Earlier this morning I was reading, A More Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art, a book by my friend, Glenn Hughes, and the chapter on “Art and Spiritual Growth” made me think of Sargent Shriver. I think about Sarge often, of course, and like the rest of his friends and admirers, I miss him. I wish he were still with us, and that we could still engage in the deep, practical and spiritual conversations on religion and politics that we used to have. I miss the way Sarge’s curiosity and probing questions always seemed to throw me back on myself.
So this morning, as Glenn was elegantly and sure-handedly leading me to reflect on what my mind and heart are doing when I allow myself to engage genuinely with a classic work of art, it struck me: the same thing happens when I allow myself to become deeply engaged with Sarge – with his achievements, his decisions, his speeches, the programs he created.
As Glenn points out, when we genuinely open ourselves to the experience of a classic, “we discover an unaccountable vastness of soul and depth of personal development.” We discover – to our bemusement, consternation, and wonderment – that a classic knows us far better than we know ourselves. Again in Glenn’s words, “we discover that it is we who are being scrutinized, we who are being revealed, analyzed to ourselves, and forced to consider ourselves in new ways.”
Harold Bloom made a similar observation about the works of Shakespeare. “You can bring absolutely anything to Shakespeare,” he said, “and the plays will light it up far more than what you bring will illuminate the plays.” So it’s not that Shakespeare – or any other classic – tells us what to think or to value, but that to experience a classic is to have our thinking and valuing “lit up” – to experience ourselves thrown back on ourselves and forced to consider ourselves in a broader horizon of thinking and caring.
I have spoken to countless Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and poverty lawyers over the years, as well as to people who in one way or another knew Sarge or participated in programs he designed and led: Community Action, Head Start, Job Corps, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, Community Health Services. Consistently, they report that their engagement with Sarge and in those programs was life altering, that they found themselves “lit up.”
Using the blog category we’ve entitled, “What Would Sarge Say?”, I will bring my questions to Sarge, engage them with his practical approach to solving problems of human dignity, and see how he lights them up. I will bring questions to Sarge about the contemporary status of issues he addressed: like ending poverty, making peace, restoring the legitimacy of the rule of law, infusing spiritual values into public affairs. I expect that in his words and decisions and achievements “we will discover an unaccountable vastness of soul” that throws us back on ourselves, ignites our curiosity, and open us up to new and welcome horizons of thinking and caring and acting.