One of my early intellectual heroes was an intimidatingly well-read Jesuit who taught me English in 1966 when I was a freshman in college. He urged me to read stories by J.F. Powers. (“F” stood for “Farl,” and Powers got regularly irked when well-meaning fans, certain it was a mistake, figured it had to be “Earl,” instead).
The recent publication of his early letters, Suitable Accommodations: Autobiographical Story of Family Life, edited by his oldest daughter, Katherine Anne, has put me back in touch with the sandpaper feel of his faultless prose.
Jim Powers got labeled a “Catholic” writer, probably because he loved to write stories about priests and bishops who were every bit as vicious as the gangsters he met serving time in prison for refusing military service in World War II. He made ruthless fun of a Rotary Club-like clericalism that took doing well—building buildings and fattening Sunday collections—as a stingy stand in for doing good.
And yet, for all their foibles and inanities, he perhaps also saw priests as the all-too-human handlers and even manhandlers of divine mystery.
My life, like that of Jim Powers, also took me to Minnesota, where I too have found St. John’s Abbey a kind of spiritual home away from home. The relentless, repetitive quality of monastic life has a way of chipping away at the banality of amateurish religion, a saving rhythm that must have found a ready place in his restless heart. His religious quest, I think, amounted to looking for distant sympathy to counteract—at least for a time—a sense of being checkmated by life, a feeling we all share at times too.