I go up to Yates to work out three or four times a week. Often there was an older man, with a ruddy face, ready to swipe my card. We only exchanged pleasantries. After countless exchanges, he probably figured out that I was a Jesuit, given that my ID photo features me in a black shirt and white Roman collar. I knew nothing about him, however, until he died in early January at the age of 79.
His name was Tom Quinn, and he led a remarkable life — I just did not know it. He was a Georgetown graduate from the Class of 1955. According to a two-column, page-length obituary in The Washington Post, Tom was the last boxer at Georgetown to win an intercollegiate title and to be named to our athletic hall of fame. He served in the Marine Corps after graduation and continued to box or coach throughout his careers as a stockbroker, political consultant, investment advisor and benefits manager for the NFL Players Association. In recent years, he coached the club boxing team at Georgetown and taught boxing as a form of fitness and self-defense at Yates. Typical of his wry sense of humor, he called boxing, “Advanced Irish Pilates,” and quipped, “If boxing was easy, they’d call it football.”
In the later part of his life, Tom returned to a love of his from his youth: acting. The nuns at his Catholic school thought he would be an actor at some point. In the 1980s, Tom took a theater course at Georgetown and played on local stages. He became a character actor. If you needed a husky, middle-aged Irishman to play a cop or coach, Tom was your man. He appeared in “The Pelican Brief,” “Major League II,” “Enemy of the State” and “The Hammer” and in the television series, “The West Wing,” “Homicide” and “The Wire.”
So many people come in and out of our lives every day, especially on a busy campus and vibrant city like ours. We rarely take the time to know any of them. Even when we are waiting around, we tend to retreat to our handheld devices and connect with people virtually rather than actually. Or it may be less about technology and more about time. I just want to get in and out of Yates as fast as I can, and I usually don’t take the time for the passing conversation, which can sometimes lead to meaningful encounters.
It seems that God is constantly sending people our way to teach us something or enrich our lives. We just might be missing those graced moments because we aren’t paying attention. Everyone has a story to tell, but they need time and space to tell it, and they need someone to listen to them. We can’t force these moments of self-revelation — they are a gift. But these opportunities certainly present themselves more than we notice.
In the Jesuit tradition, we speak about being contemplatives in action. This does not simply mean being a contemplative in one place and time, and active in another. For instance, I’ll contemplate in Dahlgren Chapel and then be active every other time. Of course, we need such contemplative times and places to reflect on our experience so that we can discern their meaning. Such quiet, reflective times and places help us live more deeply.
But being a contemplative in action means more than that. It means that in the midst of our activity, we have a contemplative spirit. While we are walking, playing, eating, studying, exercising, working, recreating and conversing, we try to focus and pay attention. We listen intently. We gaze gratefully. We try not to get distracted by what is superficial. In other words, we experience the meaning as it is happening. We notice and then seize opportunities for grace: moments when the transcendent breaks into our lives. Being a contemplative in action in this way takes practice. It is challenging, and we cannot do it all the time. But even if we just do it a little bit more, we may be surprised how much fuller our lives can become.
Next time I walk through McDonough Arena, I’m going to be a bit more contemplative in my stride, because hanging there in the trophy case are Tom’s championship boxing gloves. I don’t want to miss seeing those and remembering this remarkable man I knew only in passing.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is vice president for mission and ministry. He is one of the rotating authors for AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT … which appears every other Friday.