Monday, June 30, 2008

Flashback: Learning to Admire Heroes from Beowulf as Taught by Steve Humphrey…on Death and Being Ready when God Calls Us from Fr. Emeric Lawrence OSB… All Leading to a Lesson Learned from the German Nuns.

[Going on 80 with memories for my kids and grandchildren].

The Core Curriculum of Classical Studies.

Like a crash of a tidal wave for this writer as he turned 19 came the drowning with culture from the old Saint John’s. Steve Humphrey, a tiny man, impeccably dressed short-cropped, graying hair, Windsor knotted tie, deep-set eyes and an idiosyncratic way of leaning his head on his shoulder as he reflected, was a professor who introduced me to the classics. Long dead, he still possesses my deepest admiration and love. So powerful was he when he read aloud in class that we began to understand immediately the import of the words—only to discover when we were left on our own to read in our rooms and did not have him to read to us, we foundered.

I remember going to his room on first floor Benet with a lack of understanding of a tract from “Beowulf” only to find that Maury Mischke, an ex-GI and then sports editor of “The Record,” the school newspaper had arrived first with a problem from “The Canterbury Tales.” I’ll take him first, said Humphrey, an ex-GI, in deference to Mischke’s status as an ex-GI (in those days they were preferential in respect by the university). As I watched, Mischke handed him the book and Humphrey read aloud from it, slowly, sonorously. Not only did Mischke get it on that first reading by Humphrey but I did as well despite that I hadn’t tackled it yet. Humphrey returned the text to him with a slow smile and asked: What’s so difficult? Nothing, said Mischke, but if I had you at my elbow to read it aloud to me, I’d get it easier! No sooner had Mischke left than Humphrey did the same for me.

He said as he reclined his head to the left where it almost touched his shoulder: “Now listen as I read--Beowulf the Geat goes to Denmark to help Hrothgar, king of the Danes, get rid of a monster dwelling on the bottom of the sea called Grendel and here”—citing a passage—“Grendel gets hungry and returns for a snack, grabbing Beowulf for a dainty course!” I exulted: Now I got it! I GOT IT! And hurried back to my room to devour the rest of the assignment.

All the while we learned that Europe’ glories were created by the Catholic Church from early western civilization taught by Fr. Dunstan Tucker, OSB, a handsome, prematurely white haired cleric fighting asthma when the weather was soggy…sometimes taken to the infirmary doubled up so he could breathe in short gasps… who had been a naval officer in the recent war, who was also an expert on Dante and the university baseball coach. And concurrently the meaning of death from a man who was theologian and my French professor, Fr. Emeric Lawrence OSB, an ex-GI who had seen a lot of action in the South Pacific as a chaplain, a cogent writer as well, he telling us that Christ’s words for us to be ready when He visits us as a thief in the night and His emphasis on the minor worth of riches and fame in comparison with the grace of God being as valid as when He spoke them first in Palestine. Not to be confused with the enthusiasm of our American history professor, Fr. Vincent Tregater OSB with patent leather shiny black hair and an always beaming countenance whom we called “Smiling Jack” after a cartoon character of that era, who informed us that a 28-year-old scholar had just written a definitive biography of Andrew Jackson and had received the Pulitzer prize for it, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

And then art appreciation from Fr. Angelo Zankl OSB, then a ruddy, black-haired dynamo, who died earlier this year at 105…no, that’s not a typo, who taught us that Leonardo took so long to complete “The Last Supper” because his faith mattered more to him than artistic perfection and he strained the utmost of his talents to make his masterpiece served God perfectly.

All of these things cascaded upon my 19-year-old brain at the same time while I heard my classmates, some grey-haired ex-GIs ask questions seemingly as deep as the lectures themselves, leading me to go deferentially to the interrogator after class and ask what he meant. But ex-GIs were not always intellectual. We held our Ethics class in a wooden barracks that had been built to accommodate the overflow of students in this first year after the war, a building whose windows seemed sealed shut. Okay in the winter but unless it was zero or below outside, it was always stifling hot and the windows didn’t budge when you tried to open them. Bede Hall, an ex-GI and scion of a well-known lumber products family in Saint Cloud, the Matthew Hall Lumber Company, struggled with the window as class was getting ready to start, groaning to a presence that stood behind him, “Christ! It smells like a French bordello in here!”

He turned his head to be nose-to-nose with the professor of Christian Ethics, Mr. Emerson Hynes (later to become Gene McCarthy’s legislative assistant when McCarthy served in the Senate). Hynes smiled and said softly—but in a tone that carried throughout the room—“well, Mr. Hall, we presume you know just how a French bordello smells but rather than making it public, take your seat and keep that confidence to yourself and your confessor.”

The Early Concentration on Sexual Ethics.

At that early time—1947, twenty six years before “Roe v. Wade”—Hynes lay down the principles governing abortion, not by consulting a book about it but by beginning with Augustine and his uncertainty as to when life began (he thinking it started with “quickening” or the movement of the unborn child in the womb) through Aquinas down to the present doctrines propounded by Pius XII: it is lawful to extract from the mother a womb that is dangerous diseased i.e. cancerous which is not the same as a direct abortion, Catholic morality allowing this kind of rare surgery according to what has come to be known as the “principle of double effect”—my seatmate nudging me at that point and saying “that’s a question sure to come in the semester exam.”

It assuredly did. “Give an example of the principle of double effect.” Answer: The action, removal of the diseased womb, is good, consisting in excising an infected part of the human body and which saves the life of the mother albeit this eliminates the possibility of her having children in the future—but understand this is very rare.” Follow-up—now give an example of wrongly applied principle of double effect. Answer: “If the unborn child were to be aborted through artificial means because it’s birth would be inconvenient, or to save the reputation of an unwed mother or father or both.” Then, suppose the unborn baby is slated to be born retarded or with some serious deformity—is abortion permitted as a humane act? Answer, the same in 1947 when legal abortion was almost inconceivable as now when so-called “therapeutic” means is applied—no.

The exam questions continued: Does the Church teach that it prefers the life of the child over the life of the mother? What to do in that regard? Answer: Neither the life of the mother nor the life of the child can be subjected to an act of direct suppression. In one case as with the other, there is only one obligation under Catholic ethics—make every effort to save the lives of both mother AND child.

Finally, “wherein lies the sinfulness of abortion?” Answer—It consists of the homicidal intent to kill unborn life which is the sin of murder by intent.

Lectures dealing with reproduction were highly stressed by Hynes. Ex-GIs and we teeners were confronted with the doctrine stressed by the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX which summarize Aquinas: contraception is ethically wrong and a grave sin because it contradicts human nature. Question: “what did Pius XI say about contraception?” Answer—two things: he condemned the essential sinfulness of contraception and promulgated the Church’s absolute right in modern times as over the centuries to pronounce on the morality of human behavior.

It is ironic to note that while we dumb ones were taking philosophy and ethics from two authenticist scholars—Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB for philosophy and Emerson Hynes for ethics—the “brighter ones” as adjudged were taking both from the leading scholar of so-called liturgical revival, the heir to the late Fr. Virgil Michel OSB, Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB. Twenty-two years later Godfrey was a signer of a document by modernist theologians protesting Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae,” the pope’s condemnation of artificial birth control. A number of men who took theology from the dynamic, spectacularly colorful Godfrey ran into serious intellectual problems when the so-called “spirit of Vatican II” came into conflict with authentic theology and a number of them, confused, left the Church for which Someone Higher than earthly authority will render judgment on Godfrey…and indubitably already has.

No comments:

Post a Comment