Sidney Poitier: The measure of a life

Poitier's spiritual autobiography is the modern story of a man who learned what the word 'character' means.

(RNS) — Another school year closes and all teachers face the same event: grading.

I’ve just turned in my grades for “Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest,” a cross-cultural course on great spiritual writing of history, including works so fine they qualify as literature. The Dhammapada. The Bhagavad-Gita. The Song of Solomon. Selections from great saints of Carmel: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, and more.

Some are about mysticism. More are about religious spirituality, the ways to live in the light of the God or gods of a given tradition.

We talked about the Buddha, and about Old Testament prophets. We wondered aloud, as we watched a tape of religious Hindus, whether bathing in the Ganges River would do us any good. We debated whether St. Francis of Assisi was very crazy or very sane, and whether his intensity was Zen-like. We watched a life of Thomas Merton, the American monk who died at a Buddhist conference in Thailand.

Spirituality is hard to teach as a strictly historical or literary topic. The point is to introduce a wide variety of religious views about relationships with God, with self, and with others, including and especially the world beyond the classroom door. Dates and names and theory figure roundly in the mix.

Even so, the students take  — or don’t take — advice from the folks they read. St. Catherine of Siena did not do so well this year — strange and possibly anorexic, they thought. And then there was Jonathan Edwards, and his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — way too harsh. They seemed to like the British Anglo-Catholic Evelyn Underhill, whose practical spirituality applies to the everyday.

Grades filed, and the semester’s spiritual writers back on the shelves, I had time to listen to a new one: Sidney Poitier.

That’s right, Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor (for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”). The stage actor, the movie star, the director. Poitier, now 80, wrote his second memoir seven years ago. Then Oprah made it really famous.

I have not read the book. I listened to it.

Now, Sidney Poitier is the kind of actor who could make the phone book sound like theater. But his book, “Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography,” is more than simply theater. His book is real. It is about life. It is spirituality.

No, I am not confusing Poitier with St. Augustine, who wrote his own spiritual autobiography 16 centuries ago. His is not the story of a saint or theologian. His is the modern story of a man who learned what the word “character” means.

Poitier admits to the facts and foibles of his dirt-poor Bahamian past. He was such an uncontrollable 15-year-old that his parents sent him to his older brother in Miami. He scraped along from here to there, landed in New York and got odd jobs, and learned to read. He was persistent, and became an actor of the first degree. He had a wife and a house and four daughters. Then an affair and a divorce. Then another wife and two more daughters. He admits his mistakes.

Poitier does not evade the character failings of his past. Rather he tells of how he learned in retrospect what his mother and his father taught him. He speaks of his relationship with himself and with others, and with whatever force is out there, called God or something else, depending on your outlook.

The main thing Poitier says is we are all in this event together. What we do and how we do it ping upon each other so that there is no escaping the results, whether personally or globally. He warns how pleasure and ease can creep into the soul and destroy its virtue, so that honesty, integrity and respect become bottled residue of a life that might have been.

Most of all, what Poitier writes about is that character is the measure of a man _ or woman _ and without it nothing else makes sense and there is no excuse for living.

These days I am in the grading business. You never, ever, want to grade a student’s life. That is why teaching spirituality is so very difficult. You grade what they have learned about what others have done and said.

I don’t grade Poitier’s life at all. How could I?

But the book? The book gets an A.

(Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of several books in Catholic Studies. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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