Peter Steele's path to something better


Peter Steele SJ, 22/08/1939 – 27/06/2012

‘Things can only get better', was Peter’s characteristically self-deprecating response to the list of publications, qualifications, accolades and many achievements rehearsed as he rose to receive an Honorary Doctorate from the Australian Catholic University last year.

His half chuckle, and by then somewhat hoarse and high-pitched, response summed him up – at least for himself and those who knew him. 

A man of grand and gracious gesture, it was always for others. 

For himself, the manner was ordinary and the presence bordering on the shy. even if the prose could be prolix.

Those verbal explosions came from an abundant inner life that was complex, at times moody, yet always affirmative. But such effusions came after long consideration and what he used to call ‘brooding’.

This is captured in his portrait at Newman College (pictured). There he is in an ill-fitting doctoral gown, almost unaware of wearing it as it slides off his shoulders.

On his lap are books on which his hands rest loosely. The look on his face is part bewilderment, part surprise, completely vulnerable and not a little sad. He seems to be saying, 'Mate, has it come to this?'

Peter’s adult life, his professional career and the character of his vocation are all indelibly marked with Melbourne University. Proud to say he was a boy from the bush, he crossed the Nullarbor in 1957 to see what it might be like on the other side. Adventure, travel and discovery were the hallmarks of his life for the next 55 years. 

But it was at Melbourne  University that he most expansively found out what life was like on the other side, going there in 1962. And there he met his lifelong mentor, though he presided at his funeral in 1988: Vincent Buckley. It was Vin who licensed his muse, fostered his talent and shaped some of the enduring features of his imagination.

Vin’s life and work, despite his melancholy, were about ‘the honeycomb’, the sweeter things, their depth and perseverance at the heart of our living. For a good deal of Vin’s middle life, that focus centred on the Incarnation.

Peter shared that passion lifelong, though he added to it. He shared with Vin an unusual sensitivity to how that deeper sweetness could be brutalised. To survive the glare of that sight, Peter took comfort in the relentless commitment to irony, which was the subject of his doctoral thesis on Jonathan Swift.

However sunny the greeting or warm the embrace of any and everyone he met – and in forty years, I only ever heard him once speak ill of another human being – beneath the exterior there lurked in Peter an acute familiarity with the dark side. 

Nicknamed ‘Stainless’ early in life, the swashbuckling gait and swaggering style masked all that he knew and felt of life’s grimier parts. You can measure how present and potent in his life that was by the way he prized paradox. It was the fulcrum of his imagination.

‘Fools and knaves’ is how Swift viewed our species. But to this sober recognition Peter added what he learnt in his lifelong pattern of prayer taught by the Jesuits’ founder, Ignatius Loyola. In the Spiritual Exercises, the retreatant is asked to pray to see and discover ‘where the divinity hides itself’ in the darkest mysteries of Jesus’ Passion.

Peter waited and he discovered. And what he found was the complement to what we celebrate at Christmas – Easter. 

Peter took to heart all his life what he learnt early from the Romantics and the Existentialists: that from conception we are death bound creatures. Mortality and alienation were subjects of his constant musing, prayer and poetry. And as a death bound creature, he sought every day to find plausibility in affirming that, despite the corruption and self-interest that soil so much human endeavour, he could still find the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’.

It is a testament to the value and fruitfulness of his lifelong search that he met his decline in health in recent years with such serenity. It was as if he was saying but not uttering ‘See, I told you this is what it builds up to. And I’ve been preparing for this day with all the surrenders to trust and love that I’ve made for decades.’

But Peter knew the pain that challenges love and kills trust: disappointment with his brothers; frustration with his own limitations; indulgence of his considerable passions; the Cross of the unstinting love of his many friends, some of whom didn’t reciprocate. But no matter what the fare, Peter was always ready to take it because for him, it was the path to something better. Throughout his poetry and preaching, yearning and longing for what might be, how this event or that personality might be made more of, were constants.

For Peter, the end of all our longing is greater yearning still. Now all that waits him is the crowning of that desire.

Michael KellyFr Michael Kelly SJ was founding publisher of Eureka Street and is now executive director of the Bangkok-based UCAN Catholic news agency.

Topic tags: Michael Kelly, Peter Steele, Vincent Buckley, paradox, pain, spirituality, Ignatius Loyola, Jonathan Swift



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Existing comments

I've only recently become familiar with Peter Steele's poetry. I find it not a little challenging. Undoubtedly, a master wordsmith. I'll continue reading - and learning.

Truly at home now Peter.

Pam | 02 July 2012  

A beautiful and beautifully crafted tribute, Michael. What I remember most from living with Peter in the late 50s was his smiling, ironic self-deprecation. It was a lovely invitation to a friendship that one always felt safe with. I haven't had much to do with him in recent years, but I doubt that the basic humility and openness on which that trait was founded would have lessened despite the universal appreciation of his extraordinary giftedness.

Joe Castley | 02 July 2012  

You capture much of the Peter Steele I knew, Michael, while recognising and repecting that elusiveness in him that I suspect wss single-mindedly devoted to the God given uniquely in Christ who was "semper magis". Thank you.

John Kelly | 02 July 2012  

Thanks Michael, for your tribute. I give thanks for Peter who has enriched the lives of many so deeply. I commend his soul to God and extend my sympathy to those who grieve his parting, especially yourself and your fellow Jesuits.

Denis Quinn | 02 July 2012  

Peter will always be in my heart as a fabulous man. I knew him from Newman. A great man - a man who lived what he defined as his incarnation. He will live in my heart forever. John Elliott.

John Elliott | 02 July 2012  

As others have said, Mick, beautifully and lovingly written and very true to the Peter I knew. Thank you.

Richard White | 02 July 2012  

Peter lectured in English when I returned to Melbourne University to complete my degree as a non-collegiate student. I had been at Trinity rather than Newman so sadly never met him personally. Pass students had very little interaction with academics who were not their tutors. The English Department seemed very much like the world described in "Lucky Jim". Patrick MacCaughey's autobiography shed some further light on it. I think Peter was deeper and much more personally substantial than many of his more flamboyant and self-publicising colleagues. The poetry came later, I believe. His lectures were always very intense and thoughtful. I'm glad of his genuinely Christian presence in Parkville: it was sorely needed.

Edward F | 04 July 2012  

Thanks Mick. I knew Peter only in passing but learnt from the brief encounters that his were words you paid attention to.

Jon Greenaway | 05 July 2012  

Thanks Mick. I knew Peter only in passing but learnt from the brief encounters that his were words you paid attention to.

Jon Greenaway | 05 July 2012  

What a beautiful Epitaph.

L Newington | 08 October 2012  

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