The Catholic school where I teach has been run by a religious order of brothers for the last forty years. Like many orders, their numbers have been dwindling for some time now, and recently they announced that they would no longer staff the school.
As our school approaches life without them, we find ourselves struggling to balance expressions of sorrow and optimism. We’ve dedicated much time over the last year to thanking the brothers and making it known how much they will be missed. At the same time, we’ve put on a good face. No, we tell querying parents, we’re still a Catholic school. We’ve used a reassuring phrase, saying that though the school will no longer have the brothers’ physical presence, it will still be run in the tradition of their order.
Like so many other schools across the country, our transition to lay leadership started some time ago, and we are prepared. Yes, we say proudly, and rightly. We are ready.
But something will be lost here. To a Catholic, physical presence and absence are very different things, and the departure of the brothers cuts to the very mission of our school. I remember learning from them some years ago that a sacrament was a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. The Eucharist, I was told, is a sacrament because as Catholics we believe it to be the actual flesh and blood of Christ. His physical presence—not simply an idea or a symbol.
I confess that often this concept seems ludicrous to me. Yet in the midst of my doubts I find myself drawn to this mystery because I’d like to believe that God would give something that nourishes us as the human beings that we are, not as ghostly Cartesian egos. I am flesh and blood, and I need real food and real drink to sustain me. As I grow older I see how so much of the Catholic faith does that, to different degrees. All the sacraments with their peculiar garments and oils. The gestures and rituals that serve as links between our outward and inward faith.
The brothers will no longer be physically present, we say, but surely we will carry with us their memories, even sustain certain charisms of their order. Yet this does not replace flesh and blood and habit. Students will no longer lock eyes with Brothers Steve and John and Michael in the hall, or hear their intonations in the classroom, or, when returning to their own families at the end of the day, see the brothers’ cars in their usual spots by their attached residence. Now that they’ve gone, it strikes me just how important these daily encounters with the brothers have been.
Why? What did they bring to our lives that lay teachers and administrators, no matter how dedicated, cannot? I turn to writer Flannery O’Connor, who, though she never wrote stories about the consecrated or even ostensibly Catholic life, had a great deal to say concerning the intersection of invisible and visible, of grace and nature. She dedicated herself to writing fiction that, as she herself put it, attempts to “reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality.” And O’Connor believed, like all Christians, that this supernatural reality is ultimately a mystery that we cannot explain but nevertheless resides at the center of our existence.
O’Connor’s stories are therefore perplexing. Especially the characters. They are grotesque, distorted figures from the American south—snake-oil salesmen, cripples, prophets, murderers… They are characters we cannot avoid looking at. She hoped they would jar us out of our well-furnished lives with our well-behaved friends, if only for a moment, into a recognition of something larger than ourselves: this mystery of sin and love and redemption that gives meaning to our whole enterprise.
And so it was with the brothers. Something about their consecrated life kept the rest of us on the right track, reminded us of the mystery in which we believe. On this level, their religious vocations functioned as O’Connor’s characters are meant to. Our act of addressing them as “Brother,” or seeing their deliberately simple garments, or experiencing any other way in which their interior life was manifest outwardly, shook us, through our senses, into a recognition of the central Christian mystery that lies beyond our senses.
Our last three brothers were walking, breathing, laughing recollections of that central mystery. The dress blacks they wore during the day were reminders that they had devoted their life to serving God and others. Like the characters in one of O’Connor’s stories, each encounter with them served to nudge us, even if only slightly, out of the world of GPAs and state championships and college acceptances into one where commitment to Christ is the only measurement of success. Their presence was sacramental, a visible sign of God’s call to all of us.
The Sacraments, Catholics believe, tether nature to grace, visible to invisible; they are the lifeline of the Church. What would happen if they withered? In one of her speeches O’Connor does not mince words: “when the physical fact is separated from the spiritual reality,” she writes, “the dissolution of belief is eventually inevitable.” Without the brothers I hope that our school will not suffer as much.
Near the close of the school year, as they do every year, the remaining brothers climbed the gymnasium stage after the Gospel at a mass celebrating the founding of their order. Here, in unison, they renewed their vows before the entire school—one thousand high school boys, teachers, and staff. Nothing was exceptional about their presentation. Brother Michael was battling illness, so only Steve and John stood before us. They knew that they were last of the hundreds of brothers to stand before the school and renew their vows, and it was visibly a difficult time for both. Steve’s deep baritone was hushed, and John mumbled, head down, the lines on the page front of him.
Still, the students knew the significance of the moment. They were as silent as if the brothers stood not on the stage but on the foul line with a tie score and no time on the clock. The two had every eye and ear in the gym.
It was as if, in the simple words that drifted through the heavy air above the bleachers, the students knew the brothers for the first time, as they really were. Not just as teachers and leaders and friends, but two human beings who had given up everything to follow Christ’s call. Who had chosen to forgo so much in life for one purpose: to serve them.
Before they could descend the stage the boys were on their feet. The ovation lasted for several minutes as the brothers returned to their places at the back of the gym, eyes down, faces flush, sitting while each student stood and turned to face them. At the end of mass the boys stood and clapped again. They knew we can’t replace them.
Mike St. Thomas teaches high school English in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
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