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The Butterfly Effect and Catholicism

by Dr. Tom NealNovember 06, 20152 Comments

A bit ago, I was sharing with my Confessor the story of how I came to meet my wife. As I told him various “freeze frame” moments in our relationship, he kept taking me back further and further — even back to the time before we met. In fact, he had me think all the way back to the origin of my decision to leave Massachusetts and go to Florida State University (where I met Patti).

I told him that decision originated in the office of the chief meteorologist at WBZ TV in Boston, Bruce Schwoegler. It was 1984 and I was myopic in my desire to be a weatherman. I went to “spend a day” with him. At the end of my time there, after he finished the 6 PM news, he told me that he highly recommended I consider FSU as it had a top notch Meteorology department. And it was, well, sunny Florida and not New England. From that moment on I worked to prepare myself for that journey south. My Confessor then said to me:

Do you think Bruce had any idea how many lives he had shaped by that one comment that day? For him, it was probably a throwaway piece of advice that he’s given to dozens of other weather aspirants. Yet, it was his comment that ultimately opened the door to your conversion to the faith, meeting your wife, having your children, your friendships, your jobs …

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It argues that the strength of a hurricane in the Caribbean is influenced by something as tiny as the flapping of the wings of a butterfly weeks earlier in Panama. That’s why we should never underestimate the effects our tiniest acts of fidelity can have on the future world; a future that filled with things that didn’t have to be this way. Just because we can’t see those effects or feel them, we often despair and say: “What good is the little I do? No one notices. No one cares. It doesn’t really matter.” But it all does matter.

We tend to be so myopic and shallow in our judgment on the value of what we do, on what’s important or what’s not. On what God can do with our little nothings if we entrust them to Him with great love. The interdependence of all things is so staggeringly complex and intricate and delicate that just one decision, one smile, one sacrifice or one harsh word can change the course of history. For better or for ill. Even — I’d say especially — your interior life radiates out into the whole cosmos. Your most secret thoughts are, in fact, making it either easier or more difficult for those around you to follow Christ.

Every day, begin with a prayer for the Spirit to guide your actions, that they will set in motion the uncountable goods that He wills. And at the end of every day entrust all your past actions to His mercy, asking Him to forgive the failures and bless the successes; and untangle any knots you may have tied up.

On Judgment Day one of the things we will see — but then through God’s eyes — is this insanely complex web of impact we were part of. And we will be allowed to see our role in that web. I often think Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” may come to us from people we’ve never even met. Though they weren’t fed by us directly, they were fed by the others we impacted, who in turn fed them. Generations later in the future. Think of that next time you feel your work is insignificant.

When God chose Abram and Sarai, He didn’t say, “look at the ground in front of you and think of your next step.” He said, “Look at the stars in the sky and try to count! That’s the impact you will have on the world!” Their “yes” came and, holy cow, look at what’s happened. When God asked Abram to “Go!” He was thinking 1800 years in the future to Mary and Joseph and Jesus; or 3,800 years later He was thinking of you. God’s plan is vaster than you could ever imagine, so discount the value of nothing.

What was amazing about this is that when I spoke with a friend of mine this last week, she unwittingly said nearly the same thing to me: “Tom, things you are doing now will only fulfill their purpose in your great great grandchildren.”

About the Author

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal

Dr. Tom Neal presently serves as Academic Dean and Professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans...

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