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Carlos Vila is a big-picture person, studying, absorbing, and pondering. And for a long time he’s questioned doctrine. But, he says, “Nothing is more important to me than God, than Christ.”
Dr. Vila, a dentist, husband, and father of three, spoke to the Monitor as part of our series examining the ways traditional religious codes like the Ten Commandments continue to matter in the lives of ordinary people. He focused on the First Commandment, which reads in part, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
After a youthful rebellion, Dr. Vila accepted Jesus as his savior during a church altar call as a high school junior. Sometime after that, he became a practicing Roman Catholic.
Dr. Vila says his religious beliefs continue to move from the rigid rules he believes are often needed in youth to a more fluid model. As the rules for religion fall away, he believes his understanding of God expands.
Dr. Vila likes the notion that God sets people free from the things that might otherwise enslave them. “God has done that for me. He does that if we let Him. He has brought me through tons.”
Carlos Vila messed up as a kid. By the time he was 15, he’d gone from grade school nerd to high school party boy, drinking, smoking dope, sneaking out of the house to go with older Cuban and Spanish friends to disco clubs in New York City, across the George Washington Bridge from his northern New Jersey home.
His mother, meanwhile, was having none of it. A widow, and recently born-again in a Lutheran church, she picked up her family, moved to New Mexico, and joined the Pentecostal Assemblies of God. “It worked,” Dr. Vila says of his mother’s gambit. Then a high school junior, he straightened up and himself accepted Jesus as his savior during a church altar call.
Since then, says the husband and father of three, who is now a successful dentist on Philadelphia’s affluent Main Line, “Nothing is more important to me than God, than Christ.”
For many, the entirety of the Commandments hinges on that kind of relationship, described in the first of the Ten: And God spake all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:1-3). Dr. Vila, who is in his late 50s, spoke to the Monitor about the First Commandment at his suburban Philadelphia home as part of our series examining the ways traditional religious codes like the Ten Commandments continue to matter in the lives of ordinary people.
After high school, Dr. Vila went on to attend an Assemblies of God college in Texas, transfer to the evangelical Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then enroll in dental school at Georgetown University in Washington. There, he put his strict religious training to the test, and he’s been questioning doctrine ever since.
The questioning began simply enough, prompted by his now-wife Theresa Smith, as well as by a campus chaplain: Do miracles really happen? Did the Red Sea really part like that? It continues today: What does God want of me? What am I supposed to be doing now?
Dr. Vila reads, reflects, and responds to the challenge of the day with what he hopes a good person would do. He recently returned from a four-day trip to help at a migrant shelter at the Mexican border near El Paso, Texas, his first foray into such volunteering because, simply, he heard they needed someone who speaks Spanish. Dr. Vila’s father was Spanish and his mother Cuban. The family lived in Venezuela before settling in the United States when Dr. Vila was 2 years old.
While God anchors his life, religion at times causes great pain.
Though his faith journey is one of twists and turns, he long ago settled in as a practicing Roman Catholic, and raised his children that way. “I am Catholic the same way I am Spanish,” he explains, of a religion he inherited from his parents, who were raised Catholic. But he is increasingly discouraged by the church’s handling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and alienated by its prohibition of same-sex marriage. He was particularly pained when the leadership of his church community asked a longtime lector who is gay to step down, citing the fact that he is married. Dr. Vila’s oldest child is gay. The issue, of course, has been a flashpoint for believers and their churches across the religious and denominational spectrum for decades. To Dr. Vila, it is a no-brainer: “I personally think institutional churches, unless they radically change – if science and faith don’t come together – we’re doomed.”
But he still finds much to like about his heritage.
Case in point was the infant baptism service for his daughter, Sophia, who has Down syndrome. Hearing the many and diverse names invoked during the ancient “Litany of the Saints” prayer that day, he felt comforted to realize that she fit right in – that among the countless who’d been baptized before Sophia over millennia, there had to have been others as unique as she.
He feels the time is right for a pope like Francis and, ever a seeker, would like to tap the veins of Christian spirituality – from St. Francis of Assisi as well as from sources like the Desert Fathers, early Christian monks who lived in Egypt starting around the third century. “There’s so much there,” he says.
Despite feeling less connected now to his longtime worship community, he differentiates disappointment with the hierarchy from his faith in God and goes to Mass two or three times a month. “Many Sundays I feel a need to receive communion. There’s something about the liturgy of the Mass – the mystery of what that represents nourishes me,” he says. “Communion is something I can’t put into words. It [encapsulates] everything for me.”
His wife, with whom Dr. Vila shares a dental practice, says the two were an unlikely couple when they met – she a not especially religious Irish Catholic, he from a strict Latino background, each with completely different family and cultural expectations. “I honestly think it’s by the grace of God we’re together and by the grace of God we’re able to see the other as a gift,” she says. “We don’t ever take it for granted.”
An expanding understanding of God
While she focuses on the here and now, he is a big-picture person, studying, absorbing, and pondering, his journey being one of ideas put to the test. His religious beliefs continue to move from the rigid rules he believes are often needed in youth to a more fluid model. As the rules for religion fall away, Dr. Vila believes his understanding of God expands.
“Beauty,” the book by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, changed him greatly, he says. “It pointed out to me to trust in myself and my senses.” Where there were rules, there is now listening: “What is God trying to reveal to me now?” As a result, he’s trying to live more moment by moment, trying to have gratitude for every moment, trying to see God in everyone. “There are times I see it better than others,” he acknowledges.
What gets in his way – one of the other gods of the Commandment, if you will – he calls his “ego.” That’s about maintaining appearances, prejudging people, valuing creature comforts and such. A lifelong lover of “fast, fun cars,” he’s had his share of Mercedes and Audi vehicles. He describes his ambivalence during his latest car search. “I could donate a lot of money if I could buy a simple car,” he confesses, but instead he settles on a Tesla – not inexpensive. But while not freeing up cash for a worthy cause, it at least assuages his conscience from a green perspective, he explains somewhat sheepishly.
Of his youthful rebellion, he has no regrets. “It started me on this journey to God,” he says, explaining that he is resigned to the tragedies, surprises, and challenges that have visited most people by his age. It is there, in fact, that the less familiar phrase of the First Commandment rings especially true: which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. He likes the notion that God sets people free from the things that might otherwise enslave them. “God has done that for me. He does that if we let Him. He has brought me through tons.”
Part 2: How does the First Commandment fit in today?