The Poet and the Priest

As an undergrad, slumped in the library pretending I was studying, I overheard a little egg-shaped Jesuit earnestly apologizing to the kid working the desk for keeping a few books past the due date; he had been in Korea. Later I learned that the Rev. Walter J. Ong was the premier scholar of Saint Louis University, world renowned, president of the Modern Language Association, mentored by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, a pal of Teilhard de Chardin. After graduation, I came to know him, and I realized that he was a man who had remained simple in the best sense of the word. His brilliance was never mean. He had a robust ego but no arrogance. Somehow he had become worldly without losing innocence; his sincerity ran so deep, it felt holy.

In his later years, Ong went through physical hell. Once, I winced to see him wheeled into a crowded audience with pale fluids dripping from an IV pole into his bony arm. The acclaimed Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney was about to receive the St. Louis Literary Award. The flowery preliminary speeches began. Bored, I sat there thinking about how fascinated Ong had been by his hospital stay. He had told me a few days earlier, eyes sparkling with a scholar’s excitement, that it turns out the protective tissue around the brain is called the dura mater, which in Latin means the strong mother, a connection that led him to—a string of ideas I could not follow. When I waved a white flag, he grinned and said that was what he loved about getting old, all the connections he could see now, and how it made writing such fun because ideas he had explored years ago were meshing with contemporary discoveries. I had envisioned a star map, a million constellations drawn in Walter’s head and the rest of us just squinting up at dots of light.

The literary speeches continued. The award had yet to be bestowed, but Father Ong must have realized he was too ill to stay. A young Jesuit carefully wheeled him out of the first row and along the front of the room toward the exit. Hundreds of people watched, frozen by the sight of an icon reduced to skin, bones, and a glucose drip. We were embarrassed for him, mortified by his suffering.

Up on the dais, seated in the middle of a long row of professors, Seamus Heaney shot to his feet. He stood alone, his back military-straight, his hand near his heart, his eyes on the tiny man in the wheelchair.

Heaney remained standing for Ong’s entire, achingly slow progression from the room. I cannot remember if the rest of us eventually, awkwardly, scraped our chairs back and rose to join him, or if we stayed, paralyzed, in our seats. As Ong’s narrow back retreated, the IV bottle wobbling overhead, I kept my eyes fixed on Heaney. The warmest respect shone from his eyes—for Ong’s fine mind or his sheer endurance? I wondered how well they knew each other. Judging by what I had read of Heaney, they shared a gentle courtesy (also a refusal to scrap) and an impish sense of humor.

l loved Seamus Heaney for his poetry, but I loved him even more for that simple gesture. His death in 2013 (a decade after Ong’s) saddened me. Earlier this month, I grabbed hold of Seamus Heaney and Society, just out from Oxford University Press.

Heaney’s motto, “Remember everything and keep your head,” reminds me yet again of Ong, who could draw elegant connections across the far reaches of human knowledge and, with equal delight, show you how to smooch peas. (Something about how you put them on your fork or spoon, an old midwestern technique now lost to me and not even googleable.) It makes sense that these two men would gravitate to each other. But Rosie Lavan’s book convinced me that what I saw that day was not an anomaly, a sudden burst of hero worship. The same deep, old-fashioned respect colored all of Heaney’s relations with the world.

Why is that so rare? Why was he, a Nobel laureate about to receive another award, the first to rise and honor an owlish old man in a wheelchair? The room was filled with people who knew Ong’s work, knew him. Is it an American thing that we fawn over glitzy celebrities but pay scholars less overt attention? In France, intellectuals are invited guests on talk shows. In Ireland, literature is sacred. Here, we are fast giving up on the liberal arts as impractical and unemployable, and we have a president who, though he can speak in full sentences in a private interview with Bob Woodward, only jabs phrases when he speaks in public, all with the same two sets of adjectives (beautiful, magnificent, huge, big, strong, best; terrible, ugly, loser, stupid, weak, dangerous) to categorize what pleases him and what does not.

I do not think those of us in the audience that day meant to withhold tribute. I just think we were not sure what to do. Heaney’s instinctive show of respect had not been instilled. We were used to doling out compliments verbally, and we felt proud to know Father Ong and left it to awards committees to do the honoring. Growing up in a country whose founders would die rather than bow to a king, you learn to stay cool. Enthusiastic admiration is expressed physically only for rock stars and sports teams.

That tradition took hold a long time ago. And now we find ourselves in a time when knowledge is pooh-poohed, academe is considered elitist, intellectuals are easy to mock, and no one stands in the presence of wisdom.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.