The beginning: September 25, 2006
The first thing I need to say in beginning this book, a kind of retrospective journal, is that I have been in no little mental and spiritual chaos prior to the sudden clarity which preceded my sprint for an aggregation of blank pages. I was in the process of both putting the dishes in the sink - my habit of the late afternoon - mixing myself a martini, when my much troubled mind cleared with the realization that a considerable portion of my mental and spiritual labours of the past several weeks had been, unbeknownst to me, conspiring toward an effort in spiritual literature which would attempt to recreate the adventures of those months in the latter part of 1957 which led up to my first encounter with my most beloved wife-to-be, surely one of the finest consorts that God ever bestowed on an author.
All artists, like all prophets, mystics, and perhaps even scientists, from time to time feel that they are being driven mad. They have a grip on this or that, and then they don't. God, as the Muse of their minds has been most instructive, and then He hasn't. Or, to look at the problem at a less dramatic level, that at least their own personal working plans, which they thought they had well worked out, were of a sudden being strongly inconveniently, oddly interfered with. And certainly, while some aspects of my particular pen work have been going well, others have not been going at all no matter how profoundly their voluminous beginnings.
All of the above, to some degree, has been part of the daily meditations of recent weeks. A long poem goes well, a fictional discourse of the spiritual life within a film industry background gives me great satisfaction, and there not so long ago - these months - appeared a journal on running and weight loss. How could I possibly complain?
And yet, certain other recollections and other fiction derived there from have suffered a long hiatus, and this, recently had seemed troubling.
And then, in the sink, with a martini on the shelf of the window above the sink, the light dawned, the Muse spoke, and I went scrabbling for surely the last of the old black bound journals, made in China, that my beloved had picked up in the Wal Mart, some dozen years ago. I remembered when I found it, in my filing cabinet, that I had in those days actually begun an attempt at what I am setting forth now to do. Such is the life of a contemplative: he is ferociously moved by God, like Isaiah and then he waits. I must admit, in all gratitude, that I am most grateful that I have not had to wait something like 700 years. A dozen years, in the life of a man scheduled for at least four decades, is quite reasonable.
What I was moved to do, over a decade ago, I was inspired to try a memory. In our lives, we have vivid events, some of evil, some of great good, and then, later on when the recollection is appropriate, we are reminded of those events. What inspired me, in September 1993, was the memory, brought on by an intensely sunny Sunday afternoon, of the earlier afternoon, on a Thursday, I suppose, a humbler day, when I returned to my home town of Vancouver, British Columbia, from a very full and delightful four months - the also - hot wilderness of the same province.
To say "afternoon" is not quite accurate as denoting the time of the arrival of our ship from Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, as it was full suppertime when we docked, but the trip out, by plane, from the south-west corner of the Cariboo, was over the afternoon all under blazing sun, and most certainly, the sky was on fire with light when we cruised under the Lion's Gate bridge in to Burrard Inlet and in to the dear old CPR docks, dear because of earlier memories of youthful employments.
But the time of day, magnificent as it was to the eye of a love of landscapes - or seascapes - was actually only incidental to the magnitude of the spirit that accompanied that return, and that is what this journal is really about. I could not, with all the skill a writer knows with words equate or extol the incredible natural virtues of that summer, in its magnificent setting of mountains and glaciers and rivers and the skills men and even if I could do that, I would have a much rougher time trying to accurately identify all the activities of the Holy Spirit that had been, were then, and in days and weeks and months to come rampaging or cruising most consolingly through my soul.
And yet, like John of the Cross and all the other mystics - and one must also include the playwrights, the novelists, the poets or the essayists - one must take up the pen and the page and do him or her best. Things happened, light and love were shed, God was behind it all, throughout the devil's interference, and the record has to be set down.
That return to Vancouver was incredibly golden. The ship seemed remarkably slow, so I could drink it all in, the water of the harbour and the blue of the sky were of a fire of their own, and I was as content and yet expectant as Ulysses returning after all those years at Ithaca. And most certainly, a greater than Penelope was awaiting me, although I had no such knowledge at the time. God is a sneaky fellow, always hiding the treasures that are beyond our deserving, yet infallibly plain, in their own time and place, to bestow them.
My clothes, on the other hand, were filthy. The laundry facilities of the wilderness are primitive at the best of times. Periodically my pants and my beloved grey sweatshirt had found their way into a wash to be bubbling over a fire, but it had no doubt been some days since such procedures had been unleashed. But so what? I was young, male, strong, and had just spent four months, so I thought, making a very vigorous contribution to the infrastructure of the province. Ironically, all that work came to nothing, in the ordinary sense, the generation of hydro electric power from these facilities turned out to be impractical. Yet, I'd had a most poetic and spiritual summer, both a conclusion and a purpose. So if you consider certain lines of John of the Cross, a much wiser man that any engineer who ever lived, nothing had been lost, under the eyes of God.
I finished the foregoing pages just before the six o'clock news, and there on the news, well past the more dramatic flashes of the moment, was a lengthy segment on the current problem of power supply in our province. It seems we actually have to import power during the night, from Alberta and Montana. I could not help but wonder if we would not have this if the B.C. Power Commission, which I worked for that lovely summer had been able to go ahead and build that five hundred foot dam in the canyon of the Homathko.
I had learned later, many months after our labours, that it had been decided that the predominance of glacial "flour" in the tributaries that feed the Homathko, a run of the clearest possible beginnings, created a double hazard. The floor of the dam would silt up quickly, and the sharp tiny pieces of the sand from the coastal granite would wear out the turbines. After the news I wondered if there were solutions available now and I wondered if the wilderness would be better off left alone.
But I do not wonder at what God was doing to me in those months, because in the years since, my studies of John of the Cross and his fellows have quite nicely explained those supernatural activities.
I had no words for them in those days, for having been raised without the benefits of Catholic theology, I was pretty much restricted, anytime I tried to explain things to myself, to the limited vocabulary of current, more or less popular psychology and the humanism, not entirely non-Christian, of my university formation. By May of 1957, when that dozen or so of us were heading for the woods, I was twenty-one, with four years of college, more or less, behind me. But none of my learning, and none of my human experiences, neither of which were inconsiderable, none of these were as significant as the various significantly supernatural contacts I'd had with God, and He with me, since I was a small child.
The natural and the supernatural. In the past few days I have been much set to concentrating on the contrast between those two terms, being sent to reading, over and over again, certain chapters of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, John of the Cross' first text of his four volumes on the ways and means of the ascetic, interior, and mystical lives within the Church, both Militant and Triumphant. And one should also mention that his writing does as much as anyone's to cover the Church Suffering, for he is regularly comparing the trials of the contemplative on earth to the suffering of the souls in purgatory, now, whether they have accepted it as a vocation or not, also contemplation. Indeed they have nothing else to do but make up in that life for the prayers they did not learn in this one.
My relation with the Ascent has always been most wonderful. First of all it was a wedding present from my wife and subsequently, along with Thomas' Summa, my constant companion in the first year of our marriage, when I was still studying, trying to write, and odd-jobbing on my way to becoming a classroom teacher. Toward the end of that year, however, I began acquiring other mystical classics, still all Carmelite, Teresa's Interior Castle, and John's Dark Night, and at some point a little later, the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame. Some of these were from a spring raid on Duthies books in Vancouver, others from the excellent book rack in the church in Ocean Falls, where I went in the autumn of 1960 to begin my teacher's life.
But in the autumn of 1957, I was a young man, although of no mean spiritual experiences, who had never functionally heard of John of the Cross or any other mystic writer, and I most certainly had not actually laboured to make precise intellectual distinctions between the natural actions of the soul and the supernatural. My heroes in my youth were certainly not theologians, for I had never heard of such a profession in any meaningful way, but, in my heart of hearts, writers, especially novelists.
Well, what is the precision of words? I certainly do remember Dr. Norman Mackenzie, in my day the President of UBC, in his address to the freshmen of my class, quoting Saint Augustine, I think, on the subject of being careful as to who would survey our young minds, but I was not actually aware that in God's eyes, Augustine practised the profession of theology. And of course in those days, between public schooling, my father's contempt of organized religion, and my grandparents very lovely but also very anti-Roman grasp of the Christian religion - they were Baptists - I had no use, whatsoever for bishops.
But Augustine, in my first year, had little to say to me. Nor, thanks to my grade ten history teacher, had Thomas Aquinas, who with all the other medieval theologians, in my teacher's view only debated endlessly on how many angels would dance on the head of a pin.
None of, of course, meant a ratsass to the Almighty. He just kept banging away on my faculties, usually with exemplary kindness, but from time to time with no small degree of sternness, so that even before I went to university and laid myself open to all manner of influences, as much or more from students as well as faculty and the textual contents of the library, I was already in no small degree in His grip rather than theirs.
When the CPR ship docked, my middle brother was there, in my car, to pick me up. I could never forget coming down the gangplank with the rest of the passengers, feeling myself to be on the one hand a proud working lad, a simple toiler among the masses, and at the same time a dedicated artist and intellectual, a man of books and music - with a banjo and volumes in his duffle bag to prove it - coming home to an ever greater year on the campus than the four years that had gone before.
Books? Well, I had gone into the bush with the King James Bible, Boswell's London Journal, and a paper back on Henry James. Following Boswell I had even tried a little journalizing of my own. Mostly Boswell I had read before the vehicle left Vancouver and it and the other I only took up intermittently. What I did read was Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book". sent me by a girl friend, and a couple of volumes of philosophy, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, sent up by another young lady in lieu of what I had requested, Aristotle's Ethics. She was unable to find a copy of Aristotle and hoped the other two would suffice.
The interesting thing was, they did. Probably neither one of those men were fit to untie the old Peripatetic's sandals, but they did labour in the philosopher's mental strata toward the discovery of unusual truth, and their spirit she itself on my soul, God bless them.
I had been well set up for their arrival, sometime in July, by the first arrival, a total surprise, of Adler.
My good friend Dolores had gone east, to work in Toronto after breaking off a year or more relationship with my best friend of my first two years at UBC. Both of them I knew because of the student newspaper, the Ubyssey. We had always talked about books and writing, and I had in fact sent her a short story of mine some months before. She had been great company, over innumerable coffees and her cigarettes, in my first and only complete year in law school.
The Adler had arrived in late May, just after we were really set up in our camp on the north bank of the Moseley, just before it enters the Homathko, and the fact that it had to be brought in by helicopter, a little two man Bell, has made me fond of helicopters ever since. To hear the rotors is to hear the best of memories.
Last night we watched the BBC production of Anthony Trollope's "He Knew He was Right". The production was good, but the commentary semi-dramatized, was only partially useful, for the creators of it seemed to have as much trouble understanding the general and essential nature of male female relationships as they claimed the Victorians had. But the event was wonderfully useful, another of the present strokes of Providence that seem to so abundantly and precisely guide my steps these days. It underlined a point necessary to be made early in these recollections, that of my great and happy sense of friendship among the young women who were my friends and companions in my university days, largely through the facilities of the university newspaper, a very busy tri-weekly, but never for the reasons so exploited by modern writers and film-makers, that of the flesh. I simply appreciated their minds, their conversations, their thoughtfulness and creative spirits, and, from time to meaningful time, the sense of quiet and material participation in the being of God's universe that would settle upon us, in large or smaller assemblies.
Thus when I say that it was a girlfriend who sent me Adler's work, I speak of someone who was: a) a girl: b) a friend. I had actually never heard of the instructions of some saint, telling me that I should look on all young women as sisters, but certainly the Holy Spirit had put such a nice little flea in my ear, and I was happy to do so. At the same time, I was also quite clear in my heart and mind that I meant to fall in love and get married at some point and so I also looked on my young lady acquaintances with the goal in the back of my mind. I'd got quite serious about this at the end of my second year, but I'd been gently rebuffed, and had attained the status and partial wisdom of those who were better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. It actually is a great state, although I'm not sure that Shakespeare knew how to apply its intellectual, spiritual, and emotional effects to the spiritual life. It really is appalling how the lack of a sound, working, devotion to the Mother of God so greatly clouds the norms of exchange and encounter between the sexes.
Sailing into Vancouver harbour in September of '57, I had never heard of Anthony Trollope. Two years later, at the close of another summer. I would be sailing into another harbour, filled with visions of clerical life in Barchester Towers. But I am ahead of myself.
When I left for the Cariboo and the Homathko gorges in May, I had in the back of my mind, quite strongly, the idea of going to Toronto at the end of the summer, to try my hand at magazine journalism. Moreover, in the first weeks on the job I even tried my hand at an article for Macleans, inquiring to its editor if he'd like a piece on the use of helicopters in unique situations such as ours, so fascinated as I was with all the stuff one did with our little Bells and their wonderfully interesting pilots. Zane Grey, and horses and their riders had quite come to life. The editor said thank you but I was too late, as such a story had already been told.
As well as that I actually found myself quite quickly thinking fondly of UBC and testing my thoughts and feelings about returning for a fifth year, once again in law school, back to the second year I had left the previous October. However poetically my mind rolled along, I was a very rational human being - a few years later a priest attributed this to some suspected French heritage - and I would ask myself what motives would I have for going back to the old campus aside from feelings on the sense of needing a profession. Were there distinctly personal reasons as well?
There were two. The most immediate and, to me, necessary, was my younger brother, who had just graduated from high school and was heading for the university. But unlike myself in first year, he did not live a bus ride or two from the campus, as I had when I began. Sixteen months previous the family had moved from East Vancouver to Coquitlam, to a new housing development just above Port Moody. The distance to the campus was more than doubled, with no convenient bus route that I was aware of, and thus I was his logical chauffeur, especially as I already owned a car, which he had been using while I was away. In keeping with just about every idea that went through my head in those months, I was not entirely constant with this decision, for I can remember later in the summer writing to the residences, Fort and Acadia campus, about accommodation, for I had grown more and more convinced about my need to return to my Alma Mater but I was also keen to put myself in the situation where I could share in campus life to the full. Living in residence during the winter term, I thought, would help me accomplish this. Also, I reasoned, novelists must be always researching and I felt that there were so many aspects of campus life I had not fully experienced.
But I was too late, all the accommodations had been spoken for. So I wrote to my parents and asked if I could once again live at home. Just before the move to Coquitlam I had moved out to summer living in one of the fraternity houses near the university pool, in the fall moved to a second fraternity house, and then after Christmas taken a basement flat with two friends, one still a student, and the other, like myself. There moves had all provided the most wonderful adventures and new encounters, but this is not the place to tell of them in detail, except to make it clear that my former roommates were both making big changes in their lives that had removed any chance of going back to the basement flat, no matter how close it was to the campus.
The other personal reason was sociological. Another young woman who had been a good friend - she had talked vehemently against my choice of law, and aroused my interest in the social sciences - was scheduled to be the editor-in-chief of the Ubyssey, the first female in several years. Although the staff was half girls - except the sports department - all the senior editorial positions in my first years with the paper were male. I felt a certain interest in being helpful in changing this history.
My thoughts of support for the new editor-in-chief were not entirely selfless, because I also wanted to have her agreement and support for my writing a weekly column in the Ubyssey. On my very first sight of the paper, in my high school library, I had been principally ignited to an interest in it by a student columnist - I was not a little stunned by the freedom and panache with which he attacked the federal government - and this admiration for Ubyssey columnists continued. I wrote the odd column myself as sports editor, but in the two years following I'd never had an idea for that particular species of journalism. All my energy had gone into fiction, either novel or short stories. But the study of the previous years, not to mention new experiences had coached me to think that I had a column or two in me. In Mortimer Adler I had found some sense of my own voice, and the sheer beauty of four months in as wonderful a landscape as God ever made, to say nothing of the epic quality of our assignment and the companions who had been such an enjoyable and stimulating part of it was just the sort of think that would make a young writer feel he had, indeed, a great deal to write about.
This does not mean that I intended to enter into a protracted series on the old school paragraph standby: what I did in my summer holidays. Quite the opposite, and not just of my own volition,. One fine day in August, as we returned to work after lunch, I had found myself on a lonely bench about the north bank of Moseley Creek, the major western tributary of the Homathko. It was rather park-like, unusually free of underbrush for that part of the Coast Range - but not the only pocket of such - and for the moment I had it all to myself. I must have been thinking of my writing future, and what a huge impact this summer would forever have upon it, because out of nowhere came a very clear spiritual apprehension, almost a locution as described by the Carmelite mystics, to the effect that it would be twenty years before I would be able to tell the stories of the summer.
Interestingly enough, I was, for the moment at least, in complete acceptance of this edict, in spite of the indisputable fact that every shred of my temperament and basic self-confidence had always insisted that, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald I would be published, famous, and self-supporting by the time I was twenty-five./ I had said this, too, to all my friends, just as matter-of-factly as any other student might say, with utterly reasonable confidence that he was going to graduate as a doctor or lawyer or engineer in such and such a year.
The ship docked, and all the passengers, myself included, began to move off. I was very much aware that the duffle bag I hoisted to my shoulder was my father's part of his kit from World War II, and I too felt like a soldier, returning home from a successful campaign, looking forward to even greater battles and triumphs, though indeed all within the mind and the spirit. The harbour and the city had never looked better and my brother was on time. It had felt wonderful to leave in May, it was wonderful to return in September. We drove to the eastern end of Burrard Inlet in the evening sun, and I can remember that it also felt very good to be at my parent's home again. My mother, of course was very glad to have her oldest under the roof again and my father and my brother proudly showed me the large rock wall, on the eastern edge of the driveway ending under the carport, that they had built together during the summer.
That evening, sitting on my bed, I think I genuinely believed that this time I would be able to finish my second year of law school and thus be able to make my father content and proud of me. He had been much disturbed when I left my law books and we'd had some noisy contretemps in the intervening months. Both of us had strong tempers. But for the moment, on that sunny evening, all was quiet, all was happy, all moved along in apparent togetherness.
What the spirit of a man should really desire is unity: within himself, with his neighbour, with God, and in that hour such a sense of unity was mine.
At the same time, on the other side of the continuous connection that ran from the east end of Burrard Inlet and to West Point Grey, a certain young lady had just begun a journal. Shawn Harold was nineteen, about to enter third year arts at UBC having taken her first year at tiny Notre Dame in Nelson, in the Kootenays and her second year at the coast school, following her father's transfer from Nelson by the Great Northern Railway. On Sept 3, while I was still in tent camp just below Homathko canyon, reading the philosopher Herbert Spencer when I wasn't hauling a surveyor's chain or building log cabins for the winter's drilling crew, she had scribbled a short note on her desk in her basement room in her parents modest rented bungalow on West 16th, close to the University Endowment Lands - I had surveyed in those woods for a week or so - and had not thrown the note away. It expressed her state of mind at the time, a state of mind to be considered, because she had only recently broken up with a boyfriend she had, with much reason to be very fond of. Interestingly enough, I already knew this lad very well, and also had found more than one reason to like him. He and two other young men had been guests at our basement flat just above Jericho Beach and the spirits that flew about me in those days had insisted that I take them in as friends. They were all younger than myself by a year or two, but as it was to turn out, my peers were moving on in one way or another, and I was to remain at the campus.
The note, as I say, was tine, and in French, one of Shawn's academic subjects, but in two weeks it became followed by a series of regular journal entries, in English, that would eventually become some of the most interesting English that I could ever hope to read.
I had actually seen her once, a number of months earlier, at a New Year's eve party, in a hall hired for the celebration of Auld Lang Syne by the fraternity that owned the house I was living in, sharing a room on the top floor with a lad who had graduated but stayed on in the house. He had been a Ubyssey staffer I knew a little. He was working in the city, in the public relations business, and had been able to borrow kilts for the dress up, so we went as Scotsmen. It was the only time I have ever worn a kilt but I must have looked at home in it because Shawn also saw us, and thought we were the only two at the party actually having a good time.
As I write, the hills are an interesting symbol, inasmuch as this morning looking at the website for Glenmorangie, the single malt whiskey mashed and distilled in Ross-shire Scotland. A newspaper publisher of a small community paper in the Kootenays, and myself and certain friends have going a running joke about Glenmorangie, which may become a rather significant item. The inspiration was further confirmed, too, by the presence of a little girl in a kilt, sitting in front of us at Mass this morning.
At the party I had noticed a girl in a nurse's costume, but had not talked to her. Her date was a fraternity member, and he from the Kootenays but he was not living at the frat house and I did not know him. Interestingly enough, I do not remember any of the costumes of the other girls including our own dates.
To some readers these coincidences may seem trivial. But I am very used, following Thomas Aquinas rules for Scripture interpretation, to God's way of using the humblest of signs for rather large messages and I suspect this is happening here. Why else would I be able to do something I have not been able to do, no matter how much I may have wanted, for almost fifty years?
Besides, I have loved the images of Scotland ever since I learned to sing the Skye Boat song, and almost a quarter of a century ago, at a point where I was making more profoundly serious adjustments in my external, professional, artist life, Heaven gave a certain title with a Scots word in it. Scots on one end, native Indian at the other.
Then there is the indisputable fact that the first girl I actually was keen to marry, for a time, had Scots mother and father both from Glasgow, and the last, was Sottish in her paternal grandfather's side, also from Glasgow.
And speaking of the Web, I was last night emailing a journalist, a man who writes on Church matters for the Vancouver Sun. It was exactly fifty years ago that I was writing for the Sun, and, as I told him, from my knowledge of the staff then it would have been impossible for an article as competent as his to appear on the pages of that journal. He was writing about the recent Catholic-Islam controversy arising from Pope Benedict's quotation from history, given a few weeks ago in Regensburg, a university town in his native Bavaria.
Working for the Sun for six months my father had not been terribly happy with that choice either, it had been an essential part, I think, of my preparation for quitting law school. But that also meant I had to quit my Sun job, by then merely campus correspondent, which had left me with absolutely nothing to do but study as I wished and was inspired.
But back to UBC, and my first day back on campus, the Saturday, when I went out to the old field house to buy law texts. The weather was continuing clear and my soul also seemed not at all uncluttered. In fact, as I puttered among the tables in the law books section, I received a very definite consolation, a sense of my spirit quite expanded and strengthened by Heaven. I was plainly in the right place, at least for the time being.
At the moment - what else could I do - I think I firmly believed that I would this time finish my second year. But I was also aware that I had no interest in sitting in literature or history classes, as much as I felt at home reading these subjects. The idea of having any professor meddling with my mind on questions involving such matters was impossible to entertain, and more significant, I refused to write essays. Or, perhaps to be more accurate from this distance, I might have actually suspected that God would not let me do it.
Throughout my first two years I never had any problem with essays, and I quite enjoyed my classes, partially by agreeing with myself to attend somewhere between a half to two thirds, depending on the subject, except for the physics lab slot, which I attended always. Once I had settled myself in at the Ubyssey, and then started up my first attempt at a novel one rainy Sunday afternoon well into October, I knew where my priorities lay. I could dialogue with my typewriter, I could dialogue with my fellow staffers, at work or over a coffee in the Brock at the Cafeteria, but there was no dialogue in lecture halls and rooms filled with dozens of students.
But after I had finished my two years, and acquired a grade average sufficient to admit me to the UBC law school in those days, God had laid on me a sing which I later realized meant he had raised his control of my young mind to a new level.
I was reading the laundry room of the army barracks in Picton, Ontario late at night, in that room so as not to disturb my roommate. It was a late Sunday night or early Monday morning, and we would have to be up at the crack of dawn to get on with another week as officer cadets in training. Our branch was anti-aircraft and Picton was actually the same base my father had been stationed at in 1944.
I was reading Somerset Maugham's "Razors Edge". My English teacher in Grade Twelve had mentioned Maugham more than once as a favourite of his, so the first writer I chose to study on my own as soon as I got to UBC was Maugham. I read a book of his short stories, then in my first year at Picton, his autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage. I had also, at the home of my friends, the Logies, seen a film version of his "Moon and Sixpence", on the television. The actor who played the author opens the movie being filmed as he descends to his writing desk in his dressing gown. Ah, thought I, that's the life.
But now I was well into the life of Larry Darryl and thoroughly enjoying it. When I reached the scene where our hero has a little spiritual experience while hiking near some Tibetan lake, I also had a spiritual experience, and it was not all that little. I was by no means caught up into Heaven, as was to happen three years later, but I knew God was visiting me very strongly, and making some point or other. For one thing, I think I knew from what I saw and thought while the Spirit was with me, that I would go back to Vancouver at the end of the summer, and back to UBC. Not it the University of Toronto, or Berkeley, California, two institutions that had tempted me ever since I was made Canadian University Press editor at the Ubyssey.
This is a lofty title for a very simple job. All I had to do was read the college papers that were sent to us, looking for stories or articles I thought would be relevant to our campus. I had been given this task after only about two months on the staff, probably just about the time I started to write my novel. Shall I drop some names? Of course, with utter affection and gratitude of having known these young men, one of who recently died. The job had belonged to Michael Ames, later he would be famous in his field, as the director of the Aboriginal Museum at UBC. He had quit the job in protest against the higher ups on the editorial board. The chief of these was Allan Fotheringham, who also later, as they say, taught Canadians to read Maclean's magazine from the back to the front. Later, but shortly later, as well, it was Mike Ames who told me they needed one more summer reporter at the Sun.
This spiritual experience was also useful inasmuch as it was no doubt part of the influence that persuaded me not to change my address to New York, which a carload of us visited for the July First to Fourth weekend a fortnight after that experience. As a writer, I had sent my first short stories to that city, and like most young writers I had wondered if I should move there.
But I think the most important point God was making, although I did not at the moment realize it, was that he was also telling me my ordinary student life was over.
But even this change was really only a matter of degree, for he had started interfering with my capacity for learning as early as the beginning of Grade Nine, when I was thirteen.
It was in my first Latin class, in dear old Britannia High School, just off Commercial Drive. The school had been built in 1908, which means its centenary is close upon us. It was, for the north east section of the city, the school for those with more of an academic or clerical bent than the technical. As far as I can remember, I'd never experienced the fear that I might not be able to learn a subject. But I did just this on my very first day in class. And this experience, as best as I can remember, followed by a week or so a much more serious incident of the spirit, by which, for an entire half hour, my faculties were not entirely under my control. (The full story of that experience is for some other time, but is should be mentioned now.) I did go on tho study Latin for four years in high school, then two at the university, but I could never get the marks I did in things like math or physics or history or English grammar. Even when I tried to put out-of-class time into swatting up on my vocabulary, even deficient, God gave me a headache.
There was certainly no headache in Picton, in neither summer, and where my reading the modern classics was always a very satisfying business. That list is also for later.
But the Razor's Edge experience, I was to realize later, was the signal for what was about to happen in law school. As the mystics call it, I was about to "suffer" from the ligature of the faculties. That is, my mind would now enter under a new and steady condition of being profoundly subject to God's will as to what and what not information I was allowed to master. This was to have nothing to do with feelings or any ordinary spirit of interest in the imagination, because I can say with perfect and complete truth that I fully enjoyed every hour I spent in the law school buildings. I think of them now with profound affection, and at a much later history was to prove, a part of my father's wishes, and for a time my own, were right. I was in the right place at the right time.
But my marks were only passing. I simple could not excel in the law, and all my best energy continued to go to the necessary labours of the young writer, who very diligently, and instantly, took notes on the human character.
In the spring, at exam time, however, I did not enjoy the process at all. Providence had laid on exceptionally fine weather, just to help make the point of acquiring self-knowledge that much more efficient. The sun shone, blue sky blazed, the waters of English Bay and the entrance to Howe Sound Channel were the most penetrating brilliance, and the poet in me found himself thoroughly hating ever second given to studying for tests. In all my previous years of exams this had never happened before. I had always enjoyed the particular total break from classes, I had enjoyed reviewing the year's studies. In fact during studying for my second year English exam, reading William Wordsworth's "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" I'd had a kind of literature based religious experience, beginning a lifelong connection with the poet that only now is finding its final external outcome in my own poetry, such as it is. In the "Preface" Wordsworth is offering one of the all time classics on questions of style, and style was something I would begin to study very intensely indeed within a few weeks of that unpleasant fortnight with law exams.
So, in a sense, as I wandered among the law texts in the field house, on the first day of my fifth year at the university, the pattern returned. There was to be a certain very real comfort in the company of law students and professors, and texts, but its disposition would be most precisely directed by the Almighty.
I remember this spirit as quite a solemn and profound encounter, something quite substantial, and in a sense, complete, except, of course, in the fact that my background and lack of theological instruction would have made me functionally illiterate had I been asked to explain it to anyone. I was a very verbal fellow, always reading, always writing, talking and finding all of these skills quite easy, but there were some things in my life, no doubt, that I had no words for, nor would I have been eager to discuss with anyone if I had. The interior life is an immensely private operation that, in total reality, can only become unprivate in the company of someone else who also understands and experiences it, at least so some proportional degree.
In some ways, this is a very brutal truth, that unless a soul with an interior life functions only as a most reclusive hermit, he has to understand that, even surrounded by fellow human beings, part of him is very much on its own. That is, humanly speaking. If he is where he is supposed to be, then he has the company, the strength, the insight of an infinite God, so he is actually much more un-alone in a sense, than everyone else in the crowd he is part of. But this is, as a rule, an inner thing.
The mood moved me, of course, and I went on with more ordinary, though equally necessary things. I drove down the to old apartment near Jericho Beach, to visit my old roommate. I think he was by then on his own, as the first third of us, graduated and now working as a downtown journalist, had with another journalist and a couple of students, rented a house well up and over the hill to the south and east. I was asked to go pubbing, but I had to decline, as I had a date with the young lady who had sent me Herbert Spencer and a book by John Stuart Mill. My old friend told me he was making changes too, later in the fall he would be immigrating to Jamaica.
As much as I had been disappointed when my girlfriend could not find a copy of the Ethics, I had got a great deal out of Mill and Spencer, and I don't think my last weeks in the wilderness would have been so intellectually exciting without them, I have nothing to say about their theories, as I've hardly read them since, but I did breathe in, deeply and appreciatively, as I sat in my tent by the banks of the Moseley and the Homathko, the spirit of philosophy. The level of interior direction at which they inquired of wisdom was the level that, long last, I knew and accepted that I also was to operate at. Later on, I understood Etienne Gilson's words on the overall unity of the brotherhood of philosophers. Before I had gone to the bush I had read H L Mencken on Nietzsche, and then Nietzsche himself. Whatever the value of his psychological insights, Freud's metaphysics were abysmal, utterly ridiculous, and Jung's, as I was to learn much later, were equally as ludicrous, so even if the three philosophers I had encountered were hardly perfect, the tenor of their text made me listen up to a quality of melody I had never heard before. They at least would seem to have wrestled with Plato and Aristotle; the two psychologists seemed not to know how to begin such a process.
Did I talk of these philosophers in the evening, with my incredibly sweet tempered date? I do not recall. I had met her in the last weeks of the academic year, passed some very easy and pleasant times, exchanged letters over the summer, and came back to carry on with the same total affability. I cannot say that I was in love with her, and I'm quite sure she was never in love with me. By that time in the evolution of my soul I was over the hill in terms of being in love with God, whether I knew it or not, and she, although they were not yet engaged, was destined for a very nice young lad then studying at a university on the other side of the continent. What we found in each other was a great capacity for easy and good humoured conversation, about books, or fitness, or ideas. Her clubs were the student newspaper, wherein I had met her on some sort of drop in visit, or perhaps a party, and the Players Club. She was a most conscientious little soul, a true daughter of her father, a highly placed service man who had been decorated during the war.
As John of the Cross insists, it is much more important to experience and to understand the spiritual life than it is to write about it. The safety of the universe rests in prayer, not in publishing. Yet we need books, as I reaffirm every time I feel the need to open up one of the Carmelite's wonderful texts, or any other book or pamphlet of information. So why did I not have the language to explain and to write about the most important elements of my life? Was it simply because I had not grown up Catholic, in the religion that has had so many mystics that no one practising student of the subject has time to master them all - memorizing God in one's life is a different thing than memorizing texts written by someone who never knew you - or was there a deeper reason?
Or, more properly, reasons. For one thing I was still a sinner, objectively at least speaking, and not even baptized. I knew nothing of sacraments, the obligation of Sunday Mass or the six precepts of the Church, the cardinal or infused virtues, etc etc. I was undoubtedly a Christian, when I thought about it, but as a writer-in-training I felt it my duty to be about all sectarian distinctions, a thinker in the service of all. In my day, this was known as ultra-liberal Protestantism, for want of a better name and in the present generation is probably replaced in part by Western Buddhism, although any description of the latter who had a teacher who insisted on obedience would be a different category than I was.
To clarify the paradox of my being to my writing, let me jump ahead by fifteen years. Although I had some notes on the spiritual life in my journals as of 1958 and following - and the earliest of these are woefully lacking in accurate terminology - I was not allowed to spread my mystical wings in fiction until the spring of 1972, when I wrote my first scent of the extraordinary, describing some of the operation of the dark night on one Paul Cameron, a teacher on holiday who had been invited to join a yacht trip. As an indication of how slowly things can go in the development of a story or stories, I can point out that the 1972 version of what I call the Yacht novel, was the fourth complete attempt to make a story out of my very first inspiration for such, and it has yet to realize its final outcome, which will require further research in music and art.
The first day of law classes began, with the same unpleasant shock of the previous autumn, the realization that the second year room did not have, by any means, the glories of the other room, the first, the third, and the library. I have absolute zero experience of any other law school in the world, but I venture to say that there are none with a view superior to that of the UBC school, and probably very few, if any, with an equal. In the days and months of my first year, while the law might have not have penetrated very thoroughly, the water of the bay and the sound, and their adjacent mountains, were constant and pleasing companions.
If I had not become a novelist, I'm sure I would have taken up painting, and I would have started with graphic art, learning a little of drawing and painting because I realized it was necessary for the souls of my young students, and I found that I could thoroughly enjoy the acquiring of a skill I was not at all good at as a youngster myself. Just a few days ago I began working up a sketch, and I wonder if the Muse is once again bringing up a very happy affection for gazing at, and rendering an object or two of God's over brimming creation.
But back to the second year room, and its lack of a consoling and captivating view.
They were all new lads, of course, as I had dropped out for a year. And again, they were mightily interesting as people, individual human beings with stories of their own. But they were not, as far as I knew any of them, great fans of literature, and I felt myself to be an island on my own, once again, except for the hours - and they were extensive - that I was to spend with my confreres in and from the basement room at the north end of Brock Hall.
It is necessary to point out that my initial joining of the Ubyssey staff was not entirely approved by those whose counsel I might otherwise have accepted. My father was not impressed, as he could not see what college journalism had to do with legal expertise, and even my high school buddies were cool about it. One of my best friends, and the lad whose car I rode back and forth in, was downright critical. But God had been good, and even constant. The regular series of definitely spiritual events that had directed me in my choice had manifested itself on my very first entry into the dear old Pub Board offices. And in the very first edition of the paper they had asked for new staffers to show up for a meeting on such and such a date, and down I went.
I remember two things distinctly. There was a great mob of aspirants, a room full of hopeful energy, and there was a distinct manifestation of Divine light telling me I was exactly where I was supposed to be, friends and family notwithstanding. As best as I can remember, that was the first showing of an extraordinary light I had experienced in a public situation. I should say, an extraordinary specific situation. I'd had the company of a general light, I think, all my life, coming and going, but this was more by way of a general companionship rather than a specific indication at a decision-making crossroads.
Certain university circles, I later found out, thought of the Ubyssey as Godless, and I suppose the Almighty was making sure I was not dissuaded by such opinion.
On the other hand, the Ubyssey staff, as I was to learn, were themselves hardly perfect in their range of tolerances. It was generally considered in the Pub basement that those students who belonged to the campus military organization were "trained killers". I was one of these, as I had joined the Canadian Officers Training Corps. Also, I had been a very happy member of the Boy Scouts as well as an army cadet in my high school years and this was another reason to be looked at askance by the young literate and professional journalism hopefuls of the Canadian West. As with intellectuals of every stripe, these staffers had a rigorous militancy of their own, and possibly the showing of a specific lumen Christi was to encourage me to stand fast in the midst thereof against their objections as much as against those of family or friends. As has often been said of those who have to hold the middle ground, you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
This business of the light had always been with me, first coming just before I turned three, and perhaps before. At Christmas dinner, in 1938, my father asked my grandfather to say the grace, and as he did so I was moved to notice a light around his head. Walter Bruce Lamb was the tenderest of gentlemen, a devout Baptist with a very real and meditative relationship with Jesus, the Son of God and Saviour of mankind. He was a carpenter by trade, and with my Grandma, the owner of a small slice of Paradise three-quarters of an acre in Burnaby, just east of Boundary Road and just north of the loftily timbered acres of Central Park. Because of all the moving about my immediate family went through during and after World War II, this Jersey Avenue home, with its 300 chickens, large garden and fruit trees, was the most central shrine of the family while I was growing up.
Untrained as I was in theology of the extraordinary, I had not articulate consciousness of my habit, but it operated just the same, being of God, and by the time I was a teenager, it not only came, it also went, and I began to experience, without having any name for it, certain bouts of aridity.
It is a Sunday as I recollect and write, and it is the Sundays of my youth I am endeavouring to analyze. In that wonderful summer in the wilderness of the Homathko, Sunday was very much like every other day, because we worked seven days a week. This made good sense, for we were as isolated as sailors on a ship on the ocean, with little else to do but relate in an aggressive way with our surroundings. A day of nothing to do would have weighed most heavily on our hands, as we already had the evenings for conversations, reading, letters, music, or whatever else unwound the day.
But back in town, Sunday as it had always been for me returned, and as I think about it I realize that as it was still the Lord's Day, in spite of my absence at any religious liturgy, he still got his licks in by giving me small doses of aridity. This was a feature of the afternoons. The mornings were habitually a sociable time for the family, over my mother's great breakfasts, and by evening I was gearing up expectantly for the week ahead at school. But the afternoons were work, and often bloody hard work.
For some years I wondered if my doldrums were only natural, the sort that everyone had, on the other hand, once I was a regular at mass, if I could have avoided them by being a Sunday communicant. But I think not so. Sunday is Sunday, and the day of days to listen up to the divine, which in my case was running a training programme, even if I did not understand it.
As I said, I was trying to make a genuine effort to get through second year law. Therefore, Sunday afternoons were to be study sessions, and I manfully brought home my texts with the best of intentions. But, as always, I would open a book only to eventually close it, without the absorption of one useful legal fact. This was the constant pattern from my high school days, and never abated. In fact Sundays had been, and were to remain always, one of the most notable times for encounters negative or positive, with books or other significant influences. And why not? For the majority of faithful Christians, who do not go to daily mass, Sunday is the day the Lord, as it were, shows off, manifesting himself in the universally necessary sacrifice of the mass and the Eucharist. Even to such as my youthful and ignorant self, he was not out of line to be making overtures to me, regularly interrupting my own chosen ambitions in order to, eventually bring me consciously closer to himself.
So, some degree of aridity and ligature of the faculties it had to be. I would struggle through whichever it was, or both, and eventually come out seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and finding reasons to being alive again and doing whatever it was that gave some sparkle to my existence.
It was on a Sunday afternoon, for instance, that four years earlier, I had begun my first attempt at a novel. I thus confirmed the inspiration of a year -and-a-half previously, that I was a fiction maker, and I found that while description and exposition were challenging as parts of the novelist's craft, I did indeed have an easy gift for dialogue. I also found out that at the typewriter, an ancient Smith Corona I had proudly bought in the summer along with a new and seriously intentioned desk, I had acquired an entirely and utterly welcome aspect of my particular personality. Those first four pages, tapped out before and after supper on a very rainy late October Sunday, were the beginnings of that which would always focus my life. Real writers always write, even if it is only within, just as once a painting student acquires the rudimentary skills of colour, line and planes of light, he or she constantly thinks a scene on the canvas.
Not on my first Sunday back in Vancouver, but the next at the latest, I had my first encounter with my boss, as it were, the editor of the Ubyssey. I had settled back into law school, caught up with old friends, scouted out some new, and yes I could write a column. When I mean encounter, I mean that we bumped heads, because she found it necessary to prune my first sally, and I found it not necessarily easy to accept her shearing. But I did give ink and my first column, so much a part of the reasoning in my return to the campus made it into print. I appeared regularly, as I remember, on a weekly basis throughout the fall semester.
My first column was an attempt at student humour, I think, it drew a reaction from a French professor, and my next was a reflection on my own self-consciousness, all of which proving little more than that college journalism, is a good training ground for the necessities of apprenticeship, as it leads to self-knowledge, but rarely has to be taken seriously by the general reading public. Critics, students, and scholars of literature, on the other hand, incline to take such efforts seriously - and so must the actual writer himself - because all successful climbs to the top of the ladder go one rung at a time, and the rung I was wrestling to get a firm hold on, I thought, was humour.
It was not, by any means, my long-term professional ambition to be a humourist, like Mark Twain, or Max ?, or even Eric Nicol, the much loved columnist in the Vancouver Province. I knew very well that being genuinely funny, column after column, or by way of radio or film or television comic story, was hard work, serious hard work, too demanding to go hand in hand with my own particular obligations. It was not that I was incapable of cracking a joke, and indeed in my ordinary conversations, having a subtle mind, and insisting always in the virtues of detachment, I have often erred or come close to erring on the side of a little too much humour. Moreover, I had occasionally been strongly inspired to a funny sketch, a few verses of doggerel describing officer cadet life at Picton, published nationally in The Gunner, and a well received satirical song on the state of the British Empire in 1956, in collaboration with my roommate of the time. The original inspiration for the words was his, with my responsibility being the tune and the chords to go with them, but I found myself delighted by being able to contribute a verse or two. We had also tried to write a play together, but nothing was finished.
The designated author of the epic or tragedy, of course, has little time for jokes, except in the cosmic scale, or by way of comedy relief. I knew this, I think, but I also wanted to learn how to be as funny as I could be, with the limits of my particular literary responsibilities. As I was to learn later from Thomas Aquinas, risibility is a sign of intelligence.
Pride. Ego. Self-direction. These are all such obstacles to spiritual insight, to full wisdom. Yet how are these vicious beasts overcome? Why does one man negotiate his way through them, emerging in the full light of the full truth on the other side of the swamp, and another man get lost in the quicksands? I speak of God's view of the two, for in the eye of the world, often in the eyes of the drowned one himself, it seems for a time as if it is the lost one who triumphed. I write this very conscious at the moment of not so much ordinary sinners who yet are thought much of by the spiritually inexperienced, but of heretics, schismatics and the founders of false or partial religions. Only recently have I taken up the study of the Koran, some two or three weeks before Benedict XVI's remarks at the University of Regensburg. On the one hand, like all of right thinking men I must be impressed by Mohamed's success among the wretched pagans of Arabia, on the other, as a Catholic theologian, mystic, and occasionally a prophet, I must be puzzled, even angry, by his attacks on the words and actions of Jesus Christ, God and Man.
As the Lord Himself said, we shall be held accountable for every idle word, and Mohamed has enough idle words to make him very accountable indeed.
But in the autumn of 1957, so did I. I did not consider myself qualified to start a new religion, by any means. My personal challenge in relationship to the universe was the creation of the complete truth, in fictional form. But I had thought of myself as a novelist-in-training, as needing, for the sake of objectivity, to be separate from allegiance to any particular religion and so I was, - in an unconscious sort of way - a heresiarch in potential.
In other words I was not subject to the eternal guidelines of the Catholic Church, and all this meant to all men, especially those who in search of salvation or perfection, in the words of Christ "Thou art Peter"
In the course of reading Mortimer Adler I had come upon his most useful little essay on Aquinas, and realizing that in the writings of that teacher I would find my perfect psychology, a reassuring study of what I had always believed, that mind and heart, body and senses, and soul were meant to function as one. I knew this, in just those words, and in all of them. There were no clarifications of those terms to be made in later years, after long reflection. But I also acquired a sense I think actually irrespective of anything in Adler's text, that in scouting up Thomas' writings I would also have to face into perfection.
My reaction to this intimation was twofold. The first motion, as the spiritual writers call it, was, as far as I can remember, fairly graceful. I did not fuss, fume, resent, or reject. Nor did I get out the "average man" syndrome and judge that "real" perfection lay in imperfection, if not downright sinning. I had no doubt held this position for much of my college career, but as life of the previous months had held so much light and spiritual adventure and progress, I was somewhat open to the idea of making all of me function according to God's ways rather than man's.
But, as Augustine said for a time, let this be later. For now, I had other fish to fry. But again, I think I was held in grace, for I did not posit a turn to perfection as a retirement project. I'm pretty sure I considered it as something I would take up while I was still quite young.
Some of my last entry, I've read some texts relevant to this issue: Adolphe Tanqueray on the duties of religious to keep themselves out of mortal sin by striving for perfection and John of the Cross on the third of the vow-taking professionals who, like that proportion of the angels, are swept down into Hell. Bracing stuff.
But how are men, woman, and children to be persuaded that it also is not terribly impossible, it is also rather good fun, perfection. For, if Our Lord said, "I have come to give you life, and that more abundantly," and also "Be you perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" then he must have had an awful lot of joy in mind.
And certainly he had it in mind for me, which is why he put the idea of it in my mind in the first place. It was not just an ordinary joy, moreover. I was recently moved to repeat my every-once-in-awhile-rediscovery of the genius of John of the Cross' first test of the four watershed works, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, and in Ch. XVII of Bk. III, his treatise on the memory and the will, I found the text that explains it all perfectly. Ordinarily I browse the later texts as my daily bread of the spiritual life, but from time to time God sends me to the first book and I am always re-astounded at how necessary it is to a universal working grasp of the full dialogue between the soul and the Spirit. I will quote at length because the first two sentences sum up generally the core of my youthful attitude toward life and experience of it, while the third identifies something I had probably regularly experienced throughout my childhood and so on, but began to encounter more and more consistently as I approached manhood.
When I wrote the last entry I assumed I would finish it with the quote from John of the Cross. It would be a simple matter to take up the next day even, not requiring any more inspiration, although I am sensitive to the fact that quoting a saint as a rule requires a sense of Divine permission. But I did not get to the quote, I did not get to much until late this morning I picked up a copy of the British Columbia History, a quarterly, to find an article on Thea Koerner, an Hungarian immigrant to Canada who devoted decades to the cultural life of Vancouver. I was much moved by the story of her labours, the cloud of the morning lifted, after I emailed in search of the author's address, and when I walked down to our local bookstore, I found myself strolling not only in the brilliant autumn sunshine, but also within the spirit of infused passionate joy that marks my life, with this one specializing in memories of Vancouver.
Now I can quote: Ch XVII, para. one, "The first of the passions of the soul and affections of the will is joy, which is so far as concerns that which we propose to say about it, is naught else than a satisfaction of the will together with esteem for something which it considers desirable; for the will never rejoices save when an object affords it appreciation and satisfaction. This has reference to active joy, which arises when the soul already and distinctly understands the reason for its rejoicing, and when it is in its own power to rejoice or not."
Do much for what is available to the ordinary human condition and what we all understand. But then "There is another and passive joy, a condition in which the will may find itself rejoicing without understanding clearly and distinctly the reason for its rejoicing, and which also occurs at times when it does understand this; but it is not in the soul's power to rejoice or not. Of this condition we shall speak hereafter".
And so he does speak, with a fullness that no spiritual writer since has ever equaled, let alone surpassed, in his subsequent test especially the Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love, but of course in those months and for some months to come I knew nothing of these books.
But I did know the beginnings of the passive experience, not only regularly, but fully beautiful, haunting in painful but sweet way, or inspiring me to some useful action or another. I was basically propelled by this kind of joy any time decisions had to be made, or else I was deterred by decisions either by the joy being removed, or advanced in such a way as to lead me away from a negative influence or environment.
Not the least of these influences to be counteracted was my own imagination.
Our last night on the Homathko was a good example, and in fact I think I should take enough time to describe some of the elements around the tale. Mysticism has it enemies and I probably need to make it clear that my natural experiences of adventure and landscape were anything but a cause of "depression" or any sort of psychological deficiencies that would influence me to a sense of failure, incompetence etc.
Sunday October 22
This afternoon went to the bookstore to order three more large scale maps of the Homathko country. The first three that I acquired, some months ago, do show the northern parts of our domain, with a very satisfying and ample precision, but not the southern sections, those I need to perfect some of the present recollections. I did learn, however, perusing the maps we do possess, that there appears to be two sizable canyons on the Homathko, one well about the entrance of Moseley Creek, and the other well below . It is the lower one that concerns us here.
We'd had two camps at the bottom end, very close to each other from a bird's eye view on either side of the river, but some hundreds of feet separate according to the vertical. The first camp, where I was also cook, for a couple of weeks, was magnificently situated on a bench some three hundred feet or more directly above the river, with a more than one hundred and eighty degree view of the surrounding mountains. Particularly to the west ran an all but endless saw-tooth range of Coast peaks, arising at the highest of these at the far end, Mount Waddington.
In high school, we had studied Earle Birnay's poem, David, a fictional tragedy, but also a soul searing exposition to the beauty of some of the lofty rocks of eastern British Columbia. In our camps and our ordinary surveying work, we were by no means climbing about thousands of feet off the ground, but I had managed one 8,000 foot scramble with a workmate on a day off, and got in some high flying in a Beaver seaplane, thus acquiring some kinship with the roof of our world. And then, in my second to last camp, once the bacon was quietly sizzling, and the coffee pot bubbling, I could sit beside my Coleman stoves while the late summer sun rose on my rows and rows of peaks. Our camp location was quite dry, quite free of brush and growing a lot of aspens and vine maples among the pines and firs. There was moss and a great deal of bare rock soaring up above us to the north west. The river hummed in the canyon below, and I thought much upon the novelist I was then using as my prime teacher, Ernest Hemingway. Our country seemed a lot like the Spain of The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I had always loved landscape, I had always loved the outdoors, especially in my home province, but I also felt that my months with Hemingway, and whatever else had been happening in my soul the I could not name a cause for, had especially prepared me for the summer experience.
Burney, bless him, had been part of the journey.
In the late winter of 1955-56, I had written two or three short stories. These were by no means aimed at the Saturday Evening Post or others of the cliche like the fiction of my first two years at the typewriter. These were deliberately styled for the "little magazines". No romance, no violence. I was not one of Birney's creative writing students, but I was inspired to send my manuscript to him anyway, asking for advice. He kindly replied, offered a little criticism, but assured me that I was indeed a writer and he would be pleased to chat with me if I dropped in his office at such and such a time.
When I went his main thrust was the summer school of writing programme, which had engaged Lister Sinclair then writing and acting for CBC radio dramas, to teach play writing and provide the general lecture that was to begin our five-day-a-week classes. Providence is interesting. At the time of talking with Dr. Birney I had no hope of a job schedule that would permit me to attend classes. In fact I had no job scheduled of any sort, although I probably would have been able to work at the pipe mill in Port Moody, where my father was personal manager. As it was, I got my job with the Sun in May, starting the day shift but was moved to the late afternoon shift, six until two, thus leaving my mornings free when the six week course began in July.
A number of very important things happened. The first was that I became aware of Lister Sinclair, the working writer, as a man possessed of a most attractive intellectual energy. (He died only days before I took up this schedule of writing.) As admirable as my teachers had been, I did not know them as writers, as artists. Lister was obviously very happy and secure in himself, and his warmth and understanding flooded the room. He was a wonderful example of what I realized I hoped to be, a working artist utterly at ease with sharing his cultural experience.
My other stroke of good fortune was choosing Hemingway as the writer I would study for the course. I set to work and read his entire fifty published short stories, in the Scribner's collection , and also a couple of books about him, one by Carlos Baker.
I did not then and never have thought of him as the greatest story teller who ever lived. There were a number of life's most important issues he did not address, and as I was born to say of all novelists, and dramatists that I am aware of, he could never have written anything to match John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle. But he was very much Papa Hemingway to me for at least three reasons that belong to our relationship against all the writers I have ever studied. He taught me that writing was very, very hard work that goes one phrase at a time, like chopping down a tree; he took me through the North American and other wildernesses in a way that made me feel very good about my own visions thereof; and he introduced me - irrevocably - to Catholic Spain, the home of the Carmelite mystics who within three years would replace him and all other writers as my principal teacher.
Anyone who knows that line from the wisdom literature of the Scriptures: "He who would master himself is greater than he who takes a city" knows that John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle is the single greatest epic ever written, and moreover, utterly impossible to improve upon.
Yet this mastery of self is complete only when God effects the purgation, through the trials of the dark night, that no man can inflict on himself. The best that a man or woman can do is work physically as well, to clear their own head. The Carmelite spells all this out in the Ascent, thoroughly discussing the active night. As I write this I listen to Jacques Loissier, the great French jazz pianist, with his trio, as they soar through their version of Bach's Goldberg variations and I remember that time in my youth, when I deliberately started to clear my head with jazz and classical music. I think one of the things that helped me prepare for the astringency of Hemingway, especially in his short stories, was my taking on the jazz world the fall previous.
This was an undoubted benefit of two factors in my studying in the law school and my job. Three of my fellow law students were starting a private jazz club in some basement rooms off Main Street and one of them asked me if I were interested in becoming a member. I bit and thus exposed myself fairly regularly to a kind of music I'd not paid much attention to. I found myself enjoying music that led with the head, that somehow helped to discipline my imagination and subtly but definitely, deepen my feelings.
Thus Hemingway came along as a subject to study day after day, and I found that by putting my will to the information and the style he provided I could open up yet another field of intellectual satisfaction, and this too deepened my sense of appreciating the opportunities of life that were immediately at hand. The first tasks of the artist are simply to observe, to look, hear and feel what is actually there, not what he wishfully fantasizes should be there. Thus we begin to inherit being.
The end result of Hemingway's short stories for that summer was a heart-breaking vision. If Maugham had filled me up, so that I would go through the shock of not being able to become a scholar of the law, Hemingway was the occasion for an emptying that made me feel my life could not unfold properly unless I had one more summer, the next summer at some kind of job in the woods with a companionable bunch of men.
And now, on that bench with a view above the lower Homathko canyon, where the 500 foot high dam was to be built, that longed for summer was drawing to a close, so day after day as I gazed at nature around me, I also anticipated my upcoming months at university, back in the city of my birth. And then the same in the lower camp, right down on the river bank, at the confluence of the Homathko and ----creek, flowing in from the east. Down there our crew handyman had begun work on a twenty-foot river boat, that was to be used to ferry drillers and their drills raft into the canyon so they could test the foundation for the dam.
Now it was in that camp that I concentrated on my sent copy of Herbert Spencer and felt the even deeper intellectual experiences of the probing mind of the philosopher. Outside the door of my tent in this last camp stood a small aspen, turning gold in the first weeks of September, I was so filled up so much of the time, simply reading a little Spencer, staring at the tree, acknowledging that I was as alive as a human being could ask to be. And assuming that all of this could be transferred to legal studies.
It was on my last night in that lower camp that the Holy Spirit made no bones about demonstrating how sever a taskmaster he could be, and how much control he could exercise, when he chose, over my imagination, which up to that point I had thought of as quite autonomous. After all, although I did not always feel like writing, when I was moved to write, had I not written what I wanted to?
The weather for our final days had been clear, and this night was no exception. There had been rain earlier, and I mean heavy rain, raising that level of the Homathko something like five or six feet, but that had moved on and this last night for the student in the crew was clear and moonlit. Around two I had awoken, from sleeping the rough log cabin it had been our job to build for the drill crew staying on, to a moonlit sky. It was utterly beautiful, profoundly romantic in the tradition of all the outdoor literature I had read since boyhood. The moon, the forest, the murmur of the nearby Homathko , the smell of the new cut lodge pole pines. I was initially utterly content and profoundly pleased to be thinking of the city, the university, my family and the friends I would be seeing again. I felt like a hero in a novel, to tell the truth, a conquering hero, a well-muscled and well-read Ulysses about to return to Ithaca from across the sea of mountains.
But instead of recollection, I fell into some fantasies about the months ahead, turning around stalwart performances at my legal studies and , if I found enough athletic involvement, possibly a Rhodes scholarship?
Wham. Down came the aridities of the dark night. It was not the brief but totally annihilation trip into hell as had happened on the shores of Porpoise Bay. No, it was by no means that fierce. It was much gentler, if such a nagging little sawing could be called gentle, bit it was utterly non-consoling and it went on and on and on. It lasted for at least twenty minutes, perhaps quite a bit longer. Was it as much as an hour? At any rate it was terrifying and I wondered if it would ever end. Twist and turn as I might mentally, no matter where I tried to put my mind, I would find no thought, no image, no idea, that gave me peace and consolation. The delight of the moon might as well have been as ugly as a nasty smelling smoke, the rustling of the river a bubbling mockery. I certainly had no pleasure in nature.
And then it went, and I fell back to sleep, and nothing like that happened to me again for days, if not weeks. In the morning we were ferried one at a time to the south end of Tatlayoko Lake and the next day we were flown out by Beaver all together to Campbell River, again all in brilliant sunshine, and I felt all my habitual affection for such a magnificent landscape, cruising over the Homathko and Butte Inlet mountains, thus getting an aerial view of the great tide swirls around the islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island.
Thus a definition of the summer: a glorious adventure in nature, spliced with some very useful reading, conversation, physical exercise, and music, but sandwiched between two startling invasions by Almighty God making it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I was His possession. He had probed about in my brain in other ways as well, of course, but those two events stand out as the most obvious warnings of what lay ahead when I came back to the city and to my university.
As I write this, I must admit that it does not at the moment feel like it is my university. My subsequent returns, not especially frequent, have captured little of the great spark and sense of belonging that once was, when I was there day after day. It leads me to wonder if there has not been a mystic on the premises since I left. Since 1959, has anyone seen the light or felt the spirit in such evident and regular fashion as I did? I wish it were so, most devoutly. But I have never seen or heard of any evidence of such.
However, in the autumn of 1957, it was abundant, my daily bread.
And likewise in Coquitlam, high above the inlet end, town of Port Moody. My parents new home, the first they had owned since the Depression, stood on the edge of the forested ravine, with a view of the north shore mountains and off in the distance the Golden Ears. It was a beautiful spot and I was happy to come home to it night after night from school throughout the months of autumn.
But I could find no joy whatsoever, or even satisfaction in any attempt to study my law texts in the evening, and I did not much find it in the day either. My principle intellectual activity was in talking with my old friends, making new friends, reading literature that had nothing directly to do with the law, writing my column for the Ubyssey and learning songs for which I played chords on my banjo. I also played a fair amount of a game called "yards" with fellow law students, on an adjacent field, kicking or throwing a football of the spherical sort in the late afternoon. And I think that sometimes I thought that the most useful thing I did was providing a travel service for my brother and other students who lived well away from the campus.
The gap has been a lengthy one because I've needed time and events to deal with the memory of a creative inspiration - and its outcome - that hit me one Friday night when I was otherwise pretty bored. It must have been fairly early in the year, because I remember that it was still light in the kitchen when I sat down to scribble out the tale.
The reason I needed time was because of the degree of violence in the story. It was published, a few months later, in the student writing magazine and everyone of my friends who read it acknowledged that it showed I could write. By that time I had met Shawn who had ambitions - as well as significant qualifications - to become an English professor, and it was proof to her that I knew my way around a typewriter, so perhaps she was the most important reason for the stories creation.
And two qualities as I remember them, proves it illustrated quite efficiently the mood of young men working in an isolated corner of the wilderness, and for the other, it gave a name to a character that had shown up in my first attempt at a novel. I called my hero, as it were, Cameron, later to be the surname of one Jacob. The influence of Hemingway was unmistakable and it also illustrates that I had spent a good part of the previous year studying and brooding over the theories - supposedly scientific - of psychological types.
Or so I would have said, for many years, and it would not have been untrue, for I had to deal with the imagined fact that my hero, being in a temper and being good at throwing a surveyor's axe, had killed his boss from a sudden reaction to being mentally bullied.
It was a short story, not a novel, and as I scribble this I think that Dostoevsky, the author of Crime and Punishment, would have started a novel on this subject where I ended my tale, because of the need to deal with guilt and recompense.
In retrospective however, all this time and spiritual experience later, I think that this exercise actually reveals first of all, the increasing pain I was going through as the aridities of the journeyman mystic, coupled with the mental pressures brought on by the pressure of once again living under my father's roof. I had a friend a decade later who was told by a psychologist that she had to "kill" her mother. And of course Christ said that he who did not hate his father and mother was unworthy of him.
Moreover, I have read that the monks of Egypt were known to hurl short prayers, as if they were throwing javelins. Spiritually speaking, I would say, they were real spears, like the spears of the psalms.
January 29, 2007
Emmet Doyle is in hell, to begin with. A paraphrase of the opening of Charles Dickens's unforgettable Christmas Carol, one of the books I have always looked into for clarity when in the throes of beginning a novel. I am never more vulnerable than when starting up a new book, and I need all the help I can get. Dickens, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robertson Davies Mixture of Frailties, Dostoevsky's The Idiot. There is no such thing as a universally perfect one style of opening - publisher's readers take note - but the beginning only works if it somehow quickly summarizes, like a good headline, the body of the tale.
W.E.Doyle was the third bishop of Nelson, consecrated in October of 1958, in Edmonton, where he had served as the money man for the diocese and also as professor of canon law at St. Joseph's seminary. He ruled the Nelson diocese until early 1990, when he was replaced by Peter Mallon from the clergy of Vancouver. Thus he was in place when my family and I moved here in August of 1964. By the beginning of 1983 I have become so completely frustrated by his attitude, especially his blasphemies against the spiritual life, that even with no evidence that could condemn him in a court of law, as began to start happening five years later, I demanded of John Paul II that Doyle be removed. This was not done and further to his depredation, seemed so much more abusive of the health of the diocese that I cursed him.
This was on the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, in 1988, eight months after he had ordered the diocese to stand during the principal part of the Mass, the changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He was also up to his ears in trying to abuse and disturb a very good priest, a former missionary, by then the pastor of the neighbouring town of Castlegar. The priest, a Dutch man with an excellent track record in Ghana and then with his orders "headquarters" in Holland, was on of the very few priests in the diocese who had ever opposed Doyle's vicious will. By the time of the curse, our housekeeper and myself were driving to Castlegar every Sunday, with a few extra days thrown in, both to punish the cathedral parish and pastor for the standing nonsense, and also to offer Father Herman our support. I made it plain that any time he wanted me to take on Doyle face to face and scare the living shit out of him on his - Father's - behalf I'd be happy to do so, but he declined, for indeed he had his parish council quite firmly behind him. Besides, he was a Dutchman, son of a very tough farmer and brother to a member of the Dutch underground. Doyle was to die on that same date, in 2003. The loose-minded, knowing of the curse, thought that the date was in his favour.
This might seem like a distraction from the current discourse, an item irrelevant to the record of a young man just old enough, in those days, to legally enter a barroom, but it is appropriate, because it is important to note that I was never moved to even think of cursing my father, although I was aware that the short story was in part a reaction against the psychological repression that his rampantly materialistic attitudes created. Living at home was creating regular mental pressures, at times extremely painful, such as I had not known throughout the previous year.
The enormous and surprising sense of freedom that had come with leaving law school to study on my own had not come without some psychological trials. Indeed, I was regularly subject to abuse from the devil, trying to frighten me away from my choices, by telling me I would never get a job again, and using my father's "voice" to do it with but there had only been fear with this threat, not real pain, perhaps because I was not habitually in my father's company in that year, but only the company of my peers, who of course had no authority over me, and no claim to the honoring of parents as insisted on by the fourth commandment.
Is it not interesting how, as we acquire greater degrees of the joy that is experienced from increasing degrees of the union of our souls with God, we also acquire more acute experiences of the pain and irritation that the devil can cause in order to bully us away from these salvific and perfecting experiences?
You could say, and it would be correct, that the abuse from the devil was the best possible proof of the new degree of delight I was finding in being my own study guide, following the departure from the long, full, tables of the second year law room; that quite ugly space without the consoling views of the other law rooms.
Interestingly enough, the lack of the magnificent prospect of the entrance to English Bay and the north shore mountains had not in any way depressed the spirits in the days when the Older Boys Parliament had gathered there to investigate its theoretical solutions to the plight of or opportunities for, the youth of the province in the 'Fifties. Unfettered intelligence - as inspired by the opportunity to debate with one's peers - faith, and a certain degree of youthful male bonding in a purpose beyond the accustomed playing field had quite illuminated that least of the law school facilities, and I had gloried in the space. The first time, I had also neglected to retrieve my folder with its notes and had to make the long journey to the campus on the bus, in the rain, to get them. It was a day, only hours before the campus resumed its normal life in which both home and my assumed destination seemed a little dull.
But nothing was dreary after I pulled the pin on the case books. Light, light, and the freedom to read and think about only what I felt profoundly moved to read and think about. Had I felt even this much sense of freedom and purpose and formal dignity ever as a novel reader? I don't think so, because for one, my novel reading was not as classical as it might have been, and for the other, the novel eventually has to be judged on its capacity for expressing the greatest possible grasp of the greatest possible opportunities in life. Nothing that I read, and most certainly nothing that I wrote, had achieved that level of inquiry.
But leaving law school and diving into the social sciences had been not only a start, but an indescribable dramatic and joyful beginning.
I cannot recall precisely how long I was into my tutorial before I called my father and told him I had quit legal studies, but it would not have been too long, because I could not abide pretenses or subterfuge. So I phoned him. by then twenty or more miles away in a new Coquitlam housing development overlooking Port Moody, and told him of my decision. He said he wanted to talk to me about it, and could we talk after his weekly parade at the Bessborough armouries with his medium anti-aircraft regiment. I had been most happily a cadet in that same armouries. I agreed to the conversation.
The chat occurred in my father's car, parked I cannot remember where exactly, but suppose somewhere near the armory where I had once spent many profitable hours as a cadet, ultimately becoming the head of the cadet corps, a regimental sargent major, with very fond memories of two full summers at the cadet camp in Vernon and a sense of self worth in that I had been a patient, precise, and therefore effective instructor in parade square drill, particularly with the girls who joined our corps. Since World War II, the anti-aircraft had created room for females, who were good at certain aspects of the technology of flight calculation.
My dear old Dad basically tried to tell me I was crazy.
Is it not interesting how, even in a democracy, adult human beings can behave like the very Nazis they fought, or even like the Communists, with whom, for the complicated reasons God allows among nation states, good men were once allies? My father was, of course, a complete fool and idiot, his reasoning based entirely on the ridiculous and diabolical norms of materialism, because, having himself completely abandoned religion, he had left behind whatever intellectual tools he might have acquired for dealing with one of the most important questions in the life of the young vocation.
Here was a man who had actually never given himself even to a genuine academic study of psychology, who was, as I knew from many conversation, highly contemptible of academics, who indeed had the most suspicious certificate of a high school diploma, attacking a profoundly philosophical process in his oldest son.
But such is the world, such is the attitude of the philistines as identified by Matthew Arnold, such is the predicament of the mind that has rejected religion and the proce4sses of those who live in the bosom of the Trinity, and even though they do not yet comprehend it, the protection of the Virgin Mary.
Yesterday I had a few moments of the kind of experience John of the Cross sets his readers off toward, hopefully, at the beginning of the Spiritual Canticle, that is, I was lifted up into my intellect, completely, and beheld very clearly, perhaps to the greatest degree possible, which still living on this earth, the essence of God. This was by no means an out-of-the-body experience, such as I had in the autumn of 1958, for I was still very much aware of my surroundings, our living room to be precise, and the time of day, the late afternoon. But I was also very aware of God, with an enormous satisfaction and sense of well being and purpose, acknowledging that my spirit was indeed in a most advantageous situation.
The experience pretty much stays with me, a very happy contradiction to this moment,common even to mystics, when the brain seems unable to find any sense of direction among the disorder, chaos, and flatness that floods through even the wisest and stalwart of gates in the individual soul.
It also, today, shed some rather pleasant light on the old home town of Vancouver, provoking me to wonder what spirits are alive and well in that focus of the memories I am from time to time inspired to browse among.
"To God, not even the heavens are pure" was certainly one of the aspects of this vision. His own clarity is far beyond any standards we might set, even with his help. That was one thought. Another was, have I ever had any experiences, in the train of so many experiences, that was as lofty and indescribably attractive as this one?
The present Pope, Benedict XVI, mind you, has been on retreat for a week, celebrating the venerable custom of the Vatican, and this experience of mine might have something to do with an experience of his, as I have been emailing him of late. I would naturally - and supernaturally - hope that he might share in so much grace and glory.
This experience was not something I had in the years I am trying to write about, as wonderful as those times may have been, but it does much to underline and support their significance, their enduring reputation as stepping stones toward the ultimate destination of the complete absorption into God, and unrestricted participation in his life that such a vision guarantees, and this beyond the guarantees of the lesser phenomena that John of the Cross talks about in the rest of the beginning of the Canticle.
Was the experience also something that my father shared in? Or my mother? Both of them once studied religion, heard the message of the Son of God, in Sunday school and church, left that classroom by their own choice and now in purgatory, have to pick up where they left off. The trials are worth it, of course, as the vision explains. But their son cannot help but wish they had made it easier for themselves.
None of this analysis of the fallacies of my parents is meant to indicate ingratitude for all the good they did do, in the world in general, among their workmates and their friends, and also for their children. Over and over again, I have to say, I had a happy childhood, filled with opportunities, and it was decision after decision on my parent's part which contributed to this. Within their lights, my mother and father both had great wills, in my younger years, for doing what was best for their children. And their determination was to continue so far as they could understand how it should work.
The problem there, was not so much a problem of bad will, but of intellectual experience and an inadequate philosophy, somewhat caused by the lack of an education such as I was able to acquire, but not completely, as there were all sorts of people about my university who were not at all interested in philosophy and knew little worth recounting about the stunning realities of mysticism, even at an introductory level.
And I also had a problem with the lack of intellectual experience and an inadequate study of philosophy at that point, because I did not even know that I was a mystic. All my habits of mind, I thought were pretty much the result of being a writer, mostly a story teller, who was quite sure he would eventually be presenting a fundamentally Christian and classical message.
In the spring I had been excited by the Greeks, by the drama in fact and Aristotle by concept, and even quite minor brushes with Christian activity or thoughts had stirred memories of earlier times and provoked the thought of future inquiries. But I was basically uninstructed in the ways of grace, and in retrospect, frighteningly naive about the force of mental habits my parents had formed over the years of settling for materialistic satisfactions. Much of this had been very good, in the natural sense, leading to quite a rich family life, but it lacked the basic spiritual element of gratitude for God's providence, with the learning this brings to the soul and its consequent opening of the spirit to the fundamental causes of prosperity. And this hardness of heart was never to be permanently overcome as long as they lived. There was mellowing, there was the continuing generosity, not to be taken for granted when you understand the profoundly spiritual and other-worldly choices God kept calling me to, but not even the habit and hidden presence of the Transformation was to open their eyes in this life. That job was left for the hereafter.
Since the fall, of course, it is man's predicament to be a victim of materialism. His reality is the visible, the tangible, and the other results of sense activity. And yet in this manner of non-angelic operation, by Divine mercy, these yet remain certain sources of mystery, hints of a mystery lying behind the obviously provable. By sound, we hear what we cannot necessarily touch or see, and by the touch of a breeze on our skin, or the movement of the trees and the long grass, we are aware of a profound force that we cannot see, the wind. Thus, from the beginning, men were aware of matters that they could not grab with their hands nor hold on to with their eyes. From these plain natural facts, some men learned humility and wonder.
It is something like this with the unschooled mystic. Stuff happens, sometimes outside, with a light that comes and goes, sometimes inside, with influences on the mental faculties, or even that very tangible grip on the mind and related organs known as the inner sense of touch. And I suppose a third category - that is very much connected with the first - is the manner through which the young soul deals with the challenges and opportunities of getting an education; which may or may not confirm his mind and talent to the greater reality of the universe and of Him who created it.
To the mystic, even the unconscious one, God is jealous as he is kind. The binding and the loosening, the allowances for the going and the coming, have a way of shaping the eventual adult destiny, including the escape from claptrap and mediocrity. The promises of heaven, the intimations of glory and all the indescribable scope of activity that goes with it, come in this life, not as continuously, of course, but with as much intensity as an soul could ever ask for, inasmuch as in the given moment of the arrival of these blessings, the soul, even the spirit, feels as full as it could ever hope to be, so far as it knows at that time.
The given moment. This is a fascinating concept, under the eternal and infinitely significant gaze of God in individual moments in the life of a soul, in its growth toward full understanding. The child according to his capacity at the time, has a fullness of spiritual experience. These moments were milestones of my childhood, and each of them was wonderfully full, pointing me along the way to the greater things of adulthood. But there were the stuff of childhood. As the years and I grew, they would have to somehow change, be deeper, in a sense, each time more clenching in their confirmation of the step toward wisdom.
And yet, the Changer, the Source of the original Substance of the intuition, the encounter, is always God, whose love for children is not only evident in the Gospel, but is always incontrovertibly proven by the least analysis of the soul of a child according to the norm of metaphysics. No one reading Thomas on potency could deny this, even if he did not know the famous question Thomas asked of his Benedictine tutor when he was a mere six years of age: What is God?