Throughout my life I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers beginning in fourth grade with Sister Jane Mary, who, to my mother’s dismay, insisted all of her students have library cards and use them. Every other Friday afternoon the good Sister marched her class to the corner of the school playground where the blue bookmobile was parked. I loved checking out new books. The problem is that I almost always forgot to return the old ones. Overdue notices with two cents a day fines turned up regularly in the mailbox. My mother would mutter under her breath when she opened mail from the Denver Public Library and berate the good sister (never to her face) about how irresponsible it was to trust a nine-year-old with library card. “This is your last warning,” she would warn me, “from now on the fines are coming out of your allowance. If I get any more overdue notices, I’m tearing up your library card.” She never did.
I still have and regularly use my library card.
From the beginning it has been a gateway to freedom and the exploration of new and previously unimagined worlds and ideas. Reading, attending movies and being taken by my parents to see live touring companies of Broadway shows like Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific (before I was in my teens) all contributed to the creation of an inner world far more exotic (and as a child and adolescent far more fulfilling) than my outer one.
My father introduced me to adult literature when he recommended Herman Wouk’s World War Two novel The Caine Mutiny while I was still in grade school. I devoured it. Wouk’s next book, Marjorie Morningstar, was published my freshman year in high school. I was eager to read it although I had no idea what it was about. My mother, who did know what it was about, insisted I get permission from one of the Jesuit priests who taught at the high school. I took the book to Father Lander, the school librarian and told him my mother insisted I get permission before I read it.
“Why do you want to read it?” Father Lander asked.
“Because I loved The Caine Mutiny,” I answered.
“Do you think you’re old enough to read it?” he continued.
“Do you think you’re mature enough to understand it?”
“Then I see no problem with your reading it. You have my blessing.”
Father Landers’ response surprised me. Instead of telling me to defer to my mother, he was encouraging me to think for myself and trust my own judgment. I would come to discover that this is a hallmark of Jesuit education. It came with a caveat. I must learn to take responsibility for the consequence of my decisions.
That night I repeated the conversation to my mother.
“The Jesuits don’t have much use for mothers,” was her only comment.
As it turned out there was pre-marital and adulterous sex in Marjorie Morningstar! An innocent young girl is, as they say, “deflowered” by a jaded older man. That barely registered in my virgin Catholic school boy mind. From my point of view it was about the theatre—the glamour of summer stock.
I had lobbied hard against going to the Jesuit High School. All of my close friends from elementary school were going to public high school. I begged to go with them. My mother settled it with the following statement. “I discussed this with Monsignor Moran (our parish pastor) and he said if your father and I can afford to send you to a Catholic High School and we don’t, we are committing a mortal sin. Do you want your parents to risk going to hell just so you can go to high school with your friends?” Years later I came to believe that my mother made that up. I never asked her. She would just have denied it.
Much like my father, I had been surrounded by my women my entire life until I entered high school. Besides my mother I grew up with three sisters, three doting aunts, a widowed grandmother and eight years of education by the Sisters of Loretto. My father’s work kept him on the road a considerable amount of time; except for occasional contact with our parish priests, I had very little conventional male influence in my life.
The hyper-masculine world of the Jesuits was a culture shock for me and not without trauma. The boot camp discipline and no-excuses policy with which the Jesuits ran the school was a jolt.
The motto of the Jesuits—AMDG—“For the Greater Glory of God”—was present everywhere. The purpose of a Jesuit education was presented forthrightly: “We’re here to make you into men—and not just any men—“men for others.” Service and volunteer activities were an integral part of formation of a “man for others.”
It would be several decades before I understood that to be a “man for others” is to be free.
The curricula was standard: English literature (one play by Shakespeare each year) and composition every semester for four years; Latin every semester for two years—I was in the Honors program so in Junior and Senior year I studied Homeric Greek—you haven’t lived until you’ve read the Odyssey in its original form; religion all four years plus two years of algebra, and a year each of geometry, chemistry and physics.
Sports were the focus of the majority of extra-curricular activity and received far and away the most coverage in the yearbook. The closest I got to athletics was as a member of the Bowling Club my Senior Year.
My one area of excellence was the Drama Club. In my senior year I played a guardian angel in one play and a septuagenarian serial killer in the other.
Every Friday all of the students had to attend confession. Freshman lined up after the Seniors. The first week of confessions I ended up being the first freshman in line after the last senior, the high-school’s ultra-cool star basketball player—the biggest man on campus. The confessor was the no nonsense Father Aloysius Hahn S. J. The basketball player had been in the confessional less than a minute when Father Hahn’s booming voice rang throughout the chapel, “You did WHAT????” It seemed to be that the basketball player left the confessional a good six inches shorter than he entered it.
After I stopped being intimidated by him, Father Hahn became a great spiritual director to me, my first.
One time I confessed with an adolescent excess of piety and scruples that, “Jesus commands us to love everyone and there are some people I just don’t love.”
After a pause, Father Hahn asked, “Do you want any of these people you don’t love to burn in the fires of hell for eternity?”
That had never occurred to me. “No, Father,” I whispered, shocked at the thought of it.
“Good. Start there.” That is amongst the wisest counsel I’ve ever received. I have had occasion to use it many times in my work as a spiritual director.
My grades fluctuated wildly. I excelled in literature, history and religion, did alright with Latin and Homeric Greek, which left me with a life-long fascination with the etymology of words. I did miserably in science and math and had to repeat classes in summer school at the same high school I had wanted to attend with my grammar school friends.
As much as I struggled with the discipline and academic standards of the Jesuits there was something irresistible and seductive in the quality and dedication of the teachers, not just the priests, but the scholastics, young men not yet ordained who offered such incredible role models of masculinity, spirituality, and selfless service. By the second semester of my senior I made the decision to apply to the Jesuits and was accepted into their seminary in Florissant, MO.
The summer before I entered the seminary, three of my fellow graduates and I drove across country. We stopped in Chicago and spent several days in New York City and Washington, D.C. I saw my first Broadway show, Robert Preston in The Music Man, my first off-Broadway show, Carol Burnett in Once upon a Mattress and visited Radio City Music Hall for the first time. The featured film, following the Rockettes, was The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn. This is probably the most depressing film ever made about a religious vocation. Two of my three traveling companions were planning on joining me in the seminary and we left the theatre numb. The legal drinking age in New York was 18; we spent the evening soothing our fears with Seagram’s Seven and 7-Up. We repeated this ritual, along with six other seminarians, at the Forest Park Hotel in Saint Louis the night before we entered the seminary.
I have a souvenir of that last night framed and hanging in a place of honor in my office. It is a receipt from the hotel for a toilet bowl.
Our merry band of future saints had a great deal to drink that night. One of us, Mike Mueller, had brought fireworks with him. Mike was a whiz at science and wondered aloud what would happen if he flushed a lit cherry bomb down the toilet of our seventh floor bathroom and immediately proceeded with this scientific experiment before any of us thought to stop him. One of us, I forget who, had the presence of mind to close the bathroom door. There was a huge boom and then there was a shattering and tinkling sound which we discovered, when we opened the door, was caused by the broken pieces of the toilet bowl flying about the room. All that was left of the toilet was a little bit of the base which was bolted into the floor and a small piece of porcelain still bolted to the wall where the seat had been hinged. The fragment of porcelain said “Crane.” Water was flowing out of the hole which had previously supplied a drain for the toilet.
After a moment of shocked silence, one of the guys collapsed on the bed and began sobbing inconsolably: “Our vocations are ruined. Now we’ll never get to be priests.”
As the water continued to flow toward the bedroom, one of us suggested that we had better notify the hotel. I was elected. The attendant at the desk asked, “How can I help you?” and I replied, “Could you send someone up to our room? The toilet is broken.”
First maintenance came and looked at the toilet, gave us a look, then called the manager and told him he’d better get up here ASAP.
The manager showed up and asked what the problem was. “Our toilet is broken,” I repeated in my most innocent altar boy voice.
The manager looked through the bathroom door, where the maintenance man had successfully stopped the flow of water, and said, “That toilet isn’t broken, it’s destroyed and you are going to pay!” The cost he told us would be thirty-five dollars.
We didn’t have thirty-five dollars between us. We were entering the seminary the next morning where we would eventually take vows of poverty and never handle money again. We had spent pretty much every cent we had on a fine meal (which we assumed would be our last) and the Seagram’s and 7-Up we had brought back to the room.
“If I don’t have $35.00 payment before you check out in the morning, I will give the bill to whoever is picking you up to take you to the seminary.”
“We’re ruined! We’re ruined!” sobbed the young man on the bed as he curled up into a fetal position.
I had totally forgotten this incident and its resolution and would never have never remembered it if it weren’t for my mother who carefully saved and filed away every piece of paper that had anything to do with her children.
I didn’t look through the files right away but brought them back to Los Angeles after Mother’s funeral in Denver. I gave the file a cursory look—it contained every letter and birthday card I had ever sent her or my father. There were report cards, mostly unflattering school pictures, articles cut out from newspapers. It was overwhelming.
It wasn’t until several years after my mother’s death in 1996 that I rediscovered the files and began to sort through them. There nestled among the report cards and photos was a receipt for one toilet bowl from the Forest Park Hotel, Saint Louis.
“It took you long enough to find it,” whispered the ghost of my mother as she laughed in my ear. The receipt is framed and hangs in my office.
Apparently, and I had forgotten this, I had sent out an SOS to my parents and my father had wired the money to the hotel.
“That’s my Mom,” I laughed, her wicked Irish sense of humor still intact on the other side.
Who could imagine that a little piece of paper could stir up so many memories, not just of my comrades and our escapades in St. Louis, but of the love, understanding, and forgiveness of my parents in bailing us out of that mess.
When I arrived at the hotel in St. Louis, there was a special delivery letter waiting for me at the desk. It was from my Father. I’ve saved it along with several other letters he wrote me over the years beginning one he wrote to me from the U. S. Naval Training Station in Farragut, Idaho when I was not yet three years old. The special delivery letter forever transformed my relationship with my father.
“Dear Jim,” the special delivery letter dated August 18, 1959, began:
“As I often told you, “Fathers (parents) are a sorry lot. This is particularly true when fathers have sons. Fathers can spoil daughters, and that is considered correct. On the other hand fathers must discipline sons, mold their characters, and harangue them about doing things they, their fathers, weren’t particularly apt at doing and probably didn’t like doing any more than their sons.
“With me, I was raised by women, and I never had a father around to teach me how to be a father. So the abilities to tie fishing flies, shoot guns, row boats, collect stamps and, to use the old cliché “rub two boy scouts together to start a fire” were never passed onto me. I was a city boy. All that coupled with the fact that since I’ve known you, I’ve made my living traveling which didn’t afford us much time together as father and son.
“The reason I bring this up today is the thought struck me very forcibly as you got on the plane. It seemed strange that I had lived with you eighteen years and we hardly know each other. This probably isn’t too unusual. I think parents think they have forever to know their children, and about the time they get on the same intellectual level, custom demands that the children leave home and start the same process all over again.
“From observing your approach to your vocation, and your association with your friends, and the high praise we hear from all our friends about you, I feel, with a tremendous assist from your Mother, I didn’t completely fumble the ball in the father department.
“Coming from a long line of emotional Irish as we both do you, can probably know, how emotion prevented you of my great pride in you, and for you.
“God has been good to us both in permitting you the knowledge of your vocation so soon. Not many of us really get our vocation settled until we are in our thirties, and there are a lot of poor souls rattling around that never have been able to get their rudders in the water.
“I know you take with you to the Jesuits a very fine, I may even say unusual, love for your religion. They can give you a lot, and you in turn can give them much. I know you will give your best, but should this only be a test of your love for God, and He and you decide you gave it your best, but the priesthood is not your complete vocation, then come back with no sense of defeat.
“I am a very proud and loving father today, and have been for eighteen of your years. The bigness of what you are doing is beginning to penetrate my mind. I couldn’t have told you all this face to face, but couldn’t delay telling you now.
“My very big love and my prayers go with you on this tremendous adventure you are undertaking here, and my assurance to you that we’ll keep a snug harbor here should you decide to return.”
The intimacy and naked vulnerability of my father’s letter floored me. As it happened I soon returned to that snug harbor determined to know my father and make sure he knew me.
I decided to leave the seminary shortly after the first visiting day. The sister of one of classmates showed up with her three children. As I watched these beautiful children frolic around on the seminary grounds, I realized I wanted to be a father; I wanted to have children of my own.
This is not to say the Jesuits were through with me nor I with the Jesuits. We’re still dancing together 62 years after we were introduced.
My father’s words–
“I know you take with you to the Jesuits a very fine, I may even say unusual, love for your religion. They can give you a lot, and you in turn can give them much.”
–Turned out to be prophetic!
If you want to make God laugh—
“Today our prime educational objective must be to form men-and-women-for-others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ – for the God-man who lived and died for all the world; men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.”
– Pedro Arrupe S. J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus (1965–83)