Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Since Unitarianism is presumably unified mostly by their characteristic non-conformity, having been dissenters against the doctrine of the Trinity that defined Christians for many centuries, one should not be surprised to find that a Unitarian seminary included people of various convictions, such as the Methodist student and a range of kinds of theism, a-theism, and agnosticism. When European Unitarians, particularly those from Transsylvania, began to interact a bit more with American Unitarians, things got even stranger. The Europeans tended to be quite Christian, at least in their style, and they didn’t have the streak of hippie antinomianism that characterizes California “hot tub” UU’s, the kind that felt they had slipped the bonds of matriomony and touched the Face of Eros.

During my first year of seminary, the strangest classmate was a man I’ll just call by his first name, Teruo. “Tap” the r as if you were speaking Shakespeare. He wasn’t just a priest of Konkokyo, he was a descendant of the founder, Konko. When Konko was a small boy, he fell off a cliff while his mother watched helplessly. In the moment of that fall, she gave his vocational life to religion if his physical life were saved. This happened. The actual sect, cult, denomination, subdivision -- whatever you want to call it -- was syncretistic. That is, it melded together Shinto and Christian elements of good behavior and relationships toward God. It was a “henotheistic” religion: it recognizes one dominant and all-powerful God while recognizing the existence of other gods. (Try Wikipedia for other interesting stuff.)

There was no real relationship between Konkokyo and Unitarianism, but both organizations belonged to the Liberal Religious organization that was something like a League of Nations. That connection was enough to get Teruo to Meadville, but also the dean of the Divinity School, Professor Kitagawa, was very interested in Teruo and helped him organize a quite atypical year in Chicago. Without Kitagawa, Teruo might have gone quite mad.

Occupying the smallest of the rooms, but also the most private (probably a female servant’s bedroom/bathroom in its original use), Teruo could go up the back stairs from the kitchen directly to his room. There he kept a giant color TV and a bottle of excellent Scotch. He did not offer to share either one. Sometimes he slipped off to the North Side of Chicago, where the blues bars were liberal, until at his favorite bar he attracted the attention of a Nazi man (he wore a uniform) who fell in love with Teruo. Then he couldn’t go there anymore.

Being a Konkokyo priest was much different from being a UU minister and Teruo was often puzzled by our preoccupation with psychological matters or even moral questioning. At his temple he waited until someone came with an offering, asking for advice. He would sit before them, both people on cushions on the floor, and the counselee (most often a woman just like Christians in the US) would present her problem. Then he’d tell her the right thing to do and that was the end of it. What could be simpler?

He was also puzzled by me: a forty-year-old unmarried childless woman who had been in law enforcement, who had lived on a Montana reservation for many years. What was the right thing for me to do? And how should he relate? We’d run into each other late at night when taking a break from studying by whipping up a little snack in the kitchen. I was at my most Japanese then, if a big pale red-head can look at all Japanese, wrapped in my terry cloth bathrobe. He most commonly was wearing long underwear.

I was used to strange people and also very curious, so I asked questions. Was he married? Yes, he said. He had a wife and two small daughters at home.

“You must miss them.”

“Yes.” A long pause. “Do you course?”

I pretended I didn’t hear that and ran for my own room with my toast and jam. I didn’t know what he meant and had no intention of trying to find out, but I certainly realized at that point what a sacrifice he was making.

“Why did you come here?” I asked. “What made you want to?”

He had NOT wanted to come. Konkokyo is a hierarchy. His superior sent him, over his protests. They needed people who were more able to interface with Westerners, to explain their point of view. His life was meant to be obedient, but it was very hard, though he knew the rest of us suffered from too much freedom.

I asked once if he were lonely and he said gallantly, “Oh, no! Because everywhere I go in this house, I can hear your voice and it makes me feel better!” Others might have remarked on how loud Westerners used to being outdoors could be. “And you make so MUCH noise on the stairs!” he exclaimed. When we got to the end of the year, he wrote each of us a beautiful little poem in Japanese on lovely paper and he gave us each a translation of what it said. Mine said, “Look out little sparrows! Here comes Mary!

In an odd way we were equals -- even kindred spirits. Both of us were on strange ground, not quite knowing what the others seemed to have been born knowing. Even the Methodist was well able to fit in. We were older than the others, in some ways had more experience than the faculty, and -- yes -- we were both lonely. He seemed to me a little like a Blackfeet. Sometimes I wondered whether I should have answered that I DID “course,” but clearly that would REALLY have freaked everyone out and there was no way to keep such a thing secret. I assume he found an answer to that need on the North Side. As for me, I’m very good at sublimation and far too idealistic about sex to be casual about it. But I wasn’t offended by the idea. Wasn’t one of my key movies “Hiroshima Mon Amor?” Morality doesn’t have to be anti-erotic.

Seminary is always a place of revelations, ideas and situations totally unanticipated and never really explainable to people who haven’t been there. Sort of like the military, I guess. A kind of boot camp.


Chas S. Clifton said...

Dunno, if some Japanese seminarian came up to me and asked, "Do you course," I would presume that he wanted to observe dogs chasing hares. Maybe they don't get to see that often on the Home Islands, I suppose.

prairie mary said...

Chas, if some Japanese seminarian came up to YOU and asked "Do you course?" it would mean something entirely different than the same man asking ME in the "night kitchen."

Come on, I thought you were a hippie sophisticate!

Prairie Mary