This June I traveled to the Writing Beyond the Academy writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute to spend a week revising—from the Latin revisere, meaning “to look at again”—an essay on Flannery O’Connor and vision. In that time, however, I frequently found myself looking at my surroundings through the eyes of another midcentury Catholic writer named Betty Wahl (1924–1988). Wahl grew up in the area where the Collegeville Institute is located, graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in 1945, and lived nearby for many years while her husband, J. F. Powers, taught at Saint John’s University. Almost a decade before, I had put together an edition of Wahl’s short stories for my master’s thesis, and then shelved plans for a book while I pursued my doctorate. So she was in the back of my mind as I headed to Minnesota, but only in a vague way. My memories of her work weren’t fresh.
It came as a surprise, then, to find that as I walked around campus, words from her stories and letters kept floating up from whatever murky depths they’d been lying fallow in for years. Wahl was proud of being a builder’s daughter, and her astute descriptions of the built environment at Saint John’s made her a good tour guide. In one essay she recalled falling “asleep to the sound of the cement mixer” as a child, and said that “the smell of wet cement is redolent of happy memories.” But that didn’t make her an automatic admirer of the striking Abbey Church, designed by Marcel Breuer in 1954. “Concrete remains gray, drab, and heavy,” Wahl mused, “the color of November, and I cannot like the Breuer church.”1 But this summer, every time I walked into the Abbey Church, different words from Wahl popped into my head—how it spoke to her “of the Hoover Dam and a thousand WPA projects”—and I couldn’t help but like the church, because it made me smile. As did the thought of her and Powers sitting in the balcony, years ago, wryly thinking of the aesthetics and acoustics around them as one more cross to bear.2
In more serious contexts, too, Wahl’s words—words I thought I’d forgotten, but which had apparently seeped into my consciousness—hovered over my time in Collegeville. The seeds of my most recent project might well have been sown when I transcribed a talk Wahl gave in 1980 at the now-defunct Institute for Spirituality. In that talk, she suggests that the primary mission of the prophet—and of the prophetic writer—is “to see and to make others see.”3 Which is, in part, what I set out to argue in my essay on O’Connor.
In the talk Wahl goes on to worry—as did my fellow workshop participants and I—about the ability of contemporary writers to convey their vision in an age of routine imprecision and incorrectness in language. “Every accurate use of a word strengthens that word,” Wahl said, while “habitual inaccuracy makes it hard to be accurate. The tools are all dull.”4 Dorothy Bass, another writer at the Collegeville Institute this June, voiced similar concerns and tried to think about how we can restore the meaning of words, and let tired readers see them anew. She gave as one example her description of the work of step-mothering as both “crucial and crucifying”—that is, both necessary and anguishing—in order to call attention to their shared Latin root, crux, meaning “cross.”
Not only my research interests and my increasing insistence on precision—students laugh when they hear how frequently I consult a dictionary while writing—but even my approach to teaching itself seemed to have its roots in Wahl’s work, and Collegeville. When I got home after the workshop, I took down some boxes from the attic and looked through the manuscripts for To See the Stars, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman that Wahl had written in her undergraduate days. The novel is set at the fictional Saint Bede’s (which is an awful lot like Saint Ben’s), and it centers on Peggy (“who is partly myself and partly everyone I know,” Wahl admitted). In it, Peggy comes of age thanks to a series of chaste love affairs and a life-changing course on Dante. The Dante course in the novel is taught by Sister Elaine. In real life, it was taught by Sister Mariella Gable, an editor, critic, and early champion of writers including O’Connor, Powers, J. D. Salinger, and John Updike—and, of course, her prize pupil Wahl.
Skimming To See the Stars, I was a little stunned to see how much Sister Mariella’s classroom demeanor—as documented in Wahl’s fiction, anyway—might have informed my own. She draws diagrams on the blackboard to guide her students through the intricacies of The Divine Comedy and give them a picture to carry in their minds, an image to see and see again. I draw diagrams too, including a crude but effective schematic of temporality versus timelessness to illustrate T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the concept of transcendentals more generally, and any poem that attempts to preserve the beloved with words.
Elsewhere in the manuscript, another nun named Sister Irene inhabits just this world of eternal verities:
She was an [sic] historian, but she reckoned history without the essential element of time. Somewhere Constantine was still signing the Edict of Milan, somewhere Charlemagne still turned back the Saracens, Chartres was forever being built, Albertus Magnus forever teaching, Bede forever recording. Though she could not explain, she felt a very tangible link between the past and the present that bound us all to our ancestors, physical, social, spiritual.5
In my classroom, I encourage students to inhabit that world, a space where the joys of discovery and comprehension are universal and alive—where Keats breathes the same air as Homer, and Cortes is forever laying eyes on the glittering Pacific for the very first time, and we too are transported to new and distant lands. Perhaps such moments resemble in some way God’s perspective, with past, present, and future visible all at once. In Collegeville, I kept expecting to see a young Betty Wahl come around the corner any minute in a plaid skirt and bobby socks, even as I knew that she lay in the cemetery, even as I dined with her son James and his family only a few feet away from where the bed she died in once stood.
But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of my week at the Collegeville Institute—in addition to the fellowship and camaraderie of the other writers; the exceptional hospitality we received; and the productivity both fostered—was the feeling of deep satisfaction, denied to the secular academic, that comes from a different kind of alignment. Just as art brings us to a place where time and eternity meet, there is a certain kind of intellectual pursuit that aligns truth and Truth. I’d first felt the satisfactions of that kind of pursuit a decade before, working on Wahl’s stories. Perhaps that was the start of my vocation (a topic many of my fellow workshop participants were exploring in June): the day I discovered, through Wahl’s stories, that such simultaneous fulfillment of mind and spirit was possible. Here, too, she had the words before I did.
While at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in 1944, Wahl noticed that the students and professors seemed dissatisfied compared to those at the College of Saint Benedict. In an essay for the St. Benedict’s Quarterly, she recalled, “I looked at them last summer, and I thought of my three years in the quiet classrooms with African violets on the windowsills. I thought of the French teacher, happy because God made Racine to write plays, happy because God lets her teach them.”6 And in the summer of 2016, I felt the same. Happy that God made Wahl and O’Connor to write stories, and happy to be afforded the time to read and write about them.
1. Betty Wahl, untitled essay, in A Sense of Place: Saint John’s of Collegeville, eds. Colman J. Barry, O.S.B. and Robert L. Spaeth (Collegeville, Minn.: Saint John’s University Press, 1987), 135.
2. Wahl, A Sense of Place, 135.
3. Powers and Wahl, “A Place to Stand.”
4. Powers and Wahl, “A Place to Stand.”
5. To See the Stars, first version, third of five folders.
6. Betty Wahl, “I Discover Catholic Education at a Secular University,” St. Benedict’s Quarterly 19:1 (Fall 1944), 6.