~ The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss ~
“There is no real distinction between the pulpit and the classroom,” writes Louis Auchincloss in The Rector of Justin (1964), and perhaps that’s always been true. The teaching profession certainly presents itself today as a vocation for would-be evangelists. I see billboards around town for a teacher certification program at a local college enticing new enrollees to “teach the change you want to see in the world.” God help us, I say to myself when I consider the applicants likely to be inspired by that slogan.
But in fact I nearly became a high school teacher myself once, and I still wonder if I might have found a more rewarding career in that direction. It was almost twenty years ago. I was accepted into a graduate teaching program and was only prevented from enrolling by the caution flag of a pink line on my wife’s over-the-counter pregnancy test. “Is it really wise just now to take on new school debt?” it seemed to ask. “And can you really support a family on a public school teacher’s salary?”
It’s just as well, I’m sure. I might have had a good run for a while but by now, with retirement still years off, I’d have found myself in trouble with the administration for my inability to comply with the agenda of the New Puritanism.
Back to Auchincloss. What an exemplary novel The Rector of Justin is, and how finely drawn is the character of Frank Prescott, headmaster of the fictional New England boys school St Justin Martyr. Auchincloss gives us Frank Prescott not as Prescott sees himself or through the mediation of an omniscient narrator, but as he is seen by others, in the journals and memoirs and conversation of former students, family members, and acquaintances. He draws Prescott the way my childhood art teacher sometimes made me sketch portraits: from the outside, by describing the shapes and shadows of the space around the subject until its essential form is revealed.
The method of The Rector of Justin is something like hagiography, but is Auchincloss writing the life of a fictional saint? Not in the way we’re used to thinking about sainthood. Frank Prescott’s high ambitions are never really severable from his mistakes, inadequacies, and contradictory impulses. His achievements (beyond those measured in bricks and donors’ gifts) are hard to gauge; the toll of his failures is more apparent. But if sanctity is achievable by special tenacity without special grace, then perhaps it’s “St Frank Prescott” after all. “With you and me faith will always be a matter of exercise,” Prescott says to a friend. “But the faith that you work for is just as fine as the faith that is conferred.”
I once heard a story told by a Catholic high school teacher who periodically asked priests to come and address his class. Most of these were of the “Fr. Cool” variety. They used slang, threw out pop-culture references, and generally tried to make the Church relevant to the interests and fashions of the young; one even brought a skateboard. The students seemed to enjoy these visits. But one day the teacher invited a different sort of priest. He made no attempt to meet the kids “where they were.” Instead, his message was: “Christ is real. Sin is real, and holiness is real. Every single one of you is called to be a saint. Take that calling seriously!”
He talked this way for a half hour. The room was silent and no one asked questions. Then the bell rang and they all went home for the weekend. In the classroom next week the teacher apologized for inviting the priest. He’d never meant to make these visits such heavy occasions, he explained. Then a student raised his hand and said that, in fact, this was the only guest priest who had made an impression on him. He’d spent all weekend thinking about what the priest had said. Could they invite him back again? It turned out the whole classroom felt the same way. “These kids didn’t really care about the sort of ‘relevance’ I assumed was important to them,” the teacher said. “They just needed to know they had a vocation as Christians.”
Perhaps that’s something to differentiate human beings from other animals: the need for a calling. Have you noticed that almost no one – especially no one with any pretensions to being educated or enlightened – is satisfied with a simple “job” anymore? It’s not enough to have a job, a career, or even a profession; everyone wants a vocation. Even in business and industry, where metaphysical considerations used to nap from 9 to 5, people want a sense of calling, the conviction that the work they’re doing serves a higher purpose, a transcendent goal. The preacher-teachers of today are really no different from others in this respect.
The Christian faith used to provide that calling for most of us in the West. Some answered it in a special way through the priesthood or the consecrated life, but everyone was summoned, and everything was subsumed into that calling: our inward life, our family life, our community life, our life as citizens, and our work: even the most menial job, when undertaken for Christ’s sake, became a means of working out your eternal salvation.
The old faith is waning still and there’s an unmistakable note of desperation in the public square. As someone devoted (however imperfectly) to that older calling, I can’t help but shudder at the fashionable and distorted alternatives that so many of my colleagues and neighbors will accept in its place, and the fervor with which they pursue them. But I recognize the longing and the insufficiency in themselves that they feel.