Last weekend I went to see an old acquaintance of mine up north near the border, a priest who had been at the church in which I was baptized a dozen years ago or more. He was ordained when I was just beginning the RCIA program, and he served as the assistant pastor when I was baptized two years later (I took a little longer than I’d first expected when I got the jitters on the Palm Sunday before I was supposed to be baptized at the end of the first year). I well remember his strong hands on my back as he helped me lean back into the baptismal font for an almost total immersion (the Very Reverend presiding at the time soaked my head from above with a pitcher drawn from the same big basin in which I was kneeling). Obviously, I remember it like yesterday. Today, even.
Anyway, he’s now fairly comfortably installed as the Reverend up at St. ____’s , where I went to show him, in the flesh, that I was still alive after all these years. Still a little crazy, too (as the song goes), but that’s another story. This is the priest who first recommended Karl Adam to me, whose Spirit of Catholicism regular readers will recognize from the entries I post as a corrective to Kierkegaard. He was about ten years older than I was at the time (still is, of course), but he’s also a huge fan of literature, so we got along well from our first meeting. Father Adam (as I’ll refer to him from here on out) had brought up Goethe in one of his first homilies (Goethe!), and while I’ve never been a big fan of the least in Joyce’s triumvirate of European greats, I liked the way he had referred to Faust in his sermon and told him so after the Sunday RCIA session was over.
Father Adam is also a fan of Kierkegaard (or he’s read him, at any rate), so I’ve wanted to tell him about KSRK, the reading group that Jonathan Potter started over at Korrektiv. I was hoping that he might be able to help out with some of the tougher passages. By ‘tougher passages’ I meant Quidam’s Diary, and the month of April most of all. We were soon sitting across his desk from eachother, and while he turned on his computer, I sat there looking at what struck me as an incredible amount of junk: three different penholders (two without a pen), a golf ball with a tee somehow stuck right through the center, a stack of magazines (Crisis and Commonweal, but a couple of Golf Digests as well), and, maybe most improbably, a little bronze statue of Bugs Bunny, with an impish little gloved hand on his impish little hip.
The fact of the matter is that I’ve been going through a bit of a crisis the last couple of months, and I thought it might be a good idea to go back to the source to see if that might help me get my bearings. So we sat there in his office, talking across his desk much as we used to. I gave him the URL for my blogspt, and soon he was clicking his way around the hyperlinks on my site.
“So, Quin, after all these years!” he said, peering into the screen.
“Yep, Father. Hard to believe. Time certainly does fly.” I was feeling like my own gravedigger.
“And how are you getting by these days? If I recall, you were working as an accountant while you were attending St. _____.”
“Yeah, well, kind of. Doing tax returns for one of the big ones. That time of year, you know.”
“Oh yes … I’ve always marveled that tax season almost always coincides with Lent. Easter, too. Curious, don’t you think?”
“Uhh … hmm … not sure what you mean, Father.”
“Well, never mind. What else have you been up to this past decade and a half? Married? Kids? Still doing the bachelor thing?”
“Well …” Father always had a way of being direct. I used to appreciate it. “No and no is the simple answer, I guess, but that’s sort of what I wanted to talk to you about.” Sometimes I can’t stand the sound of my own voice.
“I see,” said Father Adam, and paused for a moment. “Well, spill it out.”
“Well, I’m not married, as I said, and I guess … well, I guess I’ve been thinking about giving the whole celibacy thing a whirl. Maybe, I mean. For a little while, anyway, just to see if it works out, or fits… However you’re supposed to put it …”
I’m not sure why, but Father Adam was beginning to look pretty uncomfortable at that point. Maybe he’d heard too many confessions of mine in the past. No, forget that; that’s a bit of an insult.
Maybe it was me that was getting uncomfortable.
“Wow,” he said, looking at the screen again, “you sure see a lot of movies.”
“Yeah, well, that’s part of the problem, I think.” Now I really wasgetting a little uncomfortable. “It’s just the same old thing, over and over again.”
“Yeah. So I wanted to ask you, um … er … well, this Quidam guy – I mean the character that we’re studying in this reading group … I mean, I think it’s pretty much Kierkegaard himself, and he’s having this problem with his fiancée, but it isn’t exactly clear what the problem is, although he keeps using words like religious “postulates” and “presuppositions,” and trying to pay people off with “rix-dollars,” whatever those are, and I just have no idea what he’s talking about. I mean, it’s just hard to figure out what he wants, because he writes as if he knows exactly what he wants, but I get the feeling that underneath all this he has no idea what he’s doing.”
“Hmm. Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve read the Stages, but I think that was pretty much my impression at the time.” He turned his chair a little further in my direction, folding his hands in his lap, as if it took some effort to keep them away from the mouse. “Wow. Still reading Kierkegaard, after all these years.”
“Yeah.” Bugs Bunny stood there, grinning at me. “I mean, I know what you mean.” I wondered if he’d lost the other pens, or what. And why did he keep the stands around?
“I guess I’m kind of stuck.”
He tapped on the arms of his chair with knuckles, somewhat absentimindedly.
“Do you still have the Adam book I gave you?”
“Oh yeah. I’ve been quoting him on line, as sort of a complement to Kierkegaard. I mean, Quidam. No, wait, I do mean Kierkegaard.”
He chuckled at that, then rubbed off his smile with his index and thumb at the corners of his mouth. “Well, Adam is pretty trustworthy. He should be helpful. And go back to the classics, like St. Augustine. I always find Augustine helpful. Even when it comes to celibacy. Or especially.”
“Lord give me constancy, but not yet,” I quoted for him. He knew all about it of course, but I was feeling pretty desperate for a touchstone.
“Exactly,” he said, smiling again. On the other hand, I didn’t want to seem conspiratorial, especially since my own relation to the subject was a little less clear than Father Adam’s. After a second I forced out a chuckle as well.
He cleared his throat and asked me a question. “So do you think Quidam, or maybe Kierkegaard, wanted to be celibate? And didn’t realize it, or what?”
“Maybe, yeah. At the beginning of the diary section he writes quite a bit about going to a monastery – the side road, or something like that – and he seems so confused when he’s writing about his fiancée, and then it even seems like he’s throwing his own confusion on to her, accusing her of acting like a girl, when of course that’s exactly what she is. But then I’m not sure whether Kierkegaard is aware of all this, or what.”
“Confusing.” Said Father Adam, pretty definitively.
“It’s like a long metaphor, or something,” I said. Not so definitively.
“Well, metaphors can be difficult to get a grip on.”
I sat there quiet for a moment, staring down at interlaced fingers suspended midway between my knees.
“Not to pry, Father, but … I don’t mean to be rude or anything … but what’s it like?
“Confusion?” he laughed. “You tell me!”
That might look a little harsh in print, but he had me laughing as well. “No, no … I mean … well, I mean celibacy. It’s gotta be tough.” I looked back up at him. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, you asked that before.” He was leaning back in his roller chair, hands behind his head, the left side of his collar hanging out of his shirt.
“I know.” I was sounding downright whiny by then. “Sorry about that.”
“No, no, don’t worry about it. It’s a pretty standard question, after all.”
He was staring off at an architectural drawing of Mont Saint-Michel he kept on the wall as he considered the question. He shifted in his chair and drummed his fingers, still staring at the picture. “It’s like leaving a shovel in the middle of the far field,” he finally said. “Then going to work in one of the gardens closer to the mansion.”
“Huh?” I still have no idea what that meant.
He laughed out loud, and then said, “I don’t know, actually. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, I guess.”
“Don’t they say that about herpes, Father?”
“I think so.”
He looked like he was thinking that one over for a while, just staring at the wall.
“Hmm. How ‘bout that?”
“Are you saying that celibacy is like some kind of disease?”
“Not at all. I’m saying it’s a kind of gift. That keeps on giving.”
“Sorry, Father. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Not at all. It’s a bit of a mystery. There’s no way around it.”
“Well, you could be married.”
“Well, that’d be a different mystery.”
“But almost everybody is married.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s not a mystery. For each couple it is. And they know it. Or most of them know it, sooner or later. Celibacy is just a different kind of mystery. With some similarities, actually.”
I mulled this over for a minute. Eventually Father Adam broke the silence.
“I think as far as Kierkegaard himself is concerned, or was concerned, just being alive was a bit of a mystery. In the best sense of the word. All existence is, of course, although we don’t often recognize it. And I think that may have made it difficult for some of his relationships with his fellow citizens.”
“All of them, maybe,” I offered.
“Maybe so,” he offered back. “maybe so.”
I mulled this over for a minute as well. I was thinking of my girlfriend. I was thinking of all the women I’d ever known. I was thinking about Mary, mother of God, and I was thinking about what it would be like to have a daughter. That would be something.
“Well, It’s good to see you again, Quin.”
“It’s good to see you too, Father.”
He looked at his watch, gave the arm rest another set of taps, and stood up to leave.
“Mmm,” he murmered, reaching out to pick up one of the magazines on his desk.
“I’m getting kind of tired of that word mystery. I’m not sure I really get it.”
“I know what you mean, Quin,” he said, “but at some point it’s about the only one we’ve got.”
We both stood there for a second. Across the desk from each other, just like we used to.
“It’s good to see you, Father.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Quin. Come back soon.”