May 7, 2004

World travels helped lead Larry Borders
home to Catholicism and priesthood

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

By Sean Gallagher

Third in a series

NAPOLEON—A young Larry Borders, only two years out of graduate school and a master’s degree in applied linguistics in hand, traveled far away from his southern Indiana home in 1977 to teach English as a second language in Saudi Arabia.

His trek halfway around the world reflected his desire to explore the diverse spiritual traditions of the world.

Not feeling bound to the Christian milieu in which he had lived during his youth, Borders began to nurture a deep interest in Islam. And so he found no better place to do this than in the place where that religion emerged, Saudi Arabia.

Over the course of the next three academic terms, Borders immersed himself in Islamic thought, learning more about the religion, speaking at length with those knowledgeable about it.

One of those conversations was with a professor of Islam as they drove together across the desert to the city

In commenting on the section “Mariam” (Mary) from the Quran, the professor said that he thought that Christians, in professing Jesus to be the Son of God, believed that God somehow physically impregnated Mary.

In the days leading up to his death on March 27, Father Borders described what happened next.

“At that moment, something just clicked. I stopped talking [and then said], ‘No, you’ve got it wrong.’

“I said, ‘Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is [like] the Quran. Jesus is the Word of God become flesh. He’s not like us in that sense.

‘Jesus is the Word of God become flesh, come into history. We are not a people of the book. We are the people of the living Word of God.’ ”

Speaking about this event, more than 25 years later, Father Borders remembered it clearly. And he noted that it had had an immediate impact upon both himself and his friend.

“It was like someone else was speaking through me,” Father Borders said, “like I had lost control of my tongue.

“I saw him mumbling the words, ‘living Word of God.’ He was shaken by it and I was shaken by it because where did those things come from? I had never thought [in] those terms before. I think that it was a revelation of God.”

Father Borders had come in contact in a new and striking way with that which lay at the heart of the Christian faith: the belief that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God.

Looking back on that even in the desert of Saudi Arabia, Father Borders described it as “a turning point.”

“After that experience in the car, Islam faded into the distance,” Father Borders said. “It was a very definite religious experience.”

Still, Matthew Hipwell of Schenectady, N.Y., recalled how his close friend, even if Islam was no longer seen as personal option for him, nonetheless valued it after his experience in Saudi Arabia.

“He continued to read the Quran for a number of years,” Hipwell said. “That was something that he always had an interest in, even in his days in the seminary.”

In the days before his death, Father Borders’ mind continued to turn to Muslims that he had known through the years when he tried to explain certain aspects of the redemptive meaning of suffering.

“They accept illness very well. They have that idea that they can see God more clearly through illness,” Father Borders said. “It’s almost a mystical experience for them.”

To illustrate this, he recalled a Muslim he had known who had been ill while on the Hajj—a physically rigorous pilgrimage to Mecca.

“He had gone to Mecca during the Hajj, which is very difficult,” Father Borders said. “He said, ‘Thank God I had the flu’ because he saw the care [that he received] more than at any other time. He saw people as they were.”

From Father Border’s perspective, this Muslim’s clearer vision of God was mediated through the care he received from other people. Rather than seeing his illness as a curse, he was thankful for it as a blessing.

Father Border’s turn to Islam in thinking about the mystery of suffering did not reflect any sort of religious indifference on his part. Toward the end of his life, he recalled how his travels around the world eventually led him back home, both physically and spiritually.

“Geographically, I’ve made a big loop. Spiritually, I’ve made a big loop,” Father Borders said. “But I always returned. And so my return here is kind of like my return to Christianity.”

Father Joseph Moriarty, vocation director for the archdiocese, reflected on his respect for Islam and saw a fundamental aspect of his personality revealed.

“Mother Teresa once said, ‘Before all else, we must recognize the imprint of God upon all people,’ ” Father Moriarty said. “That was a kind of unique gift that Larry had. It was a real equalizer in his life. He had a very large worldview.”

Retired diocesan priest Father Larry Richardt, who was involved in Father Borders’ priestly formation at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, echoed Father Moriarty’s thoughts.

“I think that was one of his great qualities,” Father Richardt said, “his reverent attitude toward others.”

And in revering whatever is true in any person, Father Borders would seem to have wanted to imitate it.

In a way similar to the experience of his Muslim acquaintance who had been sick while on the Hajj, Father Borders did not allow ordinary human pride to get in the way of his accepting care from others as he struggled with cancer.

Father Donald Schmidlin, the priest who had received him into full communion in the Church in 1979, noted this trait in his friend in an incident that happened shortly before Father Borders’ death.

Father Schmidlin and Father Borders were arriving at a tavern in Napoleon for lunch.

“He got out of the car and as he was trying to get up the curb, he fell,” Father Schmidlin said. “He told me, ‘Just go in the tavern. There’s some people there who can help.’

“He just took it as a matter of course. It didn’t distress him.”

Father Border’s tranquil acceptance of his fall and the help he received mirrored his overall attitude toward the disease that eventually took his life.

Like his Muslim acquaintances that he remembered, he saw his cancer as an opportunity to enter more into deep contemplation, to see God more clearly.

“I just want to sit back and take in the whole mystery of God,” Father Borders said. “I know that I don’t know what will happen in that twinkling of an eye, as St. Paul said.

“I don’t think about it. I don’t try to get it to rational thought. I just accept it as a mystery.”

Nevertheless, the acceptance and experience of a mystery so far beyond human reason was a challenge for Father Borders, whose life was so marked by intellectual curiosity.

“There is always the old mind wanting [to say], ‘Now what do you mean by that?’ ” Father Borders said. “But, no, I’m entering the cloud of unknowing.” †


Local site Links: