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Nikola Tesla, Horace, and St. Peter by Fr. George W. Rutler



March 13, 2016
by Fr. George W. Rutler

In 1943, just up the street from our church in the Hotel New Yorker, the pioneer of electrical inventions, including the alternating current, Nikola Tesla, died in room 3327. He wrote: “With ideas it is like with dizzy heights you climb: At first they cause you discomfort and you are anxious to get down, distrustful of your own powers; but soon the remoteness of the turmoil of life and the inspiring influence of the altitude calm your blood; your step gets firm and sure and you begin to look – for dizzier heights.”

Saint Peter obeyed our Lord, to get out of his fishing boat and take a step on the water. That first step, which must have seemed dizzying, made all the difference in the course of world history. The apostle James was in that boat and watched what happened. Later he would write: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Taking the first step is an act of faith. Babies have faith enough in their thrilled parents to hold their hands as they bid them take the first step. From that step proceeds all the walks through life.

From time to time, one counsels a young person hesitant to take a first step: to accept a new job, or to propose marriage, or to seek the priesthood. The challenge can be intimidating in our culture whose chief seduction is to find comfort and security. Nothing great or noble has been achieved by seeking safety. Jesus promised: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you” (Matthew 6:33). That means taking the first step toward Jesus, and then he will step toward you. The surest way to make it up the staircase without tripping is to focus on the top landing. But it all begins with the first step.

The poet Horace said in the first book of his Odes: “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”—roughly meaning: “Seize today and don’t worry about tomorrow.” That was about a generation before Jesus said in a Judean backwater: “Come, follow me.” Today. Take the first step. The Book of Numbers speaks of “journeying” nearly ninety times, and that journeying, which is a microcosm of the entire human experience, began with one first step.

In response to the credulous Cardinal de Polignac, who claimed that the martyr Saint Denis had carried his decapitated head two miles, the caustic wit Marie Anne Marquise du Deffand said, “Il n’y a que le premier pas qui coûte.” (The distance doesn’t matter; it is only the first step that is the most difficult.) By an incontestable logic, it is the first step that counts. In Lent, if we can manage just one first step toward Jesus, he will walk with us all the way to Easter and Heaven itself.

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