I didn’t know, when we gathered on Notre Dame’s South Quad for Mass on September 11, 2001, that we were praying for one of our own. But later that night, the Holy Cross community learned that Neil Hyland ’77 was missing. His father had called Rev. Austin Collins, CSC, ’77 asking for prayers. For the next few weeks we mentioned him in the intercessions at Mass and evening prayer, and told Neil stories, recalling his jokes and classic one-liners, re-enacting his favorite monologues. Then word came that his remains had been recovered.
I first met Neil in January 1979, in the upper rec room of Moreau Seminary, at “pre-prandials,” to use the parlance of religious communities: drinks before dinner. I was a candidate in the formation program of the Congregation of Holy Cross, midway through my pre-novitiate year. Neil had already been to the novitiate the year before, but left in April, “after the group field trip to Montreal,” he said. He was never one to pass up an excursion promising quality restaurants and a night on the town.
He re-applied in autumn 1978, was accepted, and showed up at the beginning of the second semester. I had heard of his irrepressible humor, his shenanigans, his approach to socializing as performance art. That spring semester, he lived up to his reputation.
Even now, this is my most vivid memory of Neil: one hand in his pocket, the other holding a glass of wine, standing in a circle of guys in the upper rec, telling a story or mimicking a staff member or enacting some monologue from a movie in a feigned accent of the British aristocracy until everyone around him roars at the punch line. And then, as the laughter subsides, he casually commands a younger seminarian, in the inflection of his favorite actor, James Mason, addressing a servant, “Another chablis, please, and make it quick.”
He had curly hair, brown eyes, a deep chest and strong arms but was in no way athletic, although he said he could go in for cricket or polo. It didn’t take long for me to join the circle around him, egging him on to do one of his monologues. Always ready for diversion from the daily seminary routine — morning prayer, breakfast, classes, study, evening prayer, dinner, more study — we were regulars in the late-night, upper-rec crowd, gathering for drinks, rounds of hearts and spades, chit-chat about the community, the campus, the Church and the world — all enlivened with Neil’s ongoing entertainment.
Our time wasn’t all frivolity of course. An English major, Neil loved poetry and aspired to be a writer. So did I. We’d exchange pieces we were working on. My short story, “Nunc Dimittis,” was published in Chimes, the Saint Mary’s College literary journal. It was about an old man hearing from his son. I was proud of it. Neil liked it, but couldn’t help adding, “My dear, dear Michael, I’ll be publishing my poems in The New Yorker while you’ll be writing descriptions of the entrées on Howard Johnson’s menus: ‘a tender chicken leg, mashed potatoes smothered in Hojo’s distinctive tangy gravy and a side of fresh, crisp green beans.’” Neil had a sense of humor about our common aspirations.
That spring of ’79, Neil and I became fast friends, vying to sit at the same table for dinner, a subtle sin against charity surely, but a vital survival skill, we felt, for making it in religious life. Being more familiar with Notre Dame’s nightlife, he took me to movies on campus, to the Jazz Café and to the bars at Five Points. An older seminarian and close friend of mine once expressed his misgivings about Neil’s influence on me; it was making me frivolous, he said, and he had seen it happen before. But I demurred. By this time, Neil had been accepted to the novitiate just like anyone else. Time would tell, I said, whether he — or I for that matter — would, in the traditional idiom, “persevere.”
The summer before the novitiate, I stayed at Notre Dame to work as an apprentice at Ave Maria Press. By the end of the summer, I was writing articles and interviews that put me in touch with leading advocates of justice and peace in the Church: Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, poet and peace activist; Thomas Gumbleton, the pacifist, auxiliary bishop from Detroit; Harry Fagan, a hard-nosed community organizer from Cleveland. They left a deep impression on me — my first exposure, you could say, to the prophetic wing of Catholicism in the United States.
Meanwhile, Neil was living with his folks and working in Los Angeles. We looked forward to seeing each other and the others in our class at the start of the novitiate year in August.
The Holy Cross Novitiate was (and is) located on the north shoulder of Pike’s Peak, a quarter of a mile down Ute Pass from the one-stoplight town of Cascade, Colorado. It consisted of a 50-acre plot of land at the center of which was a brick mansion with a well-equipped kitchen, a spacious living room and dining room with marble floors, and staircases leading up to a second floor of large bedrooms. The basement housed a rec room, a TV room seating 30, and a stereo room in the back corner.
Our year commenced the morning after we arrived with a house meeting led by Nick Ayo, CSC, ’56, ’62M.A., a soft-spoken, sage-like, somewhat melancholy priest who had been teaching literature at the University of Portland when he was appointed by the Congregation of Holy Cross to serve as novice master. This was his 13th year in that position, and his opening comments came with instructions as to our community schedule: morning prayer at 7, breakfast after, then two hours of quiet for prayer and reading followed by an informal class on spirituality, the vows, the history of Holy Cross and other matters pertaining to our aspirations in religious life and the priesthood. Mass at 11:30. Lunch at noon. Work period from 1:30 to 4:30, during which we would help with projects around the house and property. Evening prayer at 5:30, dinner at 6, and evenings free. Tuesdays we’d go downtown to work at an “apostolate.” Sundays and Wednesdays we were off.
Each of us would be assigned to an “obedience,” a daily chore such as taking out the trash, sweeping the porch or tending to the library. We were to prepare dinners on a rotating basis with the help of our hired cook, Barbara. The overall ethos would be quiet, reflective quasi-monastic. With the help of the staff, five in all, we were there to discern God’s will for us, our vocation.
“We are poor men living in a rich man’s house.” That’s how Nick Ayo captured the irony of preparing to profess poverty in our luxurious mansion and lovely surroundings. It led some of us to quip: “If this is poverty, then bring on celibacy!”
Neil loved the place. It wasn’t the English country estate he longed for, but the setting provided a fitting context for him to perform his favorite imaginary characters. His obedience was that of sacristan, cleaning the chapel and preparing for and cleaning up after Mass; he assumed for himself the title “Lord Sacristan.” During work periods, he would stroll about like an elderly gentleman of the landed aristocracy, as if wearing a tweed cap and jacket, admiring the property, offering an encouraging word to the help, and bemoaning the rise of the nouveau riche, all spoken, of course, in the voice of James Mason.
Neil used the marble staircase to elaborate on his Russian Revolution riffs: a mob of peasants storming the winter palace, rushing up to the top floor, hacking away at heavy, wooden doors with picks and axes, finally busting through to find the emperor standing stoically alone in the center of the room wearing a smoking jacket and an ascot and holding a brandy snifter; then, once the boisterous mob goes suddenly silent, he greets them calmly in a soft-spoken voice, “Hello. We’ve been expecting you. Care for a drink?”
Neil’s antics drew laughter from most everyone, staff as well as novices. He lightened the atmosphere.
The end of the novitiate day was usually reserved for prayer, study and reflection, in the timeworn tradition of “grand silence.” This pattern was mercifully broken up by the Friday Night soiree in the rec room. Most of the house headed for bed around 11, but Neil and I would often continue the festivities in the stereo room. We’d listen to records, reminisce about college days and play chess for beers. Sometimes we’d go down to Manitou Springs to play pool in an old-style western saloon. Getting up for morning prayer after these long nights was a struggle, reciting psalms in a hangover fog, but we managed.
I usually followed up these nights with a weekend of resolute focus on things spiritual, taking on Garrigou-Lagrange’s The Three Ages of the Interior Life. Neil, for his part, delved into Brideshead Revisited. We continued dabbling in short stories and poetry, exchanging works in progress. As the fall wore on, however, we realized our formation and discernment would have to take a more serious turn.
On Thanksgiving, I helped out at the soup kitchen in Colorado Springs; “the Kingdom in action” is how I described it. For dinner on Christmas, we were encouraged to invite people with nowhere else to go. I brought Skip, a homeless guy with a clubfoot I had come to know from the soup kitchen. Before dinner, Neil, Skip and I, along with Thanh, a Vietnamese refugee from Denver, posed on the front porch for a photo. It shows Skip, Thanh and me, each with hands over our eyes, ears and mouth: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. As the photo was snapped, Neil put his hand over his wine glass and exclaimed, “and drink no evil!” Everyone got a big laugh.
Two days later Neil and I went with John Cross, another seminarian, and John’s sister, who was visiting, to Colorado Springs: lunch, light shopping, a hilarious time frolicking in the streets in the middle of a blizzard.
The next day John Cross got hit by a car. He was catapulted into a road sign. His torso broke the 4-by-4 post like a toothpick. Killed on impact, the doctors said, though he wasn’t pronounced dead until late that night. We were devastated. John was a light-hearted presence in our class who cooked exquisite Chinese meals and taught us how to use chopsticks.
Relief from the somber mood came a week later as we prepared to travel separately to different Holy Cross communities around the country for a three-week “January experience.” I went to Notre Dame High School in Niles, Illinois. Neil went to St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.
The night before we left, Neil confided in me that John’s death had jolted him into reflecting on his life: too much frivolity, too much drinking, too little concentration on his purpose in life. He wanted to make some changes, to be a good person and a good parish priest, to baptize, marry and bury a generation or two of the faithful. I was relieved to hear it.
The apostle Paul says we must take off the old man and put on the new, and we had both been putting off that arduous task. Neil expressed his gratitude for our friendship. As we stood at the door outside my room, we hugged in the usual CSC fashion, right hands in a handshake, left hands slapping each other’s back. Then, haltingly, he said he loved me. I told him I loved him too. We went to our rooms. The next morning we headed out in different directions.
The January experience lasted until the end of the month. Dinner the night of our return was like a family reunion. After dinner, several of us gathered in the stereo room, telling apostolic adventure stories and getting ready to resume the novitiate schedule that by this time we had found strangely reassuring.
Hours later, Neil and I, the only ones still in the stereo room, were making enough commotion to wake one of the staff members, who called down to us to be quiet. A few minutes after that the door to the stereo room swung open and there, standing in the doorway in his pajamas, was Nick Ayo, the novice master, who asked what was going on and told us to get to bed. We gathered the glasses and bottles (not all ours) and tip-toed up to the kitchen to put them away when Nick came down again to order us to bed now. At this point, knowing we were in trouble, we stepped into the backyard to regroup and get our stories straight. On the way back in, Nick came down one more time, told us we were disobedient and that he’d deal with it in the morning.
I was up early and went to Nick’s room to apologize. He said he was disappointed in me and expected me not to do it again. I assured him I wouldn’t. Then he said Neil would be leaving. To which I responded feebly, “But he’s just at the point of changing his life. We talked about it before we all went away.” Nick said he’d been through this before with him and that the staff had already confirmed his decision in an early morning meeting. I went back to my room dejected, devastated.
Neil rose late and came to my room before seeing Nick. I told Neil he’d better go see him. An hour later Neil knocked, stepped into my room, closed the door behind him, raised his hand to his mouth and said, “Oops.”
For the next three days, Neil took to his bed. “But I’m receiving visitors,” he said. On Thursday came the news that he’d be leaving on Saturday. Neil made his appearance at dinner Friday night, “My last supper,” he called it. That night, Neil and I talked in his room while he packed. The next morning, Nick took him to the airport. I kept to myself that Saturday, moped around my room, went for a long walk on the mesa behind the house. It was all so surreal. Neil was gone.
A few days later, I went to talk about everything with Milt Adamson ’62, a short, rotund, Holy Cross priest who was in residence at the novitiate. He explained Neil’s departure to me in terms of different understandings of “conviviality.” Neil was fun and fun-loving, probably to a fault, so it grated on some members of the community. He didn’t fit.
Not long after, in an attempt to get a fresh start, I asked to move down to the gatehouse — John Cross’ old room. I set aside fiction writing and commenced working on an article for the biweekly newsletter A.D. Correspondence on conscientious objection to war, then presented it to a reading group of peace activists downtown. Soon I began spending Wednesday mornings with them, holding signs in front of a local research corporation that made nuclear weapons. Many nights that winter and spring I spent reading John of the Cross and staring into my fireplace.
Neil eventually wrote to me, recounting his visit to the Bay Area, his return home to L.A., his search for work — and explaining that he had concluded he now had to start his life over. Not long after, he wrote that he would be attending Officer Candidate School in a few months. He summed up his decision with these words: “Michael, sons of the nobility traditionally have three options open to them: a career in the Church, the law or the military. I’ve been ejected from a career in the Church. The law is too much work. So I have decided upon the military.”
I wrote back, urging him not to do it in the most serious way I could. A few weeks later, he sent me a postcard from Las Vegas, telling me to get off my high horse, assuring me that the Army’s not so bad, and noting that “the MGM Theatre has crisp white napkins and table cloths.” I didn’t write back.
In August of 1980, I made my first vows with six other classmates, a remnant of the original 13, and returned to Notre Dame to begin my theological studies. Over the next year at Notre Dame, I took seminars that set me in the pacifist direction on which I had tentatively embarked.
Neil visited in the spring, up from Fort Benjamin Harrison where he was training to be an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He kept his visit a surprise, so I was stunned when I opened my door to see him standing in the hallway at Moreau in his dress whites. He looked happy and proud. The next night, we had dinner at the Whistle Stop, one of our favorites from two years before, then a nightcap in the upper rec. He hadn’t lost his sense of humor.
In my remaining years at Moreau Seminary, I continued taking seminars on pacifism and started a draft-counseling center out of the Office of Campus Ministry at Notre Dame. By then, the U.S. Catholic bishops had begun work on their pastoral letter on nuclear weapons. A group of us organized peace demonstrations on campus. In autumn of 1983, while teaching high school in Phoenix, I got arrested with 50 other peace activists for trespassing at an Air Force base in Tucson where Cruise and Pershing II missiles were housed before being shipped overseas.
Throughout these years, I was not in touch with Neil but heard through others that he had been stationed in Germany, Hawaii and several other bases stateside and overseas. Then in the spring of 1985, I learned he would be coming to my ordination to the priesthood. It was one of those weekends when the various people in one’s life come together. Neil was at the center of the festivities, and I was glad he was. He was in rare form, performing his rendition of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in which Abraham comically taunts the thirsty Dives.
After the ordination, as Neil and I walked back from Sacred Heart to Moreau, I playfully told him that he might be an Army officer but I now had the power of the spiritual sword. “I can baptize. I can marry people. I can forgive sins.” Neil slyly added, “Or not forgive them.”
The next day, at the reception following my first Mass, Neil entertained us with his various renditions. My hosts still giggle at his brilliantly enacted riffs, especially the one on the Russian Revolution. He left from the party, flew out that night. That was the last time I saw him.
Like before, I kept up with his career through friends in Holy Cross. In standard military fashion, he was transferred from one place to another, Oregon, Texas, the Pentagon, Hawaii, then back to the Pentagon, where he worked in the personnel office. He had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel. I, too, moved around: Phoenix, Berkeley, Duke, Princeton, back to Notre Dame where (among other things) I taught courses on the ethics of war and peace, and served as faculty adviser to a student-led peace group.
Midmorning of September 11, 2001, a student called to tell me a vigil would be held later that day. “What for?” I asked. “What’s going on?” “Oh, you haven’t heard? The twin towers were attacked this morning by terrorists. Two planes crashed into them, and another plane flew into the Pentagon. . . .”
It turned out that Neil was in an anteroom watching the TV newscasts of the World Trade Center attacks when, at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 rammed into the southwest face of the Pentagon at 530 miles per hour.In early November I flew to Washington for the wake and funeral. At a reception before the wake, Neil’s family, friends and co-workers told Neil stories. Tragically, his mother had died only a few months before. His father was grateful for the time Neil had taken to be with him in the weeks after. He told us that each evening, around the cocktail hour, Neil would say, “Look, father, the moon came up again. Let’s have a drink!”
When I got up to lead the rosary, I couldn’t resist noting that Neil’s inimitable humor had made life bearable and fun while we were in the seminary, and that it was apparent he had brought the same gift to his colleagues at the Pentagon. People nodded their heads, smiled.
For me, the years that followed were absorbed with “working for peace.” I cast the classes I taught on that topic in a historical timeline, beginning with Jesus and ending with the war on terror. Whenever we got to 9/11, I would ask the class where they were when the attacks occurred and if they knew anyone who had been killed. I always took the occasion to talk about Neil, believing, I suppose, that telling the story could humanize those horrifying events, maybe even sprinkle our memory of them with a bit of levity.
Humor, after all, is a gift from God, as important in our lives as courage in defending the innocent or working for peace. The psalmist says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” And if the laughter that Neil and I enjoyed was often lubricated by a drink, the psalmist also says, “You bring forth bread from the earth and make wine to cheer man’s heart.” Some medieval theologians, reacting against Aristotle’s approval of laughter in the Poetics, argued that there is no place for laughter in the Christian life. But Aquinas commended it (in moderation, of course), even finding a place in civil life for court jesters. If our earthly existence is absorbed in the task of attaining the arduous good, then it should be tempered with conviviality, mirth.
Every so often, when those of us who knew Neil see each other, we’ll recall one or another of his one-liners or break into one of his monologues. Unbeknownst to me, three friends of Neil’s from undergraduate days had been gathering each year at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate his life, catch up with each other, then tell Neil stories over drinks and dinner.
Last year, they decided to meet on campus, and emailed ahead to a few of us. At a Sunday dinner in July hosted by Austin Collins, we filled each other in on the course our lives had taken: one of his friends divorced, another worrying about his kids, me having left Holy Cross and the priesthood in 2006, Austin in his third decade teaching at Notre Dame.
We also filled each other in on parts of Neil’s life some of us had not known. I felt sheepish not knowing that Neil had served in the First Gulf War. They didn’t know the story of Neil’s unceremonious departure from the novitiate. It was a long evening, and we left reluctantly. Driving back to my house in downtown South Bend, I called a friend to tell her how the evening went. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks. “There was only one thing missing,” I told her. “Neil wasn’t there. He’s gone.”
I don’t think it had really hit me until then.
Thinking of the different directions our lives had taken, it occurred to me that Neil had found his vocation in the military, the setting within which he would exert himself in attaining his “arduous good.” And the comments offered by his co-workers on a 9/11 victims website make it clear he carried it out in typically humorous fashion. On a memorial website, Neil’s niece wrote, “To my uncle Neil, Mr. Joker. Thank you for teaching me to stay positive and always look for the laughter in life.”
This ability to see the laughter in life was something I lost after Neil left the novitiate, in my own struggle to attain the arduous good. Laughter did not come as easily for me as it did for him, which is why I was drawn to him, as I am to others who possess, although not in quite the same measure, the gift of conviviality.
This past March, when I was in Washington, D.C., to give a talk to the local Pax Christi group, I visited Arlington Cemetery with a friend. It was a sunny, peaceful afternoon. We walked past row after row of identical grave markers. After a turn in the road, the Pentagon came into view. A helicopter would occasionally take off or land, yet it remained quiet.We found the section, then the grave itself: No. 64 4649.
On the front side of the gravestone, the inscription read:
NOV 10 1955
SEP 11 2001
Etched onto the back side of the gravestone were these words:
BORN WITH A GIFT
OF LAUGHTER AND
A SENSE THAT THE
WORLD WAS MAD
This is how I think of Neil now: He and I meeting again, both having enjoyed the mad world, both having endured the purifying fires of purgatory, Neil standing there, Peter on one side, Abraham on the other, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a glass of wine, wearing a smoking jacket and ascot, uttering the greeting, in his best James Mason, “Hello. We’ve been expecting you.”
Mike Baxter, who spent 15 years in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology, is now teaching at DePaul University in Chicago.