December 20, 1998
It's an early Sunday afternoon, the fourth Sunday in Advent, a few days before Christmas. In church a few hours ago, I was looking up at the sun illuminating the stained-glass windows and casting a mellow, gold light on the faces of people seated in the balcony. The choir and musicians were performing the "Oratorio de Noel" by Camille Saint-Saens. It was beautiful music. Energy and passion flowed from those voices and instruments as the concert progressed. As usual in these situations, I felt somewhat numb. My thoughts wandered. I tried to be contemplative. I found myself wondering about this strange stop-and-go spiritual journey I'm on and what an effort to think of myself as a Christian. What a constant struggle to overcome the incessant clamoring of the world with all its sins and temptatons, its materialistic and worldly answers and solutions. "The world is too much with us," Wordsworth wrote. "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers."
As I write these words and look out the window, I see the remaining leaves on the big oak rustling faintly. It is a warm and mild December day. Calm and quiet, as a Sunday should be.
I picked up a folder of clippings and articles spanning the years 1979-85 earlier this morning and have been looking at them. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, these clippings are snapshots of my thinking and reading from a time in the past -- my Memory Clipping Files. Here is what I found:
- First, a yellowing copy of an article by Father Albert Nevins entitled "The Stages of Perfection" in which he writes about the Purgative, Illuminative and Unitative Ways. The Purgative, he says, is where most of us live and die and in which stage souls seek to avoid sin and anything that could cause them to lose the love of god. The goal is purification of the soul. Few pass from this stage because they don't rigorously make the effort necessary. The second stage, the Illuminative Way, finds the soul desiring the follow the way of Christ, perform works of charity and consciously imitate Jesus' virtues. In the third stage, the Unitative Way, the soul reaches union with the enjoyment of God and desires "to be dissolved and be with Christ." The saints and mystics achieve this at some level on earth.
Mother Teresa reached the Unitative Way, I have no doubt. As a much lesser mortal, I see myself in need of constant redemption and repair. A wanderer, so to speak, who knows deep down what he must do and the road he must follow, but who is often distracted into taking side roads. These eventually lead back to the main path, but what an exhausting waste of time, energy and emotional reserves this taking of spinoff routes that bob and weave and go nowhere in and of themselves. The important thing is to keep struggling. Maintain hope. Hold onto your core values and beliefs.
- In this clipping file there are also two articles on the great French 19th century caricaturist and artist Honore Daumier, an exhibit of whose work I saw in Washington in the fall of 1979. As a cartoonist he skewered the middle class follies he observed all around him, but he did so with great dollops of humor and affection for the subjects of his lithographs. He had a genius for expressing emotion, attitudes, gestures, the human form and movement. I remember in college when I first studied his work, how I marveled at what I saw (See Honore Daumier: Selected Works, edited by Bruce and Seena Harris). What a discovery! Interest in his work has remained strong ever since. It is continually fresh and revealing.
- A Meditation on Aging by Father Robert Griffin, who was a writer I greatly admired those many years ago. He wrote: "All you need for contentment is the comfort of a good book, a good drink, and a fine meal; a splendid conversation with a friend; peace at day's end from your prayers well said."
- A picture of a solitary youth gazing across the water that fills an abandoned rock quarry near Jacksonville, N.C.
- An article about, and photographs by, one of the great Farm Security Administration (FSA) documentary photographers during the Depression years of the 1930s, John Vachon.
- An advertisement for the movie, "Breaking Away," that thought-provoking, good-feeling film from 1979 that had such an impact on me following a turbulent period in my life. I can't explain to anyone why I never fail to look at it again when it comes on TV (most recently on Bravo). It's the only movie I ever saw where a theater manager give a money-back guarantee. I'll write more on this in a later entry.
- Part 1 of "Down and Out", the Washington Post series in 1980 about the homeless in the nation's capital. The first article was entitled, "Exploring the World of the Urban Derelict." This whole series was an extraordinary piece of journalism which had a lasting impact on me, morbidly fascinated as I've been all my life by the phenomenon of urban homelessness. The stories were experienced and written by Neil Henry.
- A portfolio of works by the photographers Bruce Davidson and an article by Julia Scully and Andy Grundber, "Currents: American Photography Today." The first page featured photographs by William Eggleston (more on him later), Joel Meyerowitz, and Joe Maloney.
- A photograph of two people tubing lazily down the Edisto River in the summer of 1983, the year before I began my series of trips around the country.
- Articles: "Behind the Demise of Family Newspapers" (U.S. News and World Report, 2/11/85), and "The Great School Reform Hoax: What's Really Needed to Improve Public Education?" in the April 1984 issue of Esquire magazine in the days when it was still readable.
It intrigues me a great deal that I can go back to these old clippings files and find that I'm still interested in the subject matter and in reading them again. Reminders of who I was and who I am.