Did I ever tell you about my friend, Lynn Leibovitz? We met in Florence. I had finished two semesters of theological studies in Rome, and, after a year of listening to Jesuits lecturing in Italian, a year I passed either writing aerograms or crying, I decided that I could definitely use more Italian than the month of instruction that had been offered to us seminarians when we had first arrived in Rome, at the English speaking North American College.
So I went to the Dante Alighieri Scuola per Stranieri, just off the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence. For a month, I passed each day in class with a dozen students from around the world. Lynn and her friend Lissie were from New York City. They had just graduated with honors from Brown University, and their parents had rewarded them with a year in Florence. Both planned to enter law school in the coming year.
Naturally, we practiced Italian conversation in class. When I was first asked to introduce myself, I proffered that I was a student from America, leaving out the bit about being a seminarian. What was I thinking? It was only my first year of theological studies. I was in Florence for the summer, with young people from around the world. I wasn’t ready to “close my options.”
Perhaps a physical description of Lynn would help. She looked like a young Barbara Streisand, with wavy hair. That’s probably not all that accurate, but it’s certainly true to say that she didn’t look like anyone in Kansas. If I were to write a book entitled What You Need to Know About Kansas, that would be a chapter title. “No one in Kansas looks like Barbara Streisand. Seriously. No one.”
Until we became friends, Lynn and Lissie were convinced that I was preparing to study medicine in Italy, having failed to get into an American medical school. Thirty years later, and that still chafes. Not get into an American medical school! Of course, my surname is Klein, so one can at least see why a nice girl named Lynn Leibovitz would want to befriend a future Jewish doctor, even if he had failed to make the American grade.
Needless to say, in the weeks that followed, Lynn and I did come to know each other’s background. Lynn had majored in Religious Studies at Brown, and, whatever her disappointment at my not being a medical student, she was eager to talk theology.
I remember her sharing a paper that she had written at Brown. It was about her and Lissie spending a summer at the Jersey Shore, with their boyfriends. Of course, my Kansas-grown mind couldn’t get past that. “Your parents let you spend the summer at the shore...with your boyfriends?”
The essay described a single, wonderful day that had been passed at the beach. It ended with the four of them sitting in a booth, enjoying burgers, fries, and cokes. In the essay Lynn describes looking across the table at Lissie, her childhood friend. Lissie’s baseball cap was askew, and her black curls sparkled in the sun coming through the window as she shared a joke. In that glance at Lissie, Lynn realized how much she loved her friend, how good life was, how gracious the universe itself must be for them to be together, for this exact moment even to exist.
To my shame, I remember my reaction to the paper. “You call this a theology paper?”
“I call it a religious studies paper.”
“You don’t even mention God!”
“I’m trying to describe what you would call the presence of God. I’m recording the moment I first realized that life itself was gracious, that it held a depth I had never before seen.”
Poor Lynn. I didn’t get it, and I sometimes wonder why she continued to be my friend, especially as my obtuseness didn’t lift. I could understand her being a Jew, but I couldn’t comprehend her being a secular Jew. She didn’t even conform to my image of non-conformity. “If you believe that life itself is mysterious, why don’t you honor God by practicing a religion?
“I guess because I feel that the mystery of life is too deep to be enunciated in any religion. Maybe, in the face of such mystery, one shouldn’t do anything that suggests to yourself, or anyone else, that you comprehend or enclose that mystery.”
Again, a point I couldn’t grasp.
Despite my dullness, Lynn and I remained friends. At least twice in the year that followed, she visited me in Rome, attending Mass at the North American College and coming for the Sunday meal. My classmates weren’t particularly more perceptive than I. They would ask, “Is your Jewish girlfriend coming again?” Then again, maybe they were more perceptive.
Neither Cyrus or Caesar were Jews, but to be a Jew in the time of either was necessarily to pose the question, “What is God doing, beyond the boundaries where I expect God to be active? How does this stranger, this one who is so different from me, who doesn’t share my religion, speak to me of God, draw me out of the space I have long since colonized? How does this stranger call me up into mountains, where the view is so different, so much more expansive than the lowlands of my life?
That’s the grace that Lynn Leibovitz was for me. She didn’t share my religion, but she fundamentally altered my way of being religious. Obviously we did not choose the same path, but mine is bit different because I encountered her on it.
The word “religion” comes from a Latin root, meaning “to bind up” “to draw together.” That’s why, ironically, religions, and religious people, become more themselves, more faithful to their original impulse, when they allow themselves to be touched by the one who is other.
I remember dressing with Lynn in my seminary room for Sunday Mass. Quite chastely, I should point out. I was standing in front of the mirror over my sink, struggling with my tie. (It was a quite different time in the Church.) She came over, stood behind me and, with her small arms and hands, reached around me to correct the knot. In a passing moment, one whose significance is anything but small, I had a glimpse of a very different life from the one I would choose. Those Genesis words suddenly seemed so patent, so true. “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18).
That of course wasn’t what happened, but it could have. And that “could” has made such a difference. What a grace to know someone so different, someone who made me different. After Lynn, how could I not believe that the world was gracious, that it possessed a depth that I must revere, but then Paul puts it so well when he writes, “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone” (1 Thes 1:5).
Terrance W. Klein