I really didn't know the man, but then again, I suppose I did. It all started when I was a student in The Divinity School at Duke University. Knowing of Reynolds Price, I had this ridiculous thought: I'd audit one of his courses on Milton. So, along with several hundred other people trying to get into the class, I filled out an audit form and sent it in, only to discover that audits weren't allowed and that exceptions were only granted personally by the great professor himself.
Having attended Wofford, a small liberal arts college, I had asked many a professor for such a favor. So, quite innocently, this twenty-two year old made his way to the hallowed halls of the granite-clad ivory tower to speak directly to the legend. When I arrived, the door, with an etched glass window, was closed but a light was on inside; I thought I saw movement. I knocked. There was no answer. So, I returned the next day, about the same time. Knocked. No answer. It was then I noticed the small card on the door, listing office hours. The third day, I knocked once again, but this time at an appointed hour. A voice from within simply said, "Come in."
"Persistent, aren't you?" he asked.
"Yes'sir," I replied.
"South Carolina? I hear it in your voice."
"Yes'sir," once again from my lips.
"I . . . I . . . . I want to audit your class."
"Hmmmm. as do many others. No audits, Mr?"
"Ah, Irish. Upstate of South Carolina then. Any other family in the great state?"
"My girlfriend's from Kingstree. Her parents went to Duke."
"Kingstree? I had a classmate here at Duke from Kingstree . . . "
"Yes'sir . . .that's my girlfriend's father."
"Well, Mr. Sullivan, why do you want to audit Milton?"
"I love Milton."
"Love him. He's dead. Read him before?"
"Yes'sir, at Wofford."
"Good school. . . . Your Divinity, aren't you?," Reynolds said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Indeed," I replied.
"Not many of you wander over here, but I can see it in your eyes. Well, I must be in a great mood. Come to class. No audit, just come. I'll know it's you, Mr. Sullivan. But also know this: you might lose your religion. Mine's changing every day right now."
The words of this conversation are not exact; it took place many years ago, but they've echoed in my mind many times. Although that was the only day I visited his office, I sat in the back of his classroom more than a dozen times that spring, listening to him read Milton. The fact that I was a "guest" didn't keep him from bringing me into the discussion either. He asked everyone questions. He wanted the full engagement and attention of your heart, mind, body and soul as you read the text. After all, reading for Reynolds Price was not academic; it was life.
Reynolds changed me. My religion. My view. He taught me to read, really read. I began to see texts, especially religious ones, as invitations. The words rolling around in his mouth, echoing in his deep voice, the words had life. Until I read with him, authors had been people preserved on pages, people behind a text. With their books in his hands, their words in his mouth, authors became sages, professors, and midwives speaking in front of me. Walking to his office for three days, innocently knocking upon the door and asking for an audit, I stumbled upon wisdom. I stumbled upon life.
So, as he so often quoted, "come to me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And as he added in his article Jesus of Nazareth Then and Now (Time, December 6, 1999), "such a deep-rooted promise seems unlikely to relent."
Rest eternal, Reynolds. Thanks for the class and teaching me to read. Thanks for the life.