Fr. Charlie died on October 15, after celebrating 100 years of life two weeks before. He taught me two classes during my seminary training, one on the 20th century German theologian Karl Rahner, and another with the impressive title, “Christian Anthropology,” which examined what human existence is like in the light of faith. Honestly, he was not my favorite teacher. I was unable to earn an A in either class. But he was a character to remember, which I do as I look out my window at snow falling hard and steady, unseasonably, in mid-October.
I remember being frustrated taking his first test. After studying what I thought were all the important facts, I failed to answer correctly a question which asked, “If a monkey sat in front of a typewriter randomly striking keys, what are the chances he would type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets?” Apparently he mentioned that in class once in an attempt to show us just how unlikely it is from the viewpoint of physics that human life could have formed on our earth. He liked science.
Fr. Charlie was most famous for his annual attempt to walk through a door. Again, with his passion for science, he tried to show his first-year students how some miracles in the Bible could have scientific explanations. Noting that all matter is more space than substance, because atoms and molecules have all that space between electrons, he said the same is true for human bodies and for doors. So, is it theoretically possible for all the atoms and molecules in a person’s body AND all the atoms and molecules in a wooden door to align in such a way that a person could walk right through a locked door (John 20:19). In an attempt to prove his point, he walked right into a door! It was funny then, but even funnier three years later when my classmates and I heard a loud thud from down the hallway of the classroom building. We all looked up, curious, and someone said, “Fr. Charlie’s trying to walk through the door again.” Indeed.
As I said, he was not my favorite teacher. I didn’t know why I needed to know about monkeys randomly striking a keyboard, and trying to show how Biblical miracles can occur according to the laws of science seemed to eclipse the brighter light of their spiritual truth. His greatest impact on me came from something that took place entirely outside the classroom.
My prize possession when I began my seminary studies was my boom box. Yes, I am dating myself. It had a radio and dual cassettes so that I could dub one cassette from another. If cd’s had been invented yet, I was too invested in my many cassettes to bother with them. Then my boom box broke. It wouldn’t turn on, which is a problem. One of my classmates, sensing my anguish, said, “Take it to Fr. Charlie.”
So, I took it to Fr. Charlie’s room, walking through the dark and mysterious wing of the faculty dormitory before knocking on his door. I wouldn’t say he was happy to see me, but as the Lord heard the prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:3), Fr. Charlie heard me in my distress and invited me into his quarters. There I saw all kinds of electronic gadgets. Apparently his interest in theoretical science was accompanied by the more practical skill of actually knowing how to things work and how to make broken things work again.
He ran a few tests on my boom box and concluded that my AC power source was burned out but that he could solder the wires of my power cord to the spot where the batteries delivered DC power, and then it would work. This was over 30 years ago, so the details are a little foggy, and I’m not sure even then I understood him. But I knew that he was doing me a great favor, and sure enough three days later my boom box, fully operational, was sitting outside my door. He must have again failed to walk through a locked door.
I don’t know how Fr. Charlie was eulogized at his funeral this week. I’m sure he was praised for his life-long service to the intellectual formation of priests who went forth to serve people all over the world. But I remember him for this one great act of kindness and generosity, doing what he could to help a hapless young man with a broken boom box. I wonder how often he did such things. I wonder how often I will, and you will, do such things worth remembering. That question will probably be on our final test.