The Late Great Fr. David Balas, O. Cist

Sometimes it’s the little people who make all the difference. I had the good fortune in my first year as a Catholic to study theology at the University of Dallas mentored by a strange little Hungarian with a towering intellect whom everyone thought resembled a chipmunk: a Cistercian priest named Fr. David Balas.

Fr. David entered the Cistercian monastery of Zirc, located roughly seventy-five miles from Budapest, in 1948. Or at least he tried to enter Zirc. His mother was surprised that he wanted to become a Cistercian monk, given how much he enjoyed good food. But he was resolute, so she supported his decision. Once he arrived at the abbey, however, they discovered that he didn’t have the required physical, so they sent him back home to get it. When he arrived back at his house, his mother opened the door and cried out: “Have they thrown you out so soon?” assuming he had already shown himself incapable of embracing Cistercian discipline.

After getting the medical exam, Fr. David returned to Zirc and remained there until the Communist regime officially suppressed the abbey in the summer of 1950. He once remarked: “no one liked the Nazis; they were harsh. But the Russians were savage. . . .The Russians stole everything, even the cloth we used to make our habits.” And they did not scruple at throwing the monks out of their abbey completely.

One month before the monastery had to be vacated, a group of Cistercians, including Fr. David, attempted a daring escape over the mountains and past the border patrols into Austria. A number of them were caught and sent back to Hungary where they were imprisoned. Fortunately, Fr. David was not among them. But those of us who live in better times and yet imagine ourselves supremely oppressed by the authorities, should call to mind this little chipmunk-faced Hungarian Cistercian novice, no more than five feet in height, risking his life with several of his brethren to cross the mountains past the “Iron Curtain,” all so that he could make his way in freedom to Rome to study philosophy and theology. Fr. David was small, but he was no pushover.

Indeed, Fr. David had the Hungarian intellectual’s tendency not to suffer fools gladly – or patiently. That meant he could be especially hard on seminarians, many of whom styled themselves interested in “spirituality” and “pastoral work,” but didn’t see any good reason to study things like academic philosophy and theology. They were bored. Fr. David was not amused. We could all imitate his Hungarian accent (and his sputtering) when he encountered a student who was unprepared or who gave an especially insipid answer to one of his endless questions: “But, but, but . . . daht is clearly not vaht dee text says.”

     Fr. David Balas

Fr. David was very particular in his questions, and he wanted a very particular answer. To some, it seemed a bit excessive, perhaps a bit “anal retentive.”  But then one day he said something to one of the seminarians that has always stuck with me. “You ahr not answering dee qvestion I am asking,” he said in frustration. And then warned: “Look, if a member of your parish comes to you and asks you a qvestion, and you do not answer dat qvestion but some udder one, den dey vill leaf the Church! And dey ahr leafing!” 

By the same token, one day he noticed a particular seminarian sleeping in his class. Fr. David let him nap and then stayed in the classroom until the young man woke up. The seminarian, upon waking, seeing Fr. David sitting next to him and the rest of the class gone, was certain his seminary education was over. But Fr. David only said to him: “I used to fall asleep in class too!” That seminarian is now a priest.

Those of us who had the extreme good fortune to study with Fr. David were given the gift of a mentor who was not only extraordinarily well-versed in the philosophical and theological traditions of the Church, both Eastern and Western, but who was extremely balanced and judicious in his judgments. He was absolutely orthodox in that way that only scholars who have studied the Fathers and Doctors of the Church can be, but I can remember him saying to me one day: “Rahndy, dohn’t try to be more popish dan dee pope.” And by that he meant: if the pope hadn’t condemned a theologian, then it wasn’t my business to do so. It was my business to study hard, learn what I could from every reliable source, and remain faithful. Orthodoxy, he made clear to me, wasn’t a question of being “conservative” or “liberal.” It was a question of “hitting the mark” and thinking according to the mind and spirit of the Church.

At the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s masterwork After Virtue, the author talks about waiting for “another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”  Whatever Prof. MacIntyre meant by that cryptic phrase – and there have been no lack of people who thought they knew, but probably didn’t – we would do well to remember how well we in the modern world continue to be served by the sons and daughters of St. Benedict who, as they have done for so many centuries, continue to protect the Western intellectual heritage within their monastery walls, teaching it in their schools, preserving it intact until the wider society gets over whatever barbarism is currently be besetting it (whether from Ostrogoths, Vandals, Enlightenment philosophes, or post-modern academic theorists). And in the meantime, students can still enjoy the rich treasures that the tradition holds.

Sometimes greatness comes in small packages, just as wisdom is sometimes found in the most out-of-the-way places – and in the strangest little monks.

Thank you Fr. David.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.