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Recovering Dom Sebastian, creative nonfiction by Dan Carpenter

In the summer of 1970, when I was editor of the Marquette (University) Tribune, a story crossed my desk about a visiting scholar-writer-priest from Great Britain named Dom Sebastian Moore. An occasion for no more than mild curiosity in that setting; but I would come to know him well and personally, not in classrooms or offices or chapels but in grungy campus-area bars and seedy apartments. The agent for this odd development was my fellow student and friend Joe McCook, who was a stranger to theology and monastic tradition but a stranger to no human he met. Big Joe ran into a learned, affable, balding, middle-aged, globe-trotting monk in our seedy hangout for all tastes, the Avalanche Bar, and so began our story.
     Prodigious socially as he was physically, the 6-foot-four, 230-pound ex-football player, along with his wry, forbearing wife Darlene, became drinking buddies with me well before that summer of my editorship and graduation. I guess they pretty much adopted me, aimless and woman-less, as they did Sebastian, distinguished and lonely and celibate. 
     The four of us would lounge about, yakking and yukking away the hours, enjoying one another’s company in heedless neglect of the scriptural, epistemological and psycho-social mysteries and conundra to which Dom Sebastian devoted his day shifts and about which he would write and publish prolifically until nearly the day of his death more than 40 years thence, in 2014 at age 96. If Church authority, contemporary moral challenges and the application of the Beatitudes to the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were broached, they found little purchase on the smooth surface of small talk and breezy sarcasm. I’m tempted to surmise that Dom Sebastian, no elitist, savored the oasis of merriment shared with good-hearted, intelligent non-intellectuals.
    Big Joe and Darlene took him to Las Vegas. The monk enjoyed it like a child. He was especially delighted, he told me, at how well the boisterous husband and the demure wife got along. “They fight,” he observed. “But they fight fai-uh.”
     My only other memory from his account: the exotic dancer who could turn pennies over with her abdominal muscles. One. By. One. “Maw-velous guhl!”
     I parted ways with Sebastian, Joe and Darlene just months after that summer of 1970s, taking geographic and career paths that have yet to converge after half a lifetime. Yet by Providence or happenstance, my acquaintance with the courtly English priest has re-commenced – indirectly – and with it my regret over a missed educational opportunity.
    I made the discovery when I rediscovered Sebastian, just a few years ago, after spotting a quote from him in a wonderful little book titled Breathing Under Water. Authored by the charismatic Franciscan counselor Richard Rohr, the work matches the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and Al-Anon, and Alateen) with passages from Scripture, delivering the message that broken people are closest to God because they’re forced to stop playing God and because the Christian God is built to share suffering. The book contains a quote – “The crucified Jesus is no stranger” – from one Sebastian Moore, O.S.B.
    From 40-some years gone, here was a revelation. I went in Google search for the Sebastian of Jesuit seminars and the Avalanche Bar and found him in his 10th decade alive and still purveying wisdom, erudition and a loyal son’s rebelliousness toward his Mother Church. The globetrotter’s home for 74 years was Downside Abbey of the Benedictine monastic order, Somerset, England.
     His extensive bibliography, much of it amassed beyond the normal human lifespan, is dense with scholarship and the parsing thereof, yet bright and sexy with its calls to freedom, simplicity and the enjoyment of sensory creation. “Desire is not sin,” he writes. “Desire is love waiting to happen.”
That assertion, which serves as Sebastian’s trademark mantra, is made over and over in a collection of essays, sermons and poetry published as recently as 2007 under the title The Contagion of Jesus. Therein, he also declares: “Jesus is the man of passion, and we have made him the enemy of passion.” 
Sebastian Moore was gay. He discovered this, according to his writings and interviews, at a very ripe age (too late to enjoy it, he wisecracked in one aside). When he takes on homosexuality as a societal and ecclesial question, however, he is not playing identity politics. His passion is universal. He chides the Church for reducing itself to “chaplain of the culture” by excluding loving children of God through arbitrary discrimination that has no warrant in the Christianity of love – and perpetrating “enormous damage to young men and women struggling with their sexual identity” in the process. 
Doing Theology as if It Mattered is the subtitle of this remarkable book, and it’s a raised fist of defiance that unintentionally waves itself in front of my own guilty face. I needed no further reminders of the treasures I passed over while drinking and daydreaming in a trove of the Social Gospel, in and around the university that houses Dorothy Day’s archives. I had a guru of that liberating spirituality with me at the ready; and of all the maw-velous things he may have passed on, I retain little but the pilgrimage to Gomorrah, Nevada. 
Well, I wasn’t ready. Bigoted as my peers about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, for one thing. If better late than never worked for Dom Sebastian Moore’s impressive oeuvre, it can apply to my enlightenment at three decades his junior – as it has. And if I’m still catching up with the lore, I’ve most certainly never let go of the man, nor his and my friends, and the holiness they lived out in places inhospitable to Pharisees and contagious to Sebastian’s Jesus. Someday, perhaps, I’ll look up Joe and Darlene, wherever and whether they may live. I wonder if they kept tabs on their esteemed provisional and providential guest as he served out his vocation in Downside Abbey and they saw their children into middle age. Perhaps they’ve evolved into strangers to one another, and to me, over this expanse of time. I don’t want to believe that’s possible; but in this frenetic, perverse world through which Sebastian Moore tried to chart a path, the odds aren’t that favorable. For me, meanwhile, it will have to suffice that there was a time when we all had every reason to be strangers, and chose, or were chosen, otherwise.

Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis-based freelance writer who has contributed poems, stories and articles to many publications. He has published two books of poems and two books of non-fiction.