Observing the Fourth Commandment is a real challenge for someone born, as I was, to a verbally abusive alcoholic and a femme fatale whose chronic identity crisis rendered her incapable of distinguishing herself from, among others, Eva Peron. The setting of rural poverty in which we lived did little to improve our family’s situation. In fact, both the setting and the situation were depressing.
Recognizing what he called my “giftedness,” our elderly pastor announced that he had arranged a full scholarship for me with the sisters who ran the best high school in a large New England industrial town thirty miles away. This meant that from the age of thirteen I would get to live with Grandma “in town,” a blessed arrangement that ended only when that dear lady passed on nearly twenty years later.
Friendships with priests were among the more significant and memorable experiences of my high-school years. Fr. Roger and I drove into New York every few weeks for an evening of opera or ballet, and on the drive back he tried to get me to make intelligent observations on what we had seen and heard. At first I failed abjectly in this, but later Fr. Roger often expressed pleasure at my inchoate sense of aesthetic appreciation. Apart from his enjoyment of classy entertainment, Fr. Roger had a talent for boxing and spent several afternoons a week at an athletic club training and sparring with assorted wannabes, wonders, and has-beens.
Another priest friend, Fr. Paul, had no time for what he regarded as “American Catholic mediocrity” in literature and the arts, and he urged me to read such writers as Proust and D.H. Lawrence, Freud and Jung. Because I paid scant attention to his gentle urging, he soon switched to aggressive insistence, interrogating me mercilessly about what I had read. And did I read! He kept telling me I must read nothing less than everything-and that I must read critically. Of all the priests I have known, he had the sharpest sense of humor. He delighted in telling my grandmother and her sisters of his intention to give “priesting” one more year. If things didn’t improve, he would go into peddling drugs.
Fr. Edward, a graduate student in linguistics at the time, stressed the importance of learning modern languages. He contacted the sisters so I could enroll in both French and Spanish. We spent two summers together in Quebec while he gathered phonological data for his dissertation and I wandered the streets minding other people’s business and acquiring a decent command of conversational French. If I had to make a judgment (and I’m glad I don’t) I would probably guess that the spiritual dimension of my relationship with Fr. Edward was deeper and stronger than with Frs. Roger and Paul. It was at his suggestion that I first read Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. I have been reading it intermittently ever since.
So, as an adolescent I had three very enriching friendships with priests who took the kind of interest in my development that my parents, owing to preoccupation with their own problems, could not take. Back then it was assumed by everyone but me that I would eventually become a priest, and I turned out to be right. Even though I have always been unremittingly nonclerical, at some level of my understanding I still associate education and learnedness with priesthood.
“Inquiring minds” will want to know if my early friendships with priests had anything like a sexual dimension, and that kind of curiosity is understandable and not entirely unwarranted in view of recent developments among some clerics. Unwilling as I am to disappoint anyone, I have to say that apart from learning attitudes of decency and justice and charity, all I got from these priests was the kind of tenderness and caring I never got but certainly would have wanted from my own father. Sorry, no physical stuff, apart from an occasional hug. Maybe I should mention the time, just after Fr. Roger finished a session of sparring in the ring with a supermacho partner, when he patted my butt in full view of all his roughneck buddies. Leaning closer to me and responding to what I suppose was my look of shocked surprise, an older but very fit boxer growled, “Aw, get over it.” Uproarious laughter at the gym.
About a year before she died Grandma told me that when our old pastor got me the scholarship with the sisters, he wasn’t thinking about my giftedness at all. He just wanted to save me from my parents. Thank heaven for old priests. And for young ones.