Conversations with the dead

A couple days ago I gathered with my faculty book club. An ordering mishap meant we didn’t have a weighty tome to dig into, so I subbed in an address that Parker Palmer gave some 20 years back, called The Grace of Great Things: Reclaiming the Sacred in Knowing, Teaching and Learning. There’s much to commend in Palmer’s address, but I was especially struck by one of his reminiscences of a professor. Palmer writes how the prof “would make a vigorous Marxist statement,” but then “a puzzled look would cover over his face, and he would step over here and argue with himself from a Hegelian viewpoint. It wasn’t an act. He was really confused.” It was some time later that Palmer realized what the deal was: his prof “carried a community within himself, a community of people long gone.” He got to hang out all the time with Marx and Hegel and Troeltsch. Parker concludes that the heart of liberal arts education is the privilege to talk with dead people; people literally pay $25,000 a year to learn how to have conversations with dead people!

Speakers of late
It made me wonder what use we have for dead people, in an age that’s so besotted with innovation, trends and the illusion that things are just ineluctably getting better and better. It made me wonder what space there is for dead folks at the University of Waterloo, which is my other parish, and a place where those sorts of things are basically a creed, however often they’re unspoken or unconsciously affirmed.

I hope my campus ministry brings a bit of that liberal arts vibe to that big research and technology giant in Waterloo. And so on Thursday evenings I host a dinner fellowship on campus; we call it the “Soup & Speaker Series.” Basically, a bunch of us gather around a meal, and after dinner listen to a speaker hold forth on some aspect of faith and university life. But this fall I don’t have any speakers booked. While on parental leave, I just couldn’t find the logistical wherewithal to invite and host eight or nine speakers.

I was grateful for Palmer, then, who reminded me that not all speakers need to be alive. So this week, my friend Gus joined us for dinner. Gus has been dead a long time – since August of the year 430, in fact. Even though he’s long gone, he’s still got a reputation. He famously consoled the Romans after their city was sacked by a bunch of hairy northerners. He’s also one of the originators of the autobiography, an especially relevant part of his CV nowadays, as memoir is one of our burgeoning literary genres.

Making dead friends
Gus spoke to us from a portion of that autobiography, specifically from a part where he remembers his time as a student in Carthage. Though his perspective tipped in from a century long past, it wasn’t dusty and irrelevant. He spoke of the thrill of discovering philosophy, and how that “altered his prayers” and directed him toward seeking wisdom. He warned of the dangers of getting a big head, of knowing that you’re really clever and smart, and how that can lead you astray. He recommended to us the careful study of the Bible, “a text lowly to the beginner but, on further reading, of mountainous difficulty and enveloped in mysteries.” He mentioned, obliquely, as if embarrassed, how his mom paid his tuition.

A couple students bolted after Gus was done talking – these sepulchral voices can be startling (though maybe they just needed to get to class). The rest of the crew, though, 17 or 18 of UW’s brightest, really appreciated Gus’ presence and the conversation he sparked. I think I’ll invite some more dead friends to join us this term.

It’s hard to make friends, isn’t it? We’re so busy, so distracted these days – it’s not easy to find the time. Here’s the cool thing about making dead friends: they’re always around. Like literally 24/7, 365. They don’t go away to the cottage. They’re not distracted by cell phones. You don’t have to clean your house to have them over.

If you’re lonely and looking for some cracking conversation this fall, can I recommend you look up Augustine, this old bishop from North Africa? He’s always up for a chat.


  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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