November 15th marked an anniversary of sorts for me, twenty years of writing this column. I began it in 1982, as a bi-weekly piece, while I was doing doctoral studies in Louvain, Belgium. Initially it ran in just one newspaper, the WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER, out of Edmonton, Alberta. Glen Argan was the editor there. Twenty years and several peregrinations later, he’s back at that same post. He was my first editor, took a chance on me, and I’ll always be grateful to him and the Western Catholic Reporter for that. Today, twenty years later, the column runs weekly in more than 40 newspapers in Canada, the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, and New Zealand.
Initially I called the column “IN EXILE”. Why? What’s behind the title? Superficially, I was living abroad and was young enough and full enough of youthful grandiosity to like the feel of being an outsider. When you’re young, it can seem romantic, noble even, to be the one who’s gone from home, missed by your loved ones, seemingly on some heroic journey. Of course you’re only trying to get some university degree, hardly the stuff of heroic journeys; but that was before instant communication and the internet, when you didn’t fly across the Atlantic every holiday. It was my first time being a long ways from home, I was young, alone, restless, and it was nice to luxuriate a bit in that loneliness. It had a nice feel to it. I wanted to fancy myself (though just a little) as a Robert Browning, writing “HOME THOUGHTS FROM ABROAD”, or a Thomas Wolfe, spinning a beautiful pathos from an exile’s pain, but that was more of an amateur’s thrill than anything real. Playing at being alienated isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For far more significant reasons, I chose this title because all of us live in exile in a real way. As St. Paul puts it, we see as “through a glass, darkly”, through an enigma, separated always partially from God and each other. We experience some love, some community, some restfulness, but never these in their fullness. In this life, as Henri Nouwen puts it, there’s not such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy. Rather even in our most happy moments, there is a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limit. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. In all forms of light there is some knowledge of surrounding darkness. Karl Rahner once said that “in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that here, in this life, there is no finished symphony.”
Yes, we do live in an enigma. The God who is omnipresent cannot be sensed, only known at some deeper level; others, who are as real as we are, are always partially distanced; and we, in the end, are fundamentally a mystery even to ourselves. We’re a long ways from home.
Some of the newspapers that carry the column have kept that title, others haven’t. Throughout the years, I’ve often been asked why – Why IN EXILE? Sometimes editors haven’t been keen on it and have asked to change it. I’ve stuck with it though, whenever the choice was mine, wanting still, ideally, to speak my little truth from under that umbrella. Occasionally a particular comment from a reader helped keep me firm in my initial intuition. I remember one such letter from a woman who shared with me that she much appreciated the title because she had been suffering for years from mental illness and had always felt, precisely, an outsider, separated from others. I think St. Paul had just this in mind when he said that we live life “as through a glass, darkly.” Each column has tried in its own little way to get an exile home.
In the initial column, all those years ago, I quoted Margaret Atwood: “What touches you is what you touch!” The column has touched on many things, stuff of all kinds, mostly on different issues within spirituality, often in a more bland and unoriginal way than I dare admit. It’s been a good ride though and as I look back there’s only gratitude, to editors and lots of others who have helped me and, especially, to readers who have been, for the largest part, wonderfully affirmative. Each year I’ve done one column on the issue of suicide and probably the single most gratifying thing through the 20 years has been the response of readers to those particular pieces. I’ve a huge file-folder full of letters from people who have lost loved ones – children, spouses, parents, friends, loved ones – to that painful disease and were grateful that someone spoke out on it.
T.S. Eliot once said: “What we call the beginning is often the end – and to make an end is to make a beginning.” Twenty years at this business – hopefully it’s just a beginning.