Anthony Krivak’s beautiful memoir of his eight years as a Jesuit becomes a long retreat in its own right as he tests all his desires against the pledge to do all “for the greater glory of God”. It becomes a pattern for our own spiritual search, for our own prayer discernment.
324 pp. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. To purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks.com . There is no table of contents.
Let me begin with an ending not yet my own.
The two or so December days during which my family waked and buried my father after his sudden death at the age of eighty moved in a kind of brume that shortened sight and left memory behind. But after the prayer of committal, as we and an entire community of mourners were all about to leave the church, I heard the few spoken words that gave me some peace in the last quiet moments of that Mass for the dead. Father Peter Crynes, the priest my father in his old age had come to know and trust, one in a long line of priests who labored as good pastors in the vineyard we knew as St. Therese’s, rested his fingertips on the coffin’s lacquered pine surface and whispered as though only the departed should hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Rain held off until the interment. Then, while we were gathered for lunch inside a windowless dining room of an American Legion hall in the old mining town of Luzerne (the only venue unoccupied on such short notice in the Christmas season), the skies let loose in a torrent that pounded like fists on the roof.
My wife Amelia and I rode back to my mother’s house with my younger brother Matthew, and as we drove through the downpour and into the Back Mountain toward the town of Dallas, Pennsylvania, where we grew up, he broke the silence, wondering out loud in a moment more of anger than of introspection if in fact there was a Heaven, some life after death. Or if there was, in spite of what our father and mother had taught us and believed in themselves, nothing. Of my three brothers and three sisters, he lived the closest to my parents, after having moved back to “the Area,” as everyone called this part of Northeastern Pennsylvania, from Iowa a few years earlier. The two fathers of sons seemed to hit it off all over again, and I think that when the old boy died, my younger brother lost a friend. So I consid-
ered what arguments I could and could not give from philosophers and theologians Matthew had never read, but to whom I had turned when it was my time to leave home. I remembered that in years past to smile, clasp my shoulder, and say “Hey, Padre!” whenever I believed on that day, as St. Paul told the earliest Christians,
homeland is in heaven and our lives are a kind of waiting, our death only the appearance of an end. Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will till be changed.
I said, “Is there a Heaven? I hope so. More than that I just don’t know.”
He nodded, disappointed with my answer, I thought; then realized that this was what he expected from the brother who had read and traveled more than he but who had no house, or car, or occupation that he could point to. What did he want me to say? (“This I know!“) “Well, I think there’s nothing,” he said, accelerated around the slower traffic, and put an end to the conversation.
Absence is an equable and yet vertiginous state. Sit calmly at a distance and it appears yet another fact of existence, a thing to touch and say, “Yes this is so.” But stand to approach, or rather to face it approaching, and the calm shatters into dizziness, weakness, and tears so unexpected that you cannot be certain you won’t somehow drop or fall inexplicably if you take a single step – the characteristics, not coincidentally, of a deep, if not unshakable, faith. We did the best we could that day as a family in name to cohere around the edges of what my father had occupied with his blithe yet booming, presence and then so uncharacteristically left. Until it was time for each of us to leave. After three days, in spite of the chasm between what one might and what one might not discover beyond, we had to get on with our lives. We had to continue with our work, wives, husbands, children for some, and now the one thing we all held in common: loss.
My mother sat me down as I was packing and asked me if there was anything of my father’s that I might like to have as a remembrance. My brothers owned property and worked with their hands for a living, so they took the tools and saws and machinery, that were scattered about the basement workshop of the small, three-bedroom ranch my parents had lived in for fifty years. There was a plane to catch and an ocean to cross. A tiny, pearl-handled pocketknife gleamed among the effects she had spread out before me. I remember seeing it and wanting it as a boy when I became aware one day that I had grown tall enough to peer into that seemingly gigantic man’s high, wooden dresser. I plucked the knife from the offering of’ watch, fountain pen, religious medals, and cuff links. “Yes, take that,” she said, understanding, I believed, the significance of such an insignificant piece. What else was there that my father hadn’t already given to me? When I wanted to drop out of college, work on boats, and travel around the world (my first vague notion of retreat), he said, “There won’t be anything when I’m gone. So take the education I’m offering now, will ya’ ” And I did.
Amelia and I were returning to London on an open jaw out of Boston. It would be a long shot through the Poconos, across the Delaware, and into New England, so I suggested we drive to Syracuse for the evening, stay at an inn on Lake Cazenovia, and take the Thruway to Massachusetts the next day. I wasn’t being romantic. Snow was forecast for the entire East, and the emotional weight that came with death had ground me down to exhaustion. I felt as though I had been awake for three days. That lake – a place I used to go to rest in another life – was the only place I knew where I could stop, lie down, and sleep. Maybe, though, in the back of my mind, I knew what I was doing coming this way one more time.
When we got to Syracuse, I recognized immediately our proximity to the Jesuit novitiate of St. Andrew’s, a house in which I lived for two of the eight years I spent in training for the Catholic priesthood with the Society of Jesus. Its presence was compelling. Unavoidable, I have to say, as unavoidable as on the day my mother and father drove me there in August 1990 after I had graduated from college and graduate school, and worked for two years- to begin the life they thought I would live to its natural conclusion.
I said to Amelia, “Let’s go up the hill to St. Andrew’s.” She looked puzzled, but not because she didn’t know this was, in a sense, where it all began. She knew my story better than anyone and had witnessed the final few chapters in a different place, from her own vantage point in my life. No, she was puzzled because she was worried about me, not knowing if this return was the direction in which I should now go. But I insisted. I want to see if anything’s changed.”
From Salt Springs Road and across the field by St. Mary’s dormitory of Le Moyne College, I saw again in complete detail the house I once associated with the entrance into religious life. A redbrick and sandstone manse built in the 1950s with a gabled front and boxy sides, it looked more like the home of some austere and eccentric businessman from Upstate New York who made his fortune in ball hearings or the disposable razor than like a Jesuit novitiate. Tucked into a sloping hill that seemed unsteady while remaining intact, the house had nothing overtly religious about it unless you knew what the barely discernible “IHS” symbol over the door meant.
The driveway was lined with cars. Priests or parents visiting, I thought, but dismissed the possibility. In December this should be no more than a house of young Jesuits with their minds and hearts set on where they would be going come January, when half would be sent into silence, the other half out into the world but not to be of it. I parked in an open space. Through the glass I could see someone whose face bore the look of the earnest walking toward us. He opened the side door by the kitchen, which I knew was the proper entrance; its metallic screech invited me in as a once-welcomed visitor, whose absence former inhabitants often wondered about on days when the weather made hot drinks and conversation the only possible, if not desirable, activities.
Amelia and I walked together through a short, darkened hall that led into the open house refectory. We shook hands with three curious yet hesitant young men who, after they heard why I was driving through Syracuse, expressed their deepest sympathies for my father and gratitude for my visit. I asked all of the appropriate questions: Is the novice master around? Are we disturbing a day of quiet? Are you busy getting ready for Christmas? They assured us that we had only caught them having coffee. We were welcome to join them for a cup.
“I think we’d like to go up to the chapel, sit for a short prayer, and then we’ll leave you to your Saturday,” I said finally.
“You won’t be leaving us to much,” the one who had answered the door said. The secundi (novices in their second year) were in a special conference. The primi (first-years, as these men were) had just finished their assigned housecleaning and were enjoying the quotidian lull.
In the small chapel – a tenebrous space we used to call “the womb” I sat quietly and tried to summon words from prayers that had issued easily from my lips and heart the last time I sat here, almost fifteen years ago: prayers of the Divine Office, a Jesuit’s Examination of Conscience, or sometimes the holy sigh of “Christ, what am I going to do?” uttered not in vain but in times of spiritual exhaustion. I looked up and watched Amelia circle the altar as though she had come to perform a reverential dance, and I fell in love with her all over again seeing her move with such grace in that place. Wanting to leave me to my own meditation, she walked to the back of the room to see the stained-glass-window portraits of the North American martyrs that let in what little light there was: Isaac Jogues, René Goupil, John de Lalande, and the young Mohawk woman, Kateri Tekakwitha. The three men were Jesuits who died far from their homelands and, as a result, were remembered for this. The Native American was proof that some of their labor paid off. “Saints,” Amelia said, then with a sheepish smile whispered, “Sorry.” But I smiled back, because it occurred to me that no one in that room, man or woman, living or dead, had anything to be sorry for.
After a few minutes I brought my short prayer for the peace of lives past and lives yet lived to a close and wanted to leave that house as decidedly as I had wanted to come. The secundi would be done with their meeting soon, priests I no doubt knew would be wandering into the kitchen for their own cups of coffee, and my short visit would turn into a long story, one I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell that afternoon. Besides, I suspect those well-meaning first-year novices had given us the run of the place too quickly. Visitors to the novitiate weren’t allowed upstairs unaccompanied in my day, regardless of whether or not they were former Jesuits who’d returned with their wives to say a prayer in the wake of a loved one’s passing.
I remember sleeping well that night in our suite on the lake. Just before sunrise I stirred and took in the surroundings of the room: half-unpacked suitcases at the foot of the bed; yesterday’s clothes draped over a chair; curtains drawn back and the window opened a crack for air; outside the black surface of water. In the half-light I had to remind myself of where I was, and then watched a familiar snowfall drift against the window and accumulate in tiny piles on the ledge. Slowly, the predawn silver began to distinguish itself from the white cover that lay everywhere around, and I thought, How beautiful it all is. Beauty so old and so new. Amelia, almost seven years my traveling companion and five years my wife, rolled in to me, heat and the hint of brine rising from beneath our comforter, and asked if anything was wrong. “No, nothing. Nothing at all.” I kissed her and said, “Go back to sleep.”
We went to Mass at St. James’s in Cazenovia among a thin crowd of locals that morning. I prayed for my father and asked him to pray for us, because I believe that the communion of saints is capable of such a thing. Afterward we ate a breakfast of French toast and eggs at a diner on Albany Street. And there I thought of the novices at St. Andrew’s, who I knew would be shoveling snow and then going to Mass themselves. I had done as much in the work and prayer of Jesuit life, a life that each man who entered by that door began out of some unspoken desire to search for God and the self, regardless of how early or late he had come to that desire. I didn’t wonder which novice’s story would be like mine. Each one’s and no one’s. That day, I just hoped that the men we met would sooner or later find themselves changed.
Outside, the squall tapering, skies clearing, Amelia and I got into our rental car and continued east on the next leg of our journey.
By experience we have learned that the path has many and great difficulties connected with it.
Consequently we have judged it opportune to decree that no one should be permitted to pronounce
his profession in this Society unless his life and doctrine have been probed by long and exacting tests.
– from The Formula of the Institute of The Society of Jesus
Even now my memory is never far from a composition of that time and place. Saturday, the twenty-fifth of August, the skies at least for an hour or two – a rare blue, with a nudging breeze on which wafts the brewed-tea smell of an early autumn. The sun feels warm but weakening. Inside a high-ceilinged, stained-glass-lit modern sanctum of the Jesuit Residence on the campus of Le Moyne College in Syracuse (the chapel of St. Andrew’s novitiate too small to host everyone), the air is conditioned slightly toward a chill. A staggered collection of thirteen young men dressed in khakis, polo shirts, and button-downs sit in a semicircle of chairs in front of the simple altar adorned with a white cloth. To five of the men belongs a smaller cadre of parents. A few middle-aged priests dressed in their own street clothes sweep into the room through swinging doors and join the company of worshipers. Another priest, wearing on this day a white stole of the liturgical celebrant, sits in a larger chair facing this congregation and stands when everyone has settled. “Welcome,” he says.
An entrance hymn is held up on the confident voices of those who are at home here. The penitential rite at the beginning of the Mass feels, as it should, consoling. The readings are taken not from Sunday but from Saturday, the twentieth week in Ordinary Time, the Gospel for which is Matthew 23:1-12: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And then, Father Don Gannon, SJ, Master of Novices in the New York Province of the Society of Jesus, waits as we all sit back down again to begin speaking to us as a tribal father might to his many sons, we who have gathered to begin religious life as Jesuits at a time when a first-year class of five is considered a respectable number of vocations (the eight remaining in the second year suggests something of a boon). Having seen them come and having seen them go for nearly six years as superior of a house of formation, Father Gannon in the unshakable attitude of the forgiven – says, “Some of you will leave this community after having joined it today.”
He means this to be neither insight into a betrayal nor a taunt, but a fact of religious life, in the present and of the past, for the earliest Jesuits knew this, too, in sixteenth-century Spain, France, and Portugal. I watch some of the mothers shift in their seats and fidget slightly, perhaps conscious for the first time that the odds are against their sons ever being ordained priests, regardless of how hard they have prayed. And I realize myself that, after having arrived in Syracuse this morning on emotional autopilot, not knowing how to respond to the enormity of this day, I suddenly feel as though a challenge has been thrown down before me. “One year ago, odds were I wouldn’t have made it this far,” an internal voice responds, as though wanting to vent its own tough, screw-the-odds-I’m-staying attempt to pray. Then, as if he can hear a fuguelike variation of that same prayer in each one of our heads, Father Gannon goes on to insist that the work of the Jesuit novitiate is to allow both the novice and the Society of Jesus to make a deeper discernment about the man and the men who surround him. Should the novice stay and take vows to remain in the Order, it doesn’t indicate spiritual success, for the journey that is religious life then becomes the journey of a lifetime, bringing with it failures beyond the imagination, yet those to which each one of us has been called by God. Should the novice leave and go back out into the world, it doesn’t mean he has failed. A lifetime of journeys remains there, too. “He’s still called to discernment and discipleship,” Father Gannon says. “And who knows? That may mean a more difficult path.
“He.” Not “you”. Not me. But surely one – if not all – of us. Who then? I wondered, as I looked around at the other men who had traveled from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey to gather in that place on that morning. If not me, who?
Chris Benito was the most energetic and talkative of our class. He was from the Bronx, the North Bronx, and had been teaching history at a Catholic high school there. He was short, with dark, tufty hair and a beard. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and drew attention to the obvious fact that he was Italian, at times dropping into a Goodfellas accent for humor, appearing sure of himself, almost fearless.
“So you’re Andrew,” he’d said to me as we lingered in the novitiate refectory that morning, before we walked over to Le Moyne for Mass. “I read your bio. You spent the entire summer sailing?”
I had forgotten about the short personal blurbs that had been printed in the Jesuits’ Company magazine along with the photographs of all the new novices in the American Assistancy. I’d read the ones on the guys from New York, but I resisted memorization. “I was helping out on a boat delivery from the Bahamas to Cape Cod.”
“Delivering, like, on what? The ocean or a tractor trailer?”
“On the ocean. Eight days, sometimes a hundred miles out.”
“Whoa! I’d get sick or go crazy.”
I smiled. “Or both.” I admired him, but there was something as well that made me resentful of his ease. You could be fearless and still be scared, like Faulkner’s young man in The Bear.
When at some point I broke off from that conversation, Frank Evans stepped away from the group he was in, walked up to me, and said in a conspirational tone, “I don’t know about you, but I can only take so much of these family gatherings before I’ll do anything for a beer. Jee-zus Christ!” He started laughing as though both of us had been watching the entire day from a separate vantage point, and I started laughing with him from sheer relief and disbelief at his lack of piety.
Frank was a tough, barrel-chested guy from Upper Montclair, New Jersey, who had that rare quality of always being able to summon respectful satire. It wasn’t a mask so much as a criterion, for behind the humor and the healthy irreverence (I would discover in time), he maintained a deep faith and a desire to express it. He had gone to Boston College and worked as a consultant in Manhattan, giving up a real career to join the Jesuits. His father had driven him to the novitiate that morning; his mother had died sometime in the recent past.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll be good. Let’s go see what the guy who won’t shut up is all about.”
Frank meant Billy McGuinness, another one of us who stood close by our more sociable parents as though protecting them, or they us. Billy was an elevator repairman from Oceanside, Long Island. He had entered not to become a priest but to be a brother, a man who takes vows in the Society of Jesus but chooses not to get ordained. A Jesuit brother’s vocation is described as sharing “in the same religious commitment” as the priest’s, one complementing the other, each serving the Church. In the past that meant they took their vows and got to work without any further education. These days they were artists and physicists with Ph.D.’s. They taught in schools, after they built them. At the time, though brother or priest it all seemed the same to me. I had heard that Billy was next to the youngest in our class, and that he had chosen not to go to college. At twenty-one, he had the stolid look of a man who knew physical work more intimately than he knew books or leisure.
David McCallum, the youngest by a few months, was mingling with the second-year novices, whom he clearly already knew. David was from Rochester and had just graduated from Le Moyne. Two priests teaching in the English Department there had inspired him to think about life in the Order, and so he’d made his way across the street enough times in his last two years of college to see what went on at St. Andrew’s. It was clear from the start that the spiritual knight-errantry of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and all of his followers since, appealed to David’s romantic and literary side. But he entered, he told me later, out of a desire for a spiritual freedom he couldn’t define. David was on the universal path of that ancient struggle to “Know Thyself.” We all were, I suppose, but David’s path was being paved by adversity. His decision to enter the Jesuits had not gone over well with his parents. He and his sister were their only children. Priesthood meant the family name would stop with their son – outgoing, intelligent, attractive with his Roman nose and slate eyes … and celibate. They loved the Jesuits they had met at Le Moyne, but you could see the awkwardness and disappointment on their faces that day. It said enough: let some other mother’s son do it.
How can you place odds on a first impression of lives like these? And was I so sure I wouldn’t be the first one to come and go from here, once the reality of this adventure emerged and the ideal I had fomented in my imagination wore off? In some ways it was a move lucid and right, as though I had returned home after a long time away. And yet, I also couldn’t shake the sense of being disoriented because I had decided to give up the idea of home for the rest of my life. Maybe the two were the same. I thought of my own drive here with my parents that morning, through Wilkes-Barre and Scranton and up into the Endless Mountains region, passing the sign on Interstate 81 for the town of Great Bend, where the Susquehanna River makes a full 180-degree turn, retreats north, wanders west toward its confluence with the Chemung, then threads its way south and east again through a labyrinth of dense and reclusive forest until it arrives at the exact point to which it would have been drawn had it not been sent out into a wilderness. I could cross that bridge a hundred times in one day and still feel as though the river had tricked me into believing I was suddenly moving in a new direction while I traveled steadily in the same.
I wasn’t driving, though. My father was. It’s what he always did when we needed him, drive us from place to place, as though his vocation was to ferry others from one shore to another, then let them get on their way. At sixty-six, he was still a tall, handsome man with a sharp profile and a full shock of gray hair that over the years had passed from the look and texture of steel to cotton wool. Everybody loved Tom Krivak. Strong and exacting with his children, he was an ebullient and generous man toward anyone who considered him a friend. His father had died in a Wilkes-Barre coal mine at the age of thirty. He was three and so never knew what it was like to feel a father’s commanding presence, a presence every single one of his seven children spent a lifetime under the aegis of. I loved him, too.
My mother, Irene, a petite woman with black hair and olive skin (perhaps giving away the presence of a distant outsider in the family generations ago), began her habitual rosary as my father drove and I pondered my future that Saturday. She prayed not out of timidness or dread, and not because I was being delivered to a Catholic seminary, but out of her lifelong desire to transform everything she did into worship. No distractions, no noise, she craved a contemplative life that, like those of the desert saints, would never falter or cease. I often wondered how the ferryman and this mystic were partnered so well, but in the Greek of the Church Fathers, eirene means “peace,” that thing for which every traveler and anchorite longs.
My mother’s Marian devotion wasn’t thoughtless piety. It was an invitation, as though a call or reminder all its own of what remained important in our family, in our world. Anyone present was expected to respond. I can hear the rising and falling recitation that my parents and I uttered together as we crossed the border into New York State at a steady sixty-five miles per hour. I had heard it moving along glass, wood, and stone heads my entire Catholic life: before daily Mass in the mornings; after dinner in the months of October and May; at penitential intervals during Lent; and on the lips of great-aunts and -uncles sitting in their sorrow at a loved one’s wake. It’s an atonal but heavily accented dactyl-like profession of faith in Christ and the Virgin, as Hail Marys and Our Fathers stress one word over the elision or
silence of others – ” . . . who ART in heaven, HALLOWED thy NAME . . .” – an articulation and silence that would keep this man and woman bound to each other, in the end, for fifty-three years. At the age of twenty-seven, though, I turned elsewhere for my vows, my own sacred union.
In 1986, after I graduated from the close and lettered world of St. John’s College, Annapolis, I spent time as an ocean lifeguard, worked in boatyards, chipped away at a collection of poems, got accepted into a good graduate writing program, and went. I dated some interesting and attractive women and told them that I dreamed of sailing across the Atlantic and buying a house by the ocean. But a more fervid corner of my heart lay hidden, biding its time. I knew what I wanted to do. What I didn’t know was how to go about it, whom to approach or where, though I trusted that these details would take care of themselves. Meanwhile, friends and classmates became bankers, lawyers, mathematicians, carpenters’ wives.
Eventually the details fell into place and the path appeared as I had pictured it: a disciplined, prayerful, and intellectually engaging community that wanted me to be a part of it.
But once I began to say that I was going to become a priest, it came as a shock sometimes humorous, sometimes cautious to everyone I knew, even those who were Catholic. “A priest”‘ they’d say. “My God, what for!” “Father What-a-waste.” “I thought you were smart.” As we sat at the bar of old Cannon’s Pub after a poetry workshop in our last semester as graduate students at Columbia, my friend Greg slid Narcissus and Goldmund across to me. “Read this,” he said, in his habit of using as few words as possible (the book now among my favorites). The idea of becoming a priest once as common-sounding to me growing up a Catholic in rural Pennsylvania as the idea of becoming a fireman or a truck driver suddenly sounded more uncommon than I realized. Only from my family was there no resistance. What seemed initially like indifference among my brothers and sisters I realized later was their own insight into what kind of life I’d probably lead. “I’m not surprised” was the answer I received from each of them, not because they considered me a freak or a misfit but because they sensed that I had been searching for this the whole time. My parents, visibly pleased and yet respectful of my decision when I told them, seemed most of all to believe that I had chosen a path deserving and lasting. More important, I was doing something they could point to and be proud of, something that proved my intelligence and in some way offered more than I took from the world. “He’s a doer” was the highest compliment my parents could pay a person. And I had finally decided what it was I wanted to do.
For my part, I believed that I had, after years of running, stopped resisting the Hound of Heaven and turned in a direction that was meant for me. It’s hard to explain what goes through the mind of a young man when he feels as though he’s being “called” – the prophetic voice that’s supposed to single out God’s ordained – to serve
in this way, a Catholic male brought up to believe that priesthood is the noblest path a man can walk. Poverty, chastity; and obedience? So be it. Every life demands sacrifice. What about freedom, or a sense of adventure for the sailor and ex-lifeguard? What an adventure, a kind of exploratory team or Foreign Service for Christ. Something countercultural, then, from the boy who wanted and yet refused to belong? Could anyone have moved any further counterculturally in the late 1980s, when priests were being assassinated in El Salvador, monks decapitated in North Africa, and most Catholics had yet to line up politically with conservative Evangelicals? And of all the orders, I had chosen to join the Jesuits. Perhaps I should say that they chose me, but like the brag of the English martyr Edmund Campion before he was hung, drawn, and quartered during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, I wanted to walk this path no matter what was required. Life – and death, should it come to that- would mean something for me and thereby, I hoped, for others. “The expense is reckoned,” Campion said, “the enterprise is begun. It is of God: it cannot be withstood.”
Does all this sound strange to you? Is it because the very mention of priest now evokes as much suspicion as respect? Someone might say about my Catholic boyhood’s innocence, my love for the Church I grew up in, the priest I knew, “You got lucky.” But I would call it grace, something given that I never deserved. From the time I made my First Holy Communion at the age of seven until I went away to college, I knew one man who wore the black cassock and white collar, and who guided the souls of both professional and working-class parishioners from within the graceful stone outline of St. Therese’s: Father Joseph Sammons. I never thought about it then, but it gradually became clear to me that he held our parish together with something more than duty, something that strengthens faith and proves love, something that he alone understood and desired: the search for God every waking hour of the day through the holy dialectic of prayer and work. Once I could see this and understand it. I stopped wandering about and got started on that search for myself.
And so I have to confess that the mental game of Who won’t make it? faded from my mind as quickly as it had risen on that first day of my life as a Jesuit and was replaced by this one, all-consuming virtue: Hope. Sure, there were other feelings and emotions swirling in my belly and behind my eyes in the heady and disorienting rush of the day, just as there were stretches when I never felt a thing (blankmasked-as-introspection an equally powerful defense against the fear of first days), but I remember hope most of all because I held out the hope that maybe we’d all stay. My entire class of five, that is. This was strongest in Mass at the sign of peace, when I embraced both my parents, and then went around the chapel to grasp the hands of Chris, Frank, Billy, and David. Then we all bowed our heads, regardless of what doubts or convictions remained inside, and prepared to receive the body of Christ, this mystical union that drew us now, as companions toward a common purpose.
After Mass we walked back to St. Andrew’s Hall along a path down the center of campus and across the field that led to Demong, up the driveway, and in through the kitchen door at the side of the house. There was a lunch set up in the sheltered backyard – burgers, hot dogs, plates of potato salad – and when it was over, Father Gerry Blaszczak, the august and gregarious assistant novice master who instilled trust in every mother there, told our parents it was time to go. Lingering by the cars, before announcing his own departure with a signature “Okay, Irene,” my father grinned and put his arm around me. We were the same leggy six foot three, though he held more power in his chest and shoulders. Now I could feel in our embrace that he was getting old, not as strong as I would always remember him. He said, “Take care, Age,” his name for me since I was a boy, from my initials, A.J. I told him that I would. My mother dissembled with a smile, and I saw the tears well in her eyes. “You’re in our prayers,” she said, something I would never doubt. Then they drove away, back to a place that I once called home and never would again.