So I think again of Joanne, James Joyce, the Bible falling open — those decisive events in late 1976 that seemed the answer to what I had sought at the tomb of the Apostle John and for which I dropped my stone through the grate. I made my way to confession and that made a important difference. I recall the extreme awkwardness of being seen in a line outside the confessional — the sort of awkwardness I feel even now when I press “publish” on a revealing blog entry like this. Inside the confessional, the priest was kindly, unimpressed by my crimes, reassuring. And so I was reconciled.
It was now possible for me to receive Communion without digging an ever deeper hole in my own spirit. I found an old religious manual among my parents’ books. It may have been called Our Daily Bread, and as I recall it urged people to frequent, even daily communion, which was an innovation in the days of the otherwise intolerable Pope Pius X, who spent most of his time trying to crush what he called “modernists.” Until the early twentieth century many people would steer clear of communion for months on end, largely to avoid sacrilege, and the pope wanted to set this right. That particular book was flowery and pietistic in the Irish manner. And yet it communicated intimacy and awe.
I could not yet pray, and so for just a few seconds each week I found myself in the presence of God immediately after receiving Communion. I think the sacrament was praying on my behalf. What do I remember about that? A brief sense of wholeness, clarity, and the momentary knowledge of love as a horizon.
I usually went to Mass with my father and sisters at 5 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. It became the longed-for moment of my week. I did not have the courage to go to a weekday Mass, and did not want to be seen in any posture of devotion. What I wanted was privacy, and rather liked the idea of appearing dragged to Mass by my parents, which was hardly the case. Humiliation is one of the constant experiences of childhood, and at fifteen I still lived in dread of it. Occasionally, I found ways to attend a Saturday or Sunday Mass by myself, and that was much better. In time, I found myself able to pray during Mass — I would ask God to take care of people who were close to me. I did nothing to start that prayer. It came unasked for.
I found another constant stream of encouragement from books I was reading — few of them even sympathetic to a religious view of the world. I had read and been deeply moved by the novels of John Steinbeck, especially the now-derided East of Eden, Ernest Hemingway, and above all Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward, Angel I would still want on my desert island. I was dabbling in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and would soon come upon a copy of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I read in a library while sitting beside a window where sunlight seemed to echo every word she wrote about Nebraska.
The chaos of Gonzaga High School was either subsiding or the shock was going away. I came to appreciate some teachers, among them a young Jesuit named Stephen Leblanc, a poor disciplinarian who had the unenviable task of teaching us French and religion. He had deep-set penetrating eyes and a pointed black beard, and though gentle to a fault he somehow acquired the nickname “Stinger.” In one of his classes I learned about pronouns and irregular verbs. In the other, he taught us about modern theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin and Edward Schillebeeckx. I don’t think he spent a minute on that obsessional topic — impurity. I grew very fond of Stephen as did many of my classmates.
In the spring of 1977, two even younger Jesuits came into my life. They were novices sent as part of their early training to help out at our school. I continue to see one of them fairly often in Toronto. His name is Gordon Rixon, and he is a theologian at Regis College. We often pass each other on the street in the morning. A formidable intellectual, he also radiates a kind of benevolence I have seldom seen elsewhere.
Gordon’s companion was the outspoken and charismatic George Bastien, who had been a skier almost good enough for the national team, and after that a sculptor. He was extremely handsome, and with a trimmed beard he seemed the epitome of the French film star. Women were entranced by him, and he told the story of his earlier life as if he had been worst possible rogue. He did not remain a Jesuit, and I lost touch with him — Google tells me that he is now working in Quebec as a psychologist specializing in spiritual formation.
George spoke to our classes on several occasions. His personality transcended the whole problem of discipline. We listened because you just could not turn away from him. He spoke unabashedly of the love of God — something unheard of in Newfoundland culture. He talked about prayer as a normal and joyful thing.
By the end of the school year, I had made a connection with him but had not actually told him what had been happening to me. He would soon be returning to Ontario, and I would lose the chance. Walking on a Saturday in Churchill Square I saw him coming towards me. It was hardly a miraculous occurrence, but it was something that happened precisely when I needed it.
Standing on the sidewalk near the old Dominion supermarket, I think I told him fairly directly that I could pray only in church and that I wished I could learn some new way to pray. We walked back to the Jesuit house next to the high school and he spoke at great length about the love of God. I don’t think he taught me any methods of prayer. He just went on about God’s love. At the end of a couple of hours he gave me a card which had on it Raphael’s Madonna del Granduca, something that remains very precious to me.
I went home and that night my prayer truly began. I lay in bed praying for every person I was close to, face after face coming up in my mind. It continued for hours as if some barrier had broken. In a curious bathetic touch, the following days were devoted to driver’s education. I sat in a car with a cranky instructor and two other students, taking our turns shoulder-checking and changing lanes. When it was not my turn I fell back into prayer, and I remember just repeating, silently, the verses of “Amazing Grace.”
The week passed with the prayer growing deeper, and on the following Saturday, I woke up in a state of inner silence and consolation. I was in the presence of God and no active prayer was necessary. I remember looking out over Conception Bay towards Baccalieu Island and the Atlantic and being moved by its vastness and beauty. Through the day, I worked, oddly enough, at painting a pool and doing other chores. At 5:00, I went to Mass still in that state of silence. I received communion and felt myself immersed in light. In a moment unlike anything else in my life I was entirely given over to love.
At this point description fails, as it fails in a poem I wrote about this time called “Exultet.” For a few weeks after this experience, I prayed, especially before dawn in a hayfield behind our house where the dew snapped from my shoes; in the company of my German Shepherd I watched the world turning grey and then the shades of blue as I prayed the Rosary. Then for many months prayer became difficult again. You come down off the mountain. In time it returned more quietly, more bound to the narratives of daily experience yet still, very often, as a matter of silence and of light. It has been forty years.