|THERE WAS ONE SUBJECT, though, that was taught at a standard well
below even the most mediocre component of the rest of the curriculum. Religious
studies, catechism, whatever it was called from year to year; it was an
uncredited course that, nonetheless, was considered an integral part of
our education at what we all knew was a venerable Catholic school. It was,
needless to say, compulsory. It was also almost inevitably taught by one
of the more befuddled, pensionable Basilian fathers in residence, usually
at some juncture in his teaching career closer to retirement than the seminary.
When we weren't snoozing through some uninspired, glancing skip through
the "Good News" Gospels -- a colloquial "plain english" translation of
the New Testament that carefully leached most of the poetry and all of
the mystery out of the life of Christ, so in vogue in those leeward years
after Vatican II -- taught in an absentminded fashion that only taxed our
ability to stay awake, we were suffering, loudly and strenuously, through
Mr. Thompson's near-abstract take on theology.
Old Man Thompson was a former monk, or so it was rumoured, who bore
an uncanny resemblance to Julian Beck in Poltergeist 2. At
the time, the most remarkable thing about him was his having fathered a
flock of inexplicably lovely daughters. In retrospect, I'll have to admit
that the most remarkable, and inexplicable, thing about Old
Man Thompson was the fact that the Basilian Fathers allowed him to teach
what has to be the most impenetrably abstract theology I have ever encountered
in my life.
Mr. Thompson, over the course of two or three excruciating years
of classes, proposed a wholly inscrutable system of spiritual calculus
based on the chi, or the Greek "X". It was introduced to
us as a cruciform, into whose four quadrants he would place aspects of
man and God in roughly polar opposition, whose four sides were supposed
to create a suggestive whole, a machine of self-propelled spiritual association.
Over the course of each day's forty-minute class, he would fill the blackboard
with these diagrams, the first of which, at the beginning of each week,
or at the first new class of a each year or semester, would inspire a collective
groan from all of us, slouching in our seats in stained blue blazers, badly-knotted
ties, and gray flannels with the seats worn shiny. It was, we knew, going
to be a long week/semester/year.
He seemed disinclined to maintain discipline, despite the free-for-alls
his classes would inevitably become. Even at the time I knew, with some
faint but unheeded sympathy, that it was because he geniunely wanted to
inspire a spirit of debate, to engage us, and felt that forcing
us to occupy our chairs in sullen silence would stifle that dialogue. The
result was sheer anarchy. Students would climb in and out of the classroom
windows; the jocks -- and they comprised a significant, particularly vocal
minority at St. Mike's -- would withdraw into a lounging, gossiping knot
at the back of the class, quickly losing their enthusiasim for cracking
wise and lapsing into sullen disdain. The brighter students would try to
grapple with the chi, lose patience, become peevish and frustrated,
and were, by the end of every year, the most disruptive element of all.
I remember Dan Laypa, who sat next to me for at least two years of
Mr. Thompson's classes, becoming confrontational, even livid, demanding
that Old Man Thompson abandon the chi and actually teach
us something -- anything -- that bore some resemblance to practical theology.
To this day, I've managed to retain a smidgeon of Latin, some Italian
and French, scraps of biology, even a few facts and models of Canadian
geology from the exhaustively detailed geography classes that, it's plain
to me now, were meant to produce future Alcan, Noranda and McMillan-Bloedel
executives. I cannot, however, recall a single lasting theological talking
point beyond Old Man Thompson's all-embracing, inexhaustible quadrapartite
parsing of the cursed and gnomic chi.