02 March, 2008

Seminary humor

My ten-year search for a vocation led me to visit a number of organizations:

  1. St. Michael's Abbey in Orange, CA;
  2. the Fathers of Mercy;
  3. the Society of the Most Holy Trinity's mission at Christ the King parish in Jersey City, NJ;
  4. the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Washington, DC;
  5. the Benedictine monastery in Richmond, VA;
  6. the Dominicans of the Eastern Province;
  7. the Diocese of Richmond in Virginia, which sent me to Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
Every organization I visited had something in common with all the rest, but the one thing I never really expected to find was a healthy sense of humor.

I wouldn't have guessed it from most media depictions of the clergy, but the vast majority of priests, monks, and seminarians I met had a great sense of humor. The closest I think I've seen is in the TV show Firefly, when we catch a glimpse of dinner on the spaceship and Shepherd Book is relating a hilarious story of life at the Abbey. While I was in seminary I witnessed a number of practical jokes.

The one I remember best centers on a practical joke that nearly backfired. Most seminarians hung out in small groups, and one small group was particularly energetic, perhaps because they were the youngest (I think). They were big sports fans.

One of these enjoyed pulling pranks on other people, then claiming that someone else did it. We'll call him The Weasel, not out of any sense of malice, but because that's what the students at seminary called him. This was partly because during the Super Bowl that year, Bud Lite ran a commercial of a chameleon named Frank who tried to assassinate the Bud Lite frogs by hiring a ferret to electrocute them, or something like that. The ferret failed miserably and Frank ends the commercial by groaning, Never send a ferret to do a weasel's job. Someone in the room pointed to our prank-pulling acquaintance, and the name stuck.

One of the more common recipients of the Weasel's pranks was a good-humored fellow named James. (Remember that names have been changed to protect the guilty.) James, suffering one too many of these pranks, decided to wreak his revenge. One weekend, while the rest of the gang was out of town for a retreat or a visit to a parish or some such, James obtained from the local shopping centers an inflatable pool, the kind that people buy for their children to play in in the back yard. His goal was to inflate the pool, fill it with water, and leave it in the middle of the Weasel's room.

If you're scratching your head trying to figure out why this is funny, you're not alone; I never figure that out either. Still, that was the plan. It might have had something to do with turning the Weasel's room into some sort of tropical paradise. Like any comedy, you shoudln't think this through too carefully.

The Weasel always left his room door unlocked, so it was no problem for James to walk in with the pool and inflate it. His next task was to fill it with water. This created an unforseen challenge: there was no ready access to water in the sleeping area.

One of Cardinal Mundelein's more practical ideas for promoting vocations to the priesthood had been to include a bathroom in every seminarian's room. This was different from any other Catholic seminary or religious house at the time (and probably even today) where men slept in individual cells but shared a common bathroom. The story we heard was that Rome did not approve of such things, and would never approve of such things, but Mundelein knew that young men who lived in large families and share one bathroom with a father, a mother, and probably at least one sister would find seminary a much more attractive proposition if it involved having a bathroom to himself. To avoid Rome's veto, Mundelein sent them plans of a conventional layout: individual cells for sleep and study, and a common bathroom area. When approval came back, he changed the plans so that each student had his own bathroom.

This meant that James had ready access to water. Unfortunately, he didn't have any easy method of getting the water from the bathroom to the pool. He could carry the pool into the bathroom, but the bathroom was too small to set the pool down and fill it. (The shower stall has room enough to stand and stretch in, but not much more.) He hadn't thought to bring a hose to hold one end at the sink faucet and leave the other in the pool. The sink wasn't deep enough to fill a pitcher. He was reduced to walking from the pool to the bathroom, filling a glass with water from the sink, walking back to the pool, pouring the water in, and repeating. You can imagine that this was taking him a long time.

There was one more major oversight in James' plan: he forgot to close the door to the Weasel's room. Eventually he walked out of the bathroom to find the Vice-Rector sitting on a chair, contemplating the situation.

"Oh, uh, Father!" James stammered, at a loss for words.

"I wonder what the Rector would say if he were to see this," the Vice-Rector remarked in an even tone. He was famous for that even tone; he never seemed to get overly excited or depressed.

No sooner did the Vice-Rector say this than the Rector himself walked in. The timing could not have been worse, and I have wondered if there wasn't some collusion on their part. You can imagine James' state of mind at the moment. He looked from the Vice-Rector to the Rector and doubtless imagined what his diocese's Vocation Director would say upon receiving a letter informing him that James had been dismissed from seminary for this sort of prank.

The rector was also known for an even tone; I never remember him being particularly excited, either. They made a good pair, and I admired them. The rector looked at the pool, then looked at James, and said, I believe I will leave this in the very capable hands of my Vice-Rector, and walked out.

The Vice-Rector asked simply, You're not going to fill the pool more than halfway, are you? It was more of a statement than a question, to which James answered, No, sir!

Good, the Vice-Rector said, then stood up and walked out.

Upon hearing James tell this story, the only thing any of us could make of it was that the Vice-Rector was not unaware of the Weasel's pranks, and was sympathetic. Whatever the case, James immediately stopped filling the pool, walked out of the Weasel's room, closing the door behind him this time, and tried to find a way to calm down. The Weasel returned to find the pool in the middle of his room, and suddenly the curious prank became funny because the Weasel had to spend quite a bit of time getting the water out of the pool. This provided the cam (="floor") with some entertainment, and made James something of a folk hero among us. We already liked him, but now here was a guy who had out-weaseled the Weasel.

...until the next morning, when James woke and opened his door to find his still-inflated pool taped to the wall around the exit. He had bit of a hard time getting out.

The Weasel played a few more pranks on James and others, but my favorite prank of all was played on the Weasel a couple of weeks later. He still hadn't learned to lock his room, and someone went in and toilet-papered the place. He didn't merely toilet paper the place in obvious ways: he put toilet paper between the bedsheets, took some of the Weasel's pants from the dresser and inserted toilet paper in the leggings, placed toilet paper in the shower head and the faucet, in the desks, among the books—the Weasel himself said that he was still discovering toilet paper one or two weeks later. The coup de grace, if I may use the phrase, was the message left on the Weasel's screen saver.

The Weasel's computer had a screen saver that scrolled a message across the screen. It was probably a religious message; I don't recall. The prankster changed the message, turning the Weasel's nickname on its head: Never send a weasel to do a ferret's job.

No one figured out who pulled that prank. The one certain thing is that James had a clear alibi. Pranks continued, but my memory is that James was no longer such a target as he had been.

Both James and the Weasel completed seminary, and are still priests today. I've looked them up on the internet, and just listened to part of James' most recent Sunday homily on "how to pray." They seem to be doing just fine.

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