April 30, 2004

Facing turmoil in the world with prayer bolstered Father Larry Borders' faith journey

Click here to see pictures taken in the last weeks of Father Borders' life

By Sean Gallagher

Second in a series

NAPOLEON—It is January 1979. A violent revolution has toppled the government of the Shah, the ruler of Iran.

Although it is still several months before the American embassy and 52 hostages along with it would be seized, thousands of foreigners are seeking a quick exit from the country. Among them is Larry Borders, an American without a passport.

He had arrived shortly before the revolution to teach English as a second language at an Iranian air force base in Isfahan, a large city several hours south of the capital, Tehran.

Soon after entering the country, he
had handed over his passport to allow government officials to place a visa in it. However, the government fell before the passport was returned to him.

Now, gathered together with many other Americans, he nervously wondered what was going to happen to him. He didn’t have a passport. He was a man without a country.

Borders had arrived in Iran after traveling for several months across Western Europe and Asia. His ports of call read like a map of the political, ethnic and religious turmoil of the late 1970s: England, Spain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka.

And just as the revolutions and conflicts of that time period still affect us now, so Borders’ own experiences during his travels helped him come to understand the meaning of his own suffering and death over the past year.

Both the upheavals of the late 1970s and the disease that eventually took his life were forms of evil. The former were moral evils while the latter was a physical one.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes physical evil as manifested in the “destructive forces of nature” and to be expected “as long as creation has not yet reached perfection” (#310).

Moral evil, on the other hand, is the result of the sinful choices of men and angels that are free (#311).

In either case, human beings are forced to cope with the effects of all evils. In his living and in his dying, Father Borders concluded that he used the same approach to overcome both: prayer.

In the weeks leading up to his death on March 27, Father Borders recalled that his prayer in Iran as well as his prayer in the final days of his life were a way for him to enter into what St. Teresa of Avila called “the interior castle.”

In her work of the same name, the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite described the interior castle as being those “dwelling places” that Jesus told the Apostles that he was going to prepare for them (Jn 14:2). She went on to describe it as the union in the soul between the believer and God, a union that could be described as mystical.

Such an intensely personal experience of God in prayer is often indescribable. Perhaps this is one reason why Father Borders only chose to speak openly about his experiences in Iran in the days leading up to his death.

His only surviving sibling, Sherrill Borders, who resides in Ripley County, has no memory of his brother speaking to him about it. A close friend, Matthew Hipwell, of Schenectady, N.Y., recalled Father Borders speaking about his time in Iran only in the faintest of details.

Father Donald Schmidlin, who received Father Borders into the Church after his return to America and whom Father Borders described as accompanying him “almost every step of the way” in his journey to the priesthood, spoke recently about the possible reasons for his friend’s privacy and his later desire to share of himself more openly.

“I think that Larry was really a rather private person until this cancer got him,” Father Schmidlin said. “Then more and more, he shared more of himself. He had made up his mind precisely to show people how to die as a Christian.

“Once he made up his mind to do this, he wanted to die publicly. When you’re reduced to that, you’re reduced to allowing people to help you with the most basic things. It allowed him to open his very soul. He felt very safe.”

Father Border’s experience of being safe near the end of his life might seem to contrast sharply with the danger that he faced in Iran. And yet he described his time there as his “beginning of entering into… the interior castle.”

Father Borders became familiar with the writings of St. Teresa only 15 years later during his priestly formation.

During his time in Iran, the only weapon that he had at his disposal for his protection was prayer. And it created for him a fortress of grace that the weapons of his enemies could not breach.

“In Iran, it was the rosary and the cross that helped me get through some nights,” Father Borders recalled.

Ironically, at the time he was not yet Catholic. He entered into full communion with the Church less than a year after his experiences in Iran.

But at the time, he did not know all of the traditional prayers connected with the rosary. Still, the prayers that he did offer served as channels of God’s peace for him in the midst of a time of terror.

“It was scary. I had to be in hiding for about one month,” Father Borders said. “They burned the hotel I was staying in. We had to run across some rooftops.”

Still without a passport, he eventually made it to an American compound and soon learned that the people there were being evacuated the next day.

“I still didn’t have a passport. I didn’t even know who to go up to,” Father Borders said. “Nobody was wearing uniforms.

“All of a sudden, I heard my name being called. It was one of the Revolutionary Guards coming down the aisle yelling my name. And he comes up to me and kind of looks at me and says, ‘Here is your passport. Have a nice trip.’ ”

With his passport in hand and knowing that he was soon to leave the country, he might have thought that his terror would soon be coming to an end. But it turned out that the worst was yet to come.

“That was the night of terror—moving us from Isfahan to Tehran on a bus,” Father Borders recalled.

“We were put on a bus and each section of the bus had an armed soldier … with a bayonet at the end of his gun,” Father Borders said. “Basically, I was in the sight of a gun for 11 hours. He was right behind me. I could feel that bayonet at my shoulders.”

In addition to the rosary and the cross that helped him get though such nights of terror, Father Borders also focused on forgiving those who threatened him.

“ ‘Forgive and you shall be forgiven’ became almost like a mantra to me,” Father Borders said. “If I gave out forgiveness and love, it was going to be returned, no matter how bad that enemy was.”

These ways of him entering into the interior castle through prayer while in Iran seemed to have also helped him in the months of his struggle with cancer.

“I’ve been going over my life and
saying, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ even for things that some people would think were
accidents or bad happenings,” Father Borders said. “I see them as a lesson.”

And yet he did experience times when all forms of prayer were difficult. This was especially true in the days in the hospital following his recovery from surgery last fall.

He recalled how his experience was similar to that of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, who, like Father Borders, also died of cancer. In his book, The Gift of Peace, Cardinal Bernadin advised his readers to pray while they were healthy because it can be physically and psychologically difficult to pray when they are sick.

“My prayer was dry in the hospital. Silent prayer just didn’t seem satisfying at all,” Father Borders said. “I didn’t want to. That’s where I totally agree with Cardinal Bernardin. I didn’t want to pray.”

But despite these troubling experiences, Father Borders recalled that he never questioned his faith in God.

“Although the prayer was dry—sometimes it wouldn’t come at all—there was a sense of surrender to a great mystery that transcended even my greatest doubts about God,” Father Borders said.

Indeed, facing the physical evil of cancer was the occasion for Father Borders to make an enormous act of faith.

“I surrendered to that great mystery, that mystery of God that is beyond all understanding,” Father Borders said. “Our human understanding has its limits. To surrender to that is a big step of faith, a leap of faith.”

But making such a leap of faith was not new for Father Borders. He was faced with it in his time in Iran when his only recourse for peace of mind was prayer. He placed his trust in God then, and he did so again when faced with the cancer that would eventually take his life.

In both cases, it was prayer that aided his belief, his trust in God. Both circumstances were opportunities for him to enter more deeply into the interior castle where he found union with God. †


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