It was an unexceptional Catholic childhood in the Rochester, N.Y., of the 1950’s: St. Boniface parochial school, the family rosary (for the conversion of Communist Russia), pennies placed in our cardboard collection boxes to save pagan babies and serving as an altar boy. Although we had neighbors who did not share these experiences, I am hard pressed to recall a single close family friend who was not a Catholic.
This Catholic world continued without interruption into McQuaid Jesuit High School where, in the mid 1960’s, the classrooms were richly populated with cassocked scholastics (young Jesuits not yet ordained), brothers and priests. To a 14-year-old, the Jesuits were an awesome presence, probably the last generation of the Society of Jesus who did not just read Latin but could converse in it—to say nothing of their facility with Greek, theology, philosophy, literature and the sciences. Add to those scholarly attributes profound faith and compassion, and you had some extraordinary role models.
After reading the Divided Line passage in Plato’s Republic, I had occasion to walk across the campus with one of my priest-teachers, who, with a wistful look in his eye, said, “Yes; hardly a day passes that I don’t think of something that Socrates said.” How I aspired to be able to say that some day!
Thirty-five years later, other offhand comments still echo in my mind: “You’ll never be an educated person until you can read Greek”; “Remember St. Paul’s advice, ‘Test everything. Hold on to what is good.’” Love and intellectual integrity were the bedrock of these Jesuits’ lives and teaching. It was a challenging world, but a familiar, even comfortable, one.
The transition to a small Quaker college, Haverford in the Pennsylvania town of that name, was a shock. Important education is rarely a reassuring experience. I found myself, for the first time, in an environment informed by much the same values as my own, but where Catholics were but a small minority of the student body. There I learned, from Protestant and Jewish friends, a Christian history quite unlike any I had heard before. In addition to the church’s virtues, I became aware of its scandals, failures and anti-Semitism. These were revealed to me by professors and peers as morally astute as my high school mentors had been, and this new information had to be reconciled with the triumphal Catholicism of my youth. The world acquired a wider, but now strange and complicated horizon.
Slowly Catholicism fell away and I found myself astonished that I had once accepted it all so easily. It was a radical shift in perspective, and from this new frame of reference the notion of a personal and compassionate God seemed as odd and bizarre as agnosticism had seemed to me during my high school years. But despite the enormity of the change, there was no feeling of anger or disappointment with Catholicism. Rather, there was a disturbing sense that something of foundational importance in my life had evaporated. Years later I read an interview with Salman Rushdie, who commented that he wrote novels not out of a desire to blaspheme, but only to fill the God-shaped hole in his life. Rushdie’s image precipitated a flash of recognition. The God-shaped hole. That was what I had felt! An emptiness that no act of the will could fill. Though the sense of loss was disorienting, some instinct cautioned me not to panic, not to grab for a New Age answer. After all, if those Jesuits I knew and respected so deeply could embrace this faith, there may be something to it. If there was an Abba-God, he would not, in his fatherly love and compassion, let a prodigal son go. So I waited.
During those college years I circled my childhood religion from a safe distance. But I couldn’t escape from it. In literature I was drawn inexorably to the beauty of The Brothers Karamazov and Eliot’s Four Quartets. I became fascinated with the complex splendor of medieval iconography, a visual language that was second nature to me. In philosophy it was Plato and Kierkegaard that I loved. Gregorian chant, Josquín des Pres, and the music of Bach had the power to move me deeply. But not theology. That would require that I deal with Catholicism head on.
Fortunately there was at Haverford a Catholic professor, Paul Desjardins, who intuitively understood my state. I encountered him in the classroom and at the weekly Quaker Meeting, and I was very impressed with his capacity to see the divine in the process and product of every human endeavor. He was a walking exemplar of the Catholic imagination. Paul invited me to go to Mass with him on Sundays, to break bread afterward in his home and discuss the liturgical readings of the day in sophisticated and far-ranging dialogue. He was a lifeline, of sorts, to a tradition that was otherwise too messy, too hot to handle.
Medical school came next and was, predictably, an experience that left little time to worry about the God-shaped hole. But even there Providence provided. I fell in with a handful of students who were themselves in similar straits. Though they came from different backgrounds, Methodist and Episcopal, each of them, like me, was struggling to come to terms, as an adult, with strong childhood religious training. We met weekly for tea and discussion, choosing readings from C. S. Lewis and his Inkling companions, a group of his fellow Christians at Oxford. This was another lifeline, this one from my peers.
It was some years afterward, when the later stages of residency training allowed an occasional Sunday morning free, that I felt an inexplicable desire to attend Mass again. The habit grew the way a small coal erupts into a fragile flame. Weekly Mass became an anchor event that was sorely missed on those Sundays when hospital duties made it impossible to attend. My reading life evolved as well, and Thomas Merton became the rich and welcoming focus of my off-hours exploration.
It was Merton’s inspiration that led me to the decision to write to Gethsemani, the Kentucky Trappist monastery that Merton had entered, about making a retreat. I had a week of vacation in February and they had an opening. The drive from Baltimore to Kentucky was filled with anticipation and not a little anxiety. What would it be like? Would the Trappist raise an eyebrow when I said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been 12 years since my last confession”? I arrived at dusk on Sunday evening. The guestmaster ushered me in warmly, commenting that I was lucky. Why? A busload of college students had just left, so it would be a quiet week. Providence strikes again. It would turn out to be a week of external serenity masking an internal whirlwind.
As it was nightfall, the bells rang for Night Prayer. I entered the back of the abbey church, the gothic nave opening into a great upward space, its whitewashed stone walls offering no distracting decoration. The chanted psalms warmed the cold clear winter night. But even this stark beauty did not prepare me for the moment near the close of the prayer when the lights were extinguished, leaving only darkness and a candle flickering before an icon of the Virgin and infant Christ. “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” As the community began to sing “Hail Holy Queen, our life, our sweetness, and our hope....” I was overcome with tearful elation, a soaring joy in the overwhelming knowledge that I had come home again.
My Abba-God, who had waited patiently all those years, had revealed himself to me anew. Not by a decision of my will, not by some new insight, but by surrender of the heart to its deepest desire. For the first time I felt I understood Augustine’s account, in his Confessions, of a moment in Alypius’s garden: “Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved Thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and I outside.... Thou didst call and cry to me and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.” I walked out of the abbey church in a state of newfound freedom and excitement. Had the novice master been at hand, I would have signed up on the spot.
The Gethsemani experience was the turning point, one that will remain with me as long as I have memory. Though it was some 20 years ago, hardly a day passes that I don’t think of it. But coming home again did not mean that my childhood Catholic tradition clicked back into place like a dislodged circuit board. Rather, it had to be reappropriated piece by piece. Over the years three broad categories in the tradition have emerged: the foundation stones (a creator God exists, the Incarnation), the beautiful and enriching accretions of time (the forms of the liturgy, the writings of the Fathers) and the peripheral (did Mary really appear at Fatima?). Some Catholic issues are worthy of a lifetime of cultivation; others are of little ultimate significance. Sorting into categories requires constantly evolving discernment, with frequent reference to the Gospel narratives. The criterion for judgment must be the actions and words of Jesus. To decide if a particular opinion or practice is commanding of attention, one must ask if it is an authentic manifestation of Jesus’ spirit, an undistorted reflection of his life. By its fruits you shall know it.
Now, in my middle years, the responsibilities of marriage, raising three children and caring for patients sometimes threaten to swamp the boat. One can easily feel like Dante, lost in the Dark Wood, stumbling toward the shade of Virgil. As a father now, watching my sons on their young journeys, I ask myself if I will have the patience with them that Abba-God made manifest to me. How can I show them the wealth of their tradition? How do I teach them that its Logos is the language of their heart’s desire?
Test everything. Hold on to what is good.