June 27th, 2005


Personal/Theological Notebook: PRIESTS: Joe O'Donnell, CSC; David Coffey; M. Basil Pennington, OCSO

Is anyone this sentimental and geeky? Do you, like I do, so love certain messages you get on your answering machine that you actually save them? That you get a grin listening to them once again every now and then? I actually copied them, after a while, 'cause the saved ones were taking up so much room, onto a tape, and now that had been converted to an mp3 file. See--sentimental and geeky.

I mention it because the first message of that old set--the one I just deleted after pulling out my answering machine here at the new apartment after three years of not using it since I had voice mail at the other place--was from an old friend with whom I'd fallen out of touch. The message, full of what I can only describe as affectionate contempt, went like this (after hearing my absurd greeting):
I don't believe you said that: "Happy happy...." It's now 8:40 in the morning and all of God's children should be up doing God's work and you're in bed. This is The Priest. The Priest is at Moreau Seminary, and he's going to be here until Wednesday morning, but he wants to go to dinner with you, and Erik if he's around....
Well, the other day I finally called The Priest, which I've meant to do for months, as I'd fallen out of contact. Joe O'Donnell, CSC put in 27 years as a Naval Chaplain before retiring at Notre Dame and having to put up with all the inefficiency of his own order. On the flipside, he could now wear Bermuda shorts all the time, and went out and got his ear pierced the day he left the Navy, so he was enjoying some of the change, as well. I met him immediately after that when I got hired along with a fellow grad student for a live-in position at the Holy Cross priests' and brothers' retirement facility, essentially just watching the door every other night. It turned out to be an incredible experience, not least just by living with such a distinct group: Joe was the next-youngest after us, at a mere 62. And the thing was, living there, I began to see being in your sixties as being rather young, at that. The priests and brothers also got the benefit (at least, most of them thought so) of having a steady stream of young people who weren't seminarians beginning to visit the house. Other than the several near-fatal heart incidents caused by the future U.S. Catholic writer and then-undergraduate, the lovely Miss Tara Dix coming to dinner in short shorts, I never got anything but thanks for bringing friends over. (And truth to tell, I think a lot of the guys enjoyed Tara, for all that, as any group of guys rightly would.)

It was good to pick things up with Joe, as I'd let that go far too long. Now he continues to use his military background as a very successful State Police chaplain in the Phoenix area, while living a very active retirement (what else, for priests?) that includes, as he told me gleefully, having his very own police car. He also published a chapter on his experiences as a chaplain in Vietnam in the book The Sword of the Lord : Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (Critical Problems in History), which came out of a conference some years back at Notre Dame that I attended while teaching at St. Joe's. His story is a noteable one, and I highly encourage people to pick it up, as it might be an interesting and unusual read all-around. (And magdalene1 should secure the film rights.)


Last Monday, on a day that saw great conversations with Mark Lang in the afternoon and Michael McGlinn in the night, I strolled over to the Jesuit Residence to see if I could catch Fr. David Coffey before he left the next day to retire in his native Sydney, Australia. There had been a party the Saturday before at Professor Bob Masson's place, but I ended up not going because I was afraid I'd be entirely too maudlin for my or anyone else's good. This sentimental Irish thing, I tell you, can be inconvenient. Fr. Coffey has been my Advisor, the Professor to whom I was first assigned as a Teaching Assistant, and the hardest intellectual Master I've ever worked with. I came to Marquette to work on ecclesiology, the theology of the Church. My first semester, I studied Theology of Grace with Coffey and my life has never been the same. Part of it is that this, I believe, is really the hardest theology there is. Even trinitarian theology is easy, by comparison, because once you start to "get" the trinitarian logic, the rest of it all begins to follow. With Grace, you're studying how the divine, the Triune God, interacts with us and the world. How does the infinite relate to the finite? What kind of mathematics allow for such a conversion? Going from digital to analog--we're talking about the intersection of two kinds of realities here, and that--on every level: theological, ethical, physics and metaphysics--became my passionate interest that first semester. Would that it was as easy to understand as it was to appreciate. An expert on the work of Karl Rahner, and one of Rahner's grad students, Coffey was my constant challenger, as his learning regarding grace, or Rahner's work that seemed to well up from him without effort required all my concentration to try to pace him. Only in his theology of the resurrection did I think that I got the better of him, by virtue of my historical training, and by a strange flaw of 1967 fashion that marred his.

I did manage to find Fr. Coffey at the Jesuit Residence, and was delighted when instead of wishing me a brief farewell, he exclaimed in delight that I'd stopped by (even unannounced, tacky me) and led me into a lounge where we talked for an hour and a half. While I'm being all sentimental in typing this up, that generosity with his time gave me a lot more freedom in the moment. We talked of theology and faith, of course, of a story in the New Yorker written by a young Jesuit currently in the house, of his ten years in the States and his great satisfaction with the opportunity that had been given him. He also spoke at length about his family with me for the first time, of brothers and sisters he was looking forward to seeing again, and of one large family of nieces and nephews who were alienated from the Church, and the pain that that gave him. It was different for me to imagine secularized family members who might treat the man I knew as "the David Coffey" as their embarrassing oddfellow, being a priest. There's nothing like seeing the ignorant dismiss an intellectual giant, because they know better, without trying, to make me feel like the world is out of order. Australia, he told me, was much more secularized than the U.S., more like a European country in that regard. And, he admitted, there really was a certain contrariness in the Australian spirit, he thought, that came from their common ancestry as criminals. I thought this was joke until I really gave it a moment, and remembered my own discovery of how Irish my U.S. upbringing had been, despite the generations, once I had experience of Irish homes.

When we had our last, wine-soaked session of the Nouvelle Théologie seminar last month, he came to his conclusion, and recognizing the moment of the end of his formal teaching career, used the Anglican phrase: "Here endeth the lesson." Our good-bye came with his thanks for my friendship here, to my great honour, and looking ahead to his continued work and our contact via email, but I was deeply moved at the thought that I might never see him again. Had he been here a few years more, I'd have likely jumped ship from Fr. Fahey to do my dissertation with Coffey in something overly-ambitious. He had surprised me by pulling me into his orbit and re-arranging my theological priorities and, ultimately, sending my life down a line I had not forseen. I guess our most important relationships always are like that: violations for which we will always be grateful.


One last priestly note: I only discovered today in my new issue of America that Fr. M. Basil Pennington died June 3rd from injuries sustained in a car crash a few months ago. I'd heard about the crash from Erik, and that Basil was having a hard time recovering. Along with being one of America's most important contemporary spiritual writers, I was able to follow Basil (who I've never met) from the "inside track" of Erik. Basil had met and recognized the budding spiritual and personal depths in Erik even back in pre-Freek days, and had initiated a long correspondence with Erik. I was thus able to follow some of his spiritual and ecclesiastical adventures "from the inside," such as his clandestine meetings with underground Chinese churches. Even second-hand, that friendship gave me some insights for which I remain indebted to him, and we all feel the Church's loss.

Abbot Basil Pennington, OCSO (1931-2005)

Basil Pennington, OCSO, retired Cistercian abbot and prolific author, died June 3, 2005 as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident on March 29, 2005. Robert Pennington was born July 28, 1931 in New York, and entered St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA on June 18, 1951 and was given the name Basil. He took his first vows July 26, 1953 and was ordained a priest December 21, 1957. He studied both theology and canon law in Rome and taught these subjects at Spencer, where he also served for a number of years as vocation director. At his initiative, Cistercian Publications was begun in 1968 to publish translations of the Cistercian Fathers in English and other studies in the areas of monastic life and spirituality; he also organized the First International Cistercian Studies Symposium, held at Spencer in 1970, the first of a series of similar meetings currently hosted each year in conjunction with the annual International Medieval Studies Congress at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. In the 1970s he became interested in the Centering Prayer movement, first taught at Spencer by Fr. William Meninger and Abbot Thomas Keating. Among his most popular books have been Daily We Touch Him and Centering Prayer, both of which focus on this type of prayer. Fr. Pennington’s extensive travels included an extended visit to the Greek Orthodox monastic colony at Mount Athos and periods of time at Cistercian abbeys in the Philippines and on Lantao Island, near Hong Kong. In February 2000 he was named temporary superior at Assumption Abbey in Ava, MO, and in August of that year he was elected Abbot of the Cistercian Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. In May 2002 he resigned as abbot and returned to Spencer, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was buried at St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer on June 8. Abbot Pennington was a prolific author, with more than forty books and hundreds of articles and reviews to his credit. He was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Merton, and among his many books were Thomas Merton, Brother Monk: The Quest for True Freedom (1987), A Retreat with Thomas Merton (1988) (reprinted as Engaging the World with Merton [2004]), a collection of his articles, Thomas Merton – My Brother: His Journey into Freedom, Compassion and Final Integration (1996), and a collection of articles on Merton which he edited, Toward an Integrated Humanity (1988); his anthology of writings by Merton, I Have Seen What I Was Looking For: Selected Spiritual Writings has been issued posthumously.