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The sin I couldn't give up: What led me away from my strict Christian commune and back to the world

At 19, I joined a controlling religious community, and my world became small. Her books cracked it wide open


Chris Harold
October 30, 2016 3:30AM (UTC)

The Flannery O’Connor stories had grabbed hold of me and I wanted more. It was the mid 1980s and Chicago’s North Side was thick with used book stores, and prices were cheap. A good clean hardback might be as little as a dollar. A few miles south on Clark street was Aspidistra, my favorite shop, which had half-price Mondays. Mondays were our day off, so I would take the bus down and I wander the dusty shelves for hours. I went into a trance scanning titles. All the books stacked floor to ceiling, the yeasty smell of yellowed pages, all those possibilities of something new, the world expanding. Books were also magically portable. I could drop them into a bag and take them back to the Ministry and they would still work even when I was there. In their pages I could sneak out into the world but still remain in the sure circle of my higher calling.

I’d been in the Ministry for over a year. Two months out of high school I drove from my small Appalachian river town to Chicago where I traded in the world for an ideal. What started as a vague desire to serve the poor, to save the world, gradually became a calling to this particular group. We all lived together in a few squat buildings scattered among the poor and run-down neighborhoods of Uptown. The Ministry enforced strict rules for living. Brothers and sisters lived in separate, crowded dorms, sleeping on homemade bunk beds and secondhand mattresses. Married couples lived in one single room with the children mingled together in dorms of their own. We ate from a common kitchen, we lived from a common purse, and we worked only for our common cause. When we went out into the city, we went together — a brother named Ken accompanied me to the bookstore. Each day we invited a few hundred flophouse drunks, homeless psychotics and poor neighborhood families into our dining room to eat beans and rice from paper plates. Sometimes we took in runaways, gave out food staples, or donated clothes. When I wrote home to friends and family I stressed these good works. But over time it seemed that we fed the hungry not so that any one particular hungry person would have a meal, but as proof that the Lord had called us to a better way. Over time the brothers and sisters in the Ministry became more and more real to me, but the hungry and needy slowly turned grey and anonymous. I tried not to let this trouble me and I clung to the facts of our good deeds as hard evidence that, in the Ministry, we had found a way to rise above a materialistic world of selfishness and uncertainty.

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But it was not as simple as leaving the world and joining the group. I had to learn how to die to myself and my selfish desires, to lay down all my individual gifts and ambitions for the greater good of our collective vision. I learned fast and I learned well and within a year I became a trusted brother. With this trust came certain rewards. I still remember the day I came before the council of Elders, the way they all smiled down on me in my embarrassment as I asked for the hand of a pretty wide-eyed girl who’d grown up in the Ministry. The Council approved my engagement to the girl and then all ten of them surrounded me, some with long hair and beards, some with tie-dyed shirts, and they laid their hands on me and prayed a blessing over my future marriage. At 19 years old, I’d found my wife, my purpose and the place I wanted to be for the rest of my life.

As I bumped along Clark Street and the physical distance to the main house grew, a slight crack opened between myself and the Ministry. The world around me, usually grey and uninteresting, reignited with faded color. Across from my seat sat a man in a rumpled suit jacket, worn wool dress pants and battered brown shoes. He carried an old briefcase on his lap and his gnarled, big-knuckled fingers lay entwined on the cracked fake leather. Those were laborer’s hands and bony knees and a working man’s weather-worn face. There before me was a man with enough contradictions, who raised so many questions, that his story demanded a certain amount of attention, demanded that I make room for it in my mind. And yet, what room did I have for him? What room did I have for any of the world’s questions that did not belong to the answers I’d already found? Where did he fit into my version of life that had already answered all my questions? Nowhere. He fit nowhere. Flannery O’Connor would have written a story about him, but what could I do, confronted with this big question mark of a man, except to look away?

I tried to guide my thoughts back to the meeting with the Council and see again the approval on their faces, feel their hands on me, lifting and carrying me into the future. But instead, I saw only Nick’s face swimming up into my mind, his eyes hidden behind the glare of his little round glasses and I felt, just as I did when I sat in his presence, suddenly exposed. Nick was what we called my “covering,” the Elder I confessed my sins to, the person to whom I opened my heart and to whom I submitted all important questions or decisions for his wisdom and guidance. When I shared with Nick, his eyes, hidden behind the glint of the glass, bored into me, past all my defenses, past the things I’d done, right down to the truth about who I was. How many times had he told me that pride and arrogance were my besetting sins? “You think you know better than anyone else. That’s your problem. You need to learn to listen to those God has put over you and stop thinking you know it all.” My problem, I learned, was not what I did, but who I was.

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Maybe my heart wasn’t true. Maybe I was holding onto a secret ambition I had not yet surrendered. What good would these books do for me? Would they make me a more godly brother? More willing to lay down my own desires? I hadn’t told Nick that I’d been going to the bookstore on my day off. I was hiding from myself the keen intuition that he wouldn’t approve.

Aspidistra organized their chaos of titles into reasonable categories -- fiction, history, art -- but there was enough disorganization to encourage the thrill of the hunt. Anything might be in those stacks. A first edition. A rare antique from the 1800s. It was nothing to find signed copies of Saul Bellow novels. One day I was scanning the fiction section for O’Connor. I already owned everything she had published, I thought, but I always looked for her name in hopes that somehow, even though she was long dead, something new from her might appear. And on this day it did. There on the shelf was a title I’d never seen before: "The Habit of Being." I pulled it from the shelf, a large paperback with a plum-colored cover, heavy in my hand, and with that odd title, in an elaborate font, that defied any sense of what the book could be about. Then I saw that it was her collected letters, and I opened it and began reading. The introduction, by O’Connor’s friend, told about her long illness and her life on a Georgia farm with her mother and the farm help. There was no one sentence in the first few letters that stood out, no one quote that gave some profound insight. Instead, what spoke to me was her voice; in it I heard the ease and humor and the non-anxious implacable sturdiness of her view of the world. She wrote about a trip to New York City: “There is one advantage in it because although you see several people you wish you didn’t know, you see thousands you’re glad you don’t know.” A few pages later, she wrote: “I have just discovered that my mother’s dairyman calls all the cows he: he ain’t give but two gallons, he ain’t come in yet... I reckon he doesn’t like to feel surrounded by females or something.” And in another place, she wrote about her first novel, “The book was not agin free-will certainly, which all the characters had plenty of and exercised I felt with deadly determination.” And then, in another place, “I have twenty-one brown ducks with blue wing bars. They walk everywhere they go in single-file.”

Still reading, I walked straight to the front of the store, where the rumpled man with the thick black-framed glasses, puffy eyes and black hair twisting out from the sides of an otherwise bald head was sitting behind a cracked glass case. He scowled at me when I interrupted his reading. Normally I would have stayed half the day, but now all I wanted was to go curl up in my bed and do nothing until I’d read through every word. The few pages I’d already scanned felt as though O’Connor was taking me by the hand and into her confidence. I wanted to be alone with her.

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On the way home I read on the bus and while we were walking back to the main Ministry house on Beacon Street. With every page Flannery was becoming more alive. There was, too, something about her voice that had set off a dissonance inside me, but I could not locate the source of the uneasiness. I went straight to my dorm, climbed up into my loft and opened the pages. My hands shook and my breathing was shallow. My body responded to the book like it was a lustful temptation. I was aroused and alert and focused on only my desire.

There was too much to read in one sitting, even with a whole afternoon and evening to do nothing else. I sank into Flannery’s voice -- it was immediately familiar, direct, and I imagined her with that lovely sideways smile, as she appeared on book-flap photos. She was unsentimental and yet her words went deep to a place that both hurt and changed me. One sentence knocked me over with its insight into faith and the next cracked me up with a dead-on imitation of a hillbilly farm wife. By the time I read 20 pages, I was in love. But now it was not only her writing, but her person I loved, that glowing definite Flannery that leapt off those pages and fixed herself deep in my heart. I imagined her out on the farm, walking on crutches, then pausing on the dusty path, head cocked, with a wise and bemused smile taking it all in: the peafowl, the fierce blood-red sunsets, the toothless farmhands. All the while she was thinking about “the plentitude of being” and working out a symbol for her latest story and all of it expanding and deepening -- a world enlarging and worthy of her wit and soul.

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The book also became a way to educate myself. I found an index in the back with all the authors listed that O’Connor referenced. Most of them I had never heard of before, especially the philosophers: Jacques Maritain, Romano Guardini, Gabriel Marcel, Teilhard de Chardin. I photocopied the index and took it with me to stores around the city in search of their books. I figured anything O’Connor read, I had better as well.

I wasn’t sure how all the new things I was reading fit with the Ministry. I felt an uneasy tension as the world in my mind kept expanding, as I kept learning and wanting to learn more. It was like a plucked string vibrating discordantly inside me. Two images set off the discord. One was of Nick pointing at me from across his room as I sat, shame-faced, receiving his rebuke. I could supply his words because I already knew what he would say: “Was your sin in reading the books? No. Your sin was that you did not want to give up the books. Your sin was that you wanted something (anything!) more than the Ministry to which the Lord had so clearly called you.” Then he would drop his hand and shake his head in sadness, “Don’t you understand? Any desire, no matter how small or seemingly innocent, could become an idol, could displace the only rightful object of your devotion -- the Lord.” The second image was of Flannery hobbling into the main door of the Ministry, into the dining room where we were all gathered singing and raising our hands. She leaned on her crutches and narrowed her eyes behind those vintage horn-rimmed glasses, a sardonic half-smile beginning to form on her lips. She would see us differently than how I wanted her to see us. Even though I had conjured her from my imagination, still my imagined Flannery looked at us like we were kin to the Southern fanatics that tickled her so. I squirmed under her gaze and felt the presence of a larger world looming up behind her face like a giant halo.

Although I sensed that the world of the books and the world of the Ministry could not fit together, I desperately wanted to somehow mesh them into one reality. Even all those years before I left, I sensed that I was traveling slowly away from the Ministry and not, as I told myself I wanted, deeper into it. Though there were no obvious sins in the words of the books, I could feel their agitation bumping up against the words I already had, the words given by Nick and the Elders -- words that made a smooth and seamless garment of certainty. In those words everything fit together. Everything was accounted for. But here was Flannery with her books sending tremors through my peace. Small rips appeared at the seams, which I did not yet know were stitched together by my secret fear of the world. The Lord, I knew, was not satisfied with this divided devotion. The Lord wanted me to lay down my life, give all, and disappear into perfect obedience.

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Confessing was part of life in the Ministry, and Nick had told me that if I were to grow in the Lord, I needed to be humble and transparent and I shouldn’t hide anything. Sin, he said, wanted the dark, but he would help me shine a light on it and see it clearly for what it was and not let me be deceived by my natural, fleshly arrogance. Independence and pride, he said, those were my two big sins. If Nick felt that the books were leading me astray, that they were contributing to my pride, then he would tell me to give them up, lay them down for the Lord. I had hidden the reading from him for too long. I was afraid that I was drifting away from my calling and so I finally went to Nick to confess. I knew my confession would stop the dissonance, but I also nursed a secret, irrational hope that he would understand the joy I’d found in the reading. That he would approve and the two worlds might be joined.

In Nick’s room Penny, his wife, was flitting about, moving stacks of papers from one place to another but making no progress in improving the messy piles. Nick followed Penny with his grey eyes when she moved an object, as if he wanted to keep track of what she was doing and where everything ended up. While she was constantly in motion, Nick sat calmly in his chair, often with a heavy, leather-bound Bible on his lap. He kept his dark curly hair tamed into a pile on top of his head, cut short in the back and sides, and with his square jaw and stiff manner, he gave the impression of an old and sophisticated elegance. He was Southern, from a wealthy family somewhere in Georgia, and his upper lip sometimes curled with the disdain of a rich man’s spoiled son. Whenever I came into his room Nick and I talked, but he never included Penny in the conversation. Sometimes she would ask him where an item should go and Nick would take a long time to answer -- slowly raising his head and turning a blank face to her before he drew a deep breath, sighed, and then pointed and said simply, “Over there. Over there.”

When I told him the book I was reading was philosophy -- Jacques Maritain’s "Existence and the Existent" -- Nick’s face went blank. Philosophy was something that seemed to perplex him. He was unsure how to give me firm spiritual direction on the subject, so he was quiet and looked down his nose at me while he chewed at the corner of his lip. He was making up his mind how to handle this new wrinkle in my formation.

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“Did you take a buddy to the bookstore?” He asked.

“Yes. Of course. I went with Ken.”

“Ken’s too young in the Lord; if you go at all, it should be with an older brother.”

“OK,” I said. My simple agreement seemed to stump him for a moment and he drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair and then narrowed his eyes at me.

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“Did you submit those books?” He asked.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to submit them.” This answer was mostly true. When we were told to submit something, it meant that we should go to the appropriate Ministry authority to ask for approval. But I let my conscience off on a technicality: Although I knew the general rule for submission, I didn’t know for sure that books, specifically, needed approval. But I also knew that if the books were not approved, I would have to get rid of them.

Nick rolled his eyes and sighed, long and loud.

“You’ve been here long enough to know,” he said.

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“I will submit them. I just didn’t know who to go to . . .”

“Well, you already bought them, didn’t you? It’s a little late now.” Nick’s voice broke on a high note as he said this, and he shook his dark head in disappointment. He pressed his lips together -- like a petulant woman -- and waved away my words as I began an explanation. I clutched my bag on my lap, thinking of the titles hidden inside, of all the pages I’d already read and all that were still waiting for me.

I pushed down my selfish desires and said, finally, “I can sell them back to the store.” But the words sounded hollow and insincere. I didn’t want to give them up. I loved the way each new book extended and colored another undiscovered country and how my soul, in turn, was enlarged and mirrored that expanded world.

He held out his hand for me to give him the book. I pulled it out quickly, to show no hesitation, no lack of willingness to be transparent. The book was a thin, brittle-paged paperback that I’d tracked down from the index in "The Habit of Being." Reading it was like trying to stare through a thick curtain at some brilliant and beautiful scene outside only hinted at by the vague contours of Maritain’s sentences. “Being is... infinite amplitude of an implicitly multiple object which... permeates all things and descends, in its irreducible diversity, into the very heart of each.” I hardly understood a word. And yet I found it beautiful, soul-filling.

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Nick took the book, squinted at the title, turned it over and read a few words on the back and then shoved it back toward me.

“What in the world are you reading?”

“It’s philosophy. He’s a Christian . . . a Catholic Christian,” I quickly corrected myself so that Nick would not think I was being deceitful. Don’t keep anything in the dark, I thought.

“I’ve never heard of him.” Nick let the statement stand as a kind of accusation and stared at me, but I only shrugged. Nick took a deep breath, and, as if he were too tired to continue, he softened his tone.

“Show it to Jan at the magazine, I guess. He’ll know if it’s off.” And then he leaned forward and stared into my eyes. “But you really should be spending more time with something that will help you grow. This stuff will only feed your independence.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes.” I wanted to be true to my calling. I also wanted to grow and I didn’t mean to hide anything from Nick. But, at that moment, all I could think about was retreating to my room and having another go at the bright and hazy light in those pages. I didn’t know it then, but in that moment something shifted inside and I sealed off a tiny corner of my heart that the Ministry would never reach.

“Nick. Nick.” Penny was repeating his name, holding up a shirt from the laundry, as we were talking. Nick finally glanced over, but was staring through her. I could tell he was still thinking of the next thing to say to me. Penny chattered away and I thought of what Maritain wrote about the plentitude of being and how there were inexhaustible depths of knowability even in a blade of grass. I felt for a moment giddy and dizzy with this plentitude. I could feel it out there somewhere, waiting for me. While Nick was distracted, I dropped Jacques Maritain into my bag and slipped quietly from the room.

Maybe if I had hesitated, waited another moment before I made my escape from his room, Nick would have realized what he wanted to say and then I would have given in, and repented. Maybe I would have given over that last scrap of myself so that I finally disappeared into a more perfect devotion. Maybe, but who knows?

I still keep my tattered copy of "The Habit of Being" near at hand. It took years for that tiny space in my heart to lead me back into the world I had rejected. It took still more years for that verdant part of my heart to revive and recolor the world with all the beauty I had overlooked. I keep Flannery’s book nearby and sometimes I pull it from the shelf and hold its familiar heft in my hands so that, once again, I can feel the protection of my unlikely angel.

 


Chris Harold

Chris Harold lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and two children. He takes up weekday residence in a corporate cubicle where his time and work are traded for money. He learned that this is the kind of thing people must do after he left his life in a religious commune. For some time, he's been waking up early to write about that previous life, which he intends to make into a memoir.

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