Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflections: On Faith and Friendship


I have again been neglecting this blog due to a combination over-involvement in Facebook and emotional set-backs in my “real life.” One of the few things that I’ve managed to do during this period is slowly read an interesting little book loaned to me by the University Archivist. The book has the non-mellifluous title: Go Back, You Didn’t Say “May I”: the Diary of a Young Priest. The author is Thomas Jackson.

Through his words, I have come to truly love Thomas Jackson, a young Episcopal priest, who comes to this town, Athens, Ohio, to serve at the United Campus Ministry (UCM). He comes in the late summer of 1969 when the campus of Ohio University is experiencing the unrest of the civil rights and anti-war movements—the summer after I graduated from the University of Michigan and got married for the first time. My parents had moved to Athens two years prior to this, so I had several times visited the Athens to which Thomas Jackson has arrived at the beginning of his diary, and was well aware of the milieu about which he writes.

Jackson, as he presents himself in this memoir, is the kind of man I admire and would like to have as a friend. When he errs in his ministry, he errs on the side of being too Christ-like for the local Christian bourgeoisie to tolerate. He has previously been fired by a congregation for this kind of “fault,” and feels a similar fate coming on in Athens after he’s been here for some months.

In his work with the student body, he has gone through what they refer to locally as “the Troubles” – the student uprising following the national guard killings of the students at Kent State, and the closing of the University. There has also been a constant string of crises on a smaller scale, such as pregnant coeds seeking abortions; troubled faculty marriages; jailed students.

As time goes by, Jackson begins to feel less and less effective in his efforts; more pressured by the University administration; and less appreciated by the local citizenry, including the Christian community. His best friend, and most effective colleague, Tom Niccolls, has recently left Athens to pursue other career interests. Finally Jackson comes to the decision that he, too, should move on to new pursuits. He has, therefore, written an article for the campus newspaper, the Post, expressing his decision to leave UCM, and Athens.

What I have chosen to excerpt here is Jackson’s entire diary entry for February 3, 1971. I chose it because it expresses an idea which I have felt very strongly, and very consciously, in my own life, but which I have never seen so openly expressed by anyone else:

February 3

            A deeply personal, loving letter today from Tom Niccolls, regarding the article in the Post last Friday about the future departure of the Jacksons, ended with this quote:

               “Somebody placed the shuttle in your hand:

somebody who had already arranged the threads.”


Weave well.



            I wonder, Tom Niccolls, if I would be planning to leave Athens if you were still here. I wonder if I will ever again work with someone who understands my thoughts almost before I think them, or with whom my personality and hopes and quirks mesh so well. You and your crazy Calvinism!

            If this is truly the Age of Anxiety as Auden describes it, then I begin to think that the anxiety comes from our constant departures one from another. We occasionally find that human being with whom we can share so much of life, and before the celebration of it can get very far, we move on to another place, and our relationships are then carried by postage stamps and weary mailmen.

            Why in hell do we leave? Are we driven by some sort of “success” motive which demands that we scamper up the ladder of fame and profit, regardless of what and whom we leave behind? Do we move on simply because we are out of control, pushed on by the very mobility of our society, moving because everyone else is moving? Or is this one of those Big Lessons in Life that I am supposed to learn: to grow is to move, to move is to grow.

            I wonder if the article in the paper last week was really, finally a fraud. I don’t know why I want to move. I simply know that I don’t want to be left alone in this job, facing all of these people without support and hope and rest. That is cowardice, I suppose.

            Maybe I’m leaving, or at least trying to leave, only because of cowardice.

Indeed. Why isn’t good friendship enough to anchor us in a community? Why can’t we ever be content with what we have, even when it is good? Why do people always pursue that clichéd green grass beyond the proverbial fence? Of what are we so afraid that we run, not really knowing if there is actually something chasing us? We say that we value friendship above nearly all things, yet we cast it aside for a new job that we soon grow weary of, only to start looking to move on again. I don’t understand it, and I never will, because I’ve never felt it.

I end this already long discourse with a poem I wrote some months ago, touching on this theme:


A thing the world hates
                         and fears -- contentment:

that a man could be happy

plowing the same field

year after year, hoping

not for more, but

simply for enough.

Sufficiency is not

a thing that is suffered

by the world gladly,

for it is seen as virtuous

only to strive for abundance.

To drift easily on the current

when others are compelled

by greed, by pride, by fear

to struggle against it,

compelled always

to get there first,

to have first grab

at whatever is there,

no matter where ‘there’ is;

                       To win the humbling regard

that is the child of brother love,

rather than a grudging respect

engendered by fear and envy;

To eat in response to hunger,

rather than to dine or feast

in obedience to appetite;

To take what one needs

in preference to that which

one imagines oneself to want;

To choose solitude

over popularity;

To seek knowledge

rather than entertainment;

To pay attention

rather than employing the senses

to troll for distractions;

To love oneself enough to feel

secure in one’s own company;

To seek to discover the joy

inherent to each moment of existence,

even while being battered

by the shit-storm of scorn

with which an offended world

requites one’s loathsome contentment:

Let this be your prayer and your mission.

Thank you, Thomas Jackson, wherever you are…