Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Collateral Learning

"You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then - to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.” (Theodore H. White, American journalist)

            I would imagine that for most people, high school was a living hell. The pressure to fit in combined with torment from other students often turns what should be a positive growing experience into a voyage for the damned. Although social mores and ideas regarding acceptable behaviour, such as bullying, may have evolved since I attended classes, from what I understand little has changed. Every weekday, not only must one wage war against external factors like academics and general interaction, you have to battle the churning mass of hormones which has taken possession of an almost adult body. The damage done can seem inescapable.
            I am convinced that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I attended high school in Ontario Canada, things were pretty much the status quo at every other school.  From what I can remember, and from many conversations shared since, it was pure torture to have to show up and then pretend you really wanted to be there. You had to learn quickly how to blend and weave among the student body. Administration was something to be feared. The members of the teaching staff were either an ally or foe and God help you if you stepped on the wrong set of toes. 
            Strathroy District Collegiate Institute (SDCI) offered general and advanced courses toward a four or five year diploma. You got to choose your sentence. With little exception, the student body was Caucasian. The school itself sat near the centre of this mid-sized conservative town.  Nestled above the downtown core, SDCI looked out over several large, multi-purpose playing fields. Directly beside the school sat the town's conservation area, which still harbours a small lake that feeds into the Thames River. The school sat atop a significant hill, the back slope allowing for tremendous winter activities like tobogganing and ride-the-lunch-tray. Built in the late 1800s, the original building was added onto multiple times over the years and eventually became an amalgam of the old and the not so new. This mingling of pre-modern and pre-war structures stuck together like compressed rice cakes. My Dad ran this place. My brother Phillip worked here for years.  From 1984 - 1985, I called the third floor my home away from home. Weekday evenings found me scrubbing the 300s from tile to ceiling while listening to Amy Grant and Whitney Houston on my boom-box. The money was damn good. I spent so much time there that the school became like a part of me.
            The first day of high school is akin to dropping 1500 scavengers into the Sahara desert and telling them to discover water (good luck with that). We all try to find our place, to fit in, and for some it really works. For the rest, it is damnation. I had friends, struggles and everything you can imagine might happen to a pre-bipolar teenager running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Literally, the entire time I was in high school seems sewn into dark layers of a mind preparing for madness. I was a bully to some, a friend to few and royal pain in the ass to most. The homosexual panic I experienced did little to stop my well-driven pursuit of pleasure. I was animal, all instinct, little thought. On any given day, I felt like standing in the cafeteria and screaming until my throat bled. I even dated a few girls throughout my incarceration, primarily because I could not actually grow a beard of my own, at that time.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." (Dan Rather, American journalist)

             Occasionally, as you travel along on the beaten path called an education, someone stands out. You find much needed water in the desert. A counsellor, a teacher or a staff member makes a difference, they connect with you. It might have been the little old lady from the kitchen who made you feel welcome or the janitor who joked with you every day. Some way, somehow you find a ray of hope. You find proof that not everything is chaos. For me, it worked the other way around.
            When I first walked into Vivian Gettas' grade nine English class, I didn't believe in witches. I was only a few minutes late when she made me sit at the front of the class rather than at the back with my friends. I knew right away I had a problem, a wicked problem. I never understood why no one else could see her broom behind the curtains. My inappropriate response of "stuff it" began my frequent journeys from room 212 to the front office. The two of us just never got along. To me, she appeared a cold, heartless bitch who liked nothing more than to provoke me. So I let her. The entire first year in her class was like putting pins in a cactus. It was clear we did not like each other and I often told her just that. Although she never confirmed the same, I knew. I knew the way you know when it's snowing. When I graduated her class and moved on to the summer, I thought that the wicked witch was dead. I should have demanded to see the body.
            When I walked into room 212 on the first day of grade ten, she greeted me with, "Mr. Daw, welcome. Please take your seat at the front of the class like last year." I could have smacked her. Five years in a row, I walked into that same room to that same face, sneering at me like a rat about to feed. God, I hated her. Five years, five English classes, five travels to the dark side. It got to the point where I liked hating her. I thrived on causing havoc whenever we rubbed shoulders. I actually looked forward to my descent each day. She seemed to find me amusing, frequently playing the game along with me. I was not the chiselled intellectual I now claim to be, so back then she beat me up pretty good. She was one smart cookie. I kept trying and she kept playing. Until the last day of grade thirteen, we snarled at each other whenever we got the chance.
            In grade twelve, the fourth level of hell, I got a part in the school production of Anything Goes. The Cole Porter classic was embraced by the entire school and we all performed with grand spectacle. It was, very much so, a success. When I auditioned, I walked into the music room and found myself face to face with my mortal enemy. She sat smiling at me, like she got some rush from the power of making me squirm. When our eyes met, we both almost laughed together.

"The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires."  (William Arthur Ward, American writer)

            It is always a strange experience for me to look back on my high school days. I will admit I try not to dwell on those moments from my past. I am still somewhat ashamed and humbled at how I treated the people who cared about me the most. Whether my behaviours were grounded in a blossoming chemical imbalance is irrelevant to me. There are no excuses. Even though I was just trying to get through the process, like everyone else, I wish I had paid more attention to the collateral learning my journey manifested. Instead of focusing on all the friction I was so vividly aware of, and created on my own, I wish I had taken the time to notice the more polished aspects from my exposure to greater knowledge.
            Modern technology has allowed me contact with some of the voices I once knew from my time at SDCI. Facebook, and other social networking platforms, have granted me access to the world I left behind me years ago. For the most part, this interaction has been positive.  A few bitter souls can't seem to move past what may or may not have happened back then, but their unresolved issues only continue, at this late stage, to make them irrelevant. Years of old photographs line the profiles of people that I never really got the chance to know. Such fierce memories, like a spewing volcano, toss me back in with the brimstone and fire that consumed my teenage life.
             The internet age allows me to view snapshots of the years I spent at SDCI and the faces I had long forgotten. Most have left that small town. Some have just gone. I'll admit that this exposure has me thinking about the time I dwelt in Hades and the people that I once alienated myself from. I have asked myself, who made a real difference? Who left the most enduring impression? It is not an easy feat to narrow down such influence and effect. There are so many faces behind all those names and it is often a difficult thing to even recall them, let alone analyzing any lasting imprint they may have made on my life. Over and over again in my mind, much to my surprise, I kept coming back to her. It would appear that the very thing I despised the most, mattered the most. 
            I don't remember that I ever skipped Miss Gettas' English class. I liked her lectures and especially the way she taught. It wasn't some old skool method. She allowed each student to partake, to become involved in the depth of each lesson. She made Shakespeare come to life through students acting each part, not just reading it. Blake, Atwood and Salinger became an exploration rather than a dictation. I wanted to go to her class, even though I hated her guts. As a writer, Vivian Gettas taught me more and influenced me more than any other teacher from all my years in the education system. For me, it was not about what she taught but how she taught. It made all the difference. Her instruction still allows me to sculpt my words rather than merely writing them.  

“Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”
 (Chinese Proverb)

             The high school is long gone. In its place stands a retirement home, all sparkling and new. Whenever I pass that way on my visits home, I always note how the building is starkly missing. A new one stands in substitute, just down the road on the edge of town, but this does little to fill the void. Apparently, nothing can replace what used to be. It almost seems that a part of me has slipped away with its destruction. So much invested time and all that remains of it is the hillside, perfect for snow games, and the fields and walkways that lead down to the river.
            All the people and events from a lifetime of learning have been tossed to the winds which blow memory away. Somewhere in my history I might find it again, but these days I only have my own thoughts to call on, to look to. So much time has passed that it is not a simple task to remember everything you wish you could. Sometimes those memories need a trigger and a little attention.
            I recently saw a picture of Vivian Gettas when I checked out the profile of a high school chum on Facebook. Her short hair, her Greek features and those large rimmed glasses all ignited flames once again. They licked at my heels. There she was in all her glory, smiling for the camera with a group of former classmates in some distant hotel room. Her black  pointy hat and broom cleverly hidden from the paparazzi. They went to France that year, on a student field trip. The floodgates opened. It took me back. Funny how the smallest of things can summon the past and recapture your emotions. I wanted to think or say something profound, marking my favour, but all I could think of was that I'm glad I wasn't there if she was. Forget Paris.

"The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind."  (Khalil Gibran, Lebanese writer) 




Rice Cakes
(Originally Posted Tuesday, March 29, 2011)

Theodore H. White




Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Willow, Relentless


            I know that, for the rest of my life, there will be times when I miss my Mommy. After more than three years, I still fall into deep sadness when I recognize she is not as before, somewhere waiting for me to call her or visit. There are glimpses of time when it still seems this is possible for me to do. Like some twisted déjà vu, I am transported from within to the place where I knew she was living. I skip in presence, and memory, back to the way things used to be. For but a moment she is suddenly close at hand, so near me I can feel her and almost touch her. Grief makes a fool.
            I do miss her so. Her death in April of 2010 is now an echo, unending and impossible to cease.  It lulls me to sleep each evening and rings in the morning when I awake. Perhaps she lingers greater for me? Since almost no one else in the family really talks about their feelings and any remnant of her in their life, I can only assume that for them there is little or no residue. Of this I just don't know, but it really doesn't matter. Unfortunately, this is not only afterlife behaviour. The way they treat her now is the truest reflection of how they treated her then.  She is with my Father, and closer family members as well, but it often seems like she was never really here, for the rest at least. Some would rather forget than take responsibility.
            My Mom was far more than just my Mom. She was my friend. On a rated scale, I think that in many ways she was my best friend. We accepted each other, trusted each other and relied on each other for comfort and someone to share secrets with. We were very close, yet always maintained the appropriate relation. I never forgot she was my Mother, first. She is my very first memory. I can see her climbing to the top of the stairs in our Toronto home. I see her blue dress, her long hair and her smile. I see her as she sees me. This moment, real or imagined, is the first time I realized what love was. For all my 4 years, it is a lesson I remember succinctly. It was her greatest gift to me.
            I never had to wonder, no matter what, that she would continue to love me as strongly as she ever had. It went without saying that my Mom stood by her children, no question or doubt. Everything I know about forgiveness and acceptance I know from her. Often, her love for her kids was extreme and she put us all before my Dad and herself. Granted, that is what a parent is supposed to do, but I wish she had given more attention to her own happiness as the end approached. No one else I have known sacrificed as much as my Mom did for her family. I am sure she was not the only Mother who felt this way or acted upon it. In these modern times, it is hard to find another example, outside literature and celebrity. The other parents that I have known just don't extend their love like my Mom did. I was lucky to have a Mother such as this.
            My Mom gave me my appreciation of music and art. She could sing like the mockingbird and draw as if she was sketching a picture of God. Sometimes I think she often did. She taught me to cook, like a good Italian Mother should. She gave me every survival skill I possess. She gave me the permission I needed to explore my talents. She lifted me up. No matter what I did or where I ended up, she was always there for me. No matter who I turned out to be, no matter, she loved me still, just like she always had.
            She was not perfect and I will not pretend so in a fit of irrational idolization. Who is without fault after all? In spite of her flaws and the way she slowly became as the end approached, I never questioned her loyalty and friendship. I could always count on the person she was despite who we may have become. When I fell into madness, she held me close. When I wanted to die and tried to do so, her pleas to live for both her and my Father brought me from the brink into purpose. She often was my reason to go on.
            I never thought of her as a role model or hero. My relationship with her left little room for silly ideas such as emulation or idol worship. She always was and always will be Mom. For most of my adult life, she was the one person who always pulled me through. I know I would not be here now if not for her then. She was an anchor to this life tossed out onto the stormy sea. She was a safe place, a smiling face no matter how the winds would blow. She was grounded in trueness and secured by her love. Nothing could knock her down. Or so I used to believe.

"The willow, relentless
Stands firm and strong
Against the sun above
Against the earth below
Against the wind we know
It dances with the rain
It whispers to the snow
It thrives and grows
Only time it seems
Could end the weeping
Down into fallow
This mighty tree

             She was the oldest of three children. She was never really that close with her two brothers and family trust had been, for the most part, broken between her and her own parents. When I learnt of the things that had happened, and witnessed such things myself, I could not believe she still wanted to know them, to have some kind of interaction in spite of the past. Her love contained a heavy weight, but it was strong and unending, despite all the reasons for it not to be. I think one of the reasons she was so exuberant over the family she built with my Father was the lack of relationship with her brothers and her own Mom and Dad. Although her folks passed on years ago, her brothers are still complete pricks. They hurt my Mother deeply, beyond repair, and for no good reason. Grief makes a fool but greed destroys everything.
            Her relationship with her parents was fractured at best. She rose above the past, however, giving all she could to rebuilding that breach. I used to tell her that some bridges cannot be rebuilt, but she always answered, "That just leaves room for a new bridge." I remember when my maternal Grandfather was dying, constantly pulled back from his rest by my Grandmother. I sat at a distance and watched him repeatedly slip away only to have her call out for him to return to her. Quietly, my Mom leant into his ear and told him to go to the light. You could almost feel his soul leave his body. I remember the tears running down her face as she later said goodbye to her Mother. She loved them in spite of everything. That's the thing about my Mom, her abundant, unconditional love for the people of her life was, and will be, forevermore.
            I still can feel all of that love from here. It will ever be one of the best parts of who I am as a person. She loved with such fury and such passion. I know that the reason I love as I tend to do is a direct result of my Mother's example. It was relentless, relentless and enduring. In spite of her burdens, she would laugh. She laughed loudly, she laughed long and she laughed in the face of it all. I cannot recall her ever getting to the point where she stopped. It may have taken a day, or a week, but you could not silence the joy for life that she carried with her. In that laughter laid great hope that things would turn out okay in the end. Her sardonic, campy and over-the-top humour helped her survive. I hope she is laughing now.
            She is in my laugh. I see her in my smile. I can even hear her when I sing a song, as if she was singing along, just one more time. Somehow, in some way she is with me. I do not want her to leave. I wish that everyone I have met on this voyage was more like her. My God, how she loved. No matter what might happen, or how heavy the cost, she rose up and continued to love even more.  You never had to question it. It was just something that one knew. No distance has been able to defeat it. I cannot imagine who I would have turned out to be if not for her.
            We don't get to pick our family, but I would choose my Mom, to be my Mom, every time. She knew I felt this way. Her death was expected for years, and while I may have been prepared, I was nowhere near ready. I did get to tell her that of all the souls and all the faces I have known in this world, she was my favourite. I took the opportunity to show my love, I seized the day. She taught me well. Even in her death she revealed more to me about love. The way she died, how she died, deeply reflected God's love and mercy. Right up until the end had passed, her life demonstrated the simple yet complex manner by which people love. This does nothing to ease the passing of time without her.
            Time is a trickster. It makes you believe that by investing in it the pain will go away. When you lose someone significant, who mattered to you, it never goes away. You believe that things will get better, but it doesn't get any better, it simply changes into something different. When someone loses a limb to injury or disease, eventually the physical pain goes away. The human being has an incredible knack for adaptation. Even though you get use to the limb no longer there, you still feel it on occasion. It may be long gone, but it is always part of you, an empty space nothing else can fill. All the time in the world might convince you differently, but that limb is still missing.
            It is no longer a difficult thing to make it through each day. Happiness and contentment with my life have returned and flourished. I have gone on without her. When people die, our culture tries to tell you that their love goes with them. There is nothing left of them but material remains. You learn to live without their presence. You may even forget, now and then, that they are no longer here. The important thing to remember is that they still can be. I'm not speaking only of memories. Who you are and how you interact with the people you love is demonstrative of the effect those who left us behind have. Love does not have to die, no matter what they may say.
            Time has passed since she passed away, but I still ask the universe why she had to experience a life that constantly tested her fortitude and resolve. I suppose those who love the most suffer the most. The wind makes roots grow strong.





The Relentless Willow
(Originally Posted Tuesday, March 22 2011)




Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Waiting

"I never thought one day you'd be gone
Away forever more
No one can say
No one could explain
Why you were taken
Where are you now?
Could I get there somehow?

Tell me it's true
Tell me there's something more
Another time for love
One day I'll know
One day I'll be there
Will you be waiting?"
(Goodbye, The Corrs 2004)

            It was obvious to him that she just could not skate. As she continued to try, fumbling against the boards of the ice rink, a smile found its place among the scars of his 20 year-old face. Her determination was clear, but her form seemed to flounder, her 16 year-old body carefully taking to risk, then once again to find ease only against the rails. He watched her, and as she fell, he made the decision that he would come to her rescue. He helped her off the ice and assisted her into the penalty box and safety.

"The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances:
if there is any reaction, both are transformed."
(Carl Gustav Jung, Swiss psychotherapist)

            It was just a few days after Christmas 1958, and they could not have known that chance would bring them together this day. They were both so young, but experience had already taught them that life was hard and hope was quite often a dream. The moment could have easily passed them by, as so many opportunities do in this life. They trusted this ice cold providence and skated away together. Neither one knew it at the time, but in trying to spare her, they both had been saved by love.
            She had come to this small Ontario town to procure her nursing degree. The training school she attended restricted her social contact so she started sneaking out, down the hill after work, leaving the Wingham Hospital behind her. They would meet each other downtown and steal away to a movie or dinner. It was not completely love at first sight, but soon enough she had fallen. He was born a few miles out of town in Teeswater, and then grew up on a farm beside the Wingham River, just outside of the place which one day would bring her to him. His life it seemed was mere working, hard labour, but it was ease for him to see happiness in her eyes.
            Their unique histories knew much sorrow and pain, but now they had found solace with each other. As the snow fell, as the winter winds blew, they slipped into forever. When love is instant and the fall quick, you cannot be sure that you have something that will last. When you take the time to discover love, to know it is for sure, a treasure is soon revealed. Once they both understood that they needed to no longer be alone, the future finally held hope and love held them. They mingled like smoke and air in a crowded room, lingering as if relentless, and soon began their life together.
            There is always uncertainty when love calls out to you. It can seem easier to mute the sound than to join in the singing. When love called out to them, they listened. Although not every member of their respective family was in their corner, they still came out fighting for more. They seized life and risked everything. As seasons changed and opportunity knocked, one day they decided to leave that tiny little town where they had met. Their future would be found in the Big Smoke known as Toronto. 
            The wedding was small but pretty; that August day in1960 marks not where they began but where they were going. She wore her blue nurse’s uniform with white gloves and a dainty corsage. Her hair was full and dark, with a simple veil piece clipped and placed to the left. Her bouquet was crafted by hand. A handful of flowers were simple yet refined. Her full red lips courting a constant smile for this new life she had just vowed herself to and her new husband. He stood tall and he stood proud, but it was his smile that spoke more than anything. His tan jacket and dark trousers layered a white dress shirt and slim, striped necktie. His white handkerchief and silver tie clip polished his look. His hair was short and his face smooth and well-groomed. He had hoped for this day and it had finally come. His sisters and their spouses acted as witness to the beginning of a 50 year marriage. Together they cut the small cake, accented with real flowers and two white candles, symbolic of their union. And so it continued.
            As they left the Willowdale United Church on that meant to be day, a new journey began. They would never have imagined this journey would see the birth of 5 children, relocation away from the metropolis and the passing of parents and siblings. The vows they took that day stood strong against the winds of change and the struggles of life. In the end, after over 50 years together, the only thing that would end up keeping them from each other was death itself.

“As for me, to love you alone, to make you happy, to do nothing which would contradict your wishes, this is my destiny and the meaning of my life”
(Napoleon Bonaparte, French Emperor 1769-1821)

            She died on the floor having fallen again, but this time he could not come to her rescue.  It was silent and it was quick, so she left him alone without goodbye or until we meet again. She did not make the date of her 50th wedding anniversary by a mere three months. The documents on the hallway wall of their home have congratulations from the Queen and the Prime Minister for those 50 years, but they only remind one that she was taken before it was good on paper. Still, the years before their wedding, and from their wedding day, add up to so much more than time and ink.
            For people who do not marry, or cannot marry, the day they met usually marks, for them, the anniversary of their love. We need points of reference in our lives that we can use to remember this moment or that pinnacle. It’s not that we forget them, it is that putting a monument on them, a marker if you will, helps us remember more succinctly and with greater clarity. So too I shall claim that my parents met on a winter day, just after the Christmas rush of 1958, with ice skates on and more than 50 years of love in front of them to share. Life, apparently, looked after the rest.

"Waiting is painful. Forgetting is painful.
But not knowing which to do is the worse kind of suffering.”
(Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist)

            It is hard to watch my father yearn for the only woman he has ever loved. Within her he had lost himself, now without her he longs to be lost again. Over three years have passed since that surreal day when she did not rage against the dying of her light. Time has tricked some into thinking that everything has gone on without her, but I know the one person who has not been fooled. Like the rest of us, he is better than he was at first. Spend a moment, a real moment with him and you realize that she haunts him. She is not like a ghost, or even a memory, their love is like a song that one cannot place outside their head once they have heard it; she is always there with him. It is not hard to find him sitting in his spot, staring into nothing, content in the waiting.


            When the world is bright and fair, time passes with such velocity. When the world is missing the sun and its beauty, you find yourself holding long after the twilight looms and shifts to the darkness. Time drags on. Day by day, moment by moment, you lose a sense of here and now but for the breathing.  Sometimes when the tears have dried and I find myself wishing, I picture her sitting in that penalty box once again. She doesn't know how many days have passed. She is merely waiting for him, placed so pretty and unaware. This scene it is not for rescue but for reunion. 


"If you get there before I do
Don't give up on me
I'll meet you when my chores are through
I don't know how long I'll be
But I'm not gonna let you down
Darling wait and see
And between now and then
Until I see you again
I'll be loving you
Love, Me."
(Love Me, Colin Raye 1991)



Saved by Love...
(Originally Posted Monday, August 2, 2010)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


(The Schofield Kid) "Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming."
(William Munny) "We all got it coming, kid."
(Unforgiven, film 1992)

            The concepts of heaven and hell have always left a bitter taste in my mouth. I cannot grasp any reason a god would have for punishing one person to hellfire yet will reconcile another to itself. I was taught that all sin is equal (James 2:10–11) and the Judeo-Christian God does not play favourites (Acts 10:34). I still believe that we all sin and "fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23, NIV). The idea that one sinner receives redemption based on a formula created using scripture is the antithesis of this equality and often taken out of context (John 3:3). Unable to live up to this mistranslated text, another might very well believe they will perish for exactly the same crimes. This division always seemed to me a rather human creation in its nature and repugnant to my mind. God is not like that.
            Since I was a child, the modern Christian Church has been trying to convince me that there is a place after death for those who do good and a place after death for those who do evil. More extreme and fundamentalist sects of Protestantism, such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, used brainwashing techniques to ingrain their interpretations of scripture into my young adult mind. I was told that only those elect, chosen by God, will be allowed to enter the kingdom. I believed there was a wonderful place where streets are paved with gold and you dance for eternity in a state of bliss. God, however, will punish those who do not meet the criteria for entrance, and those who do not go through Jesus to get there will be sentenced to eternal torture with no chance of parole. Is it really like that?
            Maybe the signals got crossed or it is just wishful thinking on my part. This idea of separation from God after this life and an earth-like realm where the chosen will frolic as a reward never found peace in my mind or spirit. It is rampant, this doctrine that the Christ's death was for a few, those elect, and that many (most) will not see anything but a pit and brimstone is itself heresy. That some are born without any chance whatsoever at redemption is foreign to the God I serve. After all, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2, NIV). If there is Christ, and His Mercy, and His Grace, then our salvation was universal, for all and not just for the few.

"In the end and consummation of the Universe all are to be restored into their original harmonious state, and we all shall be made one body and be united once more into a perfect man and the prayer of our Saviour shall be fulfilled that all may be one."
(St. Jerome, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus c.347-420 CE)

             Origen Adamantius (c. 185–254 CE) was an African Christian scholar and theologian. He is considered one of the most distinguished writers of early Christianity. In spite of this, he is often not considered a Father of the early Christian Church. Although he died before the Constantine era (c. 311 - 324 CE), many consider him responsible for the initial concrescence (unification) of writings which would later be called the New Testament.  According to tradition, he was Egyptian by birth and he taught in Alexandria. As the most influential advocate of Universalism, Origen was heavily influenced by Plato. A stringent believer in the inspiration of Scripture, he distinguished between the allegorical and literal sense of Holy text based on principles of exegesis set down in Platonic writings. He believed that at the end of all things, all beings, perhaps even Satan, would be reconciled to God through what was known as the apokatastasis (restitution/restoration).
            Origen did not always take scripture literally. He used allegory to express the underlying, those things which "were deeper, more important, truths to be discerned in the text." This "hyper-allegorical" position, combined with his teachings on universal salvation, saw Origen branded a heretic. He was not, however, a heretic "desiring to impose his own mental reconstruction of the faith upon the Church: he was a man seeking to use his intellectual abilities to offer possible solutions to questions which in his day had not been answered." Although known to see greater meaning in a non-literal interpretation of scripture, it is reported that, after a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Origen had himself castrated. According to Eusebius (c. 263-339 CE), Origen was castrated so he could teach women without temptation. Some followers of the early Church "considered castration as an acceptable way to counter sinful desires of the flesh."

"For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it." (Matthew 9:12, NIV)

             Generally, most modern academics consider Origen the founder of systematic theology. He gave order to the study. He believed in the pre-existence of the soul. He believed that there were other worlds than our own which God had created and would continue to create.  He believed that life after death was not a physical, but rather, a spiritual state. He wrote that Christ is "lesser than the Father." He believed that Jesus came from God and therefore was conditioned because of this. He believed that all souls would be saved. Punishment after death was a process for correction, not an eternal doom. As if some form of cleansing occurs.
            This cleansing, according to Origen, is "slow and gradual."  He believed the "process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others again follow close at hand, and some again a long way behind." Eventually, all things will be one.
            Man is to be restored through "discipline and chastisement." The world was created for this purpose and pre-existing souls are "incarnated into human bodies." The "process of purification" does not end with death. The soul remains able to choose between good and evil and may continue to fall or may rise. He saw God's punishment as remedial rather than corporal. God is all good and punishment serves nothing other than bringing every soul back unto Him. Hell is not eternal as the soul is always free to repent and then unto restoration. Both the earth (as we know it) and hell (as we think it to be) are mere stages in the "soul's long progress towards God." Man controls his fate after death and hell is not the final destiny of the wicked.

"And when death shall no longer anywhere exist, nor the sting of death, nor any evil at all, then verily God will be 'all in all'." (De Prinicipiis, Origen pre-231 CE)

            All intelligent beings (man, angels, demons) are created equal and good. All receive free will. Some misuse their freedom and become trapped by different degrees of sin. While the fall of demons was greater than the fall of man, both could find salvation beyond the Firmament.  The Firmament, Origen believed, is a corporeal heaven, visible and tangible, consisting of physical form and substance. He theorized that this state of heaven, called the Firmament (Genesis 1:16), "represents our external being which sees physical reality." Heaven was not a palpable construction but rather a spiritual essence where God dwells. The spiritual then represents our mind, "our inner spiritual being which looks on God."   This spiritual world, where angels exist, is the heaven known through Biblical teaching.
            When Origen refers to God as "the universal source of being, and the one who continually wills existence," he understands Creation as "the temporal expression of an eternal order." He did not believe that God required time or space to manifest the heavens and the earth. Intelligence was required to comprehend creation and those more mortal terms such as "In six days" (Genesis 1:31, NIV). Origen notes that the term "days" did not "exist before the sun and moon and stars were formed," and it was very obvious to him that the "days" described in Genesis "do not refer to a literal succession." The creation story refers to "one simultaneous act, but was presented in sequential form to enable us to imagine the process."
            Origen establishes that "bodily nature was created out of nothing after a space of time and brought into being from non-existence." So too he believed "it will resolve itself into non-existence." Since ""bodily matter exists but for a space of time, and just as it did not exist before it was made, so it will again be resolved into non-existence." This position was expressed philosophically, and confirmed through Biblical texts which state that "heaven and earth will pass away" (Joel 2:1-4). Origen's eschatology has the world then having both a beginning and an end. As we have entered into this time through our birth, we then depart through our death, then unto the restoration.
            We cannot know beyond our mortal condition, but Origen believed that "every place forms part of the universe, and the whole universe is God's temple." This world is a place of purification, each level of existence taking us closer to the Divine. The "innumerable worlds" found in Creation all exist at one time. When the end of this world comes, so then will begin another world. He concluded that "a world existed before this world of ours, and another in turn will exist after it, and another after that, and others in constant succession."
            Creation therefore "serves the purpose of salvation." It allows for the soul to choose between that which matter is and that which spirit is. We can discern between good and evil. It is within our nature to reconcile one or the other, we can choose. He believed it was "clearly necessary for men to have a two-fold nature corresponding to the two-fold structure of the cosmos." It is through Creation that the human being can "acknowledge the invisible heaven through the visible things of this world." God speaks to us in the things we know. God has made all things with His wisdom, so too "He created all species of visible things on earth in which to place some knowledge of things invisible, whereby the human mind can mount to spiritual understanding and find the causes of things in heaven."

"So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning, and the termination of things compared with their commencement, that condition of things will be re-established in which rational nature was placed, when it had no need to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him 'all,' and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is "all in all." (De Prinicipiis, Origen)

             The other day, I was doing laundry like I always do during the week. My friend, always there each Tuesday morning when I arrive, sat with me as we waited for our clothes to dry. For the entire time since I befriended this 80-something widow, we have mostly seen eye to eye, theologically speaking. When the topic of salvation and the afterlife came up, I was shocked to learn her position on the fate of the soul. Despite her late husband, to whom she remained married for over 60 years, she doubts, with some certainty, that we will have any contact or memory of the things we knew while here on earth. She does not believe we will recognize, or have contact with, anyone from the life we once lived. For her, our lifespan is our own and hope in something similar, after death, would be for naught.
            I could not help but disagree strongly with her theory. This reality that we exist within, although bound to, matter is based in energy. When we move on into whatever comes after, what we have changed into will be influenced by who we were and what we learned in this space of time. If our metamorphosis is true, then the factors we experienced previous to this change must in some way shape us. If this was not so, then what purpose does this life contain? We are not like the caterpillar that sleeps through their cocoon stage. Human beings are not butterflies on the other side of dreaming. There must be a reason, a cause and effect to our living. While my friend believes in an afterlife, she seems to have missed the point of this life. 

"When a house is being built which is to be made as strong as possible, the building takes place in fine weather and in calm, so that nothing may hinder the structure from acquiring the needed solidity." (Commentary on John - Book V1, Origen)

            Some men spend their lifetime trying to reveal truth; most men make up their own. It has been a challenge for me throughout my spiritual journey to find but a few compassionate and inspired souls which did not exclude others from the realm of salvation. My tenure with Christianity cemented within me the idea of infallible words, infallible people and restrictive thinking. As frequently as men claimed to represent God from this position, their words and/or actions always fell as empty, immanent and judgmental. Although Origen comes from his own reality and expresses his own subjective experience with the Divine, he was the first recognized and validated theologian from history who seemed based in compassion rather than mere doctrine.  
            Although I recognize the cultural and environmental factors that influenced his teachings, Origen's ideas on Universal Salvation and apokatastasis speak volumes on the true nature of an Omniscient God. If I had a say, this is how I would ask God to save me. A continual process of amendment seems so much more like Divine thinking than eternal fire and damnation. I would not want to forget what made me who I am. I have always believed that what we learn through our lifetime of experience is the reason we came here in the first place. To forget it all would simply infer we must go through all this again. His intellectual rebellion, spiritual revelations and heretical ideas still hold water for me years after studying his theology.
            Although Origen's free thinking has formed a modern following based in the Unitarian and Universalist schools of thought, his "all in all" theory is still considered heretical and his followers often labelled as a cult. Personally, I am still not convinced that this is the answer I have been looking for all these years. There is no form of knowledge that has not been touched by the madness of mankind. It is all corrupt to one degree or another. I just don't think we can ever understand the entire picture. I will say it is nice to see a more pleasant landscape for a change. 

"For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be." (De Prinicipiis, Origen)



Origen of this Species
(Originally Posted Wednesday, March 16, 2011)




The Soul, František Drtikol (1930)