Note: This writing is drawn from a chapter that I contributed to a recently-published book called Bush Dweller: essays in memory of Father James Gray, OSB.
Long after I had finished with my years at university, I made a list of the five teachers and professors who had been my best. Two of them were Al Gerwing, better known to us during my student days at St. Peter’s College as Brother Thomas, and Father James Gray. James taught English literature to first year university students at St. Peter’s and he was also editor of the Prairie Messenger newspaper. His workload must have been daunting. He was my professor for only one year but he was amazing and had a great influence upon my intellectual development and upon my decision a few years later to become a journalist and a writer.
I was his student in 1966-67, the first year in which university classes at St. Peter’s became co-educational. As I recall, there were six or seven women among the 25 or so students. It must have seemed an odd fit to the women because most of the males had been high school students at St. Peter’s just a year earlier, and we simply continued on with our adolescent habits. That might involve seeing how hard we could punch each other in the shoulder during a break between classes, or setting someone’s shoe laces on fire with a cigarette lighter while he was deeply engaged in a conversation during a coffee break.
James always arrived at class wearing his black clerical robe and white collar. He had thinning hair and a high forehead and wore thick, black-rimmed glasses, all of which gave him the appearance of being rather severe. He would pose questions to us about our assigned readings then stand back patiently with a slight smile, waiting for us to respond. I embarrassed myself thoroughly in our class discussion about John Galsworthy’s short story, The Apple Tree. In the story, a middle-aged British academic named Frank Ashurst is on a Sunday drive with his wife of many years who likes to paint. They stop in a rural area and she begins to sketch while he reads his book about philosophy. She calls his attention to a nearby grave and something begins to stir in his memory. When an older local man comes along, Ashurst begins to question him and the man tells him that a farm girl named Megan had her heart broken by a young man from the city and later took her life on this spot.
The memories come flooding back for Ashurst and he recalls how he and a friend had spent time hiking in the area many years ago, how he had a brief dalliance with an innocent young woman named Megan, then left thinking little more of it. Now he discovers that she had probably taken her life out of a forsaken love for him. He is moved by this realization and once safely out of sight of his wife he throws himself to the ground and weeps for his lost youth. Galsworthy writes that Ashurst had “stumbled on a buried memory, a wild sweet time, swiftly choked and ended.”
Father James asked us about our response to the story, particularly to Ashurst’s weeping over an old memory. I don’t recall what others said but I had been swallowed whole by Ashurst’s plight – a middle-aged man, a bit stodgy, perhaps not entirely happy in his marriage, unearthing a memory of love and life from many years ago, so poignant that it left him prostrate and in tears. I must have communicated what passed for analysis to James and I was completely shocked when he exploded.
“That twit,” he said. “That narcissistic twit.” I realize that I am recreating this dialogue more than 40 years after it occurred, but I am certain that James used the words “twit” and “narcissistic.” Ashurst, said James, had played with the love and emotions of a young woman then casually dropped her, so casually that he didn’t even remember the encounter or the landscape until confronted by the grave and the old man’s story. When he does remember, he blubbers only for his own lost youth. This was vintage James Gray – insightful, honest and blunt – but as I was also to discover, fond of his students, forgiving about their obvious limitations and capable of a robust friendship.
In the years that followed, I would sometimes pay flying visits to St. Peter’s on weekends and those visits would usually involve at least one lengthy conversation with James. I know that other of his former students made similar visits and that he corresponded with many people. When I took a year off from university and made my obligatory 1960s trek through Europe, I sent him letters regularly. I still have some of his replies to me on thin, blue-papered Aerogrammes, some typewritten and others filled with now fading ink in his neat and flowing handwriting. He responded seriously and respectfully to what must surely have appeared to him as superficial observations mingled with adolescent angst. “Thank you a million lire for sharing your European reflections with me,” he said in one letter. “I feel as if I have been with you and growing along with you as you react to what you experience.” He had trenchant observations about the world. The racist George Wallace was running for election to the U.S. presidency in 1968. “If the signs of the times mean anything,” James wrote, “the U.S. is galloping toward fascism.” Often he talked of the religious life and the church. “Have just had the Eucharist for the sisters,” he wrote early on one cold winter morning. “A happy celebration it was, at least not so impersonal and cold as ours in our chapel.”
In other letters after I had returned to Canada and to school, he encouraged me to write for the Prairie Messenger. My first piece in 1969 was about how the university had become a bulwark of the status quo. He ran it on the front page and his letter about the article was praiseworthy. His response to another piece that I wrote about Senator David Croll’s report on poverty in Canada was less enthusiastic. “I am going to run it but I can’t help thinking that you should have written it more simply, more graphically,” he said. He was not impressed when I shifted from studying English literature into a program in sociology – an experiment that lasted for about two weeks. It was also he who suggested on one visit that I consider a career in writing for my livelihood and vocation.Â It was advice that I followed within a year or two.
His letters also revealed some of his own struggles and disappointments. He wrote in one letter about how a Saskatchewan bishop had written to him saying he did not care to be associated with the Prairie Messenger much longer “since it is not based on Catholic principles of journalism.” In another, he wrote of his sorrow and even his anger when some of the younger men left the monastery and the priesthood. “Everyone who leaves says it’s a matter of integrity,” he wrote. “Are those of us who stay, then, the slouches, the poor, insecure dependent types who couldn’t manage on their own without some father figures and structures for support?”
In another of his letters in 1970, he said, “When I meet with some of you fellows now, you who were my former pupils, I often feel pretty backward. The world is coming into your hands now, and I almost feel as if my days are next to over. The hermitage is appealing more strongly from day to day.” I must admit that I never really understood his desire to become a hermit, which perhaps illustrates that there was much I did not know about him – or the monastic tradition. He did eventually go to live in a small house in the woods, albeit on the grounds of the abbey. This coincided with a time when I was away from Saskatchewan, then returned to get married and have a family. My visits to St. Peter’s became infrequent but I did on two or three occasions trek out to his hermitage set among the aspens. I found him friendly enough but also somewhat distant. I had an unmistakable impression that I was keeping him from something that he found more compelling than my interest in journalism and politics. So, I stopped going.
I recall responding rather churlishly to one of his notes to me criticizing some aspect of my performance as host of the CBC Radio morning program in Saskatchewan in the late 1980s. In retrospect, I think that he was just offering a literary criticism and I took it too personally. We had little contact throughout the 1990s but did have a friendly, if random visit in the summer of about 2003 when my wife Martha and I took our two teenaged daughters to stay for a couple of days at the abbey, attending the monks’ prayers in chapel and wandering through the orchards and gardens. We came upon James working in the flower garden and I was able to introduce him to Martha and our children. Someone took a photo of us together, with James leaning on his hoe. I don’t remember much in detail from that conversation, other than his saying that he believed I had achieved a balance in my life – I think that he meant a balance between work and family, or perhaps between ambition and reflection. It was a special moment for me.
When Al Gerwing died in November 2007, I was reminded of the private ranking that I had made of my teachers many years earlier. I visited regularly with Al and had been able to tell him how much his instruction and guidance had meant to me when I was his student. I never had a similar conversation with Father James. I heard from other monks that he was having health problems so I wrote to him in December 2007, for the first time in many years. “I mentioned Al’s death in our Christmas letter to family and friends this year,” I wrote. “I said that Al had been for me a special teacher and mentor. I thought also about you, and how you played that role for me as well. I am sure that you have heard from other former students just how important you were to their formation. It is a great gift that you, and Al, have given to us and I want to thank you for it.”
I did not hear back from James but I assume that he received the letter. I hope that he read it and believed it to be true. In April 2009, it was his turn to both leave the earth and enter into it. It appeared that he was ready for that fate, even welcomed it. That sentiment, too, is something that I do not yet understand but I do know that we have lost a great teacher, someone with a keen mind and a formidable, generous spirit.