My father was a cruel and forbidding figure all his life. When I was a young man, a particularly terrible session between my parents left my mother black and blue, and I said I would drive her to her mother’s house in Kansas City, and she agreed. I had brought some of my textbooks with me, possibly as a means of continuing my education. When I opened the literature book, my eyes took in Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” where he wrote, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” The line clung to me, so as I was seated at the kitchen table and my mother was nearby, I read it to her. She listened, then walked away. I have never forgiven myself for unwittingly encouraging her to go back to my father, which she did after he phoned and promised her a new refrigerator.
In 1951, my family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. There, my bedroom window looked out upon a fig tree which flourished because our evaporative cooler dripped water under it every day. I’d been reading Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ which, believe, had prepared me for a vision of the fig tree as a source of light. As literature, the book was nothing to be proud of, but I had not appreciated the fig tree’s association with light until I wrote this paragraph.
My first year of teaching at California State University, Fullerton, the talk, together with the little television I watched, was usually about the world-wide destruction of nature wrought by the species homo sapiens. It planted in me a despair that I could not shake off, even in my lectures. It lasted until I found, thanks in great part to C.S. Lewis’s books, that I was not in charge of the world, God was. But more on that later.
When Claudette was about to take her maternity leave, she found at her school and brought home with her some tattered books that she planned to use in her classes when she returned to work, as her school could not afford to order new books. One of these books was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. She liked it and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, so much that she asked me if there was anything like it that she could read for herself. I recalled reading somewhere that Tolkien was a friend and colleague of my favorite literary critic, C.S. Lewis, so my suggestion was his collection of novels Chronicles of Narnia, though I had to confess I had not read it myself at the time. This series of novels so pleased her that she asked for more from this writer. And that was how the two of us came across his Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters.
Mere Christianity made almost indisputable good sense. But the best part of this was that it contrasted sharply with my life. It convinced me that I was going in the wrong direction, and that I needed to turn around and walk in the right direction. It brought back to me the film Dances with Wolves, in which a captive woman has spoken the Lakota Sioux language for so long that she can speak English, the language of her birth, but only haltingly. Lewis had that effect on me; the language of Christianity made me think that I too had been a captive. But in my case the captor’s language was the cant of this world, while the language of the next world felt like something from before I was born. It became more fluent in me as time passed.
At about the same time, one of my students brought to her appointment her notes on what she had read. When I turned one page too many, I found a note she had written about praying for me. And then two married couples in our neighborhood invited us to a weekly Bible study, where I read the Gospel of John for the first time. After we had read the entire gospel, I sat down in my study to write a short poem in loose but alternately rhyming lines. Well, the poem shook me as a terrier shakes a rat, and it became a long poem called “The Beast in Bethany,” written as a monologue spoken by Thomas, the skeptical disciple.
I had been reading books by Morton Kelsey, a retired Episcopal priest, and I was moved by them to send him a copy of a long poem I had written. I soon received a letter from him saying he had been trying to write about Doubting Thomas but preferred what I had said in my poem. He asked if he could include it his forthcoming book, Resurrection. I said yes, of course.
Lewis was an Anglican, and the U.S. church that was in the Anglican Communion was the Episcopal Church, so we joined one of those. We eventually tried a variety of denominations, but finally decided we were “mere Christians” more than we were unshakably at home in any denomination. I had been half-consciously looking all my life for a father-figure to take the place of my biological father. To that point, there had been impressive men, but now it was God the Father.
Soon after my decision to become a follower of Christ, I began remembering atrocious incidents of sin in my early life. I repented, praying that I would be helped to do my best to avoid sin, and then prayed for forgiveness. Since I had no way to contact any of the people I had harmed, I prayed that all of them would be healed. Gradually the painful memories faded.
I proposed a new course to the department council, not only because of the thinning enrollments, but also because it seemed to be of great importance. It was to study the works of C.S. Lewis for discussion and analysis. The British don had won me over by saying things like, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” Quite a statement from a man who made it difficult for his friends to persuade him to become a Christian, but once there, he became a powerhouse for the faith.
A man I had never heard of, Jay S. Paul, read one of my books and published a favorable review of it in the Anglican Theological Review. The following is his opening paragraph:
To describe John J. Brugaletta’s Selected Poems, one could focus on the poet’s knowledge (classical, biblical, autobiographical), or his mastery of tone and diction (humorous, meditative, the fierceness of the vengeful Artemis, and so on), or his virtuosity with form (ballade, sestina, blank verse, even cowboy narrative, and sonnets most of all). In addition, in all of the thirty-year span of the six books culled for this new volume, the most persistent themes spring from his Christian faith: the yearning for God, the struggle to be free of ego and earthly possessions, the satirizing of hypocrisy and other human failings.
Over our many years of marriage, I have learned many things from Claudette, but the most important lesson was that of learning to love someone. Without her even thinking about what effect it was having on me, she demonstrated her love for me, even when I was at my worst, and my spousal love has continued to grow stronger and stronger.
I won’t say I deserve these many blessings, but knowing as I do who dropped them in my lap, I will not reject them. I’m aware that the Creator knows what each of us needs and will give it to us if He deems it good for us. As for myself, I needed a study, books, and a computer for writing mostly poetry and submitting some of it to journals and presses, and that’s what He lent to me. With his help, I have published a fairly respectable number of books, twelve I believe. There is no danger of my name becoming a household word, but He has convinced me that fame in this life is fickle and soon becomes uncomfortable.
John J. Brugaletta has published the following books: Discovering the Way of Wisdom: Spirituality in the Wisdom Literature (with Edward M. Curtis); Scripture’s Heroes and Villains; One of the Loaves Was Yours; The Crossing Point of Our Lives; Psalms of Gratitude and Prayer and The Invisible God. His title is Professor Emeritus at California State University, Fullerton, and he now lives on the northern coast of California with his wife.
“I’m aware that the Creator knows what each of us needs and will give it to us if He deems it good for us.” You nailed it, John. Thank you for using your writing talent for the kingdom. As a former atheist writer turned Christian (who also loves Lewis), I have a similar journey, and you’re absolutely right. No amount of fame could EVER trump the relationship we’re able to have with Christ.