In his posthumous novel, You Can’t Going Home Again author Thomas Wolfe tells the story of George Webber, a fledgling author, who writes a book about his hometown of Libya Hill. The book is a best seller but the town is unhappy with Webber’s critical depiction of them. He receives many menacing letters and death threats.
Wolfe took the title from a conversation with writer Ella Winter, who remarked to Wolfe: Don’t you know you can’t go home again! Wolfe had already addressed a similar theme in his autobiographical first novel Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life in 1929. It was Wolfe’s first novel, and is considered an autobiographical American Bildungsroman.
You Can’t’s title is reinforced in the denouement of the novel in which Webber realizes You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…
Similarly the phrase you can’t go home again has entered American lexicon to mean that once you have left your country town or provincial backwater city for a sophisticated metropolis you cannot return to the narrow confines of your previous way of life. More generally any attempt to relive youthful memories will always fail.
For the last number of years I have tried to give lie to Wolfe’s theme by exploring the memories of my past life with the renewal of some old acquaintances, who have been most influential in my life. In throwing caution to wind, I was aware that I could suffer emotional rejection, withdrawal and the knowledge of some painful truths.
But as Socrates warned, the unexplored life is not worth living and at my age I needed to bathe in the sweetened waters of my memories in order to energize my present before cognizance fades from my mind. I am running, not from my life but for it.
Reunions are like microscopic homecomings. In the month of June my wife and I attended, not one but two of my 50-year reunions. The first one was more familiar to us since it was at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where we have attended all their five-year reunions since the 25th in 1990.
Consequently it was simple to trace the subtle changes of each half-decade so that seeing many of my friends from those years was no great shock to me. The big disappointment was the fact that many could not or did not attend. This was a lost opportunity that I regret a great deal. Sixty-eight had perished over the years, including my dear roommate, Peter L. Lawrence who has been gone for nine years now. I still grieve over his loss
The Class published its 50th Anniversary yearbook that had a special section eulogizing the deceased in truth and dignity. It was a fine addition to one’s memory bank. The biggest disappointment was many of the living had not submitted any record of their lives this past half century, cheating us of contexting their memories with theirs.
On the other side of the equation, at least half-dozen friends came back whom I had not seen since graduation. There were only four other members of my high school class there. Sixteen of us had motored up from New York’s Xavier High School.
One of them brought has wife whom I had known at a Summer Sodality that we had both joined at Chaminade high school on Long Island during our college years. There was one high school friend whom I did not remember seeing since Xavier. His wife laughed at that thought. But I countered if she had any proof that he actually attended. Perhaps Jesuits had sequestered him for those four years.
Like most reunions the pace was frenetic but well oiled and things moved very smoothly. I especially enjoyed the class Mass on Saturday, officiated by our Father Paul Sughrue. His acolyte was his twin brother, Peter. Seeing them on the same altar gave me a warm glow that I will always treasure.
The refrain from one of the hymns provided me with a new prayer: Day by Day: Lord let me know you more clearly…love you more dearly…and follow you more nearly…
I did not miss the last statement’s Jesuitical nuance. It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s prayer: Lord make me chaste…just not now!
It was my membership in the Holy Cross Sodality that caused the second reunion. While at Holy Cross, an energetic priest from Chicago, Father John Sullivan, who later became the Archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, spoke each and every year I was there. He was a representative of the Catholic Lay Extension over the years sent over 2000 laymen and women, mostly women to the mission dioceses in the country. I had been so impressed by Father Sullivan that I joined my senior year. It was arguably the most important decision in my life because as an ELV I was sent to Charleston, Missouri to teach at St. Henry’s High School and coach the basketball team. It was there I met my future wife.
I have been trying to let that reunion weekend in Deerfield, IL. sink in. Unlike Holy Cross it was a quick trip in and out. They had it so well-organized that we did not wear down. I was surprised that I did not know anyone there at all, save the women I had talked with over the phone. My wife knew more people than I did–one woman who had preceded me to Charleston. The two of them really hit it off so my shy little wife was fully occupied. I have no trouble meeting new people.
I was hoping to see the people from Missouri from our year—all women except for my roommate, Father Ernie Marquart, who has suffered from Rocky Mt. fever I believe. It totally wiped out his memories of our year. I saw him at a convent with a couple of the sisters we had worked with maybe 10-15 years ago and he did not remember me at all. I had even brought some photos from that year with me. I AM a hard person to forget. At Holy Cross I didn’t wear a nametag once!
The old pictures they displayed were fantastic! I found one of all the Missourians. Like the pictures of us in the newsletter they sent, we all looked so young, innocent and alive with the joys of the faith in 1965. I was hoping Barbara Berlsman would be there. She was a nurse, who had given me one of my favorite lines that I have used over the years–she had gone to a public school in Ohio that had nuns teaching there. I immediately quipped: so you went to a nun-Catholic school!
I had been unaware that they stopped the volunteer program in 1971–after just 10 years! Now they serve primarily as a conduit for funding that they use to support existing volunteer programs in 95 mission dioceses in the country.
During our 48 hours there I had occasion to think deeply as to why I had joined the organization. It dawned on me during one of the discussions that I had joined Extension because I was a Sodalist and they always stressed personal service. I also thought it would be a good way to get some teaching experience and serve the Church.
I also noticed that our group of about 150 had lost some of its internal spiritual and intellectual unity that was prevalent in 1965. I felt a bifurcation during some of the group’s general discussions that showed a wide variance of opinions on many different subjects.
This was to be expected since 50 years of life experiences had intervened, militating against the Ray Repp uplifting and emotive hymns we sang at Barat College during training, the emerging spirit of Vatican II, and the wonderful and joyful camaraderie, and the residual influence of Kennedy’s New Frontier. In 1965 we were a Catholic vanguard that was going to make the world a better place. Reality hit us all and hard—the Vietnam War, a fury of racial unrest, urban violence, political assassinations and just trying to find out where we belonged in this life—all took their toll.
During one of the public forums I stood up and said that because of Extension seven new people existed that would not be around had I not gone to Chicago in 1965. I am speaking of my three children and four grandchildren.
My exploration into my past is nearly complete. My journey serves as an elaborate metaphor of our pilgrimage on earth. Poets, dramatists, authors and essayists have written about this impulse for centuries. It is a universal urgency that cannot be denied, ignored or medicated out of one’s subconscious. It drives us, goads us and pursues us like British poet Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven.
Wolfe was metaphysically incorrect! We can go home, not to the environs of our early lives but to the place the Father has prepared for in Heaven.
The English language is rich in colorful and elaborate metaphors. New York City, “the Big Apple,” lends itself to such literary devices. For 30 years its “twin towers,” loomed powerfully over its financial district until symbolic acts of calculated destruction brought them crumbling down. Their 2014 replacement will never erase the horrible memory of that infamous sunny Tuesday morning in the heart of the financial district.
Most people don’t realize that New York has another pair of twin towers that are more notable as mirror images than they are for any generic similarities. Like two menacing cultural symbols at war with each other, they stand large and tall at opposite ends of New York’s historically fashionable 5th Avenue.
On 51th street is the newly refurbished St. Patrick’s Cathedral with its amazing Gothic spires that direct the eyes toward God in His heaven above. It stands erect and defiant in opposition to its traditional trinity of evils, the world, the flesh, and the devil. About five city blocks uptown is the eponymous “Trump Tower,” a gilded monument to the ego of one man, Donald Trump. While its tower reaches to the sky, its entire focus looks downward to the material accomplishments and possessions of its namesake.
The inside of St. Patrick’s is dark and mysterious, despite the thousands of picture-taking tourists who are too often indifferent to their presence in God’s House to notice. Despite the many distractions, one may still sit in silent adoration or just breathe in the aroma of the holy incense and expired candles.
In stark contrast, the Trump Tower is festooned in gold. Inside are thousand of picture-taking tourists, who walk aimlessly about its several kiosks and counters where they can buy Trump’s books on how to become enormously wealthy like “the Donald.” They can also dress for success with a rich assortment of Trump shirts, ties, belts, and watches. For their recreational hours, there are Trump games and tee shirts. Trump’s marbleized walls stare back with lavish pictures of him and his beautiful third wife. In the eatery on its lowest level, one can sip a latte, and listen to the cacophonous chatter of a diversity of unrecognizable languages and dialects, reminiscent of an older tower in Babel. The only thing missing is the golden calf.
Holocaust survivor and Catholic convert, Viktor Frankl anticipated this New York’s metaphoric standoff with his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. It is essentially a reflection on the universal fact of man’s existential vacuum. This is the basic fact of our human nature that drives us on an endless search for our personal fulfillment. It is a matter of our choice as to what fills that empty feeling we often have.
Not to be outdone by New York City architecture, the Bible is also rich in metaphoric allusions. In God’s book, the heart is the vital center of human architecture. Matthew’s Gospel (6:21) tells us that where your heart is, there will be your treasure. The late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen often pointed out that the actual physical human heart appears to have a missing chunk.
Bishop Sheen, who is interred behind the main altar in St. Patrick’s, often preached that this piece belongs to God and we can only be whole when we rest our weary hearts in His love. In sharp contrast, the Trump Tower or the house of mammon rests on man’s insatiable need to possess things. While Trump watches and apparel may satisfy for a moment, they will never fill Father Frankl’s vacuum or make Sheen’s heart whole again.
The twin towers of God and man also symbolize an American culture that has lost its traditional sense of integration. Material things and the love of God no longer work in tandem for our salvific needs. Now they stand poised like two gladiators in a public arena. When the battle is finally over, only one tower will remain standing. My money is on St. Pat’s.
During a Men’s Bible Study years ago, one of the men in my group said he was reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. His religious’ curiosity got me to thinking about my own journey as a cradle Catholic.
I was born into a faith that has existed for nearly 2000 years. It has survived devastating attacks from within and from without. It has endured a history of bloody persecution in which thousands of its faithful were ripped apart by wild beasts, crucified, burned alive and thrown off high cliffs, drawn and quartered–all because they believed in the Divinity of the Christ. It has launched crusades and burned a few thousand heretics at the stake in defense of the faith. It is a religion that is filled with mystery, ceremony, pomp and high circumstance.
The Catholic Church also has its unique smells that excite and calm, music that raises the spirit and comforts the soul. Theologically it soars like the eagle as it tries to touch the hand of God. It can cure disease, ease suffering and prepare for the final moments of life. It is a church of over one billion people with as many different strains of thinking as a university library.
However being a faith of deep and high-minded ideas and ideals sometimes it confuses. Sometimes it frightens. For all its attendant holiness, its leaders sometimes seem caught in a whirling vortex of charity and unadulterated power that idly dismisses reason and moral logic in favor of pragmatic goals. Some of its popes have been saintly! Others have done the work of the devil. Most have been ambitious while others mediocre.
The Church is a very human institution— a living contradiction. I once asked a priest during a parish Christmas Mission if he had any advice for someone who had been born into the pre-Vatican Church but came to his full religious maturity during the initial reforms of the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII. I do not think he answered my question nor did anyone understand my dilemma.
I am caught twixt and tween the old and new Catholic Church. There are many things about the old church of my youth, which is vastly different from my adult church, that I still relish. As a child, the many rules, moral laws and order of the faith were deeply ingrained in me by habited nuns and humorless priests. Along with the Baltimore Catechism they laid the foundation for my adult faith.
We all learned the dogmas of the faith by rote memory with a diligence and certitude that armed us to face the three major enemies, who competed for our immortal souls–the world, the flesh and the devil. To paraphrase TV’s Dragnet’s Sergeant Joe Friday in the 1950s, we knew the facts. I doubt if the same could be said today.
The Church’s teachings on sexual morality were complicated. We were taught our bodies were the temples of the Holy Ghost yet they were also the snares of the devil. We were warned about improper touches to ourselves and others. Girls were taught to dress modestly—no long pants, though I do remember a few occasions when they wore Bermuda shorts.
Most dirty magazines of the day were, not what anyone would call pornographic, but more of the naturalist pulp magazines of nude sunbathers. It was over such a stack of weather-beaten magazines in the bushes of a local high school that a friend instructed me and another friend in the “facts of life.” Another time, a priest threatened me with eternal damnation for beating around the bush in the Confessional. I was 11 years old.
The rules did work. I have kept the faith all these years. I have avoided most of the near occasions of sins. After studying in Jesuit institutions for 11 year, I was able to rationalize those I couldn’t avoid. I have been faithfully married to the same woman for nearly 50 years and still look at women in the same positive way that I adopted in the weeds at Forest Hills high school. However the Church’s abject legalism did take a toll on my understanding of God’s divine mercy and the Agape reflection of His unlimited personality.
For most of my life I have been a habitual worrier who is relieved when things are over, instead of enjoying the joyful moments of my life. But the new church is much different. The church of love and forgiveness has replaced the church of law and order. In the Church of divine rules, I had tried to micromanage everything and had left nothing up to God.
But the freedoms of the modern church is the worst nightmare of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in his classic The Brothers Karamazov who cursed God for making men with a free will. During Holy Hour I have learned to open my heart and soul so that my life is more open to His grace. I find this happens best when I listen to God in the silence of His presence.
I have learned to accept my body as it is and realize that it was made in the image and likeness of God and was not something dirty and offensive. However people still need honest and realistic rules—like the 10 Commandments and Jesus’ emphasis on loving all other human beings.
The modern ideas of relativism and secularism permeate our culture. These dangerous ideas have infiltrated church thinking on many levels. The modern church has in some respects thrown the Christ child out with the bath water. Scandal, indifference and moral confusion abound. I see many others who do not have the double grounding in the faith that I have. While the journey never gets easier, God’s presence in my life helps me stay on the right path more nearly.
The May issue years of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Game Day Magazine featured a nostalgic look at the old stadia in Brooklyn and New York I used to attend as a young fan. Every time I see a photo of the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field I am reminded of an incident that happened the team’s final season in Flatbush. Our grade school had provided tickets for several “patrol boys” for a game with the Cardinals. I sat in the upper deck with boyhood friend Eddie Smith.
Eddie was a mischievous lad who constantly pushed the envelope of civility. This chilly May afternoon he started throwing peanuts at the fans below us. To our horror a seedy looking usher with a clip bowtie, dangling from his open collar and a pencil thin mustache, emerged undetected out of the rafters and yanked poor Eddie by his coat collar. My last sight of Eddie was his pleading eyes as he was dragged backwards down the steep flight of bleacher steps.
Several years ago, while visiting him in his Long Island home, I reminded him of the incident. Little did I realize that his six-year old daughter was absorbing every detail of my story! I will never forget the tearful look on her face when she said, Daddy you threw peanuts?
These many years it has been hard for me to get her sad and puzzled face out of my mind. I had unintentionally crumbled her image of her dad as a model of sober perfection. By exposing his adolescent prank, I might have had stripped his poor little girl of her innocence way before her time.
It’s a different world today. The peanuts story is mild by comparison with what we are doing to our children today, especially our little girls. Thousands of parents cannot wait to shed their daughters’ innocence and usher them into a world, filled with the corrupt environs of a troop of seedy ushers, just waiting to drag their daughters down the winding stairs of despair.
We live in a culture that is hot-wired against purity and self-restraint. Many of our schools teach our kids the basic mechanics of reproduction without any concern for its moral, emotional and sociological aspects. Catholic girls seem no better than the rest of their peers. All this makes me wonder just has happened the past 60 years. Some will suggest the usual suspects, namely Vatican II or the failure of Catholic couples to heed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vita. My thoughts conjure up something much more sinister.
In the 1920s Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, remarked that Communism as an economic force was doomed to failure. He said too many Italians were tied to their culture, especially their Catholic faith. The way to defeat the West was by a long march through its Christian culture.
The best way to do this was through its women, the custodians of the culture. Since the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world is still a reliable truism, his plan was designed to lure future generations of young women away from their morality and religious faith by whatever means necessary.
While Gramsci died in prison, his ideas were embodied in the Frankfurt School, a Marxist research institute in Germany. Herbert Marcuse, its leading advocate and his associates eventually transplanted Gramsci’s ideas to American culture through its university system. One of his disciples, Betty Friedan, convinced millions of suburban housewives that they were wasting their lives. Her Feminist Mystique launched the feminist movement with its legacy of working mothers, feminist empowerment, abortion rights, and a hatred of patriarchy.
For three generations millions of American mothers, even many Catholic mothers, have weaned their daughters on a steady diet of prepubescent sexual freedom and distaste for the country’s religious and moral traditions. As a result fatherhood has lost its luster and has been relegated to the dusty archives with reruns of Leave it to Beaver and his sage dad, Ward Cleaver. The apocalypse may not yet be here, but one thing I can say with certainty, things are far worse than when Eddie Smith was tossing peanuts in Ebbets Field.