May, 1951; Levittown, Long Island, N.Y. Beneath the trees, traffic soughs by on Hempstead Turnpike. I stand at the back of St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, waiting, along with perhaps 30 other boys and girls, to be confirmed by our bishop, to begin my new life as a Christian. The church itself is a thinly disguised World War II wooden hangar fleshed out with modest stained glass windows and a small, imitation pre-Vatican II altar up front flush against the far wall. I am 11 years old and have donned a thin purple polyester robe and lined up with the others to make my confirmation. My biggest worry is whether, when the bishop strikes the expected blow across my cheek to remind me that I may someday be called upon to witness with my life for the faith, I will flinch or not, and it is very important that I prove myself the Lord’s true soldier. I have chosen the name Christopher"the one who carries Christ." At the altar I am presented to the bishop, stammer a word or two, am anointed with oil on my forehead, return to my pew. And life goes on. Hugs and handshakes all around, my mother beams, my brother Walter makes a face behind the bishop’s resplendent robes. Back at the house there’s a small celebration with ice cream and cake. The sun shines, the spring lingers through the long afternoon of 50 years ago.
At 16 I entered Marianist Prep in Beacon, N.Y., to begin preparations for the priesthood amid three or four buildings on an old estate overlooking Mount Beacon. I was there to finish my studies before going on to the seminary proper further north at the flintflaked summit of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks. Mostly it is the light I remember now. Light in all seasons: the smoke haze of autumn, the deep cold of January sunshine, the lying awake in the communal dorm listening to thunder roll in over the mountains as if the gods were playing ninepins once again, or I listen with hard expectation to the large snow-laden branches of pine trees cracking under the weight of an ice storm, the weird and beautiful peacefulness of it all. But after a year of it, I left to return home.
At Manhattan College I took church history, ethics, the sacraments, along with English, world history, philosophy and art. I joined a fraternity and worked nights stacking half-empty shelves in a small A&P in Garden City. Spiritual schizophrenic that I was, I served at Mass in LaSalle Chapel, went to frat parties on Friday nights and drank. What was it, I have wondered, that guided me through those 30 miles of the Northern State Parkway in winter darkness to deposit me against the odds back home, still in one piece?
At 19 I met Eileen, the woman who would become my wife. I settled down, studied hard, graduated from Manhattan with a major in English, went on for my master’s degree in the stark snow and ice interior of Hamilton, N.Y., married, went on for my doctorate in English at Hunter College, fathered and began to raise three sons and wrote a dissertation on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
In June 1968, the day Bobby Kennedy died from an assassin’s bullet, I received my Ph.D. By then the brushfire war in Vietnam was raging. It would continue to rage for another seven years. I took a job teaching 20th-century poetry at UMass, Amherst, and settled in for the long haul. Teaching at a public university taught me early on to check my ardor for things religious at the threshold to the classroom. Less often now I thought about the dark dove descending with its ability to transform. A metaphor like everything else, I began thinking. Pentecost as pure poetrythe kind of thing necessary perhaps to the initiatory stages of Christianity, the age of the Apostles, the age of the martyrs. But not operative, surely, at the close of the second Christian millennium.
One sensed a sort of quiescent, genteel form of anti-Catholicism. Many of my colleagues considered themselves former Catholics or, worse, "recovering" Catholics. Once I listened as an older colleaguea man in his 50’s with a national reputationtalked of the wafer god Catholics believed in. Weirdly, the comment had not been uttered with animosity, but merely as if that were the way things must seem to any straight-thinking intellectual this far along in the post-Christian 20th century.
Divorces were prevalent, free love the new drug of choice. Drugs were everywhere. I sawas Allen Ginsberg had saidthe best minds of my generation destroyed, including the young carried off to hospitals in the middle of the night, screaming and suffering from hallucinations. Something was descending: not the dove, not Pentecostal fire, but napalm on rice paddies and jungle hideouts in Vietnam, and then, like some dark karma, in the form of roiling fires on Detroit, Harlem and Watts.
Through it all Eileen and I continued to take our three small sons to Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s in nearby Turners Falls, a small 19th-century model industrial town that had long ago begun its long downward descent. In 1972 the community was stunned by the news of a double murder. The owner of an auto shop in the adjoining town had been brutally murdered by members of a group calling themselves the Troy Gang. It was a revenge killing, it turned out, a way for one of the gang to get back at the owner for firing him. The second victimlike myself in his early 30’s with a young familywas Ed Flavin, an accountant, someone I knew from church, who just happened to be in the shop the night the Troy Gang decided to make its move. No matter that Ed was in the shop working on the books. He was there, and so would have to be disposed of as well. He was bound, gagged with duct tape, forced to watch the owner’s throat slit and then see him bludgeoned to death with a ball-peen hammer, before Ed himself was given a bullet to the back of the head in classic executioner’s style.
Two days before Ed was killed I had passed him in the basement hall of St. Mary’s as he came out of his sixth grade C.C.D. class. We exchanged a simple greeting as I walked by to pick up my kids from Sunday school. I can still see his shy brown eyes swimming behind his glasses in the reflected light, his serious demeanor broken by a slight, quizzical smile, one of his own children clinging to him. A week after his death, I found myself going to the pastor and volunteering to take over Ed’s religion class. It was time to step in and do something. An absence, a violent absence, had been effected, and I knew someone would have to fill it. Why not myself?
And so began 15 years of teaching Sunday school, culminating in eight years teaching confirmation. These were classes of 15 to 18 students, mostly kids from the local high school, with a few coming over from the surrounding private schools. Good kids, all of them, but it became a standing joke between the parish priest, Father Aksamit, and myself that confirmation might better be called the sacrament of departure, departure from religious instruction, a swan song to the church itself. Early each May the bishop would come up from Springfield to confer the sacrament, the kids would dress up; the young women in dresses, the young men in white shirts and ties. Each would be called up before the bishop, give his or her namethe name they themselves had chosen (Saints Wendy and Cliff were out, I had to explain)and the bishop would anoint them with the seal of the Holy Spirit.
Afterward there would be coffee and cake, pictures with the bishop, and then the confirmandithe future hope of the communitywere out the door. Too frequently it was the last time I ever saw them. After a year of preparation, after long discussions about their role in the church, the intense discussions about the dangerous and wonderful waters they would soon be crossing, they weresimplygone. "That’s the trouble," Father Aksamit reminded me one evening as we closed up the basement hall where I taught confirmation. "You want to think of this as a yearlong course, with some exam at the end. But the Holy Spirit works on a different timetable. Many of these kids will be back. Maybe not for years. Maybe not here. But the Spirit will be working in them in its own good time." "One sows," Jesus reminded his disciples, "another reaps."
At the beginning of his own ministry, concerned for his own flock, Gerard Manley Hopkins had put it down in a poem. The truth, he realized, is that we never really get the whole picture on anyone else. We get glimpses, even perhaps an occasional insight, but the rest is mist and darkness. Only the Lord continues to follow, long after the rest of us have gone on to other concerns. "Death or distance soon consumes them," Hopkins wrote:
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.
For me, the dove’s most sensible descent occurred when I was 32, married, the father of three small sons; it happened in the basement of a Catholic school in Holyoke, Mass., where I made a Cursillo. Thinking it must be a retreat of some kind and something I needed, I said yes. Fifty men in a basement on Memorial Day weekend, 1972, beautiful weather, three days of talks by men, none of whom I’d ever met before. The retreat began routinely enough. But after lunch on that first full day the talks suddenly became more interesting. Men began sharing their most intimate secrets, their failings, their God-longings. An ex-paratrooper had lost his little boy years before and broke down with the memory of it, reminding me that I had three little boys at home. A psychologist spoke of his time in the Air Force as a SAC bomber pilot. When it finally dawned on him what the nuclear bomb he was carrying was capable of annihilating, he refused to fly another mission, a decision that cost him his career. Another spoke of how he had finally come to love his severely retarded son.
At some point I began weeping, cursing myself for my weakness before these other men, abruptly pushing back my chair and leaving the room. A priest got up to try and comfort me, but I pushed him away. This wasn’t how a goddamn retreat was supposed to go, I kept saying to myself, feeling I’d been coldcocked. Upstairs, sitting on my cot, gasping for air and trying to understand why I had been so violently affected, I felt as if I had been touched, as if somehow I could finally begin to love my bastard self and begin to love others in return. Father Hopkins speaks repeatedly of his fears of saying yes and yes again, when somewhere beneath it all he fears he is still saying no. On Memorial Day 1972 I finally understood that I had been holding back, with one qualified yes after another, and that something in my battered dogbrain had finally let go and said yes: yes to life, yes to God. A turning point had been reached. Everything was different. I would change, I would reach out in ways I hadn’t before, I would love my family, I would try to live more honestly and with greater courage.
This was not for thought, though of course thought would enter it. No, this went deeper than thought, filling the deepest abysses of the self. This was a reprieve, a new life. Suddenly John, Luke, Matthew, Mark and Paul flamed into life, and I felt more connected to them than I did to events history had thrown up at me: Vietnam, civil rights, affirmative action, even my life at the university. That afternoon, with traffic soughing by on Route 10, the Spirit had conspired to dissolve time itself, and what the disciples had experienced on that first Pentecost I too was tasting just now. Everything I looked on seemed aglow with an inner light. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, but the light remained.
Every few weeks a group of men gather. We are teachers, bankers, architects, psychologists, a dealer in rare paper, a printer, a heavy equipment construction worker, a trucker, a parish priest. Over the years we have spent untold hours sharing our concerns about the young, about where they are going, about what they will do, about the future of their faith. Recently the high school massacre at Littleton, Colo., has been very much on our minds, and we have asked ourselves if what happened there could happen here, among our own children. Yes, we think, though we pray it will not. And then suddenly, electrically, the mind darts back to what the heart yearns to hear. The storyassigned in the subsequent confusion, perhaps, to one young woman rather than anotherof a girl, in the electric horror of imminent death, already shot by her deranged classmate standing in a black trench coat over her while he reloaded his TEC-9 semiautomatic, taunting her with the question if she believed in God now. She could see others besides herself had been shot, had heard the sharp metallic reports of gunfire in the hallway, then seen a student rushing terrified into the library where she and dozens of others cowered under chairs and study tables, then the killers entering, then more shots as her classmates crumpled.
A young woman saying yes, and when asked why, answering simply that her parents had raised her to believe. Or in the other version, a simple yes. But either way a yes. It is the one question, finally, as Hopkins says, we all must answer with our lives one way or the other. And so, with the business end of a gun staring her in the face, she considered for a moment, and thought of the consequences of witnessing to what she knew to be the truth, and managed, I must believe, with the strength of the same Holy Spirit who has touched me and so many others, to utter, as I too should want to utter, the one word necessary as the dark dove descended: her world-resounding, God-affirming yes.