Excavations in Three Parts

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The great reward from mining our life experience comes when we strike that vein of purpose and find that the seemingly diffused endeavors and commitments of our life cohere. A hidden pattern is revealed, a “strange attractor” around which the once random trajectories of our life now constellate, disclosed. And we arrive at the place where “everything belongs”—ready, as the poet Yeats says, “to cast out remorse” and “live it all again and yet again” (“Dialogue of Self and Soul”).

When I arrived, I could find no one to show me to my class. I’d been hired—mid-term—to fill a vacancy caused by an illness or death; and as I wandered the empty cavernous hallways, gently pushing open classroom doors, and climbing the wide, seemingly endless flights of creaky wooden stairs, I became increasing angry that the school was so poorly managed. I was a teacher, and somewhere in this ancient building there was a class that needed me.

Why did God make you? Every Catholic of a certain age—as part of their early catechetical drilling—will have been asked this sixth question from the Baltimore Catechism and been expected to answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. If the child took this teaching to heart, he stepped through a door and embarked on a quest to untangle the mysterious threads of purpose in his life.

Of the four parts of the answer, it was the third—perhaps because it seemed the only one I could do something about, the only area of action in my control—that ignited my passion. Like all great teaching, the “answer” is just a trove of further questions: How did I serve God in this world? What was my calling, my vocation? What was to be my work in the world?

But there was something too constricted in the way these questions came to be framed for me. For a life to be worth living, it had to be a life worth dying for. That became the test of authenticity. For the child that I was, enfolded by ritual, with a love for learning and a gift for writing, there seemed only three career paths that were legitimate: I could become a priest, a teacher, or a writer.

As I moved through my student years, then into my householding years, I found myself progressively barred from each of these paths. In puberty I discovered girls and ruled out a life of celibacy. I married, started a family, and embarked on making a living. I couldn’t do it as a writer; my gift was perhaps too small, my dedication too tepid, or the demands on my time too many. So I became a teacher.

We were standing at the edge of the playground with the high fortress-like wall behind us. To be heard over the noise of the playing children, I had raised my voice. Tamping his hand down, my colleague cautioned me. He nodded imperceptibly, and I followed the direction of his nod to where an old hag of a nun was watching us from an opened second-story window.

—The principal will hear you.

—And well she should. I’ll tell her what I think of how this place is run. Do you know what I’m doing these days… after I wander the hallways for an hour or two looking for my class? I come out and work in the garden, just to have something productive to do. No, let her come talk to me. In fact, I want to see the Registrar.

I finished a master’s degree in creative writing and, in the fall of 1967, took my first job teaching English at Xavier University, a Black university in New Orleans. I was returning to the city of my birth after an absence of 16 years—returning at a strident and tumultuous moment in our history which, in my own life and the lives of my students, seemed to call into question the value of teaching and learning. Martin Luther King was shot during the spring of 1968, and Richard Nixon was elected the following fall.

I left Xavier the following year. Though I’d intended to pursue a doctorate at Notre Dame, where I’d been an undergraduate, I found immediately I couldn’t afford that and instead ended up teaching part-time at several colleges near South Bend. I left teaching altogether three years later, after a final year at a prep school.

Though I pursued other career paths in my life—got a master’s degree in Library Science and worked as a public librarian, got a doctorate in Educational Administration and worked as a university administrator—all these endeavors somehow seemed to come up short, to lack legitimacy, measured against the standards ingrained in childhood.

The texts I have been inserting are the episodes from a dream—one of a number of powerful dreams I had the year I turned fifty. It came as a blessing and a dispensation that what had seemed like no path was indeed a genuine path:

I was using a hoe to weed the garden plot tucked into a corner where two high walls intersected, when I caught sight of him striding toward me across the wide lawn. He was a behemoth of a man, dressed in a clerical black suit that shimmered as the sun danced over it. He stopped when he drew close.

—You asked to see the Registrar? Well, I am the Registrar.

I minced no words telling him how poorly I thought the school was run. —I am a teacher, I said, and there are students here who need me.

He ignored my diatribe as he surveyed my work. Then, looking at me, he said, —So these are the magnificent gardens everyone is talking about!

I looked about me and saw the garden—lush and fragrant with flowering plants—as if for the first time. As we strolled the grounds together, he admiring the many landscaped areas we came across, I realized I had somehow managed to create all these beautiful inviting spaces, as it were, in my spare time. When we stopped at the end of our circuit, he looked at me.

—You know, at our cloister in Montreal, I was a gardener too.

The dreams of my fiftieth year presaged tectonic shifts in my life. For the second time in five years, I was dealing with prolonged unemployment. My five children were raised, and the youngest would leave for college in the fall. My marriage of 28 years was dissolving. With hindsight I see that a demarcation line, between a first and second half of life, was being drawn. Within a fortnight of my “garden dream” I had moved out of our home in Greensboro, where I’d been living for 14 years, and taken a position at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.

In the dissolution of the partnership with Pugh in early 1862, [Darden] kept ownership of the St. Bernard [plantation which] with 600 argents, had had only forty-one slaves (all listed by family), six cabins, a smaller sugarhouse valued at $4,500, a dwelling worth $1,500 and several lesser such structures.

Wilmington had had a troubled racial history, and the grant project I was hired to manage had as its focus race relations. I remember following the news coverage during the 70s of the Wilmington Ten, a group of civil rights activists who spent nearly a decade in jail for arson and conspiracy before the questionable verdict was overturned in 1980.

The 1971 incident could be thought of, however, as an aftershock of a much more gruesome secret buried in Wilmington’s past. Wilmington near the turn of the last century had been the most populous city in the state and a magnet for aspiring Blacks who found opportunity in the city’s building and shipping trades. Blacks made up 60 percent of the population and held elected office on the City Council. On November 10, 1898, a white vigilante mob gathered before the offices of the state’s only Black daily newspaper, the Wilmington Daily Record, to protest an editorial which the engaged white citizenry thought had defamed Southern womanhood. After burning down the building, then posing proudly for their photograph, the mob marched downtown; deposed the existing council and installed a rump one in its place; and issued a manifesto, its “Declaration of White Independence.” For three days following, Republicans and Black entrepreneurs were put on trains leaving the city and told not to return. Estimates of the number of Black citizens who died in the violence go as high as 300. President William McKinley was kept fully informed of the events in this, the only instance of the illegal overthrow of a municipal government in U.S. history. He turned a blind eye.

When I arrived in Wilmington, the centennial anniversary of these tumultuous events was approaching. It took minimal investigative skills to see that dangerous memories1 of the 1898 insurrection were poisoning race relations and needed to be exorcised in a way that only their solemn commemoration could accomplish. It was, however, an initiative that the university would not lead, sensitive as it had to be to political pressure; in a quirk of history, three key leaders of the 1898 conspiracy had living grandsons who bore their exact names and were prominent citizens in the community as well as current or former members of the university’s Board of Trustees. In the end, I helped spearhead the creation of an independent Foundation and served as its director as we planned, then implemented, a year-long reconciliation effort.

There seemed to me a great deal of chance about my role in all of this. Hadn’t I taken the temporary assignment in Wilmington simply as a last resort—the only available opening that offered the remotest chance of salvaging my battered resumé and maintaining some semblance of a career path that could lead to future employment? Hadn’t I had simply fallen into a leadership role—not so much an outside as an accidental agitator? Looking back now, however, a pattern is discernible. A passion for racial justice runs through my biography—a vein of purpose—from my first job teaching at a Black college to my work in Wilmington. I cannot trace its roots to conscious experiences: though I grew up in the segregated South, we left New Orleans, where racial tensions simmered just below the surface, when I was six; and I grew up in Houston, insulated by my minority Catholic experience, from racism’s rawest cultural expressions. If I could be said to have chosen this work,  the part of me that did the choosing was deeper than ego and consciousness—some sort of bedrock self that knew exactly what it needed to do.

I’d been in Wilmington two years and was deeply involved with the centennial commemoration when I received an unexpected parcel from my mother. The pamphlet it contained—the early history of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Thibodeaux, LA, written by the first pastor—gives brief biographies of the founding members of the vestry, including my great great grandfather, Richardson Gray Darden. The brief excerpt inserted earlier that describes the size of his plantation and the number of slaves he owned is taken from its text, as is the one below, which, when I first read it, sent quivers through me:

Richardson Gray Darden was born on August 27, 1809, at Wilmington, North Carolina, one of 13 children of Reddick Darden and Catherine Thomas. [He and two of his brothers] joined the swelling migration of many citizens of that state to … Deep South regions [including Louisiana, where he became] an overseer on sugar cane plantations.

There is a passage from the novel A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone where the revolutionary priest, Godoy, is described this way:

He fights for the peasants and the Indians because whether he knows it or not, he deeply desires the just rule of the Lord. Probably, he will never realize this… But I think unconsciously it is the kingdom of God he fights for.2

I have a visceral memory of a realization that happened within the past year or two. I don’t remember its context—where I was, what I was doing, what specific matter was the occasion for the realization. I remember praying silently that some aspect of my work with Second Journey would contribute in some small way to the “coming of the Kingdom,” the words we use in the Lord’s Prayer. Then, as a postscript, I remember qualifying the sentiment: May I do this good thing. AND may I do it for the RIGHT REASONS. Not because I enjoy the work… which I did, immensely. Not because it taps my creativity… which it did, immensely. But because it will leave the world a better place.

Catholic theology, distinguishing between ethics and morality, holds that the merit of an action depends on the intention of the actor:

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that you’re giving may be in secret. Then you’re Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.3

In the incident in question I remember the two thoughts—May I do this good thing. AND may I do it for the RIGHT REASONS. Then I remember a NEW thought, that came fast on the heels of the second thought and that signaled a cataclysmic psychic realignment: “Oh, the hell with that, let me just do it!”

When we act from a place deeper than ego, from the place of our deepest joy, we come into alignment with the divine spark in us and are absolved from asking further questions.

The Streaker

He lit out across the wide lawn,
naked, high stepping, arms flailing,
his pudgy trunk in constant search
for equilibrium. Sister

darted after him, his guardian angel
not seven years his senior, sailing
behind him, the sash of her white
linen shift floating in her wake.

Then catching up with him, she matched
his pace, letting him barrel on
giddily, in his riotous play,
just out of reach and rescue.

Then she turned him and steered him back.
And at the edge from which he’d launched,
scooped him up and — enfolding him —
whirled his giggling body round.

Who — knowing it would be such joy
to collapse into His cunning
Love — would not, like St. Francis — then
and there — strip and light out running?

— by Bolton Anthony


1 “And if a community is completely honest, it will remember stories not only of suffering received but of suffering inflicted—dangerous memories for they call the community to alter ancient evils” (Habits of the Heart. New York: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 153). Information about the 1898 Centennial Commemoration and the work of the 1898 Foundation can be found at this link, which contains further links to other resources.

2 Robert Stone, A Flag for Sunrise (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 208.

2 Matt 6:2-4.