Secular Days, Sacred Moments

Secular Days, Sacred Moments: The America Columns of Robert Coles

Robert Coles
Edited by David D. Cooper
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 128
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/j.ctt7zt57h
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  • Book Info
    Secular Days, Sacred Moments
    Book Description:

    No writer or public intellectual of our era has been as sensitive to the role of faith in the lives of ordinary Americans as Robert Coles. Though not religious in the conventional sense, Coles is unparalleled in his astute understanding and respect for the relationship between secular life and sacredness, which cuts across his large body of work. Drawing inspiration from figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil, Coles's extensive writings explore the tug of war between faith and doubt. As Coles himself admits, the "back-and-forthness between faith and doubt is the story of my life." These thirty-one thought-provoking essays are drawn from Coles's weekly column in the Catholic publicationAmerica. In them, he turns his inquisitive lens on a range of subjects and issues, from writers and painters to his recent reading and film viewing, contemporary events and lingering controversies, recollections of past and present mentors, events of his own daily life, and ordinary encounters with students, patients, neighbors, and friends. Addressing moral questions openly and honestly with a rare combination of rectitude and authorial modesty, these essays position Coles as a preeminent, durable, and trusted voice in the continuing national conversation over religion, civic life, and moral purpose.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-358-6
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-2)
    David D. Cooper

    The thirty-one short essays by Robert Coles gathered together here appeared as columns in the Catholic weeklyAmerica. The first was published in November 1996 under the banner “Secular Days, Sacred Moments”—a title Coles attributes to his friend and mentor, Dorothy Day. In that inaugural column Coles recalls a conversation he had with Day forty years earlier when he admitted his uneasy feelings and fears as a medical student working part-time at Day’s Catholic Worker soup kitchen in New York City. It was one thing, he pointed out to her, to encounter those in need in a medical clinic...

  4. NOVEMBER 23, 1996. We’re hoping for a few extra moments of the sacred during these long secular days.
    (pp. 3-6)

    I first heard the words I am using as the title for this column from the lips of Dorothy Day—and therein a story. In the middle-1950s I was a medical student in New York City, at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. In my spare time I worked in a Catholic Worker soup kitchen, and so doing, often felt confused, torn by various and conflicting feelings—a desire to be of help to needy others, but also a fear of them (their unpredictability, their enormous vulnerability, their not rare outbursts). It was one thing to work with poor, hurt,...

  5. JANUARY 4, 1997. “The doctors, they be strutters. They need teaching.”
    (pp. 7-9)

    A few years ago I worked as a volunteer fifth-grade teacher in an elementary school located in an impoverished Boston neighborhood. The children knew I also taught college students, medical students—indeed, this school wasn’t all that far from the medical school building where my class met weekly, as a ten-year-old girl reminded me one day. She had been with her mother to see a doctor “over there,” a first visit on her part to a hospital, and she had learned a lot: “I never thought there could be all these sick folks in one place!” I told her I’d...

  6. FEBRUARY 1, 1997. Merton and Milosz find common ground in their skepticism—the distance they put between themselves and faddish trends.
    (pp. 10-13)

    For ten years (1958–68) the poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz and the poet and monk Thomas Merton wrote letters to one another—many of them searchingly introspective, a few stirringly confessional. They only met twice, each time briefly. Perhaps the very distance between them, and a lack of personal acquaintance, made possible such a candid willingness on the part of both men to share with one another thoughts they would otherwise (with friends and even family, one suspects) have kept to themselves. Milosz, for instance, repeatedly refers to his “self-love,” his “wounds of ambition,” his tenacious egoism (“imprisoned as...

  7. FEBRUARY 15, 1997. Like a Hebrew prophet, Erikson was insisting upon psychological investigation as a moral calling.
    (pp. 14-17)

    During the late 1960s the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson taught an immensely popular undergraduate course at Harvard College. He used some of his own suggestive, edifying essays, but he also encouraged those of us who helped him teach as section leaders to use novels such asInvisible Man, or short fiction, such as Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Displaced Person,” “The Lame Shall Enter First.” We’d meet with him every week to talk about the way things were working out in the class, and often we’d wander in our discussions—take advantage of the privileged opportunity we...

  8. MARCH 1, 1997. “The Third Reich was a product of German history, but it was not the only possibility open to the country at that time.”
    (pp. 18-21)

    Again and again inMiddlemarchGeorge Eliot warns against our inclination to be “theoretic,” to embrace various absolutes, to lose thereby our sense of life’s complexities, the ironies and paradoxes that inevitably present themselves to us, the fatefulness of things, the role of accident and incident (“circumstance,” as she puts it) in shaping our destiny—be it that of individuals or nations. But it is in our nature to be tempted by generalizations of our own making, by formulations in which we invest everything we’ve got. Our egoism, our yearnings for power and authority, our understandable wish to live forever...

  9. MARCH 22, 1997. Surely someone would come by, see me standing there helplessly, offer a phone or a lift.
    (pp. 22-24)

    One evening several years ago, as dusk was settling in, I felt the car I was driving homeward become wobbly and hard to control. I pulled my car to the side, got out, and soon enough realized that I had a flat tire. I’m not very good with my hands, and each second, darkness was gaining its complete victory. I put on the lights, found the equipment meant to help me change tires, but I was soon enough engulfed by anxiety and fear. I’d never be able to do the job right; I’d be there forever; it was getting cold....

  10. APRIL 5, 1997. I was witness to the moral energy a painter or photographer can stir in children.
    (pp. 25-28)

    As a volunteer teacher of elementary school children, I have for many years brought to class transparencies to show the boys and girls the work of great artists, illustrators, and photographers. Although my primary function has been to teach English to children from hard-pressed families, I have learned that sometimes a picture projected on a screen can do wonders for the imagination, can prompt both reflection and conversation—after which the children almost invariably write more spirited, forceful compositions.

    I had an especially satisfactory time one morning with Winslow Homer’s work, two segments of which I brought to the attention...

  11. MAY 3, 1997. There is hope in those sudden, unexpected, breakthrough experiences that bring us a blessed spell of inwardness.
    (pp. 29-32)

    As Kierkegaard reminded his Danish fellow burghers (in “The Present Age”) and as his talented twentieth-century American disciple, Walker Percy, more than hinted inThe Moviegoer(for all its humor, a deadly serious novel), we often get lost not through big moral missteps but as a consequence of life’s everydayness become a thick, blinding fog. Absorbed by things to do, places to go, purchases to make, we stop asking what it is that matters and forsake moral consciousness in favor of a host of routines, felt social or pecuniary compulsions, all the supposed privileges of a bourgeois life. Still, there...

  12. MAY 31, 1997. This double standard could all too readily be accommodated by the slippery imprecisions of psychiatric jargon.
    (pp. 33-36)

    Before the Vietnam War prompted many to have grave reservations about military service, most young physicians had to give two years to the army, navy, or air force under the provisions of what used to be called the “Doctors’ Draft.” (Now our armed forces train their own doctors or make arrangements to pay the tuition of certain medical students in exchange for their later obligation to serve.) Because I’d had some psychiatric and psychoanalytic training, I was put in charge of an air force psychiatric service in Biloxi, Mississippi—yet another military doctor counting each day of his two-year stint...

  13. JULY 19, 1997. The doctor who is sick now turns his students into the kind of physician he himself has been with others.
    (pp. 37-40)

    A friend of mine from medical school, now an internist in St. Louis, recently sent me a videotape of a meeting between his brother, also a physician, and some first-year students at Washington University’s School of Medicine. The students are there to talk with a longtime, much-revered doctor and teacher who (they know) is suffering from an incurable cancer that is well on its way to claiming full victory. Even so, this afflicted man in his sixties looks well for his age; he has a full head of dark brown hair that shows no sign of graying, and he is...

  14. AUGUST 2, 1997. Through the use of fictional strategies, the writer offers us a clue about oppression.
    (pp. 41-44)

    In 1963 my wife, Jane, was teaching a fourth-grade class in Atlanta, Georgia. All her students were of African American background.

    The South at the time was very much in the midst of social struggle and change. In fact, the two of us were then studying the progress of school desegregation in Atlanta, after observing an earlier version of it in New Orleans. One morning as the class was discussing American history, the Civil War in particular, a girl raised her hand, ostensibly to offer her take on the nature of and the reasons for Sherman’s well-known “march through Georgia,”...

  15. SEPTEMBER 13, 1997. What appears to be bizarre and senseless is in many cases a quite reasonable expression of horror.
    (pp. 45-48)

    In a previous column I made mention of my experiences as an air force psychiatrist—the different ways we were expected to respond to our fellow officers, as opposed to the ordinary men and women who hadn’t such high rank to their credit. Again and again some of us doctors, in the military for only two years, were reminded that we had to accommodate our notion of what ought to be to the requirements of a large organization with its own traditions, customs, needs, and values.

    Regeneration, a novel I recently read by Pat Barker, an Englishwoman, brought back that...

  16. NOVEMBER 8, 1997. “I’m really sorry. I never should have opened the door without looking…. I was lost in thought. I wasn’t thinking.”
    (pp. 49-51)

    I was riding my bike not long ago along a road in the town where I live, braced by a clear sunny day with enough edge to it, in the form of cool weather, to make me feel especially glad that I could enjoy myself this way in a quiet New England setting. I was on my way to the post office. Not far from my destination, I began to slow down—and a good thing I did. A car door was suddenly flung open. I reflexively squeezed my handbrakes tight, only to find myself unavoidably colliding with the door....

  17. DECEMBER 6, 1997. It was the old story of teachers who have a lot to learn from their humble, yet knowing, students.
    (pp. 52-55)

    For the past four years I have been meeting with teachers and principals from across the country who work in Catholic schools, mostly located in inner-city neighborhoods. Men and women, African American and white and of Hispanic background, lay people and members of one or another religious order, they are all trying exceedingly hard to make a difference in the lives of children who, often enough, are living at the very edge of things economically and psychologically. Nor are these individuals all that well paid; their salaries, almost invariably, are lower than what they’d receive if they taught in public...

  18. JANUARY 17, 1998. Dorothy Day spoke of the irony: “All that philosophical knowledge, and such a moral failure; such blindness—and worse—in a life.”
    (pp. 56-59)

    The 100th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth prompted many occasions of celebration, reflection, remembrance. On campuses, in the many “hospitality houses” wherein the Catholic Worker tradition is carried on, in churches and in newspapers and magazines (includingAmerica) she was evoked, discussed, even upheld as a possible saint—her oft-quoted refusal of the desirability of such a future designation notwithstanding. Not that the acclaim is now universal—just as during her lifetime she had plenty of critics, for one reason or another, both within and outside the Catholic Church, which became her spiritual home in the fourth decade of her...

  19. FEBRUARY 14, 1998. In Othello we meet a man of great dignity and refinement who is gradually undone.
    (pp. 60-63)

    A friend and teaching colleague of mine recently persuaded me to re-readOthello, which he assigned in his class this autumn. I had not read the play since college, when I went through it hurriedly as one more assignment in a yearlong course devoted to Shakespeare. We read a play a week in the fall, one tragedy after another. We struggled mightily with words and phrases unknown to us, with hidden meanings to which the professor alone seemed privy, with a blur of intrigue and guile and deceit and conceit—to the point that we began to realize why one...

  20. FEBRUARY 28, 1998. Bonhoeffer’s position in society, his personal safety, and, if need be, his very life were not to be defended at all costs.
    (pp. 64-67)

    This past summer I spent most of my reading hours with the writings of the German theologian, pastor, and ultimately, martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had first been introduced to his work, and been told the story of his life, by my teacher Perry Miller, whose research explored the provocative wisdom in the sermons and essays of the New England Puritan divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To this day I recall Miller’s account of Bonhoeffer’s willful stand against the Nazis—a singular, voluntary opposition to tyranny that culminated in his execution in a concentration camp only weeks before the...

  21. MARCH 21, 1998. Psychotherapy, in all its American banality, is redeemed through its emphasis on the personal as part of the communal.
    (pp. 68-71)

    During the 1970s I spent a lot of time talking with children who lived in South Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts—so-called “working-class” people trying to make a go of it, no matter the sometimes tough circumstances of their lives. In South Boston, many of the people I met, whose homes I visited, felt left out of things; they saw a city prospering, but themselves getting no share of that affluence. Moreover, they knew that the liberal intellectuals who resided professionally in the abundance of nearby universities had no real interest in them—indeed, regarded them all too unfavorably, labeled...

  22. MARCH 28, 1998. I wondered if she really believed what she seemed to believe, whether she wasn’t really quite frightened “underneath.”
    (pp. 72-75)

    During my internship year I spent a month with patients, most of whom were dying of blood diseases, various kinds of leukemia, the lymphomas. At that time, the middle years of this century, we didn’t have the powerful chemotherapeutic drugs that now go a long way toward a cure in many instances of such diseases—though, alas, there is much more we need to know, and many still succumb to the kinds of illnesses young doctors like me, back then, could only resist with one blood transfusion after another.

    To this day, memories of that hospital experience keep coming to...

  23. APRIL 25, 1998. I could lecture on the moral and social inquiry and myself behave like a moral and social outcast.
    (pp. 76-79)

    I worked hard some time ago on a lecture that meant a lot to me—about Raymond Carver’s short fiction, his poetry and his personal writing (essays about his life and his reading preferences). I use his stories all the time, especially “Cathedral” and “A Small, Good Thing,” both in the collection titledWhere I’m Calling From, which was published posthumously (he died in 1988 at the age of fifty). For years I taught Carver in conjunction with Edward Hopper’s paintings and prints, which I showed the students as slides. Carver’s world is mostly made up of working-class people, men...

  24. JULY 4, 1998. Once more I took note of the psychological acuity, the capacity to figure out others with a certain thoughtful detachment.
    (pp. 80-83)

    During the 1970s, at the height of a racial conflict in Boston prompted by a federal court order that African American students be admitted to schools across the city in the interest of a better education, I got to know a number of those youths—high schoolers who lived in Roxbury and were bused to South Boston, a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood. In no time people were at one another’s throats.

    Those who lived in Roxbury were anxious to break out of poverty and the long-enforced isolation as well that had been the fate of their ancestors—slavery, then segregation...

  25. AUGUST 29, 1998. This child knew that misdeeds deserve, warrant an expression of regret.
    (pp. 84-86)

    In a recent column I mentioned “contrition,” a word heard a few years ago for the first time by an African American girl of Protestant faith who had been bused to a school whose students were mostly of Catholic (and Irish) background. The black child was puzzled by the word, only to learn from one of her white classmates that the heart of contrition had to do with “regret.” For the white student contrition was familiar—“something priests say when they want you to apologize and admit you’ve made a mistake.” For the black child contrition conveyed a certain elusive...

  26. OCTOBER 31, 1998. Our insistent yearnings ought not to be the stuff of glib psychiatric pronouncements.
    (pp. 87-90)

    We have been told lately, in the name of religion, that homosexuals are sinners, and that if they only accepted that notion, they would be entitled to a new moral and theological status. They would be among the saved, which means, presumably, those who have acknowledged their wrongdoing and thereby returned to the Lord’s fold. What are the rest of us to make of this new outburst of spiritual accusation directed at thousands, even millions, whose desires of heart and mind have been turned into a matter of errant choice, if not outright evil in the biblical sense? What are...

  27. NOVEMBER 21, 1998. These youngsters recognize that smart or powerful is not necessarily the same as good.
    (pp. 91-93)

    Like so many in our nation, I have found President Clinton’s personal difficulties, not to mention the intense public scrutiny of them, all too unsettling. I spend my time with the young. From time to time, when I can get away from my college responsibilities, I teach in an elementary school and a high school. I have been troubled by what I’ve heard from those youngsters of varying backgrounds. They, like the rest of us, have kept trying to make sense of this important leader of ours, a lawyer from an important law school and winner of an important award...

  28. FEBRUARY 20, 1999. “I wished he’d been as understanding and kindly at home with his family as he was in the world with all his associates.”
    (pp. 94-97)

    In the early 1970s, at a meeting attended by a host of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, Erik H. Erikson (then at work on Gandhi’s life and on political activity as it is engaged, sometimes, with minds, even souls) spoke to us, eagerly assembled, about his intellectual struggle to make sense of a great leader. (The book was eventually published asGandhi’s Truth.) He also spoke about his “troubles” with a particular individual much admired throughout the world. Erikson was a child psychoanalyst, trained by Anna Freud, who in Vienna during the 1920s initiated applications of her father’s thinking to therapeutic work...

  29. MAY 1, 1999. A moral leadership that is to work must mobilize a following in the name of a virtue; it must both inspire and coerce.
    (pp. 98-101)

    That obedience has to contend with instinct, Terrence Malick’s latest movie,The Thin Red Line, makes abundantly clear. It is the central psychological exploration in the film. American Marines are in far-off Guadalcanal Island to win a decisive battle with Japanese foes, who have established themselves in a commanding position. Below them are the jungle’s wilds and the desirous newcomers, whose landing we behold, and who will have to risk death in order to uphold and complete their mission. The crocodile that figures at the start and the end of the film is meant to make a point about war...

  30. JULY 31, 1999. Many of us who took to Holden Caulfield, embracing his laid-back words, his wisecracks, his cool, also worried about him. Would he make it?
    (pp. 102-105)

    During the middle years of this fast-waning century J. D. Salinger’sThe Catcher in the Ryebecame a kind of biblical guide for many young members of the bourgeoisie in the United States. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, had much going for him—a comfortable suburban life and a privileged educational background in a private school. Yet he seemed ironically vulnerable, for all his sharp intelligence and affluent background. Much of the time he is sardonic, if not cynical, as he takes the measure of teachers and other adults—their inadequacies, their self-importance and smugness, if not arrogance, as those...

  31. SEPTEMBER 11, 1999. William Carlos Williams treated many Catholics who said they would pray for him. He was skeptical about such promises.
    (pp. 106-109)

    A great privilege it was for me as an undergraduate, then a medical school student, to get to know the New Jersey poet and physician William Carlos Williams. I had written an essay about his long poemPaterson,a lyrical evocation of life as it was lived daily and variously in that city where America’s first factory was built and, arguably, where our capitalism was born; and my college professor, Perry Miller, urged me to send my effort to the one whose writing had been discussed in all those laboriously typed pages. To my surprise, an envelope came back with...

  32. OCTOBER 9, 1999. Private hurts trigger a public hurtfulness.
    (pp. 110-113)

    This year, as we were told in the news of killing rampages by suburban high schoolers, my mind returned to the young people, then (the 1960s) quaintly called “juvenile delinquents,” who came to the child psychiatry clinic of the Children’s Hospital in Boston, where I was working. In particular I remembered a boy I got to know when he was eleven and a girl who wasn’t twelve when I first met her—both of them already in trouble with the law and already under careful scrutiny by school officials, who had turned to us doctors in alarm and perplexity, if...

  33. DECEMBER 4, 1999. Simone Weil tried to figure out morally who we humans are, what obligations we ought to feel and why, as we go about our permitted time on this planet.
    (pp. 114-117)

    Some of us taking a course on contemporary religious thought in the middle of this century tried to understand the work of Simone Weil, reading her three books,Waiting for God, The Need for Roots, andGravity and Grace—“one more difficult than the other,” our professor playfully remarked. Yet he clearly wanted us to make the acquaintance of this almost legendary essayist, political philosopher, and member of the French resistance who stood up to Hitler’s henchmen. We read with some difficulty the books urged on us. Nor did their author want us to have any easier time of it...

  34. FEBRUARY 19, 2000. “Do you really think the pope prayed for those three mass murderers, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini?” I asked Dorothy Day.
    (pp. 118-122)

    In recent months, while a war-time pontiff’s attitudes toward mid-century European totalitarianism became a subject of written discussion (as inHitler’s Popeand the response to it by reviewers and other readers), I have often remembered conversations on that issue with Dorothy Day, whom I was privileged to know. In particular I heard Dorothy Day talk at great length about Pius xii and, of course, John xxiii, whom (unsurprisingly) she much revered. She found her very own way of connecting with Pope Pius, who (so she once put it) “had to wake up every morning at the Vatican and pray...

  35. Afterword
    (pp. 123-125)
    Robert Coles

    When I was a college student, I had the good fortune to be taught by a teacher, Perry Miller, who kept insisting that we in the classroom “venture forth—out of these fancy dorms and libraries,” he put it; and then a memorable pause: “into the world where people learn from one another, courtesy of serendipity.” How perplexed we listeners became in response to that remark! Why such a departure, when this was the very place where we were supposed to be doing a considerable amount of learning from others, known as first-rate teachers? Next, the words spoken, a hand...

  36. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 126-126)
  37. Back Matter
    (pp. 127-128)