InsightOut: Remembering Mentors 

Stephen Tardif is a Professor in the Christianity & Culture Program at the University of St. Michael’s College. He also offers courses in the & Studies Program. Recently,  Dr. Tardif was named as co-editor of The Hopkins Quarterly, an international journal of critical, scholarly, and appreciative responses to the life and work of Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., as well as to those of his circle.  

The annual Langan Lecture takes place Tuesday, September 19 at 6 p.m. in Charbonnel Lounge. 

One disappeared in the dead of winter; the other at summer’s height. The loss of a pair of mentors in the space of a year brought to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip, in The Importance of Being Earnest, that losing one parent might be a misfortune, but losing both looks like carelessness. In this case, the joke has a strange and plangent charm, for a kind of carelessness did characterize my attitudes to Dr. Janine Langan and Sr. Frances McKenna. In retrospect, the assurance of the enduring presence of these former teachers in my life was like an unconscious dependence on an uncounted blessing, a reliance on graces taken for granted until they were gone. 

* * * 

The word “mentor” is actually an eponym, one derived from a character in Homer who serves a function closely connected to its modern-day meaning (while also echoing Greek etymological roots associated with mind, memory, and thinking). In The Odyssey, Mentor is introduced as a lieutenant, a placeholder for Odysseus, the long-absent hero, who has been entrusted with the administration of his household. Immediately following his introduction, however, this character’s form becomes the disguise that Athena uses to guide Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, in his initial sojourn. Thus does the ancient poem disclose a deep phenomenological reality: in enabling us to find our paths in life, mentors often seem, to us, like gods in disguise. 

Janine Langan, who died in December of 2021, was just such a guide. In the winter term of my first year of undergraduate studies, I took what was to be her final course as an instructor of record at St. Michael’s College; even now, I find it difficult to convey the transformative effect of this single, half-credit class. “Christian Symbols II” was, ostensibly, a survey of responses to the Book of Job. For me, though, it served other functions. Taken simply as an itinerary of reading, the course provided a bracing introduction to figures who would exert considerable influence over the rest of my undergraduate studies; the syllabus featured theological and philosophical luminaries of the Catholic intellectual tradition in the 20th-century. To read Hans Urs von Balthasar, Simone Weil, René Girard, and Jean-Luc Marion as a first-year student was to be given a map, a cartographic sketch of the night-sky’s constellations that identified fixed stars by which to navigate at the very beginning of my own intellectual odyssey.  

This course was also my introduction to Christianity & Culture, the program which Janine Langan co-founded and in which I now have the great privilege to teach. In subsequent years, I would become familiar with professional literary criticism—its history, its scope, and its norms; in this class, however, I witnessed a virtuosic version of this practice that broached what I would later recognize as long-established boundaries. I have never forgotten this early encounter with the tools of my future discipline being turned towards such thrilling, unconventional ends. Instead of training our focus either on text or context—on the beauty of aesthetic objects or on the truth of social realities—our attention was fixed elsewhere. We were taught to see, in the figures we met from week to week, the beauty of personality. Whether brooding on Job and the nature of evil or offering their own arduously acquired insights into human suffering, the authors we encountered gave vivid glimpses of achieved selves. And, in doing so, they became so many conduits of intellectual, artistic, and actual grace. 

“Christianity and Culture” is T.S. Eliot’s title, but the phrase itself appears nowhere in the pair of essays that he gathers in that volume. The special charism of the program which now takes this phrase as its name is the exploration of the connections of its pair of terms as they are revealed through the “living stones” (1 Pt 2:5) of the Church and their stories. As they conform themselves to Christ, the figures whom we study in C&C display, in their lives and works, delicate contours which would have been impossible to fashion without the drama, the pathos, and the hope that the call of the Gospel awakens in a human life.  

It was hardly a surprise to find, in the excerpts of Janine Langan’s own retrospective on her 37 years of teaching, which were shared by her family at her wake, the perfect articulation of this approach; the Church, in her courses, emerged not as a lifeless collection of exempla, the members of a diverse nation, or even the contributors to a great conversation, a tradition, or a body of knowledge. The Church, instead, was, as she put it, “a sea of radiant faces: Minucius Felix, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Benedict, Cuthbert, Sir Thomas More, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Vincent de Paul, Pascal, Hopkins, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, thousands more…and us.” 

This last point deserves special emphasis: Janine Langan was a vital, vibrant, and iridescent member of the Church; she showed, in her own person, the incredible flourishing which the pregnant word, “vocation,” always promises. A partial list of the activities that this retired octogenarian would undertake in her final years would include: introducing her high school students to figures like Boethius, Dostoevsky, and St John Paul II; reading the latest philosophical doorstopper, and convening meetings to discuss it; bringing Christ in the Eucharist to invalids and shut-ins; offering impeccable hospitality to an impossibly wide array of guests and friends; and being the doting, attentive, and inspiring matriarch of a large and beautiful family.  

Long before Janine’s untimely passing in December of 2021, I had pasted on my wall an ebullient and encouraging message from her which conveyed, at once, her confidence in my career, her pride in my achievement, and an affection which was volcanic, unconditional, and utterly characteristic. It was one of the joys of my life to remain in regular contact with her during what turned out to be her last years, and I’m delighted now to count members of her family as my friends. 

* * * 

Sister Frances McKenna, Faithful Companion of Jesus (or FCJ), died eight months after Janine Langan in August of 2022; I was also honored to have kept in contact with this beloved high school English teacher for two decades—although the pandemic had limited our last interactions to chats on the phone.  

What does a mentor look like? In the case of Sister Frances, her appearance, before and after her retirement, was invariable: a floral print dress, a blue blazer (to be held, in meditative moments, by its lapels), Velcro-strapped sandals, and a plain silver cross. In teaching and in conversation, her hands would habitually assume almost theatrical poses, with her fully extended fingers recalling a conjuring magician or an impressive impresario. These gesticulations would often accompany the silent, anticipatory pauses which would precede the delivery of a delicious description. Our bad behavior, for example, would be disparaged—and yet quietly dignified—by being called “obstreperous.” A true lover of language, she would bestow, even upon her own searches for words, exotic epithets; her deliberations would sometimes occasion a “paroxysm”; at other times, they would merely “flummox” her. In all of these moments, I osmotically absorbed her linguaphilia, receiving—to the enduring chagrin of my students!—a love for rare and florid mots justes, sesquipedalian though they be.  

But a shameless affection for the neglected treasures of the thesaurus was only one of the gifts that Sister Frances imparted to me. The greatest, and the most enduring, was Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ. When I entered her classes late in my high school career, I had already acquired a love of poetry: I had been overwhelmed by an initial encounter with William Shakespeare and charmed by the slick style of Alexander Pope. In her own classes, I was awed by Wordsworth, and the inscrutable power of phrases made mysterious by the sheer confidence with which they conveyed his convictions about reality’s inner life. The discovery of Hopkins was different: here was a voice whose beauty was simultaneously bold and bewildering, enigmatic and clear. I remember brooding with pleasure and perplexity over the first quatrain of the sonnet which takes its name from its opening half-line: 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;  
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s  
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

The orchestral effect of Hopkins’ effortless organization of consonant- and vowel-sounds awakened in me an urge to explain his magnificent, microcosmic soundscapes. His poems were objects I couldn’t understand, but from whose spell I couldn’t escape. This first encounter was especially transformative not only because Hopkins continues to reveal, even now, qualities, potentialities, and felicities that I would never have imagined that the English language could possess; it was also transformative for being a sheer gift. Sister Frances commended Hopkins—a poet I had never read—to me directly; the potential affinity that she detected in me was an inspiration and, to her great credit, the poet has become, for me, a lifelong love. 

I received another great gift in Sister Frances’ classroom, too. In Hamlet, Shakespeare’s prince asks a self-reproachful question in seeing an actor within the play moved to tears by a monologue: “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?” The affecting story about a mourning Trojan queen is what elicits this response—and it, in turn, allows the prince to reflect on his own famous inaction. I had a similar moment of self-reflection in reading, with Sister Frances, another Shakespeare play. As King Lear’s tragedy comes to its conclusion, the main character, cradling the dead body of his faithful daughter, creates what, in a play set in ancient Britain, is a pre-Christian anticipation of the pietà. I will never forget that, while reading this scene in class, Sister Frances wept. It was an uncanny experience. In a moment, I came to the sudden realization that literature was not an arena in which to be clever, nor was it simply the repository of the human imagination’s most glorious creations—great plots and fine language. No, there was something foreign, sacred, and utterly mysterious in this “subject,” something unspeakably precious whose reception depended on one’s own sensitivity, something which I had not yet received or even recognized. Much later, I would connect what I had witnessed in that classroom with an event in Hopkins’ own life: I came to see the tears that the poet shed while composing his ode, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” as what he would have understood as a “consolation” in the Ignatian tradition. For Hopkins and for Sister Frances, literature was an occasion for “the gift of tears.” 

Sister Frances was also a truly wonderful teacher. Tolerant of our mischief and undaunted by our diffidence, she was unfailingly, even heroically, “gracious”—a word and a quality she prized above all others. She showed her characteristic grace in poring over our middling essays; in elucidating for us  the dramatic structures of Sophocles; and simply in her insistence that we pause, in our reading, to give attention to insightful, masterful phrases, such as one from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live in a flicker.”  

In keeping in touch with her in the years following my graduation, I would often remind Sister Frances of this phrase, especially since her final years must have felt like anything but a flicker. Failing eyes, aching bones, and many other painful, frightful ailments turned her retirement into something other than the easy rest she so richly deserved. The end of her life became, instead, a final opportunity to display the graciousness which she so cherished, and which she displayed in such an exemplary way. In the face of agony, debility, and encroaching darkness brought on by macular degeneration—a particularly heavy hardship for such a devoted lover of the written word—she was patient, courageous, and even cheerful. In her retirement community, where, of course, she quickly came to be sincerely loved, she lived out what she called “an apostolate of friendship,” becoming for lonely souls what she had always been for Christ in her life as a religious: a faithful companion. When news of her sudden passing reached me during a term of teaching overseas, I was sad for myself but relieved on the occasion of her release from further suffering; I later learned that she had died with the words of St Augustine on her lips: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” 

* * * 

To begin these reflections, I borrowed from the first, disarming verse of W.H. Auden’s elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”:  

He disappeared in the dead of winter: 
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,  
And snow disfigured the public statues; 
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.  
What instruments we have agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day.  

Auden begins his poem with the seemingly indisputable fact of the Irish poet’s disappearance; but he does so precisely because Yeats does not vanish, and instead enters into history through his body of work. By emphasizing this fact, Auden connects with a long tradition which finds, in the endurance of a poet’s posthumously repeated and remembered words, a kind of immortality. Indeed, the “resurrection” which Yeats achieves in the poem (one attained in keeping with an ancient elegiac convention) is precisely an afterlife in art. But Auden has a fine sense for the ambivalence of this consolation. Although Yeats may enjoy a godlike status in living on, in some form, in his body of work, it comes at a cost: the sparagmos, that violent dispersal of body parts which the victims of ancient Greek tragedies endured: 

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities 
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections, 
To find his happiness in another kind of wood 
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.  
The words of a dead man 
Are modified in the guts of the living.  

If the afterlife of a teacher is less obvious, it is also less ambiguous. The depth of gratitude that I feel for my teachers is hardly unique; I can remember many of the anecdotes they themselves shared with me about the pivotal pedagogues in their own lives. In this way, the continuum of gift-transmission which we call “tradition” continues, perpetuated from generation to generation as student follow in the footsteps of the teachers who transformed their lives. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that he “received from the Lord what [he] also delivered [to them]” (1 Cor 11:23), reminding them that the gifts they have been given also impose a solemn charge to bear them, to live them fully, and to pass them on to others. This exhortation exquisitely captures the joyful burden of having had incredible teachers: while the standard they set is imposing, the energy their memory imparts inspires our own endless attempts to emulate their example.  

I am constantly thinking of Sister Frances when I facilitate, for my students, the same unforgettable introductions I was so blessed to receive through her. Janine Langan is an even more proximate presence in my life at St Michael’s College, where I’m humbled by the opportunity to continue, in a small way, her institutional legacy in Christianity & Culture, an academic program which remains such a gift to me and to so many others as well. Both of these now-departed mentors continue to show me what it means to live out one’s vocation. A laywoman and a religious, they were each witnesses to the Catholic Church—witnesses who lived out the calls to service that they has received and which, in the Church, they each so beautifully fulfilled.  

But as members of the Church, these women are not, to me, pious, fading memories, venerated with warmth even as they slip, year after year, imperceptibly but inescapably, into the gentle, obliterating mists of the past. They are dead—but the dead shall be raised. In the meantime, they are in my prayers and hope that I may always remain in theirs and benefit from their powerful intercession. And, after a time, I hope to realize that beautiful wish which St Thomas More expressed in a letter to his family, shortly before a temporary separation was imposed upon their communal life: “May we one day meet merrily in heaven.” 

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