RALPH HARPER SEEKS TO DEFINE AND ACHIEVE 'PRESENCE' The search has left him outside the mainstream


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.

For his part, Mr. Harper did not intend this book, or any of the more than 10 he has written, for the edification of thousands of readers or for academic advancement. "I never wrote a book with an audience in mind. I wrote it for myself. A book I myself would like to read," he says.

In this ornery way, as a writer, clergyman and teacher, Mr. Harper has remained an outsider able to enter his own disciplines only through the back door. A Harvard graduate who XTC went on to study at Oxford and Fribourg universities, Mr. Harper never received a graduate degree. Nevertheless, he has taught at St. John's College, Harvard and Johns Hopkins where, since 1960, he has offered courses in the School of Continuing Studies, all the while refusing to attend the requisite academic conferences and symposiums.

One of Mr. Harper's first works, "On Existentialism: A Theory of Man," grew from a dissertation rejected by his examiners at Oxford, and is considered by some scholars to be the seminal examination of existentialism in English. Twice a Guggenheim Fellow, Mr. Harper has also been a Fellow of the Fund for the Advancement of Education, through the Ford Foundation.

Mr. Harper is also an ordained Episcopal minister who did not attend seminary, but "read for orders" with another priest, and passed the required examinations at age 38. From 1959 until 1981, Mr. Harper served as rector of St. James Church in Monkton.

"That's not the sort of thing that makes you a member of the club in a university, so to speak," Mr. Goellner says. "Especially in a blue ribbon research university, where academic protocol . . . is kind of required for membership in the club."

Mr. Harper's years as a rector in Monkton were difficult and off-limits for discussion during an interview. He does speak of standing up to his parish on issues such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, and confesses to "very little sense of accomplishment as a clergyman."

He lives in Monkton with his wife Rita, in a home described by a friend as "a little Greek island house." This fall, he will teach a course at Hopkins on classic children's literature. And, as always, he will seek presence, as difficult to achieve as it is to define, as protection from the horrors of the modern world. "There's precious little presence in the world. There's all kinds of absences," Mr. Harper says.

For friends like Harold Rast, Mr. Harper's stubborn insistence on intellectual rigor and finding a meaning to life is a rock to lean on, "He's an anachronism, but I believe in him, and I believe he's right."

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