I LIVED FOR TWENTY YEARS with this man I call father. I lived with him as a son, a spiritual son, a relationship I hope to make meaningful to you before we are through. Let me say here, right off, that the man I write of devoted a fair amount of time and effort to bringing his spiritual charge, sometimes by cogent conversation and sometimes by the scruff of the neck, back to God. My problem wasn't that I didn't believe in God or gave no thought to Him; I simply could not believe that God could possibly love the likes of me. This man changed all that. When I became his spiritual son, I was already thirty-one and he was fifty-six.
He had been a professor of philosophy, with a reputation among his peers for being one of the most brilliant minds to be found anywhere. He was to become a bona fide Catholic mystic, but he started out quite otherwise, as an agnostic Jew who happened to think of himself as every bit as smart as Aristotle. But then, as he told it, one day he began to read St. Thomas’s commentary on Aristotle, and he knew he had met up with a mind clearly superior to his own. Before long he followed that mind into the Church.
But by any measure this man was a behemoth among men, a man who simply towered over everyone else in sight, no matter where he was. He was not big physically but in every other respect he was larger than life, a most extraordinary man. In support, I cite some of the things you would have experienced had you known him: his astonishing intellect and wit; his lightening intuition (that made people think he could read your mind); his personality with its fascinating mixture of strength and tenderness; his shoot-from-the-hip way with humor; his patience and sometimes miraculous endurance with people that on other occasions could give way to profound yet unmistakably rational anger; his mysterious, soul-searching prowess at the piano; his profound spiritual poise and docility before God; and perhaps above everything, his peacefulness and his God-given way of instilling that peace in others. If this picture already eludes the mind, you must remember, that he was not a man who could be likened to other men.
And not surprisingly for so gifted a man, the whole story about him must acknowledge that there were hard edges as well. Not everyone esteemed him and eddies of controversy swirled about him all his adult life, and indeed continue to do so in some minds even today, more than thirty years after his death. Perhaps this was inevitable in a man who saw himself as God’s instrument in the lives of those he came in real contact with.
I do not exaggerate when I call him peerless. He was indeed that, not only in the eyes of those around him, but in his own eyes as well. And that was the rub in any dealings with him. He insisted, as a matter of justice and truth, on being recognized for the intellectual and spiritual mentor that he was. It was as if he was congenitally unable to be anything less than master in relationships that mattered to him. Only God knows whether it was human pride or simple acknowledgment of the truth about himself that made him this way. But certainly this man saw himself as destined to serve God, first by interpreting God to others, much like a modern day St. Paul, and then by bringing those he instructed closer to God, which he did in many, many cases.
There was no evident trace of self-infatuation in him. He was not proud in the usual sense. He regarded all his endowments as coming from God, to be used as an instrument for God's purposes with souls. And just because he saw himself as God's instrument, as far as he was concerned, you could only be with him or against him. There was no middle ground. Either you acknowledged who he was, on his terms, or the relationship died. But here is the paradox, for once you acknowledged God's instrumentality in him for your life, he spent his life serving you, helping you, knocking you down sometimes but only to build you up, always working for your good and your salvation, indeed doing everything possible to give to you everything that he had to give, both materially and spiritually, no matter who you were. Many walked away after meeting him, smarting from the encounter; many saw him as insufferably overbearing, even boorish in his ways. But for those who got through the riptide beginnings and stayed the course, and there were many who did, the final impression was usually something rather different, more like the often-heard remark: meeting this man was the best thing that ever happened in my life.
He was known simply as “Doc” in those days, and I shall continue to call him by that name, in part out of respect for his own request for anonymity, conveyed to a priest before he died and duly reported to me. The account I give of him here deals principally with his relationship to me and my little family in the early stages of that relationship; it does not explain how he got to be the sort of person he was, how over a period of years he was changed from a brilliant philosophy professor to a profound, spiritual father, affecting the lives of many from all walks of life. The changes that took place in him are something between God and him, wrought in secret, and though I witnessed some portions of it, if I were to try and write of it I confess I would not know what I was talking about.
As I said at the start of this account, I (and I should add, a number of others) lived with this man for twenty years. What I describe here then is but the beginnings, the headwaters of a lengthy and at times arduous journey toward God. Perhaps someday a fuller story too can be told, but maybe it need not be, for as T. S. Eliot wrote in one of his last poems, our end is in our beginning. Hopefully, from the beginnings that are recounted here, one gets an idea of what that entire journey of the spirit must have been like.