jogged back home, grateful for the encounter with a person considered to be the most well-known identity in the world, who this day was just an ordinary jogger and my companion along the way.

A companion who, in the course of his lifetime:

  • Threw the gold medal he won at the 1960 Rome Olympics into a deep river as a response to his exploitation by a company which treated him as an item for profit rather than as a person;
  • Refused to support the war in Vietnam when he was enlisted and then refused three times to step forward when his name was called. A military officer warned him that he was committing a felony offence punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Again, he refused to budge when his name was called out, and he was arrested. That same day the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his world title. Other boxing commissions followed suit. He remained a pariah for over three years, unable to obtain a license to box in any state of the nation.
  • In speaking of the cost of his refusal to be drafted, his trainer Angelo Dundee commented, “One thing that must not be forgotten is that when he was arrested, Ali was robbed of the best years, the prime years of his life.”
  • Resumed boxing and re-captured his world heavy weight title which he held for many years.
  • Studied the Quran, converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammed Ali.
  • Lit the Flame to signal the beginning of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

This for me was a grace-full encounter, reflected beautifully in Judith Wright’s poem:

   Grace

It seems to have nothing to do with things at all,

requires another element or dimension.

Not contemplation brings it; it merely happens,

past expectation and beyond intention;

takes over the depth of flesh, the inward eye,

is there, then vanishes. Does not live or die. . . .

Maybe there was once a word for it. Call it grace.

I have seen it, once or twice, through a human face.

 

This reflection begins with an image of nuclear chain reactor which, if abused, can wreak chaos on humanity. In contrast, the story’s conclusion is founded on courage and hope, and focusses on a brief encounter between two joggers on a dusty track, one of whom was a life-long advocate for peace who paid dearly for sticking to his principles and beliefs–even to imprisonment, derision and ostracism.

Yet he came back, resurrected his career and went on to leave an indelible imprint on humanity in a variety of other ways.

Like all of us, he was a flawed human being. But what a human being he was!!

The encounter on the dirt track described above took place 50 years ago, yet it feels like it happened yesterday. At age 75, I am confident that it will continue to stay with me–and hopefully with those with whom I share it—for the rest of my life.

Ad multos annos

Paul Beirne

Footnote: The two images on the initial page and the six indented sections listing Ali’s achievements are resourced from Wikipedia: ‘Mohammed Ali’. The author acknowledges that boxing is often a brutal ‘sport’ which results in serious injuries to the minds and bodies of participants. However, this reflection is not about boxing per se, but rather about a complex person who at heart was committed to peace and justice, which cost him and his family dearly. It is this person that I had the honour of meeting briefly on a dusty track in Hyde Park, Chicago, a memory I treasure to this day.