“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” — Stephen Daedalus, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce
Chance readers of my contributions to these pages may have noticed my frequent mention of priests and teaching Sisters. Inquisitive sorts may have wondered why my stories so often turn in this direction, and what I claim to know about such lives.
To respond with a paradox, I know both much and next to nothing.
I am certain that many a priest and nun are aware of this. The truth is that such lives cannot be well understood from the outside looking in. As writers and readers, though, we are at liberty to imagine. The results can be both accidentally insightful and, at least, entertaining. But inevitably we fall prey to idealism and nostalgia on the one hand with abstraction and pernicious suspicion on the other extreme. We construct and deconstruct such lives from preconceptions and misconceptions.
This process of visualizing from the outside looking in brings to mind the advice of a late friend who said, “First find out where people walk, then build the sidewalks.” It almost never happens that way.
A dearth of religious vocations in the present era has not helped. Numbers have dwindled and among those who remain outside of nursing homes, habits have been replaced by street clothes. These days one is more likely to meet a Jesuit in a nineteenth century Russian or French novel than anywhere on a Jesuit university campus. In a novel I hope soon to finish, a character observes that medals once saying I am a Catholic. Please call a priest might as well send a Samaritan looking for a used car salesman.
As a denizen of an earlier era, I can claim to have met and known after a fashion, many more priests and habited nuns than people are likely to run into these days. A few of them have even attempted to teach me something, with varying degrees of success. My eighteen or so years of Catholic school education, now well over the horizon, yielded day-to-day encounters with wimples, Roman collars, and cassocks. Nowadays birds of this plumage are seldom observed. Even less seldom do they appear out of seemingly nowhere to deliver stern reminders and indelible corrections. In this sense, I know a lot that Catholics these days would be forced to imagine. At the time, I took it for granted.
These experiences deserve preservation for what they have given me in passing, and so like the ancient mariner I never thought I would be, I downed my albatross and tell moralistic tales in recitations years after classes let out. Call it nostalgia if you will. Call it idealism and naiveté. Call it a strange sort of narcissism turning inward on the imagination as an old writer gets older. I prefer to think of it as gratitude…
One such memory takes me back to an afternoon of 1960, at Saint Louis University. I raced around a corner of old De Smet Hall attempting to skip Father Francis Hunleth, S.J.’s late afternoon class in Attic Greek. I misjudged his path to class and nearly flattened the old boy. Of course, I was shamefaced, too obviously heading in the wrong direction, and knew at once I would remember the moment long after I had forgotten the Greek. What could I do but suggest that I was simply heading to College Church for a moment of prayer beforehand? Prayer, I needed, by the way. Nary a Jesuit on a campus in those distant days, crowded with Jesuits as they were, would have believed me, and certainly not Father Hunleth. With bowed head, regarded as a mark of penitence, I followed him to class.
Ahead of us my three classmates waited, all of them black-habited Sisters studying Greek as preparation for medical secretary careers. They always arrived early; I almost always late. This day they glanced up and glanced down quickly, pretending not to notice that I must have been nabbed while fleeing the scene entirely. Father Hunleth could say a lot without saying a word: he had a culprit in hand.
The Sisters would have memorized the day’s translations and its exercises of declensions and irregular verbs for precise enunciation. My turn would come as it inevitably did at the round table where we sat in the dusky, dusty sunlight of an afternoon along West Pine Boulevard. I would falter under the scrutiny of Father Hunleth. Knowing glances and charitable indulgence would play over the faces of the three young women. For all I know, both they and Father might have been praying that for once I would get that verb-ending right. It seldom happened that I did.
Picture it for a moment: a class of four students on a Jesuit-established university campus in 1960, three of them young Sisters, and our teacher as benevolent a Jesuit taskmaster as ever trod the earth wearing to class the Jesuit black robe almost never seen these days. The school year did not end before we lost our ‘blackrobe’. Father Francis Hunleth, S. J. died of a heart attack on April 20, 1960. For several class days, the four of us met alone around the old round table, attempting to advance on our own. Our teacher’s chair remained empty. There is nothing quite like a dwindling army without its leader.
Across the street during ‘quiet times’ at old Clemens Hall, Father Joseph Boland, S.J. patrolled the hallways, our resident proctor, a Navy chaplain of World War II. There were enough Jesuits on hand in those days that some could be spared for such duties. Now and then, he would stop by to bum a cigarette. Yes, we could smoke in our rooms, but not roam freely between seven and ten. I can see his disdain when I offered something called du Maurier from within a layer of gold foil. Father Boland would have been a Lucky Strike, Old Gold, or Camel man, unfiltered. Clemens Hall was his new ship. We were his crew, boys all. It was still a war of sorts. Across the street in twilight, a dozen ‘blackrobes’ would be circling the quad with their breviaries in hand. By day, in a required theology class, Father Boland brought hell to bear on creeping modernism. Vatican II was never mentioned.
Now and then on an aimless Saturday afternoon, I would stop by a hall where the young Jesuits lived and studied philosophy. One of them shared my interest in Graham Greene’s novels, The Power and the Glory and A Burnt-Out Case, then a best seller. We would talk by the hour about writing and changes afoot with Vatican II. What had Greene in mind when he wrote as he did? What about Pope John’s health and his vision for the future Church? What was in the yet unread letter from Fatima? Rumor was that Pius XII had wept when told about it.
The last time I saw my young Jesuit friend, he gave me two gifts: his copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars with the interlinear translation in English and lots of pencil notes, and a sport coat retrieved on a recent home visit, the one he had worn to his last high school prom. With utter confidence he said, “I will not be needing this.” Years later, he died in New York, no longer a Jesuit, and no longer a priest.
His copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars—until recently—stood on a bookshelf alongside another belonging to my aunt who graduated from my hometown Catholic School in 1927. Her copy had no translation of any sort, just a Latin-English dictionary at the back and pages of exercises by the dozens after chapters. Forty years, Prohibition, the Great Depression, a World War, and Vatican II separated the two, my aunt and my young Jesuit friend. She and Father Hunleth would have been about the same age. No wonder I disappointed him. The world also was disappointing him, when the future young wife of a turkey farmer in his day knew more Latin than young Jesuits in mine.
I confess to being a nostalgic, idealistic packrat. Somewhere, behind me in a closet might hang that sport coat the young Jesuit gave me. Had he kept it, when Roman collars and cassocks were no longer in vogue, he might have gotten some further wear, post-Vatican II.
In the Catholic world I grew up in, no words loom larger than post-Vatican II. You have to have lived then to know what it was like before all that happened. As the years go by, few and fewer of us remain to recall how it was and more and more we resemble wistful characters ensconced in a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.
But it was my world, in what are called our formative years. These days, I puzzle even a lot of priests in their sixties as I reminisce and reflect upon it. One can feel like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock saying, I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all. Father Maurice B. McNamee, S. J. assured us that he had once seen a truck bearing the Prufrock name on St. Louis streets where Eliot was born.
Another Jesuit taskmaster Father Dreyfus, S.J. once said, “Jim, don’t let your imagination get the better of you.” Some days, Father, looking back and reflecting upon all this, it truly does.
Some days it seems more like a scene from a book than anything that ever happened. I must have imagined it, my world of Jesuits and parish priests on trips home asking how I was doing at University, my old grade-school principal still outside monitoring the playground with wind rippling her wool habit. It seems like a timeless something James Joyce might have written with a bit more acid and Irish beer in it. It might have been my own version of A Portrait of an Artist as Young Man could I have written half that well.
And so I know both much and very little, less and less of it with the passing days.