Thursday 8 December 2005

J.F. Powers The Warm Sand

J. F. Powers The Warm Sand

Once as well liked as any guy in his class, Joe was generally avoided during his last years at the seminary—sometimes referred to as a gadfly, which he didn’t mind; sometimes as a pain in the ass, which he did. His unpopularity was flattering in a way—in the light of “If the world hate you, know ye that it hath hated me before you,” but that was pushing it in Joe’s case. Besides, too many freaks and losers took comfort in Scripture, and Joe didn’t see himself as either. He came from a family more than just well-to-do, and, unlike most of his classmates (but like St. Augustine), he had lived some before discovering his vocation to the priesthood. So he couldn’t be looked down on, nor could his views be gainsaid on the ground that it was a species of pride for him to cite Doctors of the Church in support of them, though this was often tried by his critics. “Pride?” he’d replied. (He’d replied a lot at the seminary.) “I’d cite you guys if you ever said anything worth citing.” That was his style.

It wasn’t so much his all-around unpopularity as something said to him in the confessional (“We have to watch ourselves. A holier-than-thou attitude toward others doesn’t become us in the sight of God”) that made Joe decide, about a month before ordination, to show more charity toward others. Maybe there hadn’t been time enough for others to notice the change in him, though, for he was still generally avoided.
About a month after ordination, at the class’s first little get-together, to which he had to be invited (he did see it like that) and which was held in a private room in a restaurant, Joe watched himself (that is, shut up) and listened to the clerical shoptalk. He enjoyed it, too, though not as much as some of the others at the big table for twelve. Mooney and Rooney gloried in it. But it went on too long, and thinking, Oh-oh, here I go again, Joe said, “W. G. Ward. That name mean anything to you guys? No? Well, Ward, and not Newman, was the first convert from the Oxford Movement. He says any priest without personal knowledge of Christ, which knowledge can only come from contemplation “—Joe had supplied and stressed that part to make his point better—”ought to seek out some desolate island so as to live alone and do no harm.”
“Words,” said Cooney, once Joe’s best friend but cool to him since Joe had got religion, as Cooney told it. (Joe hated the hillbilly sound of that, as he did Cooney’s worldlier-than-thou attitude.) “Hard words, Joe.”
“No harder than those of Our Lord to Martha,” Joe replied.
“But you’re not Our Lord!” cried a couple of deep thinkers at the table. Joe ignored them. He quoted from Luke 10, where Martha complains that she has her hands full serving Our Lord and the Disciples and could use some help from Mary, her sister, who sits listening to the conversation, and Our Lord replies, “Mary hath chosen the best part.”
“Try telling that to the Chancery,” said Rooney, who had earlier been complaining or bragging about having to do all the work in the parish where he was the assistant.

“Contemplation’s all very well,” said Mooney, whom Joe regarded as none too bright and pretty lucky to have been ordained. “Some of the saints, I know, went in for it. But it’s still an extra. We have to make a distinction, Joe, between following the counsels of perfection and doing the job—and a mighty big job it is—we’ve been ordained to do. How many of us can do both?”
“That so-called distinction is the biggest out in all theology,” Joe replied. “Why not do both? At least try.”
“You’re doing both at Holy Faith?” said Rooney.
Cooney cut in, “According to Lefty Beeman” (a problem priest, always on the move; formerly at Holy Faith, he was now an assistant at St. Isidore’s with Cooney), “the assistant at Holy Faith does the job, the pastor does the contemplating.”
Joe replied, “Well, of course, I haven’t been there as long as Beeman was. How long was he there? Six months?” This was not only cruel but wasted, and Joe, regretting it, shut up and listened to the others discuss the situation at Holy Faith.
“Two oddballs in one parish.”
“Certainly an odd appointment.”
“Not fair to Joe—as a new man, I mean.”
“Not fair to the pastor, you mean.”
“Not fair to the parishioners.”
“The Archbishop’s slipping.”

His appointment to Holy Faith, as assistant to Father Van Slaag, the only known contemplative in the diocese (among pastors), was not crazy, Joe believed. No, the Chancery must have heard of his hard times at the seminary, where he’d been the only known contemplative— he didn’t really qualify as such, he knew, unless maybe by desire, but he did have that reputation—and the Archbishop must have decided to make it two of a kind at Holy Faith. It was an odd appointment, perhaps, but it appeared odder than it was to those who recalled the efforts of the old Archbishop to strike a balance in parishes by pairing athletes with aesthetes, scholars with dunces, fat kine with lean. The new Archbishop was known to have said that his priests had enough to do without working out on each other; not that it was his policy to accommodate everybody—poker players, hi-fi’ers, photographers, astronomers, activists, liturgists—and not that some of his appointments didn’t smack of old-fashioned therapy: a lush in the suburbs who’d lost his driver’s license could find himself walking the corridors of a five-hundred-bed hospital in the city as a chaplain under the thumb of nuns; a big spender could find himself operating under the buddy or commissar system, with an assistant empowered to act for him and the parish in all money matters over two dollars and fifty cents.

Joe believed that his appointment, in a similar way—not, of course, in the same way—showed special concern on the part of the Archbishop, by whose wisdom and grace both pastor and assistant at Holy Faith were spared that heckling suspicion that is the lot of contemplatives, and even more of would-be contemplatives, in the modern world. With no need to apologize or explain, as each would have had to do with any other priest in the diocese, they could get on with or, in Joe’s case, down to the job of working and praying for their personal sanctification and salvation (and their parishioners’). And that was what they were doing, though not everything was perfect at Holy Faith.
There was the problem of the housekeeper, Mrs. Cox, a plump toughtalking TV fan, who called Father Van Slaag Van to his face and Slug to her friends on the phone. (And Joe was pretty sure he was the one she referred to as Shorty.) There was the problem of Mrs. Cox’s dog, Boots, a female bull terrier that would go for your ankles unless you carried a weapon. (“She’s all right,” the housekeeper would say with a hearty laugh. “She just hates men.”) Joe had found a cane in the umbrella stand and took it with him whenever he left his bedroom.
There was also the problem of Father Van Slaag. Joe, for his part, had hoped to spend most of his free time in the church, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but Father Van Slug was already doing this— the man practically lived in the church. Pastor and assistant at first were absent from the rectory for long periods, until Joe asked himself, “Shepherd, what of the sheep?” This question, which could have come from Satan (who would doubtless employ any means to get a priest off his knees and out of a church) or from the Archbishop, was resolved for Joe after he discovered that he couldn’t concentrate, let alone contemplate, when Father Van Slug was in the church, as he was whenever Joe went there. Not wanting to ask when his free time was, or when Father Van Slug’s wasn’t, Joe moved an old prie-dieu, which had been serving as a plant stand, into his bedroom. He now carried on from there with his spiritual exercises, and also—not the least of his duties—answered the phone there, more often than not while kneeling at the prie-dieu.

So, though not in the church much, Joe was on his knees a lot. When he considered the state of his knees, however, which were only lightly callused (nothing like those he’d once seen on a visiting Trappist monk in the showers at the seminary—horny gray growths like the chestnuts on the legs of a horse), Joe felt he had a long way to go. The question was whether a diocesan priest—not the really rare one, like Father Van Slug, but the merely unusual one, like Joe—with his ministry in and to the world, which would rub off on him, could ever go very far; whether in time, after constant, close association with parishioners and coming under their subtle influence, he wouldn’t cease to be spiritually, perhaps even mentally, an adult. What was true in other fields of human endeavor at the highest level, in the arts and sciences and sports-namely, that success involves a hell of a lot of slogging—just had to be true, Joe believed, in the field of spirituality: not a crowded field but the trickiest of all to get anywhere in. The notion, so popular nowadays, that the best kind of spirituality just happens, and is the by-product of routine apostolic activity, or, as some of Joe’s critics at the seminary had claimed, is actually the same thing—well, Joe hadn’t believed it then and didn’t now.
“The priest’s life,” Joe said at the class’s next little get-together, to which he’d received what had seemed to him a last-minute invitation, “any priest’s life, anybody’s life, in order to be fruitful in this world, to say nothing of the next, has to be rooted in contemplation. This is especially true of our life, which otherwise becomes one of sheer activity
—the occupational disease of the diocesan clergy.”
“Look,” Rooney said. “I don’t want to listen to that stuff tonight. I’m here to relax. You guys don’t know what it’s like to run a four-hundred-family parish all by yourself.”
“That so?” replied Joe. “Happens to be what I’m doing at Holy Faith.”
“Another parish heard from,” said Cooney.
“Bob,” Mooney said to Rooney, “we all have our crosses to bear.”
“I still don’t want to listen to that stuff tonight,” Rooney said. “I had a tough day.” So Joe shut up, and the clerical shoptalk, which he’d only cut into because it had gone on too long, continued.
At the very end, when Joe was leaving the restaurant for the parking lot, he was approached by Rooney. “Sorry, Joe,” Rooney said. “But I had a tough one today.”
“Bob, I know what you mean.”
They went out to their cars together.

In the weeks that followed, Joe and Bob saw more of each other than they ever had before, except for a short time at the seminary when Bob had embraced the contemplative life. Joe hoped that Bob was having second thoughts about the active life, that it wasn’t only their plight as overworked assistants that had drawn them together again, but in any case he had a friend in Bob. They knew each other’s phone number by heart, and frequently met in the course of their duties—Bob pausing at Holy Faith on his way home from downtown, Joe at St. John Bosco’s, Bob’s parish, after visiting the hospital nearby.

St. John Bosco’s, unlike Holy Faith, was a new plant, with paid secretaries, the latest in equipment, and programs and organizations galore, many overlapping. The parish was too much for one man—even for him, Bob said, unless he was there every minute, which he couldn’t be. The pastor, Monsignor McConkie, or Mac, as Bob called him, a handsome silver-haired glad-hander, who had long ago joined every-thing joinable and now acknowledged when he got up in the morning, if he did, that he was in too deep and had a serious drinking problem, expected Bob to “represent” him and the parish at functions that Mac was under both doctor’s and confessor’s orders to stay away from. The worst ones—worst because there was no end to them—were service-club luncheons at downtown hotels. Bob attended three or four of these a week, and it was usually after one of them, in the middle of the afternoon, in high spirits or low, that he paused at Holy Faith.
Joe, usually in the office at that time of day—he’d moved the old pnedieu down there—would make a drink for the visitor, as was the practice at St. John Bosco’s, and they’d discuss what was uppermost in their minds: Boots, if she’d gone for Bob on the way in; Mrs. Cox, if the TV in the living room was coming through well; or problems of universal concern. One of these was church finance, a subject that Bob had ideas about and that Joe, though he’d scorned it and clerical bookkeeping at the seminary, now felt he should interest himself in. To judge by some correspondence from the Chancery in the files, nobody else at Holy Faith had done so in recent times. What could be said of the take at Holy Faith—not enough—could also be said of organizations: only two, the Holy Name Society (men) and the Christian Mothers (their wives). Reluctantly, Joe would agree that something should be done about Youth or, anyway, about Young People and Young Marrieds—Bob had ideas about all these—but then Joe would renege and say he didn’t want to bite off more than he could chew: a veiled reference to the situation at St. John Bosco’s.

“Heaven forbid!” Bob said. “Still, we’re in the same boat, Joe.”
That they were in the same boat (a commonplace in their discussions) and that Bob was having a rougher ride Joe would accept, but he couldn’t agree that there was so little to choose between those responsible for their plights-between, if you didn’t count the Archbishop, a mystic and a drunk—as to make no difference. One afternoon, Joe told Bob that it was the Father Van Slaags, oddly enough, and not the Monsignor McConkies, who kept the world going, who, by their feats of prayer and abnegation, stayed the hand of God. This, though he didn’t like to hear it—non-contemplatives never did—Bob knew to be the accepted and time-honored belief of the Church.

Joe would have made his point even better had he spoken of what he’d seen the night before, when he’d gone to Father Van Slaag’s room to complain about Boots and Mrs. Cox’s TV, only to change his mind and ask permission to order Sunday-collection envelopes trom another supplier, and then to retire to think, as he’d been doing ever since, on what he’d seen through the gaps in the old, almost buttonless cassock that Father Van Slug wore for a nightshirt—the horny gray growths on the knees, the dogtooth wounds on the ankles. Dear God! What Joe had wondered about ever since coming to Holy Faith was clear to him then:
why Father Van Slaag did nothing about Mrs. Cox’s dog and TV. He was using them, these crosses, as a means to sanctification and salvation—making life make sense, which it otherwise wouldn’t. Out of prudence, and out of reverence for Father Van Slug, Joe didn’t tell Bob or anyone else what he’d seen that night, but thereafter, whenever Bob said that their pastors ought to be put away—Mac in a sanatorium, Van in a cloister or cave-Joe was silent, brooding on those ankles and knees in awe and humility. He had decided that Father Van Slug was—and not just in the sense that the word applied to anybody in the state of grace but in the sense that it applied to the big-time mystics and martyrs-a saint.

Before that night in Father Van Slug’s room, Joe had tried to do the job he’d been ordained to do for God and humanity while also trying, for the sake of the former, to preserve himself to a degree from the latter, but afterward there was a change in him. Without exactly going ape, Joe let down the barrier and no longer distinguished as he had before, sharply, between the religious and the social demands of parishioners. Mrs. Cox noticed it. “What?” she would say. “Stepping out again?”

In this change in him there was a certain despair, a giving up on himself and the contemplative life. Why not? When he tried to look down as God must and saw one man fending off Boots with a cane, the other allowing himself to be savaged by her, amortizing the world’s great debt of sin a little, deferring foreclosure—really, there was no comparison. In that kind of company, Joe just didn’t figure. Still, you never knew where you were in the spiritual life; that was the hell of it— only God knew. Joe’s hope had to be that he was, without knowing it, a sleeper. He thought of Cardinal Merry del Val, who, as Pius X’s secretary of state, was another overworked assistant to a saint, and perhaps one himself; among his personal effects, after his death, had been discovered (a shock to his friends in high places and low, these instruments of penance) two barbed-wire undershirts and a scourge with dried blood on it. But that sort of thing, though still nice to know—edifying—was discouraging if dwelt on, intimidating, like Father Van Slaag’s ankles and knees. Joe took more comfort in Scripture—in “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it,” in “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” though this, too, was pushing it in his case. The truth was, he hadn’t sacrificed his spiritual life-it had been done for him, by his appointment to Holy Faith. All he’d done since then, and might deserve credit for, was to stop grudging the time spent in doing the routine work of the parish, the time he might have spent in prayer. The old prie-dieu, which he’d been carrying back up to his bedroom one morning when the office phone rang, was still where he’d left it then, on the stair landing where he’d first found it, and since Mrs. Cox had come along before he could get back to it, it was serving as a plant stand again. He didn’t mind. Though praying a lot less these days, he prayed harder when he did (as recommended by Merry del Val), and though working harder and seeing more people, he had more appetite for them. The truth was, he’d always had a weakness for people, a weakness suppressed at the seminary but now indulged and transformed into a strength, a virtue.
He was good with people when he wished to be, as he did now. He sparkled in maternity wards (“Bring us another round of orange juice, Sister, and this time put something in it”); sparkled at parish meetings, of which there were more since he’d decided to come to grips with Youth, Young People, and Young Marrieds (“What are we waiting for? I’m here”); sparkled at home (“My compliments to the chef, Mrs. Cox”). Occasionally, he even sat with Mrs. Cox in the evening if there was a game of some kind on TV; at first he had to get her to switch channels and to instruct her, but now he had to do neither, and it was gratifying to see her interest in sports quicken and to know it was genuine (with so many women it wasn’t)—to come in from a meeting and find her and Boots watching the Twins. With Boots, however, Joe was still persona non grata, and still went about the house with his cane, which he left on the back porch when he stepped out and picked up when he returned.
But the best times for Joe were those times when he could be of real use to people as a priest—those times of trial, tragedy, and ordinary death—into which he entered deeper than he had before. “After years of trying to walk on the water, you know,” he told Bob, who was increasingly impatient with parishioners (and Mac), “it’s good to come ashore and feel the warm sand between my toes.”
This was not to say that Joe couldn’t get enough of people. He could. And when he did, after a tough day, or when he just craved faster company, he went to play poker with Cooney and the gang at St. Isidore’s, a hard-drinking rectory, and the next morning it wasn’t easy for him to get going. (He did not believe in Beeman’s solution: “Weak drinks, more of ‘em—that way you get more liquids into your system.”) All in all, though, he felt better about himself both as a priest and as a person, as others appeared to these days—certainly Mrs. Cox, and even Cooney, who was becoming his best friend again.
“Joe,” Cooney said one night at St. Isidore’s, “know who you are?”
“Lemme put it another way. Know who Van is?”
“Mary. You’re Martha, Joe.”
Only now and then, late at night before he got to sleep, or early in the morning before he got going, did Joe look back and regret the change in himself.

A tough day. During breakfast, Joe had simply said, “Somebody ought to poison that bitch,” meaning Boots, and now Mrs. Cox wouldn’t talk to him. Later that morning, while trying to sparkle in a maternity ward, he’d simply said, “So that’s the little bastard,” and had been asked to leave by its mother. That afternoon, he had a visit from a young lady in real estate whom he’d just about enticed into fleeing the world and joining the Carmelites, and learned that she’d received a big promotion and therefore would be staying in the world after all. Early that evening, two converts in the making, Tex and Candy, who’d been taking instructions with a view to marrying Margie and Mike, failed to show, and it developed after a couple of phone calls that they’d eloped together. While Joe was working this out for Margie and Mike in the office, on hold in the living room he had an old parishioner who was upset over a nine-dollar error in his account—under Joe’s new system, actually Bob’s, receipts were mailed out to contributors at the end of the fiscal year—and who, though Joe tried everything, even offering to reimburse the old devil on the spot, wouldn’t go away until he’d seen the pastor.

“He’s in the church,” Joe said, and fled.
Later, Joe went over to St. Isidore’s for poker, and it turned out to be a tough night, too. He was there to relax, but the others wouldn’t let him. Bob, who had just come from driving Mac to the sanatorium (and felt a little sad about it, though it was all for the best), kept after Joe to talk to Van about checking in to a cloister. Beeman, not for the first time, advised Joe to just look Boots in the eye, which was what he’d always done at Holy Faith. “And don’t let her see you’re afraid of her,” he said, and suggested (though he admitted he had only heard about this, hadn’t tried it himself), “Chuck her lightly under the jaw. Try it.” When Joe mentioned the nine-dollar bookkeeping error, Beeman advised him in future just to say, “We all make mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on lead pencils,” which was what he always did in such a case. “Try it,” he said. When Joe mentioned the young lady who’d received a big promotion and let him down, Bob said, “Hell, you can’t blame her,” and then had the nerve to say, alluding to his two weeks as a contemplative, “In my case, after trying to walk on the water, it was good to reach dry land and feel the warm sand under my feet,” as if these words were entirely his own. Joe felt better after he heard Cooney’s comment, “Bob, you never went out without your water wings,” but a moment later he applied it to himself, with remorse. And Cooney, perhaps sensing this, tried to do his “Know who you are?” business with Joe again, but Joe foiled him by answering right away, “Martha.” Then Cooney’s pastor, one of the few really good poker players in the diocese and m.c. of its weekly TV program, said to Joe, “Found y’self, baby,” and asked him if he’d ever considered how much he owed the Arch for sending him to Father Van Slaag at Holy Faith. Joe said he had, but unfortunately didn’t leave it at that.
“Just one thing wrong with Van,” he said. “Not doing his job.” Joe bad never said this, or anything like it, before, and immediately regretted it. Only the truth, yes, and they all knew it, but from him a betrayal.

From that point on, Joe, who hadn’t taken a pot, won steadily. Later, much later, after a lot of standing around, though Joe himself was sitting down, and a lot of talk about cars and driving, Joe left St. Isidore’s with Bob, he thought, and the next thing he knew, not counting a bad dream—”Mrs. Boots, come and get Cox!”—he was in bed and it was morning. He couldn’t remember how the night had ended, and didn’t want to, but had the presence of mind not to phone the police after he looked out the window and saw his car was missing from its usual place in the driveway. He took a hot bath, and in the course of it,soaping himself, he discovered and examined the marks on his right ankle-superficial wounds, five in number. They made him think but otherwise didn’t hurt. He painted them with antiseptic, dressed, and went downstairs, armed only with a ruler, and got going again.

(Posted with permission from K. Powers for the Powers Family Literary Property Trust, with thanks.)

For a story about why this story has haunted me click here!

My Reviews and Articles on Powers:

1962 - Morte d'Urban - novel
1963 - Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories
1988 - Wheat that Springeth Green - novel
1991 - The Old Bird, A Love Story - Illustrated Edition
1999 - The Stories of J. F. Powers
J.F. Powers Selected Bibliography
J.F. Powers Book Covers
That Elusive Story
The Warm Sand
Meme Booked By 3 May 2007
Meme Book Meme
Meme Booked by 3 February 2007

RS398 Directed Reading - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers
Essay - Why J.F. Powers
The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories
The Presence of Grace
Morte d'Urban
Look How the Fish Live
Wheat that Springeth Green
Essay - J.F. Powers Literary Life and Legacy

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