7/31/2012

The Parable of the Dugout Roof

Years ago, when I got out of the Army, I'd been conditionally accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The condition was that I had to earn a foreign language credit before I'd be formally accepted at UNC.

So I enrolled at Belmont Abbey College for one semester to take a French course. I decided to take a full academic load, so I also took courses in American literature, Southern literature, and astronomy.
There were several reasons why I enrolled at Belmont Abbey. First, the college actively sought veterans and gave a small tuition discount to vets. And it had a good academic reputation, and that was an inducement.

But Belmont Abbey also is a Catholic college, and like many Protestants, I was curious about Catholicism. I grew up in a small Methodist church, but, to borrow a phrase from my late friend, Jim Shumaker, I like to spread myself around ecumenically.
So I did a semester among the Benedictine monks at The Abbey. At that time, about 40 percent of the faculty was monastic. So even though the college is in Belmont, an old mill town in the heart of the Piedmont textile country, the presence of the Catholic monastery and the monks made The Abbey -- at least in my mind -- an unusual and even exotic place.

I remember a spring night when the weather suddenly changed from cold to warm, and fog rolled across the campus. I was walking back to my dorm room. In the near distance I saw two monks in their dark robes, hoods covering their heads, seeming to glide through the fog, moving from the light into the foggy darkness. It struck me that what I was seeing was something straight out of the Middle Ages. It was eerie and fascinating.
Three of my four instructors were priests, and two of those priests -- Father John Oetgen and Father Matthew McSorley -- lived in the monastery.

Father John was from Savannah and had studied at Oxford University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He taught Southern Literature, or, as he sometimes called it, "Grit Lit." He introduced me to author W.J. Cash's seminal work, The Mind of the South, a perceptive examination of Southern culture and thought that has become a classic since it was published in 1940. And Father John also introduced me to the works of Flannery O'Connor, a master of Southern gothic literature.
His command of his subject was remarkable. I recall him standing at a lectern in the classroom and giving hour-long lectures without once faltering or consulting notes.

Father Matthew, who'd earned a graduate degree in literature from Villanova University, taught the American lit course. He liked the essays I wrote in his class and encouraged me to develop my writing skills.
But I also greatly enjoyed talking to Father Matthew and the other priests about many topics. I was greatly impressed that the priests seemed to me to use reason and intellect to make their points and avoid emotion.

One spring afternoon I went for an ambling walk around the Belmont Abbey campus with Father Matthew. My experience in the Army had had a dramatic effect on how I perceived the world, and at the time I'd only been a civilian for a few months and was struggling to readjust. I wanted to get Father Matthew's take on what author Douglas Adams referred to as "life, the universe and everything" and how I fitted into this big picture.
Father Matthew listened to me talk about my doubts, uncertainties, hopes and plans as we walked along a gravel road. As we approached the college baseball field, we both fell silent for a few moments, and Father Matthew clearly was thinking about something.

He stopped along the first base side of the ballpark, which was surrounded by a low chain-link fence. "Pick up three stones," he told me. For some reason, the fact that he called them "stones" instead of "rocks" impressed me. So I picked up three stones from the gravel road. They were slightly smaller than the palm of my hand. He did the same.
"I'll bet you that you can't hit that dugout roof in three tries with those stones," he said.

I looked at him like he was crazy. The dugout was maybe a hundred feet away. The roof was a large, flat surface. I'd played baseball all my life. I didn't think I could possibly miss.
"Go ahead," he said. "I'll bet you can't do it."

He was, of course, right. Three tries, three misses. After my third throw had sailed over the dugout, Father Matthew made a clumsy, lunging, underhand toss and dropped a stone smack in the middle of the roof.
"OK," I said. "I assume there's a lesson here. What am I supposed to learn from this?"

"Well, I've done this many times with many young men," he said. "So I have the advantage of having had a lot of practice and you were trying it for the first time."
"But you were clearly concerned about how you looked when you threw those stones," Father Matthew said. "You showed beautiful form, but you missed every time. On the other hand, my technique was awkward and clumsy and not at all pretty to watch. But I hit my target.

"So the lesson here is that you should be more concerned about results and less concerned about image and appearances."
Father Matthew died two months ago at the age of 91. More than 35 years have passed since he taught me what I've come to call "The Parable of the Dugout Roof." I don't think a week has gone by since then that I haven't recalled that moment. Yet I still struggle sometimes to live up to that lesson Father Matthew taught me.

The photo at the top of this post was taken from an online posting of the 1970 edition of The Spire, the yearbook of Belmont Abbey College. It shows Father Matthew McSorley, at the far right of the photo, teaching a class at Belmont Abbey. The photographer is not identified.

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