The writing of papers in graduate school did not come easily to me. In fact, those first forays into graduate level writing were torture.I struggled with trying to put on paper an intelligent and flowing pattern of words that made sense out of piles of primary and secondary source materials. I wanted the footnotes and quotes to fit into the text as neatly and beautifully as pearls in oysters.
As I neared the end of writing a paper, I winced when I reread what I had typed. The work was not convincing. It never seemed original. It was light years from being on the cutting edge of whatever discipline I was drowning in.
I handed in one such paper to Charles Courtney, who was my professor for a class on religious pluralism. I knew that the paper was not up to par, to put it mildly. It was a paper on the work of Raimundo Panikkar, arguably the most stellar and celebrated thinker in the high atmospheric realms of religious pluralism.
Charles soon knew that the paper was not up to par, either. We spoke on the phone. There was a deadline when the paper had to be submitted in time for a final grade. I knew I could not make the deadline.
Charles was and is one of the kindest teachers I had in all my years of schooling. He offered to give me an incomplete, so as to let me take my time and rewrite the paper. He told me that he was confident that I could do it, that I could rework the paper to meet the standards of graduate level work.
I thanked him, profusely, and set about rewriting the paper, starting from scratch and bolstered by the encouragement and kindness of Charles. It worked. He was happy with the final product, and so was I.
That was almost 40 years ago. Charles is alive and well, and over the years has given more and more of his time and energy to third-world concerns, to the poor of this world. He is one of several professors I know who has bridged the worlds of academia and poverty.
I have written a lot since then. I suppose you could say I found my "voice." It took a while, and Charles was a big part of the process. I gradually moved to a place within me where my heart lives.
I began to write of people and things that I loved. The range has always been wide -- I write about diners and trains, wandering souls, motels and circuses. I write to Charles, too, every Christmas.
In the last talk given before he died, Thomas Merton said that we are a "living incompleteness." We are open-ended and go through our lives doing what we can to fill the gap, to close off the aches and the yearnings we suffer through as a result of our wound, our awareness that we are unfinished, incomplete, in need of something or someone that we cannot provide for ourselves.
I do not know what moved Charles to move into the worlds of those who have less and who are the prime examples of gnawing destitution. Perhaps he one day discovered that his life had to be given away.
I like to think that he embraced what he generously gave to me -- that incompleteness that is life. I eventually was given a good grade and learned how to better write, to trust my own instincts.
We can only love from our weakness, from our unfinished hearts and lives. It is how God created us. We can live from our incompleteness and really give to others from it.
Charles gave me time and confidence. I made the grade. I am glad that he did, too.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.