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The First Peace; My Search For The Better Angels
By Charles Wilson Hatfield
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Charles Wilson Hatfield
All rights reserved.
The advent of my Daughter in 1987 and the divorce from her Mother in 1988 compelled my return to a church. I was not a member of any church during the eight years between my junior year at the University of Tennessee (UT) and the birth of my Daughter. My absence from organized religion during such a period was not unusual. My attendance at Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS) during this period perhaps was, if only because I was a divinity student who did not attend some church and who did not intend to become a pastor, preacher, minister, and so on.
I was confirmed as a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States at the Easter following my Daughter's birth, more than five years after I left VDS. The Easter Litany begins with a recitation of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). My voice blended with others to produce a cadence that became nearly hypnotic. Awareness returned with the chilling realization that I was hard-pressed to find a commandment that I had not broken.
The monthly session with my counselor occurred some days later and I related my liturgical realization to him. He asked: "What's the worst thing that you have ever done?" I began to respond even before he completed the question.
The First Peace; My Search For The Better Angels A cousin and I were hunting one fall day, something I did a few times as a teenager. The grass in the fields was still high, but brown and dead. The trees were without leaves. The sky was gray and the air was damp. The day passed without even a glimpse of any game. We were making our way back to our truck when we passed beneath a sugar maple tree, the lowest branches some six feet above our heads. A sparrow sat on one those branches, sharing a joyous melody with the air. I jerked my shotgun upward and fired. Silence was invaded by the sound of my shotgun; the air was invaded with smoke, pieces of bark, and a few feathers making their way to the ground. Incredulity filled my cousin's face and nauseating regret filled me.
The Easter Litany served as a litany of my sins. I was certain that I had broken nearly if not all the Commandments given to Moses (and us) by God, but my worst transgressions included shooting a bird, taking a life, for no reason other than a heinous impulse. That transgression remains as one of three sins for which I have been unable to find forgiveness or absolution – and these three sins remain in my memory with perfect clarity.
* * *
If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some ... will condemn ... If you write for God, you will reach many ... (people) and bring them joy. If you write for ... (people) – you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.
– Thomas Merton
This book was written while the angel of humility and the demon of hubris danced in my psyche and while I danced on the edges of both Ockham's and Maugham's razors. Actions speak louder than words and what does this (or any) writer have to offer but words? Do I have anything new to offer? Humility is one of my ideals and humble people do not presume wisdom, much less presume to offer their supposed wisdom to others. Is this ideal being used as an excuse not to write? Perhaps my purported humility is derived from the fear that my words will be rejected? Perhaps I am giving some prosaic rationalization to my procrastination and neuroses? (A line from the film Broadcast News: "Wouldn't it be a great world if desperation and insecurity made us more attractive?")
Equanimity is found in the following.
Having something to say or write is more important than being heard.
To paraphrase an Arabian proverb: Examine what is said, not the speaker.
Those who receive the message, not the messenger, determine the value of that message.
Samuel Johnson, the great American educator, wrote that, more often than not, we need to be reminded rather than instructed.
The advice most often given to aspiring writers is: write what you know and just write.
I heard an interview with a writer on National Public Radio (NPR) during my drive back from the Abbey of Gethsemani after one of my annual retreats to that monastery. The writer opined, "Every writer is trying to 'wow' one person." He was trying to "wow" his father.
This writer confesses that he is attempting to impress, but that attempt is not (I hope) a motive for writing – or at least, not the only motive for writing. Who am I trying to impress? My Daughter. I still hope that the ripples which flow from the tossing of this stone into the pond of human thought also will impress my Daughter's Mother, the rest of my Family, my Friends, Brother Patrick Hart – and you. When both the angel of humility and the demon of hubris are silent, the need to write remains.
The title of this book derives from the quotations with which this book begins. "Angel" is defined, for the purposes of this work, as inspiration to do what we perceive to be good. This definition is used in respectful deference to all of our diverse beliefs and traditions because the purpose of faith is or should be to allow the better angels of our natures to guide each of us, to unite all of us. The purpose of faith should be to unite all human beings – not by making everyone the same, but by enabling the fulfillment of everyone's potential for good intention and action. Belief in the human potential for goodness will suffice for those who do not (and some of us who do) believe in God.
Potential, intentions, thoughts, and feelings are of little consequence unless they result in some action. Actions derived from thoughts and feelings determine whether a thought or feeling is angelic or demonic. Actions reveal nature and character; thoughts and feelings do not. We often allow the better angels of our nature to be dulled, sedated, even repressed by the verisimilitudes of living. This allowance skews our perception. That still and small voice becomes harder to hear.
We cannot control our thoughts and emotions; we can learn to control our reactions and our actions. We can learn not to be controlled by our thoughts and/or emotions. Finding some measure of tranquility, even peace, enables such control. Other control is transitory and illusionary.
Attempts to control that which we cannot control ultimately derive from our egos, false selves, and perhaps an inability to face one's mortality. Each of us will die; integrating the knowledge that our individual lives will end is essential for peace of mind (and heart and soul). Mortality, the most common denominator, defines, but not solely defines, existence. The manner in which one lives certainly is more important than the manner in which one dies. Legacy is not as important as integrity. Our respective legacies will be determined, indeed, by the manner in which we have lived.
There is another fear that most of us need to face: the fear that there is no God. Many of us, especially those of us who are regular church-goers, are afraid that if there is no God, then life has no purpose, no meaning. We must integrate the possibility that there is no God before we can claim an honest faith. Real purpose and real meaning and an honest faith are found beyond the fear that God does not exist.
I believe in God, but I know that the god in whom I believe does not exist. I believe that reality is not limited to our perceptions of or our musings regarding reality. I believe in faith and hope and love and liberty and responsibility and justice and contentment, the best angels of our nature. Saint Augustine: "I believe in order to understand." To paraphrase Saint Anselm (who paraphrased Saint Augustine): Do you believe in order to understand or do you understand in order to believe? (Credo ut itelligam ... Itelligam ut credo?) This writer wants both faith and knowledge; this writer wants neither to be determined by the other. I suspect that you do too.
Each of us chooses his or her beliefs and his or her actions – and the meaning of those beliefs and actions. Beliefs, thoughts, feelings, may and often do skew clear perception of meaning and purpose. Clear perception is essential for the discovery of true meaning. The person at peace may become a resolute soul who is able to perceive clearly and honestly.
The better angels of our nature communicate constantly, but we are not always perceptive or receptive. Conflict arises from our inability or unwillingness to heed the quiet voice inside. Accurate (or less inaccurate) perception becomes possible when internal conflict is stilled. We then can choose honestly and correctly the meaning of our respective lives.
Perhaps "perception" and "preparation" are the meaning and purpose of this book. You will discern and determine what value is inherent to this work, my intentions notwithstanding. That discernment and that determination will, of course, derive from your own perception and interpretation. Such exercise is perhaps purpose enough.
* * *
For those readers who skipped the "Acknowledgments" section of this book (as readers, including this writer, often do): The person who edited this book advised me to advising readers to read the entire book before judging, before deciding if they like this book. That editor likened this book to a speech or a sermon that must be heard in its entirety. (There is a certain, albeit unintentional, summitry to the idea that The First Peace; My Search For The Better Angels is a speech or a sermon.)
* * *
"Are you trying to entertain, inform, educate, or persuade?" The preceding question was often posed to me by a once-close friend. We met when we were both students at VDS. He became a Methodist minister, but he eventually left the ministry, returned to school for his doctorate in English, and became a newspaper editor. I always resisted the urge to say "all of the above" when this friend posed his question.
My intentions for writing this book include an attempt to weave a tapestry of stories, ideas and ideals, ethics, experiences, and expressions of thoughts and feelings – all of which I hope will entertain, inform, educate, persuade, stimulate, and even challenge. The result is probably more akin to a "crazy-quilt" than a tapestry. (A quilt is better for keeping warm.) Perhaps the words contained herein will remind you of your own experiences, thoughts, and feelings that provide some measure of contentment, but also some measure of challenge, even conflict. The silence beyond those reminders is where we find "the first peace" and where we are "at liberty to be real" and where "the better angels of our nature" touch us.
My Father's physical remains are interred in a cemetery near Chesterland, Ohio, a rural township east of Cleveland. This is the area in which my Father was born and spent most of his youth; he had one place to call home even though he left for good when he was eighteen. Dad was a "lifer" in the Air Force, which meant that we moved from base to base with regularity. A sense of home, as a place, is something that I never had. I am pleased nonetheless that he is buried in this place.
My first visit to Dad's grave since his death was a mixture of strategy and spontaneity. Visiting during the Fourth-of-July Weekend in 1988 was an impulse. In the four years prior to my visit, I had plenty of time to plan the details of my pilgrimage; what I would do was strategic, when I did it was spontaneous. I silently left my cousin's home before the dawn of what-would-become a hot July day. I listened to Pachebel's Canon during the short drive up Cedar Road to the cemetery. The tape player was switched off as I steered my truck onto the circular drive that ran through the cemetery.
My Father's grave lay, in an east-northeasterly direction, about ten feet from the trunk of a large oak tree. The direction was discernible because the grave lay in a direct line between that oak and the rising sun. I sat on the ground and leaned my back against the trunk of that tree. The grave was between the horizon and me. The grave and I were both beneath branches that would provide shade when the sun was high enough.
Pachelbel's Canon lingered in my thoughts as the sun rose over the farm across the street. The stifling heat of an Ohio summer kept the grass dry even in the early morning. The sun's first light was captured between the ceiling of branches and the earth below. This light swirled in my makeshift sanctuary and I noticed the marker at the foot of my Father's grave. There was no cross or headstone – only a copper plaque, provided by the Veteran's Administration and placed by my Uncle Arnold Bottger (who was married to my Aunt Lila, my Father's sister). Sunlight caressed the plaque and enabled me to discern the words on that plaque. Those words were composed of raised letters polished bright against a black background.
Floyd R. Hatfield July 12, 1929 – October 24, 1984 SMSGT USAF Korea Vietnam
"How succinct ..." I said to no one. Gravestones are not intended to delineate one's life and yet, this one seemed to do just that. My gravestone came to mind.
Charles W. Hatfield November 21, 1955 – who knows USAF – UT – VDS Discharge, Divinity School, Divorce
Looking at my Father's gravestone, I conceive my own.
The First Peace; My Search For The Better Angels My Prayer Book was held tightly, like someone holding a telephone book about to be torn in half. I stopped kneading it so I could use it. I opened to the Office for the Burial of the Dead and began to read aloud. Perhaps the words lacked because I was not a priest. The Unitarian minister who officiated at Dad's funeral and who delivered Dad's eulogy did not know my Father. Someone who knew my Father, someone who loved him, should have spoken at his funeral. I should not have remained silent at his funeral. I stood there reciting words four years after his death, but at least I was the one doing the recitation. The recited words of one who knew him seemed better than the original words of one who did not; I wished that I had not remained silent at my Father's funeral.
I tried to remember everything regarding my Father and I asked myself: "Do our brains, our memories, really have the capacity to retain every experience?" If so, then what we choose to remember – and the manner in which we choose to interpret those memories – reveals more about ourselves than the actual experiences. What I choose to remember about my Father reveals more about me than about him.
For additional distraction, I began to wonder why certain experiences are so important, why a shared experience might be meaningful to one and innocuous to another. I recalled some words attributed to Alfred North Whitehead: "History is the past re-thought in the mind of the historian."
* * *
My Father's footsteps seems an odd memory, but his arrival was signaled by the sound of his combat boots on the walk just outside whatever house in whatever country or state that we resided. He was handsome, bearing a strong resemblance to the actor John Wayne (or vice-versa), about 5'9" and weighing 175 pounds, all muscle. His features fit together well: hazel eyes, a straight and good-sized nose, an square jaw and more-gray-than-dark-brown hair cut in a perpetual flattop. He looked so sharp; the starched fatigues accentuated his muscular build. The aviator sunglasses and a cap with some Air Force insignia were the perfect touches to make him appear larger-than-life. Dad was an example of how a "real man" should look.
* * *
I came into the world on 21 November 1955, during the year in which Albert Einstein and James Dean died, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man on a Birmingham bus, and the USA sent 218 million dollars in aid to South Viet-Nam. Shaw Air Force Base (AFB) in South Carolina was my birthplace.
We moved from Shaw AFB to Laon AFB in France soon after I was born; we then moved to Minot AFB in North Dakota in 1962. My younger brother was born in Minot in 1964. Our Father was assigned to another tour of duty in France, if at a different base: Chaumont AFB in the Ardennes region.
We did not return to France together. We proceeded together to Dunlap, Tennessee; Dad then proceeded to France after he found us a place to stay in Dunlap. Our home was a small, olive-green, one-story house in a subdivision on the southwestern side of town, not too far from Route 127. We were approximately twenty miles north of Chattanooga as a crow flies. Bisecting Dunlap and Sequatchie Valley, Route 127 went on north to Pikeville and then to Crossville on the Cumberland Plateau. The mountains on either side of Sequatchie Valley stood like bookends.
Excerpted from The First Peace; My Search For The Better Angels by Charles Wilson Hatfield. Copyright © 2013 Charles Wilson Hatfield. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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