Fostering Vocations: Learning from Tom Sawyer
by Anthony Esolen
The three boys have joined forces to run away from home and pillage their enemy towns on the banks of the great river. After they filch some of the necessities for a life of piracy—a side of bacon, some tobacco, hooks and lines, and a raft—and spend an afternoon enjoying the glory of spreading the word that everybody had better look out, they meet—when else?—at midnight:
“Who goes there?”
“Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Name your names.”
“Huck Finn the Red-Handed, and Joe Harper the Terror of the Seas.” Tom had furnished these titles, from his favorite literature.
“’Tis well. Give the countersign.”
Two hoarse whispers delivered the same awful word simultaneously to
the brooding night: “BLOOD!” (Tom Sawyer).
I have to grind out the words every time I am asked to pray in church for priestly vocations, or, more commonly, for “vocations” generically. It’s not that I don’t want to see more young men enter the priesthood. I do, very much so. But I wonder whether I am joined in this desire by those whose responsibility it is to foster the vocations. These seem to practice what I’d call a podiopathic philosophy: You shoot yourself in the foot, and then pray that the Holy Spirit will come and bear you away on His wings. When He doesn’t, you shoot yourself in the foot again. When He still doesn’t, you continue to shoot, and conclude that He really doesn’t want you to go anywhere, anyway. “The Holy Spirit is about a new work,” say the leaders of dying convents, complacently and without a trace of irony.
I proceed instead from a set of assumptions, each suggesting the next. There will be no renewal of the Church without a surge in priestly vocations. Or can we cheer to see cavernous old churches put up for auction, bought by developers for antique shops and lawyers’ offices? We need the shepherds. Others may wish to follow where the lay sheep are a-bleating. Doubting my sanctity of life and knowing quite well that if I lead a flock they had better beware of ditches, cliffs, bogs, and wolves, I’ll wait for a shepherd, thank you.
We need priests, then. But there will be no surge in priestly vocations without an appeal to young men and boys. That stands to reason. And there will be no appeal to young men and boys so long as women appear to be in complete charge of the liturgy and religious education. I mean no disrespect to the devout women who genuinely wish to build up the Body of Christ, but a fact is a fact. It may not stand to reason, but it is the nature of the beast, or the God-ordained nature of the young man, and no amount of wishing it were otherwise can change it. Aunt Polly cannot make Tom sit still in church, listening as the milquetoast preacher drones on; but Tom is naturally a liturgical creature, as his initiation into the life of a pirate shows.
The trouble is that Tom will not grow up to be an Aunt Polly. He must, in part, define himself by leaving her. Evidence of this need is everywhere, and is provided unwittingly by those who would most stridently attack the male priesthood. A girl may climb trees or have a boyish name or wear overalls, but a boy may not wear a dress; what’s more, no mother, of whatever political persuasion, would dress him so. What do Joyce Kilmer, Leslie Howard, Shannon Sharpe, and Lynn Swann have in common? They are all men. But every time a mother named her daughter Joyce, Leslie, Shannon, or Lynn, she depressed the likelihood that another mother would so name her son. Those names are now for baby girls, not for baby boys. Nor does the shift ever occur in the opposite direction. The rare feminist who bears children might well name her daughter Travis or Tyler, but not even she would name her son Molly or Sue. I’ll wager that every woman who appears prominently in an army recruitment commercial depresses its effectiveness upon men—and that’s the army, demonstrably a masculine enterprise. The Marines make no such mistake, and have more recruits than they can handle. The British invented field hockey over a century ago to give their colonial army in India a way to keep in trim. But once that became viewed as a girl’s sport, boys turned to other diversions.
Insofar, then, as the liturgy is seen as a feminine enterprise, so will it fail to interest boys. I don’t mean that they will reject it consciously. We are not talking about something bad that happens, so much as about something good and necessary that does not happen. They will not say, “I don’t like holding hands, I don’t like the soprano at the piano bar, I don’t like the cutesy slogans on the banners.” It’s simply that their minds and hearts will wander. They will not be inspired to devotion.
How, then, to win the hearts of the boys? I have three recommendations.
Embrace the Danger
We could learn a lot from Tom Sawyer, that masterly inspirer of his fellows in truancy and mischief. Boys invent liturgies, literally dramas of worship; or, perhaps more precisely, they invent timurgies, dramas of honor. Note that Tom’s entry into the life of the pirate entailed an impressive change of name: Tom the ordinary became the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Mark Twain (and, interestingly enough, that too was a jaunty nautical pseudonym) wants us to smile at Tom’s foolery, but he also admires it, feels at one with the boyish aspirations of his hero, and instructs us to despise Tom’s safe, sluggish, goody-goody brother Sid, who never gets into trouble and therefore is of no interest whatsoever.
For boys are those strange creatures who fail at the simplistic and the frivolous, and succeed at the seemingly impossible. Set the bar low, and many of them will fail to come up to it; set it high, and many of them, often the very same, will clear it. They who cannot pass a tedious geometry test can take apart and reassemble a motorcycle. Tom, asked to name Jesus’ first two disciples, blurts out “David and Goliath!” No surprise that those are the names he should think of. For this same lad fairly lives in the adventures of his reading, and turns to them when he renames himself and his friends, now Avenger and Red-Handed and Terror. Sons of Thunder, he might have added, or the Rock.
To embrace the danger means to encourage fortitude and all its related virtues: high-spiritedness, daring, steadfastness, and magnanimity. It’s a bold thing, after all, to float on a raft down the Mississippi, feasting on turtles’ eggs that you find in the sand, smearing yourself with mud to play at Indian warfare, stripping to splash about in the water, and cowering under a poor canvas when lightning seems to tear the night sky in two. Is the Christian life less bold, even when lived in the solitude of a hermitage? Is the sacrifice of the Mass less bold, that which calls down upon us the Holy Spirit, that the bread and wine may become the Body and Blood of our Savior?
There is no sensed danger at a picnic; therefore Mass should never be a picnic, even when it is celebrated at the park. The holy is dangerous because it is holy, set aside: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet,” said God to Moses, “for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Ex 3:5). The holy, the wondrous can shatter all that we think we know. It can drown us in itself, kill us, and give us a new name and a new life. Most welcoming were the men of the Middle Ages who chose to carve, over the entrance to their churches, the Last Judgment, with saints in trepidation and sinners weighed in the balance and found wanting! They knew exactly what they were doing. Over that door, always facing the setting sun that is the end of the day and our reminder of death, we see the dread moment each of us, saint and sinner, will have to face. Some churches nowadays trawl for members by advertising that they welcome all. Let the door and the Mass rather be welcoming because they are forbidding; because they open out onto that strange place that we need and seek; because if we step beyond that threshold we may never be the same again. Tom found riches not in a drawing room but lost in a cave by the Mississippi—and also all the heroism his heart could muster, as he consoled his adored Becky Thatcher and fought off despair, until finally he found the way back to the light.
Understand the Place of Solemnity
Women seek security, and justly so. To gain it they will trade a great deal of freedom—their own personal freedom and, when men fail them, even the civil liberties of others. The “freedom” to procure an abortion is but a hedge against insecurity; for the woman, it betokens not so much the freedom to do something as a guard against something else. The great women’s movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, those temperance marches that resulted in Prohibition—for relief from the chaos of drunken and brawling men—were in this sense similar to the feminist speech codes and the sexual harassment laws promulgated in our days of boors and louts.
Now security, in itself, is not such a bad thing, though Jesus advises us not to value it as a final end, warning us that he who would save his life will lose it, but he who would lose it for His sake would save it (Mt 16:25). Still, He consoled the woman at the well, and wept with Mary and Martha, and from the very cross took care for the welfare of His aging mother. Women, then, ought to find the true security they long for in the Church. But they will find it most reliably and most genuinely if the Church is also that dangerous place that has been braved and conquered, so to speak: conquered by the man Jesus Christ, and through Him by His delegates, the priests, and the young adjutants at the altar, who share in the priest’s vocation and may one day become priests themselves. The quality of the liturgy that comprehends both danger and security, both the untouchable and the familiar, both the holy ground and the haven, both the Christ who warned us to take up our crosses and that meek Teacher who welcomed us to follow Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, is solemnity.
I do not mean sobriety, solemnity’s glum and sometimes hypocritical stepbrother. Consider the liturgy commanded by David as he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem:
“Ye are the chief of the fathers of the Levites: sanctify yourselves, both ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel unto the place that I have prepared for it. For because ye did it not at the first, the Lord our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order.”
So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the Lord God of Israel. And the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the Lord.
And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of music, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy (1 Ch 15:12–16).
Fun vanishes with the occasion, but solemnity has the power to bring us a deep and abiding joy, whose wellsprings remain with us even in times of grief. We are solemn when we understand the surpassing import of what we are doing and when, knowing how unworthy we are to be there, we place ourselves full-heartedly under the direction of our betters, our forefathers, our teachers, our God. David, then, was most solemn when he danced with such abandon before the ark that his skirts rose up over his shame. But his sober wife, Michal, who despised him for doing it, was deaf to the meaning of the ark, hearing only the wearisome chatter of the handmaids in the royal halls (2 Sam 6:20). David’s leaping and hallooing were solemn; solemn too are the priest’s hands as he dare not touch the monstrance, but clasps it under the folds of his vestment. Singing hymns that praise the Lord—not ourselves—and sound like hymns, not like rock ‘n’ roll, or like sultry moanings at a karaoke bar; solemn, whether in sorrow or joy, in petition or in gratitude. But breeziness, informality, and slackness destroy the solemn.
So does raising social comfort to the paramount concern. Shunting the tabernacle to the side, where it is passed nonchalantly by parishioners in pleasant conversations about golf or school, destroys the sense that anything earth-shattering has happened at Mass, or that Anyone earth-shattering is present there. By contrast, if you don’t think that chatter and despair go together, you have never sat in a faculty lounge. No doubt Jesus engaged in small talk now and then, but there is none of it in the Gospels.
Boys are naturally attracted to the solemn; it stirs their moral imagination. Hear the coarse shouts echoing in the walls of a locker room as the boys bang doors and heave the equipment around. They are the same boys who in a few minutes will kneel in silence on the bare floor as they pray before the football game. And if their coach refuses to lead them in prayer, they will perform the liturgy themselves.
Chatter masks a pecking order behind the façade of equality; again, a faculty lounge would provide proof enough. But the boys of a football team, or a company of cadets, or the students at the medieval University of Paris, or young pirates floating down the Mississippi, will honor their fundamental equality by means of hierarchy. Some will serve the rest by leading, and others will share in that leadership by obeying. Twain smiles genially at this boyish penchant. Though the raft has neither sail nor tiller, and though neither Tom nor Huck nor Joe understands half of the words he is using, still Tom the leader stands tall upon the deck, shouting those commands without which the raft would be only a raft, and the boys would be only boys:
They shoved off, presently, Tom in command, Huck at the after-oar and Joe at the forward. Tom stood amidships, gloomy-browed, and with folded arms, and gave his orders in a low, stern whisper:
“Luff, and bring her to the wind!”
“Steady it is, sir!”
“Let her go off a point!”
“Point it is, sir!”
As the boys steadily and monotonously drove the raft towards midstream it was no doubt understood that these orders were given only for “style,” and were not intended to mean anything in particular.
“What sail’s she carrying?”
“Courses, tops’ls, and flying-jib, sir.”
“Send the r’yals up! Lay out aloft, there, half a dozen of ye—foretopmaststuns’l! Lively, now!”
“Hellum-a-lee—hard a port! Stand by to meet her when she comes! Port, port! Now, men! With a will! Stead-y-y-y!”
“Steady it is, sir!”
Teach Truth as Truth
Informality is like talk about the weather; it busies itself within a limited time and place. Its language is surprisingly difficult to translate from one age to another, as any reader of Roman comedy, not to mention Shakespearean comedy, will testify. But solemnity approaches the timeless, as one honors what one’s fathers have honored, and what one’s sons will honor in the time to come. It is therefore easy to bring it into concord with the true, which also does not vary with the age. Indeed, the idea of truth is a straight path into the heart of a good young man, for whom being true and seeking the true are one and the same, and are as the intimations of eternity.
When Jesus taught Mary and Martha about eternal life, He did not use the arguments of St. Paul but spoke directly to their hearts. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said He (Jn 11:25). Many a woman will believe the truth because she loves the man who speaks it. That is why it is relatively easy to convert a woman to the truth by manly kindness; consider the strong touch of Jesus’ hand as He defended the woman who had anointed His feet with oil, saying to her at last, “Thy sins are forgiven” (Lk 7:48). Indeed, a woman who is responding in love to a man who speaks the truth will often catch his meaning instantaneously, instructed by a praiseworthy desire to follow the truth, and him who speaks it, to the end. In this regard they are almost always much quicker than their brothers. For when the angel at the tomb gave the holy women the good news of the resurrection, repeating for them the words of Jesus, they remembered those words, and hurried to tell the apostles, surely reminding them too of what Jesus had said. But the apostles had to see to believe, for “their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Lk 24:11).
The apostles had to run to the tomb to see for themselves. Thomas would not trust even his brethren, but had to probe the wounds with his own hands before he finally confessed, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). Do we not recognize the men here, suffering from their peculiar weakness? Men are more difficult by far to convert. They are stubborn. They do not often embrace the truth because they love the speaker. More often they learn to love the speaker because they have come to see the truth of what he says.
Therefore a church that wishes to attract men must center its liturgy on the truth. I don’t simply mean that it will not preach heresy. I mean that rational discussions of the truth—its nature, its demonstration—must be prominent in at least some of the homilies and in all of the symbolic preaching that the liturgy presents. The preacher at Tom’s church goes on endlessly about sin and damnation, for even these topics can be reduced to etiquette, to a lace doily for people who like that sort of thing. Tom’s attention wanders to something that has life and blood in it: a pinchbug that ends its churchly foray by attaching itself to the hind-quarters of a yelping dog.
But Tom hungers to know the things that really matter. The absurd precision of his many childish superstitions (exactly when and where a ghost will walk about, or how to cure warts) witnesses in a comical way to his hunger for truth. Boys want to become men, and in every boy there is something of the umpire, something that says, “I can make a judgment of the truth, free of all personal interest and unclouded by emotion.” That is why, as every boy knows, it is a bad thing to have your father volunteer to umpire your ballgame. The better the man, the less chance you will have of catching a break on any close play, and when you are up to bat, every pitch anywhere near the corner will be a strike.
Now when I say “unclouded by emotion,” I am presenting the matter as the boy presents it to himself. But the boy’s attraction to the person of Christ, through that true-speaking stalwart, that sergeant of the collar, will be animated by one very powerful emotion at least, a passionate desire to see and know and understand. And it will be spurred by the strongest of personal ties, that which binds Christ the Teacher to us His pupils, as mediated by the teacher who inspires admiration because he has seen that truth, and has faithfully followed Him who is the Truth.
In other words, if you are going to command the respect of young men, you must not duck the battles. You must take them on, calmly, solemnly, and with good military cheer, and fight for theological truth.You will not lose the women, who will feel far more secure with a man as head than as figurehead. But in the fullness of time you will gain the men; and they, standing tall for the women they love and the Teacher they revere, can move mountains.
But these days, if all the boys have long been absent or tuned out, depend upon it: That church has become as safe as a slumber party, as comfortable and informal as a picnic, as ordinary as a wait in the dentist’s office; it has substituted for a passion for truth a breezy engagement with social fads, or simple emotionalism, regardless of whether the emotion comes from the left or the right, from newfangled universalism or old-fashioned damnation. It is not command, but etiquette. It is no sacrifice of the Eucharist, but a tea party with cucumber sandwiches. The Lord who Himself was once a boy, who wrestled in argument with the elders in the Temple, who alongside His father taxed His muscles at the plane and the lathe, who inspired men by seeking them out and calling them and dividing them into ranks and preaching the solemn truth, who freely lay His broken body down for our sakes and who freely took it up again, deserves better.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a contributing editor of Touchstone magazine. He has translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, in three volumes, for Modern Library (Random House).
This article was originally printed in the June 2007 issue of Crisis Magazine under the title "Redeeming The Black Avenger," and has been reproduced with permission. Copyright Crisis Magazine
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