How Sacred Literature Finds You
While staring out of the library window of Gannon College in Erie, Pennsylvania where I was an undergraduate English major in the contemporary novel seminar of the brilliant Dr. John Roach, I saw a bus pulling into the Greyhound Station. On that bus was Augie March, the eponymous character in Saul Bellow's “The Adventures of.”
I was Augie March, and Mr. Bellow knew me pretty well. Here's how Augie narrated our story:
Thinking this, I told the telegraph girl to forget about the wire, I was leaving town. [Buffalo.]
Not to be picked up on the road in northern New York, I took a ticket to Erie at the Greyhound Station, and I was in the Pennsylvania corner that evening. To get off in Erie gave me no feeling that I had arrived somewhere, in a place that was a place in and for itself, but rather that it was one which waited on other places to give it life by occurring between them, the breath of it was thin, just materialized, waiting. . .
However, as I felt on entering Erie, Pennsylvania, there is a darkness. It is for everyone. You don't, as perhaps some imagine, try it, one foot into it like a barbershop “September Morn.” Nor are lowered into the weeds inside a glass ball to observe the fishes. Nor are lifted straight out after an unlucky tumble like a Napoleon from the mud of the Arcole where he had been standing up to his thoughtful nose while the Hungarian bullets broke the clay off the bank. Only some Greeks and admirers of theirs, in their liquid noon, where the friendship of beauty to human things was perfect, thought they were clearly divided from the darkness. And these Greek too were in it. But still they are the admiration of the rest of the mud-sprung, famine knifed, street-pounding, war-rattled, difficult, painstaking, kicked in the belly, grief and cartilage mankind, the multitude, some under a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos smoke, some inside a heaving Calcutta midnight, who very well know where they are.
And I was in Erie, Pennsylvania on the day when I read that passage and in many ways still am although the weather is much more like the Bay area of San Francisco's.
Some time later that same week, my memory tricks me into believing, I met the famous New York guru, Baba Ram Dass, at Mercyhurst College and heard him answer a question about which were the “sacred” texts. His answer was quietly uttered, “Sacred . . . books . . .are . . . uniquely . . . sacred . . . to each . . . individual. . . . You . . .know . . . them . . . when . . . you . . . come . . . across them. . . . In a sense . . .they . . . seek . . . you . . .out.”
What made me think of all of this today, is that the above pictured book miraculously found its way back in the trunk of my car at the bottom of a recycled “Trader Joe's” shopping bag. Apparently my wife had plucked it from a “sharing tree” in Portand, Oregon many weeks ago along with a half dozen, assorted children's books. And I believe that Saul Bellow had left those pages from Augie's journal entry for me to find across the street from that same Greyhound Station those many years before.
And I believe that all the arts become sacred when they catch our reflections deep within their mirrored surfaces and lead us in directions that we would not otherwise have imagined and that their creation and study can be an ends rather than just a means in the fulfillment of our lives. This last sentence I heard from Dr. Roach himself.