Thursday, June 25, 2009

Majoring in mystical experience

A friend asked me recently what I would major in if I were going to college today. I got as confused as I was back then. "Anthropology," I said. "No, art, visual art. No [thinking of the question, what would I choose for my life's work if I had it to do over again] oh, something in medicine. Meaningful hands-on work. Maybe being a doctor." I forgot to say, religion. Comparative religions.

Actually, I didn't get what I wanted from a course of that name when I took it in college, freshman year. The professor was from the philosophy department and didn't have any religion himself. I remember him, though not his name, and another student, a senior who intended to become a Christian minister, and tried never to argue with the teacher when invited. We were a very small class, just a few other students.

Our only textbook was a heavy hardback anthology of sacred texts from major religions, which I never opened once that class was over. It didn't even give us introductions to ground us in the context - that was the way academics thought then in the English department, too, in the grip of The New Criticism, which argued that all that mattered was the poem itself - that we should forget biography and history and the writer's culture. So we talked about the "ideas" of the religions, and their ethical codes, which are hard to pick out from the texts, I found.

And none of this touched me. I didn't know it, but I was there because I wanted to be touched. I wanted to hear not about ideas, but about practice - a word I did not then associate with religion. The only practices I knew of were distinctly Christian, though I had at least been exposed to a range of denominations. When I had practiced prayer and study, I did not think of them as helping my "spiritual growth" - an idea I was unfamiliar with. You were either A or B, in my understanding - a good Christian, trying with all your might, or a backslider. When I entered college, I was definitely the latter. But I was still interested.

In Comparative Religions, I wanted to hear much more than we did about prayer - which I hoped would lead me to mystical communion with the essential, the sacred or divine; though I don't recall now that it ever had. I'd had several mystical experiences in nature and in singing in groups - I think many people have - but I didn't know that was what they were called, and didn't talk about them. How could you? I know now that it is impossible to describe the mystical experience - I would find the best descriptions or evocations of it in poetry, especially that of Gerard Manley Hopkins. How strange it is to think back on my own time as a teacher of literature, that there must have been in my classes kids like I was, shy and silent, yearning for something of essence to be revealed here. You have no idea really what is behind those faces.

I knew teaching wasn't my right work, not that kind of teaching, and I am retired, with subscriptions to Netflix and The New Yorker - enough to keep an ordinary mortal satisfied. But I still wonder - what is my right work right now? (What should I major in?) I've been lucky to have illness cut me back from my enthusiastic pursuit of too many things. My energy is good mostly for sitting at this computer and writing. That is what I have devoted myself to every chance I got for most of my life. Since 1997 it's been mostly poetry, and I've been serious about it. So why is it even a question?

Well, because my father, who liked poetry, had contempt for it as a job - where's the money? That message comes at us from everywhere. "Ain't no money in poetry," as the song goes, not real money. And there really isn't in the serious practice of any art, leaving aside major self-promoters. The arts are a form of spiritual practice; they reach for experience in its essence. There has hardly ever been any money in that. As I remember the film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, you need to keep away from the money. And to some degree, away from the culture.

I probably have, in the way that Poets have of not fitting in, even when we try. Looking back, if I had understood my yearnings and told my guidance counselor I wanted to be a mystic, I can't imagine what she would have suggested. Probably that I major in English.

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