The search has left him outside the mainstream

RALPH HARPER SEEKS TO DEFINE AND ACHIEVE 'PRESENCE'

June 15, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Ralph Harper sits on a bench on the Johns Hopkins University campus, a vigorous man of 76, in a tan corduroy jacket and khaki slacks. His hair runs silver to gray, and his eyes are a startling Caribbean-blue. Physically, Mr. Harper slips smoothly into this academic tableau, a professor emeritus perhaps, returning for lunch with the university president, or a visiting lecturer from an Ivy League school.

But the tableau disintegrates as soon as Mr. Harper, an adjunct professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins, begins to talk of the lifelong odyssey that has taken him around the world and left him bereft of professional legitimacy.

On the fringes of the world's most prestigious academic institutions, in a remote monastery, from a conservative country parish, Mr. Harper has searched for a rare quality of life that he calls presence. "My whole life has been a quest to get nearer and nearer to the heart of presence," he says.

In his most recent book, "On Presence: Reflections and Variations," Mr. Harper describes presence as a place "where neither space nor time matters momentarily, and where there are no questions, doubts, or anxieties, only quiet and light. It is the shape of nirvana, the shape of the dark contemplation of John of the Cross, the mutual identification of Cathy and Heathcliff, a shared understanding."

His search for a realm of quiet and light has placed Mr. Harper squarely at odds with the academic and religious institutions in which he has made his numerous homes. "I am a failure as the world understands success. [In] everything I've ever done, I felt that very strongly all my life," he says with an air of a gentleman scholar who suffers from a kind of chronic, worldly exhaustion.

But recently, in a remarkable reversal of intellectual fortune, Mr. Harper's ideas about presence were recognized. In April, it was announced that "On Presence" was the recipient of the 1992 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, which is given jointly by the University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The stated purpose of the award is to "honor and publicize creative and seminal insights into the relationship between human beings and the divine."

Although little known, the award carries a big purse. For five years, Mr. Harper will receive $30,000 to support further research -- and further searching.

The Grawemeyer award, Mr. Harper says, has given him "a great sense of vindication."

Understandably. "On Presence," which he calls the "culmination of all I have written," was rejected by 20 publishing companies, before it was accepted by Trinity Press International, a small religious press in Philadelphia. Even Johns Hopkins University Press, which has published four of his works, turned this one down.

"On Presence" is a slim volume, an essay actually, dense with Mr. Harper's interpretations of Proust, Heidegger, Martin Buber, Saints John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and other apostles of presence. H. Charles Grawemeyer, the award's benefactor, finds Mr. Harper's meditations on metaphysics, literature and theology tough going. "I've been very thrilled with it. I read it three times and I'm about to start reading it for the fourth time," says the retired businessman and philanthropist by phone from Louisville.

"I'm a little afraid it may be a little deep for the average reader," he continues. "I found a lot of the thinking very readable and very understandable. [When it went] into high gear, it got over my head some, but the book is still very worth reading from the 75 percent I could understand and had a feel for."

Mr. Harper's work -- which ranges from an examination of the thriller to a chronicle of his stay in an ancient Greek monastery -- stands apart from that of standard academicians because it is so intimate, says Jack G. Goellner, director of Johns Hopkins University Press. "They are not your typical scholarly research books. They are personal and within the academy are not regarded as highly as more orthodox and more scholarly books." (Mr. Goellner argued unsuccessfully for the publication of "On Presence" with his faculty editorial board.)

Though proud of his independence, his uneasy relationship with the academic world galls Mr. Harper. "I don't consider myself a scholar. [However] I can't be contradicted with impunity," he says sternly.

As a personal journey into the realm of presence, Mr. Harper's book might be considered one of the world's most arcane self-help books. "But it's not puff. It's not the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. . . . or 'Co-dependence No More' or all these things you can buy a dime a dozen in the store," says Harold W. Rast, director of Trinity Press International. "This is for people who think." In our society today, that is not always very popular," he says.

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