"It’s unusual for a university president to take the time to teach a freshman English class," said Dr. Robert Miller, English Department, introducing a guest speaker. "But Father Dennis Dease is an unusual president."
And Mr. Ives’ Christmas, the freshman common text, is an unusual book.
In the 1995 novel by Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ 17-year-old son, Robert, is randomly shot to death on his church’s steps a few days before Christmas 1967 by a 15-year-old walking past. It is, as the book jacket describes, a "heartbreaking and reflective story of a Manhattan artist and businessman who finds his faith and spirituality put to the test when he loses his beloved son." For the 26 years after his son’s death, daily life and the annual arrival of Christmas become a tortured ordeal for Mr. Ives.
What drew Dease into the classroom on Nov. 8 to discuss the book with three assembled freshman classes was the invitation of their teachers, Miller, Dr. Michael Mikolajczak and Dr. Mary Rose O’Reilly. The students were there because all freshmen read and discuss one common text during the semester. This year, it is Mr. Ives’ Christmas. Previous common texts — the program began in 1986 — have included Beloved by Toni Morrison, July’s People by Nadine Gordimer and Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty. The books are chosen for literary merit and their portrayal of diversity.
"Edward Ives lived a fairly idyllic life until 1967," Dease told the students. "Once an orphan, he now had a wonderful family — wife, son and daughter. A Catholic, his strong faith in God was a comfort to him." Though Ives does not read much about religion, he did have a mystical experience — on a Manhattan street — which reinforced his belief in God.
"Is Ives a religious fanatic?" Dease asked the students. "No," one answered, "because he has a fulfilling life — family, job and friends — beyond religion."
Yet Ives experienced a "direct communion with ultimate reality," Dease said in discussing the mystical experience, which occurred after Ives almost died in an elevator crash. "Ives had what psychologists call a liminal experience — he went up against his boundaries in a crisis. This sort of crisis is often associated with mystical experiences which are reported by many people."
Mysticism is defined many ways; one is the attainment of direct knowledge of God and spiritual truth. "The test of genuine spirituality is charity," Dease explained, "and Ives is compassionate, forgiving and charitable."
None of this helped when his son — who intended to enter the seminary — was killed. Robert is buried on Christmas Eve.
"Ives is shaken to the foundation at Robert’s death. His heart turns to stone," Dease summarized. "He is dealt one of life’s cruelest blows, the inconsolable loss of a child, the beloved son that he — who had never known his own father — loved and admired."
Ives had entered a desert, a "wasteland" of those who want to believe in the comfort of their faith but find no comfort. After a few years, Annie, his wife, "even after she had suffered greatly and cried herself to sleep nightly, was ready to put their son’s death behind her," wrote the author.
Ives wants to believe, to feel the comfort of his faith. But he cannot.
He worked longer and longer hours and, as Hijuelos describes, "sat in his son’s bedroom in the half-light of the later afternoon trying to hear something in the silence. … He often awoke with a gasp in the middle of the night, his heartbeat accelerated, his breathing shallow, his heart filled with sadness, his head with memory."
Ives is disappointed, hopeless, lost in grief and in darkness. The sense has gone out of things. "As a priest for 31 years, I’ve heard statements like this countless times," Dease said. "And as a priest, I read this book as the journey of a soul, a spiritual voyage in the Judeo-Christian tradition of Abraham or Moses and the secular tradition of the Divine Comedy or the Odyssey. The struggle is to get through a wasteland to safety. Dante writes about being ‘in the dark wood, where the right way is lost.’ "
Every human being is confronted by a choice between "fear or faith, to break down or to break through to a deeper way of learning," Dease said. "Ives is one of faith’s great voyagers.
"The simple, unquestioned faith we have in our early life always gets tested. Hopefully, we cross our desert and return to a faith stronger than before. The early theologians used to say that the longest journey in this world is between the head and the heart. The treasure we seek is within us, but we have to go on a journey to possess it."
After 26 years in pain, Ives began healing. How? He had been trying for years. He helped disadvantaged children. He mailed books to Gomez, the man who had killed Robert and others. And he felt, according to the author’s voice inside his mind, "that forgiveness was something he had struggled with for years. That he spent thousands of hours in church kneeling until his legs went numb, waiting for his burdens to be lifted. That for all his prayers he had somehow felt cheated. That nothing had come from without and he resented that."
One student noted that Ives wasn’t as present in his marriage or his family as he used to be. He had turned to work to deal with grief.
"Finally, he took the huge first step," another freshman suggested. "Ives had been holding back. He gave up his grief in a real way by visiting Gomez and having a reconciliation of sorts. I guess you can’t go around the wasteland. You have to go through it."
In that visit, "Nothing monumental transpired," wrote the author, "but Ives knew his son was somewhere in that room, and approving of what he beheld."
Ives had taken a major step toward healing before that, Dease noted. He finally started to physically let go of his grief by means of a "retreat," a visit to England with his wife to a symbolic new place.
There he dreamed of his son and had a loving encounter with Robert, who appears as he would at age 43. His son was wise and smiling, waist-deep in a stream in the park they went to years ago when Robert was a child, and Robert said, "Pop, why do you keep doing this to yourself?" Then Robert cupped his hands and poured water over his father.
"Is the son a Christ figure?" Dease asked. Robert took on a priestly role in reference to his father, students agreed. One noted that it was a "new baptism, as the water had not only healed Ives physically but mentally. His son had healed his father’s soul."
Do Christians believe in the possibility of continuing connection with people close to us who have passed on? This was a question Dease asked the freshmen as the class neared its conclusion.
"Perhaps, but it has to be an active will of God," one student responded.
Another disagreed: "God says, ‘Your faith is something more. I am in your life.’ So anything is possible."
The Christian tradition says that this connection happens, Dease then explained. "It is firmly rooted in the Apostle’s Creed when we say ‘I believe in the Communion of Saints,’ which means all believers, alive or dead. We believe Christ rose from the dead. The connection perhaps often happens in dreams when we are least distracted by our environment, when we are most available."
What’s the moral of the story; what’s the point of Mr. Ives’ Christmas?
"It is safe to hope," Dease said simply. "It affirms the optimism of Christian belief." He quoted Lady Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well."
The bell rang. The freshmen applauded, a little louder than necessary for mere politeness, then left.
"His questions were pretty cool," one student said to his friend as they went out the door. "Whose questions? Those of Ives, Dease or Hijuelos?" I wanted to ask. But that might interrupt his journey.