Tales of the Faith at Work in My Life
Words Mean Things
Henry VIII’s heavy hand reached across the centuries and slapped me across the face. How many times had the arch-apostate of England gripped in his bloody grasp the pages now gingerly embraced in my fingers? It was both unnerving and, I confess, a bit awe-inspiring to be in physical contact with an object known to have once been in the possession of Henry Tudor, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of England, and enemy of the Bride of Christ. As I stood in the inner chambers of the library of York Minster Cathedral, there washed over me a flood of impressions born from the weight of the half-millennium of years between me and the book’s previous owner, the sense of insignificance of my own actions in terms of history on the world stage, and horror at what the hands that touched the tome which I was touching had done so long ago that altered the course of human events and sent countless souls to perdition. Henry’s hand had the power to strike with as much force in the twenty-first century as he ever had in the sixteenth, and, in fact, the burden of the intervening epochs since the dissolution of Christendom made all the more devastating the impact of awareness of what he wrought by dint of his passions, willfulness, and God-given authority: the destruction of the Dowry of Our Lady!
Miss Parson had a very different reaction to the scene. In her capacity as one of the librarians at the Minster, she had been in this room countless times, had perused the collection daily, and delighted in showing off this particular example of protestant history. Perhaps it is ungentlemanly to suggest too strongly how stereotypically Miss Parson fit the role of librarian: perpetually primly pursed lips, her hair in a Houdini-resistant bun to match, thick glasses tailored to the near of sight, mole-like black eyes unfamiliar with full sunlight buried deep inside the spectacles, pale complexion suffering from the same deficit, clothing so severe in its propriety as to defy attention much less description, and shoes sensible only to someone trying to make a point of wearing sensible shoes. Having given that description, this gentleman pleads the necessity of providing some indication as to what produced her markedly, indeed, diametrically dissimilar set of responses to our time shared in the closed-to-the-public sanctum within the Minster. Miss Parson was an expert of library science, a student of history, an amateur antiquarian of all things English; she knew nothing of heresy or of obedience to the Church or of the rights of God. She simply loved all old books, especially old books about England, and most especially old books about England’s monarchs. Of all of England’s monarchs, none made his presence so felt to Miss Parson as the ponderous gravitas incarnated in the person of Henry VIII.
We stood, she and I, within an oversized closet serving as a rare book room. The Minster is pressed for space to store its impressively extensive collection, as well as short of funds to supply the collection with proper climate control, cataloguing, and maintenance. Six months earlier, in the spring of the year, Ark-era rains caused an inundation of the Minster library, resulting in significant damage to one-of-a-kind volumes, some of which still moldered around us, above us, and below us on the floor-to-ceiling shelving of the closet book room. An incandescent 75-watt bulb swaying from a shadeless fixture overhead performed the dual task of not causing light damage to the delicate texts and drawing but lightly on the library’s utilities budget. Late fall humidity was very much in the air, causing the illusion that respiration was a matter of heavy lifting and the wind besetting the Minster grounds a kin to the earth-moving activities around an archaeological dig.
Ambiguity can, at times, be our friend. My numb mumbling as I fingered Henry’s ancient relic evidently struck Miss Parson as the hushed reverence due to his deceased majesty. Her woodenly heartfelt smile registered her approval at my speechless handling of the frail heirloom. In actuality, what I could not articulate was my antipathy for the fiend whom I was touching at that far remove, desiring to recoil from him four centuries after his death every bit as much as if his elephantine bulk were at that moment crowding us into the corners of that closet. No devotee of the saints ever venerated a reliquary with more devotion than that which moved me to cast into the nether darkness that testament to man at war with His Lord and God.
I remembered where and who I was and that I had not the authority to burn books, wretched as their pedigree might be. It did not take long for the fervor of wrath to die within my bosom, allowing me once again to breathe, to speak, and even to smile ingratiatingly at Miss Parson as I returned the offending trove to her with thanks for her generosity. She really had been most generous, spending the afternoon giving me a tour reserved normally for V.I.P.’s, exposing me to her most prized possessions. And, I suppose, she felt me generous in my courtesy, since she nearly swooned with delight at my appreciation for what I had the uncommon opportunity to bear in my own hands. Indeed, words can not relate how much I appreciated what had sullied my consecrated hands that day. As she warbled her monotone enthusiasm for my willingness to humor her in conveying her zeal for the greatest of Tudors, I silently sighed in relief to finally have her take from me and place back on its shelf one of Henry’s pocket-sized prayer books…
Lost in Translation
Night had fallen, early as is the wont of Chicago skies in late December. Few patrons walked amidst the dim stacks of the general library on the fourth floor of DePaul University’s Lewis Center in the Loop. Many hours lay before the staff before the staff would be able to call the night shift a day and go home.
Hsin rolled one cart filled with books for re-shelving back and forth, up and down the aisles. Another cart was being rolled at the other end of the floor by Hemraj. Besides the fact that both Hsin and Hemraj had names beginning with ‘H’, were quite short, and worked nights with me as the supervisor, they had absolutely nothing in common. They were part of what I called the DePaul Library’s U.N. Initiative – Barbara, the white-bread, liberal Catholic wife of one and mother of none Director of Circulation; Nahid, the muslim Pakistani mother of two, lover of Popeye’s chicken, and day-shift supervisor; Claude, the deviant French-Canadian assistant to Nahid; Hemraj, the hindu Indian father of four working full time between both shifts; Hsin, atheist Chinese genius in accounting, whose next-to-nonexistent English skills made her singularly ill-equipped to work as a student assistant in an American library; Juan, agnostic Hispanic, as dense as Hsin was brilliant, with English skills just above hers; and I, black, American, Catholic male, destined, unbeknownst to himself at the time, to be a priest exclusively practicing the immemorial Latin rites of the Faith, the night supervisor. The Lincoln Park Campus uptown provided yet further diversity to our multicultural tour de force.
Classes were not in session. At that time in the mid-eighties, it was still permissible, even at a Catholic university, to refer to the hiatus as “Christmas Break”. This was a period of catching up for the library. I was busy updating fine letters – that refers to penalties, not to the quality of the writer or the content – to be sent to delinquent students. One student worker was tasked with checking in the piles of returned books utilizing the state-of-the-art system called “L.C.S. – Library Computer System”. Descriptive if not creative. Some have noted cosmic convergences or odd coincidence or Divine Providence in the fact that my first real job involved the use of a machine which shared initials with myself. The other student shelved books alone until the first completed his task making use of the LCS, the computer, not the supervisor, at which point both students spent the night shelving our share of the thousand or so volumes still to be returned to circulation.
But although classes were not in session, some students still sought our services. Some were completing overdue papers. Some were getting a head start on the new year. A very few were honestly desirous of learning – it can happen! Their number, however, was inconsequential. It took little time to attend to their needs, and they asked little of us. They did not bother us and we did not bother them.
On such nights, I manned the circulation desk while both of the student workers were out in the stacks. Normally, when there were fewer books to be shelved, one of them stayed at the desk and handled the patrons while I continued my bureaucratic activities. The low volume of traffic allowed them to do more of the grunt work and me to attend to my work without too many interruptions on the rare occasions when a patron actually approached the desk. Most of what I had to do in service to the patrons was to check out books, check in books, and point people to the third floor where they could find our only restroom. I almost could do any of that without pausing in the composition of a letter alerting a student to the fact that I owned his diploma until he returned his overdue books and/or paid his overdue fines. Never let a bureaucrat claim that bureaucrats, no matter how insignificant, do not let their power go to their heads. I am living proof to the contrary.
Our little U.N. expanded on this particular evening. A tall man of central European extraction, it seemed, strode up to the counter. I strolled from behind my desk toward him. In perfect but heavily accented English he inquired, “Mah I use yoor c-source?”
Two floors below us was the reference department of the library, containing all kinds of arcane texts on obscure subjects. One floor above us was the law library, surpassing, if it can be believed, the reference department in arcana and obscurity. On countless occasions I had been befuddled by business, science, and law students asking me for materials that could only be found by the priests and priestesses of the mysteries contained on the second and fifth floors of the Lewis Center. A ‘c-source’ appeared to me to be yet another instance of academic gnosticism.
“Have you tried the reference department?” I asked, hopefully helpfully.
He returned my pleasant smile with an unpleasant frown. “What? You have no c-source in this office?”
I paused. What standard reference book could be expected to be kept outside of the reference department of the library? “It’s an item on reserve, perhaps?” I suggested with professional solicitude.
“C-source,” he said. “C-source!” he insisted.
Again I paused. Was I going to have to phone my counterpart in Lincoln Park or the reference desk downstairs to figure out what the man needed? “I’m sorry. I don’t quite know what it is you’re looking for. Have you tried looking it up on the computer?”
At this point, the haughtiness of his ancient birthright received from kings and emperors holding sway over the old country gushed forth. He gave me a withering look obviously reserved for incompetent Americans with no sense of the venerable, too wedded to modernity, addicted to technology and helpless when thrown on their own resources. Gesticulating wildly he exclaimed, “What kind of fool does not know what c-source are?!?” At last, the chopping motion of his right hand’s first two fingers dissecting an imaginary piece of paper held in his left hand prompted me to retrieve the necessary instrument from my center desk drawer.
In the Eye of the Beholder
Gargoyles serve many purposes. They engage the creative powers of sculptors. They excite the imagination of the public. They ornament. They offer roosting options to pigeons. And they ward off demons. Some smile, some grimace, they all compel a second look.
Atop the central public library building in downtown Chicago, more than ten stories above the street level, there perches a flock of gargoyles. Giants they are. From the ground they seem imposing enough. When one walks inside the rooftop atrium and inspects them, one begins to understand why the architects of gothic cathedrals so often employed them in their labors. Heaven is surely safe from all attack with such guardians hovering under the pearly gates in defiance of the denizens from the realm of perdition. Souls on earth conceive a strange comfort being watched over by grotesques whose like is most certainly not to be seen in Heaven, but whose visages somehow offer a welcome unwelcome to hell as well. Gargoyles are otherworldly, but not netherworldly.
There is something wrong with that building. It is new, having been built within the last twenty years, but it attempts to revive ancient architectural elements. The collection housed within has been built up over the course of the last century and more, but it is catalogued by computer, circulated by computer, and tracked by computer. Situated deep within the south Loop, it is an effort to anchor redevelopment, while at the same time none but the government and gargantuan corporations can afford the purchase of that real estate. Worst of all, it smells new.
Cars, even when purchased used, should smell new when one takes ownership of them. Clothes right off the rack smell new – and so do clothes from the tailor, if you can afford them. August at the beginning of the school year smells new inside the pencil box or book bag or sanitized hallways of the local indoctrination center posing as an institution of education. Babies smell new well past their first word and first step. And all of this is good and as it should be. Well, except for the indoctrination center part. And cars could vanish without anyone really being out of anything. And clothes would be better from Mom than from the rack or the tailor. But all the rest is good and as it should be.
Books, however, emphatically however, ought to smell old. Especially in libraries. And libraries should be womb-like refuges of the timeless, immemorial, and ageless. Nothing permanent should ever smell new. Or, better, it should not smell only new. The eternal is ever ancient and ever new, to borrow from St. Augustine. But in time it smells more old than new.
When I paid my first and only visit to Chicago’s downtown library, it was new, it looked new, and, worst of all, it smelled new. The greying man behind the counter answering my questions smiled new. It was all wrong. I don’t think the gargoyles had their hearts in it.
Perhaps my reaction was the same as that of the first patrons to visit the fabled collection housed in Alexandria in antiquity. I suppose in antiquity it was less ancient than we think it to be now. Maybe a haughty critic of the day said something to the effect of, “Well, it’s good as far as it goes, but the library at Ur, that was a library!”
Chicago’s central public library invites very well. The bright lights, both electric and natural are truly invigorating. Color is used to good effect, being eye-catching without being particularly distracting. One can walk the floor plan easily, moving with fluidity form stack to stack, floor to floor, inside to outside and back without difficulty. There is a proper hush throughout the building – and I visited all of the nine or so floors below the atrium to attest to this – said hush being broken only by a decorous hum in said atrium, over proper spots of tea and/or espresso or other civilized caffeine concoctions.
But, unfortunately, it is more like a bookstore than a library. Indeed, Barnes and Noble or Borders or any other chain would do well to imitate the CPL’s efforts in the south Loop. I am afraid, though, that the powers-that-be in the Public Library wish to imitate Barnes and Noble and Borders, rather than Alexandria or the Vatican or my old spiritual director Father Lemaster’s rectory. The modern library is a place to visit, not a place in which to remain, to study, to contemplate. Modern libraries are places where it is good to have spent time in the past; real libraries are places where one anticipates the next opportunity to spend time in the future.
So, get me not wrong. I liked my visit to the Chicago Public Library Central Branch. I have no regrets for having gone there. And I have no desire to return.
This seems to me to be the distinction between how libraries worked in the past and how they are used in the present. Today one goes to the library because one has something to do. Once upon a time, a library was a place to go to read, to research, to think. The library of modernity is marvelously utilitarian. One can get much done there. The library of antiquity, and of not so ancient days, was wonderfully contemplative. There was much to understand there, and one had much time to consider all there was to understand. Later on, one might take his understanding and put it to use elsewhere than the library.
It probably is not fair to criticize a new library for smelling new. My fear is that fifty years hence, the keepers of the Chicago Public Library will be endeavoring to come up with the latest version of new to keep up with modernity’s command, not that all things should be made new, but that all should be all new things. What I saw in my first and last visit to the CPL will not be there long enough – indeed might already be gone – to become old and in need of renewal. Instead, long before the old gets there, a new new will be thrust on the stage, living its short-lived life just long enough to set the stage for a yet newer new. All of you twenty-somethings out there, beware! You will not be young forever. The babes in the crib today, if you do not change how modernity operates, will be looking to mothball you by the time you turn forty.
Those who would make the argument that the old which is in constant use is not still enough to gather moss or collect mold spores or increase in musty pungence have a point. My point is that the new which gains experience sufficient only to be nothing but a beginner in some things, rather than connecting with the very beginning of everything, is barren, frigid, and, ultimately, dead. It takes adults to make children, and it takes young adults to make old adults, and it takes old adults to teach young adults about the best way to make children good adults. He who ever remains a child and never attains his manhood is less of a Peter Pan than a stillbirth. Worse than the might-have-beens of old age is the never-can-be of never aging. It takes very little time to dust off an old book and read it again as if it were the first time; it takes decades to cultivate the virtues, knowledge, and wisdom to write a book deserving of being around long enough to be acclaimed a classic. Such books should live in libraries where only the up-to-date goes out of date and the timeless is always present.
They Only Laugh When I Hurt
Lincoln Center in New York City has a dwarf younger brother in Davenport, Iowa. When the old Carnegie library on Third and Main Streets in Davenport needed replacing in the 1960’s, the architect engaged to design a new building put aside any pretence of preserving the memory of the former edifice. I do not recall if the architect was actually the same man who designed Lincoln Center or if he was merely a less imaginative plagiarist. It seems to me that as long as Davenport was going to mimic its betters in New York City, rather than removing the old Carnegie neo-gothic delight in favor of a modern glass and concrete monolith, they should have imitated Carnegie Hall. The effort to reproduce classic architecture, when executed successfully, bears an air of striving heavenward, rising from the bowels of modernity to mount the peaks scaled by the giants of old, and extending a profound patrimony toward a promising posterity. Something about practically everything introduced in architecture in the twentieth century makes any attempt to replicate its monumental metropolitan examples on a smaller provincial level smack of new money showing off or of ignorant snobs indulging their vanity or of simple folk suffering from the curse of not realizing how wonderful it is to be a true bumpkin and how wretched it is to be a phony sophisticate. Quaint gothic churches dot the countryside throughout America in quiet homage to Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris and Rheims. No one in his right mind would have built the Los Angeles Cathedral in the first place, but it would betray an insanity of epic proportions to seek to recreate the thing as a miniature in a rural setting amongst frame houses, fields of corn, and dusty two-lane roads.
Alas! I was born after the old library was demolished. By the time I was old enough to venture out of the house and into the downtown, the new library was in place, and I did not know until my late teens that there had been an “old” library, that it was funded by the Carnegie Foundation, and that it looked much more interesting than the new facility. This was a blissful ignorance. Because I did not know what I missed, I was able to savor the innards of the new building without bewailing the shortcomings of its outards. It never occurred to me in my early youth to take exception to sterility incarnated by means of masonry and metallurgy. I paid very little heed to the blighted urban landscape so highly favored by twentieth-century retail, industrial, and residential developers. Instead, I walked happily unaware of such profundities the fifteen or so blocks down the hills on Gaines or Ripley or Harrison or Main Streets from Eighth Street to delve into the magical worlds held within the covers of thousands of volumes free for the taking – and returning on pain of a five-cent-per-day overdue fine.
Summertime was the best time for these pedestrian excursions. Trips to the local library constituted just one aspect of the endless days’ activities for my best friend, his older sister, my older sister, and me during a three- or four-year period in the early seventies. It was often the case that all four of us would walk down to the library, spend a few hours there, check out our books, grab a cheap bite to eat on our nonexistent food budget at the nearby bakery thrift store, and then the boys and girls would part company – the boys to bike riding, basketball, chess, or whiffle ball; the girls to do the mysterious things of which only girls know and women never tell (or at least none has ever told me).
Summertime was a miserable time to endeavor such exertions. As a pre-teen, I suffered from horrible bouts of hay fever. From early May until late June, I was subject to wheezing, itching eyes, and, very frequently, swelling so severe that my eyes were reduced to agonizing, blind, blood-shot slits. These fits would come unannounced and at the most inopportune times. I might have spent an afternoon frolicking at Fejervary Park swimming pool, only to be stricken on the bike ride home. Or it might have been the case that the day ended before it began as an early morning attack felled me until dinnertime – not that I was really incapacitated that long, but that I was paranoid about chancing further torment by venturing forth from the relatively safe environment of the living room couch. Neither cold nor flu nor dark of night caused me distress from July through April, but the most sublimely beautiful summer weather might bring a bane to banish all memory of mirth from my mind and convince me that the Four Horsemen were on the way to bear me away to the place where neither cessation nor lessening of bodily infirmity could be hoped or conceived.
O.K., that is a bit melodramatic, I admit. But that is evidently the impression of my plight conveyed to my sister and our friends. Whenever my malady reared its ugly head en route to the library, I looked to my flesh and blood and our boon companions for sympathy, and I found none. They laughed. Each block closer to home that we were when I took ill was that many more blocks left until we reached the library for them to show utter disdain for my condition and contempt for my unmanly complaints as it raged. The two girls seemed to take especial pleasure in walking yet faster down the hills in a cruel blind-man’s bluff, as I staggered, struggling to see, keep my balance, and avoid contact with traffic at intersections. My best friend caused me joy in my enemies – my enemies disliked my company and so were never near enough for me to find out how awful they might have treated me had they been on hand to witness my best friend’s callousness directed to me in my hours of need. Sometimes our enemies’ absence is far more of a comfort than our friends’ proximity.
It is a testimony to what I read in those ancient days that I do not remember that period as an era of pain and betrayal and disappointment, but as the gateway to passion and nobility and heroism. Ugly buildings do not rule my life. Fear of treachery from those I love does not paralyze my heart. The frailty innate to this mortal coil can not darken my spirit. No, my hometown is the New Jerusalem and my family and friends are the saints and my weakness is my strength. All was always well then, and what wasn’t has been healed. God is in His Heaven and His grace is at work upon His earth.
A Brief Encounter with Beauty
There was an exterior flight of stairs outside of Holy Trinity Catholic School’s West Campus building leading from the playground to the basement lunchroom. When the stars aligned just so, and the temperature was just right, and the snow and rain had blended in perfect harmony, then those stairs were transformed from a never used path to and from nowhere into an enchanted slope down a mythical mountain. The staircase was enclosed by a wooden structure intended to keep the elements off. What the structure was incapable of doing was improving the laughably poor drainage alongside the building. So, whenever the aforementioned conditions occurred, the stairs first swam in water, then dripped for hours, and then became an ice-encrusted roller coaster waiting not for cars but for rear ends to descend during the lunch hour recess.
Most of the bottoms careening to the bottom belonged to the bodies of the fourth and fifth grade boys. Girls and the younger boys were intimidated by the length of the precipitous decline. And until one actually took the trip, it looked to promise more pain than pleasure. Somehow, however, the first trip down convinced one that the rush of flying earthward covered a multitude of bumps and bounces and bruises – and that if the first rush didn’t suffice, then the third, fourth, or tenth might. First graders spent their first year of school waiting for second grade so that they could at least go down once. Second and third graders spent those years pretending that they did not care that the older boys laughed at them for going down only once or twice each day.
And the fourth and fifth graders did not seem to mind at all when Sister Margaret Mary came ominously to the head of the stairs to bodily remove the recalcitrant reprobates whom she had told from her five-foot-next-to-nothing frame countless times not to dare the dangers of that descent. The steps were concrete. The surface was slippery. The flight of stairs ended in a cinder block wall. Someone was going to break a pelvis or a leg or get a concussion. Fathers by the dozen were going to get calls that evening. And an equal number of fathers’ sons would be staying after school, mopping floors, emptying trash, and performing whatever other unspeakable extremities of penal servitude can be conjured by the mind of a vowed religious of the Congregation of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I went down the wintry stair-slide twice or thrice in four or five years. It was fun. But I never have liked punishment, and I have never experienced a guilty pleasure worthy of the punishment it promised – and deserved. So instead of getting hauled off by Sister Margaret Mary to whatever torments await the justly condemned of elementary school, I sought out Sister Eileen. No punishment and great reward came from my efforts.
Sister Eileen was the thousand-year-old librarian for the Holy Trinity lower grades. She was nearly blind, taught no classes any more, and came into public view only when students left the school building and went to the school library housed in the convent. She also was the lovely sister who provided waifish children with lunch from the convent’s cupboard when they forgot or mother was unable to supply it from the home larder. Sister Eileen fed my body, mind, and soul many times. I ate brownies from the sisters’ bread basket. They prayed for us as we made our First Confessions and First Communions. And Sister Eileen led me to the first book I ever checked out from a library. She took the circulation card from me and stamped it with the due date. And when she received the book back from me a day before it was due, she smiled as only my mother has ever smiled at me before or since, and with a strong glimmer of the perfect humility of charity that I pray I will one day be graced to see given me – and you – by the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Author Notes: Only twenty-four hours are available each day to read excellent books, so let us not waste time reading good books.