The phone rang just as I was riding my bike up to Northman Hall, and I scrambled to answer it, nearly wrecking my bike in the process. I let the bike slide to the ground, and opened my phone.
“Hello, is this James Peyton?”
“Yes, this is he.”
“Hello, James, this is Broither Frank from the monaqstery at St. Joseph’s. Brother Andrey’s been telling me how you would like to join us on our retreat, and I thought that before I made a final decisiojn, I’d ask you a few question myself, if that’s alright.”
“Oh! Sure, just give me a second, I just pulled up to work.”
“If another time works better for you…”
I shoved the bike into the bike rack, and wuickly looped the chain around it. “No,. now is fine, really. I’m ready.” I sat down on the low wall that ran beside the wheelchair ramp. “I don’t mean to be a bother, I just really feel like this is something I need to do.”
He chuckled slightly. “That’s alright, don’t worry about it. Well, let me just start with the basics. How long have you lived the Christian life, James?”
I shifted into a more comfortable position. “Well, I gew up in a Christian family, so it’s a little hard to say. I remember definitiviely making a choice at 9 that I wanted to be a Christian, but there’ve been a lot of little choices along the way to being a believing adult, too.” I winced at my silly response. I had hoped to impress Brother Frank enough to let me accompany the monks on the retreat.
“Alright, that’s fine. And what is your level of commitment to your local church? I believe it’s St. Joseph’s, yes?”
“That’s correct. I used to be highly involved, with my fiancée. But then she passed away, and I guess I let some of it slide. I still go to Mass every week, but usually not much more than that. I’ve been meaning to start trying to reconnect…” my voice trailed away; this was not going like I had intended.
“Very good, very good.” I couldn’t tell anything from his calm voice. Every response was given in an utter monotone. “And why exactly do you want to come along on this retreat?”
I began sweating slightly. “Well…I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense…spiritual…things lately, and I wanted to get away from the distractions here to sort them out.”
“And what about the retreat you took here? Didn’t that help?”
“YTes, immensely. But it wasn’t long enough—we only got about 30 bhours of real silence, and I didn’t start being able to really think and pray untiul the time was nearly up. It’s just so noisy inside my head sometimes. Also…” I paused, trying to decide whether to reveal this or not. Then I remembered that Andrey had probably told Brother Frank everything about our conversations already. “It’s also that I’m thinking about taking vows as a monk. Joining a monastery. I don’t know if it’s really a call…a vocation..whatever you call it. I want some time and space to figure that out.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, though I could hear something that sounded like a very quiet whispering, and I realized that Brother Frank must be praying. I felt lslightly emvarrassed to be listening in on a prayer, and turned my attention to the students passing by. A few that I recognized from Dr. Russell’s classes waved as they passed by, and I nodded in return.
“Alright, James.” I juped slightly at Brother Frank’s voice in my ear. “I think that it will be fine if you join us. I will have Brother Andrey contact you with the travel information. I believe we’ll be able to pick you up, as the desert is closer to you than us. Is that alright?”
“Yes! Yes, of course, it’s fine. Thank you, just…thank you!”
Brotehr Frank laughed again, and the warmth returned to his voice. “It’s alright, I’m sure it will be our pleasure. Have a wonderful day.”
I double-checked the lock on my bike just to make sure that it was solidly lockled, then quickly ran upstairs, knowing I was almost late. Sure enough, Dr. Russell was waiting in his office, putting folders of papers into his bag, about to head in to the class. “Sorry I’m so late sir, I had an urgent phone call.”
He looked up, but continued getting his materials in order. “oh? Anything serious?”
I caught my breath. “No sir, nothing serious just a little bit of good news. However, I do need to ask you about some time off. I am going on another retreat, a longer one this time. I need the last week of April off work. I’ll do everything I can ahead of time to lighten the load.”
Dr. Russell leaned back in his chair, and stared at me for a moment, tappingg his bearded chin with a balllpoint pen. “Getting completely out of town, are you?”
I nodded, digging in my own bag for the stack of papers I was returning. “Yes sir, to the desert. I’ll be going with St. Joseph’s monastery, from Santa Barbara. My church goes up there for our parish retreats, and I’m going with them on a retreat to the Anza-Borriego desert. It’s out pas tJulian somewhere.”
He nodded. “I’ve heard of it. Pretty barren. Well, of course you can have the time, you’ve earned it. You need to get away for a while. No, hold on to those papers, I’m going to need your help in class today.”
“What? Which class?” I was surprised, Dr. Russell rarely called me into a given class unless he had already scheduled it with me.
“I want you to come into my philosophy class, 103. We’re on Plato’s Phaedo, and I think I’d like your insights on the matter.” He stood up with a grunt, and wrestled the strap of his bag over his shoulder.
“I’ll be happy to, of course, but I don’t think I’ve read that dialogue since I took the class.”
He shrugged, and walked out of the door. “That’s alright, you at least have a brain in your head. You can think, and that puts you way above this class. Freshmen. They come in so warped from an education that taught them nothing but how to spew slogan and tidbits worthy only of a tv trivia show, it takes all I can do to bend them straight and show them that they know nothing. They’re usually juniors before I can get anything good in their heads,” he grumbled. I swallowed a smile, remembering how often my class had complained about his disdain for the school systems. It wasn’t until my own junior year that I’d looked back and realized how much good Dr. Russell’s classes had done for me. “Go easy on them sir, it really isn’t their fault how they were taught.”
“No, but it’s their own fault how they leared,” he growled, unlocking the classroom door and striding in. “They can blame that on no-one else, even if they didn’t know better.” He set his bag on the table, and began unloading it.
A few minutes later, students began trickling into the room, and each took his seat around the large table in the center of the room. It was not an attractive room; the walls were smooth, some variety of off-white, and the ceiling was covered in aging acoustic tiles. The outside wall was a row of windows that looked out over the parking lot, one straggly tree, and over into another classroom across the way. The sounds of the camus drifted up through the open windows, and a ceiling fan stirred the air slightly. Cropped blue carpeting covered the floor, and the tables were sturdy, but had obviously seen better days.
Dr. Russell turned to the blackboard and wrote a series of questions: “Friendship over a distance: possible or impossible? Fictional characters: real or unreal? Is Theseus’ ship still Theseus’ ship?” I heard several people groan, and one or two eager students opened their notebooks and quickly scribbled down the questions, and sat poised for answers. I couldn’t help but laugh at that: there were always some students in any discussion class who tried to take note of every point made. I’d given up on that by the second week of freshman year—I noticed that the notes never made sense later anyway. Over the years I realized that no discussion couold be recreated: you had to rely on your own memory, and the fact that simply haaving the discussion would shape your soul, whether you remember the exact argument or not.
“Ok, class, get settled,” Dr Russel said, glancing at the clock. “We’ve got a lot to cover, as usual, and for today I’ve brought Mr. Peyton in. You all know him, and since he’s the one who grades your papers, I aassume you’ll be polite. Mr. Peyton, feel free to take a seat.”
I pulled out the seat next to him, that no-one ever seemed to want to take.
“You’ll notice these three questions I have up on the board. Let’s start with those. Mr. Hayes, would you like to guess what these questions have to do with the dialogue?”
A young man, wearing a polo shirt and khakis, looked a little startled, but spoke up almost at once. “Well…I’m not sure about the bit about Theseus’ ship, I know it’s mentioned but…On the one about whether fictional characters are real or unreal. Socrates didn’t leave any writings, so most of what we know about him comes from Plato. For the sake of the dialogue, we ould say that Socrates is a fictional character. As such…is he real, or unreal?” The kid spoke quickly, and hesitated as if unsure, but Dr. Russell let him finish without interrupting.
“Very good, Mr. Hayes. Anyone else?”
Two dark-haired girls looked at each other and tried to repress a giggle. Russell pointed at one of them, a girl with curly hair and a pointed chin. “Miss Thomas, how about you? Any thoughts about friendship at a distance?”
She tossed her hair, and responded, “Well, obviously, you can be friends at a distance. I mean, my best friend is Ashley, and she’s in Texas right now, but she’s still my friend.”
“Oh really? So distance doesn’t matter? Would she be your friend if she was on the moon? Yes? Good! How about if she was dead?” A low murmur of laughter ran around the room, but quickly died as they saw that Dr. Russell was serious. I was quickly skimming over several sections of the dialogue, trying to reacquaint myself with some of the story.
“Well, no! I mean, she’d be dead.”
Dr. Russell folded his arms, and looked at the girl. “Oh, so you only love her body? Her form?”
“No! I love her mind, her personality, her soul.”
“Do any of those change on the other side of death, given what we believe about it?”
She looked slightly uncomfortable. “No…but it’s different?”
“How is it different? Her mind and soul still exist, though they may not be physically present to you. But she’s not your friend? Hmmm. Maybe you’re just too impressed with space.” A young man on the other side of the room laughed, but quickly silenced himself.
Dr. Russell glanced back at the girl. “So when your friend dies, the friendship dies? Well, that seems tragic. Please, explain why you think I asked you this question about friendship.”
She thought for a moment, looking frustrated. “I dunno…I mean, Socrates is in jail, so he’s separate from his friends…”
“It’s because he’s about to die,” interjected the young man from across the table. “Cebes and Simmias think that he will no longer be their friend on the other side of death, and Socrates tinks he will. That’s why he launches into his speech about the immortality of the soul.”
“Mr. Lawson! Nicely done!”
I let the debate fade away into the background, and began pursuing my own thoughts. I believed, somehow, that Angie was still the same person she’d been before she died, but never really pursued the implications before. As I saidk, she was always better at this sort of thing than I am. But if Dr. Russell was correct, and I couldn’t really fault his argument, why shouldn’t our relationship continue? It could never be the same, we would never get married…but perhaps she would never truly leave me. I smiled sliughtly at the thought.
“Mr. Peyton, if you don’t mind, I’d like to pick your brain on this.”
I nodded, waking myself from my reverie. “Sure, Dr. Russell, what’s the question? Sorry, I’m afraid I was off chasing some rabbit trails there for a few minutes.”
“That’s azlright. We were continuing the discussion of friendship across a distance. Is Socrates here?”
For a moment, I froze, then relaxed as I realized that Dr. Russell could not have meant the question as a request to See, but simply as a philosophical conceit. “I am inclined to say yes. We have his words, and any writer worth his salt pours his soul out into his words. We’re here in a community intereacting with his words, so…yes, I’d say he’s here.” Some of the students shifted uncomfortably, trying not to look around the room as if they were afraid to see the ghostly shape of a man in a toga and a long white beard. I wondered what I might be able to See if the Sight hadn’t left me. I felt a slight pang at it’s absence; I’d gronw used to it, even though I hated it most of the time.
“Alriht, so that’s one vote for him being with us. So far, the class is evenly divided. Let’s pursue this a little bit. How many of us here believe in realities that can’t be seen?” Every hand went up. “Ok, good. We’ll let that assumption stand for the time being, since it’s something Socrates assumes as well. So you can’t trust your eyes to tell you that something isn’t in the room, correct?” A chorus of ‘yes’ arose, and Dr. Russell continued. “Do you have any evidence from your senses that such is the case?”
Several people shook their heads, and began to look distressed. “Look, I’m not going to attack believing in invisible things, alright. Here, do you believe in the reality of a triangle, the geometrical concept? Yes? Ok, it has no physical form, and no material existence either, so you’re on safe ground for now. Relax. This isn’t an attempt to tear down everything you believe. We ssave that for sophomore year.” A ripple of nervous laughter rippled through the room.
“Ok. Invisible realities. Would it make a difference to you if you could, in fact, see them?” Several students nodded, several shook their heads. “Ok, split class again. Oh well, we’ve gotten a little off track. Back to friendship over a distance. We’ve already established that there is an invisible entity that is the essence of your friend,, and somehow that remains in a relationship- with your own invisible essence, call it your soul if you like. So again, why are you letting physical space make such a difference?”
“But it does make a difference,” said a sedentary young man sitting near the middle of the table. “I would never have been able to establish a relationship with my girlfriend if she hadn’t been physically present.” A few guffaws started, but Dr. Russell silenced them. “Well, of course, I love her when she’s not here, and I love all the non-phsyical things about her, but the physical things are often my way of knowing the non-physical, right?”
“An excellent point, Mr. Sikora. And one that Socrates himself addresses in the Symposium, no? Good, you’ve done your homework.”
After another thirty minutes of hard discussion, the class was over. We headed back to Dr. Russell’s office, and for once I had no essays to grade. “Well, Mr. Peyton, you’ve been grading their papers, but you hadn’t been to that class in a while. What’s your opinion on their progress?”
I leaned against the doorframe. “All in all, I think they’re about where they need to be. In all honesty, sir, most of the real progress is hard to judge in class. A lot of my philosophical development happened after class, in the cafeteria, talking with my friends and trying to dodge the occasional flying apple thrown by the jocks across the room. That’s where the real learning happens, I think.”
Dr. Russel laughed as he unloaded papers and books from his bag. “That’s part of the point. I don’t expect them to get too much out of the class. I’m planting little brain worms, that will hopefully wake up when they’re having other conversations. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and you can never be sure which students will respond. Some of the smartest people I know never had an original thought or challenged any idea of their own. Some of the students who hid in the back of the class and doodled on every paper ended up being the best minds in the class. You never know.”
I smiled, remembering my time in class. “I’m gglad I’ve gotten to be a part of this. It’s pretty neat to watch.”
He looked up suddenly, and stared at me through his thick glasses lenses. “ ‘Gotten to be a part of this’? You’re not planning on leaving anytime soon, are you?”
I hesitated for a moment. Telling someome that you’re thinking abot becoming a monk is not the easiest thing to do. Clositered orders are crazy, they say, an outdated ideal, each monk a weak-willed person cut off from normal life, or even a sexual predator unwilling to live in the world anymore/. I didn’t even know if I really would be doing that. All I knew was that I wanted to. I wanted the quiet, the openness, the community, and something else that I couldn’t even name.
“Well…it’s a possibility. You see, the retreat isn’t just for my own refreshement. I’m trying to see if God wants me to become a monk.” I could feel my face turning red as I said the words, feeling clumsy and a little foolish.
Dr. Russell had been bent over his desk arranging papers, straightened up, and looked at me. Then he took off his glasses and polished them thoughtfully on his shirt tail. I’d never really thought much about it, but he looked like most busts of Socrates I’d seen. An ugly man, on the first impression, he had unkempt salt and pepper hair that fell to his collar, and an assymetrical face. He was shorter than me, and had a bit of a potbelly. I hardly saw that anymore, he was simply Dr. Russell, a good teacher and a fine man. I’m not sure why I took stock of his appearance then, perhaps I was simply preparing mysef to say goodbye, storing his image in my memory.
“This is sudden,” he said at last. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
I shook my head. “Not yet, that’s what the retreat is for. But it’s possible I won’t be coming back next year. My loans are all paid off, and as soon as the lease on my apartment is up, I am financially free. But again, I don’t even know for sure yet whether it’s what I’m supposed to do. Just that it’s something I want to do.”
“Waste of a fine mind,” he grumbled. “Why would you lock yourself up there, away from the world? You can’t change anything from there. It’s all about being down here in the mix, really getting in with people, and getting your hands dirty.”
“I’m not convinced of that,” I said, sitting down on a folding chair in the middle of the room. “After all, the monks are there to live good lives, and to pray for the sake of the world. That can’t mean nothing. And in fact, if what you were saying in class is correct, they aren’t leaving the world. Anyone can be present to a friend, correct? Well then, perhaps the monks aren’t withdrawing, but simply trying to be a conduit between one world and the next.”
He studied me for a minute, eyes narrowed slightly and forehead furrowed. “You’re pretty insistent on trying this out, then.” I nodded, and he sighed. “I think it’s a mistake. Biut your life is your own, and if your spirit sys this is what you need to do, then it’s what you need to do. But listen to me, Mr. Peyton, I hope you’re not doing this because you think it’s somehow romantic for the lover who’s been left alone by death to swear eternal fealty to his love, and retreat from the world. That’s nothing but mere selfishness, and I’d hope you would know that.”
I sighed. “I’m fairly sure they woouldn’t let me become a monk if they thought I’d spend all the time thinking about a woman. That’s kind of not the point of taking the vow of chastity.”
Dr. Russell looked at me for a moment, then croaked a kind of laugh. “Fine, you win that one. For now. Go ahead and take your retreat, see if this is what you need to do. If not, your job is open to you for as long as you want it. If it is the path you choose, well, then I wish you well. But please do try to keep your mind alive. I’ll feel better about it if I think that one of my best students is still learning.”