aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Work thoughts

I read the manuscript of a talk given by Tom Shippey on C.S. Lewis's published diaries (All My Road Before Me) of the 1920s. Various persons have tried to extract from these diary entries various clues to Lewis's life that are, simply, not there. In fact, what is most often missed, says Shippey, is what these entries tell us about the world of work that Lewis was entering upon.

Biographers concentrate on things other than work in a subject's life. There are so many other, more interesting things, to investigate. But work, as such, is one of the biggest things in our lives as we ourselves experience them. Eight hours a day, five days a week, and more, this is what we do. It defines us. And it marks us.

Shippey notes that Lewis's shift from Classics to English in order to land an academic job landed him in the middle of an academic feud and ongoing debacle that has never healed. Both he and J.R.R. Tolkien tried for the whole length of their careers to heal the breach between the Lang. and Lit. people. And they failed. They failed -- so far as their work went. That they succeeded beyond all expectation out in the world beyond academia (and thus, incidentally, proved the point they were struggling to make) has still not been forgiven them by their fellow scholars.

I can see this very clearly. I have, after all, a degree in English, and I can say without fear of being unfair to anyone that all the most important stuff I've ever learned about English -- either as a language or as a body of literature -- I have learned by myself, on the side, or through other disciplines, and not through the coursework in English I have had either in high school or college. The teaching of English at both the secondary and undergraduate level generally fails both Lang. and Lit. The debacle which is college English began just before Lewis entered Oxford as a student, and it has outlasted him by fifty years and counting.

But Shippey isn't just indulging in another harrumph about his own academic field. He is at pains to say that Lewis's bitterness, his judgmentalism, that often shows in his diaries, and which he fought against his whole life can largely be attributed to the nest of scorpions in which he labored for so many years. I can identify with that, too. I have been a Member of a United Methodist Annual Conference for over forty years. There were things I hoped to accomplish in that span, a shared pride and unity that I looked forward to celebrating, that have mostly eluded me.

I'm not talking about the sum of all my experiences in the parish. I'm talking about an experience of the church that most laypersons cannot understand. As a Full Member of the clergy, a whole lot of my identity is necessarily bound up in Conference relationships, Conference politics, Conference successes or failures. As a retired elder, the Conference is my local church in a way the congregation I participate in each week cannot be. And it has marked me.

Nowadays, we are desperate for young clergy. When I entered the union, eager to belong and to shoulder my share of the responsibilities, I was told -- explicitly -- to shut up and stay out of the way until I was asked to ascend to wider participation. I volunteered for many things we said we were hard up for people to do, to no avail. It took me years to be accepted as a responsible member of the body. My contribution simply was not valued.

As for belonging, well, I had no depth of background with Methodism or the conference. I came in from out of left field. I was willing to work with the liberals (we now generally call them progressives), but I had little sympathy for some of their enthusiasms. As for the evangelicals, since I didn't speak in their code, I couldn't get much traction with them, either, no matter how orthodox I was. Like Lewis, who ultimately tried to make his own subject out of the battling factions he was presented with, I tried to chart my own course. But that means that at the end of the day, I still don't really feel like I belong anywhere.

And now come yet more elections to General Conference. I am fairly jaded about this. In one sense, it doesn't really matter who wins these elections: The United Methodist Church is breaking up, and nothing anybody can do can probably stop that. The only questions are whether we will separate peaceably or un-peaceably, and who leaves the remainder to whom. I do not think that four years from now I will belong to the same denomination I do now. I may leave it, or it may leave me, but there is no holding us all together.

And while finding myself in a new, and perhaps less contentious, church setting may be a good thing, with service to God I can still offer, nothing can return to me or to my colleagues the years the locust has eaten, the opportunities we have lost, the things we might have done and the things we might have built for Christ. So while I am reasonably hopeful for the future, and not clinging to the bitterness of the past, yet -- it has marked me.

In the end, none of us is guaranteed what the world calls success. None of us is guaranteed high position, or an institutional legacy that will outlast our lifetime. We must be content to aim for faithfulness, not success. And in that, I have done my best. I have kept my vows. I have found my share of the lost and brought them home, even if their number is less than someone else's. My life has not been wasted. But in the stillness of the night, my own voice reproaches me with what I postponed, with what I could have done, in order to wrestle with stupid feuds and useless tasks and wearying responsibilities imposed on me by an organization that is now dying (and taking an unconscionably long time doing it).

When those feelings -- and those of regret that I can no longer summon the energies I once had or count on the time to use them -- I remind myself of Dante being told by Virgil to run his fingers through the wet grass on the shore of Mt. Purgatory and wash his face in the dew, so that the tears he shed in Hell may be wiped away and he may present a cheerful countenance. For the first duty of the pentitent soul is cheerfulness, not to regret the sins that are left behind, and not to wallow in regret for lost opportunities, either, but to press ahead. After all, landing on the shores of Purgatory means that you are saved, not lost, and God is still ahead of you, with a mountain still to be climbed all the way to the top. And may it be so.

As often as I descend into the trough, I climb back out and set my face to go on.

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