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Secular Days, Sacred Moments: The America Columns of Robert Coles

Secular Days, Sacred Moments: The America Columns of Robert Coles

by Robert Coles, David D. Cooper (Editor)

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No writer or public intellectual of our era has been as sensitive to the role of faith in the lives of ordinary Americans as Robert Coles. Though not religious in the conventional sense, Coles is unparalleled in his astute understanding and respect for the relationship between secular life and sacredness, which cuts across his large body of work. Drawing


No writer or public intellectual of our era has been as sensitive to the role of faith in the lives of ordinary Americans as Robert Coles. Though not religious in the conventional sense, Coles is unparalleled in his astute understanding and respect for the relationship between secular life and sacredness, which cuts across his large body of work. Drawing inspiration from figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil, Coles’s extensive writings explore the tug of war between faith and doubt. As Coles himself admits, the “back-and-forthness between faith and doubt is the story of my life.” These thirty-one thought-provoking essays are drawn from Coles’s weekly column in the Catholic publication America. In them, he turns his inquisitive lens on a range of subjects and issues, from writers and painters to his recent reading and film viewing, contemporary events and lingering controversies, recollections of past and present mentors, events of his own daily life, and ordinary encounters with students, patients, neighbors, and friends. Addressing moral questions openly and honestly with a rare combination of rectitude and authorial modesty, these essays position Coles as a preeminent, durable, and trusted voice in the continuing national conversation over religion, civic life, and moral purpose.

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Michigan State University Press
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Secular Days, Sacred Moments

The America Columns of Robert Coles

By Robert Coles, David D. Cooper

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2013 Robert Coles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-073-3



NOVEMBER 23, 1996

We're hoping for a few extra moments of the sacred during these long secular days.

I first heard the words I am using as the title for this column from the lips of Dorothy Day—and therein a story. In the middle-1950s I was a medical student in New York City, at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. In my spare time I worked in a Catholic Worker soup kitchen, and so doing, often felt confused, torn by various and conflicting feelings—a desire to be of help to needy others, but also a fear of them (their unpredictability, their enormous vulnerability, their not rare outbursts). It was one thing to work with poor, hurt, even unsettled or unstable people in a clinic or hospital, under the protection of medical authority, with all its established procedures and rules; it was quite something else to be "out there" on a serving line, handing food to people, trying to make conversation with them.

Years later I pointed out the difference to Dorothy Day, asked her why such an evident disparity in my attitude or feelings. She smiled faintly—a prelude, I knew, to one or another of her sharply knowing observations—and then this: "At the medical center you were working in an imposing setting, and the people who came there knew it. If they 'misbehaved,' they'd have to leave and a policeman would have helped them [do so], if they were reluctant! Here we're trying to offer a 'home' to people for an hour or two (or more): some food, some clothes, some attention and concern. They're not 'on guard,' as they were when they came to see you doctors."

She paused, but only to catch her breath, gather her strength for an elaboration that obviously meant a lot to her, I realized, because she spoke with considerable intensity and quite personally: "I'm not sure you'll agree with what I'm going to say—I'm not even sure I'm right; but I wonder whether the difference isn't spiritual in nature. I mean, a hospital offers the best of the secular world—at least when the doctors are doing a good job. Here we are trying hard to do the work of faith, of love, and I mean we are addressing ourselves, our condition, as well as [that of] these people we've just given some soup and coffee. I know there are similarities—that a truly good doctor wants to offer his or her heart to a patient, as well as put knowledge into action. But I do think that people make distinctions and act accordingly. You go to the hospital and try to be on your best behavior; you come here, and if you're in despair, it's all right to cry out, because the people who run the place, they're also crying out at times, just as Jesus did!"

Again a pause, and then an effort to conclude a further line of reasoning: "I think—I hope—all of us have our secular days, but we're lucky if we can find our sacred moments. I think a doctor treating a patient capably and with respect can be a witness to the sacred, right there in the midst of the secular world. I hope and pray we have our times of witness here, witness to the sacred. You can say that here we're dedicating ourselves to the pursuit of that—the sacred—though with no guarantee that we'll succeed. I guess it always comes down to the same tension—those sacred moments allowed us in our secular days. Maybe we're just a little more ambitious in this place—ambitious spiritually: a dangerous kind of aspiration, because pride can certainly fall upon us, get in our way. But we keep trying. We're hoping for a few extra moments of the sacred during these long secular days, whereas the doctors up there [in the medical center] have other matters on their minds, I'm sure."

This was a not untypical kind of a conversational journey with her, I had by then come to know—an effort to make a spiritual distinction or clarification that was at least partially and ironically thwarted by a surge of humility, a willingness to be candidly self-critical, even to the point of summoning a skepticism of her own conceptual thinking. She was "stumbling," she went on to say, but she was willing to uphold, with whatever necessary qualifications, her sense that most of the time we live our all too (morally, psychologically, spiritually) finite (secular) lives, whereas on occasion (by intent or through luck or as a consequence of our character as it unself-consciously engages with events that come our way) we are graced with the sacred.

I knew better than to ask her to spell out the meaning of "sacred"—I'd once done so, only to see her head lowered. Eventually her silence was followed by an unforgettable comment: "I'm afraid it's the Lord who decides that [what constitutes the sacred.]" She was, by implication, letting me know, yet again, that vanity (here, in the form of intellectual insistence) can be an obstacle to the sacred.

So this life goes, Dorothy Day was indicating: its extended secular time, with all the attendant tasks, responsibilities, commitments, interrupted occasionally by a sacred spell—for the arrival of which we can only pray. It was her hope that in those Catholic Worker communities some of her fellow pilgrims would be lucky enough to be graced by a few encounters with the sacred. But she dared not go further, think of the sacred as something we here can arrange for ourselves, declare ourselves to possess, institutionalize—hence her temporal imagery, itself a kind of contrition. We rise to, seize the secular days, even as we may yearn for those sacred moments that soulwise guide us, define us.

JANUARY 4, 1997

"The doctors, they be strutters. They need teaching"

A few years ago I worked as a volunteer fifth-grade teacher in an elementary school located in an impoverished Boston neighborhood. The children knew I also taught college students, medical students—indeed, this school wasn't all that far from the medical school building where my class met weekly, as a ten-year-old girl reminded me one day. She had been with her mother to see a doctor "over there," a first visit on her part to a hospital, and she had learned a lot: "I never thought there could be all these sick folks in one place!" I told her I'd once been a young doctor there, at the Children's Hospital; I well remembered how crowded the clinics could get. But she suddenly changed tack, told me (and of course, her listening classmates) that she didn't mind "all the people," only "some of them." A pause, as I wondered whether to pursue the matter with the obvious question aimed at finding out which people had met with her disapproval and why—and then, suddenly, this spoken statement: "The doctors, they be strutters. They need teaching."

I took immediate note of the vernacular she had used—these were all Afro-American children save three, whose parents were born in Puerto Rico. I wondered, yet again, whether to make further inquiry of this girl, Cynthia, or hurry back to our spelling lesson, which I'd been trying to accomplish in the face of a certain skepticism on the part of the children not unlike that of William James, George Bernard Shaw, Flannery O'Connor, to name a few writers who have mocked the way we render, letter-wise, certain words. Indeed, this very girl who had just told us of hospital strutters had once written this as a footnote to her spelling test (in which she'd answered all the questions correctly): "Why isn't enuf good enough?" A clever, but sassy one, I'd thought—and I'd resisted the temptation to write "cool!" beside her question. She and others in the room had, of course, heard me many times give the standard justifications for the conventional—we had to live in the world, come to obliging terms with its rules, its authority.

Anyway, I hesitated a bit too long, because a boy sitting across the aisle from Cynthia, Tom by name, asked for details in this briefly insistent way: "Explain yourself." I could have broken in, broken up this stray line of inquiry, this distraction from duty, but I was myself curious—I wondered what had happened to prompt such a wholesale categorization. In no time we were all hearing Cynthia's take on the doctors she'd observed, the doctor who had attended her: "They're busy, they are—and they let you know it. We already can figure it out, that they've got a lot to do, but they want to make sure we don't forget it!" She stopped, and Tom seemed puzzled. He quickly let her know why: "If you're working hard, and you say so—why is that being a strutter?" Cynthia's face registered surprise, impatience, irritation, and she was quick to reply: "They didn't give us credit for understanding anything. They're big on talking, on telling you this and that and something here and there, but they don't listen like they should. You go off on your own, and they'll cut you off."

Yet the boy, Tom, didn't seem convinced. He took the doctors' side: "Give them a break—they're in a rush; they've got to get their job done. You can't be polite all the time!" Nods of approval across the room. Cynthia seemed temporarily silenced, even somewhat persuaded: "For sure, it's a lot they have to do. But if you watch them, you'll see them being nice and relaxed with each other, and if it's one of them who comes and interrupts, they'll lend an ear, but if we try to tell them something, they hurry on. My momma's momma was with us, and she's worked for them [white, professional families] for all her life, and she whispered to me that 'the white coats, they've done gone to their heads.'"

She stopped. The tide had turned in her favor—a nearly audible stillness in the room. I was the only one making noise—fidgeting as I contemplated what to do. I sat there visualizing those white coats I once wore; I remembered making sure that my stethoscope was ever so visible over the rim of a pocket. I remembered, too, hurrying some people along, brushing past their remarks in my busy mind—but in an instant, being ready to smile for, carefully pay heed to a fellow physician or, yes, a patient who was of a particular background, who was like me or like what I've learned to want to be.

I shuddered with embarrassment, tried to hide my memories from shaping my facial expression, not to mention my words. I quietly, rather too quietly, suggested that we move on, get back to our spelling. But Cynthia, good teacher that she was, wanted to conclude her lesson decisively, lest we fail to get her intended point. She brought us back to her initial observation: "If they'd listen, they'd learn more; that's how you learn—through your ears, not your mouth." Again, a noticeable silence (a moment of grace, actually); and then a wave of smiles prompted, I decided, by a child's vivid anatomical language that struck a home run in the minds of many of these youngsters—even as I, at last, realized what I needed to do: figure out how to listen better, more.

FEBRUARY 1, 1997

Merton andMilosz find common ground in their skepticism—the distance they put between themselves and faddish trends.

For ten years (1958–68) the poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz and ( the poet and monk Thomas Merton wrote letters to one another—many of them searchingly introspective, a few stirringly confessional. They only met twice, each time briefly. Perhaps the very distance between them, and a lack ofpersonal acquaintance, made possible such a candid willingness on the part of both men to share with one another thoughts they would otherwise (with friends and even family, one suspects) have kept to themselves. Milosz, for instance, repeatedly refers to his "self-love," his "wounds of ambition," his tenacious egoism ("imprisoned as I am in my 'I'"). He even wonders whether he might have been "lying" with respect to what he told a priest in confession. Merton is no less willing to arraign himself; he terms himself a "bourgeois," "a prisoner of my class," and wonders whether his religious life isn't a mere "reaction" against such an inherited position of privilege. He echoes his correspondent's reservations with respect to the moral and psychological nature of confession: "But how can one confess to an institution? And what kind of forgiveness is dispensed by an organization?" Like Milosz, who abhorred Stalinism yet railed against the French bourgeoisie—trenchant scorn worthy of the Marxist polemical tradition—Merton was ready to criticize power and privilege, even in his own backyard: "Aggressive Catholicism, sure of itself, deeply involved in a power struggle, content to be anti-Communist, gentle to everyone but those who need it, and harsh on them."

To read these letters, to be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is to realize how hard it was for many of this century's most energetic moral figures to place their unqualified trust in any place, institution, ideological camp. Interestingly, Simone Weil's thinking hovers over this correspondence, especially Milosz's share of it, though Merton, too, has made her acquaintance with obvious relish. She, too, strenuously denounced Soviet totalitarianism early in the 1930s, when others of the French intelligentsia were all too accepting and excusing of it—yet she could be relentlessly, penetratingly Marxist (or materialistic) in her analysis of the fate of France's workers or, more broadly, the political struggle taking place in Europe before the onset of the Second World War. For her, life is bound by "necessity"—a way of giving full credit to the materialism that defines us significantly, no matter the philosophical and psychological efforts of some to ignore such matters as class and caste, with all that goes with those words, nation by nation. Still, she would break free, at least somewhat, of such an ironclad determinism, would embrace Jesus and (in a qualified way) the Catholic Church: the "light" that in her dualistic scheme of things occasionally broke into a world of darkness. For her the words "gravity and grace" (the phrase so arresting, even lyrical) described our condition: the heavy fatefulness of this life—though Jesus did come to us, and as well, the Greek thinkers whose ideas and language she so much respected, loved.

No wonder Milosz, like Camus, looked up to her so much, called upon her constantly, even visited her mother when he was living outside Paris; and no wonder Merton wanted to pursue her writing ever more seriously. She herself had a dramatic, rebellious mind; for the morally demanding minds of others, she could be a source of enormous stimulation, satisfaction—the brisk back-of-the-hand she kept giving to any number of secular pieties, even as she so obviously aligned herself with the world's humble people whose daily circumstances she came to know firsthand as a factory worker, agricultural laborer. At times there was a prideful fussiness to her, an insistence on being a scold, an inclination that occasionally turned into an eagerness to call for a plague to descend on both sides in this or that struggle—and I suspect in that regard she could only be inviting to Milosz, who saw clearly the horror of Soviet totalitarianism (and described those evils in The Captive Mind), but who had little use (we learn in these letters) for the Western materialism so many of us simply accept as inevitable, if not desirable. She belongs to Irving Howe's "homeless left," which would include Orwell, Silone, Danilo Dolci. Merton, though, like Dorothy Day, had a home in the Catholic Church, and, again like her, he was far from comfortable with the historical relationship of some of its leaders to the rich and powerful of various countries.

As one reads this epistolary novel of sorts (two characters in search of a moral vision), one realizes how many secular gods have failed—not just the murderous Communism, whose extravagant promises enchanted for a while so many of the intelligentsia. Merton and Milosz find common ground in their skepticism—the distance they put between themselves and faddish cultural or intellectual trends. Milosz scorns the French theorists who have come to mean so much in certain precincts of American university life, does so with the unashamed vigor and confidence of one who has no need to prove his intellectual credentials through a showy adherence to murky and far from modest theory-making; and Merton dares take on with tough, fearless candor his own "monastic life [where] there is a fatal mixture of inspiration and inertia that produces an awful inarticulate guilt in anyone who does not simply bury his head in the sand." The feisty clearheadedness of these two pilgrims, and their persistent self-scrutiny, become for the reader a sacred gift, but also a prod: how to follow their lead, hold to a similar skepticism, when warranted, while nevertheless pursuing with resolve moral principles, spiritual truths?

Excerpted from Secular Days, Sacred Moments by Robert Coles. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Coles. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Meet the Author

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard University, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and a recipient of the prestigious Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. David D. Cooper is Professor Emeritus of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University.

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