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.
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
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,
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."
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."
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.