This week marks the 10th anniversary of this column. The WCR published my first-ever column on Nov. 15, 1982.
Ten years, hundreds of columns and one anthology book later it is perhaps wise, both for scrutiny and celebration’s sake, to return to the beginnings and to have a look again at what fires burned at the origins of all of this.
When I first set out to do this kind of writing, I did it because certain fires burned within me. I began writing for the same reason that most others write—you write because you have to, and that “have-to” has within it both a real selfishness and a real altruism.
A lost soul stranded on a lonely island puts notes into bottles and floats 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 says put notes into bottles and float them. Obviously this has survival value.
The fires that burned within me then… I was 35 years old, pathologically idealistic, lonely, living in a foreign country, less than fully content with my celibacy, and compulsively driven by a relentlessness that was creative and dissipating all at the same time… dictated that this column should have a particular slant.
Let me quote from my first ever column, where, in the light of all of that burned within and around me then, I gave the column both a name and a mission:
“I have chosen to call this column In Exile (a name it still retains in two newspapers). Superficially, I have chosen this title because I am now living in Europe, far from much of what I consider as home.
“For much 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 whole 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 of 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!”
Ten years after writing this, I try to suppress a smile as I read these words. (They really are a bit melodramatic!)
Yet the same essential, idealistic, restless, pilgrim fires still burn in 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 them from precisely this perspective.