Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter reflections of a rebel

In the current edition of Cornell Report, one of her graduates writes about the value of a liberal arts education and John Steinbeck. The essay, entitled "A liberal arts education, John Steinbeck and me," recounts Steinbeck's rejection of Stanford (University), where he attempted and failed to acquire a liberal arts education and draws parallels from her own four-year college experience at Cornell. In the essay, Susan Shillinglaw* refers to a quote written in 1964 by Steinbeck to a college friend. Here is her sentence including that quote:
“I think rebellion is man’s highest state,” he wrote to a college friend a year before he left the university. He would stake his career on that notion of freedom.
Also in the essay, is a quote from one of Steinbeck's creative writing teachers:
He sent his stories to  Edith Mirrielees (at Stanford), his creative writing teacher—one of “about three” of his great teachers.
“[S]he had only two rules—know what you want to say … say it.”
Rebellion, clarity of thought and courage to express it....these are hallmarks of both a liberal arts education and John Steinbeck, notwithstanding his withdrawal from Stanford without completing a degree.
Giving time, reflection and patience to the process of discerning and accepting one's own often unconscious commitment to rebellion, clarity and courage seems relevant on an Easter Sunday in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
A rumpled-suited English teacher, a loud plaid-shirted, big-booted lawyer, a debonaire and slightly disfigured yet brilliant elocutionist professor of English and a black, sophisticated Bahamian pastoral theology faculty advisor are four of the men whose shoulders I have had the privilege and the honour to tread over some sixty-plus years of this pilgrimage. Ken Fulford, Bill Green, John Graham and Romney Mosley, respectively, forged an unlikely path of creativity, courage, clarity and yes, rebellion, of the non-violent kind. Each man said what he thought, believed, and practiced in a highly articulate way. Each man, in his own way fit into, and provided a thrust forward, for a backward, awkward, heavy-set and often flaylingly insecure kid from the lower middle class of an isolated, and somewhat somnambulant, small Ontario town. And each man also coloured outside the lines, to use the vernacular of the street.
Fulford walked with a kind of casual and off-hand gait that embodied his ever-present smile and impish, searching and curious eyes. His worn briefcase served as his "lectern" for his class lectures.
His diversions from the Shakespearean text out the window to his amazement at the beauty and the uniqueness of the smallest sparrow will remain a signature of my encounter with his presence forever.
Green's pipe, alive with Wakefield tobacco, was literally embedded in his mouth, only to be removed to offer a friendly greeting as he passed from his office to the registry office or court house. His wardrobe was an eclectic amalgam of colours and patterns that painted a picture of carefree and yet carefully crafted disdain for high fashion that too often attired his profession. His mind, on the other hand, was tightly knit with keen, focused and penetrating questions that bore deeply into the client's problem, as the most effective and efficient method of dispatching that problem.
Graham's permanently deformed arm, a birth defect, restricted his access to athletics in his youth, providing more opportunity for reading. His also brilliant mind devoured his own and his professor father's library, culminating in his doctoral dissertation on Virginia Wolfe, at twenty-four. As I was then a late teen, the accomplishment seemed monumental, and prompted me to enrol in four of his courses during my 'stay' at Western. However, his rejection of the then-current absolute requirement of professors to "publish or perish", preferring instead to devote his time to preparing his classes, also found a prominent and permanent place in my lexicon of important values, principles and clear, rebellious courage. Presumably, for him, "they" made an exception, since he retained tenure until his retirement in the late 1980's, after a career of more than thirty years.
Mosley's rejection by the Bishop of Massachusetts for ordination to the priesthood of the U.S. Episcopal church, following his graduation from Harvard with his doctorate, "because he was not black enough," prompted his pursuit of that goal from the bishop in Atlanta, the deep south, where he taught pastoral theology prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto. His off-stage intervention on my behalf following a withdrawn commitment to ordain by the then bishop of Algoma, cemented a bond of solidarity between us, that, regretfully, he will never appreciate my gratitude, since he died while singing the Eucharistic prayer in a liturgy at a Toronto parish, in 1994.
Here is a quote from his book, Becoming a Self Before God:
In summary, Jung's emphasis on archetypal wholeness leaves us in search of the hidden God (deus absconditus) in the psyche and nature?' The either-or paradoxes of the moral life are sublated to the both-and paradoxes of archetypal wholeness. This leaves a serious lacuna in the formation of Christian faith and identity. The cross of Christ is "an icon of paradox."" It embraces both-and and either-or. It symbolizes God's identifying with the weak and bringing strength from weakness. Christ, in his crucifixion, fully embraced the darkness of sin and evil but in his resurrection gave to humanity a clear choice of new life over death, the profundity of which Nicodemus could not comprehend (John 3: 1 - 10). The either-or paradox of good and evil impressed upon us by the resurrected Christ places moral choice at the center of our becoming formed in the image of Christ. The eschatological hope is that in the end all humanity will choose the new life given by Christ. Until then, the Christ image will reflect a perfected creation or wholeness that is yet to come. (Becoming a Self Before God: Critical Transformations, Pages: 86,87, from GAIAMlife website, April 20, 2014)
A second quote illustrates his 'rebellion' even more clearly:
The test of healthy religion, then, is its ability to assimilate the psychic antithesis of good and evil in the imago Dei and in human nature. Christianity's paradox is that the one who embodies the wholeness of God becomes the victim of humanity's dark side. In redeeming humanity, the unblemished goodness of Christ shows up humanity's dark side. But, according to Jung, since Christ is fully human and fully divine, Christians should acknowledge the polarities of good and evil in the Christ archetype. Instead, Christians have spiritualized Christ and excluded the instinctual, bodily aspects of Christ from the Christ image.(Becoming a Self Before God: Critical Transformations, Pages: 82 from GAIAMlife website, April 20, 2014)
The very fact that the book from which these quotes are taken was removed from the Anglican book store, (according to the author, speaking to me following his homily in the liturgy celebrating my ordination to the priesthood in the Anglican Church,) and that when I inquired into the reasons behind the decision prompted this response: "You know very well why my book was removed, John!" from Romney, (his race was the only answer that made any sense to me) made an even deeper bond between us in our revulsion of the kind of attitudes and behaviours that surround and infect the Anglican church, too often with secrecy and impunity. I knew we had a connection, but never knew its depth until I learned about Romney's being pilloried by the church book store.
Aspiring to emulate others, while never quite acquiring either the confidence or the swagger to entirely go out on a limb (or as Margaret Atwood says, "Jump off the cliff"), fearful that my own expressions were less than adequate, however, has been, and occasionally still is, a ceiling on what and how I write.
And there is a kind of moderation that does not belong in any commitment to rebellion, clarity and courage for which I alone have to take responsibility.
I recall, at fourteen, visiting the funeral home, on the untimely death of the man who was my 'boss' in a local grocery store. I recall both the shirt, a forceful black and white plaid, and the sweater, a brilliant yellow cashmere, that I wore to that first visitation of a deceased acquaintance, for whom I bore nothing but the utmost respect. Whether I wished to make a statement of life through those colours I did not know at the time. I did, however, unconsciously, wish to mark the moment indelibly in my mind. I had not had the opportunity to pay last respects to any of my four grandparents, they having died prior to my arrival, or my memory. Death, however, seemed to be an integral part of one's life, and marking it with colour seemed appropriate to my adolescent 'individuality'.
And today, on Easter Sunday, I will not be attending services that celebrate Easter, bowing to the estrangement I continue to experience from the institutional church, and its continuing persistence in "excluding  the instinctual, bodily aspects of Christ from the Christ image" and its thereby sanitizing of a theology that too often serves as an "anodyne" against the pain and the unfairness of life and nature, and as an excuse for restraining the pursuit and the full disclosure of the truth, not so much in a legal as in a spiritual sense.
None of my mentors would countenance a religion that told only half the story, nor do I.
And, it is partly their example that enables both the pursuit of my own truth, and the courage and conviction to express it for which I am extremely grateful. Sometimes, grace is a blessing that can be appreciated only decades after it appears.
*Susan Shillinglaw ’73 received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and has taught at San Jose State University for nearly 30 years. Recent publications are “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage” (University of Nevada, 2013) and “On Reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ ” (Penguin, 2014).

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