The Gospel According to Alice Laffey

Scratchboard illustration of a white haired woman with glasses.

A former student reflects on the lifelong impact of the College's late Hebrew Bible scholar, force of nature and associate professor emerita of religious studies.

“Matt, you have a messiah complex.”

The utterance carried the force of a command. The speaker — like a Hebrew oracle at Delphi — fully inhabited her space behind the desk. She gazed over her glasses from underneath a grand, gray mane, her signature Buffalo nickel earrings swinging as she spoke with intentionality, with zeal.

I am tempted to include an exclamation point after “messiah complex,” to convey her emphasis, but the punctuation would be redundant. Nearly all of Alice Laffey’s statements were uttered with the same prophetic force: compassionate, direct, imperative. There were moments, of course, when this tone would subside — when discussing stories of suffering (for example, of poverty, dehumanization, environmental degradation) or when imagining opportunities for liberation, brainstorming merciful systemic solutions (“If I were in their shoes …” or “But you see …”). But the imperative speech would, even in such cases, return before too long: a gentle but firm al or lo translated from Hebrew into English, a call to teshuvah of one kind or another, that always amounted to something like: “Cut it out! Show more love!”

On that day, on the day on which I was rightly diagnosed as one suffering from a messiah complex, I was a first-year student, a religious studies major, a student in Alice’s First-Year Program seminar. I was worried about what a high school friend would think if I forewent a planned weekend visit to another New England Catholic college. I was overwhelmed by my own emotional world; I cared deeply about what others thought of me, and not for the last time; I couldn’t see beyond myself and my need for validation. And, as was her want and as was her gift, Alice simply sliced through all of it with one turn of phrase — ever the no-nonsense Vashti from the Book of Esther, a story she loved so dearly. As if to say: You don’t need to save anyone. You can’t. You are not the Christ.

Man and woman sit side by side on a stone wall
Laffey with Edward Isser, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society, in 2013.

I cannot count the number of conversations I had in Alice’s office, and in the years after, in her Sutton, Massachusetts, home. And I cannot imagine the number of similar conversations she had with countless students in situations of worry, concern and need. It was the sort of thing that most colleges like to tout — the faculty-to-student ratio, the one-on-one attention professors lavish on learners. But, before my arrival at the College of the Holy Cross in August 2005, I wouldn’t have quite believed the extent of the generosity — the attention, care and concern — embodied in the Old Testament professor from Pittsburgh; the feminist and daily communicant who somehow never seemed to leave her office, hybrid waiting patiently in the parking lot; the dedicated premed advisor and diversity proponent whose door was literally always open.

In the days since her July 30, 2023, death, I’ve been thinking not only about Alice Laffey the caring advisor and friend, but also Alice Laffey the Scriptural exegete, the Hebrew Bible interpreter, the Torah teacher. Unlike many wise and good professors I’ve had since my first year of college, Alice did not wear her craft on her sleeve; she was always more interested in her students’ latest project than her own, and she seemed to care little about advancement in things of the world. Yet even if she wasn’t one to launch into philological intricacies without prompting, she came rather to embody the Hebrew texts she studied, to which she devoted her professional life. Not only a prophet for the cause of women in the Church and world, not only an advocate for those on society’s margins and for the Earth itself, but also an embodiment of ahav and chesed to those she loved — love as loyalty, as gratuitous lovingkindness, the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures. I’ve been thinking of two particular stories that meant so much to Alice, which I was lucky enough to hear her explain several times, two stories that encapsulate so well her life and love.

First, when discussing religious life in general, and the Jesuit vocation in particular — of which she became a tireless promoter — Alice would retell the parable of the prophet Nathan (see 2 Samuel 12) calling out King David after his Bathsheba affair: the story of the little ewe lamb stolen by the rich man from the poor, David’s unknowing self-condemnation, and Nathan’s response: atah ha-ish, you are the man.

But the little ewe lamb, Alice would gloss, was the apple of the poor man’s eye; it was all he had in the world; it was the center of his survival and existence. The text, she would say, emphasized the lamb’s littleness. Alice would linger over the words: kivsah achat k’tanah — a female lamb, insignificant, small. The rich man surely had plumper lambs more worthy of his table, more worthy of his guest. But the rich man wanted what the poor man had, his only possession. The rich man took it, simply because he could, for pleasure’s sake. Because, in comparison with his wealth, the possessions of the poor meant nothing: They were expendable.

And then Alice would turn to me and resume her typical, imperative tone: The world and the Church need people who are satisfied with less, who don’t simply take or ravage or consume.

Or, more precisely, the world and the Church need people — need religious, need Jesuits — who are so satisfied in God, so full of real love, that riches don’t tempt them in the same way. People who can credibly proclaim the Good News to those who have only one little ewe lamb, while at the same time calling to account those rich men who might be tempted to steal. I fear we Jesuits still have a long way to go with respect to this vision, but it remains before our eyes — a moving, compelling and evangelically necessary ideal for all.

Second, during the process of co-authoring her commentary on the Book of Ruth (with current Holy Cross Hebrew Bible professor Mahri Leonard-Fleckman), Alice would recite to me a line that she said she’d hoped to include in the text but — for editorial reasons, she told me — was cut: “Sacrifice is the language love speaks.”

One might — and Alice no doubt would — see this short line as an encapsulation of the entirety of the Christian life: sacrificial love, the language spoken on and from the Cross. But Alice saw the phrase as neither a Christian platitude nor the basis for a systemic theology. It was, rather, her summary of the Book of Ruth, in which the female protagonist chooses to stay and live with her mother-in-law, Naomi, after the death of the former’s husband and the latter’s son. Naomi tries to send Ruth back to Moab, to her people, where she might more easily find another husband and, thus, sustenance. But Ruth simply refuses: v’Rut davkah bah, the text says, “but Ruth cleaved to her,” to Naomi. “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (see Ruth 1).

And when the two return to Judah, Ruth becomes Naomi’s steadfast support, gleaning for her — that is, harvesting the grain picked over and left over by the formal reapers, in accord with Jewish law — and assuring that Naomi, a widow of precarious social standing, would not starve. In the end, of course, Ruth marries Boaz, the owner of the fields from which she gleaned, giving both women some measure of economic and agrarian security. Ruth and Boaz’s son, Obed, becomes the grandfather of King David, and (according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) the ancestor of Jesus. Obed — “servant” — who was half-Judahite, half-Moabite. Obed, the fruit of redemption after famine and death. Obed, the gift of his mother’s fidelity and love.

I can’t help but think that Ruth was, for Alice, a mentor and model: Alice, who cleaved to so many — who showed such great love for her students, for her friends and for the poor. One for whom accepting relationship with God meant concretely caring for people, for those God loved, without counting the cost. One for whom feeding people was a sine qua non of love.

Which brings me to one final memory I’d like to share, concerning a particular jar of peanut butter. Not long after my graduation from Holy Cross — and after the successful completion of my honors thesis that Alice shepherded — I was visiting Alice’s house before joining a Holy Cross immersion trip to El Salvador. Alice handed me a jar of peanut butter — Skippy, if memory serves. I might need protein, she said. And, if memory serves, I threw the jar in my comically large suitcase.

It seems a bit ludicrous in hindsight, bringing a jar of peanut butter for a week-long trip to Central America. But there was no question that I’d accept the gift, that I would play Naomi to her Ruth for neither the first nor last time, as many a student had — a radical token of care in the twilight of my Holy Cross career. And, as I think about Alice, her life and her work — her ministry — I imagine that someone hearing this peanut butter anecdote might justly respond: Who does that? But no one who knew Alice Laffey would be the least bit surprised. May her memory be a blessing, and may perpetual light shine upon her.