Saturday, December 13, 2008

Are you satisfied?

In the spring of my freshman year in college, 1956, I asked my Natural Science instructor, Fr. Norman Schmock, C.PP.S. , to be my spiritual director.  Until now I'd never really thought about why, exactly, I chose him out of all the other priests available at St. Joseph's College.  He was quiet and soft-spoken in class, and rarely smiled.  Without saying a word, he possessed a firm, though not overbearing, authority; we just knew that he meant business in that class.  The other thing which drew me to him were the eyes: the kind I've seen occasionally in others, the kind that I imagine truly "holy" people possess because they penetrate realities of which the rest of us get only a few hints.

I never knew much about Fr. Norm's personal life.  His obituary simply stated:  "He was born April 17, 1918 in Cleveland, OH.  He was ordained as a Missionary of the Precious Blood in 1943.  He taught science and math at St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer, IN, and at Calument College, Hammond, IN."      

Whatever the reason that brought us together, the first time I walked into his room and sat down his gentle blue eyes looked straight into mine and he asked, "Are you satisfied?" Without hesitating, I replied, "No."  "Good," he said, "then we can work together."   He wrote to me 38 years later, in 1994:  "...So, after all these years, you are still not satisfied! Good! That's for heaven.  Keep pressing on...God will surely find us..."  Undoubtedly we discussed my years-long fascination with the Trappists, but, as I recall, it wasn't until a month or so later that he broke the news to me that he himself was going to enter the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky that summer.  I felt three emotions: profound sadness, deep joy, and definitely a degree of envy!

Throughout his monastic life, for the next 45 years, Norm was known "Fr. Hilarion" .  Eventually he became one of several hermit monks at Gethsemani, along with Thomas Merton, who had been his Novice Master.  In fact, Hilarion, Merton, and Fr. Flavian Burns are mentioned in Michael Mott's book, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, speculating at an informal "convocation" they had over glasses of wine at Merton's hermitage (of course!) about who might succeed Abbot James Fox, who had recently resigned.  Merton, favored by some, didn't want the job, in fact had taken a vow not to do so.  I don't know whether or not Hilarion was ever considered; I suspect his humility would almost certainly have led him to decline.  Fr. Flavian, it seems, was destined to become the new abbot.

On August 9, 2001, I visited Gethsemani Abbey, the first time I'd been there since a retreat in 1956.  It has changed tremendously since those days! Perhaps even more so in the seven years since.  After a brief delay at the information desk, the Brother Guestmaster told me that Hilarion had had a recent "spell" with his heart and was staying in the Infirmary.  He sent one of the lay workers to accompany me through the labyrinth of hallways.  As I arrived in his room, he was sitting by the window, reading.  He looked up as I entered, stood, and the 45 years since we'd last seen one another evaporated as we embraced.  He looked much as when I'd last seen him, obviously a bit older and perhaps a tad more frail.  But still, the clear, beautiful, peaceful eyes reflecting a lifetime of divine secrets.  

We talked for an hour and a half or more: about our days at St. Joe's, about people in the Precious Blood community.  It was clear that his bond with them was as strong as ever and that they, we, had been long in his prayers.  At length, sensing that this might be the last time that I would see him, I raised the possiblity of taking his picture.  With a slightly pained expression, he indicated that he didn't want that, and I didn't press the issue.  Our visit ended with a mutual assurance of continued remembrance and prayer for one another, then a slightly prolonged embrace and a whispered "Till we meet in heaven."

Four and a half months after our visit, Fr. Hilarion died; unfortunately I didn't learn of it for another year and a half.  I was reading the May, 2002 issue of the Precious Blood community newsletter, when a small four-line obituary box caught my eye, with his last name misspelled: "Fr. Hilarion Schmoc":

"Fr. Hilarion Schmoc[k] entered into his new life in Christ on December 13, 2001...
He became a monk in 1956  and lived his life as a hermit.
When he died his final words were, 'Ah, God at last.'" 

So like what I would have expected Hilarion to say! Probably a first reaction, on that feast day of Santa Lucia, "holy light", to his first glimpse of the Presence in which he'd lived his mortal life and where he'll continue living unendingly.

"Till we meet in heaven..." , dear friend!   

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