So after I finished my Merton research at Saint Bonaventure, I went over to the cemetery across the street, to search for the grave of the poet Robert Lax. Dr. Spaeth of the Merton Archives told me where to look, but I never got to it, because I was blindsided by the Franciscan friars’ graveyard at the top of the hill, and so many familiar names carved on the stones there.
If you attend a secular, urban university, likely you don’t think much about the fate of your professors and instructors beyond graduation. But because many of my professors were priests and Franciscans who never left the little college in Allegany, NY, here they all were, under neatly arranged gravestones, not necessarily in order of their deaths. I moved up and down the rows in a kind of emotional shock, remembering the good, wise, cranky, funny, quirky, generous men they were, in their brown robes and sandals. If being at Merton’s grave was a moving experience, this was a tsunami for me: I had known these guys in the flesh, I’d learned from them, and they are still, in my mind’s eye, human and real and alive.
I swear I could I actually see Father Irenaeus, my old boss from the library, sitting atop his stone, bobbing a little bit with all the pent-up energy he kept inside, his eyes bright and eager behind the wireless spectacles. He is, of course, very approving, of my work on his friend, ‘Tom:’ Yes, yes, good work, Kathleen, good, good work, in his scratchy high-pitched voice, laced with the inflections of his native Alsace, as he nods vigorously in approval and support.
And over there… Father Francis, my sophomore philosophy professor. And this gravestone hits me harder than the rest, because when I look at the date, I remember: I was there, with him, only a few feet away, when he died. Me, and the rest of his Critical Thinking class: Who knew that day would end up carved in granite? He never quite made it to the teaching podium that freezing January morning, and fell just outside the door to the classroom, at about the time class would have begun. I remember looking out the door cautiously, and hearing urgent, distressed whispers, only the hem of his brown robe and his shoes visible as he lay on the floor of the hallway of Plassmann Hall. Even weirder is that I had a student-teacher conference scheduled for that very evening with him, to discuss my work in class.
But there he stands now, resurrected beside his stone, arms crossed over his chest, looking both leonine and faintly disdainful. He was a handsome man, slender in his robes, a full head of pure white hair, and those laser-blue eyes that would bore into you when he called on you in class. Now he regards me with a cold sort of amusement, as he always did: I was the only female student in his class, amid a sea of bored male sophomores. It was hard to get him to smile, but easy to make him mad.
Well, I say now—no longer terrified of him–You certainly went to extremes to get out of our little date.
There is only a slight lift of his eyebrow, his mouth a thin, taut line of disapproval.
Don’t you remember? I had an appointment with you at the Friary, that very evening, supposedly to discuss my progress in class. One on one. I had been dreading it all weekend. But mercifully, you let me off the hook, by conveniently dying. Never really thanked you, for that.
He: You had the most disconcerting habit, Miss Petersen, of freezing up in class and refusing to speak. And you had a way of writing far too much in your essays, without really saying anything at all.
Me: So is that what we were going to talk about, my lack of performance in class? I was scared shitless of you, that’s all there was to it. Don’t you remember what you said to me, when I registered for your class: “I hope you’re intelligent, young lady.”
He: Did I actually say that? That was boorish of me, but I was a man of my time. I still was not used to female students at our college. I suppose I had a problem relating to them, as intelligent beings
Me: I’ll say. But you were not the only misogynistic professor I had. It’s tough to be a trailblazer, though.
He: It wasn’t so easy for me, either, my girl. That old registration process was a humiliating ordeal—not just for you students, but for the professors as well. How do you think it felt to sit there in the middle of the gymnasium, and watch you all flock to the more popular philosophy professors, clamoring to get in. And there I sat, waiting for the crumbs, the desperate students to saunter over to my table. I suppose I thought you pitied me.
Me: I didn’t. Your morning class was the only one that fit into my schedule. But I came to regret it: I was terrified of you from the start, yet desperate to do well; I felt I had to, to vindicate my sex. And I wanted to show up all those idiot boys in class. And about that…Did you ever invite any of them to the Friary, to discuss their performances? What was up with that?
He: I’m going to ignore the presumptuous and facetious quality of that question. But here’s one for you: Were you so scarred by your classroom experience with me that you felt the need to make me the template for your fictional character, Ellis Barlowe? I didn’t find that amusing, my dear girl, not one bit.
Me: Oh, get over yourself. I only used your face, your iceberg eyes and that theatrical cold intellectual disdain of yours. If you follow my writing at all, you know I never use pure characters straight from life. They’re always complex amalgams of various people I’ve known. Besides, Ellis Barlowe wasn’t Irish. And he would never have become a Franciscan!
He: Yet he became a Trappist-like monk. It seems to me…There is a lot of Father Merton in your character. In the whole of your fictional work.
(Now Father Irenaeus jolts to attention. Now, now, wait a minute… he says, cautiously, holding up one finger.)
He: I might think…your own husband was right, when he said you were obsessed with this Merton fellow. You know he really wasn’t such a big deal, when he taught here. (and Father Ireneaeus looks pained)
Me: I am not obsessed. I…I’m just very interested in him. He’s very…interesting. But he’s not the only thing I write about…And he does not appear in any shape or form in the new novel.
He: But there is a character who’s a monk.
Me: Oh, yes, but he’s only a minor character, and he serves a comedic purpose, he’s a real buffoon. Not at all my take on Thomas Merton.
He: And your curious obsession with the erotic…It’s unseemly in a writer with a classic Franciscan education. Don’t you think it cheapens your work, reducing it to the level of a pornographic broadside, or a….a…Well, I can’t think of a 21st century equivalent because I’m not much interested in this century, to be honest, having died in the last.
Me: OK, were you the Amazon male reviewer who called the sex in my book ‘gratuitous’? Though I don’t think Amazon allows heavenly accounts…
He: And who says I went to Heaven?
Me: Oh, well, I just assumed…But you were sort of missing my point, which was to equate the utter joy of sexual union with the ecstasy of coming to God. And prudishness has no place in a modern novel, in which the truth about life should prevail. But how could I expect you to understand, being a celibate? And being a dead celibate, which is perhaps the worst kind of celibate to be. Probably like being Peter Abelard, because then there’s absolutely no hope…
He: Now you’re just being disrespectful. And not as clever as you think, young lady.
Me: Well, thank you for calling me young. It means a lot to me, now that I’m just a few years younger than you were when you expired …. (Father Irenaeus laughs silently, and slaps his knee)
He: But you did come to respect me as a teacher.
Me: I did. You were a little cold and stiff, but you knew your stuff. And there were those flashes of sly wit, that dry, deadpan humor—yes, I suppose I endowed Barlowe with all that, too. As you see, you made quite the impression on me, in the brief time our paths crossed on this earth. And it helps me to understand now, how I form my characters; and they in turn, form the stories of my books.
He: Well—the smutty writing and obsession with Father Merton notwithstanding…you have managed to make something out of yourself, from the mute cipher you were, in the back row of my class…You think of your life as a string of missed opportunities and literary missteps, yet you’ve done well enough. The fact that you can teach English confidently to foreigners should be enough for you. But more importantly, your life as wife and caretaker and mother… that is probably your true legacy, from your Franciscan education, of a life of service and charity to others. And your vocation as writer can certainly fit in those concepts, that philosophy, as well. If you choose to be more dignified with it, and get your characters out of the bedroom, for heaven’s sake.
Me: Oh, Father. That is so twentieth-century. So over. No serious writer writes with a religious or philosophical agenda anymore. But I admit, it does manage to seep into mine at times, despite my efforts to quash it…
He: That’s why you’re not a bestseller.
Me: Go ahead, rub it in.
He: That’s not what you should want, my girl. At your age, you should not still be craving approval, the prizes, the attention. Your writing is simply a humble gift to others, to be shared freely, whether the world wants it or not. Your novels are wild birds, released into the air. Who knows? The world may come around to wanting them someday.
Me: When I’m as dead as you, no doubt!
He: So finally, we have our postponed talk, though not at the exact time or place we had decided on.
Me: Yes, instead of 7:00 pm at the Friary on a night in late January, 4:30 in the afternoon in a cemetery on the hottest day of July, forty years later. But still good. (I turn to Father Irenaeus.) I didn’t mean to neglect you, my dear. I’ll be writing all kinds of good things about for you for the Merton Seasonal, so perhaps we’ll talk then. And he smiles, looking a little embarrassed—Ah, ah…That’s good. So it will be… He claps his hands, and suddenly they are both gone, faded into the extreme heat and humidity of the day. I walk back to my car, parked atilt on the grassy hillside gravel path, to return to my life down the hill and so many miles to the east, but still carrying the memories, and wisdom, of those wonderful old friar-professors with me.
Now I do confess, this self-interview technique seemed to be a favorite with young Thomas Merton, based on my research of his journals and early writings—he is quickly turning into one of my favorite narcissists, but we won’t judge him harshly on that. After all, all writers are narcissists in some way, aren’t they? Even yours truly.