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Secular Days, Sacred Moments

The America Columns of Robert Coles

By Robert Coles Edited by David D. Cooper

Publication Year: 2013

Published by: Michigan State University Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-viii

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pp. ix-2

The thirty-one short essays by Robert Coles gathered together here appeared as columns in the Catholic weekly America. Th e first was published in November 1996 under the banner “Secular Days, Sacred Moments”—a title Coles attributes to his friend and mentor, Dorothy Day. In that inaugural column Coles recalls a conversation he...

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November 23, 1996. We’re hoping for a few extra moments of the sacred during these long secular days.

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pp. 3-6

I first heard the words I am using as the title for this column from the lips of Dorothy Day—and therein a story. In the middle-1950s I was a medical student in New York City, at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. In my spare time I worked in a Catholic Worker soup kitchen, and so doing, oft en felt confused, torn by various...

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January 4, 1997. “The doctors, they be strutters. They need teaching.”

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pp. 7-9

A few years ago I worked as a volunteer fifth-grade teacher in an elementary school located in an impoverished Boston neighborhood. The children knew I also taught college students, medical students—indeed, this school wasn’t all that far from the medical school building where my class met weekly, as a ten-year-old girl reminded ...

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February 1, 1997. Merton and Milosz find common ground in their skepticism—the distance they put between themselves and faddish trends.

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pp. 10-13

For ten years (1958–68) the poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz and the poet and monk Thomas Merton wrote letters to one another— many of them searchingly introspective, a few stirringly confessional. They only met twice, each time briefly. Perhaps the very distance between them, and a lack of personal acquaintance, made possible...

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February 15, 1997. Like a Hebrew prophet, Erikson was insisting upon psychological investigation as a moral calling.

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pp. 14-17

During the late 1960s the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson taught an immensely popular undergraduate course at Harvard College. He used some of his own suggestive, edifying essays, but he also encouraged those of us who helped him teach as section leaders to use novels such as Invisible Man, or short fiction, such as Flannery O’Connor’s...

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March 1, 1997. “The Third Reich was a product of German history, but it was not the only possibility open to the country at that time.”

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pp. 18-21

Again and again in Middlemarch George Eliot warns against our inclination to be “theoretic,” to embrace various absolutes, to lose thereby our sense of life’s complexities, the ironies and paradoxes that inevitably present themselves to us, the fatefulness of things, the role of accident and incident (“circumstance,” as she puts it) in shaping...

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March 22, 1997. Surely someone would come by, see me standing there helplessly, offer a phone or a lift.

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pp. 22-24

One evening several years ago, as dusk was settling in, I felt the car I was driving homeward become wobbly and hard to control. I pulled my car to the side, got out, and soon enough realized that I had a flat tire. I’m not very good with my hands, and each second, darkness was gaining its complete victory. I put on the lights, found the equipment meant to help me change tires, but I was soon ...

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April 5, 1997. I was witness to the moral energy a painter or photographer can stir in children.

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pp. 25-28

As a volunteer teacher of elementary school children, I have for many years brought to class transparencies to show the boys and girls the work of great artists, illustrators, and photographers. Although my primary function has been to teach English to children from hard-pressed families, I have learned that sometimes a picture projected on a screen can do wonders for the imagination, can prompt both reflection ...

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May 3, 1997. There is hope in those sudden, unexpected, breakthrough experiences that bring us a blessed spell of inwardness.

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pp. 29-32

As Kierkegaard reminded his Danish fellow burghers (in “The Present Age”) and as his talented twentieth-century American disciple, Walker Percy, more than hinted in The Moviegoer (for all its humor, a deadly serious novel), we oft en get lost not through big moral missteps but as a consequence of life’s everydayness become a thick, blinding fog. Absorbed by things to do, places to go, purchases to make, ...

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May 31, 1997. This double standard could all too readily be accommodated by the slippery imprecisions of psychiatric jargon.

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pp. 33-36

Before the Vietnam War prompted many to have grave reservations about military service, most young physicians had to give two years to the army, navy, or air force under the provisions of what used to be called the “Doctors’ Draft .” (Now our armed forces train their own doctors or make arrangements to pay the tuition of certain medical ...

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July 19, 1997. The doctor who is sick now turns his students into the kind of physician he himself has been with others.

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pp. 37-40

A friend of mine from medical school, now an internist in St. Louis, recently sent me a videotape of a meeting between his brother, also a physician, and some first-year students at Washington University’s School of Medicine. Th e students are there to talk with a longtime, much-revered doctor and teacher who (they know)...

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August 2, 1997. Through the use of fictional strategies, the writer offers us a clue about oppression.

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pp. 41-44

In 1963 my wife, Jane, was teaching a fourth-grade class in Atlanta, Georgia. All her students were of African American background. The South at the time was very much in the midst of social struggle and change. In fact, the two of us were then studying the progress of school desegregation in Atlanta, after observing an earlier version of it in New Orleans. One morning as the class was discussing American history, ...

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September 13, 1997. What appears to be bizarre and senseless is in many cases a quite reasonable expression of horror.

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pp. 45-48

In a previous column I made mention of my experiences as an air force psychiatrist—the different ways we were expected to respond to our fellow officers, as opposed to the ordinary men and women who hadn’t such high rank to their credit. Again and again some of us doctors, in the military for only two years, were reminded that we had to accommodate...

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November 8, 1997. “I’m really sorry. I never should have opened the door without looking. . . . I was lost in thought. I wasn’t thinking.”

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pp. 49-51

I was riding my bike not long ago along a road in the town where I live, braced by a clear sunny day with enough edge to it, in the form of cool weather, to make me feel especially glad that I could enjoy myself this way in a quiet New England setting. I was on my way to the post office. Not far from my destination, I began to slow down—and a good...

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December 6, 1997. It was the old story of teachers who have a lot to learn from their humble, yet knowing, students.

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pp. 52-55

For the past four years I have been meeting with teachers and principals from across the country who work in Catholic schools, mostly located in inner-city neighborhoods. Men and women, African American and white and of Hispanic background, lay people and members of one or another religious order, they are all trying exceedingly...

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January 17, 1998. Dorothy Day spoke of the irony: “All that philosophical knowledge, and such a moral failure; such blindness—and worse—in a life.”

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pp. 56-59

The 100th anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth prompted many occasions of celebration, reflection, remembrance. On campuses, in the many “hospitality houses” wherein the Catholic Worker tradition is carried on, in churches and in newspapers and magazines (including America) she was evoked, discussed, even upheld as a possible saint—her oft-quoted refusal of the desirability of such a future designation...

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February 14, 1998. In Othello we meet a man of great dignity and refinement who is gradually undone.

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pp. 60-63

A friend and teaching colleague of mine recently persuaded me to re-read Othello, which he assigned in his class this autumn. I had not read the play since college, when I went through it hurriedly as one more assignment in a yearlong course devoted to Shakespeare. We read a play a week in the fall, one tragedy aft er another. We struggled...

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February 28, 1998. Bonhoeffer’s position in society, his personal safety, and, if need be, his very life were not to be defended at all costs.

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pp. 64-67

This past summer I spent most of my reading hours with the writings of the German theologian, pastor, and ultimately, martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had first been introduced to his work, and been told the story of his life, by my teacher Perry Miller, whose research explored the provocative wisdom in the sermons and essays of the New England Puritan divines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries....

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March 21, 1998. Psychotherapy, in all its American banality, is redeemed through its emphasis on the personal as part of the communal.

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pp. 68-71

During the 1970s I spent a lot of time talking with children who lived in South Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts— so-called “working-class” people trying to make a go of it, no matter the sometimes tough circumstances of their lives. In South Boston, many of the people I met, whose homes I visited, felt left out of...

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March 28, 1998. I wondered if she really believed what she seemed to believe, whether she wasn’t really quite frightened “underneath.”

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pp. 72-75

During my internship year I spent a month with patients, most of whom were dying of blood diseases, various kinds of leukemia, the lymphomas. At that time, the middle years of this century, we didn’t have the powerful chemotherapeutic drugs that now go a long way toward a cure in many instances of such diseases—though, alas, there is much more we need to know, and many still succumb to the kinds of ...

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April 25, 1998. I could lecture on the moral and social inquiry and myself behave like a moral and social outcast.

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pp. 76-79

I worked hard some time ago on a lecture that meant a lot to me—about Raymond Carver’s short fiction, his poetry and his personal writing (essays about his life and his reading preferences). I use his stories all the time, especially “Cathedral” and “A Small, Good Th ing,” both in the collection titled Where I’m Calling From, which was published posthumously ...

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July 4, 1998. Once more I took note of the psychological acuity, the capacity to figure out others with a certain thoughtful detachment.

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pp. 80-83

During the 1970s, at the height of a racial conflict in Boston prompted by a federal court order that African American students be admitted to schools across the city in the interest of a better education, I got to know a number of those youths—high schoolers who lived in Roxbury and were bused to South Boston, a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood. In no time people were at one another’s throats....

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August 29, 1998. This child knew that misdeeds deserve, warrant an expression of regret.

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pp. 84-86

In a recent column I mentioned “contrition,” a word heard a few years ago for the first time by an African American girl of Protestant faith who had been bused to a school whose students were mostly of Catholic (and Irish) background. Th e black child was puzzled by the word, only to learn from one of her white classmates that the heart of contrition had to do with...

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October 31, 1998. Our insistent yearnings ought not to be the stuff of glib psychiatric pronouncements.

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pp. 87-90

We have been told lately, in the name of religion, that homosexuals are sinners, and that if they only accepted that notion, they would be entitled to a new moral and theological status. Th ey would be among the saved, which means, presumably, those who have acknowledged their wrongdoing and thereby returned to the Lord’s fold. What are the rest of us to make of this new outburst of...

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November 21, 1998. These youngsters recognize that smart or powerful is not necessarily the same as good.

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pp. 91-93

Like so many in our nation, I have found President Clinton’s personal difficulties, not to mention the intense public scrutiny of them, all too unsettling. I spend my time with the young. From time to time, when I can get away from my college responsibilities, I teach in an elementary school and a high school. I have been troubled by what I’ve heard from those youngsters of varying backgrounds. They, like the ...

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February 20, 1999. “I wished he’d been as understanding and kindly at home with his family as he was in the world with all his associates.”

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pp. 94-97

In the early 1970s, at a meeting attended by a host of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, Erik H. Erikson (then at work on Gandhi’s life and on political activity as it is engaged, sometimes, with minds, even souls) spoke to us, eagerly assembled, about his intellectual struggle to make sense of a great leader. (The book was eventually published as...

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May 1, 1999. A moral leadership that is to work must mobilize a following in the name of a virtue; it must both inspire and coerce.

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pp. 98-101

That obedience has to contend with instinct, Terrence Malick’s latest movie, The Thin Red Line, makes abundantly clear. It is the central psychological exploration in the film. American Marines are in far-off Guadalcanal Island to win a decisive battle with Japanese foes, who have established themselves in a commanding position. Below them are the jungle’s wilds and the desirous newcomers, whose landing we ...

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July 31, 1999. Many of us who took to Holden Caulfield, embracing his laid-back words, his wisecracks, his cool, also worried about him. Would he make it?

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pp. 102-105

During the middle years of this fast-waning century J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye became a kind of biblical guide for many young members of the bourgeoisie in the United States. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, had much going for him—a comfortable suburban life and a privileged educational background in ...

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September 11, 1999. William Carlos Williams treated many Catholics who said they would pray for him. He was skeptical about such promises.

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pp. 106-109

A great privilege it was for me as an undergraduate, then a medical school student, to get to know the New Jersey poet and physician William Carlos Williams. I had written an essay about his long poem Paterson, a lyrical evocation of life as it was lived daily and variously in that city where America’s first factory was built and, arguably,...

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October 9, 1999. Private hurts trigger a public hurtfulness

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pp. 110-113

This year, as we were told in the news of killing rampages by suburban high schoolers, my mind returned to the young people, then (the 1960s) quaintly called “juvenile delinquents,” who came to the child psychiatry clinic of the Children’s Hospital in Boston, where I was working. In particular I remembered a boy I got to know when he was eleven and a girl who wasn’t twelve when I first met her—both of ...

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December 4, 1999. Simone Weil tried to figure out morally who we humans are, what obligations we ought to feel and why, as we go about our permitted time on this planet.

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pp. 114-117

Some of us taking a course on contemporary religious thought in the middle of this century tried to understand the work of Simone Weil, reading her three books, Waiting for God, The Need for Roots, and Gravity and Grace—“one more difficult than the other,” our professor playfully remarked. Yet he clearly wanted us to make the acquaintance of this almost legendary essayist, political philosopher, and member of ...

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February 19, 2000. “Do you really think the pope prayed for those three mass murderers, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini?” I asked Dorothy Day.

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pp. 118-122

In recent months, while a war-time pontiff ’s attitudes toward mid-century European totalitarianism became a subject of written discussion (as in Hitler’s Pope and the response to it by reviewers and other readers), I have often remembered conversations on that issue with Dorothy Day, whom I was privileged to know. In particular I heard Dorothy Day...

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Afterword by Robert Coles

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pp. 123-125

When I was a college student, I had the good fortune to be taught by a teacher, Perry Miller, who kept insisting that we in the classroom “venture forth—out of these fancy dorms and libraries,” he put it; and then a memorable pause: “into the world where people learn from one another, courtesy of serendipity.” How perplexed we listeners became in response to that remark! Why such a...


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pp. 126-128

E-ISBN-13: 9781609173586
E-ISBN-10: 1609173589
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860733
Print-ISBN-10: 1611860733

Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Religion -- History -- 20th century.
  • Religion and sociology -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Christianity -- 20th century.
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