Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #14:
Miss Houlihahn, Father Louis, and All the Ghosts
This is my life. After what happened to be a very busy Saturday in my superheroic life, after a very busy last week of classes, I sat down to an amazing annual feast and catching up time with two very good friends who happen to be married to each other and happen to be the parents of a beloved former student of mine, a young man who went by the name of Tripp or, sometimes Trippy. And he was. You can read all about him in my most popular (as measured by readers) meditation of all time: Trippy Advent.
We ate, we laughed, we told stories, Courtney told lies, I told the truth, Cindy told Courtney to stop lying, we may have had a beer or two, and we finally said goodbye. I wore my special and very fashionable black, blue, and and grey scarf that they gave me as a gift at our very first Advent time dinner, five years ago this week. Just a couple of weeks after Tripp had died. I told them how great Tripp would have been as an ironic advent guest writer. He might have written one in the style of his favorite writer, Hunter Thompson, probably featuring Tripp's famous motto: "I am not a Christian; I am a Christ follower."
So, this is my life. We hugged and said goodbye, and I remembered that I had not yet written a meditation for this the fourteenth night of Advent. Uh oh. Not to mention that I would have to write it at MacDonald's because they have wifi. It seems my roommate Ben Camino, in a fit of spleen (oh my, does he have spleen fits), decided a couple of years ago that he would never have wifi at home again. Something about the outrageous $9.99 fees. Those who know us know that crazy Ben has also put the ix-nay on the microwave, the television, the DVD. I'm thinking of changing his name to Wendell Camino.
Anyway, or anyways as my daughter Jennifer Lynne Ricke likes to say, it was snowing like crazy when we came out of the restaurant, and it's supposed to keep snowing all weekend. Then in a couple of days drop to some new record low temperatures which, ironically enough, suggest nothing about climate change. Just wanted to establish some atmosphere here before moving on with the single most important Ironic Advent Meditation ever. Today. December 10, 2016.
In terms of the date, there are a couple of really important things to keep in mind. First, tomorrow, just an hour away now, is the Third Sunday of Advent. I look forward to it with great expectation. I suppose I'm supposed to look forward to every Sunday, and in a way I do, but mostly just for communion. THIS Sunday, like last Sunday, I'm especially excited because I will once again hear about the words and deeds of one of my Advent heroes, John the Baptist. Tomorrow I hope to write about John and also post a song I wrote about him for this Sunday a couple of years back.
Another important thing about the calendar is that tomorrow is the eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The folks who really do the celebration of Nuestra Senora right do the big service on the eve of the day and sing and pray and eat and dance all the way through the midnight hour into the early morning of the 12th. I've written about this before, and, if the snow isn't too bad, I will make my yearly pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Warsaw, Indiana tomorrow night. I'm sure at some point I will post my earlier meditation/poem about that experience.
But today is special too. Special to me anyway, for it is the anniversary of the death of Father Louis Merton, usually known as Thomas Merton, who died on December 10, 1968. If you don't know much about Merton, I suggest you read something about him somewhere else. I'm not writing his biography. The piece I wrote a couple of years ago sort of in his honor gives you some details as well as some of my impressions. You can link to it here.
Today. Well tonight (almost tomorrow) really, I'm just going to say something about the way Thomas Merton came to be significant in my life. So much so, that twice I have made a New Year's Eve pilgrimage, driving from Texas to Kentucky, to be with Father Louis as the old year becomes the new, and pay tribute to the first great Christian writer I thought of as . . . a great Christian writer.
I mean I knew about the gospel writers and Saint Paul. I had read a few novels, I guess. I especially loved J. D. Salinger and Charles Dickens. But at age 14, I found a book in the library of Saint Anthony Catholic in San Antonio, Texas, called The Seven-Storey Mountain. I didn't know what I was getting into. I just knew that it was a special retreat day, the kind we had at least once a semester at St. Anthony, and we were required to do some "spiritual reading." Now I don't believe in spiritual reading; the idea sounds sort of ghostly and, frankly, impossible.
But one good thing about being required to do "spiritual reading" was that it led to my discovery of Thomas Merton (who also sometimes got his ghost confused with his soul--by which I mean his whole being including his body--but I forgive him).
For those who don't know, The Seven-Storey Mountain is Merton's so-called "spiritual" autobiography, although much of it actually concerns his body. He wrote it not too terribly long after his conversion and, ultimately, his entrance into the Trappist Monastic community in Gethsemani, Kentucky. It's the story of a person with an artistic temperament, born to brood on philosophical topics and sick with metaphysics. More than that, for me, it was the story of someone who found the passions and desires of his heart and mind satisfied (I don't think that's the right word but can't think of a better) by the rich, historic resources (roots) of the Catholic faith.
What Merton thought later is another question. His entire career and the movement of his thought and writing is worth the many scholarly studies devoted to it. The thing that really got me, though, was how GOOD the writing was. Now, I was fourteen, so I wasn't the best judge of such things, I suppose. I only know that, for the first time in non-fiction, I was absolutely wowed by the writing. By the movement of ideas and words and sounds and the wit and paradoxes and rhetoric.
I've written elsewhere about the dangers of Merton's rhetoric. Like Augustine and C. S. Lewis, Merton sometimes convinces by the sheer beauty of the style. I try, always, to be on my guard when reading such authors so that I can hold fast to that which is true but hold lovingly but loosely to that which is merely well-said.
Enough of that. I don't need to apologize for my ironic attitudes towards Merton. He knows I love him more than those who quote his aphorisms without driving across the country to share a beer with him in the cemetery of Gethsemani in the cold darkness of latest December.
Before I sign off, I must mention someone almost as important to my life and development as Thomas Merton. That would be Miss Houlihahn. In truth, I can't remember the exact number of "h's" in her name, but I'll bet a few of my classmates at Saint Anthony probably had it memorized from writing it out over and over again in their Latin notebooks. Something like "Marty + Miss Houlihahn" or "Henry hearts Miss Houlihan."
Miss H was our librarian, and the only female employee on the Saint Anthony campus in those days, except the small convents of nuns who cooked, prayed, and mostly kept to themselves. She was like . . . a normal woman. So, the boys of Saint Anthony, who all wanted to believe that, at least in this they were normal, thought about her a lot. And spoke about her a lot. And probably dreamed. I mean, Marty and Henry probably did.
I'm not sure if I knew what a beautiful woman was in those days. Now I am sure, but then, as I said, I was not so sure. I guess our conditions predetermined, to some degree, our response to her. Other than thinking about ourselves with Miss H, we liked to concoct stories of her secret relationships with some of the priests, our teachers, and especially Mr. Egan (he taught P. E., so we called him Mr. Peegan), the only other lay-person on campus not under the age of 17. Jerry Egan was the J. V. football coach, and taught Freshman English in which he especially liked to read aloud to us stories of communists and Nazi torturing innocent freedom-loving people. The idea of Miss Houlihahn with this brute, this sadistic roly-poly man, was revolting. We were all happy to discover at one of our reunions a couple of years ago, that she was still alive and well, looking pretty dang good, and happily married to a non-brute.
But in my mind, I will always think of Miss Houlihahn when I think of Thomas Merton. As the custodian, the guardian, the keeper of the books, she played an enormous, though never-before stated part in the development of at least one very bookish ironic advent meditator. The priests told us to read books, but I don't remember their hunger for reading, except perhaps for Father Weuste, who taught senior English. I still have my Graham Greene paper on the The End of the Affair in a notebook somewhere.
Miss Houlihahn was always there when I was looking for a book, even when I wasn't really looking, to suggest, to help find, and, most important, to take care of. The library. The book place. The place where I now spent almost half my working days, buried to my nose in books, many of which it is my duty to keep, to guard, to protect, to steward for future discoverers.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that our little class at St. Anthony was pretty dang brainy. And surprisingly bookish. We would argue about Edward Albee outside of class. We would yell quotations from Joseph Heller across campus. And, even though we were good Catholics (as far as our parents knew anyway), we did not burn books. We loved them.
My first loves. My roots as a bookish soul (by which I mean my whole being including my eyes and guts of which I'm rather fond). Those who awoke me from my animal childhood and shocked me with ideas and stories and song and sound and wit. And those who guard and protect and find and archive and file and fetch and suggest. Thomas Merton, thank you for your proud, sometimes arrogant, "spirituality," wrought in striking, sometimes wild, prose. Miss Houlihahn. Thank you, first of all, for just being on campus. We were so stunted. But you helped. And thanks especially for being THE LIBRARIAN, a hero, a saint of sorts, a friend of ghosts and myths and fourteen year-old explorers. And to all my many friends, mostly named Jennifer, who are librarians or archivists or kindergarten teachers or keepers of collections, thank you for storing our roots in the dry cellars of your hearts.