There is a small chapel in the building where undergraduates as well as Masters students take courses at the university. The Albertus Magnus Chapel was modest and great care had evidently been taken to gather the holy articles found there since there was an eclectic assortment of decoration and ornamentation, but still with a symmetrical arrangement. Stained glass windows of saints, French-inspired Joan of Arc, John the Baptist, and French King Louis, along with Augustine, could be a delight for the eyes, even if knowledge of the life and work of each stood unknown and uninteresting for persons who pass by. Up front on either side of the altar, too much to overlook, were two statuettes of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Albert the Great.
The place shared something with a piece of my history and it has taken years to sink in, much like a chance encounter with a genius who happens to take care in encouraging a curious child to take risks, to become more acquainted with the world around him. The genius knows the possibility that the world can remain fascinating, become increasingly more so as a child matures to adulthood. At the time, the comment or gesture is striking but the gravity remains a mystery until time reveals its weight, as the child seeks for a way that life continue to be interesting and full of meaning. At least, this is how it often took place in the chapel and in the classrooms above.
One such incident happened in a class when we were taking a critical look at Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. Before submitting our proposals for the semester paper, our professor instructed us to take responsibility for all that we saw. His reason for saying so he made very clear: no one in the past, present or future had, is, or would see what we did personally and individually. In order to take ourselves and our sight seriously, there was a benefit to us in how we took our formed judgments, yes, of the story, but also of the pervasive human experiences depicted in the lives of the characters. If what we saw was convincing to one of us, then it ought to stand true as we present our proposal for the project and also for how we take care of our human judgment thereafter. He, among others, could empower and also instill trust in that we would find benevolent presence behind our lives and work.
He left no room for sorry excuses for laziness, boredom, or impenetrable sadness if there was, in fact, a benevolent presence behind it all. Albert the Great, quite a venerable voice who appreciated ethics, metaphysics, and natural science, appears far from a boring personality, and he must have been much like the professor who provoked us. Having affection for the human search for how reality reveals mystery as well as our making sense of what materially exists means we can approach each other, see each other, within this memory and in being present to what happens to us.
We were presented with quite an invitation through that moment and the work on that project. We could take the persons and circumstances which caught our attention and inquire about any number of things, but especially of what motivated the characters to do what they did and how their motivations played out, how all that they were given and all that they chose for themselves came to fruition. We could personally take a look at what Kristin or her mother or her father or her lover or her nemesis wanted when they sought holy as well as grievous gratification. Drawn to trust her judgment and those who came before her brought both hardship and joy, but all of the above was involved in her sanctification.
We could, in turn, take our judgment of what we found to be desirable and ask, really ask, “where will the judgments I have made lead?” Then, too, there was another classmate asking, “Could it be that my motivations and desires speak to the most dear, most authentic needs I have?” Just as we prefer to highlight one season or another of our life, we asked together whether we purposefully forget and purposefully exclude some episodes because we assume they are unavailable for forgiveness. We could ask, “Do I, by the way I live, most identify with those who seek a unity or this disassociation with the community who helps in saving me?”
Upon contemplating and studying with the task of writing, it was next to impossible not to have mercy for the burdened in the story as well as for the ones who had caused injury or pain in one’s life up to that point. No wrong was justified, but that was nowhere near the bottom line. In light of how forgiveness and contrition are at the basis for our need among each other, there is no settling for less.
Years after sitting attentively in the lecture, a snippet of advice came back from a moment when my mother told me what motivated her to savor a beer. To take a drink meant cause for some celebration, or it ought to since it is the time for toasts and enjoyment of another’s company. No amount of the ale could take away whatever may bring sadness or sorrow, so enjoy a drink when you have something to say thanks for.
She never admitted so, but I suspect her father, Albert, taught her that was the case through the way he drank beer with his wife, children and extended family. Those are the words and insights of a father for me, in any case. The patient and honest farmer passed away before my memory could shape him up. However, some of the most striking moments among other men, like my professor, who mysteriously face life with such affection and with such curiosity bring about the memory of Grandpa shared with me. These geniuses live well, drink well, and extend the ongoing invitation to let desire for companions and new life be brought out to bear in the daily grind, not outside it.
I’d drink to that: to Grandpa, to Albertus Magnus, to Undset, and to the ones who make the invitation to take a person’s desires for the infinite as seriously as oxygen.