Don Edwards Literary Memorial

August 26, 2007

Once upon a time….

….I was a Christian Brother. I thought about your post, LeRoy, about when you left the Brothers and began your life with the Farmworker’s crusade for decency. This is my story.

I am now seventy-two years old. I never expected to live that long. My father died of tuberculosis when he was 34. My stepfather died of alcoholic related diseases at the ripe old age of 48, wizened and yellowed by cirrhosis.

I never had much of a family life. By my count I had moved 10 times by the time I was 16. Then, for about six years, my family was a motley collection of boys who found themselves in Catholic boarding school, Mont la Salle, in Napa, California. Recruiting young men of high school age, usually from one of the seven or eight schools they owned and ran, was the primary method of recruitment for the Christian Brothers, an order founded in the seventeenth century whose laudable purpose was to teach children of poverty.

I was three years there, one year in the Novitiate, two years at St. Marys College as a student Brother with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and then I left for the real world. When I try to remember what I was like as a high school student I see a small, immature and very insecure child, clueless about what the implications of being in a religious order meant, a child who talked during the periods of silence, showed off to get attention, and was thoroughly disliked by the Director in charge of these children, Brother Michael Quinn. Deliberate humiliation was one of his weapons, indifference was another. God knows I needed neither.

Probably the most important person in my life, and no doubt the most influential during those six years, was the Director of Novices, Brother Pius. For the first time in my life, an adult took me seriously. In many ways he was the father I never had. A function called “redition” was a weekly affair. A novice would spend an hour alone with the Director, talking about many subjects, about life, about values, about expectations, about morality, about….well more or less whatever the Director wanted or thought important to talk about. When I told him of my fears, my anxieties, he eventually got me to understand that I had an “inferiority complex” and that I had no reason to feel that way. He said I was smart, good hearted and could probably succeed in anything I chose to do. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me either, but I wondered about his judgement then.

Something else he told me was what kind of temperament I had. Aristotle divided the world into four emotional categories: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. He said I was a more or less equal mix of sanguine and melancholic. I now translate that to mean, part smart ass, part introspectively moody. It was an accurate assessment. The smart ass part, I am sure, was what most people saw and likely was the main reason for being told by our Director of Scholastics, Brother Gabriel, that I should look seriously elsewhere for my life’s work. As it turns out, he was right. In a left handed way I owe him a debt of gratitude.

This revelation or pronouncement came like a slap in the face, completely out of the blue. It was during a redition. We chatted about this and that, then he looked at me and said that there were those in the committee, (I never found out who were on the “committee” or what exactly was said), who had reservations about my acceptability, my piety, my basic conduct, my “vocation”.

I was told that I would have a short time to think and pray over my decision, but the implication was that he, “they,” wanted me to leave. I did think about it. I did pray over it. Then I sought advice from the only one in the world I trusted, Brother Pius.

Now a little about Brother Pius. Short, funny kind of duck walk, warm and insightful. I said he took me seriously, but more than that, he liked me and cared about me. He was a bit of a smart ass himself, I think, and that probably explains why he was not a member of the “committee.” Here’s a picture of him I took in 1953. Roman nose, direct look, sly smile, wise and sensitive.

He said, in short, that the decision was all mine. He said the “committee” could not expel me, in fact had acted already beyond its responsibility, and that if I decided to stay, they could not do anything about it. He emphasized that I had done nothing wrong, nothing that would justify this “notification.” He told me he would talk to whoever I wished him to talk to and I could be present if I wished.

In the end, as you did, LeRoy, I decided to decide. It turned out to be simple. I felt like an inverse Groucho Marx. Why would I want to be in a club that didn’t wish me as a member? So I packed my bags with the sum total of two shirts, two pair of black pants, several pair of underclothes and socks, one pair of shoes and my toothbrush. My mother came to pick me up during evening prayer so that nobody would know that I had left. I left no note of explanation. I disappeared as if I had never been a Brother.

You can imagine, LeRoy, I was in a quite different state of mind than what you describe when you left the monastic life. When you decided to leave, you had plans, vision, excitement going into a new life.

I had no place to go, no vision, no sense of mission, no self respect after that humiliating exit. Brother Robert, bless him, and George Eliot our English Novel teacher, wrote St. Johns College suggesting that I would be an excellent addition to their student body. So that was where I headed after the summer, beginning a new life.

Half a century has gone by. Going nights, afternoons, weekends, whenever I could take a class while working full time and with a family, I eventually acquired a degree in mathematics and an masters in Electrical Engineering. I became a technologist, primarily computer applications, lived in six countries, fathered four children, married still to the same woman, Valerie, for fifty years….in short, an interesting, challenging and fulfilling life.

So once upon a time I was a Christian Brother, looking forward to taking my final vows, intent on getting a PhD in Literature, teaching in a university like my friend and mentor, Brother Robert. Looking back, I bear no grudge or bad feelings except for the way it was done: cruel and mean spirited.

As for the Christian Brother religious order itself: in retrospect it had already lost its way. Educating poor kids had become a very secondary objective at best. The winery, now sold, and the college, now more or less secular, became the primary objectives. I wonder what John Baptist de la Salle, its founder, would think of them now? There are still plenty of poor, illiterate kids around.

Oh, yes. I am still a smart ass and moody. And sure enough, I can do most things I set out to do. I guess Brother Pius was a pretty good judge of temperament after all.

Filed under: DON POSTS — Don @ 3:05 am

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