Go Ahead: Blame My Crazy Thinking on Poetry! (Personal Reflections, Pt. VIII)

Golden Treasury

I skipped this “personal reflections” blog entry last week, because of a delightful visit by our four grandchildren over their spring break from Montessori School. So I was out scootering on Berea’s campus, eating ice cream, making breakfast pancakes, playing “Candyland,” and generally horsing around  for a week with Eva (age 7), Oscar (5), Orlando (3), and Markandeya (1 ½).  It was all great fun – unforgettable moments to treasure now and anticipate in the future.

It was all much more rewarding even than fashioning a blog entry, which I also love to do – though not nearly as much as being “Baba” for those four.

In the meantime, I heard from friends who could relate personally to what I had written about my best college professor, Fr. James Griffin. More than one former classmate had similar reminiscences of “Tiffer” (as we used to call him). Others with different backgrounds recalled professors like him who were  demanding, uncompromising , and (above all) eye-opening about literature, images, metaphors, similes, that (in the Tiff’s words) “capture, contain, and communicate” the reality they symbolize.

Many of us were also blessed with teachers of rhetoric who demanded short sentences confined as much as possible to subject-verb-object constraints (SVO! SVO!).

Such exchanges with friends made me realize that I could blame Fr. Griffin for the “Hamilton” fiasco I recounted at the beginning of this series.

Remember that Fr. Griffin had us wearing out our paperback Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. We had to read and reread those metaphysical poets, keeping track of the images they used and finding new meaning in those word-pictures each time. Similarly we combed through Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen and others. We learned to interact with their characters and talk about their thoughts, actions and motives as though those fictional women, children, and men were agents of flesh and blood. (I remember falling in love with Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice and Nancy in Oliver Twist.)

Such readings had us constantly looking below the surface for hidden meanings and feeling triumphant and increasingly confident when we discovered them.

And there’s the “Hamilton” connection. My response to the play wasn’t the first time my children objected to my diving below the surface to reach some “outlandish” conclusion. For instance, I remember us arguing about my take on Tom Hanks’ “Captain Philips.” I saw it as a typical self-congratulatory “cavalry to the rescue” story that demeans indigenous people while exalting the U.S. military. (You can read my review here.)

Such “readings” of literature – and life – are guided by questions like these:

  • What’s really being said here?
  • What’s not being said?
  • What’s apparent?
  • What’s not?
  • Whose class interests are being served here – the oppressors’ or that of the oppressed?
  • What’s the ideology behind this presentation?
  • Does it support the status quo or subvert it?
  • How does this relate to history as told by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or by Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, or by Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, or of Monica Sjoo’s The Great Cosmic Mother?
  • What can I learn from this about my own life?

That’s the sort of thing I began to learn from Fr. Griffin during my freshman and sophomore years at our seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. Later on, people called it “critical thinking.”  And (to be truthful), the approach sunk in only gradually over the years. I mean it’s not like I suddenly became a critical thinker as a college freshman or sophomore. On the contrary, I was mostly reluctant to challenge received wisdom. Remember I was trying to be an obedient model seminarian who followed all the rules.

(Next week: Learning to Read Even the Bible with Critical Perspective)

Fr. James Griffin: My Best College Professor (Personal Reflections Pt. VII)

Einstein

Last week I got a bit side tracked in my efforts to explain my growth in consciousness writing perhaps with excessive detail about the minutia of life in the minor (high school) seminary. “TMI,” my wife counselled.  So I dropped plans to share further episodes from the minor seminary.

Instead, let me get back on track this week by referring to an experience that directly helped me wake up from my culturally narrow stupor. (That, after all, is the purpose of these stories to my children.)

His name was Fr. James Griffin and he was indeed an experience.

Father Griffin was my English Professor each semester during my freshman and sophomore years in St. Columban’s College Seminary in Milton Massachusetts. He came from Ireland and was perhaps 50 years old at the time.

Father Griffin was a tough and merciless critic. He would review our papers in class, demanding that we stand up individually beside our desks while he ridiculed our errors, naiveties, and superficialities before our peers.

On one occasion, he got me on my feet for such purpose. He looked me in the eye, looked down at my paper, returned his gaze to mine, and then crumpled my essay into a ball and threw it in the wastebasket. “Sit down, Mr. Seul, he growled without comment. That was it.

Those first months as a freshman, I was terrified and dreaded English classes. I actually prayed that our professor would be sick and not show up. His health was delicate; so my petitions were often answered.

However, Father Griffin taught me how to write. “Keep your sentences short,” he demanded: subject/verb/ object – SVO. Keep that in mind.  I don’t want to read anything longer than that!”

He also gave me an appreciation of poetry, art, and classical music. He was our choir director.  He called all of us “Philistines” because he found us so uncouth and without a shred of culture. “You’re only interested in ‘shooting hoops’ (Isn’t that what you call it?)” he sneered.

Nonetheless, Father Griffin would bring his Wollensack tape recorder to choir practice and play German lieders for us.  He once sat with us through a televised concert by Pablo Casals.  His main text was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. By the end of my sophomore year, all of our copies were in tatters.

That’s because Father Griffin required us to read and re-read the Renaissance and Metaphysical poets keeping a journal of successive “encounters with the text” – always required to find something new. We assessed again and again the love poems of John Donne and Robert Herrick. Fr. Griffin enjoyed repeating Herrick’s lines.

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;          5
Oh how that glittering taketh me!

 

With the conclusion of that last line, he would invariably break out in a broad smile that revealed the pronounced gap between his two front teeth. He was great.

Yes, I came to treasure Father Griffin. He once astounded my puritanical sensibilities by talking of the love affairs of poets and artists. He remarked with a smile that they’re guided by exceptional moral standards beyond our ken. “Don’t blame them,” he advised.

Principally, Father Griffin helped me become a critical reader sensitive to images, symbols, metaphors and similes. He defined images as literary devices that “capture, contain, and communicate what they symbolize.”

I’ve since thought a great deal about that in the context of Catholic faith and what Protestants traditionally see as Catholics’ infamous devotion to “images” and our belief in the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the “Blessed Sacrament.”

Critics insist that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are “just symbols.” And to a large extent they have a point.

I however would add that such images are SYMBOLS. That is, in Father Griffin’s words, they “capture, contain, and communicate what they symbolize” – viz. the Real Presence of the saints and especially of Jesus. In fact, all language about God (and life) is symbolic. Our theologies can’t get us much closer to divine reality than that.

More generally, Father Griffin taught me that words are powerful. They transform; they shift shapes, perceptions and therefore reality itself. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Once a new understanding has been internalized, the world can never be the same. Absolutes become relativized; certainties crumble.

With such instruction, Father Griffin prepared me for my subsequent scripture studies in the major seminary. It helped me approach biblical texts with the confidence that I could read them without excessive dependence on what the “experts” had to say. It also eventually helped me approach the text of my own life with similar self-confidence. I can unpack and understand it without undue regard for what others say.

Father Griffin was also a golfer. Once in Ireland after ordination while I attending a “Chapter” (i.e. a leadership conference) of the Society of St. Columban I played a round with him. We had a great time. And I had the chance to tell him how important he was in my own development.

He seemed surprised, but clearly appreciated that.

Later I heard that Jim was also surprised about my leaving the priesthood. He thought I’d be the least likely of all to leave the Society of St. Columban. He didn’t know, of course, that what he taught me about critical thinking played such a role in moving me out.

Thank you, Jim. I remember you every day in my prayers.