Saturday, March 15, 2014

Reflections on the Ides of March

March 15, known as the Ides of March, is famous for many events, but none more well known than the one in 44 BC - Julius Caesar, Dictator of the Roman Republic, is stabbed to death by Marcus Junius Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus, Decimus Junius Brutus and several other Roman senators on the Ides of March. (From
When engaged in discussions about the Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar, of course the "Ides of March" comes up, the date in the middle of the month, but few if any thought about the notion that every month has an "ides," that date in the middle. And through history, the Ides of March has acquired a history of foreboding, that like Caesar, individuals could succumb to fateful events on that day.
The most momentous March 15 in my life occurred in the early 1990's when, on a cold, moonlit night in what seemed like the dark of winter, an ordination ceremony took place in a small "stuffed" (and slightly 'stuffy') Anglican church in central Ontario, when a bishop ordained a very innocent, somewhat idealistic, highly charged and extremely hopeful and 'urgent' candidate to the priesthood in that church.
Of course, it was a turning point, given the previous five decades were spent in learning and teaching and coaching and playing out a Walter Mitty dream of the free-lance journalist. "I found reporting to be my form of hunting and fishing, only my targets were municipal politicians," was how I explained by hobby. It was with a sense of deep knowing that I was far too committed to the pursuit of extrinsic rewards like the "applause" that comes from public performances starting with an early exposure to encouragement from people who listened to me perform in piano recitals, at ladies nights of local service clubs and the like that seemed to point me in the direction, not of more books and more essays for another academic degree, but rather 'inside' into a protracted reflection on the questions of identity linked to spirituality and to a relationship with God, who and what such a metaphor may be to me and to many others, that drove my energy. I did not approach the business of entering the church from the perspective of 'saving the world" in the sense of turning the lives of other people toward God, and a life of purity. Extremely conscious of my own many and seemingly permanent failings, especially to those who seemed to be most important in my life, through such industriousness, purportedly for some public adulation or respect or engagement or association with "power people"...I believed I needed to pursue different things like calming my person, and pausing to considering the more subtle and nuanced realities of both life and literature, and mine those for their nuggets of both wisdom and compassion. I had seen and experienced just how fickle and fleeting were the expressions of 'applause' that accompanied too many professional exchanges, while the attitudes that opposed one's excessive and narcissistic ambition were restrained, even repressed in what could be deemed a collective and collaborative campaign of hypocrisy and deception.
There was, from my vantage point a kind of mask worn in public by many individuals, especially those in the public 'eye'...with a few notable and dramatic exceptions.
One of those exceptions, comparable to an earlier life mentor and coach, WHG, of whom I have written elsewhere in this space, was a local defense attorney, whose 'hobby' was the leadership of the local town council, and whose reputation for incisive thought, panoramic vision, and public ridicule of anyone addressing council who had not prepared their 'brief' was the stuff of local legend. I was honoured to be in many conversations with Richard Francis Donnelly, about whom his legal instructors at Osgoode Hall observed they had never witnessed one more capable in cross-examination.
 Those conversations over coffee began with my pursuit of his knowledge and insight about specific issues before the council, given his command of the files and his adopted role of leader and mentor to all new aldermen and women. I was looking for a news story, the 'insider' or backgrounder most of the time. Only occasionally did I uncover a headline. That was not the business Mr. Donnelly was in. He had a vision for the path of growth and development of the northern Ontario town and wannabee city that included not only adequate housing for those with modest means, transportation routes for annexation of surrounding townships, effective hospital and education facilities, personnel and practices and sound, progressive fiscal management. A single man, Mr. Donnelly constantly pursued new learning, especially of the English language. One request, I recall he made of me, one I failed to provide, was of a compilation of the Rules of English that superceded the usual manuals available in and through school publishers. Already considered a master of the language, in both explication and interrogation, Mr. Donnelly nevertheless continued to prod his colleagues toward new discoveries, as he modelled both in the courtroom and in the council chambers. Well known for taking the cases of young offenders who had fallen off the 'straight and narrow' and whose resources were minimal at best, Mr. Donnelly was capable of inflicting considerable discomfort on police officers who too had failed in the preparation of their evidence and any gaps in their evidence were easily and readily exposed, to the benefit of Mr. Donnelly's client, and to the tarnishing of the reputation of the officer.
Being permitted modest and impermanent entry into the circle of decision-makers among both civil servants in city hall and politicians who provided the public face and the debates and television interviews for the many issues facing the town afforded me not only an opportunity to grow and develop skills in communication (never having been trained in journalism), learn about the 'inner-workings' of the town council, including the building and deconstructing of coalitions on issues, the personal relationships between and among the elected men and women, the path of power and influence including its capacity not only to build and grow and change the shape of a city as well as its capacity to bring an individual to his or her knees in the public arena.
It was as if I were engaged in a laboratory of human enterprise that encompassed public and private individuals, attitudes, funds, cultures, personal and local history as well as the relationship between town and province and town and nation. And while engaged, I was not facing the intense scrutiny that accompanies political life especially in small towns where local news is featured daily on the front page of the single daily. Naturally, I had biases that paralleled those of Mr. Donnelly, first probably because he unconsciously or not intimidated me, as he did to most who refused to get to know and to confront him. Later, I learned that his 'red tory' bona fides were a light into public issues and discourse that I came to respect and today long for its return to our national agenda.
Mr. Donnelly's intellect, his pursuit of himself to be the best he could be on every file, for every client and with any who chose to seek him out, while strong, paled beside his public courage to speak his mind, to curry no favours and to remain 'his own person' throughout the hurly-burly of the life he led. More his own person than most, Mr. Donnelly's influence on me, and on many others whose paths crossed his, is hard to overstate.
While he practiced law, and did it with considerable dramatic relish and panache, he nevertheless did not tolerate fools kindly. Sometimes unfortunately, neither do I. And those in public life whose arguments were patently flawed, leaving holes like Swiss cheese 'to drive trucks through' were fair game to Mr. Donnelly. His example spawned better decisions at the council table, as well as better news coverage generally and an interest in the processes and the issues that circled in and through city hall. The son of a Supreme Court judge, the brother of another professional barrister, Mr. Donnelly drove Cadillacs in a town where his was one of less than a half dozen such cars, wore suits comparable to, if not actually named and sewn by, Hardy Amies, and in his truncated stature strode the city like a colossus, at least in and around city hall. His brain and his command of the language and his fearless and almost clairvoyant-like insights were the nourishment for a generation in 'our town'.
And, yet, while walking in his shadow, I felt a need to grow, and to be more courageous and more confrontative and less "grey" (as in the 'man in the grey suit' image of the 1950's). I also felt that such growth and development needed a spiritual foundation, including a deepened recognition of both my fears and my hopes. And both of these could and would be brought into focus and possible refinement through a concentrated period of reflection and challenge, not so much intellectually as psychologically and emotionally and, at the time I did not know of a better path to such experience, of the inner life, than to submit to the rigours and the discipline of daily prayer, reflection, some imposed and enforced 'community' and the scrutiny that comes from Clinical Pastoral Education. This program was designed in the United States for mainly middle-aged men and women whose first few decades were spent in feverish activity in careers, parenting, social-climbing and status-seeking. In order to accomplish these "activities" their emotional and spiritual needs were necessarily neglected. In order to unpack and possibly to resolve early life trauma, early life neglect and early life decisions that were likely to have been less than healthy, strategies and tactics in direct conversation, listening and reflecting on 'verbatims" (those conversations held between chaplain/counsellor and patient/client that shed light on how power is abused when dealing professionally with the vulnerable among us) and confrontative and challenging supervision were deployed as a concurrent curriculum for those studying theology and entertaining entry into the priesthood.
And so, for four years, I walked on a path that 'culminated' on the Ides of March, 1992, in that little church crammed with people who supported my decision, neither they nor I knowing that the seeds of incompatibility between who I am and the church's need for a more "politically correct" posture had been planted long ago by the forces of the universe, including God, and that the relationship would eventually run asunder, for the mutual benefit of both the church and my own development.
However, when I read the list of those things people say they regret just prior to their death, I feel grateful that on at least three of them, I have no regrets.
From Barking up the Wrong Tree blog
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I have no regrets about numbers 1, 3, and 5...while I do have some modest regrets on 2 and 4.
And the path that began on the Ides of March, 1991, has taken me into conversations, books, movies and experiences, including the capacity to see things differently, for which I am extremely grateful and humbled (to the extent that I am capable of humility!).
Unlike Julius Caesar, I was not murdered on this date; however, there certainly were motives and decisions and actions of others that were directed to my personal and professional demise that emerged following this date and its implications in my life that have shaped an understanding of the capacity of human beings for revenge, jealousy, sabotage and hypocrisy that I never would have had to confront as directly or as painfully as those many years serving inside the ecclesial establishment provided. My experience tells me that anyone seeking a life in ministry in the christian church needs more than an elephant's skin, a 'Donnelly' intellect, a capacity for patience and endurance beyond that of a martyr, and a sense of humour that would eclipse that of both Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld together. S/he needs the grace of God and an vulnerable receptivity to accept that grace from each and every moment, every encounter and every discomfort and attack. For there will be more than anyone can or will imagine. The Cross and the Crucifixion were not a single event in history; they are alive and currently being re-enacted in too many congregations as if to do so brings the perpetrators closer to their own spiritual fulfilment. And that is the most profound and most tragic misapplication of the Gospel. Projecting our fears and our neuroses, as well as our ideals and our fantasies, onto a clergy person, while unconscious, is nevertheless a war for which preparation is still MIA. Discerning both its existence and monitoring its amelioration is the stuff of ecclesial leadership for which many in those positions of responsibility have never been trained, having never even done the hard inner work of their own spiritual development and growth. There is still to much work to do in this field of spiritual drought and sadly, the pursuit of money and bums in pews is still considered the role of the priest, the bishop and the professional clergy. Only this week, another corporate "icon" from Proctor and Gamble was installed as an Anglican bishop in Vancouver, for her reputation to "grow" the church numbers of both people and dollars. One has to wonder where her spiritual life is at, if the pursuit of extrinsic success trumps the intrinsic, the less dramatic and less measureable and less visible.
On this Ides of March twenty-plus years later, I wish for my grandchildren lives that hold them true to themselves, and not to the expectations of others, that express all of their feelings all of the time (not necessarily to those who have no interest or engagement with them) and that when their lives reach a sunset, an autumn, just prior to the winter of death, they too will know that they did indeed let themselves be happy.

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