With Bethlehem in Mind
MY mother never traveled much as a child, and I think it was through her enthusiasm about the places we visited on family vacations that I gained my first real sense of the importance of history. Most summers we vacationed up from our home in Florida through the historically rich East Coast of the United States. Dad always drove, and Mom kept my brother and me rapt with readings about Daniel Boone's cabin, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Jefferson Memorial, Plymouth Rock, Fort Ticonderoga, or whatever other site we were about to visit. On these trips, I found myself ``seeing'' history, and it came alive for me. To the child, these historical places weren't just nice vacation spots or good backdrops for pictures of the family. Because he has just been told that these places represent something very fundamental about the world he lives in, these places were almost sacred - too new and vivid for words. Not having defined the world into words or static images, a kind of primal inner light is revealed to the child in the mountains, lakes, buildings, fence posts and pebbles that were here before he was. The idea behind the symbol and the symbol of history, itself, merge in the consciousness of the innocent child, and wink at him intelligently (like stars).
And the child's imagination takes care of the rest. Being in the place where brave ancestors overcame incredible odds to establish something higher, incites the child to overcome the physical barrier of time between himself and the actual event. He doesn't see cigarette butts and empty film cartons. He sees Ben Franklin sitting in the original Senate chamber. Along the hard thin line of the ocean's horizon, he sees the mast of John Paul Jones's frigate. In the late afternoon light, right there in the pine forest off the interstate highway, he perceives tall men in buckskin skirting the shadows. And the old poem takes life:
When Daniel Boone goes by, at night, The phantom deer arise All all lost, wild America Is burning in their eyes.
But despite impressionable experiences, history became less and less important as I got older. What replaced it was the glorious present. The world eventually caught up with the child, and living now with as much excitement as possible was the only thing that made any sense. While history may have been tolerable enough as a subject in school, it could not provide the thrill of a football game after classes (and after dinner too), the satisfaction of earning my own money (and of spending it), or the anticipation of driving a car (and of owning one).
And then there were girls. Not that the ones I knew weren't concerned about history. Maybe they were. But I never really found myself involved in even one historical discussion when I was around them. If a girl asked you what you were doing that weekend, you never thought to tell her, ``Oh, I'm thinking about going over to the library to check out a little Toynbee.''
It wasn't long, though, before another trend set in. Very slowly (imperceptibly) I began to evolve out of ``now-think'' - out of a fairly selfish search to find anything that could make me happy for the moment - into ``future-think.'' And by the time college was half-over, future-think had expanded into a more sober appraisal of the global urgencies facing mankind. The picture did not look pretty.
It was the demands of the future then, that finally brought me full circle. In trying to reconcile the future, which seemed to be growing more ominous with every news bulletin, with the present, I realized that I had been ignoring a great deal. I had been ignoring the past. Why? Probably because of the way I had been educated to think about it - as an unexplained, haphazard glut of names, dates, places, and events. Though I had always heard that we needed to learn from history, nobody bothered to explain what that meant or how to do it. What I needed was some way to interpret history.
And I found one. What I found was, like the speed of light to a modern physicist, a constant upon which to interpret. The constant I finally found was ... ideas. Not any ideas, or course, but higher ideas, pure ideas: justice, equality, mercy, integrity, liberty, love, - and others. In the fairly secular study of history, I found these ideas sacred. Because they were immutable, these ideas provided a real constant - they exist outside of physical history, yet are always acting upon it. Justice and integrity were here with the Greeks and the Hebrews, and they will still be here a hundred thousand billion years from now.
But they didn't teach us this in school. In traditional education we weren't given any moral context, or any sense that, in the long run, the affairs of men had purpose. Instead, the incredible vitality of good and transcendent ideas were ignored in rote favor of names and dates. If we thought about ideas at all, they were always subservient to history, instead of the other way around.
History is vain if it doesn't connect with the present. And, I think, it connects with the present through the ideas that are brought out in it. When holding the past up to the penetrating light of ideas, patterns begin to emerge. From St. Francis to Luther to the Pilgrims to Jefferson to Lincoln, Einstein, Gandhi, Hammarskj"old, Martin Luther King, Jr., we can see connections. We can see problems solved through higher ideas. Kafka wrote that the First World War was caused by a terrible lack of imagination. To me, he is say-ing it was caused by a terrible ignorance of good ideas.
What I am talking about is a major shift in the way we think about history - to begin seeing it in terms of timeless ideas being gradually appreciated on earth. By doing so, we are turning away from the shadows on the wall in Plato's cave - toward the Light that caused them. This is the Light that caused Lincoln to free the slaves, Gandhi to liberate his country. Awareness of this Light immerses the brittle, dry sponge of history in living waters, and makes us feel it become pliant and useful. We can begin to see a coherent line of light developing throughout history.
T.S. Eliot in ``Four Quartets'' tells us:
Time past and time future Allow but a little consciousness. To be conscious is not to be in time. But only in time can the moment in the
rose-garden, The moment in the arbour where
the rain beat, The moment in the draughty church at
smokefall Be remembered; involved with past
and future. Only through time time is conquered.
I think Eliot is hinting here that history, and the future, grows out of the moments of every one of us. Our public, objective, experience begins, I think, with the private, subjective experience of each of us. Real progress is made when we feel the weight of a moment heavy with ideas. Shouldn't our history be significant for its depth as well as its breadth? Is our history a casual one? An easy one? I think not. It is a moment-ous one. To take it too lightly is to miss its deeper, more radical message: the implications of the struggle behind the relationship of people to ideas, or humanity's search for the great Light. We can all remember moments.
I remember that it was past midnight in late fall and the campus was still and empty. Leftover leaves on the parking lot asphalt cracked and rattled as my feet, on their way to the far end of a warm bed, moved over them swiftly. Tomorrow at this time I would be on the road back home to Florida, my freshman fall quarter and Illinois well behind me. But tonight I looked up at the sky. I had been excited at the possibility of seeing my first snowflakes ever. Above me, though, were no clouds - only a dark and deep-sparkling crystal. And I knew that snow wouldn't fall from the stars. Walking across campus under the stars at the end of the quarter, nothing too serious on my mind, I truly felt on top of the world.
If I hadn't seen the light shining from the top floor of the office building in front of me, I probably would have gone home, as expected. But since it was the only glow in an otherwise dark outline of buildings and trees, it was impossible not to see. The light, I realized, was coming from the office of a professor I had had for a religion course that quarter. And seeing it, in that moment, shifted my entire world a couple of degrees.
The professor was the resident expert on the New Testament - a diminutive, gray-haired woman with a brisk step and a quiet, absorbed manner that seemed perpetually anxious to find the heart of any greater issue. She had been teaching at the college longer than anybody knew. Decades. I had just found out, however, that this quarter would be her last - she had finally decided to retire. And as I looked up, I realized that after a lifetime of teaching, this coming day would be her final one as a college professor.
What that light suddenly symbolized then, in that moment, spoke to me in a voice that scarcely seemed my own. She was up there by herself, cleaning her office, running her hands over the worn and treasured files she had accumulated from countless years of teaching the world's greatest message of hope. She was thinking back to earlier generations: remembering crew-cut students who sat up, and long-haired ones who sat in. Her students had marched off to three different wars. They romanced and married. And now she taught the crucifixion, the Pentecost, and the road to Damascus to their sons and daughters.
Suddenly I could see these things. I could easily imagine her over the years: developing more and more love for her subject, her work, the college, her students. I remembered the papers I had written for her that quarter. They came back to me marked as though her pen were a barometer to my heart. She ignored my occasional flaunts of academic jargon and exalted my true feelings, though I was embarrassed at the common language in which they were written.
Standing in the chill air beneath the lone light, my breath misting, I could sense an important struggle taking place. A diligent life had come to a decisive point - a profound crossroads. It staggered me to be seeing and feeling this so clearly. I could see my own life next to hers - my green youth in relation to her years and years of patient exploration into the idea behind that man who had said, ``In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.'' And, ``Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.'' That, too, was staggering.
But her struggle was not a losing one. Something greater was at work up there, and it pushed me past the point of depressing sadness. It was the impetus, the whole idea of Light, behind her life, behind what she stood for and taught. I see now it was the professor herself. In that moment I could see her beyond what she looked like to the world. She was not a slight gray-haired woman about to retire into anonymity. No. She was brilliant (an angel with a sword). She was starting to deal with grander issues still. Her life wasn't ending - in the larger sense of things, it had hardly begun.
Somewhere in the exchanges and labors and moments of our days shines the love and the beauty that takes our breath away and reveals mountains we hadn't known were there before. That fall night on the eve of my professor's departure, I had been walking along, supposing, in my exuberance, to be on top of the world. But to abruptly feel the depth of her experience and her struggle and her glory, with such clarity, made me realize how much more there is. I suspect there are mountains all around us....
Though we don't hear it said as often as we used to, there is a general feeling in many quarters that ``nothing is sacred anymore.'' Another feeling pressed upon us is that there is no meaning, save, perhaps, ourselves. Yet another voice scoffs from the sidelines at those who are so ``romantic'' or ``ethereal'' or ``impractical'' or ``self-indulgent'' as to actually take up a serious search for either sacredness or meaning. And there are those groups, of course, that think any real search can only be conducted in their way. Yet the truth is that we all have entire ranges of unclimbed sacred mountains within us. There are the dizzying peaks of love and kindness, justice and equality, harmony and order. With these mountains in mind, life does have meaning. The sacred is as close as an idea. And the ideas we need are here with us now as surely as the sun shines light. If we really want to find these things, we will. Or perhaps, as with my experience that fall night, they will find us.
A star, shining over Bethlehem Ephratah in the province of Judea on a different night many years ago, affirms that this is possible.
Reprinted from the Home Forum Page of Dec. 14, 1982.