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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

From Priory To Wall Street–A Spiritual Odyssey

The good brothers of St. Anselm’s, a monastery hidden in the most secluded corner of the Adirondacks, took in Crandall Phillips when he was eight – a very young age to be sure to be removed from family, friends, and familiar surroundings; but both he and his parents were sure it was the right move.

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In the eyes of his mother and father Crandall was a very special boy; not in the way of most proud parents – especially intelligent, talented, or gifted – but anointed by God.   He had the charity of the Lord, the patience of Job, and a native goodness that would be remarkable in anyone.  He was by no means a little toady who obeyed his parents and teachers because of timidity or lack of will.  On the contrary he understood that the rules of good behavior – respect, honor, duty, honesty, and obedience – were essential. 

His Catechism, the nuns, and Father Brophy had taught him these principles according to Canon Law (The Ten Commandments) and quite summarily; but the boy’s moral instincts were such that he understood the meaning of the injunctions rather than their intent.

He was a good boy, and living proof of Christ’s teaching.  The more he practiced the Golden Rule, turned the other cheek, helped the weak and defenseless, shared with all, and harbored no malice, the more he was respected.  Other children who displayed these same characteristics but did so out of fear of bullies, demanding parents, and frustrated teachers were quickly picked on, pushed around, and laughed at.

His play was always fair.  He was never spiteful or took cheap shots.  He never shied away from the roughest boys games, but when they turned nasty, he quit.  Because he was so strong, able, and physically talented, he was never chided, goaded, or ridiculed.  In fact after he left the playground the game became civil and orderly.

Crandall’s teachers were not only impressed by the boy’s behavior, but perplexed by it.  Never in their careers had they ever taught a boy like this, so respectful but confident; so strong but so gentle; so much an individual but so attentive to others.

Nor did the boy’s parents know what to make of their son.  Neither Mr. or Mrs. Phillips had been model children or exemplary adults.  Howard Crandall, as a matter of fact, had quite a reputation as the town Lothario and his marriage had been stretched to the limit many times over the years.  Betty Crandall tippled, and although never admitted a drinking problem, often had to be taken home from her ladies’ lunches and afternoon teas.

“Perhaps the boy got your Great Uncle Bonner’s genes”, Howard said to his wife one day, thinking of the whitest sheep in the family, the one who had become a priest, ministered to the poor in rural Maine, and by all reports was a very spiritual man.

“Hardly”, Betty replied. “You don’t know the half of it”.

Howard let the reference drop and returned his paper, satisfied that he and his wife had explored all angles.  Their son, Crandall, had indeed been blessed by Jesus Christ himself either the eternity of pre-time, the womb, or during infancy. That was all there was to it.

Crandall, being only eight, had no idea what all the fuss was about.  He simply got up, went to school, did his chores, sat down to dinner with his mother and baby sister, and went to bed.  He was unaware of anything exceptional about himself.  He didn’t dream of God or Jesus, was not particularly inspired at Sunday Mass, prayed somewhat irregularly and never hoped for rewards or vision.

Yet because of how he was, how he acted and behaved – so poised and ‘beatific’ (the word used by his second grade teacher, a devout Catholic and former novitiate), so well-mannered and even-tempered – how Crandall saw himself made no difference.  His parents after consultation with the school, decided to send him to St. Anselm’s.

The brothers were at first reluctant to take such a young boy.  There was no place for him in a monastic world.  What would he do?, they asked. How would he fit in?

“We’re not a boarding school”, said the abbot.

Yet two weeks as an intern in the summer of Crandall’s ninth year convinced them.  The boy was everything his parents and teachers had said.  He had a spiritual quality found only in monks who had prayed and meditated a lifetime.  He had compressed the four stages of Hindu enlightenment into one, had bypassed the required worldly stays as a student and householder.  He was indeed one of a kind.

After his internship the boy was to return to secular life until he was ready for the seminary.  Even one with so many spiritual gifts should not be isolated at so early an age from parents, family, and friends.  His summer ‘camp’ would be St. Anselm’s, and each year he returned to the mountains and his new friends.

Crandall provided no surprises.  His grades were exemplary, his behavior as Christian if not Christ-like as ever, and his influence in the classroom and on the playground as remarkable as before.
By the time he was seventeen, however, and about ready to enter the seminary, he began to be nettled by doubts – not about the existence of God, transubstantiation,  or the nature of the Holy Trinity – but about good and evil.  He was as perplexed by the age-old theological conundrum.  If God is all-good, then how and why could he have created evil?

This thorny problem has led many a believer off the spiritual rails.  Augustine himself was stymied by it and was forced to conclude that there was no such thing as evil but only the absence of good.  Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche among other philosophers spent their whole lives fumbling with the problem; and only by default crafted accommodating theories.  Nietzsche said that the expression of individual will, beyond good and evil, was the only validation of human existence.  Sartre and the Existentialists wound themselves around the idea that  ‘existence precedes essence’.  The world is indeed meaningless, but unlike Nietzsche, Sartre said one had a duty to rise above mere existence and to create meaning.  
What is good? and what is evil? asked Sartre. Since there is no way of separating them, man is condemned to a life of freedom in which he must choose. If one rejects the notion of God, who is to say what is good and what is evil? No one, since there are no absolutes: There is good in evil and evil in good. One cannot act and remain pure since too many fears and obstacles would present themselves; of necessity, one must make choices and assume the consequences.
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Dostoevsky was a proto-Existentialist.  In the Grand Inquisitor chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, the cardinal challenges the returned Christ for his betrayal of man who wants only miracles, mystery, and authority, not free will and the freedom of choice between good and evil.  There might be such a distinction, said Dostoevsky, but it matters little or not at all to all but aerie theologians.

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Anyone who was paying attention could have seen these doubts coming.  Crandall, for all his spiritual precocity was a very smart boy; but anyone with even a fraction of his ability would be forced to face the question and have to either accept the nostrums of organized religion -  evil is for our own good for the fight against it is proof of our faith; God tests our resolve through the Devil, his canny creation designed to help him on Judgment Day, etc.  - or conclude that there was no God, no good or evil, no meaning to birth, life, or death other than accidents of the universe, and certainly no immanent morality.

Crandall turned away from God, religion, and the Church.  He did so without resentment.  He had not suffered at the hands of abusive priests, petty diocesan autocrats, or the hypocrisy of the Vatican – not because these offenses did not exist even in the small town of New Brighton, but because he knew that they were part and parcel of a man-administered earthly kingdom.  Dostoevsky was far too harsh in his criticisms of Christ who in his opinion had enabled and facilitated an arrogant, self-serving, and venal Church.  Shakespeare was far more temperate in his views.  Of course the Church was venal, political, and self-serving; but what human institution was not? 

The issue was not that he had turned away – thousands of intelligent and not-so-intelligent human beings leave God for indifference, atheism, or both – nor even why; but how could he, given his auspicious beginning?

In other words, why was the young Crandall so endowed with spiritual insight in the first place?   His parents had summarily dismissed genetics and the influence of Great Uncle Bonner’s DNA; but Mendel had shown that the permutations and combinations made possible by the cross-breeding of billions of human beings were virtually infinite.  Somewhere buried in Crandall’s genetic material was a gene for spirituality, otherness, insightfulness.  If that were true, and if he had indeed been hardwired at conception, how could he have so easily given it all up?

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Was he simply smarter than everyone else and used his intelligence to figure out the simple actions and reactions of his cohorts and devise successful ways not only to survive but to profit?  There was tactical sense in turning the other cheek. ‘Run with confidence’ is the motto of Black Belts.
Perhaps he was really a goody-goody at heart, ashamed of his parents’ profligacy and determined to stand firmly in the other corner.

Or maybe, finally, he was simply a good example of human complexity.  He was both spiritually endowed and unflinchingly logical.   Who said that any of us are one thing or another?

Whatever the reasons were, Crandall never gave a second thought to the seminary and enrolled at Harvard and Stanford Business School and went on to be a successful investment banker on Wall Street.

It was at Hardy, Billings, and Potter that one could finally decipher the really Crandall Phillips.  He had what one friend called ‘secular rectitude’.  Just like in his youth, he understood that right behavior backed by canniness and intelligence pays higher rewards at lower risk than the contrary.  

There was neither good nor evil on the playground or on the Street.  Sartre and Nietzsche were both right.  Life is indeed valueless, and only validation of it is action.  The world of Wall Street had many wolves but few Supermen, so Nietzsche was irrelevant.  The more positive ‘surpassing’ sense of Sartre’s Existentialism rang far more true, although Crandall rarely gave such theoretical notions any thought. 

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We are as we are and as others see us.  Crandall was propelled by a mysterious complexity which for some unexplained reason was exactly right for his professional and personal happiness, success, and well-being.   Only others wondered about it.

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