Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal: Mourning Tom Gerencher

All day I've wandered around with Tom Gerencher never far from my thoughts, a proportion that does little but highlight how much I take for granted the presence of everyone I know. I went over to Mass at Joan of Arc at 9pm. Every Wednesday night during the summer they open up the little medieval chapel for a Mass, and its one of my favourite things about summer at Marquette – a tiny spiritual and aesthetic secret shared by a relatively small number of people.

Joe Mueller, S.J. was saying Mass, which was a comfort. A young Systematics and Patristics theologian graduated from the Sorbonne, I think he's the best preacher on campus, and I found myself thinking that Tom would have liked the service. Tom's faith, as I experienced it, was like him: kind of gruff, and not one to suffer fools gladly. But it was part of the make-up of what he brought to his literature and media courses, and now that I'm through my coursework I find that I would love to ask him any number of questions on the American Transcendentalists from that standpoint. He would grumble at me about bad administration, whether academic or clerical, and seem like any frustrated protestor you might meet, but then would surprise me by bringing back literature from a trip, like one to Cologne, so as to relate to me something of a pilgrimage experience he had. And he would be irked a few days later if I hadn't yet read it as he administered an unannounced informal quiz to me.

It was only during the Mass, as all this was whirling in my head and as we prayed for him, that I first really began to actively remember the implications of our faith. Even as a theologian, death is stark enough to overwhelm any too-easy belief in the resurrection. But as the Eucharistic service was being performed and I was drawn back into the narrative of Jesus' death, I had to remember once again that if this crazy story is true – and I have hammered at it for years with all of Tom's famed enthusiasm for his critical "Support Techniques" – then there is a chance that I might see him again, after all. And have that chance to say what should have been said. I taught with him, but learned from him. Occasionally, maybe I said something back of value to him. But I did get the impression that he'd seen enough "bad religion" at Saint Joe's that he was relieved to talk to someone who emphasized critical thinking in his same style, and he was enthusiastic about the Theology Department we went on to create in those years.

So if this whole Christianity thing is true, I find myself comforted, but not in the way that they think who glibly sneer that Christianity is the childish fairy tale made up to comfort, and to deny the grim power and pain of death. I'm comforted because there are other possibilities, and that the story may not yet be over. I am comforted to hear that Fr. Walter Bly was with Tom, walking the Saint Joe track for exercise that morning, and, in the midst of what was surely a terrifying moment, giving Tom the structure, the lifeline, of hope and reassurance in the sacrament we used to call "last rites" as he died. And so I find that suddenly Tom takes a place in my personal litany of the saints. I couldn't say that to him without him making some dirty or deprecating joke about the idea, but he is now "ahead" of me in a new way, and perhaps knows things now that I do not, and so the content of his faith has changed. But it's still our faith, too, and perhaps his new state, if it's not just the void, now permeates the whole of the story and content of his life. If so, remembering him, seemingly moving "back," might have something of moving "forward" to it, too. And like the rest of people in our litanies, public and private, I will remember Tom.
Tags: friends-notre dame era, mysticism/spirituality, obituary, personal, saint joseph's high school, teachers, theological notebook

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