Author: Art Petersen '54

This poem by Art Petersen ’54 is direct from his typewriter to the magazine.


The Theology prof walked in
and dropped a pile of “blue
books,” blank for essays, on
the desk, then scrawled on
the blackboard, “What is God?”
After making it clear he did
not want a catechetical an-
swer, we were free to use
notes, go to the library,
whatever. The last to finish
should collect the exams
and bring them to room 317
Alumni Hall. I remember
passing the course but am
still trying to finish the exam.

“There is an ambiguity about
all that occurs in our lives,”
says Simon Tugwell, “Which
we must not seek to
resolve.” He was studying
those curiously ambiguous
declarations known as The
Beautitudes {Blessed are the
meek, etc.}. I find myself re-
peating the last phrase, “which
we must not seek to resolve.”
So I look up the word “am-
biguous” and it traces to a
French verb meaning “to
wander about.”

After I passed that Theology
course, life took over, in
rapid succession, wife, four
kids, job, house. I loved it.
Until I got half-way through and
there was no turning back and I
needed to know there’d be someone
on the opposite shore to meet me.
I got serious about religion be-
cause it promised certainty, some-
thing to hold onto.

But the 1960s were for “letting
go.” Not for “holding on.” They
began with John Kennedy and Pope
John XXIII and the Peace Corps,
everything was possible. Psychol-
ogy was going mainstream so I
subscribed to Psychology Today
and got into Zen meditation with
Suzuki. Gradually “the hopes and
fears of all the years” began to
fade. But I still love singing the
Christmas carols. Maybe Carl Jung
was onto something about “religion
being a system to defend us from
the experience of God.” I found
I didn’t miss praying for things,
and the only way to trust God
was to take a chance on Him. An
aweful chance.

On Dec. 21, 1817, poet John Keats,
all of 23, wrote with exultation
to his brothers, George and Thomas,
that he had discovered “the one
quality that Shakespeare possess-
ed so enormously - NEGATIVE
CAPABILITY, that is when man is
capable of being in uncertainties,
Mysteries, doubts, without any
irritable reaching after fact
and reason.”

“You’re supposed to get your fill
of that at college,” I tease a
grandson who shows up for a week-
end of what he calls “conversation.”
A good conversation is a little
like jazz music, you never know
exactly where it’s going but it
ends up in the right place. Like
a Beethoven symphony. Or an essay
of Montaigne’s.

It’s 6 am, dawn’s early light,
just barely, coffee steaming, no
one else is up, until a four-year
old is standing there, arms filled
with a blanket and several dolls.
She is eyeing me for a sign that
it’s O>K> for her to be down here.
Her eyes reflect both serious
and silly, the wonderful ambiguity
of childhood. Without a word
being spoken, she knows. And
comes running to my chair. We
have had a conversation without
words. As she shows me her
favorite doll, I realize one day
soon she’ll have her own “device”
to send me a message, ask a
question. She won’t rely on her
senses, may los those skills.

Stand-up comics have serious
and silly down pat. Henny Young-
man tells the secret of his
long marriage: we take time to
go to a nice restaurant twice
a week, a little candlelight
dinner, soft music, she goes
Tuesdays, I go Friday.”

There is a lot of talk about
loneliness, not just about people
who live alone. Solitude is not
lonely. If I sit still long
enough, dwelling in the emptiness,
a sudden confidence may arise
that things may fall into place
even if it’s not the place I want
to be but it’s an O.K. place and
maybe, the more I think about it,
an even better place. The Germans
have a word “augenblickgott” for
those “unattended moments” where
in the blink of an eye, Divinity
passes by.

Art Petersen lives in Barrington, Illinois.

The magazine welcomes comments, but we do ask that they be on topic and civil. Read our full comment policy.