Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Kedushah ("Holy, holy, holy ...!") [11 Sept. 2013]

A fraternity brother of mine from the University of Illinois, a guy I'll call Kevin, was run over by a bus; and although various medical teams were able — after many months and operations — to put his body back together, he remained brain-damaged. Primarily his short-term memory was impaired, which was particularly unfortunate since he had a beautiful speaking voice and had intended to go into radio but could no longer reliably read a script.

            I graduated and was in graduate school at Illinois when another fraternity brother was about to be married and with the help of several of the guys Kevin did his job as best man and threw a bachelor party in Chicago for groom-to-be. I took a train from Champaign to Chicago for the party, getting a ride to and from the train from a guy I hadn't met before, but another English grad student, from the University of Chicago.

            On the way back to the Illinois Central, the U of C guy and I talked, with a good deal of circumspection, about Kevin, and I told him how I had asked Kevin, as tactfully as I could, what he intended to do with, well, his life.

            Kevin said he'd heard about problems between police and communities — it was the late 1960s — and he thought he would try to become a cop: "It's something I can do to serve."

            The thought went through my mind about what a good, incredibly good person Kevin was to worry about, after all he'd been through, serving others.

            I thought of all the people on the list for suffering way ahead of Kevin, and the thought hit me that on that list was me.

            Kevin was a living rebuke.

            The U of C student and I talked around the point for several minutes, and then he said, very cautiously, "I think Kevin is holy."

            I said, "Yeah, I do too," and realized that that was what I'd felt when Kevin said he wanted to be a cop.

            "What did you do," the U of C guy asked; and I said, "I fled."

            "Yeah," he said back, "I did too."

            "It's traditional," he said. And he was right. If people didn't prostrate themselves and revere the holy man — or stone him to death — one standard response was flight. It wasn't a far flight with us and Kevin; we just got out of his immediate presence, someplace else at the party. But we did get out of his presence, even though he was a friend.

            I was and am serious: Kevin was a living rebuke to me, and to the U of Chicago guy, and probably to you. Sweet, harmless Kevin was scary, and we fled.

            The stereotype was that University of Illinois grads are down-to-Earth and sensible and pragmatic, and I was introduced at Cornell as "a cynical little bastard from Chicago with a background in the sciences." The University of Chicago stereotype is more toward the abstract and philosophical, but "cynical" is part of the image, pretty central to the image.

            The U of C guy and I were very careful comparing notes because not just stereotypes but our literal self-images were at stake; but we needed to compare notes since we'd both just dealt with — poorly — the uncanny.

            "I think Kevin is holy."

            We experienced Kevin as a Holy Fool, and we'd responded to him as many people have responded to the holy: with discomfort moving into a kind of low-key panic. He was that rebuke to who and what we were, a standard of innocence and kindness against which even two pretty nice guys appeared to ourselves as foul.

            Combine that holiness with articulate intellect in an impatient man with a temper — let's say a Prophet like Isaiah; someone like Amos or Isaiah comes along and it's "Get the rocks, gang, we're driving this guy out!"

            Kevin's was the quiet, gentle kind of holiness, but still, in its mild way, terrifying.

            I do not know if God exists, and I see little reason to believe in anything supernatural short of God. But holiness exists. That much I'm sure of. I've experienced it, and, like the other grad student, in one traditional response, I fled.

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