Dear La Salle College High School Family,
E Strano, E Strano! “How very strange it all is!” These words begin the ruminations of Violetta Valery, heroine of Verdi’s La Triaviata, as she comes to terms with disturbing new-found feelings of love in the extraordinary aria which ends that opera’s Act One If you’re in the comfortable majority who aren’t exactly opera buffs, you will remember this story enthralling Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, resonating with her own life as it does (If you’re too young to remember Pretty Woman, I really can’t help you.).
Strange indeed, the Thanksgiving we are preparing to celebrate. College students being sent home for good three weeks early, or alternately being kept cocooned in university housing a bit longer, preparing to enjoy the dining hall’s very best turkey loaf and ersatz mashed potatoes. Nan reveling in the freedoms of a cloistered nun provided by her “Retirement-Life Community,” such institutions stressing retirement from the world far more than life or community these days. Anxious retailers began Black Friday sales online ages ago while the actual day recedes in importance, most big box stores eschewing the recent noxious practice of opening mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving. “Immediate Family Only!” scream various cable news experts at regular intervals each day. I guess Aunt Helen who never found the right guy but is like a second grandmother to your kids is just supposed to make an omelet or something. Eat outside!” But it’s going to be in the mid-fifties and raining.
I have had a few strange Thanksgivings over the years. Several were by choice. European travel is not so in demand as it is the week after Christmas, and great bargains were occasionally to be had. My first Thanksgiving resident in Australia was just ignored. But in 1995 a new Irish Christian Brother had joined the community, multi-culturally sensitive before it became the norm, and we enjoyed a Tasmanian turkey for “tea.” It actually looked more like a chicken with a thyroid problem and was served with roasted potatoes and yams, not mashed, as it’s axiomatic in Australia: if you roast the meat, you roast the vegetables.
The most memorable among these Thanksgivings, though, was in Bethlehem in 2002 (the Holy Land, not the Lehigh Valley). We were a community of about a dozen, perhaps nine of whom were Americans. It was in the middle of the second Intifada, and closures in Palestine responding to assaults on Israel were the norm. Turkeys, of course, were only to be found where crowds of American immigrants lived, in Jerusalem, less than ten kilometers away, but behind a sealed border. Things didn’t look good as the week began, and we were making plans over a rather somber Tuesday dinner to switch to the ubiquitous leg of lamb for what promised to be a most lame Thanksgiving.
Then he arrived. Hassam from the physical plant department, grinning from ear to ear, holding two scrawny but recognizable turkeys by their still-attached necks and heads. Some pleasant double talk obscuring whatever black market, border-crossing skullduggery was required to get the birds to this handoff, it didn’t really matter. Hassam’s care, creativity, and compromise had won the day. Thanksgiving was saved.
Care, creativity, and compromise: these may well be the unique combination of values that will get us all through the most wonderful time of the year under the most horrid of circumstances. We do the best we can considering the specific health, geographic, and familial circumstances we work within. We know what we value. We are reassured that God is satisfied with our efforts, and we should be too, even when the celebration isn’t the tour de force it always was in previous years.
In recent weeks, I have been privileged to see what attention to those three C’s can do in another dimension of life at La Salle. Despite the obstacles, La Salle has held three Kairos retreats this fall, with five more scheduled for the second semester, hopefully providing this grace-filled opportunity to all members of the Class of 2021 who wish to attend and can do so safely. I got to participate in two of them and visit the other. While schedule, spatial arrangements, dining, and expressions of support all would look vastly different to those who participated in the first 133 Kairos retreats at La Salle, the spirit and effects of the retreat have hardly changed at all. But the seniors have. There is more anxiety and uncertainty to be sure, but there’s also something else: a seriousness, a sober realism about life’s challenges, a commitment to make the most of the good times, a connectedness fostered by months of relative isolation, and, most importantly, a gratitude for the positive experiences, for the things that do work out for them. Taking things for granted is out of fashion. These traits — probably more characteristic of the Greatest Generation than the Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and whatever else that follows them — may be one of the few ways 2020 will add value to our collective experience.
Many of our faculty, most Kairos-generation alumni, and possibly a few parents who have asked highly specific questions of particularly attentive sons will all appreciate that the first Eucharist of that retreat always employs the same Gospel. Not wishing to steal Father Farley’s thunder with future retreatants, let me recall it using T.S. Eliot’s allusive verse from “What the Thunder Said,” the fifth poem in The Wasteland, (by now, after nine years, you’d think this letter ghostwritten if there weren’t some obscure literary reference):
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
Perhaps this essential lesson of Kairos, this essential experience of La Salle, is actually reinforced by these trying days of pandemic, not contradicted by them. Though crowds may be thinned – at the dinner table, around the Eucharistic table, in the classroom, in the stands, or on the sidelines – that’s the wrong thing to focus on. Sure, that’s strange. But what’s not strange is one of the essential lessons our faith teaches: we are never alone. We have our companions on our human and Christian journey. But then there’s also “the third who walks always beside you.” The living Christ, not always easy to recognize beneath the hood of ordinary and extraordinary concerns obscuring him from view, but always with us. That’s what we acknowledge when we pause to remember we are in God’s holy presence. In pausing to give thanks towards the end of the most difficult year most of us can remember, He it is we acknowledge ahead of us on the road, living forever within our hearts and making them burn with gratitude and love.
Brother James L. Butler, FSC