Memoirs of a shattered hope.
(Page 8 of 10)
The revolution in Algeria in the winter of 1959-60 brought excitement even into the seminary:
De Gaulle’s Fireside Chat on radio sure was a beauty. All our French seminarians were worried about being drafted, had the revolution continued. It’s a pity the thing calmed down, you know. Had things gotten worse, some one may have accidentally dropped a bomb on the grand sem. But that could only be a dream.
Dick was extremely ill for several weeks in 1959. He couldn’t hold food in his stomach; but he was so weak he very much needed food. At the hospital, the sisters babied him back to health, teasing out his appetite with special dishes. I felt miserable hearing of his troubles, for my own difficulties were still unresolved. I had been gaining peace, only to begin getting tense again.
What was wrong with me? There was pitifully little solace I could give him at so great a distance. I imagined that he had gotten into a situation of almost total spiritual loneliness. However kind his friends were, his ideas and desires were different and now no one was around to reinforce them. I knew he had to learn to stand alone (as I was trying to do). But at our distance I could never be sure what to say and what not to say, to be of the most help and least interference.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1959, I found a happiness deeper than I had experienced for many years. At summer camp at Lake Sebago in Maine with Joe Skaff and a few others, I found the affectionate companionship, the beauties of lake and wood, and the daily work periods out-of-doors a needed tonic. Besides, there was time to write: time to work on a novel, as well as on a short musical comedy which, in our small circle, and for our benefactors, was a happy success. But once classes began, and the actual decision to go on to the priesthood pressed on me again, it became apparent that I could not keep my peace. Just after choosing a chalice and holy cards, and giving my parents the idea that they could begin preparing for ordination in June, I realized that I couldn’t go through with it. On December 8, I told my superior.
At the end of the first semester, in late January of 1960, I left for home. After almost 13 years in the seminary, I was the only departing seminarian for whom Father Superior allowed a going-away party, to spare my friends any surprises. I was the last guy to leave, among the group of 30 that started little seminary with me in 1947.
I had bought brown trousers, a tie, and a light topcoat; on the train I felt a joy such as I had in Italy eighteen months before: “The world is mine again!”
I had always loved the world and kept that love alive in my heart; so long as my vocation seemed to be the priesthood, I was ready to relinquish what I loved, but never to despise it. Now I returned to it with peace and exhilaration.
Dick understood my reaction and was reassured as soon as he heard of it.
That Easter, he and Bill Persia and Fred Floyd and his other companions broke from the regular routine as much as they could.
“Lent didn’t end too soon for our mental health,” he wrote,
and now we’re getting ourselves back to normal with as many trips and as far from Le Mans as we can manage. Yesterday’s long voyage on bicycles was a little difficult on my miniscule muscles, but it was a happy time, free and easy, with the ten of us on the bikes slowing each other down to a reasonable pace. We bought some Gaulois, drank beer (it’s safer than water, and the milk is tubercular), saw the country, talked to the people, made noise and all in all had a relaxing time. Bill Persia was in charge, and we gave him a hard enough time to make it enjoyable for him. He needed the change, too. The ceremonies here at the parish weren’t the greatest I’m told, and poor Bill had the task of getting the choir in shape and keeping the mad-man who was playing the organ from ruining everything. When he played it sounded like he was walking on the keys with hob-nails, and that didn’t help Bill’s frayed nerves any. Fred grayed his hairs watching the fiasco on the altar, with twenty-five-odd enfants de choeur running all over not knowing what to do, to speak nothing of the ministers. I was lucky enough (because I’m by no means indispensable to the choir) to be MC up at the Solitude Friday [a large convent], and Sub-Deacon Saturday. Aside from a new fire that resembled the burning of Rome and the MC (me) getting stuck on a door handle and having to be unhooked by a nearby nun, things went fine Saturday. It was my first time in an Alb, and I darn near fell on my face ascending the altar the first time, but with 25 nuns in black and a dozen novices in the most unbelievably white veils watching you all the time, things are pretty subdued, and there is occasion for entering into the spirit of the Liturgy. Also everything at the Solitude is clean and polished and gleaming under the bright lights, and that is a pleasure for the spirit and the body; especially because at the sem we have neither cleanliness nor bright lights. As for Friday, n’en parlons pas. I was too intent on making sure every man was where he should be that the Liturgy passed me by, I fear. But I didn’t get stuck on any door handles….
That summer, the boys took part in the Mission de France. Together with young men and women from all over France, they descended on a small area to “preach the gospel to every creature.” They lived in a camp. They visited door-to-door, planned skits, held discussions, listened, inquired, talked. It was an exhilarating time. Dick loved to be with ardent people. He was happy on the Mission.
“Your last letter,” he wrote to Father DePrizio,
came to me while I was on the Mission on the coast of the English Channel—the little vacation town of Mer-les-Bains. There were 2 other csc’s with the Mission up the coast at Cayeux, and again 2 further north at Fort Mahon. I hope you’ll excuse me if I speak but partially of the camp: there were the almost constant late hours and lack of sleep; most of all there was the personal awareness of each one of his ineptitude at conveying the Gospel message; and finally of course the disappointment that the results of our efforts are never visible. But to make up for all of this, there was the ‘surabondance’ of joy in the camp, and the community of effort, and the fact that through all of our mistakes we were learning more deeply what it was to be a Christian—and for myself, a greater appreciation of what it will be to be a Priest. It was a good and deep experience, Father, and thus extremely hard to describe. But it sure was delicious to live among the Frenchmen, and to have the occasion to see their manner of living and thinking.
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