‘What Shall I Say to You?’

Confessions of a Five-minute Atheist

Although I hate to admit that I was ever unhappy in Africa, where I lived for twenty-six years, I have to confess that my first year as a Jesuit scholastic in Nigeria, over forty years ago, was not the easiest, either for me or for the fellow Jesuits with whom I lived, or (to put it more honestly) who had to live with me.

In the first few months of that academic year, I was carted off three times from the high school where I was teaching to the hospital, suffering from bacillary dysentery; the fourth time, dysentery was complicated by bronchitis and malaria. The doctor dosed me heavily with chloroquine phosphate, and I recovered after a few days in the hospital. What he neglected to mention about chloroquine phosphate was that big doses of it cause dizziness, especially when one stands up quickly. It also increases ocular sensitivity to bright light and difficulty in reading. And, yes—he remembered to tell me a month later—“Sometimes it causes depression.”

“Thanks a lot,” I replied. “I had a wonderful Christmas.”

The rest of the school year progressed fairly normally, once I got used to the challenges of living in Africa. I stopped drinking water unless it had been boiled; I had more soft drinks than I ever want to taste again. At any rate, toward the end of that first academic year, I found myself one hot sunny afternoon using my siesta period to read a memoir by the Irish writer Honor Tracy. In fact, Honor Tracy, as I have since discovered, was not Irish at all. She was English, and her real name was Lilbush Wingfield, but she wrote a great deal about Ireland, where she lived for many years. Most of what she wrote was either fiction or gossip, some of it quite amusing.

That particular sunny afternoon in May 1965, I had just closed a book of Tracy’s when I realized, on reflection, that I really didn’t want to be a Jesuit anymore. What I wanted was to move to Ireland and write. I was twenty-five and had both a BA and MA in English, plus something called a licentiate in philosophy. What was all that literary training for? Why not call the Jesuits quits right now and launch into a writing career? Why not call the church and God quits as well?

What do you do when the past eight years of your life as a Jesuit, the past twenty-five years of your life as a Catholic, suddenly lie in shards around your feet on a sunny afternoon? I stood up and walked into the next room, which was, in fact, my bedroom. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared out the window at an open playing field on the school grounds. I felt empty of faith and hope and love, all at once. A fly buzzed around my head.

In that arid moment, something odd happened. For some reason, words that I’d once had to sing in Latin, at a funeral a few years earlier, came back to me, and hit me profoundly, with a mysterious impact. I’ve thought many times about the words and their effect on me. But first let me describe the circumstances in which I had happened to find myself singing those words in the first place.

I don’t like to sing solo. I have a fair enough voice, if you go for a basso that is not particularly profundo. I had sung in my high-school glee club, and as a Jesuit in formation I sang in choirs. In my second year of philosophical studies I stopped; but soon afterward, a Jesuit who taught us history of philosophy died suddenly. Jesuits are not used to singing the Divine Office in common, but it was our tradition at that time to precede the funeral Mass with the singing in Latin of the Office of the Dead. The choir director approached me a day before the funeral and asked if I would be willing to sing one of the Latin lessons at matins, since he wanted the lessons sung from within the congregation rather than from the choir loft. Because of my diffidence about singing solo in public (I was OK in the shower), I was reluctant, but finally I agreed.

On the morning of the service, the day of a tremendous ice storm, the community had the eerie experience of welcoming the deceased man’s identical twin to the funeral. It was as if the Jesuit had come back from the dead as a layman. The Office of the Dead began in mid-morning, and I waited with some trepidation. When at last I stood to sing, nervousness and a huge surge of adrenaline made me start out too high for my vocal range. I wondered immediately if I would be able to finish from where I had started, but somehow I did, to my own surprise and that of my fellow Jesuits.

And now one question from that reading, sung in Latin on a cold morning in the first days of January 1963, came back to me nearly two and half years later, as I sweltered in the heat and sudden existential anxiety of that May afternoon in Nigeria in 1965. Here is what I remembered, seemingly out of nowhere: Quid tibi dicam, o custos hominum? (“What shall I say to you, O Guardian of Humanity?”) As I was to discover many decades later, the quotation was slightly inaccurate—but accurate or otherwise, it was enough to end my five minutes of atheism, my desire to throw the whole damned thing over and launch out on a career as a man of letters.

What did that Latin quotation say to me that afternoon nearly half a century ago? It began, surely, in the notion that God was no mere Big Someone or Something outside of me, the anonymous Ground of Being. Rather, in the words of the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, God was a fathomless, transcendent “Thou” with whom, even in my moment of wavering, I was still wrestling. But what of it? What, really, did I hear, in the chanted Latin running through my mind that afternoon, to reverse the bleak intuition of the utter emptiness of myself and the mysterious absence of God?

I was not sure; and it would take me a long time, and a long way round, to find out. One piece of an answer came three and half years later, when I read—in the New Yorker—a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, “A Friend of Kafka.” The story’s main character, Jacques Kohn, is a somewhat shiftless writer and former actor in the Yiddish theater of Warsaw. In exchange for a “loan” of a zloty, Kohn beguiles the narrator with tales of his somewhat racy life. In the process, he compares his experiences both to the travails of Job and to a very competitive game of chess with an incomparable Master:

Why did Job continue to live and suffer? So that in the end he would have more daughters, more donkeys, more camels? No. The answer is that it was for the game itself. We all play chess with Fate a partner. He makes a move; we make a move. He tries to checkmate us in three moves; we try to prevent it. We know we can’t win, but we’re driven to give him a good fight. My opponent is a tough angel. He fights Jacques Kohn with every trick in his bag.

At the conclusion of the story Jacques Kohn sums up what may be called his personal theology, as he thanks the narrator for more zlotys: “Well, if there is a God, he will reward you. And if there isn’t, who is playing all these games with Jacques Kohn?”

I liked Jacques Kohn immediately. Here was a man who understood that God sits across the table from you, engaging you in the game of life. A life of faith is no easy going, no comfy nap on the lap of a kindly celestial Grandma. No, faith in God is a struggle in the night like Jacob’s; it is a chess game with a master who has many tricks up his supernal sleeve.

That story and its attractively roguish protagonist stayed with me over the years. Meanwhile, as a priest reading the breviary in English, I searched in vain in the Office of the Dead for those words of Scripture I had once sung in Latin on that cold morning in January 1963, the words that had come back so suddenly and sharply to me in May 1965. I found nothing. Had I imagined those words? I wondered about it often.

Then, during Lent 2008, I read a delightful book of essays, Faith of Our Fathers, by the Irish historian of Christianity at Cambridge University, Eamon Duffy. Duffy, who has often written for Commonweal, shares some of his perspectives on his own faith, and also on the challenge to that faith he experienced decades ago when a good friend, an Anglican priest, died unexpectedly. Despite feeling faithless in confrontation with that death, Duffy continued to go to Mass—and only then, he writes, did he come to realize that “in the face of the Cross, the Mass proclaimed a celebration, an affirmation of the unquenchable life of love.”

Duffy expresses regret over the transformation of the Latin Catholic funeral liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, when the once mournful liturgy became a more upbeat Mass of the Resurrection, with the famous dirge Dies Irae usually omitted. Not only does Duffy rue this transformation, but he also voices a more recondite nostalgia for the loss of the pre–Vatican II version of the Office of the Dead, famous for its nocturns featuring readings from the Book of Job. The nine readings from Job in the old Office of the Dead, Duffy writes, “explored the whole gamut of human feeling in the face of suffering and death: fear, anger, self-justification, reproach, longing for relief, trust, affirmation.”

Shortly before reading that passage in Duffy’s book, I had come into possession of a single volume of the Latin breviary of a cousin, a priest, who had died at the age of ninety-nine. Fresh from encountering Duffy’s hankering for the pre–Vatican II Office of the Dead, I flipped through my late cousin’s breviary. It didn’t take long to find the correct version of the Latin words that had come to me forty-three years earlier on that May afternoon in Nigeria. What I had only partially remembered, it turned out, was the Latin Vulgate translation of Job 7:20. The original was Peccavi, quid faciam tibi o custos hominum? (“I have sinned; what shall I do for you, O Guardian of Humanity?”) The Hebrew original of that verse is better translated in its context:

If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be (Job 7: 20–21).

And so the gift of my late cousin’s breviary, combined with Eamon Duffy’s lament for the old Office of the Dead, helped me discover the connection I had not quite made these past four decades. Job, Jacques Kohn, and I turn out to have much in common: we live with a God who is a questioner, a contentious fellow player in the game of life; and God likewise lives with us as questioners and contentious fellow players, if on a more modest scale. Those last words of Jacques Kohn from Singer’s story, about the chess game of life, have remained with me for forty years, as have the partly remembered words of Job in the Office of Dead. Taken together, both remind me that our God is not a mere metaphysical support system. In the game of life, of my life, he sits hunched over across the chessboard from me, figuring out his next move. And I am mulling mine as well.

God, of course, is a Grand Master, and ours is hardly a contest of equals. Yet—and this is the important thing—we both keep playing. Sometimes I complain about his moves; sometimes he complains about mine; and the game goes on. What shall I say to you, O Guardian of Humanity?

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

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