Sunday, February 7, 2021

THE BLUEBONNET TREK

I had planned to go to a college about 25 miles from Harvard, where my boyfriend was going. We lived in New Jersey and I thought everything was going along according to plan when my parents announced that we were moving to Texas and I had been offered a scholarship to the University of Dallas, so I would be going there.  I was not happy about the move and the change of college plans but I wasn't independently wealthy so I went along, with much grumbling and complaining.  My father had just resigned as Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange and was going to become President of a computer start-up in Austin. I think they promised that I could have a horse, but that could have been a figment of my robust imagination.  I mean, if you're going to live in Texas, you need a horse! I also learned that only if you were born in Texas you could belong to the native Texans' club. I was born in San Antonio, so I was ready to join.

When we moved to Austin, it was still a sleepy college town.  If you wanted to fly out of the Austin airport, you went out on the tarmac and climbed up the airstairs. It was long before South by Southwest. In those days you only went to Austin if you were going to college there or you had business there. Businessmen wore cowboy hats and boots and bolo ties. And Texans talked like Texans, not like the Columbia Broadcasting School. Nowadays the only place you can still get much of a genuine Texas accent is way out in East Texas or West Texas. There isn't much left of it in Dallas.

When I started at the University of Dallas, it still seemed like an adjunct of a Catholic school in Forth Worth, where half the students in my class seemed to have gone.  Coming from New Jersey, I felt like an outsider, though I quickly made friends with a girl from New York City. I was always amused by the way she said "you-all" with a very strong New York accent.

I entered as a Politics major, planning to run for President in a few years after graduation, and then discovered that the major was "Politics" not "Political Science," so we studied Aristotle not current affairs.  There was a core curriculum at a time when most colleges flailed about offering classes in niche subjects but disregarded the whole sweep of Western culture or any culture whatsoever. In my first year of Literary Tradition, I discovered T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," which at least at the time changed my whole approach to writing poetry; I included snippets in other languages and shifted to free verse and more contemporary language.  

My teaching assistant in my first Politics class joined the Cistercian monastery on campus and became my spiritual guide the year he was in the novitiate. That was my introduction to the Cistercian Abbey, Our Lady of Dallas, and I fell in love with it. I often went to Mass there on Sundays and stayed afterwards to visit with some of the monks and the Venezuelan couple who took care of the Abbey.  I never knew exactly what their official position was, but we would often sit together in the kitchen eating cheese and sausage on bread. I'd speak Spanish to them, English to the monks, and the Hungarian monks would occasionally indulge in a little Hungarian among themselves, although most of them spoke several languages, and my Greek teacher, Fr. Placid (whose name described him perfectly) had a working knowledge of about 17.

One of the monks, Fr. Gilbert, taught my Philosophy of Man class my freshman year, and I was almost instantly entranced by his holiness, his sense of humor, and his charming Hungarian accent. I proceeded to take every course he offered in Philosophy and Theology, working my way up to his graduate course in The Trinity.  That was heady stuff, and there was only one other person in the class who was not a seminarian. I did my final paper on a comparison of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, and Fr. Gilbert asked permission to use it in his own textbook on the Trinity.  When Wes and I were preparing to get married in Missouri, we asked Fr. Gilbert to be the main celebrant at our wedding, and we flew him up for the ceremony. When our son was born, we named him Gilbert, and Fr. Gilbert always sent him particular greetings when he wrote to us.

What I remember most vividly about the monastery was that in the spring, when I would walk over, the entire hill in front of the monastery would be covered with bluebonnets in bloom, and any Texan can tell you there are very few things more beautiful than that.  We had made it through the winter (one year we had an ice storm that shut down the entire city of Dallas), and spring was spread out before me in a stunning carpet of blue. When I walked there, I was enveloped in peace, knowing there were men who dedicated their entire lives to prayer, study, and teaching in an orderly schedule that followed the liturgical rhythms of the faith and the daily routine of the Liturgy of the Hours.  Although my husband went to Harvard, after he became Catholic, he was very influenced by the Cistercians, and for the last 20 years of his life, he also prayed the Liturgy of the Hours. As he was dying, Elizabeth, our oldest daughter, asked if I thought he would like it if she and her sister Mary read the prayers so he could hear them, and they did.  We could see his lips moving to the prayers that were said every day, so we knew that he was aware of their prayers. It was a holy death, connected as he was with the prayers of the Church being said around the world. And perhaps there was a path of bluebonnets leading him into heaven.

The memory of that abbey and its blue hill still fill me with color and light, harmony and grace.

LIVING WATER


In spring, the monastery rose

from a wildness of bluebonnets

coursing in torrents down the hill

giving limestone walls the softness

of a cloister in a watercolor stream.


I ran like a child and chose

the fathers I had dreamed

from mortal men in black and white

whose lives were waterfalls of light

pouring out yearned for fatherliness.


I thirsted and was filled

by the fountain of chant

welling up from Benedict,

cascading into unfathomable inheritance.

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