The Priestly Version of Tabard’s Innkeeper

Fr. Richard Schenk, O.P.

Readings: Song of Songs 8:6-7; Romans 8:31-39; Matthew 4:12-22 

Fr. Fabian Stanley Parmisano talked to a good many people in the course of his life, and anyone who talked with him soon found out how proud he was of his Italian roots and his family of Italian immigrants; how fond he was of Italian culture from the 19th century Sicily back to the Tuscany of Dante and Catherine of Siena; how happy he was to recall his own immediate family’s involvement in fishing and fish marketing in San Francisco and Vallejo. The many folk who, in his later years, found their way to his room for counsel or just for a visit, saw on his wall the classic photos of the early family fish business.

But like the sons of Zebedee, Fabian had been “called,” and answering that call he left the fishing nets to become…to become what? – a “disciple” — to use that key word of the Gospel of Matthew. A disciple, one who follows Jesus not just by foot, but by faith; one who, because first a believer, could be sent out also as an apostle and fisher of souls; one who, because first a learner, could be sent out also as a teacher; who, because first a good listener, could also be sent out to proclaim and to forgive.

FabianOrdStan joined the Dominican Order in California in the mid-1940’s, complemented his degree and his love of debate from St. Mary’s College in Moraga with philosophical and theological studies at the studium of St. Albert’s College in Oakland, was ordained to the priesthood in 1953, and was sent soon after to Cambridge University to study for a Ph.D. in English Literature.

In the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council, the revival of the Dominican Order that had been initiated in England by Bede Jarrett became one of the bright points of Catholic life anywhere in its day, and Fabian’s face never ceased to brighten up when he’d hear names like Gilby, Foster, and Vann. He spoke less of what he had studied than of whom he had studied with. Yet at Cambridge he worked on many of the best English writers, old and new, and Fabian knew well and often by heart many of the classics, from Beowulf to the poems of T.S. Eliot.

Much of Fabian’s dissertation on the esteem for marriage and erotic love in key texts of the High and Late Middle Ages had to do with Geoffrey Chaucer, from whom Fabian also drew the title of his dissertation, The Craft of Love. In the “Parlement of Foules,” the poet had applied the ancient maxim, “Our life so short, the craft so long to learn” (vita brevis, ars longa) to the urgent need to embrace, refine and develop above all the gift of love. But the slowly learned craft of love requires that we recount and review its stories.

In his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer incorporates Tabard Inn, a gathering place on the outskirts of London for pilgrims “from every shire of England” walking to and from the shrine in Canterbury of St. Thomas Becket. Harry Bailey, the innkeeper of Tabard, convinces some 30 of the pilgrims to tell four tales each, two while on their way to Canterbury and two more upon their return; tales in poetic form that reveal as much about their narrators as about anything else. The pilgrims don’t make it through all the narratives they had agreed to tell, and yet through this initiative of his Tabard innkeeper, through the twenty-some stories the innkeeper elicits from his guests, Chaucer left us a vivid portrait of the England of his day — men and women, clerics, religious, and lay folk, some more, some less virtuous, some more appealing, others more appalling, but all pilgrims of the day.

I think of Fr. Fabian as something of a modern day, priestly version of Tabard’s innkeeper. Fabian would laugh as he told the tale of how he didn’t last very long in his first job as a bartender in the family speak-easy; but it seems now in hindsight that, again, he was being “called” to discipleship, being drawn to a higher form of innkeeping, the storyteller-kind like at Tabard’s Inn. Way before and long after the 1980s, when the term “narrative theology” became fashionable for a while, Fabian was developing his own brand of “narrative spirituality.” He wrote about the possibilities and challenges of prayer and faith in his own life and in our times, even when referencing the literature of long ago, a “productive non-contemporaneity.” The subtitle of Testament, one of his most reflective works, was: Belief in an age of unbelief; faith in an era of skepticism. That was itself a narrative of the struggle for belief today; not just of the general struggle for belief in any age, but for belief in our particular time and its peculiar circumstances. Pilgrim Parmisano shared with much of the Church and society after the 1960s the dual sense that we were “… no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” (T.S. Eliot), but that we are also not altogether comfortable in the new dispensation, either.

FabianProfFabian might easily have gone on to devote himself chiefly to writing, but his life took in good part a different turn. His passionate love of language joined up with a passionate love of God and neighbor, which placed him, no raging extrovert, ever and ever again immediately into the midst of people with unfinished, still living stories to be told and listened to. Like Chaucer’s innkeeper, Fabian helped so many of us recount, think and talk about our pilgrimages. Fabian carried out this service of the word more often than not in “real time,” as a teacher, preacher, as a superior and confessor, for students and colleagues, family and friends, friars and sisters.

He was truly that contemplative who shared the fruits of contemplation, who had such fruit to share, a thoughtful and, even more so, a prayerful man of letters, sensitive to the weight of both time and eternity, so that his contemplation was often about the pilgrimages of people, men and at least as many women, in the Church and the society our times — his own pilgrimage included — speaking to God or about him, while also speaking with others about their journeys. To have a good ear and tongue for stories, demands first having an eye for both the lighter and the darker sides of life. And Fabian’s eyesight in this regard was keen. He saw just how contemporary the ancient words of the psalmist are: “I kept faith, even when I said, I am greatly cast down; and when I said in my alarm, no one can be trusted.”

Perhaps that’s what also made Fabian an avid movie buff, but one “who had become a disciple,” watching himself and others believing and striving to believe. The same man who at table would exchange boisterous trivia about movies new and old with the best of our film aficionados, this was the same man who could be seen an hour later on a quiet bench in the cloister garden praying his rosary. His sense of what was providential encompassed good times and hard ones, too.

That’s perhaps what made him the author of our own written narrative: Mission West: The Western Dominican Province (1850-1966). This Tabard innkeeper and lover of narratives brought his art of eliciting and sharing stories of the different pilgrimages to God into his various ministries: into his “internal” ministries as Student Master, Prior of the novitiate community, and Regent of Studies, but also into his ministries outside as teacher, especially at Notre Dame in Belmont, but also at Stanford, Mission San Jose, and the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. This gift made him not only a highly esteemed teacher, but an equally gifted preacher as well, again by describing our pilgrimages with a rare mix of passion, realism and timeliness. And that same graced mix made him a sought-after counselor, listener, and confessor.

To live in the same priory as Fabian was to see the refectory at lunchtime morph into Tabard’s Inn, as a procession of guests came through each week, men and women, religious and lay, colleagues and former students, priests and future archbishops, academics and professional folk, the simple and the urbane, relatives and recent acquaintances, enough to keep you guessing who here was the new incarnation of Chaucer’s prioress, who the parson, who was the pardoner and who the new wife of Bath.

parmisanoFabian’s first work on Chaucer and 14th century English literature was an attempt to recover a pre-modern, Catholic appreciation of marital love. He recognized from the beginning that, no matter what our particular vocation, married or widowed, single or celibate, a deliberate “craft of love” was needed for each of our human pilgrimages. He particularly wanted to make known a Catholic tradition that saw marriage and erotic love as a privileged place where this high craft of love could be both learned and taught. The pilgrimages Fabian cherished most also showed that this craft is a question not only of our loving well, but of our being loved. “Who shall separate us from Christ’s love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Fabian was ordained to the priesthood in 1953 on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, which happened to be on June 12th that year. He continued to honor that movable feast as his ordination day, no matter what the date it fell on in any given year. On whatever date the Feast of the Sacred Heart happened to fall, that was Fabian’s anniversary of ordination for that year. It is after all the feast that recalls the side of Christ opened by a lance on the Cross, out of love for humankind, the feast that recalls those wounds, the marks of which remain in the Lord’s resurrected body as eternal testimony and as an unending narration of His history with humankind, as an eternal seal set upon His heart, an eternal seal set upon His hands.

This feast of Christ, the Master Narrator, reminds us that God Eternal has become a sharer of our stories and our history, with the memory of all the joys and sorrows of our humanity etched into the body of the Risen Lord. Fabian ended his earthly pilgrimage last week on his anniversary of ordination, just after First Vespers of that feast of Christ’s heart, the feast of Christ’s priesthood and his own. The final words of the Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer offers a concluding prayer in his own voice, might well be taken today as Fabian’s own: “And grant…through the benign grace of him who is King of kings and Priest over all priests, Who bought us with the precious blood of his Heart, that I may be one of those, at the day of doom, that shall be saved.”