Reading Dante’s Purgatorio, one can’t help wondering what terraces await one at the conclusion of the terrestrial journey. I pride myself that I may avoid the second terrace, reserved to the envious. There the penitents have their eyes stitched tightly shut, to remedy their too avid sight.
On deeper discernment, I must confess to some envy when I hear of the graduate studies of younger colleagues. They appear to have enjoyed halcyon days of undisturbed study, surrounded by inspiring and solicitous mentors, basking in the easy camaraderie and plentiful libations of fellow students. No doubt, there were the inevitable times of tension and all-night vigils, but, by and large, their graduate studies were fruitful and are fondly remembered. Unlike mine.
I was part of the first cohort of Catholic graduate students to descend upon non-Catholic universities for graduate studies in theology. Alas, the years 1967–1970 were years of turmoil in both church and state. 1968, in particular, was the annus horribilis, marred by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the conflict over Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Meanwhile, the Religious Studies department at Yale was divided and unsure of its direction—this before the emergence of the “Yale School,” which exercised such an important influence in subsequent years. One result was that I wound up writing my thesis under the direction of a professor in the philosophy department, upon the American religious philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce was an interesting figure, to be sure, but rather removed from my substantive theological concerns.
I left Yale with only one chapter of the dissertation actually completed and plunged into teaching, which is an all-consuming enterprise—far more stimulating than old Josiah’s dusty Idealism. It took the next two hot summers, in a near-empty seminary, to complete the project, about which no one in the world (or at least in the seminary) had the slightest interest. To coin a phrase, the experience was “purgatorial.”
Providentially, a Virgil, in the person of George Lindbeck (not the director, but one of the readers of my dissertation), graciously offered to read my final draft. Lindbeck provided the suggestions and encouragement that enabled me to complete the labor arduus et molestus.
Freed from the burden and fortified by a Ph.D., I could turn, at last, to more congenial theological writing. One of my first efforts was accepted by a small but reputable theological journal. Within a matter of weeks, my piece appeared on its first page.
Delight, however, transformed into deep chagrin when I read the article and discovered that the editor had taken the liberty, absent any consultation, to emend the last words of my final sentence. I had written: “according to the norm who is Jesus Christ.” The editor engineered a deft modification by the simple device of adding two small punctuation marks. These served to traduce my meaning and intent. The article now ended with: “according to the norm: who is Jesus Christ?”
I have, from time to time, wondered which terrace of Purgatorio is reserved for fraudulent editors? (Or is the proper punctuation mark: “!”)
From small changes, major consequences sometimes flow. The experience was a step on my passage in the early 1970s from being a reader of Concilium (though this was not the place of the article’s publication) to becoming a supporter and sometime contributor to Communio. If you will, from being a partisan of the “spirit” of Vatican II, often untethered from its texts, to being an advocate of the Council, both its actual texts and its ongoing faithful reception and application. First Things lay a few years in the future, a further stage on life’s way. But the right turn had been made.
Fr. Robert Imbelli is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination.