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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER II — Out of the Many, One

One Saturday night I read in the Minneapolis Tribune that a visiting minister from Southern California was to speak at the church in a late Sunday afternoon vesper service. Unaccountably, I had a strong urge to attend the meeting.

Snow had begun to fall when I picked up the paper. It continued through the night. Sunday afternoon, I waded through drifts almost to my knees in places on my way to the car line. Transportation was slowed by the weather and the church service had already begun when I slipped into a seat near the back and over a floor register whose heat would help dry my dampened pants’ legs.

The speaker was talking about the compassion and providence of God; that He withholds from us no good thing that heart and mind can envision, even to the extent of coming back to earth in another human body to learn a needed lesson, to complete a needed overcoming. “Every good desire shall be fulfilled,” he declared, “either in ways that we now see, or in others that in God’s sight are even better.” I drank in his words. I had never heard a minister talk like that.

Suddenly he interrupted his train of thought.

“It seems very strange that I should have left my rose-bowered church in San Diego to come to this northern clime in the midst of winter. But I feel as if I have come here for one person!”

I suppressed an exclamation. It was as if someone had punched me in the solar plexus. “Why, I am the one!” I exclaimed to myself. It seemed incredible. My conscious mind rejected it. Imagination, conceit, wishful thinking! “Don’t you imagine that half the people in the congregation are claiming the same thing?” Nevertheless I could not dismiss the feeling. I waited until the meager congregation had dispersed, then hesitantly approached the minister.

“I am the one,” I said.

Close to, he seemed taller than he appeared in the pulpit, younger too. The stern look of the zealot seemed softer. There was a mirthful twinkle in his eyes, a faint smile about his lips. Was he amused at my presumption?

“Your name wouldn’t be Wilson, would it?” he asked.

“Why, yes. But how would you know that?”

“The resident minister, with whom I’m exchanging pulpits for awhile warned me against you. He said you were a promising young man, but unreliable. Where have you been? I’ve been expecting to see you. I thought that any youth who was important enough for me to be warned against was someone I should know. We’re going to be friends I think. Would you like to do the kind of work I am doing?”

“It would be wonderful, of course, but I couldn’t do it.”

“You can if you want to enough,” was his response.

The Challenge

“If you want to enough!” How many times, in how many ways I was to face the challenge of those words in the months ahead—let alone the years—fortunately I could not know, or I don’t suppose I would have tried.

Thus, I met John Ring. As we became acquainted, I got the impression that he had never had a regular income; he lived simply but well. He occasionally invited me to an early dinner in the minister’s quarters of the church. He was a vegetarian, and did wonders with cheese and eggs, rice, peanut butter, fresh fruit and vegetables.

Sometimes he invited me to a concert or play, and made no apologies for buying the cheapest seats. We saw the world-famous dancer, Ruth St. Denis from what was called “nigger heaven” (the gallery) and cut short his vociferous applause at the end of the performance, to grasp my hand and say, “Come on, we must hurry!”

“Where? Why?”

“We’re going backstage to see her,” he exclaimed impatiently.

“Do you know her?” I asked in surprise.

“No, but I shall!” he responded.

We were not rebuffed as I should have expected. In no time we were talking like friends. We learned that she was on tour to raise funds for the school, Denishawn, that they had established in Los Angeles, and which she invited us to visit if ever we were in that area. That she and her husband, Ted Shawn, would one day be two of my closest friends in years to come, I could not have imagined. But that is another story.

Odd Experiences

As my acquaintance with John Ring developed into friendship, I learned that he had odd experiences that would now be described as extrasensory perception. He was quite objective about them. He seemed never to try to convince me of their validity. Perhaps for that reason they were the more impressive to me. His positive conviction of immortality and of reincarnation became the subject of candid discussion between us.

“Do you really hear voices, see things that other people do not?”

I would ask.

“Well, the experience is like hearing, like seeing.” he would say. “Obviously it must be a mental rather than a physical perception or you and others would perceive the same things that on occasion I do.” “And what about this reincarnation business? Almost everyone I have heard of who accepts the theory seems to believe he was some famous person somewhere in the past.”

“Mostly wishful thinking, I’d say; a kind of vicarious experiencing of things that seem romantic or dramatic; perhaps an involuntary effort to bring colorful episodes into what seems an otherwise drab existence. But belief in reincarnation does not rest on such flimsy grounds. You can approach the subject by logic better than by trying to remember who you may have been in some past life.

“Where you are now and where you are going is more important to you than where you may have been in the past. But God has given us—you for instance—aspirations and ideals too great to be attained in one lifetime. There is so much for us all to learn, to know, to experience, and this manifest world offers an ideal laboratory for many lifetimes of evolving the potentials that are awaiting expression.”

One Thing Needed

One day, after he had had quite a time persuading me to take a part in a pageant he was presenting at the church (partly in an endeavor to attract more young people, and partly, I think, simply because to him religion was inseparable from drama) he gave vent to his impatience with me by saying, “Ernest, there’s one thing you need!”

“Only one?” I ventured.

“One especially. You should get a copy of Emerson's Essays, First Series, and read ‘Self-Reliance.’ I think you can get a copy for about fifteen cents.”

I had read Emerson in high school, but only to try to pick out the topic sentences in each paragraph, as part of a course in English. What he was writing about did not consciously register with me.

On my lunch hour I visited bookstores. Copies of Emerson were $2.50 and $3.00—next to nothing now, but a lot for a youth earning ten dollars a week. Finally, on my way to the interurban after work I was passing a secondhand bookstore that I had never noticed before. “Would you by chance have a copy of Emerson's Essays, First Series?” I asked the clerk who greeted me.

In a few moments he brought a copy for me to see. “We have just this one copy. You can have it for fifteen cents.” I remembered John’s casual remark. I felt like the little book had been waiting for me to claim it, and promptly did so.

Looking up from my desk now as I am writing, I can see the little volume on the top shelf of my bookcase. It has had a reincarnation, which took place in my much later Los Angeles ministry. Charles Malotte, father of Albert Hay Malotte, who composed the widely acclaimed setting to the Lord’s Prayer, was a member of our church. In his own way he was as talented as his famous son. He was an expert bookbinder who did much work for the motion picture studios, restoring and repairing rare and priceless volumes for their reference libraries. He was waiting at the church door after the service one Sunday to say, “Your ministry has meant so much to my family and me, I’d like to offer my services in appreciation. Is there some cherished book that you would like to have specially bound?”

“Yes, indeed, a little secondhand copy of Emerson’s Essays” In the challenging time of those long interurban rides, frustrated ambitions, and subsistence living, that little book had been a life-saver—as John knew it would.

The little book belies its age. Enclosed in a protective case, bound in leather, embellished with gold leaf lettering and gilt-edged pages, its contents as well as its binding, are the loving work of master craftsmen.

Challenges Appear

How much I had actually learned from John’s sermons and lessons—and even more personal association with him—was challenged by the fact that he would be leaving Minneapolis soon to resume his ministry in San Diego.

“Where do I go from here?” I lamented. “I shall feel lost without you.”

“Tell me something. Do you think it was just impulse, or was it a leading of the Spirit that brought you to that first vesper service?”

“It must have been a leading.”

“Was it by chance that you found that copy of Emerson—and for just fifteen cents?”

“No. I even felt like it had been there waiting for me to claim it.”

“Then can’t you trust the Power that is opening ways before you? He opens ways where there seems to be none. Only trust and give thanks that there is one. Have faith!”

“Will I ever see you again?”

“Don’t try to outline. You are not losing a teacher, but are in the process of finding one—the Innate within you. Have faith.”

With that I tried to be content.

He left and Doctor Ireland returned. I continued at my job. A new art director appeared and gave me more interesting and important assignments. I was heartened by a note from John. At least he hadn’t forgotten me.

Often after John left, when I went to bed at night and sleep was elusive, I would try to picture myself giving a sermon (if indeed I should be called on to do so). The occasion appeared much sooner than I could have imagined. Doctor Ireland was suddenly taken ill. Could I speak at the next Sunday’s church service? My impulse was to say “no, I couldn’t.” I wasn’t ready. I had led meditations, given short talks in classes, recited “The Seven Ages of Man” from As You Like It, but a sermon—! I couldn’t, yet I could almost hear John saying, “You can if you want to enough.” Was it to meet this emergency that I had had those nightly fancies? Hesitantly I agreed to try. There were only a few days to prepare, and out of them only my time on the interurban car rides and evenings after work. I would pretend I was writing a theme in school.

Sitting in the chancel Sunday morning, everything I had thought I would talk about seemed to leave me. A Bible admonition appeared from somewhere in my mind: “Think not what ye shall say, for when the time cometh it shall be given unto you.” With that as my guide and resource, I faced the little congregation, and began speaking. Stage fright overcame me. I became nauseated. I rushed from the platform to a restroom and lost my breakfast. Filled with chagrin, I thought, “If I give up now, I ’ll never have the courage to try again. ” I forced myself to return to the platform. The chairman had called on the congregation to sing some hymns as I left. They were still singing as I sheepishly resumed my seat in the chancel. As the song ended, I rose, apologized to the congregation, and asked their indulgence. They burst into applause. Their heartening response seemed to evoke some latent resource within me, and I got through the alloted time, mostly with the help of “Self-Reliance” and “Compensation,” passages from which I discovered that I had unconsciously memorized. I’ve always been grateful to Emerson and to that kindly congregation for their help.

A phenomenon of the times was the emerging popularity of what was called practical psychology. At the very time that John was returning to California, Minneapolis was being introduced to this phenomenon by full page ads that announced the coming of a speaker who invited the public to attend a series of free public lectures in the city’s largest auditorium that would tell them how to become healthy, wealthy, and happy. The free lectures would be followed by classes in advanced instruction for which a considerable fee must be charged.

David Bush was the first such speaker I remember. Harriet Luella McCullom, Harry Gaze, Gertrude Steel Chambers and Baron Ferson were other itinerant speakers who followed much the same procedure.

I went to as many free lectures as I could. My income did not warrant taking the closed classes.

Great Expectations

The daily interurban rides to and from the city no longer seemed tedious to me. I would become lost in the contemplation of perhaps just one sentence from Emerson’s writings, such as “Honest service cannot come to loss . . . every stroke shall be repaid.” Such ideas would occupy a portion of my thoughts at work, as they did one day when I was called from my drawing board to answer a personal phone call. It was the Santa Fe ticket agent.

“Are you expecting a ticket for California?” his voice inquired.

“No, but there might be one,” I answered.

There was.

A message from John explained it: “There is an opening here in a San Diego engraving house. They will give you trial employment. You can work part-time for them, study with me. Meet me in San Francisco March eleventh. Love, John.”

I was on my way to becoming a minister.

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.