|Learning To Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life
by Philip Simmons
Bantam 2002, pp. 157, $16.95
a review by William Cleary
I learned to fall as a senior at Marquette High, and my teacher was a craggy-faced Jesuit whom we called Corky. In his late morning English class I would start eating my lunch, my hands hidden inside the desk, my fingers finding their way into the brown bag, through the wax paper to the peanut butter sandwich which I tore apart and raised casually to my lips as I recited with the other guys: "Senior Antonio, oft in the Realto you have rated me about my money and my usances."
Maybe because I was so obviously a sneak and a phony (I had acting talent) Corky came to me one day after class and muttered like Iago himself that he had entered me in a Knights of Columbus oratory contest. The next day, employing some of the casuistry Jesuits are famous for, he handed me the speech I was supposed to write myself and said: "Make it your own" which I did by writing it out in my handwriting and submitting it back to him. We won the contest, and I accepted the statewide medal a month later. So from Corky, hardly realizing it, I learned both Shakespeare and fraudulence. I learned to fall.
That was mildly tragic -- but falling can be gracious - and, according to author Philip Simmons in the new book Learning To Fall, revelatory: in my case, of my own inherent fallibility, in his case, of his essential impermanence. Philip Simmons was just thirty-five years old in l993 when he learned that he had ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. He wrote the final chapters of this spectacular little book using voice-identifying software, his hands unable to function. I wonder, as I write this, if he is still alive. Certainly his thought is, alive with what I suspect will be a long life. Simmons is to my mind another C.S. Lewis, another Merton, writing with distinctive style and stunning and innovative spiritual insight, bringing together the poetry of a perfect eye and word with the longing of our own age and culture.
" Learning To Fall" means, of course, getting ready for the diminishments in human life, preparing one's self ultimately for death. Simmons writes for modern people, battered by both the evaporating credibility of mainline churches and lost in the cloud of unknowing enveloping us all from scientific discoveries.
Addressing his reader, Simmons says, "We may not believe in the personal deity that the ancient Jews believed in. For us, God may be love, the spirit of life, the creative power that works within us and in all things in every moment, our divine self, or the ground of our being. Whatever our personal concept of God - or, indeed, whatever our confusions about this subject - we can learn . . . . " There's the religious approach catholic enough for everyone. Simmons, a college professor and fiction writer, has moved - like myself - from conventional Catholicism into what might be called Catholic Unitarianism -- where you can keep most of your old paradigms and add a few new ones.. Read about it on the web at uua.org if you're curious.
What matters is having a spirituality that deals honestly with life as it is, especially with doubts and deeper questions. Simmons' specialty is illness and death and how it brings him to a larger life. At one point he speaks of "blessings shaken out of an imperfect life like fruit from a blighted tree." In another place he suggests that, though we may feel ourselves falling, or aging, or losing faith, we may, as he affirms, "fall with grace, to grace." My heartiest response is: "Amen, brother Philip." (William Cleary, a former Jesuit, writes from Burlington, Vermont: with more references at www.clearyworks.com) #