Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Out of the dark -- Part 2

A few more thoughts on coming of age. Yesterday I mentioned falling in love with a bright-spirited young woman and the study of science as formative influences of my early adulthood. Last evening at table I thought of two more influences that must be acknowledged. Kindly indulge my reverie.

I was at UCLA at the time (the University of California at Los Angeles, 1959-60), a grad student in physics, just married, and still in the throes of a Jansenistic Catholicism. One day I wandered into the university's art galley, which had been given over to the work of Sister Mary Corita Kent and her students at LA's Immaculate Heart College -- a joyous explosion of colorful words and images such as I had never seen, Catholic in their essence, but not explicitly so. Well, wait, I had seen something like this before, at St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, in the work of Norman Laliberte and his students, including our sometime contributor Anne (see pic above). But here were rooms spilling over with art proclaiming that the point of religion is joy and love. I was deeply moved, and returned again and again to the gallery until the end of show.

Meanwhile, I ate my brown-bag lunch each day in the university's botanical garden with new friend and fellow grad student in physics Moises Levy, a Panamanian secular Jew (as I recall), who indulged my naive religious certainty with a kindly, bemused generosity. In the course of those lunches, surrounded by a wonderful variety of exotic plants - - Darwin's tangled bank? -- I imbibed from Levy a suspicion that the dualisms that had been so much a part of my early education -- natural/supernatural. body/soul, matter/spirit -- were not only without empirical foundation, but that modern science had rendered the distinctions superfluous. It was as if I had received permission to take pleasure in the world of the here and now.

Sister Corita left her order in 1968 and plied her radically-innovative art in opposition to war and in praise of ecumenical joy. She died in 1986 at age 68. It was she who turned the huge Dorchester gas tank in Boston into a much beloved work of art.

I have no idea what became of Moises Levy, but owe him -- and our common love of physics -- a debt of gratitude. I find more to celebrate in the tiny red spider mite that is at this moment crawling across my computer screen than in all the theological paraphernalia of my youth.