by Ron Petrou
We all begin in innocence and ignorance. Almost all of us mean well. But we are mostly alone with our selves in this confusing, wonderful, painful, mysterious experience on earth. The paths we take in our lives are often determined by the questions we ask or don’t ask. What is it about questions that is so powerfully important? And what is the most important question of all?
When we are very young, our minds and hearts are open. We begin in our early years to ask question after question, especially “Why?” Why is the sky blue? Why do grown-ups sometimes cry when they are happy? Why do airplanes stay up?
When we are very young, we are closer to the mysteries of life. As the English poet Wordsworth wrote in his poem, “Intimations of Immortality,”
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light.”
As we experience more of the struggles and trials of life in this world, “shades of the prison house” begin to close around us.
And then what happens to this celestial light? Wordsworth continues,
“At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”
When I married my fiancee in 1966 in a little, picturesque chapel on Shelter Island, near Montauk Point, Long Island, I was 29 and experienced, I thought, in the ways of the world after spending almost two years in Greece, Cyprus, traveling through Europe and after being a high school English teacher.
I had been brought up as a church-going Episcopalian, but after college I became devoted to reading literature, especially prominent writers or the 1960s like Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell and Nikos Kazantzakis. I felt myself to be primarily a writer. One thing I was not was religious.
And so, during our marriage ceremony, when the minister led the congregation in “The Lord’s Prayer,” I heard the words “And thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” A powerful sense of revulsion arose within me, and I said to myself with certainty, “I want nothing to do with Christianity or religion of any kind from now on.” I closed the book on all of that and slammed to door on “Almighty God.”
I had closed my mind with a snap and a bang. I was alone with my wife, and that’s where I wanted to be. Other questions confronted me. Where would I live? What would my work be? What kind of father and husband would I be?
Fast-forward to 1971. I was in Chicago in my 34th year. I was driving along Lake Shore Drive with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Catherine. Suddenly, she asked a question that snapped open my mind: “Daddy, where was I before I was born?”
I had no answer for her. I knew she meant something other than being in her mother’s womb. She was asking where she, Catherine, her own identity as a person, was before she came into existence as a human being.
I had never thought of such a question. No one I knew ever asked that question. Living in the pure innocence of childhood, the question of the continuity of human existence arose in her heart and mind.
Not wanting to besmirch her question with my doubts and denials, I went in search of a person or community of persons who could answer her question.
That quest arose within me with a new sense of urgency. Intuitively, I knew that to even begin to answer Catherine’s question, I had to acquire — or possibly to re-acquire — the capacity to see the “light celestial.”
“Parzival,” the epic poem written between 1200 and 1210 in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, describes in profound simplicity the epic journey that leads every sincerely questioning individual, every thoughtful person, to the light celestial.
The story reveals what is perhaps the most important question a human being can ask.
Ron Petrou is currently leading a 10-week study group every Wednesday,10 a.m., on “Parzival” (it started May 6) at the Chestnut Hill Enrichment Center 8431 Germantown Ave. Ron taught “Parzival” at Kimberton Waldorf School High School (Chester County) for several years and recently conducted study groups on it in Mt. Airy. He has a BA in English from Hamilton College and an MA in Waldorf Education from Adelphi University. For five years he has lived in Mt. Airy. More information at 215-248-0180 or Ron at 267-421-7749.