Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal/Theological Notebook: Some Hours with Sullivan

"S'hot! Damn hot!"

Extra points for the reference.

I'm back in the air-conditioned bliss of Erik's outer office (Erik is nowhere to be found, after telling me "I'll be here all day") and relaxing after a charming interview/extended conversation with Frank Sullivan. I walked over to Saint Mary's Hall, the main Jesuit residence on Boston College's campus at 10am, and it was already quite hot and very sticky/humid. Inside, in one of the un-air-conditioned first floor conference rooms, where we originally parked, it was soon sweltering. I had originally been relieved to find that Sullivan was dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, as I, too, came in shorts. (I was going to wear coat and slacks, if not a tie, but left my jacket unpacked, which I also realized as I was waiting at the bus stop for the airport, downtown in Milwaukee: making me two-for-two on my last trips, as last time it was suit-packed-but-no-dress-shirts.) So informality was the merciful rule of the day. But soon we both had lines of sweat visibly running down the two of us, and so I was relieved when he suggested that we move up to his room, where he had an air-conditioner in the window.

That was the first time I had seen his room, like a modest studio apartment, minus the cooking facilities. It was all old wood and plaster, though, with a wall of theology and ecclesiology books, a bed, a desk and a reading chair, all with a goodly amount of space to walk around. His poster art on the wall was Baroque, and the only other decorations were a few pictures: a few nieces, nephews and friends, his family with him on the day of his ordination, and a shot someone had taken of him being welcomed to dinner by John Paul II back in the mid-1980s.

It was all kind of a joy for me – all "gravy" – to be able to sit down with him near the end of my project and just to talk. I interviewed him three years ago, when I was first trying to figure out a decent dissertation topic to do on his work, having had read him now and again through the years, since being introduced to his work when I was at Notre Dame working on my M.A., and then having been investigating the shape of his published work. So I talked with him over four days, recording some fourteen hours of interviews, as well as sharing a number of meals. But that was "getting to know you" conversation, fishing for insight with which to discover and then build a project. We've continued exchanging emails since then. But it took me a year and a half of reading, note-taking and thinking, distracted by teaching over-commitments, before I whittled everything down to creating the final proposal: a project I never would have conceived of at the time I began. And now I've been writing, and all the active, ongoing research that goes with that for another year and a half, to finally have the end in sight. So this time, it was the chance to talk face-to-face with him not as a beginning student, searching for an idea, but as something of an expert. Like I said: gravy.

He's still decades ahead of me – one of the things I love about this field: that I can continue to grow for so long, my wits permitting – but there was more of an equal footing in being able to talk through the material, even if he was much more widely read than me, and that he's long since thought through questions I am still encountering. So: lots of ecclesiology related to my dissertation of course. I asked an awful lot of "What do you think...?" questions, committed to following my own thesis through, but now curious and able to ask him his opinion on whether he thinks I'm on the right track with one idea or another. Some of my dissertation is about him, which of course makes him the ultimate authority, barring God, but more of the dissertation is using him as a conversation partner, and a jumping-off point in trying to create a new ecclesiology – a new language or system for talking about the Church and communicating such Christian ideas to people. In my case, using the idea of charisms, of the spiritual gifts we receive from God, I'm trying to explore a language that shares at least some common vocabulary in talking not only about the Church itself – the community of those explicitly reacting to the action of God in history – but also specifically about God, especially in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who we most strongly encounter in these charisms/gifts we are endowed with, and also a vocabulary that then naturally extends into Christian spirituality, in how we live out our lives in light of God's actions on our behalf and these gifts of God which we have been given.

We talked for two hours, at which point he invited me down to the generous dining hall of the Jesuits there on campus (although much of the building was hot, it was nevertheless beautiful in that century-old collegiate way, of carved wood and stone, old paneling and so forth). There I had that rich and delicate Friday seafood chowder I had had on my last visit, causing us to talk of great Irish soups we had encountered, this time along with some mac-and-cheese and ham (not so old-style Catholic "Friday"), broccoli, and thick bread, with cold and welcome ice water. I snagged a couple of large Tollhouse cookies on the way out. Here the conversation was more personal news than professional theology, with a certain amount of talk about nieces and nephews, which is a subject about which I can be very enthusiastic. And so I introduced Nate, Grace, Haley, and Sophia, while hearing about his own, in particular talking about the work of one, a clinical psychologist in Cincinnati, who did similar work for the Bengals to some of the neuro-psychology services Kevin provided for European national ski teams.

And... Okay. Erik's back and we're heading out: his old roommate Jillian, who stopped by to say Hi to me yesterday was intrigued about some of our plans and so we changed the timing so that she and her partner Lauren could join us this afternoon/evening to head to the Lexington and Concord battle sites. We told her we were going to do a full re-enactment and to bring a costume, but she swears it was a total accident that she forgot her Abigail Adams dress at home.... So, time to pack up, here. Take your powder, take your gun, report to General Washington....
Tags: dissertation, francis a. sullivan s.j., friends-notre dame era, personal, theological notebook, travel-2009 boston

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