My favorite class at Harvard was actually one I took at the Divinity School. It was called “Holy Ordinary: Religious Dimensions in Modern and Contemporary Fiction,” and it was taught by Dr. Albert Raboteau, visiting Professor Emeritus from Princeton in religion and history.
His class was nothing less than a sanctuary for me – which sounds melodramatic; Harvard really doesn’t merit melodramatics, but it became clear to me very early on that Dr. Raboteau is–I don’t want to say just a firm Christian; I know lots of firm Christians who don’t inspire the same kind of affection and respect he does in me. He is very much at ease in discussing spiritual matters, and perhaps more importantly, he is crucially aware of just how present God is in the world.
When I think of him, the word that comes to mind is holy, the way the old church fathers were holy, I think.
He is a frail, elderly gentleman with Einsteinian frizzy white hair. When he talks, I have to strain to hear – he speaks softly and gently. When any of us spoke, he listened just as intently. I always felt a little bit startled and on display when he turned his eyes onto me–always with the greatest of gentleness, but his gaze really made me want to say something worth hearing. I’m afraid I stretched it a bit at times, but I wanted him to know that Christ had knocked at my heart, too.
Every book we read was a gem. I’d read some of them before – O’Connor, Eliot, Hopkins, Robinson. But there were others that were new to me – Percy. Bernanos. Baldwin. We started out by reading William Trevor’s Death in Summer, the story of a man grieving the loss of his wife and trying to raise their baby girl.
[Spoiler alert] Encouraged by his mother in law, he decides to look for someone to care for the baby. One of the girls interviewed is mentally ill, though he doesn’t know it, after being abused while growing up in an orphanage. She becomes obsessed with the protagonist and his baby. In the end, she dies offscreen and is lovingly memorialized by a friend of hers in a deeply moving scene. [End spoiler alert].
One of my dearest and most vivid memories from Harvard is Dr. Raboteau’s eyes tearing up and his voice shaking when we discussed that final scene. I remember immediately going to God about it and hoping for that same kind of spirit, that welcomes even flawed and simple characters into the heart and joyfully grants them weight. It’s more than just loving a story; this is an Ivy League professor with years of experience and a life story that is full of real sorrow going to the level of a simple-minded, troubled child as an equal, and entering into her griefs just as completely – more so, even – than she has. The lived out Christlikeness of that still grips me.
Later in the semester, Dr. Raboteau arranged for our class to watch Nathaniel Dorsky’s 2002 silent film The Visitation. I still remember walking into the Carpenter Center feeling a little off-kilter–my philosophy of film/tv is perhaps a bit too shaped by Neil Postman, and I wasn’t sure how a film was meant to fit into the space our prior readings had crafted in my mind. Also, the film was silent, so I had suspicions that I tried to shove to the back of my mind that I would be bored. Of course, I was there early, and we were delayed a bit waiting for classmates to find the place and for the film to get set up, and somehow I ended up sitting next to Dr. Raboteau.
Looking back– I always knew that if I have the opportunity to spend time with someone I truly look up to, I’m not going to know what to talk about. I don’t know why I felt so obligated to make small talk then; I knew Dr. Raboteau was going to welcome silence as much as conversation, but I didn’t know how to stop talking. Finally, finally, the film began.
It took me a few minutes to wrest my attention away from dissecting the inanities I’d been offering. A deep breath, a quick prayer, and then a sinking into the film, like the sea being drawn into the sand.
I didn’t know a film could do what Dorsky’s did. Does. It’s hard to describe the content of the film, exactly. It’s a montage of short snippets of video; each snippet is more or less the equivalent of a still life. You can see a couple of the stills here. Some of them are recognizable scenes; others aren’t. There is no plot, either to the stills or the film as a whole, and no characters either. In fact, people only make a few appearances at all. And of course, it’s completely silent.
It sounds like it should be boring, and pretentiously arty, but it took my breath away. To say that it reflected the beauty and love with which God created the world is as close as I can come to saying why it affected me the way it did, but that still cheapens it somehow. It did more than that–I think it takes the viewer into the mind of a stranger, so the viewer can literally see the world through the eyes of another, and that’s — sacred. And intimate, and made more so by the silence and the grace of the film. Even the lengths of video used startled me; long enough to defamiliarize the familiar, and by doing so, to show the many ways God makes himself known to us.
I was profoundly grateful for the few minutes of silence that followed after the film was finished. I felt like crying, and I wasn’t even sure why. All of us were floored by what we had watched, and I think we all felt a little exposed around each other. Class afterward felt stilted and a little awkward (I had too much words before, and none after!), but that silence was good. The quality of it–it wasn’t a “calm before the storm” quiet, or a deathly quiet, or a bored quiet; it was the sort of quiet that to me feels like bedrock, that’s tied to deep-seated contentment. I love that sort of quiet, but I pretty much only feel it when I’m alone (which is mostly why I’m so jealous of my solitude!) To experience it with people around was overwhelming, but that’s on me, not on any of my classmates.
I remember being really quiet and really content the rest of the day. I remember walking home late that night, and finding my Massachusetts street, populated with trees and charming old houses, covered in fog that glowed orange-y gray from the streetlights, and finding it breathtaking too, as though it belonged too in the Dorsky film.