My Strange History with Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr.

In yesterday’s post, I commended Freud’s Last Session, a play running in New York just off Broadway. This play, as I explained, is based on the work of Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr., especially his book entitled The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. I mentioned that my relationship with Dr. Nicholi is a bit ironic. Here’s the story.

Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr.

In my junior year at Harvard (1977-78), I was the leader of the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship. In that role, I helped get speakers for our Friday night meetings. Someone I respected suggested that I should ask Dr. Armand Nicholi. He was highly regarded as a professor who taught a course in the college that focused on Sigmund Freud and his religious perspective. Dr. Nicholi was also known to be a Christian. So I called him up and invited him to speak at one of our Christian fellowship meetings. He was glad to do so. We agreed upon a date several months out, and he said he’d be delight to talk on the subject I had suggested: Faith and Freud.

In the days before Dr. Nicholi’s speech, we promoted it far and wide across the university. We figured that many people would be interested in what a Harvard psychiatrist might say about Freud and faith. We believed that we could gain wide exposure for our group as well as for Dr. Nicholi.

On the afternoon prior to when Dr. Nicholi was due to speak, I received a phone call from someone who could hardly speak. “Mark,” the stricken, weak voice said, “this is Dr. Nicholi. I hate to tell you this, but I am far too sick to speak tonight. I’m sorry to abandon you on such short notice. I’ll be happy to come again soon.” I graciously said I understood and that we would plan another date. Then I panicked. We had invited the whole university to our meeting to hear Dr. Nicholi. Now, we were without a speaker. (This was before the days of Facebook and Twitter and texting, so there was no way to get out the word about Dr. Nicholi’s situation.)

I decided that somebody needed to address the Christian fellowship that night, and I was the only one who knew that Dr. Nicholi would be absent. So, I quickly put together some notes. I would be the speaker.

The room in which the Christian fellowship met was packed to capacity. Standing room only. Sigh. I knew that I could not expect people who had wanted to hear Dr. Nicholi to stick around to hear me. So I got up and explained the situation. I told people we would have a five minute break before the meeting started. Anyone who wished would be free to leave. Those who stayed would get to hear me. As I expected, many people left, including all of our visitors. But I was pleased that many students stuck around for my talk.

That talk, as it turns out, was the first time I ever spoke to a Christian group larger than a small group. It was my debut performance, if you will, as a Christian speaker. Since that time, I have spoken thousands of times to groups like that, including church congregations. I do find it ironic that my first opportunity to use my gifts in that way happened because Dr. Armand Nicholi “sicked out” on me.

Sure enough, he did come to the Christian fellowship a few weeks later. Once again, we had a packed house. He did speak about Sigmund Freud and faith, and did so in a way that was compelling for all who had gathered, not just for the Christian students.

So, thirty-three years later, I find myself sitting in a theatre in New York City, watching a play that dramatizes many of the same ideas I heard Dr. Nicholi explain in his speech at the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship. I am now working for Foundations for Laity Renewal, an organization of which Dr. Nicholi has been a close friend and advisor over the years. Sometimes the world is very small and life is wonderfully strange.

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