I take the train that looms out of the fog through the wintergrey world. It slugs along behind things, exposing the neglected places of Philadelphia. I love the grey weather dullness of it. I can’t wait to take it one day in the snow. You see a lot of industrial decay, empty lots, old lamps and ways, rotting wooden structures, rowhouses with gaps, dark satanic mills all spent and broken. One is almost inspired to take up photography. I love it. It is the only place to live, the city, and Philadelphia is one I am growing very fond of.

I have to go downtown, change trains, and the longer ride is out to Villanova. If I go early I can bop over to the Reading Terminal Market. There: so much food, so many things to smell. I could pop out on the way back, take in the steaming city streets when you can look into the lit shops. In restaurants there are always Philadelphians eating well. I love to see them. I may pop out one of these fine evenings, while it is still dark at 7:30. The only place to live is in the city.

Villanova is well served by the train: a neat little station with a dingy underground tunnel to get to the far side of the tracks. It is a wonderful specimen of water damage, ghastly white paint, ghastlier fluorescent lighting made more ghastly by protective plastic, and terrible proportions. The tunnel is scarcely ever empty, however, students get from one side of campus to the other that way, though they might climb to the overpass on convenient stairs and cross aboveground. They do the tunnel constantly, it is less work. It must be the most constantly used dingy tunnel in the world. The station has what not all stations here do: a heated, sheltered place. And it is an old station, looking, because of the charm of its rotting woodwork, like something from the 1920s, as many of the Philadelphia train stations do. A short walk from the station gets you to Old Falvey, which is connected to the big Falvey library.

I take my class in Old Falvery, with its overheated halls and disreputable couches. It has old doors with curious lettering on them, ancient restrooms, and the very bulletin boards are covered with protective, corrugated green cardboard that has been entirely smashed, faded and torn down to the exposed cork, like deliberate fake mold. Villanova is not like Princeton Seminary in so many ways. It is not new, it is not remarkably organized, it is not scrupulously legislated, it is large but never spacious, it is not upscale. And it is far more welcoming, like Philadelphia, institutional, decaying and being renewed, ordered along massive lines, never fiddly, a good place to live.

In the busy library, the shelving all stands still. They have the A-Ds of their collection (B is where most of a theological library is at) in a incongruous section with lower ceilings, somewhat proportioned like the tunnel in the train station. Motion sensors cue the lights in the neglected darkness. There are ample holdings there, a maze of narrow aisles, discontinued desks and chairs, and inadvertent mechanical noises. You almost expect to hear the train in the remote portions. You can rejoin the wider world of the rest of the library, climb the stairs and find seating on the second, third or fourth stories where tables are ranged along the outside of the stacks along the windows. On the fourth floor most of the chairs were resting upside down on the tables.

My class is large for a seminar: ten people. We sit in a high, narrow room. Most of the space is enclosed by tables set in a rectangle. Along the narrow margins all around are our chairs. There is a window, a whiteboard, an extra table and that is all. No AV stuff. Whiteboard. One student used a laptop, the rest of us notebooks. Bunch of Catholics.

It really made Princeton look austere and aristocratic. Princeton was reserved, paused, thoughtful, hieratic. The teacher never told us what to call him, and we always addressed him with an honorific title. Things were done with a custom of solemnity. At Villanova it is almost manic sometimes, informal, discursive, approaching chaos. Jokes are very welcome. There is a sense of purpose, but not of dignity and nothing solemn. All is mingled and swirling.

Part of it was the Catholic stuff wafting around. Flagrante Verbo and other papal pronouncements, ressourcement, Lonergan, kinds of thomists, Rahner & Von Balthazar, and all that unappealing glitter. It will be a good exercise to get a feel for how their minds go, what they get worked up about and not. It is a whole wider world and one that is not, like mainline Princeton, embalmed by Egyptian ritual investments. It was for me teeming with what I’ve never been much exposed to. Another part of it is that they seem to associate intelligence with going fast, speaking quickly, stuttering, ineffectual gestures, breathless Latin phrases. That can be enervating.

Still, the place is alive. It is a vital teeming. I like the unassuming teacher, her ebullience, her avowed Thomism, the subject (the doctrine of the Trinity), the wider context, the collegiality that you do not get at WTS. And then after two and a half hours I step to the station, wait for the lights of the train, the shaking of its mighty approach, and climb into it and settle in for an hour more of Philadelphia.


2 thoughts on “Wildcard

  1. Great descriptions. I felt like I was there, and could see and feel what you were experiencing. I hadn’t heard that phrase from Blake in some time.

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