A Valedictory Address in Memory of the Birthday Party for St. Ignatius
In what history now calls a “summer of blood,” to party at all
took finesse, real finesse—call it
our backdoor miracle. We
spread our loaves with fishes—
sockeye or tuna (sometimes Spam)—and laced our rum with the real,
the classic Coke (though all
original spirits in it had been
long since de-coked).
One night the Jesuits threw two birthday parties for their patron saint,
Ignatius, but the one where we
would drink till dawn came after
the Mass, and this left us,
Fra Sidney from Queens stepped forth to confess, “no wine to drink.”
Which was not exactly true,
however unalterably correct.
Jugs of it there were, courtesy of
the Brothers Gallo and Almaden (that lost brand), but not a drop of it
potable, the wine being blooded still
by the Fathers’ prior consecration,
now neither trope nor nature.
Some called it unusually, almost rabbinically, tough luck
there in those after-hours
when someone walking off
a mountaintop, hoping to have
counted the streaks of an evening’s Perseid shower, could run
into a Loyolan conundrum
pitting desideratum against
fortuna, the starfall
you wanted versus the moonball you got. But can sacrilege
be committed by mistake,
the way a random oyster may
fox even an abstemious liver?
Could a priest bless something—anything—by accident?
So it was that the stout Fathers
argued their case, slaloming
between host and guest, balancing
the ripe pineapple of doctrine against the dull machete of grace,
pressing the needle’s eye of dogma
into stricter crosshairs, friendlier
fire, until the jungle-green
mountaintops of Vermont heard the voice of the law
melt into garnets of pinot
noir, carnelians of cabernet,
fire opals of cool rosé,
by dint of a breath-test, o mio Sid, worthy of the holiest.
* * *
Right then, of course, ladies and gentlemen, I knew I’d be
a teacher. I remembered a poster
I found one teenaged afternoon
in England one bloodless summer.
I was standing at the porch of a forgettable Norman church,
its axis not merely off-line (for,
as you know, they all are) but
quite wrong. I was there because
deciphering ancient gravestones in the rain had left me
counting up all the girls I
would never date back home.
Beside the 16th-century
double-doors, a bulletin board announced our century’s stuff:
child-care hours, evensong,
a bring-and-buy sale, rewards
for lost Shelties. And there it was,
much faded—a French chef’s knife beside a sliced loaf,
goblets of claret, black as Guinness,
in the block-print of a ransom note:
YOU ARE ALL INVITED TO MY HOUSE.
Call what I felt then hunger if you call paychecks satisfaction.
A longueur—or was it
just being soaked through
all that summer?—made a backdoor
in the labyrinth of this declaration open into an exclamation.
Where faith means to leap
without finesse. Where to eat
means the taste of body,
a tongue of blood. Where to enter is to go all the way in.
* * *
At Bread Loaf the faith of the Fathers left them only one
recourse which, students of piety,
they took: the profane joy of company.
While we gossiped they unseated
from their ancient vows the benedictive stuff that leaves
in human imbibers its sulfites,
esters, cream of tartar, tannin
(oxidized) and unconverted sugar,
elevating their triglycerides but leaving the transsubtantial
untrespassed. And this is where,
as you’ve learned, we can hear
the gears of Reformation grinding
the magic of human sacrifice into the efficacy of prayer,
which is internal and voluntary,
converting flagellated desire
into situational ethics.
Take my son, for instance, who is fretting out, one room
away, Bach’s first suite for
cello, following Pablo first,
then Yo-Yo, two tapes,
and fighting the beginner’s wish to keep the left hand in
first position, even as the long
line longs for a bow-work
so intricate in the right… .
And now I think I may have been mistaken this whole while.
(Note here the valedictorian’s
backdoor miracle: confession.)
I may have made too much
of what was, like providence itself, merely a local adjustment
for historical accident.
Nor am I sure that Father
Sid wasn’t really Brother Dan
or some Paul or other from Sioux Falls. Nor can I recall
(my worst failing here)
the name of my best friend
from that summer, a noviate
who retreated that very weekend to a hotel in Montpelier
to decide whether, then how,
to get laid. Some years later,
I learned, on the Lincoln corner
of the lane which joins the Turl and Camera, he used a paving
stone against his own skull
after the woman he’d left
the Order for sent him her
four-line Dear-John letter, written both in blood and Latin.
He ingested old Father Hopkins
(of course), gorged himself on Joyce,
and was drinking hard
to dodge the draft (first on, then to spite, the wings of the church).
And so we lost touch. (I’ve
lost even his name.) Why
did I believe he had died?
When did I start seeing him, as today, seated there among you?
Kurt Heinzelman MA ‘72 is a scholar, poet, translator, and editor; he is a professor of English at the University of Texas—Austin.