Corridor Learning: “Here I am, where I Ought to Be” A Personal Reflection on Religion and Life
by Shannon Mullen O’Keefe
I have always loved the first line of the film (and the original memoir) “Out of Africa.” The film starts with Meryl Streep (playing Karen Blixen) sitting on a windowsill deep in thought about her past. “I had a farm in Africa,” the character reflects…. “at the foot of the Ngong Hills….”
I’ve tried to put my finger on what it is about this moment in the film that has so attracted me to this character. Is it the fine-balance she manages between the present and the past? Is it the longing that it suggests one can have for another moment in time? Is it how the past and present can live fully in one human all at once? Or is it simply, how calmly she seems to accept her life, for what it is and what is has been?
In the book, this scene continues… “it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent…. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.”
“Here I am, where I ought to be,” is what we all might hope to achieve in our lives. The strength of Blixen’s conviction may be what draws me in. The certainty of knowing that we’re in exactly the right spot is alluring. A majority of us seem often to be on one side or another of this equation. We strive to achieve more, to get ahead… to find “balance”….all while coping with the invariable challenges of life. The story of Blixen’s life was constructed around the farm in Africa and all that came with it throughout the years-unfaithful husband, the fire that ruins her crop, sick children, the death of her love interest, her own serious illness, are all accepted, even embraced, at the end of her life. As she reflects from the future…and recalls each struggle, at the foot of the Ngong hills, she finds where she “ought to be.”
In my own experience, I have come to understand that a feeling of “Here I am, where I ought to be,” must walk hand in hand with a belief that there is something larger than all of us.
My earliest memories of Church are of attending St. Michael’s parish just on the outskirts of of the mid-sized community that I grew up in. It was more commonly known as the church with the “purple doors” as built in the 1970’s it sported two brightly painted purple doors that were eye-catching on the building that sat in a cornfield (the shag carpet inside was equally purple.) I remember that my birthday, March 10, was the same as the priests, and so I felt a special kinship with him.
In one specific memory on the day my younger sister was born my uncle Mike (our babysitter while my parents were at the hospital) took my brother and I to church. That morning he allowed us to get ready ourselves and I washed my hair with the bath oil that was in the bathtub instead of shampoo. This was unbeknownst to my uncle until he put his hand on my slick head at mass and realized the mistake I had made! At about that same age, I remember sitting in the pew listening to the mass and becoming particularly frustrated at the point in which everyone says “I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word.” I refused to say it, I felt worthy after all. My young ego was strong. Even sitting there with a head of hair full of bath oil, as a six-year-old, I sat proud, and defiant.
My next real memory about religion comes just after my graduation from high school. I was sitting in the living room of my childhood home with my dad reviewing possible classes for my first semester of college. I was to attend Creighton University a Jesuit college in Omaha, Nebraska and religion was a required part of the curriculum. I had my entire future in front of me and I could imagine all of the interesting things yet to learn, I couldn’t wait to experiment with a new life, however, a class on religion did not register on my preferred list. Fiercely independent, I was appalled at the thought that I was being “required” to do anything. My dad patiently walked through the course catalogue with me and came across a class entitled “The Theology of Human Existence.” “Okay,” I agreed, “I’ll take that one.”
I made my way from Minnesota to Nebraska to start my freshman year and to take “The Theology of Human Existence.” The class was taught by a young professor named Dr. Reno. I wish I could say that I remembered the specific takeaways from that class, but I don’t. What I do remember is an awakening to learning about religion in a way that opened my mind. After the readings and lectures in this class I found myself wondering what my professor really thought about it all. His Socratic approach left me questioning but engaged in the learning. My dad was likely surprised to hear that of all my classes that semester, “The Theology of Human Existence” had become my favorite.
I also spent a semester studying in the Dominican Republic, experiencing extreme poverty first hand, there I was immersed in studying history and “liberation theology” but nothing moved me like thinking critically about “Human Existence.” And while I can’t remember all of the authors that we read, or all of the arguments that we reviewed, or what I wrote my final class essay on, as it happens I have carried with me one specific thing that professor taught me just in passing one day. He made a point of saying that “corridor learning” may be as important or more important than classroom learning.
In my mind the concept of “corridor learning” relates fully to the Theology of Human Existence. Corridor Learning is living life. It is the learning that happens everywhere but in the classroom itself. It is stumbling through all the awkward moments of life — using bath oil to wash your hair as a silly example of being human and many more complicated human errors and ethical choices as life progresses — and taking forward with you those life-lessons learned. And in fact, taking responsibility for them. I see a relevance to my reflections about Denisen’s life. Her farm in Africa, and all that came with it was her “Corridor Learning” the true Theology of Human Existence!
Life’s challenges bring the big questions of life closest to us, in those moments we are called to learn through our very human existence. Having a predetermined understanding that God is looking out for us where we are, and where we ought to be is as it should be. Aware and patient, allowing the choices to be ours. After the corridor learning I have done in my life, I am more willing now to say in church “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
But, there is something in our modern culture that makes it difficult to relinquish control to something greater. There is so much we are inspired to do by many messages around us to try to control our life and the life of our children and families. The “hard work” ethic, “If at once you don’t succeed, try, try, again” , “The Little Engine that Could”, the “American Dream,” — in important ways all of these are a good thing, humans crave something to look forward to and to work toward. However, I haven’t met a human being who hasn’t experienced significant challenges in her life. The challenges come in many forms, difficult choices, failings in relationships, deaths, divorces, illnesses, changes and so on. In Dennison’s life, she was first blind-sided with regard to her family economics, by her husband choosing to plant a crop of coffee, rather than raise cattle. And then later, as her farm burned to the ground. She was also diagnosed with syphilis, rendering her unable to bear children. In all of these cases she proved resilient, but she was tested.
It is here where I feel strongly that faith has a role to play. Having faith offers hope. And a living church, can offer a home. In Paolo Coelho’s landmark book “The Alchemist”, the underlying message suggests that the universe is always conspiring to help us. With this view, at every turn we are being offered up choices that can work in our favor. This does not mean that everything always goes in our favor, but that the next choice may be. If we are willing to believe it, as we scan the horizon of our individual lives, we will see doors open to us representing opportunities for us to take. Coelho’s message aligns well with my personal belief of God. Like a loving parent, who births us into the world, He hopes for the best, offers the best, offers us choices all along the way, and hopes for us that we will choose our best path.
The scraped knees we get along the way are a part of His expectation for us. After all, we have choices. I don’t see God acting as a “helicopter parent” would, hovering over a child at the playground, fearing a tumble. Rather, I see Him as a gentle hand, coaxing doors and windows open, inviting us to walk or crawl through, and to return home to hear His “good news.” I think God may be more present than many of us realize, conspiring to help us in ways we cannot imagine.
So, we can and should profess the “good news” and present the church as the universal home that best represents the “good news” to all people. The church can be the one door that is always open, and church leaders have an opportunity to offer a message that welcomes us home, to “here I am where I ought to be.”
Recently, a family member digitized some old files and posted an old video from My uncle’s wedding. The wedding occurred in the 1950’s, and in the video you can see my uncle, his new bride and my father’s family standing outside the church in their best clothes. The video is of nothing in particular happening, the family is just waiting for the new couple to emerge from the church. But what struck me as I had that unique glimpse into the past of my father’s family, was how similar it was to my own family more than 50 years later. It could be me with my husband and our active children, rather than my grandparents and their children, waiting for a bride and groom to emerge from the church. The stability of the church tradition from that generation to mine is something I value about the church. In the same way it was a home to my grandparents, it is a home to me. Although they are no longer alive, we share that home together still. This is the stable home, throughout time, that I hope for the church to be to all people.
As Coelho has suggested, the universe conspires to help us and I believe that all along the way God nudges us. We have an opportunity to notice these nudges and to act on them. I continue to hope that the “good news” of the church will make more regular news, and that the corridor learners, all of us, will more often receive the message that we are welcome into the stability of the home created for us. We may be asking forgiveness there, we may be getting a glimpse of an ideal to aim for, we may be resting after a disappointment, but the hope is that we are welcomed there for whatever need it may be. And as Karen Blixen did in the highlands of Africa, we will find peace in knowing “ Here I am where I ought to be.”