Albert Jordy Raboteau, Jr.
Bill Long 8/17/05
A Sorrowful Joy: Reflecting on Faith and Life
Certainly Albert Raboteau's spiritual autobiography, published by the Paulist Press (2002) is one of the shortest books I have read in my adult life (60 pages, being the [two] Wit lectures delivered at Harvard Divinity School in 2000). Yet, it probably packs as many thoughtful and revealing observations about the power of the life of faith in the maelstrom of modern life as any volume thrice its length. This essay will give a few facts of his life and then highlight four paradoxes or contrasts that can be gleaned from Raboteau's account of his life.
Trailing Clouds of Pain
Between young Albert's conception and his birth, his father, a Black man, was murdered in 1943 in Southern Mississippi by a White man who claimed the act was self-defense. The killer was never prosecuted for the crime. Desiring to flee the harsh memory created by that event, Raboteau's family moved to the North, only to encounter several more acts of racial bigotry that became lodged in his soul. Nevertheless, his Catholic upbringing and ready academic spirit found an outlet in Catholic schools in the Midwest and California. He rose quickly in the academic world after being fascinated by the study of religion, especially slave narratives, and attained significant recognition in the fledging field of African-American religious studies as a professor at Berkeley and, for the past two decades, Princeton. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in a time of personal crisis, which had led to an affair and his divorce, and he (re)discovered what he calls the "sorrowful joy" at the heart of both African-American Christianity and the Orthodox Christian experience.
Themes From A Life
It is impossible to capture the rhythmic nature of Raboteau's narrative without reading it. However, four paradoxical or contrasting themes emerge from his story. They are the following tensions: (1) monastic aloneness v. the desire for community; (2) the quest for perfection v. the reality of forgiveness; (3) Christian theology v. the study of religion; and (4) beauty v. grace. A few words on each will bring Raboteau, and his slender volume, to life.
(1) The monastic ideal of solitary living grew in him as a child, as he frequently moved and established few ties with people beyond his immediate family. Yet, the pull of family and the stories they told was immediately evident to him whenever they visited MS and the places of their painful past. Later in his career, when the pressures of the university grew (because of his academic success), he found himself wistfully longing for a romanticized version of the solitary life--an escape from the "disappointment with the ordinariness of daily life." However, even in his moving account of a trip to Lindisfarne on the English coast (after his conversion to Orthodoxy), when he finally thought he had found isolation when visiting the smaller island where St. Cuthbert lived, he heard voices nearby--signs to him that he wasn't far from the community of faith even when he felt most "alone."
(2) He was a thorough and excellent student, always at the top of his classes in the Catholic high school, college and seminary he attended. His care in getting things right masked the perfectionist's tendency to confuse correctness with blessedness. This has only gradually given way to his realization of the power of forgiveness in the world. He realized that his quest for perfection was gradually taking away his life force. He writes, about his early days at Princeton:
"I continued my religious practice--frequent Mass attendance, praying the psalms, meditation--but something seemed missing. The old pattern of perfectionism was proving too heavy a burden to bear. Responsibility upon responsibility, doing what other people wanted so habitually that it became difficult to even recognized what I wanted, was wearing me down" (p.40).
After the crisis of that year in Princeton, where he lost his marriage and gave up the "big promotion" (Dean of the Graduate School), he gradually was able to rediscover himself in writing and faith. And, the first thing he did was to seek forgiveness, from God and others, for the way that his quest for perfection had distanced himself from people. Basking in the divine mercy, he took on, when he joined the Orthodox Church, the name Panteleimon, the "all merciful." "Mercy upon mercy, like healing oil, had been poured on me" (p. 46).
(3) But a significant breakthrough for him was when he decided he didn't want to study theology, which often led to dessicated and futile arguments, but religion instead and, in this case, the religious experiences of slaves. Normally one thinks of the academic study of religion as stultifying to faith, but for Raboteau it enlivened his understanding and writing. After being freed from his administrative duties he says: "My writing took on a different direction and a different voice, more person, more directly religious." He became more able to integrate his familial life, including the story of his father's murder, with his rediscovered spiritual life.
(4) Finally, he explores the tension between beauty and grace. Often theologians have spoken of these as synonymous or at least as quite consonant with each other. But Raboteau discovered that his spiritual coldness, before his administrative/familial crisis, had led him to substitute beauty for grace. He says:
"The wreckage of my faith had left me adrift. I had tried to construct a new faith for myself out of an aesthetic approach to life. What was important was beauty. To make beauty in your life was the only meaningful act. Life had no meaning beyond the fleeting moment of beauty" (p. 36).
But it was through the almost simultaneous events of the birth of his son, which connected him to the next generation, and the death of his mother, linking him to his past, that he was able to recover the depths of grace through the sacraments. "I could make no sense out of the depth and meaning of these events except through the sacraments." And, what do those elements basically teach? "Grace is everywhere" (p. 60). And those are the last words of the book. Grace, rather than beauty; religion rather than theology; forgiveness rather than perfectionism; community rather than solitary life. Those are Albert Raboteau's lessons from life. And ours?
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long