So, though I was reluctant to be there, I found myself in the student center of Georgetown College one fall morning. As I added items to my list of reasons not to attend the school, I was interrupted by an older gentleman who didn’t look much like my mental image of a college professor. He introduced himself as “Doc” Birdwhistell and said that he taught some classes in the religion department. Before I even had the time to dismiss internally this big man’s overtures, he said that he had read something about me and had a few questions for me. Instantly, I was certain that he knew how I had secretly lost my faith and that he was going to harangue me even while he continued to shake my hand with his surprisingly huge and somehow slightly bony right hand.
“Mr. Hearne,” he began, “I heard that you played John the Baptist in a production of Godspell back in Ashland.” I told him that I had, even while I was wondering where in the world he might have heard that. “I love that show,” he exclaimed, before asking “Was it as fun to kick in the doors singing as I always thought it would be?” We spent the next hour talking about a number of things that didn’t really matter all that much, but were pleasant conversation nonetheless. Eventually, he excused himself because he had work to get done. Though I’m sure he didn’t come down from his office in the chapel just to talk to me about high school musicals and nothing in particular, it sure felt like it that day. I ended up going to Georgetown, even though I was still without my faith, because I figured I could get along with Christians like Doc who seemed to think not only that Christians could study and struggle with doubt, but even that they should do both.
Like some other lucky students, Doc was my adviser. When I eventually began struggling with my doubts and hurts in earnest, it was Doc who recommended that I read Thomas Merton because I’d find that he was “hauntingly honest.” It was Merton’s work that eventually tipped me back into faith and when I went to read the passage that had finally broken my last hesitation, Doc quoted the passage to me before I could even get the words out. Doc was the one who first told me that my now wife was a special woman, the kind who I should “take long walks with and listen very closely to.” Doc recommended a few hundred books to me and I tried to keep up with all of them—he loved to read and genuinely believed and taught that books were a liberator. Doc was the one who convinced me that I could be jumpy about Church and still be a religion major. Doc told me the first story of a saint—Perpetua—that transfixed my storytelling mind and sparked a desire to learn more of those stories. Doc was one of the first to encourage me to continue writing these stories. Doc taught me to read the New Testament with clear eyes and to let it speak instead of telling it what to say. It was Doc’s hand that I was the most eager to shake on graduation day. It is Doc’s voice I remember most clearly even now telling me, like so many others, to “shine on.”
Doc rests with Christ in God now, having passed on February 7, 2014. Hearts all over the world were broken in his passing. I know I am not alone in giving thanks for this wonderful, beautiful man on All Souls’ Day as the Church turns to remember our beloved who have died in Christ. I look forward to a day when once again I will be able to sit beside him at a meal and have him say to me again, “You really need to read this book, Mr. Hearne. Trust me.”
I did, I do, and I will, Doc. Thanks.