This week marks the 25th anniversary for this column. The Western Catholic Reporter, out of Edmonton, Alberta, published my first ever column on November 15, 1982. Glenn Argan was its editor then – and still is. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for giving me a chance to publish a column, long before the days of websites and blogs. Back then we wanted the hard feel of paper in our hands. There’s still something special to that feel.
It took six years to catch on with another newspaper, The Compass, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Today the column is carried in more than 60 papers in a dozen countries. So, after twenty-five years and more than fifteen hundred columns, it is perhaps wise, both for scrutiny and celebration’s sake, to return to the beginnings and to have a look at what fires burned at the origins of this.
When I first set out to do this kind of writing, I did it because certain fires burned within me and I began writing for the same reason that most others write: I needed to. There’s both a selfishness and an altruism in that. No motivation is perfectly pure.
Why does anyone write? A lost soul on a lonely island needs to put notes into bottles and float them out to sea. Who knows? Someone might actually find a note and read it. Rescue ships might be sent, the bottle might come back with a reply in it, or its finder, as helpless as its sender, might take consolation in knowing there are other shipwrecked exiles. Instinct tells to put notes into bottles and float them. Obviously this has survival value.
What fires burned within me then? I was 35 years old, pathologically idealistic, lonely, living in a foreign country, less than fully at ease with my celibacy, and compulsively driven by a restlessness that was energizing and dissipating both at the same time. And this dictated that the column should have a certain slant.
Let me quote from my first ever column, where, in the light of what burned within me then, I gave the column both a name and a mission. Twenty-five years ago, I wrote:
“I have chosen to call this column, In Exile [a name it still retains in most newspapers]. Superficially, I have chosen this title because I am now living in Europe, far from much of what I consider as home. For more significant reasons, I have chosen this title because all of us live our lives in exile. We live our lives seeing (as St. Paul puts it) ‘as through a glass, darkly.’ We live in our separate riddles, partially separated from God, each other, and even from ourselves. We experience some love, some community, some peace, but never these in their fullness.
Our senses, egocentricity, and human nature place a veil between us and full love, full community, and full peace. We live, truly, as in a riddle: The God who is omnipresent cannot be sensed; others, who are as real as ourselves, are always partially distanced and unreal; and we are, in the end, fundamentally a mystery even to ourselves.
In that sense we are, all of us, far away from home. We are in exile, longing to understand more fully and to be understood more fully. The asphyxiating ambiguity of the riddle we live in slowly tires us. Daily our hunger for consummation within the body of Christ intensifies. We feel so distanced from so much. We would want to go home.
And, while we are on this pilgrimage, our perspectives are only partial; our vision, even at best, only that of the ‘foreigner’, one out of the mainstream, who does not fully see nor understand.
From this exiled perspective, I will offer my reflections. I will try to write humbly and honestly.
The column itself will take a variety of forms. Margaret Atwood once said: ‘What touches you is what you touch!’ I plan to touch on a lot of things, stuff of all kinds.
Mostly I will offer reflections on various theological, church, and secular issues. (That about covers everything!) Occasionally, however, prose will give way to poetry and more serious reflection will be replaced by satire. As well (though not often) I will offer a review on some book.
The reflections will not be in any way systematic. If there is any one umbrella under which these diverse reflections might find a home, it is precisely in their title, In Exile. All of them, in their own way, are trying to untangle the riddle, to end the exile, to help get a pilgrim home!”
Twenty-five years after writing this, I have to suppress a smile as I read these words. They really are melodramatic! Yet the same idealistic, restless, pilgrim fires still burn inside me. I mean those words as much now as I did then. Thus, as long as health and publishers continue to smile on me, I will continue writing from precisely this perspective.