Let me begin with an ending not yet my own.
The two or so December days during which my family waked and buried my father after his sudden death at the age of eighty moved in a kind of brume that shortened sight and left memory behind. But after the prayer of committal, as we and an entire community of mourners were all about to leave the church, I heard the few spoken words that gave me some peace
in the last quiet moments of that Mass for the dead. Father Peter Crynes, the priest my father in his old age had come to know and trust, one in a long line of priests who labored as good pastors in the vineyard we knew as St. Therese’s, rested his fingertips on the coffin’s lacquered pine surface and whispered as though only the departed should hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Rain held off until the interment. Then, while we were gathered for lunch inside a windowless dining room of an American Legion hall in the old mining town of Luzerne (the only venue unoccupied on such short notice in the Christmas season), the skies let loose in a torrent that pounded like fists on the roof.
My wife Amelia and I rode back to my mother’s house with my younger brother Matthew, and as we drove through the downpour and into the Back Mountain toward the town of Dallas, Pennsylvania, where we grew up, he broke the silence, wondering out loud in a moment more of anger than of introspection if in fact there was a Heaven, some life after death. Or if there was, in spite of what our father and mother had taught us and believed in themselves, nothing. Of my three brothers and three sisters, he lived the closest to my parents, after having moved back to “the Area,” as everyone called this part of Northeastern Pennsylvania, from Iowa a few years earlier. The two fathers of sons seemed to hit it off all over again, and I think that when the old boy died, my younger brother lost a friend. So I considered what arguments I could and could not give from philosophers and theologians Matthew had never read, but to whom I had turned when it was my time to leave home. I remembered that in years past he used to smile, clasp my shoulder, and say “Hey, Padre!” whenever we met. I believed on that day, as St. Paul told the earliest Christians, that our homeland is in heaven and our lives are a kind of waiting, our death only the appearance of an end. Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.
I said, “Is there a Heaven? I hope so. More than that I just don’t know.”
He nodded, disappointed with my answer, I thought; then realized that this was what he expected from the brother who had read and traveled more than he but who had no house, or car, or occupation that he could point to. What did he want me to say? (“This I know!”) “Well, I think there’s nothing,” he said, accelerated around the slower traffic, and put an end to the conversation.
Absence is an equable and yet vertiginous state. Sit calmly at a distance and it appears yet another fact of existence, a thing to touch and say, “Yes, this is so.” But stand to approach, or rather to face it approaching, and the calm shatters into dizziness, weakness, and tears so unexpected that you cannot be certain you won’t somehow drop or fall inexplicably if you take a single step—the characteristics, not coincidentally, of a deep, if not unshakable, faith. We did the best we could that day as a family in name to cohere around the edges of what my father had occupied with his blithe yet booming presence and then so uncharacteristically left. Until it was time for each of us to leave. After three days, in spite of the chasm between what one might and what one might not discover beyond, we had to get on with our lives. We had to continue with our work, wives, husbands, children for some, and now the one thing we all held in common: loss.
My mother sat me down as I was packing and asked me if there was anything of my father’s that I might like to have as a remembrance. My brothers owned property and worked with their hands for a living, so they took the tools and saws and machinery that were scattered about the basement workshop of the small, three-bedroom ranch my parents had lived in for fifty years. There was a plane to catch and an ocean to cross. A tiny, pearl-handled pocketknife gleamed among the effects she had spread out before me. I remember seeing it and wanting it as a boy when I became aware one day that I had grown tall enough to peer into that seemingly gigantic man’s high, wooden dresser. I plucked the knife from the offering of watch, fountain pen, religious medals, and cuff links. “Yes, take that,” she said, understanding, I believed, the significance of such an insignificant piece. What else was there that my father hadn’t already given to me? When I wanted to drop out of college, work on boats, and travel around the world (my first vague notion of retreat), he said, “There won’t be anything when I’m gone. So take the education I’m offering now, will ya?” And I did.
Amelia and I were returning to London on an open jaw out of Boston. It would be a long shot through the Poconos, across the Delaware, and into New England, so I suggested we drive to Syracuse for the evening, stay at an inn on Lake Cazenovia, and take the Thruway to Massachusetts the next day. I wasn’t being romantic. Snow was forecast for the entire East, and the emotional weight that came with death had ground me down to exhaustion. I felt as though I had been awake for three days. That lake—a place I used to go to rest in another life—was the only place I knew where I could stop, lie down, and sleep. Maybe, though, in the back of my mind, I knew what I was doing coming this way one more time.
When we got to Syracuse, I recognized immediately our proximity to the Jesuit novitiate of St. Andrew’s, a house in which I lived for two of the eight years I spent in training for the Catholic priesthood with the Society of Jesus. Its presence was compelling. Unavoidable, I have to say, as unavoidable as on the day my mother and father drove me there in August 1990—after I had graduated from college and graduate school, and worked for two years—to begin the life they thought I would live to its natural conclusion.
I said to Amelia, “Let’s go up the hill to St. Andrew’s.” She looked puzzled, but not because she didn’t know this was, in a sense, where it all began. She knew my story better than anyone and had witnessed the final few chapters in a different place, from her own vantage point in my life. No, she was puzzled because she was worried about me, not knowing if this return was the direction in which I should now go. But I insisted. “I want to see if anything’s changed.”
From Salt Springs Road and across the field by St. Mary’s dormitory of Le Moyne College, I saw again in complete detail the house I once associated with the entrance into religious life. A redbrick and sandstone manse built in the 1950s with a gabled front and boxy sides, it looked more like the home of some austere and eccentric businessman from Upstate New York who made his fortune in ball bearings or the disposable razor than like a Jesuit novitiate. Tucked into a sloping hill that seemed unsteady while remaining intact, the house had nothing overtly religious about it unless you knew what the barely discernible “IHS” symbol over the door meant.
The driveway was lined with cars. Priests or parents visiting, I thought, but dismissed the possibility. In December this should be no more than a house of young Jesuits with their minds and hearts set on where they would be going come January, when half would be sent into silence, the other half out into the world but not to be of it. I parked in an open space. Through the glass I could see someone whose face bore the look of the earnest walking toward us. He opened the side door by the kitchen, which I knew was the proper entrance; its metallic screech invited me in as a once-welcomed visitor, whose absence former inhabitants often wondered about on days when the weather made hot drinks and conversation the only possible, if not desirable, activities.
Amelia and I walked together through a short, darkened hall that led into the open house refectory. We shook hands with three curious yet hesitant young men who, after they heard why I was driving through Syracuse, expressed their deepest sympathies for my father and gratitude for my visit. I asked all of the appropriate questions: Is the novice master around? Are we disturbing a day of quiet? Are you busy getting ready for Christmas? They assured us that we had only caught them having coffee. We were welcome to join them for a cup.
“I think we’d like to go up to the chapel, sit for a short prayer, and then we’ll leave you to your Saturday,” I said finally.
“You won’t be leaving us to much,” the one who had answered the door said. The secundi (novices in their second year) were in a special conference. The primi (first-years, as these men were) had just finished their assigned housecleaning and were enjoying the quotidian lull.
In the small chapel—a tenebrous space we used to call “the womb”—I sat quietly and tried to summon words from prayers that had issued easily from my lips and heart the last time I sat here, almost fifteen years ago: prayers of the Divine Office, a Jesuit’s Examination of Conscience, or sometimes the holy sigh of “Christ, what am I going to do?” uttered not in vain but in times of spiritual exhaustion. I looked up and watched Amelia circle the altar as though she had come to perform a reverential dance, and I fell in love with her all over again seeing her move with such grace in that place. Wanting to leave me to my own meditation, she walked to the back of the room to see the stained-glass-window portraits of the North American martyrs that let in what little light there was: Isaac Jogues, Rene; Goupil, John de Lalande, and the young Mohawk woman, Kateri Tekakwitha. The three men were Jesuits who died far from their homelands and, as a result, were remembered for this. The Native American was proof that some of their labor paid off. “Saints,” Amelia said, then with a sheepish smile whispered, “Sorry.” But I smiled back, because it occurred to me that no one in that room, man or woman, living or dead, had anything to be sorry for.
After a few minutes I brought my short prayer for the peace of lives past and lives yet lived to a close and wanted to leave that house as decidedly as I had wanted to come. The secundi would be done with their meeting soon, priests I no doubt knew would be wandering into the kitchen for their own cups of coffee, and my short visit would turn into a long story, one I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell that afternoon. Besides, I suspect those well-meaning first-year novices had given us the run of the place too quickly. Visitors to the novitiate weren’t allowed upstairs unaccompanied in my day, regardless of whether or not they were former Jesuits who’d returned with their wives to say a prayer in the wake of a loved one’s passing.
I remember sleeping well that night in our suite on the lake. Just before sunrise I stirred and took in the surroundings of the room: half-unpacked suitcases at the foot of the bed; yesterday’s clothes draped over a chair; curtains drawn back and the window opened a crack for air; outside the black surface of water. In the half-light I had to remind myself of where I was, and then watched a familiar snowfall drift against the window and accumulate in tiny piles on the ledge. Slowly, the predawn silver began to distinguish itself from the white cover that lay everywhere around, and I thought, How beautiful it all is. Beauty so old and so new. Amelia, almost seven years my traveling companion and five years my wife, rolled in to me, heat and the hint of brine rising from beneath our comforter, and asked if anything was wrong. “No, nothing. Nothing at all.” I kissed her and said, “Go back to sleep.”
We went to Mass at St. James’s in Cazenovia among a thin crowd of locals that morning. I prayed for my father and asked him to pray for us, because I believe that the communion of saints is capable of such a thing. Afterward we ate a breakfast of French toast and eggs at a diner on Albany Street. And there I thought of the novices at St. Andrew’s, who I knew would be shoveling snow and then going to Mass themselves. I had done as much in the work and prayer of Jesuit life, a life that each man who entered by that door began out of some unspoken desire to search for God and the self, regardless of how early or late he had come to that desire. I didn’t wonder which novice’s story would be like mine. Each one’s and no one’s. That day, I just hoped that the men we met would sooner or later find themselves changed.
Outside, the squall tapering, skies clearing, Amelia and I got into our rental car and continued east on the next leg of our journey.
Excerpted from A Long Retreat by Andrew Krivak. Copyright © 2008 by Andrew Krivak. Published in March 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.