My first impression of Father Maguire was decidedly monochromatic.
He had silver hair brushed back from a pronounced widow’s peak and a tall, spare figure made to look taller and sparer by his ankle-length black-and-white Cistercian tunic. The long, rectangular blocks of color made him look like modern art.
His face, though quite friendly when he smiled, was equally imposing — a high, round forehead, a hawk nose and bright blue eyes.
He looked as though he belonged in some cold, misty monastery on a rocky island in the north Atlantic — not in the hot sun of the brown, flat Texas landscape.
When I met him as a new freshman in college, I had never before spoken to a monk; I had never met anyone with a Ph.D. in literature; I had never lived away from home — and he was to be my academic advisor. I was petrified.
I don’t remember what he said at our first meeting, but I will never forget the way he said it. He spoke distinctly and deliberately, as if every word was of grave import. The effect was an impression of almost infinite sagacity — he breathed the books of the ages.
Since he was also teaching my section of Lit Trad I, I had the chance to refine my first impression. I still have the notes I took on the first day of class; halfway down the page, I wrote “Main Question: IS THE AUTHOR TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT HUMAN NATURE?”
That question set the tone for the rest of the semester. The epics we were reading served as a springboard for his thoughts on grand, all-inclusive subjects. He made us copy down his favorite quotation word-for-word: “Every man must play out the archetypal rhythm in counterpoint to the phenomenology of his existential situation.” He called it the “red zinger,” after a kind of tea whose name appealed to him.
The second day of class, he asked us, “What,” with a little exhalation of breath emphasizing the first word, “is the perennially present moment?”
When he wanted a particular student to answer a question, he balled his hand into a fist and, arm extended, brought it down to rest on the top of the chosen student’s head. I can’t remember if he did the same to me, but I knew the answer (not from any inherent brilliance, but because he had given us the answer the previous class period).
As the semester went on, my blank loose-leaf filled with references to truth, art, myth, and human nature. All semester, he spoke in dead earnest. Sometimes he prefaced a comment with an intense, “Now — you must know this!”
I think that he really saw the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” as essential elements in the formation of our characters. Our future depended on what he could tell us. Although I was impressed by the content of his message, what really mesmerized me — and ultimately demanded my respect — was the desperate earnestness that underlaid his gravity.
As I later found out, no subject was too trivial for his solemn opinion. When I went for my usual advising appointment before the spring of my sophomore year, all I really needed was his signature — I was going to Rome and only needed those Core classes.
This fact, however, did not stop him from offering advice. In his habitual tone of serious exhortation, he lectured me on the importance of bringing along the proper long underwear in order to keep warm in Europe (silk, if you’re curious).
Other brief observations fed my growing conviction that Father was not as serious as he seemed. With the onset of cooler weather, he accessorized his tunic with a bright blue cardigan with big round buttons. He apparently didn’t mind looking like Mr. Rogers in a dress.
At a departmental party, he was swarmed by the three enthusiastic daughters of one of the other English professors. They shrieked “Father Bob!” while dangling off of his arms and clinging to his legs. Somehow, “Father Bob,” wearing a blue cardigan and several children, is less intimidating than “Father Robert E. Maguire” discoursing on the geometric structure of the “Aeneid.”
In spite of these hints, however, I was still surprised by his behavior during Charity Weeks. One of the biggest money-makers is the jail, constructed by SSJ every year.
You pay a dollar to have someone put in jail, and they are hauled off by a burly team of seniors appointed for the purpose. You can also put your professors in jail — if the entire class contributes a dollar per student, the thugs come to put the teacher in jail, and everyone gets out of class.
Most professors stood meekly in jail, perhaps paying some sympathetic onlooker to bring them a cup of coffee. Others would play up their incarceration, writing mournful poetry on the plywood walls with a sharpie. Others tried to escape.
On the appointed day, my classmates and I duly paid our dollars and summoned the jailers, looking forward to a few free hours that morning. With a resigned air, Father allowed them to escort him out of the building towards the jail. Once out in the open, however, he broke loose and took off like a shot down the long brick walkway, with the jailors in hot pursuit.
Bystanders watched, hooting with laughter. After Father attempted feints around trees and escapes into other buildings, the students finally caught up with him — but the battle wasn’t over.
Father — who was in his mid-50s at the time — wrestled mightily with the students, continuing to kick and make faces after six boys had lifted him up bodily and were toting him to jail. After he was finally imprisoned, the seniors looked at their ruined jail in dismay as he kicked holes in the walls and tore off stapled chicken wire.
“We exist in timelessness here,” he said in class one day — no doubt, because someone kept craning his or her neck to look at the clock.
The remark, however, appropriately describes the atmosphere of his class, where the ancient epic came up against a makeshift plywood jail and a centuries-old habit was paired with a blue cardigan. Rather than facilitating an encounter with the dead past — however interesting its corpse might be — Father pulled us outside of time, to the “perennially present moment” where we and Homer could coexist.
Note: This article was originally written by alumna Rachel Faber as her Lit Trad IV short story.