Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 16, “Seed and Earth”

Dear old friend of my school days,*

Becoming a Catholic, as I did five years ago, has led me to reconsider many things I once took for granted. There are the big theological things, like heaven and hell and death and resurrection. There are the thorny social things, topics that you, my gifted liberal friend, and I, so conservative in some ways now that it shocks even me, avoided cautiously when we met last month for the first time in 40 years. The two hours we spent together were a gift, and I imagine that you wanted to keep it cool, as did I.

Becoming a Catholic has made me take a new look at items of personal history, too. Like stuff I did that I’m not so proud of, and like the school we attended together.

I used to think that our school provided me with the best three years of education in my life or that money could buy. Imagine: two hundred years of tradition, small classes meeting around an oblong table, brilliant faculty, and unequaled facilities from academic to athletic. What a gift our parents gave us, and it all set us up for four years at one of the best colleges in the land! Nearly 20 percent of our graduating class went to Harvard. Can you believe it?

It was the seed and we were the earth, to borrow from Guardini’s chapter title today. Which of course is itself borrowed from Jesus’s metaphor of a sower going forth to sow a seed, and some of it fell on rocky ground, and so on. In this brilliant chapter, Guardini considers each group or type of person who might have been receptive earth for Jesus’s word—and rejected it. The Pharisees, the Saducees, Jesus’s followers including the Apostles, “intimates of the Lord” (including Mary), the local rulers (Pilate, Herod), “quiet individuals” (like the priest Zachary and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth), social outcasts, the heathen (gentiles), and the Jewish masses. Those who might have been expected to hear the word of the Messiah did not, while the “unwashed” often did: “It was among the heathen that Jesus found open souls and fresh, ready hearts.”

I honestly believe that you and I, when we arrived at school, were “open,” “fresh,” and “ready.” I was an Episcopalian acolyte who loved serving at the altar in my cassock and surplice, who dreamed sometimes of being a minister. (The picture at the top of this post is not me, but could have been.) From the little I know of you, your religious sense was intact too. You also came from the Episcopal Church, and you have remained true to the communion of your youth. At school, you were a deacon, an honored category of senior chosen by the school minister to serve in our school church.

We were good ground. But for what seed?

The only thing I am sure of is the harvest. I entered as I told you—a devout Christian within narrow 15-year-old limits. I left school three years later as a cynical agnostic, certain that no one was righter than me, except when I wallowed in self-pity or failed in self-confidence, which was almost all the time.

Can we blame our “good old school” for that transformation? Or was it “the times”? That’s one of the hard questions I am trying to confront in this mad series of letters.

Your devoted friend from days of long ago,

This series of posts continues here with chapter 17.

*This post continues a series of meditations on The Lord by Romano Guardini, framed as open letters to a (real, live) friend from my days at a New England boarding school. To see where this mad blogging inspiration began (there are 88 chapters, so there will be 88 posts) you can read my first letter here. Clicking on “Guardini’s The Lord” in the left sidebar will lead you through the whole series of letters.

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