How My First Catholic Mentors Taught Me Spirituality

Deal W. Hudson
June 27, 2010

When I arrived at Emory University for my doctoral studies in 1974, I had just finished three years at Princeton Theological Seminary as an aspiring Southern Baptist minister.

Despite being a Southern Baptist from Texas, and having pursued Reformation studies – Calvin, Luther, and the Anabaptists – at Princeton, I was more than just intellectually curious about the Catholic tradition as I enrolled in my first classes at Emory.

During my last year in seminary, a class with Rev. William F. Lynch, S.J., had challenged my Protestant assumptions about the relationship between theology and culture. (How his initial lecture on Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex started me on a journey into the Church is related in my memoir, An American Conversion.)

My doctoral program was a mixture of theology, philosophy, and literature, chosen under the influence of Father Lynch, who, in books like Christ and Apollo, had pioneered such interdisciplinary work grounded in theology.

Faced with a bewildering list of courses from a half-dozen disciplines, I was blessed to receive guidance from Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, a graduate student in the throes of his dissertation on Han Urs von Balthasar. Erasmo would eventually become a professor at the St. Ignatius Institute, a distinguished translator of von Balthasar, and author of many fine books, most notably a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew.

At the opening reception for new students, Erasmo listened patiently with a smile as I spoke of my enthusiasm for Father Lynch and his work. He told me about his work on the theological aesthetics of von Balthasar and also suggested I take a course with his doctoral advisor, Arthur E. Evans Jr., a professor of Romance languages and literature.

When I told Erasmo that foreign languages were not my strong suit, he assured me it wouldn’t matter to Professor Evans, who taught many courses in English using translations of the great European novels and poetry. On Erasmo’s advice, I went to meet Professor Evans to discuss taking a course from him.

He welcomed me at the front door of his home, a few blocks from Emory, as was his custom when meeting with students. He offered me some tea and suggested I go into the backyard and wait for him “in the garden.” As I passed through his hallways hung with original paintings and sketches, many of them done by his wife Tess, I realized I was in the presence of a special man, one for whom the life of learning was exactly that– a life.

Evans brought the tea, set it down on the table in the backyard, and we talked for several hours, without interruption, about the reasons I had come to Emory to study theology and literature. I was greatly taken with Evans, who had the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen; but his way of speaking about literature was constantly punctuated by the word “spirituality.”

That word wasn’t specific enough for me – it was one of the “wiggle words” used by people who didn’t want to talk about Christianity, the Christian faith, and Jesus Christ. I wondered if perhaps Professor Evans was one of those world-religions ecumenists who thought all faiths were fundamentally the same.

Yet there was something about the man that belied my suspicions, and I mentioned my discomfort with the word “spirituality” only in passing. Evans noted the objection and responded not as a philosopher or theologian but as a man of letters, a humanist, about which he had written extensively.

He spoke to me about man’s search for God, how that search is the “spirit” of “spirituality,” and how it is manifested throughout great literature, whether it could be called “Christian” or not. At the time, I was more interested in how I could identify things as “Christian” or “not Christian,” rather than this vague spirituality he was talking about.

I was ultimately won over to Evan’s spiritual reading of literature by his recommendation of the novels of Patrick White, the great Australian writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1973. There was no doubt that White, in novels like Voss and Riders in the Chariot, was a non-believer, but there was also no doubt he explored man’s spiritual and moral condition in a profound and unforgettable way.

Thus, from the hands of Father Lynch, I was passed to Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis and then Professor Arthur Evans, who told me to read Patrick White. After the fourth or fifth novel of White, I gave up my presumption that art had to be “Christian” if it was to illuminate the human condition. I, too, began to speak of the “spirituality” of literature and the other arts.

I thought of this journey over the past few days as I finished my third novel by the Irish writer William Trevor (Felicia’s Journey), who is still actively writing in his early 80s. Trevor, like White, writes about the human capacity for deceit, delusion, and violence with an honesty and accuracy that stays with you long afterward.

Trevor insists he cannot be put in a religious camp, though he presently claims more sympathy with the Catholic than the Protestant. But the spirituality of Trevor’s fiction is undeniable – his characters inhabit a world where no life and no choice is trivial, where stories of aspiration, disappointment, and resignation resonate deeply with what we see around us and in our own families.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

4 comments

  1. Like you Deal I was brought up Protestant-Churches of Christ-over here in Australia.I entered the Church through our local Latin mass parish,with my RCIA instructor being an ex lawyer,and also having a CoE father,explaining to me everything with a eye to Canterbury/Wittenberg.
    But what I have found is a rich treasury of Catholic writings such as More and I view Tolkien with a lot of favour despite CS LEWIS’S friendly comments that Tolkien was a papist. But I also have come to appreciate the writings of our own Les Murray and Niall Brennan,and the impact of Bob Santamaria and his Catholic Action on Australian politics.

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