On naval engagements…

Some of you know that I am writing a book about Leonard Swidler. For the past year, it has been my occupation, my full-time job, my education through research, my hope and frustration, and a deepening of a rare, complex, and amazing friendship.

Len in Beijing croppedFor those of you who might be new to this field, Leonard Swidler is one of the “fathers” of inter-religious dialogue, the founder of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and the Dialogue Institute, also of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church. With more than 80 books out there in the world and I’m-scared-to-count-them number of articles, he tends to be known to people outside academia for two of them: “Jesus Was a Feminist” and “Dialogue Decalogue.”

Len (“Leo” in his youth) is 85 now and has been teaching at Temple University for 48 years, organizing people in dialogue, and gallivanting around the world trying to make it a more peaceful place. And me? I’ve got my deadline coming up soon, and I am finishing my book about Len Swidler: his life, his thoughts, his somewhat convoluted path to his own faith and the very idea of dialogue. His small and big adventures, of which over 85 years he’s accumulated plenty.

I have a tentative title for this book: There Must Be YOU: Leonard Swidler’s journey to faith and dialogue. 

This is my frantic time of writing all the time, writing the manuscript, and there is little else I think about, but I think about you: the readers who are with me now, here, on Mount Horeb. So I’d like to offer you a little, tiny bit of the book — obviously, still in draft form. A glimpse into a moment from Doctor Professor Len Swidler’s life. In particular, this time, his college life. Next time — maybe something else.

I am biased, perhaps, in my choice of excerpts, but I start with the one about his college professors.

norbertine gates


Naval Engagements and Other Teaching Moments:

St. Norbert College

… And there were others. “Father Steinmetz,” Len says, “was pure idea.” Soft-spoken and unobtrusive to eye and ear—pale, gray-haired, a bit thicker around the waist—he taught metaphysics, and it seemed somehow appropriate that, delivering Aristotle’s concepts of reality, he was the very embodiment of moderation and clarity. In one semester he created the mold into which all of Len Swidler’s thought poured for decades—his paradigm. With a genuine reverence for a master of trade and with a little lingering surprise, Len ends his recollections of Father Steinmetz with this: “I was always astonished that 50 minutes were over when I thought it was only starting.”

I think, maybe, this is the highest compliment for a teacher.

Father Ruess gets a different treatment.

“Smart Alec,” Len says, squinting pleasurably like a cat in the sun. Father Ruess was a history professor and, from what I hear, quite ahead of his time: he held conversations in class, which was unusual in those years and earned him a reputation of a “weird” prof. He asked them questions and mocked the vernacular English that reigned in the streets.

“How can you say something in one word that’s really three words?” he’d put to the class and, after a bit of commotion and guessing, reveal that “D’yeat” stood for “Did you eat” in his riddle. The students loved it.

Len speaks very briefly of Father Ruess, and yet those sarcasm-infused sessions must have had an impact on him because, in his graduate work, Len followed in this professor’s footsteps. He wrote his doctoral dissertation in the field of intellectual cultural history.

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“Any more funny stuff?” I ask Len about his college experience.

Oh, yes. How silly of me to ask… A sharp and benevolent sense of humor pervaded the life of the Norbertine Order and its college, guided young priests toward self-awareness, helped endure inevitable trials, developed in students healthy intellectual skepticism and a balanced relationship with authority. Darkness overtakes humanity without regular injections of funny stuff.

“Well, listen. We had an ‘Errr Derby’ for teachers who said ‘errr’ a lot. One could say it seven or eight times before completing a sentence. Taught religion. Awful. Our Education department was a butt of jokes: you know, ‘If you can’t do, teach.’” Len makes an apologetic gesture with both hands. “Imagine the shocker when I took this one course with Father Claridge, and we had to read a book a week!”

Father Claridge appears to have been a fascinating character: not only a professor at the Ed Department but also a librarian and a nuclear physicist. Rumors circulated around the College that he had worked in Chicago on the Manhattan Project. He also weighed about 300 pounds and was by popular consent dubbed one of the two “blimps” on the faculty.

Len does not recall the name of the other “blimp”—also a priest, not as tall as Father Claridge yet thoroughly rotund—but recalls clearly one of his favorite moments in the library. The two men met in the narrow space, maneuvered to let each other pass, and, as they began to move apart on their ways, Father Claridge remarked to his like-figured peer, “We should have a naval engagement.” The lone student watching this could not keep from giggling. He thought it typical of Claridge and exceedingly clever.

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“Blimp” #2 taught Latin, and Leo took a course from him on early Christian writers: Augustine, Cyprian, and so on. Latin was a challenge for Leo. It just didn’t have any rules of word order, not like English.

“Where is the verb?” demanded the exasperated student.

And the answer came from his presence-filled teacher always equally calm and unhelpful: “The verb is understood.”

As Len tells me of his struggle with Latin, remnants of long-ago frustration flashing on his face, I cannot help but start cracking up. Prof. Swidler is famous—or, in some circles, infamous—for injecting Latin phrases, words, and sentences not only into his writing but his everyday speech.

I am laughing because I am a Russian-English bilingual who learned English as an adult, and I can relate to young Leo’s explosive rage. A foreign language—it is more than a mystery, more than a task. It can seem like an injustice, a conspiracy against you personally. Because… How can this possibly work? It can’t! It makes no sense! When my family and I came to the United States—frightened, mentally battered, and clueless refugees—and turned on American television, we were convinced that it was some sort of sick game, that Americans just pretended they understood that indecipherable “speech.” Because it was impossible to understand. What was this language that didn’t sound anything like what was written? A language with more irregular verbs than regular, more exceptions than rules, affirmatives and negatives in the same sentence?

A language is a little like a mountain valley: you either grow up there or discover it after traversing the mountains, weather-beaten and exhausted, appreciating every blade of grass, and then you rest, having brought the outside world with you, never to be the same. Or you give up on the way and turn back.

Len Swidler is fluent in Latin, he is fluent in German, he thinks in those languages alongside English, adding dimensions to be deciphered to his conceptual constructions—and I mentally tip my hat to our “Blimp” #2. He did his job well. So, I am thinking, did Leo’s other teachers.

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    • Pat Twohill on January 26, 2014 at 08:00
    • Reply

    Great job, Maria! Can’t wait for the book!

    1. Thank you! Me neither. 🙂

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