Affirming the Reality of the Spiritual
Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular
By Robert Coles
Pages: 204 pages
Review Author: William D. Miller
In 1981 the Editor of the New Oxford Review invited Robert Coles to write a regular column for the periodical. It was, says Coles, “a magazine much interested in religious matters” and “their connection to social, political and economic questions.” The relation of religion to these questions concerned Coles too, and he accepted the Editor’s proposal. Now the resulting essays are collected in a book under the title of Harvard Diary, the phrase under which these reflections have appeared (and continue to appear) in the NOR.
When the magazine “got” Coles it got a writer whose credentials, as many evaluate them, enable him to offer opinions and judgments touched with near infallibility. He is, among other things, an M.D., a child psychiatrist, and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Further, he has the special anointment of a teaching post at Harvard.
But it was more than these professional adornments that made Coles attractive to the NOR. Coles is a physician, to be sure, but he is not as concerned with threatened mortality as he is with reflecting on the immortal marks of the spirit. Even in his role as an academic, his behavior is out of character. He does not, as so many do, affect an all-consuming enthusiasm for his so-called “special area of study.” Customarily, when this subject intrudes into faculty lounge conversations (today, usually about “investments”) it is represented as a sure key to the solution of the woes of humankind. But one is inclined to think that Coles is not a faculty lounge “regular,” much less given to discussing his investments (if he has any). He is too busy writing books.
All of this — his professional accomplishments, his affirmation of the reality of the spiritual — and his reach for a humanism beyond the conventions of a threadbare liberalism made Coles a welcomed regular contributor to the NOR.
Harvard Diary contains 55 of his short reflections. These essays not only mark the thought and spirit of Coles, but also reveal some of his qualities as a person. Heaven forbid, however, that we should spend our space here analyzing Coles’s person, thinking that we might hang him on some psychological peg, and then, if we are clever enough, hoist him on his own petard.
Not that Coles provides much of a petard on which to be hoisted. He, himself, is profoundly skeptical of those glib psychological formularies as to how we are to fit tranquilly into the bawling herd. For example, one is struck by the several occasions he uses the phrase, “my ilk,” when referring to those who merchandise psychiatry. The American Heritage Dictionary says that 65 percent of its editorial “Usage Panel” found a belittling meaning in the word “ilk.” Psychiatrist Coles is probably one of the 65 percenters. Certainly, as he says in the essay “Christ and the Intellectuals,” some of his “ilk” wonder about him. Of what curious aberration, they ask, is he possessed that causes him to slip from the objective mode to wallow in “all that religious talk”?
In his essay “Psychology as Faith,” he states his concern about the addictive character that psychological jargon has for so many. He is disturbed by parents “who don’t dare bring up their children, from infancy on, without recourse to one expert’s book, then another’s”; by students “who are mesmerized by talk of psychological ‘stages’ and ‘phases’ and ‘behavioral patterns’ and ‘complexes'”; and “worst of all,” by “the everyday language of our given culture, saturated with psychological expressions, if not banalities, to the point that a Woody Allen movie strikes one not as exaggeration, caricature, or satire, but as documentary realism.”
But what is “especially sad and disedifying” to him is “the preoccupation of all too many clergy with the dubious blandishments of contemporary psychology and psychiatry,” whereby “‘pastoral counseling,’ for instance, becomes their major source of self-satisfaction.” He is “tired…of the unwarranted, undeserved acquiescence some ministers (and alas, recently, priests as welbpshow to various ‘experts’ who tell them about important ‘relationships’…and about ‘mental health’ (whatever that is) and about the supposed ‘value’ of religion (the height of condescension) in a person’s so-called ‘psychic economy.'”
Although Coles shudders at the way the catchwords of psychology have moved into life, as a kind of counterfeit currency where not only language is debased, but values and manners too, he affirms an enduring attachment to his work as a psychiatrist. “Once smitten, for life smitten,” he says.
During his days as a pre-med and medical student, as he struggled to learn how to figure chemical valences and suchlike, Coles was tempted to chuck it all and study literature. But, as he says, he was talked out of these moods, and so he stayed with “qual and quan,” and all the “ologies” until he got his medical degree.
Still, in the midst of these trials he indulged his taste for good literature. “I remember reading [Tolstoy’s] Confession when I was in the second year of medical school, and immersed in the study of pathology and pharmacology,” Coles says. Tolstoy convinced him that self-congratulatory skepticism, the mark of the “emancipated” intellect affected by some of the dealers in higher education, represents a species of ignorance from which those who are uneducated and who toil at manual labor are exempt. Like Tolstoy, Coles thinks those of this latter group have a wisdom of their own that enables them to confront better those prime afflictions of existence: suffering and death.
Coles has four pieces on Tolstoy in this book. He also has essays on other writers — such as Orwell, Silone, and Bernanos — but for two of his own time and land, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, he seems to have a special appreciation. In “Walker Percy’s Christian Existentialism,” he says that Percy is “a spiritual diagnostician who also happens to have a wonderfully alive and sharp sense of humor, a major probing instrument for his spiritual analysis of our modern age.” This observation brings to mind a scene from Percy’s Love in the Ruins: young liberal Father Kev Kevin, ultimate sociologist, sitting in front of the readout panel of a machine that registers degrees of sexual performance.
Of Flannery O’Connor, Coles offers a similar appraisal. She had “taken stock” of “the hunger we have, persistent and insatiable, for one psychological cliché after another, for an apparently endless succession of sociological phrases, those explanatory ‘contexts,’ which seem to mesmerize us, until a stale taste prompts yet another menu to be held up as (finally) the one that will settle the stomach for good.” Coles might have added that the “stale taste” returns, and the “contexts” become increasingly grotesque.
One of the “contexts” about which O’Connor wondered, says Coles, had to do with “the secular messianic movements of this century….” She “wondered about those who offer transcendence, while forgetting the large shadow that always follows us, the immanent reality of our everyday life….” The mystery of life and the shadow in which it moves is “a gift of God. Without it we have no choice, but self-intoxication. Her ‘mystery,’ of course, had to do with the supernatural…. She only wanted us to understand where the water’s edge begins — at what point we are not exploring, but rather, imploring in our own name.”
Among the greatest people this age has produced is Edith Stein, the subject of a moving essay. This brilliant scholar became a Catholic in 1922 and, then, nine year later, entered the Carmelite Order. She was of Jewish descent, and was put to death at Auschwitz in 1943.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian, is another victim of the Nazis about whom Coles writes. On the eve of World War II, Bonhoeffer left his haven in America to return to the Nazi state he detested. “Germany was full of supposedly good and decent people,” Coles writes, “not a few talking or writing a big ethical line — who were only too willing to sign up with Hitler’s henchmen. Still others kept a discreet silence — and lived.” But not Bonhoeffer, who worked against the state and, finally, in 1945, was put to death.
The courage to affirm freedom and life, even unto death, is a rare thing at any time, but today, perhaps, its highest form is, as always, to affirm the holiness of life, not only against the dictates and provisos of the state but against the tyranny of many of those “lifestyle contexts” to which we are supposed to conform. But, as Coles says in his essay on Bonhoeffer, “we haven’t even begun to understand the mystery of goodness.”
What we need, one thinks, is not more “education” of the sort we get today, but the example and insight of prophets. On this subject, Coles has essays on two of the greatest of our time, Simone Weil and Dorothy Day. Coles likes Simone Weil for, among other things, her passion to find an ultimate bond of community with humankind. From a Jewish family, Weil, through a series of mystical experiences, discovered Christ to be the answer to her search. Coles says, curiously, that “she refused entrance to the Catholic Church because she wanted to be with hurt and sad outsiders at all costs.”
Maybe so. But the second contemporary prophet Coles obviously reveres, Dorothy Day, entered the Church because she wanted to be with hurt and sad outsiders at all costs. At any rate, Coles, who knew Dorothy Day, recognizes her as a “force” that stands outside of “progress,” “parameters,” and “contexts.” The greatness of Dorothy Day is that she was what Simone Weil prayed for: a saint for our own time. Following the teachings of Peter Maurin, whom she called “a saint and a genius,” she began to live the life of the personalist revolution that Maurin had outlined for her. She loved the Church, accepted with faith and love its canons, and remained constant in her devotion to it until her death.
There are other essays in this collection, several of which treat issues which in the past decade or so have become matters of public debate: school prayer, homosexuality, and the concerns of contemporary women. All are treated with intelligence and sound moral discernment.
What, then, is the value of this book? It is that Coles and many of those about whom he writes — e.g., Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor — recognize that something has gone afoul at the heart of history’s process. Others, of course, have noted this. Allan Bloom is the most recent example. In his The Closing of the American Mind, he describes at length the marks of a popular culture that has become not only banal but sick. But Bloom, with tortuous logic, blames some German philosophers for our low state. His solution is even more curious. Ignoring the great intellectual synthesis of the 13th-century Schoolmen, he would ignore the Christian basis of what was beautiful and true in Western life (e.g., as perceived in Mozart and Maritain) and go back to Plato for a new beginning. Or something like this.
Harvard Diary won’t be a “Number one, best seller,” as Bloom’s publishers proclaim his book to be, but it should be. Coles can write — lyrically at times — and Christ is his measure of what it means to be human.
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