(This is the first in a series of reflections on the occasion of my 80th birthday.)
Last Sunday (Sept. 6th) I celebrated my 80th birthday. I feel as if I’ve crossed a line into a new psychological and spiritual territory. I’m now officially old.
On Sunday, my daughter, Maggie, and her family graciously celebrated the event. My younger son, Patrick, was there as well. He works in DC and came to Westport for the occasion.
My elder son, Brendan, was unable to come. He works for the State Department in Paris, France. COVID-19 kept him from crossing the pond with our lovely daughter-in-law, Erin, and our recently arrived granddaughter, Genevieve Simone. (We’re still feeling bad about not yet having seen little Gigi except on ZOOM.)
Maggie invited us for lunch. She made my favorite dish for the occasion – spaghetti alle vongole (with in-the-shell clams freshly delivered from the ocean a few miles away from here). Maggie’s white clam sauce was perfect. Then, of course, there was a birthday cake (chocolate mousse – again my favorite).
After lunch we all drove to nearby Greenwich to begin an hour-and-a-half yacht ride to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The weather was glorious. There were drinks, cigars, laughter and just enjoying the boat’s swift dash to Manhattan.
In the presence of Lady Liberty, we took photos (see above), marveled at the historic objet d’art, and then turned back towards Greenwich, stopping on the way for crab sandwiches and French fries as the sun rapidly descended and the cool breezes forced us to put on our wraps.
The next evening (Monday), we reprised the celebration with friends from our new church in nearby Darien. Again, there was cake, candles, and singing “Happy Birthday.” And then everyone took turns saying nice things about me.
Imagine that: not one, but two birthday celebrations!
Still, regret was expressed that COVID kept us from a bigger party with more relatives and friends, including some former students. However, I pointed out that I already had such a celebration when I formally retired from Berea College ten years ago. I remember thinking at the time as people spoke kindly about me, “This is like hearing speeches at my own funeral. I’m glad I’m here to experience it all. What joy to be with so many relatives, friends, and so many of those I’ve taught!” For me, that was enough.
When my own turn came to speak on Monday, I quoted Richard Rohr who speaks of the “three boxes” that contain life’s memories for all of us. One is labeled “Order,” the second is “Disorder,” and the third, “Reorder.” The categories represent apt summaries of my life, I said; its elements clearly fit into such containers.
An Ordered Life
Like Rohr, I was blessed with a great deal of order in my early life – till about the age of 21. As a Roman Catholic boy attending St. Viator’s School on Chicago’s Northwest Side, I had clear ideas of who I was. I knew exactly what life was for, who God is, and what he expected of me. I wanted nothing more than to save my soul; nothing else mattered.
So, having just turned 14, I chose to leave home and begin preparation for becoming a priest. I figured that was the best way to get into heaven.
Accordingly, I shipped off to St. Columban’s Minor (i.e. high school) Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo). There, every day was highly ordered with 6:30 rising and 10:00 “lights out,” intense study especially of Latin, mandatory study hall, compulsory sports activities, and strict supervision by a host of father figures, disciplinarians, and demanding teachers. At “The Creek,” I doubled down on my determination to become a priest, even as most of those I entered with either decided otherwise or were “bounced” (as we said) for disciplinary or academic reasons.
In 1958, I entered the college seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. There, my inner student was awakened as never before by Fr. James Griffin, my English teacher nonpareil at Milton for two years. Under his watchful eye, I discovered poetry, music appreciation, and creative writing. I learned how to read with a critical eye. I feared and loved the man at the same time. He was the best.
In 1960, my classmates (now reduced from 32 to 12 in number) and I embarked on our “Spiritual Year” in Bristol Rhode Island. It was the Columban version of a religious novitiate. Its centerpiece was a 30-day Ignatian silent retreat that began on October 6th of that year. It was unforgettable. So was the entire year. It taught us to pray, silence our voices and minds, to meditate and appreciate God’s creation as never before there on the shores of Narragansett Bay.
After Bristol, it was time to return to Milton – this time to the major seminary – to complete college work on our philosophy majors and then to continue with four years of theological and scriptural studies. As far as order was concerned, it was more of the same: rising at 6:30, retiring at 10:00, mandatory classes and study periods, long periods of silence, regular spiritual retreats, daily meditation, and little contact with “the outside world.”
I thrived on it all. I still knew who I was and what was expected of me. God was in his heaven. All was right with the world – despite what was happening outside e.g. with the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam.
(I’ll soon post a reflection on the collapse of my ordered certainty.)