Friday, January 4, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 51 - A Mentor

As I was coming into my story it was not just my version of the family I came from that changed. For example, I was a person who, for good reason, stayed clear of academic worlds. For further example, for years my profile in Twentieth Century Authors had me down as atheist/agnostic.

I went to Boston College to take a three-week intensive summer course that intrigued me. It was given by David Tracy, a liberal American theologian and priest widely celebrated in theological circles and beyond. His picture had recently been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. I did not know the terminology of theological studies and I was often lost in the specifics of his lectures. Although I had been doing a lot of reading, theology was new to me, and these lectures were full of terms – such as hermeneutical – that at that point meant nothing to me. What came across, however, was David Tracy’s pastoral presence, a truly good and empathetic man, who had not let logic overwhelm his pastoral bent. He was more interested in life than logic. And so too were the others in the big class, who were of all ages and many backgrounds and not at all what I would have expected in academia.

At the end of the Tracy course there was a paper due on the subject of “God Talk.” I did not know where to start. And anyway I was no longer a writer. Others spoke of doing such subjects as “God talk in narrative” or “God talk in the synoptic gospels.” Well, there was no reason why I had to write if I had nothing to say. This experience so far had been like day to the night of my college years, when having nothing to say would never have gotten in the way of writing nonsense that echoed a professor's bias.

I was enjoying myself and I was game. I drove up to New Hampshire to take a look around the scenes of my deep past. I came back. I sat down to write. I had a portable typewriter with me for I had been absent when computers finally took over – that was how remote from writing I had become.

I sat down, wondering what to write, and then suddenly I was in the Roman room at the Metropolitan. And I had my subject - visual God talk.

I had been affected so deeply by that visual experience in the Met, that visual demonstration of a people who had come to a dead end, that I was now immersed in theology – something I had never thought about before in any way except to dismiss it. It is true that shortly before going to Boston I had been talking about the time in the Roman Room. But I had never brought the experience to light in the way I did in this supposed academic paper that had become a piece of memoir. I was there finally in that room I had managed to pass through without seeing, there looking at those faces staring out of a cruel ancient world that were as familiar to me as the faces of all the people I knew and, worse, all the people I had wanted to know.

Not having been raised in a Catholic place or by Catholic people, I had missed a lot but I had been spared exposure to the strain in Catholicism that entailed memorization of catechisms and hatred of sexuality. I had never met a nun who wielded her ruler like an instrument of torture. I now knew beautiful nuns, artistic nuns, freedom fighter nuns, nuns you might not know were nuns. The Catholic world I had entered recently at a Hudson Valley retreat center, and now in Boston, was a world of new openings that was the reverse of catechism set-piece nonsense. It was not my first experience of this kind of Catholic world. Upon examination it turned out I had been getting glimpses for many years of worlds that went beyond my set piece stories.

The paper that I wrote - visual God talk - was circulated at Boston College, with a note that it came out an advanced theology course that by mistake this neophyte had joined. The theologian Thomas Groome, who was a celebrity in these circles, asked to see me. I had a mentor – a real mentor – something that had never happened in this way. I had had something like that relationship in my Southeast Asia years with Jack Jones, author of A Woman of Bangkok, but that was about as far as you could get from an academic setting.

And I was invited to stay on at Boston College, and I let what had started with what was meant to be an academic paper continue – letting my life unfold now on the page.

And then in one of Tom’s classes he said that poetry would be as acceptable as a formal academic reflection or research paper.What I would have thought of as the least likely of all places to do real writing turned out then to be just right.

I was surrounded by faces that never would have made it as cold Roman art.

I did not come here to place myself in the tradition of famous authors,from Graham Greene to Walker Percy who had converted to Catholicism. And anyway I did not think that this was the only source of revelation. It was the source I found most congenial. I was, thankfully, operating without a master plan. And I suspected that eventually when I wrote there would be no more outlines to get in the way of whatever might unfold from mystery.

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