Fr. John's Memoir - Chapter 3

Ministries and Further Studies: 1955-1962
by M. John Farrelly, O.S.B.

When I returned from St. Louis there were some months in which I was not given time consuming tasks, other than rather regular weekend supply or help at a parish in Newark, New Jersey. When I was returning to Washington on the train one Sunday afternoon, our train struck a young boy. I got off the train and prayed over the shattered remains of the boy, even offering him conditional baptism, and I gave train officials my name to hand on to his parents, with my condolences and information of my praying for the boy. It seems that he was returning from playing baseball that afternoon and rushed across the train track without seeing the oncoming train. The parents later got in touch with me and thanked me. This was one of three times in those early years when I was present at a sudden death. Its impact was not lost on me.

Those months of late winter and spring were a blessing for me. I had not known how tired I was, and the leisure I now had helped me address some problems in myself. The anxiety still recurred, but I was not as mesmerized by it; I sought to analyze it. From my notes of that time, it seemed to me to come largely from having over strained myself and so lost in good measure an ability for sustained intellectual work, from a sense of reduced vitality, from a lack of clarity about the future, a dryness in prayer, and from a sense that some in the community seemed to think that all the younger monks should just fit themselves into the highschool and make that their full time ministry.

In my notes of that period I wrote that:

Looking at all of this I have felt very anxious about the outcome – and then would be tempted to doubt, to indecision, to going over past decisions I thought good at the time which have brought me to this place I am today. Anxiety, or this grief of soul at the recognition of some evil in my life against my will, comes so frequently.

I cannot answer and take care of this matter; it is too big for me . . . But I present it to God and want to look at it in the presence of Christ to get the attitude He wants me to have before it, . . . Christ who left much in the dark for his Apostles after the resurrection.

It is a normal condition in our lives here on earth, . . . not a normal condition for this to be the dominant note of our life, . . . It is normal to be somewhat saddened when we see our life threatened. So, Lord, do not let me falsely try to evade or stamp or repress this anxiety, for it is a warning and it is profitable as an impetus to us making us try to see what is wrong and be more careful about pleasing Thee in all things.

During these months, I read R. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Providence,1 particularly parts III “Providence according to Revelation,” and IV, “Self-abandonment to Providence.” And I wrote:

This, I feel is one of the most significant and for me important books I have ever read. This is because it treats a matter that was more difficult for me to understand and to incorporate into my life and at the same time more necessary for my life than almost anything else. And also, I was, as it were, by the hand of God directed to read this at the time that it was most needed for me. . . . it treats the dogmatic foundations with the practical directives based on this of what St. John of the Cross treats in the Ascent of Mount Carmel.

What I got out of it was particularly a deeper realization that God by his providence does direct my life and all its aspects, and that he does direct it toward his glory, and if I give myself to Him through faith, hope, love and obedience, it is directed toward my good. . . .

I have been willing more through reading this book to give up the security I had formerly in the clarity of my own knowledge about where I was going and what was going to happen, the security I had in my own feelings that God was to be hoped in and that he loved me. . . . My trust and confidence and reliance upon God has increased through reading this book.

Through these months I came to a greater realization that I had lingered too long near the tree of knowledge. I wrote many notes on this theme, and I add only the following:

God wants to allow uncertainty in our lives, and a certain darkness to envelope the future. He wants the human terms of our work to be in rather constant jeopardy, for how else can we change our loves from what is present to what is future. But do not interpret this in exactly the opposite way, namely that because it is uncertain whether you will accomplish what you want to in this life, it is certain that you will not accomplish it.


The mistake of the Jews which St. Paul criticizes in I Cor 1:22-23 is the fact that “ils veulent croire en toute sécurite,” wanting to have perfect assurance from God’s side through signs – and the Greeks wanted proofs. The cross that God wants of us is that we go on in apparent insecurity -under constant threat, yet with peace – with distrust of our own wisdom . . .2

Also I began to realize that my earlier estimate of what service my talents could give to the Church was too narrow. I wrote:

Is it [your ideal] not too restricted to intellectual values to be able to make clear and definite contact with the problems of the world today? The world today is aspiring towards an integral humanism, towards the fulfillment of man not only by intellectual values but values of goodness, of wise direction toward this goodness by individual and social prudence, by beauty , by individual and social integration, . . . toward a more whole man, and response to reality not only by intellectual speculative knowledge, but sense knowledge as well as intellectual knowledge, by an aesthetic response to the beauty of things.

I also expressed what I thought the world needed as an “integral Christian Humanism through the Cross”, and spelled this out a bit as follows:

The difficulties and separation of the modern world from God began in the end of the 13th century with the separation of faith and reason, with the separation of wisdom and love. The most effective thing I can do to bring the modern world back to God is to use my talents to integrate not only in doctrine but in life, not only in myself but in others these different aspects of being and life that God wants united and which is the essential condition for bringing the whole world back to God . . . .to unite the East and the West . . . . and to unite the whole to God; the first by showing that one complements the other, the second by showing men their fulfillment comes only through seeking God’s glory! Quam magnificata sunt opera tua, Deus. Omnia in sapientia fecisti! (How magnificent are your works, God. You have made all things in wisdom).”

I recognized again and again that my life needed patience, a willingness to grow only gradually, that any short term answer was wholly inadequate. And I found a spiritual director, Fr. Alban Maguire, O.F.M., outside of my community with whom I consulted regularly over the next 12 years or so.

In June of 1955 St. Anselm’s had one of its quadriennial canonical visitations conducted by the Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation. Among other issues the President spoke of the need that we be different from one another, but that when this erupts into uncharitableness it is wrong. The monks should examine themselves to see whether there is intolerance in them for the differences in the community and whether there is some jealousy of others. And young men who enter the community should realize that the school is the main outward work of the community and that the normal thing for them to do is to teach in the school. – Our Prior, Fr. Alban, was much more open to differences than a few of the older monks.

Beginning in the summer of 1955, I was given a succession of many ministries that were very engaging and challenging to me and helped , I hope, others, while helping me to enlarge my concerns to include many others and get beyond preoccupation with myself. In that summer, I was sent as a chaplain for a month to a girls’ summer camp in northern New York, Camp Jeanne d’Arc, run by Mrs. McIntyre. Several of our monks had been chaplains there in previous years. The girls were Catholic, many from schools run by the Religious of the Sacred Heart, and some of them from Latin America. The counselors were college girls. I felt unprepared for this, but it was a beautiful setting on a lake; the people there were congenial and I enjoyed it. And it certainly was a marked change from my regular environment and life! In part of my free time there I read St. Thomas’s Summa theologiae, second part, section one (I-II). I also was chaplain at this camp for a month each in 1956 and 1958.

In the fall I was asked to be the director of St. Anselm’s Philadelphia Oblate group, a small group of a dozen or more laymen and women who were attracted to the Benedictine charism and spirituality and associated themselves with a Benedictine Abbey. They sought to live in accord with the spirit of the Benedict’s Rule as that was appropriate for their lives. Being director meant going to Philadelphia once a month during the school year, offering a parish mass, having a social meeting with the Oblates and giving a conference on the RB or some topic of spirituality. This was certainly a good challenge for me , but like many ministries in these early years I felt that I was tossed into a ministry without adequate preparation. This devoted group of men and women were on the whole a good deal older than I, and this was humbling for one who was asked to lead them. I learned a great deal from them and this ministry. I held this job for 20 years, before handing it on to another priest. – I also gave an occasional conference to Religious Sisters, days of recollections and short retreats.

Also that fall I started teaching in our high school – initially second year Latin with readings from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and third year religion which was basically a Church history course. In the Latin class, which I taught for several years, Caesar struck me as one who was willing to make decisions and risk himself much more easily than I! But there were many more – and more Christian – heroes whom we covered in Church history. As with many first time teachers, that first year was a constant struggle to keep up with the material and ahead of the students, some of whom were particularly hyperactive. One of the most difficult of them told me toward the end of the year that “We didn’t expect you to last through the year!”This was more of an education for me than for them, though in later years a good number of my students told me they fondly remembered much of the Church history learned in our course. I had to be teacher, psychologist, policeman and judge in one. I basically enjoyed the boys, and grew through this experience. I went on to teach part time in the school for fourteen years.

Within the monastery. I continued work that I had started during my second year novitiate trying to put our monastic library in order, selling some of Fr. Thomas Verner Moore’s series of psychological journals to get money for the library, expanding the sections on philosophy and theology and introducing the use of the Library of Congress classification. – In my notes for this and following academic years I find virtually no direct comments on the ministries I was engaged in, but a number of reflections on my need for patience and acceptance of uncertainty, gradualness and restraints of my life. In 1956 I started reading commentaries on the letters of St. Paul, prompted to do this because that is what Columba Marmion had done early in his priestly life. I also read Abbot Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate 3 that helped me integrate my busy ministries with the priority of prayer. To take only one reflection from 1956:

God wants us to be willing to live in mystery, in uncertainty about the future of our works and even the amount or degree of grace he will give us in this life and in the next. He wants us to be willing to base our life and choices on the gentle, normal, almost imperceptible – and to the natural man so weak and vague – directions of his providence. He wants us to be willing to live in the midst of struggle if need be for the rest of our lives and thus to bear with constant return of temptation. He wants us to be willing to have darkness at prayer, to seem weak and insignificant to our brethren, to live in weakness. Yet, he wants us to go onward in grace and wisdom from day to day, with joy and peace, trusting in his Wisdom, Power and Love.

Somehow this year was healing for me, and when I visited my family in St. Louis the summer of 1956 they all thought I had put on some weight and looked well compared to my visit at the time of my ordination to the priesthood. My sister Elizabeth asked me whether things were getting better and better! No doubt, this was due in part to the fact that my ministries had called forth in me an increased awareness of the needs and sensitivities of others, an attempt to respond to them and so to a certain larger horizon of concern in which preoccupation with myself receded.

In the fall of 1956 there were four Juniors starting theology at the same time and there were four young priests who were interested in teaching theology, so Fr. Prior started a small monastic school of theology for these students and teachers. These students had already taken their philosophy at the Catholic University. It was a practice of a number of monasteries for their seminarians to take their studies within the community. I was assigned to teach apologetics (or Religion and Revelation) the first year, the One and Triune God the second year, and Creation and Grace the third year – and to offer a three year reading course on Church history. I was very happy indeed to be asked to do this, but it kept me very busy in preparing new course material.

In the summer of 1957 I spent a month helping out at St. Louis Cathedral, living at the rectory and visiting my father and other members of the family, relatives and friends quite a bit. I enjoyed my visits but I regret that I did not ask my father more about his early life. He went to mass each morning, prayed the rosary, and gave out finger rosaries to a number of people. He also put some pamphlets that he found helpful in the pamphlet rack at the Cathedral to help other people. At one point in the late 50′s, I sent my father a book on the Holy Spirit written by Fr. Edward Leen4. He read it, liked it a lot and said that when he was growing up priests never spoke about the Holy Spirit. Also, sometime in this period I sent him a book on the devotion to the Infant of Prague. His mother had visited a shrine to the Infant of Prague in New Jersey and felt that she had been healed there from serious asthma. I later heard him commend this devotion to my brother William, saying that it made the mass and rosary much more meaningful. He kept a statue of the Infant of Prague in his room, referring to it as “the little fellow.” When I left the Cathedral that summer I heard that he breathed a sigh of relief, saying that he never knew whether on going into a confessional he would meet me! He occasionally wrote his children who lived away from St. Louis long ‘gang’ letters filled with news, humor about the family and not so humorous reflections on the state of the world.

In the fall of 1957 I was asked to be the chaplain at St. Gertrude’s School for about 40 developmentally challenged girls, founded in 1926 by Thomas Verner Moore and run by Benedictine Sisters from St. Scholastica’s Priory in Duluth, Minnesota. It was a residential school for the most part, and its property adjoined that of St. Anselm’s. It involved my offering mass for the Sisters most days during the week, with the girls present on Sundays, giving conferences to the Sisters very occasionally, offering the sacrament of penance to the girls from time to time, arranging for the confirmation of some of them once every few years , eventually having a little ‘sodality’ when I would speak to and with the older girls, and joining in some of their celebrations. It was a joy to me to be with these children who needed to be loved and were loving, and a welcome and healing change from my teaching jobs. I had this job until 1966.

In June, 1957 I finally received my MA in philosophy; I had written my dissertation in 1954 and had it approved, but my going forward was held up by a technicality. I waited for the retirement of the professor who was behind this, and then took the comprehensives and was given the degree. In that year also I asked permission from Fr. Prior to study part time for a doctorate in theology, was given permission and took a course or two each semester.

Each year our week long community retreat, held in late August, was a great grace and help in taking extra time to be with the Lord, a time of fresh insights from always new interpreters of the spiritual life, a time also to take stock and envision the year ahead. – In 1958 I read The Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman, O.S.B.,5 and they helped me to understand better the way of prayer, to recognize better that the lack of feeling of support in my meditation was an invitation to a more faith-filled prayer and to make my meditation or contemplation simpler, seeking a form I called “prayer of simple regard.” I covered many pages of both a journal and other jottings with reflections on how the active ministries I had were completely compatible with the contemplative life, but should be, more than they were for me, a continuation of it in another form. – Also I began to do more in the way of spiritual direction, and in the process found that most of the few people who came to me had emotional problems. It helped me to see more concretely how each one’s characteristic faults remain with us, but can themselves become stepping stone to humility and perseverance in dependence on the Lord. One Sister had a serious problem with scrupulosity, particularly with the Eucharistic fast and Friday abstinence, always wondering whether she had broken these. When I finally asked her whether her mother had difficulties with scrupulosity, she burst out crying, but the scrupulosity improved. And a couple of men interested in possible entrance into the Catholic Church came to the Priory and were directed to me by the Prior. One who persevered was a Rhodes scholar who worked at the State Department. At one point he asked me whether belief that the Son proceeded from the Father in the Trinity by way of knowledge was a matter of Catholic faith. I said no, it is only theologically certain. Above this there is the category “proximate to faith” and “of faith”. He expressed amazement that for Catholics there were two categories of certainty above certainty. Another was moved by John Henry Newman’s writings, started his conversion while studying in England but continued the process with me, entered the Church and later worked for a doctorate in philosophy which he taught for many years. These were enjoyable connections for me and fruitful for me as well as for those I was helping.

I was aware of and interested in some larger issues facing the nation. In January 1959, I wrote a letter to Senator John Kennedy prior to the annual battle of the budget in Congress in which I enclosed an editorial by Walter Lippmann who claimed that

“we are losing the cold war on the economic front with reference to the poor nations of the world . . . . [and] it seems to be a frightening disproportion to spend over 20 times as much for national defense as for foreign economic aid to better the conditions of these peoples.” I received a letter from him in reply in which he said he agreed with Lippmann, and he did give a talk on the issue. – I also wrote a letter in May to A. B. Homer, president of Bethlehem Steel Company in reference to a strike by their workers asking for higher pay. He responded that the Steel Company’s generous offer would best serve the workers’ interests and “enable the steel companies to compete more effectively with foreign steel . . . ”

And I sent a letter to the Editor of the New York Times in May 1960 giving moral reasons why it was legitimate to have aerial reconnaissance over Russia; their editorial had asserted that it was a necessity and not a moral question. They did not publish my letter. I wrote President Kennedy two other letters, and got a response from Louis Levine, Director of U.S. Employment Service, to one of them. And I wrote Mrs. Kennedy, sending her a collection of papal teaching about the dignity and work of women, Le Problème Feminin. Her social secretary generously responded.

In the fall of 1959 I began writing my doctoral dissertation on predestination, grace and free will, comparing the two main Catholic theological views on this mystery, those of the late 16th century theologians, Dominic Banez O.P. and Louis Molina S.J., showing what premises they had in common, and then arguing that Scripture and particularly St. Paul did not, as they did, teach an absolute predestination, but rather that God predestined those to heaven who were justified in the sense that God gave them at the beginning the fulfillment of their salvation, though they could lose this by serious infidelity. It was St. Augustine who misinterpreted Paul on this question and left Western theology a very divisive issue. I was helped by the fact that I was teaching a theology course on grace to our seminarians and by the fact that I had read commentaries on all of Paul’s epistles, and, no doubt, that I lived in a culture that valued human freedom and had a strong sense of justice. Paul taught this mystery to support the faith and hope of Christians, showing that while God wanted the salvation of all, he gave to those whom he justified by their conversion, baptism and the gift of the Spirit the very fulfillment of their passageway to him; he made them coheirs with Christ. Our human feeling of uncertainty does not justify reason to doubt God’s dispositions toward us. Paul’s teaching on this issue spoke to my own coping with the mystery of uncertainty in life.

When I presented some material on this issue to my major professor, Fr. Eugene Burke, C.S.P. in the fall, he felt that it had something helpful to offer but, as I wrote Jack Stevens, a cousin of mine at the time, he hesitated:

to present it to the faculty for approval. There is a strong conservative element in the faculty which doesn’t think it proper for students to come out with constructive theological theories in their dissertations. . . . they . . . have little expectation of progress towards new theological insights . . . he said he would prefer not to present my dissertation topic for approval to the faculty since it would divide the faculty.. He has no specific objection to it, thinks it will probably be a contribution . . .

I continued to work on the dissertation, and after I wrote three chapters of it, Fr. Burke presented the topic to the faculty for approval in March 1960, offering his positive opinion on it. They approved the topic without resistance. Fr. Burke asked me to rewrite chapters one and two, making very good suggestions about the book’s structure and putting the issue in a broader context. Later I thanked him for all his help, without which I would never have completed the work, and specifically for taking out the staccato note in the first draft of early chapters. I continued to work on the later chapters, which dealt with the philosophical issues involved, through the summer and the next school year when I had time. I was helped by the fact that we did not teach theology at St. Anselm’s during the 1960-1961, so I had more time to spend on the dissertation. Finally I had the whole in Fr. Burke’s hands by March 1961. Two readers evaluated the dissertation in the fall of 1961, and I defended it successfully in an oral examination before faculty members in April 1962, and received my STD (Sacrae Theologiae Doctor) that June.

As with the great majority of those who write doctoral dissertations, this process was a real strain for me. I do think the whole process was in God’s hands, but I did not have an abiding confidence about this at times in the midst of writing. As I wrote my cousin Jack toward the beginning of the process:

Christ has given me riches to impart in theology and philosophy . . . . They are possessed in a vessel of clay, one very weak and feeling so human, to show that the power comes from God and not from me. . . . Really I give myself to my work and prayer usually in a rather dark faith and not with Irish elation.

Toward the end of this writing I was experiencing pains in my jaws. My dentist sent me to another dentist who recognized that this was arthritis, due no doubt to my pushing myself too much, and who designed a plate for me to correct my “bad bite” which I wore for some years. As I was hard on myself, I was also, no doubt, a bit hard at times on my brethren in my community.

I submitted the dissertation, slightly modified, to Newman Press with the title, Predestination, Grace and Free Will. It was initially rejected, but through the encouragement of an intermediary who put in a good word for it, I resubmitted it and it was accepted and published in 1964, receiving positive reviews.6 Also the American Benedictine Review published the section on Paul’s theology concerning the issue in 1963. I thought that this mystery could offer great support to Christians’ hope and help overcome enduring divisions among Christian theologians on this issue. As written on the cover of the book:

Saint Paul unveiled to the Christians at Rome the awesome mystery of God’s predestination of the elect to glory. An eternal divine plan or intention directs man to the fulfillment of an end that wholly transcends his own natural powers: God has ordained men to share in his own eternal perfection and life forever.

Man, although subject to God’s plan, nevertheless remains free. He can decide his own values, choose his own goals, guide his own conduct, and impose a direction of his own making on his life. God does not act in opposition to this freedom but fulfills his divine decrees by gaining man’s cooperation through grace so that man freely chooses to perform the acts necessary to his own eternal destiny. Likewise, man is free to refuse to cooperate with grace without, however, ceasing to be subject to God’s sovereignty

I had much to thank the Lord in the completion of this work that at times seemed very uncertain. Much had been happening in our community during these years. For one, Fr. Prior had initiated a new building project. Our community had grown significantly to about 36 members and we needed new living space. This was true in the early ‘60′s for a large number of religious orders. So a master plan was developed which included the construction of what would be our main monastic building. Mr Philip Johnson, an eminent architect, was engaged to design this building; and a large development effort was made to raise the funds for it. The building was finally completed in 1964. But well before this, the community had applied to the English Benedictine Congregation to be raised to the status of an Abbey. We complied with the requirements of size, financial security and spiritual maturity to justify this step, and we were so raised to that status in 1961, now being called St. Anselm’s Abbey. Fr. Prior Alban Boultwood was elected by the community to an eight year term as our first Abbot. He certainly deserved it. Personally, I owed him much more than I could ever say.

I did start some other writing when the bulk of my dissertation had been written. I wrote an article on Church and State, which I let drop after it was rejected a couple of times by periodicals. In 1961 another small group of four seminarians started a four year program at our St. Anselm’s school of theology, and I wrote a draft of a book on apologetics appropriate for first year seminarians. Happily, Vatican II started in the fall of 1962; and that motivated me to look for a broader context for my philosophical and theological work, as I will show in the next chapter.

In the summer of 1962 I visited my family in St. Louis as I usually did, and also, for the first time since 1955, visited my brother Tommy at Holy Trinity Abbey near Huntsville, Utah. He was hoping to transfer to a community in the Middle East. He had earlier been in touch with a former Benedictine living a monastic life in India, but nothing came of that. He had studied Hebrew and was now studying Arabic and other relevant material, but so far had not got permission for this move. I wrote in my journal while at Holy Trinity (June 14):

Had a really fine visit today with Tim, a fitting climax to our visit. I began by saying that I wanted to open my interior life to him more – and we both proceeded to do so. I spoke about my uncertainties, my questions about what work to do, my difficulties with others in the community, my prayer, etc., etc. – It brought great peace to me and he said my visit was for him a great help to patience and was stabilizing. Dear Lord, help me to preserve the grace I have gained here. – Above all let my pace be unhurried and all for you.

My younger sister, Cordelia, had entered the Religious of the Sacred Heart. She was living in New York and was the secretary to the Secretary of the Ford Foundation. While recovering from the flu she read Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. This rekindled her periodic interest in religious life and she was accepted for the novitiate. She took her first vows on September 15, 1962, and I was there, offering the homily for the occasion, with my oldest brother John. He was a literary critic and was living in Princeton New Jersey at the time and teaching in college. While with him at this time we went to the play, “A Man for All Seasons”, based on the life of Thomas Moore, with its original cast – a moving experience.

Chapter 4 →