Margaret Avison's Story
Margaret Avison was a Governor General’s award-winning poet who passed away in 2007. Her work often touched on her faith, a faith that was deeply shaped by her time at Knox. The following is an excerpt from her autobiography, I am Here and Not Not-there. To set the stage, she had recently been invited to Knox by a stranger (she’ll refer to this incident as “the ladies’ lounge episode”).
Sunday morning, late, was party time for campus habitués, and I often passed that church at Spadina and Harbord on my way to some graduate’s quarters, usually with the bottle one contributed when possible. The entering flock I passed seemed to me quaintly, or over-carefully attired—a new breed, unlike the United Church faithful I remembered from my father’s church thirty years earlier at a time when most people had been automatic churchgoers.
Perhaps the idea of stalwart minority, be the current culture what it may, became intriguing. Two years after the ladies’ lounge episode, I finally mounted the stone steps and entered the big doors of Knox Presbyterian Church. I brought my own tiny Bible, and chose a place to sit in the centre section, about a quarter of the way down. It occurred to me that there were the people I had known in public school, as distinct from the exclusively academic group I had been working with for years. For months I came and went, read the prophecies in the Book of Ezekiel when proceedings did not engage my attention (a literary equivalent of Picasso, in ancient times!).
The sermons merited a respectful hearing. “Dr. William Fitch,” the bulletin said: his doctorate in the humanities was from Edinburgh University. The youngest of several brothers, as I later learned, Dr. Fitch had the warmth and liveliness that came of being well loved in childhood. He unravelled passages of Scripture, making the context clear, and he focussed with forceful conviction on the relevance of his chosen text, in language that was lively and precise. One of the Sunday morning party group ran into me in the library and asked if I’d been away. No. Where had I been? “I’ve been to church.” “You’ve been to what?!” Another unnerving shift was being felt, in relationship.
At the church, I came and went along, happily unchallenged. Once when the minister shook hands at the doors he gave me a direct look and greeted me too, without asking my name. Finally, leaving the service one time, I stopped a woman oustide and said: “I keep hearing about faith in there. You people have it. I don’t. What am I supposed to do?” She suggested I make an appointment through his secretary and ask the minister. In due course I did.
Dr. Fitch tried to pinpoint my question. Did I know … historical, textual, Old Testament backgrounds? I did. I explained my upbringing. “Your questions are not for information, then,” he said, “Go home and read and reread the Gospel of John—daily.” This I dutifully did, first thing each morning. The text was to me like shapes and colours that conveyed little meaning until I had plodded along for thirteen chapters.
Early on the morning of January 4, 1963, dressed for work as usual, I read on. “You believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1). I did believe in God. Whoever had spoken, the “Me”—it was not visual, but not a mere feeling—that Person was impingingly present, before me. Not even questioning this strange visitation, I spoke: “If I believe in You, You will take over. I’ll believe, but oh, don’t take the poetry. It’s all I got left.” An ancient poet describes the confrontation: “Put me in remembrance; let us content together. State your case.” (Isaiah 43:26). It infuriated me to feel that my “case” was weakened and about to crumble. Finally I hurled the Bible across the room and said, “Okay, take the poetry too!”
I think I expected to lose my identity then. But what happened was odd. On the cleared desktop, what looked like iron filings appeared, all joggled about, until they began to arrange in a design—angles, arcs, curving lines. After a few moments the desk was its plain, old surface again, cluttered with papers.
With a glance at my watch, I firmly stood up, collected coat and bag, and left for my daily assignment, resolutely blanking out the morning’s events. But the new direction declared itself bit by bit. My five senses were noticeably quickened. Creative ideas abounded. I appreciated friends afresh, but to my surprise, I found I could side with an unpopular spokesman, if necessary. In fact, a new design had come into my life, like that iron filing display taking shape on my desk!
Moreover, the morning after that initial experience of Christ’s presence, my scripture reading was broken into the need to write a new poem. It came fluidly, arrived as a first draft without blots or second thoughts. It was “A Story”. More and more poems piled up over the months after that.
Margaret’s autobiography I Am Here and Not Not-There is available in the Knox Library.