Guest Column: The Awareness Room

Those of us who went to Catholic schools in the ’70s know we weren’t saved by faith alone. Reason played a providential part. It kept watch for us kids, even when the faith seemed on sabbatical. I can’t imagine that reason ever even took a break in the mind of my sophomore biology teacher, Mrs. McGarry.

Sparing no time for jokes and endearments, she began the 1977-78 academic year with an intense lecture on metaphysics, nature, and the sanctity of life. From the start, she outlined rigorous guidelines for our conduct in the laboratory. And our lab notebooks, she insisted, should follow strict form.

Once I let her down. She caught me cribbing part of a classmate’s lab report. I followed Mrs. M. into the hall, expecting the wrath of Jehovah. Instead, she looked at me as Christ must have looked at Peter (Luke 22:61), then merely reported to me what I had done. If I suffer as much at the final judgment, it will be punishment enough.

In social studies, Mr. Redington was Socrates himself. He taught that the social sciences, as studies of human behavior and polity, were moral sciences. In his classroom, he said, we would argue in reasoned pursuit of truth, discerning right from wrong. But we were advised to leave our slogans on the stickers in our lockers.

A Catholic of traditional leanings, he taught us world religions in the respectful spirit of Nostra Aetate. Training our sights on Buddhism, we came to understand the Middle Way, the Eightfold Path, the Threefold Training. We were tested on our understanding of Islamic disciplines of prayer and fasting. And Mr. Reddington chose a textbook that complemented its analysis of doctrines with stunning illustrations—Hindu deities and Muslim prayer rugs in full color. Other teachers were just as demanding and exciting: Sister Eileen Mary in math, Miss Marley in English lit, Sister Herberta in Latin.

Yet all that vanished—the discipline, the seriousness, the standard of truth—when we walked down the corridor of the religion department. There, for three years of classes, we talked about our feelings. We read books about our feelings. We wrote about our feelings. We drew pictures of our feelings. On the classroom walls hung what passed for Catholic art—mostly felt-and-burlap banners, with vague flames and flowers around quotes from Scripture, Khalil Gibran, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims had doctrine and art. We Catholics had feelings and felt. Or so it seemed.

Down the hall, and across from the school chapel, was the Awareness Room, where we could hang out with each other and with a counselor of sorts. The floor was strewn with pillows, the walls lined with Ziggy and kitten posters (“Hang in there, baby”). To us kids, it was all a joke.

What happened?

Three times a week, after Mrs. McGarry’s biology class—where we were taken seriously for our intellectual capacity—we walked twenty yards, turned a corner, and entered the Twilight Zone.

I can recall few discussions of substance from those years of religion classes. Once, a priest tried to get us to dwell on questions of authorship in the New Testament. But most of us hadn’t read James or Jude or even Paul. The discussion dissolved into laughter when Father, a dear, innocent man—assigned some poor girl to “write on One Peter.”

The only experience of theological argument I recall is one nun’s exposition of what I now recognize as Charles Curran’s arguments against the infallibility of Hurnanae Vitae’s teaching. She was a heroic woman, a pioneering pro-lifer. But amid the sexual revolution, and with the bloodbath after Roe v. Wade, she was terrified that one of her students would conceive and face the temptation of abortion.

The good news, as I understood it in those years, was that we were finally rid of the intellectual straitjacket of the Catholic past. Now, we could rap forever about I and Thou and all the great things that I and Thou are feeling at the moment. This was confirmed for us on our senior retreat, where an ex-addict with a guitar told us that we shouldn’t be so hung up about making Sunday Mass. For most of us, it wasn’t an issue, never mind a hang-up. Later that week, in the sanctuary of the retreat-house chapel, a mime (in black turtleneck and full greasepaint) pranced out some story of his angst or our angst— it was hard to tell.

At age sixteen I didn’t know much, but I did know this—biology was serious business. So was sociology. So were Buddhism and Islam. Catholicism, apparently, was not.

With graduation, I was glad to escape to an enormous secular university where I could get all the academics without any of the silliness. I was pleased, at Penn State, to learn as Mrs. McGarry and Mr. Redington had taught me to learn. In religious matters, I was pretty much on hold. Though often proselytized by wonderful evangelicals, I was never inclined to go that way. Maybe trendy agnostic despair would have tempted me, but I managed to skip those electives and just read good books: Cather, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Twain, Melville. None of it Catholic, but mighty rich stuff.

I got a full dose of it in a course I took in my last year as an undergraduate, with a professor (an unbeliever) who was worthy of the Catholic tradition. To teach us how poetry “works,” he required that we translate a strictly formal poem from another language into a strict English form. An impossible exercise. With my little bit of high-school Latin, I set off for the library, walked into the Dewey stacks for classical languages, and pulled down one of the old Oxford collections of Latin poetry.

Here I must emphasize that I was not tempting providence when I decided I would translate the first poem I saw when I opened the book. I wasn’t even thinking about providence. I was merely lazy.

I opened toward the middle of the volume, on a medieval poem, St. Thomas Aquinas’s Adoro Te Devote. And I set to translating.

Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,

Quae sub his figuris vere latitas.

Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit,

Quia te contemplans totum deficit.

And by the end of twenty-eight lines I was back. I can’t say how, except to say that God is good.

The poem, addressed to our Eucharistic Lord, gave me a remembrance of graces, past graces from so many Communions of my childhood, from the powerful witness of my parents, from stained-glass windows in parish churches, and from the hymns and prayers of my earliest years, long before high school. There was more, too. Straining at the form of St. Thomas’s verses, it seemed, were the mystery Mrs. McGarry spoke of in her opening lecture, the truth Mr. Redington was always drawing us toward. And along with it all came art, doctrine, beauty, reason, tradition.

With a little poem, God gave me renewed faith—Catholic faith. And that faith was mightier and richer than anything my schooling of the ’70s had prepared me to find.


  • Mike Aquilina

    Mike Aquilina is a popular author working in the area of Church history, especially patristics, the study of the early Church Fathers.

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