By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
James Clarke is an avuncular person with the temperament of a mystic. He delights in the simple things but has spent his life with the complex things. A lawyer and former Ontario Superior Court Judge the law has been his life. But not his whole life. He is also a poet with some 20 volumes of poetry and prose to his name, a Catholic quester who likes to self-describe as a sinner, and a father and grandfather who relishes family time. Residing in the Royal City of Guelph, Ontario, his place of residence for decades, he is now in his late eighties, suffering the normal impairments of aging, and only recently emerging from the restrictions of the COVID 19 plague. Clarke has taken up his poet’s pen with an arresting moral urgency: to shine the light of hope in the darkening landscape of despair. He has several volumes already published over the years and if the pandemic dampened his spirits initially and stilled his hand, that is no longer the case.
I remember my first meeting with Judge Clarke—full disclosure: we have been friends for decades—at a funeral. The poignant funeral of a suicide, this death would haunt him for years, and remains a melancholy companion still. It was the death of his first wife, Mary, a death that has generated a lifelong struggle against the hollowing out of the heart, compelling him to face that withering and distressing reality that is the guilt of the bewildered and self-incriminating survivor who knows viscerally that “the shiver of guilt keeps quivering in our blood.” (“The Permanence of Guilt”).
In an earlier time—prior to Mary’s death—Clarke and his young family spent time in Trosly-Breuil, the very seat of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche, living a spirituality of the wounded at its centre. His first book—L’Arche Journal: A Family’s Experience in Jean Vanier’s Community—remains a foundational text for understanding Clarke’s way of compassion. While marvelling at the plenitude of light to be found in Beauvais Cathedral he wryly noted in his journal that it is “strange how dark, lifeless, and even forbidding the stained glass windows of the great cathedrals appear from the outside, but from the inside, what a contrast!” The perfect metaphor for his time with the intellectually disabled, and the perfect metaphor for his approach to the exercise of justice. Seeing beauty is not simply a matter of perspective, doing justice is not simply a professional duty. Both are integral to a living faith for Clarke. And poetry is his way of connecting both.
But before he turned his attention to composing poems he needed to survive in a family atmosphere that was redolent of the upbringing of playwright Eugene O’Neill and novelist Frank McCourt: family alcoholism, shattered dreams, disappointed ambitions, public humiliation and failure. In his autobiographical The Kid from Simcoe Street: A Memoir and Poems Clarke writes movingly of his relationship with his father:
Dad and I lost each other in the shadow of each other’s
silences. Da, another child in the house, never did learn
the language of touch. He spurned embraces and other
displays of affection. It was after his experiences in World
War II he had built a box and, gathering all his hurts and
silences, had curled up inside it like a shivering dog, leaving
us to peer through the slats to glimpse his face in
in blades of light, to listen to the slow shriveling of
Young James managed to escape his dysfunctional family in Peterborough, Ontario and to make his way on scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, to law school, and on to a distinguished career as a jurist. But the scars of his youth remained—the memories of poverty, the emotional chasms, the banal cruelties of the street and the bar. As a judge he has repeatedly drawn on his experience as a disadvantaged youth to look with compassion on those he is required to pass judgement on. His philosophy of law is best articulated—succinctly and persuasively—in his poetry not in his accomplished court decisions, many of which have become legal landmarks. He addresses himself in “A Question”:
for you, old judge—where has your
journey brought you?
The grace of unearned love, many
A glimmer of what it means to love.
Memories of a few well-honed decisions
looking for mercy in the crowded corridors
of the law.
A spattering of derelictions and missteps
along the way, coupled with the shame of
The knowledge that we live daily in each
Living “in each other’s forgiveness” has been this octogenarian’s spiritual and legal modus operandi for decades. He knows the pull of the heart and he knows in his bones the insinuating agonies of guilt.
But if there is a Kierkegaardian tone to his thinking, there is a much greater attachment to a Wordsworthian love of nature. It is the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his poems of the garden and his poems of the desert, those poems that celebrate the divine effulgence in creation and those poems that bewail the divine absence in our interior lives, who most appeals to Clarke’s aesthetic and spiritual sensibility. It is though the psalm-like purity of “God’s Grandeur” not the existential dread of the “terrible sonnets” of the Dublin years that most inspires Clarke.
And this very nature is all around him in Guelph—its fields, glens, winding river, lush landscape, and numerous trails through woods and wild settings—feeding his muse on a daily basis. In addition, he has the nature sanctuary on the grounds of Loyola House, a Jesuit retreat centre, a place that conforms with his progressive Catholic views. At the same time, he also worships at the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate, an imposing neo-Gothic structure on a hill in the heart of the city, and a bastion of staid liturgies, conservative homilies, and clericalist sympathies. Like the good judge that he is, Clarke makes room for both ecclesiologies, eschews easy judgement, and seeks unity and agreement where he can find it.
His irenicism is a natural part of his personal makeup. Clarke can be combative—he needed to be in order to survive the domestic mayhem of his birth family—but he is more the peacemaker, searching for common ground in law and in theology.
Especially significant in nurturing this common ground is the Eucharist, the balm no ordinance or statute can provide, his “calamine of the soul”:
I leave the courthouse
soiled & disillusioned, wander
down the aisle of the skin
care section of Shoppers
Drug Mart, seeking
that calamine of the soul—
Sunday morning last summer
when we sailed to the dayspring &
waves danced their liturgy for the risen,
sun, three loons looked on
in meditation as a heron
prophesied from a driftwood stump &
poised above time, we forget for
a few moments our
brokenness, slaked our thirst
in living water, shared bred
in our hearts (“Eucharist”)
Eucharist is for the broken ones—Pope Francis understands this even though some of the American episcopate fail to grasp it—and for Clarke is the beatific summit squarely within reach of those aching into holiness.
The last time I saw him he was full of energy, walking with an old friend, prolix yet reflective, expounding at will yet ruminative, enveloped in wonder, open to the simple epiphanies of grace.