We are sitting on cushions at a low table, enjoying shisha from a shared hookah in the corner of a light, airy building in a shopping center in Central Texas. There is country music on the radio, and a minty, fruity smoke rising around us in the late afternoon sun.
Frank, (or as I call him,”Frankly,”) is my first late husband’s oldest brother. Our families have remained close over the years. He and his wife, Karin, are visiting from their home in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (Milwaukee area.)
Today, I have set out to interview Frank about his experiences of inter-religious dialogue. I have been reflecting on Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions. It seems to me that our own Frank is a living example of what respectful friendship between the faiths could look like if taken seriously and personally, lived out in individual relationships and respectful, curious overtures, even shared prayer.
Frank agreed to talk about his journey, though his natural state is somewhat taciturn. It takes him a while to warm up sometimes… so I’ll wait.
Right now Frank is not sure what he thinks of this hookah business, a hobby that I and his son, Hans have taken up from time to time. He stares at the plastic sanitary tip of the hose we have handed him, unsure of what to do with it.
While he figures this hookah thing out, I will give you some details to confuse you about Frank. (I say confuse because some of the facts about him are not usually found together in one person.)
Introducing Francis K. Pauc, West Point graduate, Army veteran (helicopter pilot) peace activist, father of an Iraq war veteran (Hans, mentioned above.) He is also a volunteer at the local V.A. hospital, an avid defender of immigrants’ rights, friend of Dominican Sisters, assister of people in the Catholic Worker movement (which was founded by Dorothy Day), and writer of many letters to the editor on issues of import.
He has written a book, available on Amazon Kindle, and in paper back, called Father at War. He is a recently retired dock foreman of a shipping company, a devout cradle Catholic with a long and distinguished history of being active in his parish, St. Stephen’s. He has been twenty years a lector, a past RCIA teacher, and past parish council member, among other activities.
He is also the token Catholic at the Buddhist Sangha at Milwaukee Zen Center, frequent attender of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in his area, and he now and then hangs out at the local mosque. He is a regular pray-er/visitor at the Sikh temple in his neighborhood.
Frank is the father of three adult children, long time husband to Karin, who he met and married while stationed in Germany as a young man.
He is of Slovenian heritage but is sometimes mistaken to be Turkish. Lately he has grown a long beard and looks very Orthodox Jewish. On that last long peace walk his beard became a bit dred-lock-ish.
I have known Frank since the late eighties when I started dating brother # 6 in the Pauc family of seven boys, Marc Blaze.
Frank is starting to be amused with the hookah experience. I can tell he is comfortable enough I can ask him questions now.
Fortunately, besides his big, German village wedding, his journey learning about other faiths is his favorite subject.
His habitually taciturn, crabby look becomes a warm, soft- eyed lucidity now as I begin to ask how all this started for him. When did he first learn about other religions, I ask, blowing out my delicious smoke.
Frank says his first real look at another religion was learning about Islam in the Army, since he had to learn Arabic. Then he took a refresher course in Arabic with someone from work, years later, at a Muslim culture center. He made more friends there. They didn’t necessarily talk about faith all of the time. They moved from learning Arabic to talking about their kids, their wives, their work, their daily lives.
After 9/11, Frank wanted to do something personal to cross the widening divide in our country between non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans. He ended up going by the mosque. He found the front locked so he went around back to the kitchen. “I thought you guys might need friends.”
“Are you Muslim?”
“No. I am a Catholic.”
Frank is the only person I know who would show up to an unfamiliar place of worship and ask, “Anybody want to talk about God?”
Frank observes that the prohibition on images in Muslim art has created a very masculine looking art form of geometric shapes and calligraphy, which is beautiful, but, to him, missing something. He thinks it’s a conception of the feminine side of the Divine that is absent. This gave him a new appreciation of our knowledge of the the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, “Creator Blessed,” and of our Mother Mary exemplifying and reflecting this to us. He thinks our ability to be spoken to by God through images is related to conscious contact with the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary through whom the Incarnation was accomplished. The Incarnation puts us in touch with how God communicates through what we can see and touch. It’s why, he theorizes, Catholic art is so glorious. It’s because we have Mary, and we are very in touch with that creative motherly energy and imagery.
He talks about how sad it is that so many Christians have lost their mother. Their art is not as cool as ours, either, he thinks. “There’s got to be a connection here.”
He really did love the Dome of the Rock, though when he went to the Holy Land. “That was awesome.”
But we digress. We smoke in silence a while… listening to the pleasant bubbling sound of the water in the hookah’s base.
Years ago, Frank says, he became curious about the Sikh Temple in his neighborhood. He smiles when he remembers his visits there. “You have to eat. They always feed you. You never leave without eating.”
He adds that the music is great. Like a cross between our best praise and worship, and the coolest Indian music ever. Frank likes to find someone and ask them questions like, “Do you think God loves you?” and go from there.
The Sikh Temple he liked to visit was the same one where there was a shooting in 2012 . Frank knew one of the people who was killed. He was among those who offered support. He still likes to drop by and pray.
Sometimes he meets interesting people of other religions in his work as a peace activist. He met a Buddhist monk named Senji on a long peace walk he went on to protest drone warfare. The next year, he, his wife Karin, and his son, Stefan, went to visit Senji in his monastery in Oregon. They had a great time, and found a lot in common, especially in the social justice work the monks engaged in, and their quiet, dedicated life.
The desire for contemplative prayer was what got Frank to visit the Zen Center in the first place. He and Karin had tried to find a place to learn forms of Christian contemplative prayer and practice in a group and had not found one. (They have now.) So Frank and Karin went and sat with the Buddhists. Karin always took her rosary and prayed that. Frank started hanging around all the time and being part of the life of the Sangha, even though there are some things that as a Catholic he can’t do, of course.
He decided to learn more, and he loved hanging around. They appreciated his thoughts. When he thought something was stupid, he always said so, (he always does, regardless of the company,) and he also gave his thoughts as a Christian. They came to appreciate this. He liked sitting in silence with them.
Going to “Zen practice” regularly brought visible changes to Frank.
I remember seeing these changes in him. He became much more playful and open and calm. Less “‘onry.” I think he really did find peace. I could see it in his face and hear it in his speech. I could tell by his kinder attitude, and even the way he carried himself. He still can be found at the Milwaukee Zen Center on a Saturday morning if he’s not volunteering, or traveling somewhere.
He says getting to know his friends at the Zen Center helped him delve into his own faith and prayer traditions all the more.
“It’s made me a better Catholic.”
Learning to sit quietly in what was consciously a form of trusting, un-knowing prayer, for him, brought him nearer to God, and God blessed him with a sense of open-ness and peace. It seems the Lord continued to lead Frank on his unique travels through the spiritual world and to teach him that learning about how other people love and understand God is an act of love.
It is worth remembering that Thomas Merton, a great American Catholic admired by Pope Francis, also got to know Buddhism very well, made friends with Buddhist monks, and found ways to share silence and spiritual practice with them that enriched his own faith.
I asked him what lead him to choose to start showing up at the Orthodox synagogue, rather than Reformed. “Is it because of being Catholic and therefore more into deep, rooted, more ritualistic and mystical worship? ” He said no, that it was because that was the closest synagogue to his house. “What made you want to learn more about Judaism?” One of his more rare expressions crosses his face; an innocent, child like look. “Because I wanted to understand.”
He says he became very close with the Rabbi there and began to take Hebrew lessons. He was often invited to dinner at the Rabbi’s house, and even to Passover. He says he doesn’t think anyone can have the fullest appreciation for their Christianity if they don’t get to know Judaism. He said attending their liturgies changed him as a lector. He grew in his appreciation of the Scripture and reading the Old Testament at mass was a more profound experience for him after seeing the very solemn and reverent way it is read in the synagogue.
He remembers a funny conversation he had with the Rabbi who said, “Oh, you Christians, always forgetting Satan isn’t anything close to equal with God,” when Frank was worried about something.
He still likes going to the Synagogue regularly.
Frank remarks that Jesus was a good Jew, and that he thinks of Jesus as his older brother. I smile, remembering that is what John Paul II said about the Jewish people and the Church. They are our older brother.
I say that it strikes me that his inter-religious ministry and journey seems to be about making personal connections, about being a friend. He agrees with that, though he says he is less conscious of that than just wanting to understand others and share with them. He feels compelled about this.
He says he is most impressed by the people who are deeply and “completely sold” on their religion. He respects the most those who have “their faith woven into the fabric of their every day life. When it’s just who they are.” Those are the people it’s easiest to talk to, and who return the interest he gives to them about their faith.
At times he has wondered if he should stop hanging around Buddhists and the Orthodox Jews. They were quick to say they needed him around, and enjoyed what he had to say. They felt spiritually up lifted by their token Catholic.
At one time in his life, following a series of crises and being simultaneously very wounded by some in his own parish, he actually struggled about whether to remain Catholic or not. It was his friends at the Zen Center and the synagogue, who said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave the Catholic Church.” They cared more than anyone else, he said.
Now that he is newly retired, he can spend more time volunteering, working for peace, and walking into temples, synagogues and mosques asking about God and giving the gift of a listening heart to anyone willing to share their faith.
Frank seems to have been aptly named after the great St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach he Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”
Frank and Karin are off to their next stop on their summer adventures; a Catholic Worker farm, then a Youth Hostel, a Benedictine guest house, and then on to Mt. Bly in Oregon to visit my off the grid daughter, Maire, and her little family.
I mention, as we get up to leave the cafe, that we’ve actually been talking Nostra Aetate over our shisha. Frank says, “Yeah. That pretty much rocks.”
Read Nostra Aetate
Hookah: a waterpipe
Mu‘assel, or shisha tobacco: the molasses-based tobacco concoction smoked in a hookah; often comes in various flavors such as rose, lemon, mint, etc.
Hookah lounge, or shisha bar: an establishment where patrons share shisha