[Paul, and John--the understander, Hadfield doing what they can at Memphis State University. Fall, 1983]After ordination and after trying to launch a high school theater program, I was treading some creative water at the Jesuit theologate in Berkeley, California. My provincial superior had asked me to explore what to do next with my yen for a ministry in performing art. More than once, the Jesuit community, professors and students, unmistakably ministered to me. One very informal occasion caught me by surprise, shifted my perception and broadened my thinking profoundly. I had stayed abreast of developments in commercial theater, and had waited over a year for a production of “Godspell” to find its way to the San Francisco Bay Area. After all, we boasted the Haight-Ashbury and Telegraph Avenue. And after all, the Jesus character in the script was a hippish mime leading a motley and confused pack of groupies through the pain and play of discovering light. What’s more, I had by that time directed two musicals composed by one of the geniuses behind the show, Stephen Schwartz. It was time. Finally it arrived.
And I trekked on over to the Geary Theater with bright eyes and over-charged expectations. I wasn’t happy. I sensed gimmickry. There was definitely compelling truth but not entirely persuasive. Certainly there wasn’t enough weight to justify or validate a pseudo-communion service with the cast at intermission. There was an eloquent unease about the guy next to me when he returned to our row in the theater with a demeanor suggesting we had traded that row for a pew.Since it was a long intermission, I sought respite and headed for the front of the theater and the fresh air of Geary Boulevard. No rest for the restless: right in front of the theater a busker was tap-dancing to his partner’s trombone solo of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” I forced myself to survive the second act and found my way back to Claver House where there was a cup of hot cocoa possible in the seminary’s common dining room. Finally respite. Intelligent, sensitive friends were winding down their own day in the restorative ambience of trusting conversation. One of those cocoa-wielding friends was the popular eucharistic theologian, Joe Powers, who had tried to teach me sacramental theology. Like most of my fellow students I loved and respected Joe, but he was so far above me in knowledge and gifts and grace that I often felt awkward around him. Nonetheless, he drew me. And that night I fortunately relaxed enough to unload my disappointment over “Godspell.” Disdain propelled me all the way to my closer, a colorful description of the tap dance. Dear Joe heard the confession. Then, rising to get more cocoa, he half-danced, half-bounced his way over to the counter, silently. While he tore open the envelope of powder, his eyes began to twinkle and his familiar tight smile began to emerge as he earnestly and gently handed me a compass and a divining rod. “Well, Nickie, everybody does what they can.” Those artless words carried a library on grace, nature, art, potential, will, and salvation not to mention charity. One easy sentence. Like most profundities, it is disarmingly simple. So simple I never left it behind.