Last night I went to a visitation and vespers service for a priest emeritus whom I have known for more than twenty years. I wept. And it seemed that I couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop myself. We were not close, and, at 94, he’d been beyond ordinary social interaction for some time.
Yet his departure awoke a dormant love I had forgotten. There had been nothing to bring it to consciousness until his death. At 76, that’s happened to me before, more than once or twice. It’s a shock. Our universe is altered. And then we realize with a painful suddenness, that while we weren’t looking, while we were occupied with other things, a bond was broken. Someone who belonged to us has left us, has escaped our indifference to mortality. Hopkins speaks to this:
To a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Father and I used to go to the symphony together. Afterwards, we had coffee in a kind of strained amiability. I was hyper-conscious of his priesthood, and he was far more understanding than, I think, most people ever knew. He was down-to-earth almost to a fault, a position that gave him detachment, saved him from descending into the squabbling melee of human vanities and agendas. He’d been a priest for seventy years, he’d lived through Vatican II, he continued saying Mass long after he was unable to follow the rubrics without assistance. He was the most unflappable person I’ve ever known.
I took Holy Communion to him for years after he was put in a retirement home. He could no longer walk without assistance and remained seated as I stood before him, disinclined to small talk—I think he was glad I didn’t try to force that smiling nonsense. I knew him too well for that, since our symphony days. All things Vatican II were, as they had been, in full force, and he was obedient. Yet, when I administered the Host, he never opened his hands. He always received on the tongue. He never joined me in the prayers, but always said, “Amen.” My mission, my purpose, my usefulness, was concluded when I placed the Host on his tongue. I could be dismissed. This never offended me, though I know his lack of sociability annoyed others.
I believe he celebrated Mass in the same way: with his attention on What was happening, not on his performance. His homilies were mere reiterations of the Gospel reading. This irritated many parishioners, who wanted to be entertained, enlightened, or affected by words. Their opinion of his homilies was never very relevant to him, though I’m sure he was aware of their disappointment.
I used to write homilies and commentaries but I gave it up. It was too easy to lapse into sentiment or hypocrisy, and too difficult to be relevant for English-speakers who might be Canadian, Australian, American, anyone anywhere who spoke English. One becomes generic by necessity. It is easy to understand Father’s indifference to those who wanted to hear stirring or consoling preaching every Sunday. I think he just gave it up.
He was “giving it up” made manifest. I think now I learned some of the roots of my contemplative life from him. Without ever having a conversation on the subject—for, as a writer, I know what I think he might have also known, perhaps without thinking about it: Truth transcends words. It’s way too big to fit into the small human invention of language, or even into our ideas about it. We gain awareness of it as we permit it, without resistance, access into the cracks and crevices of our constructed brittle and fragile lives, our mortality. And with the grace of our faith, we discern that we win by surrender, by letting go of our bonds so that they don’t become our bondage. And know, with Hopkins, the futility of our leafmeal language.
R.I.P., Father Marv.