The Voice of Fallen (and Redeemed) Humanity

For some time now I have been haunted by the image of a vast and shadowed church, in darkness but for the thin grey daylight streaming from clerestory windows. A group of boys stands about with hands in their pockets, held spell-bound by the music of an organ:

Louder and louder it grew until it became like the din and roar of some mighty tempest, or like the ocean surging upon the shore…. What was that? WHO screamed? WHAT screamed—that terrible, musical scream? … Was it man or demon? … Or was it some despairing monster … begging, screaming for freedom…. It was the vox humana!

The scene is in the children’s book Hans Brinker; or the Silver Skates, by Mary Mapes Dodge. The story goes on to explain that the music the boys heard was produced by the vox humana, a small reed fixed into an organ pipe in order to make the sound resemble that of the human voice.

The image haunts me because I feel as if I am in that dark church, as if I hear, from day to day, the beautiful, terrible music of the vox humana….

Why?

I work as a reference librarian in a city and county public library in the South.

Our public library is locally considered to be a place of some culture and prestige. The Board is composed of well-to-do Southern ladies of a certain class; the Daughters of the American Revolution meet there for sweet tea and cake; book clubs and writer’s groups hold session; country singers perform at fund-raisers; authors and historians come to speak.

But it is also frequented by the homeless, the unemployed, the under-employed, and those on welfare. The public library is a warm place in which to spend the day when the Salvation Army Shelter is closed, a place with restrooms, newspapers, and internet. One can job-search, get help in writing a resume, or maybe just play computer games for hours and forget about it all.

Such people come in regularly, and I get to know them. People like to talk, and as I listen, day after day, I begin to feel as if each story is a part of a great music that can be heard only with the ear of the soul. I wish that I could make this music audible—and I hope that perhaps, by sharing some of these stories, I might do so.

These are just a few things that I hear and see:

A red-headed young man, surely not much more than twenty years old, with a cheerful, vacant smile: “If I seem a little confused, Ma’am,” says he politely, “it’s likely because I am…. Used to ride horses at a riding school down south…. I was thrown twice—after the first time, that is—and landed on my head again. That was before I hitch-hiked from Louisiana….”

Steve* is from some kind of assisted living facility. He’s thin, unshaven, of an indeterminate age, and wears a long dirty coat. He has a stack of books under his arm: Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Kant…. When I engage him in conversation he responds haltingly at first, with a sharp frown between his brows. He feels a burning need to make some kind of sense out of the world—so he reads philosophy with an almost anguished attention, searching for a key….  What else has he read—Plato, Aristotle? Yes. St. Thomas Aquinas? His face kindles. “I love him!” he cries softly—and then words are tumbling from his lips and he’s trembling all over: “It’s all so ordered—it—it—helps me to read him—I had the Summa on my kindle, but it’s broken now….”

A young mother, staying at the Salvation Army Shelter, speaks viciously to her over-tired two-year-old whom she has been ignoring for the past forty-five minutes: “You, with your whining and making messes—you’ve  ruined my day! Why did I ever have you! If you don’t shut up I’ll take away your toy…. Shut up now, or I will!”

Later, another woman remarks to anyone who will listen: “I can’t believe people like that get welfare and are allowed to keep having kids. It’s not right. The Government could pass a law that they all have to be fixed so they can’t have kids until they make a certain amount of money and pass some kind of parenting class….”

A young man in cut-off shorts and with long pink nails comes in with his mother. Though there is nothing masculine about his slender frame and slightly affected voice, neither is there anything in the least feminine…surely there cannot be such a thing as a completely sexless human being? He is gentle and polite, but his manner is guarded. His face is wooden, his eyes opaque….

A vulnerable-looking girl, eleven or twelve years old, is wearing an over-sized wide-necked tunic that exposes most of her chest…. “You need to put your jacket on,” I tell her gently.

“Oh—okay.” She giggles and stares as she zips the jacket—what is that in her eyes? It is not innocence, but it reminds me of innocence … perhaps because it shows such profound ignorance of her own worth?

“Mr. Johnson,” I remark, “your language is unacceptable. I have already spoken to you about it and–”

“Jesus, Ma’am, what you pickin’ on me for? I apologized for the f-word, and I haven’t said a single swear-word since! What, you call that swearing? I mean no disrespect—I’m a Christian man…. Okay, if you say so. Jesus! Sorry—sorry.”

A paper covered in neat, curly handwriting is found in a book. I glance down at what I expect to be a school essay or poem, and my blood runs cold. It begins, “Hail Satan,” and there follows, in formal language, but rather a childish hand, a dedication of the writer to the service of the Evil One….

Vincent brings me poems to read. Vincent is a tubby young veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. He’s convinced he’s under constant surveillance by the government—he thinks they put a computer-chip in him while he was in rehab. He writes free-verse poems full of obscure allusions to Disney movies, The Matrix, the Knights Templar, and the Monsanto Corporation. Every one of these poems turns out to be about the crucifixion. “Because everything,” Vincent tells me with his gentle, crazy smile, “is about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, to save those who believe in Him. The thing is they don’t want you to know that.”

A woman who has just applied for the new “Healthcare” is steaming at the nostrils because it turns out that she and her husband, are supposed to pay an appalling monthly sum….

“Well, I don’t have that money!” she says. “At that rate I might as well try and pay for a doctor’s visit myself.”

“You might have to anyway,” I remark. “Depending on your deductible.”

“My what?”

I explain.

“Nobody told me about no f*&#ing deductible! Free healthcare, my foot!”

Another woman puts her head on one side and laughs. “It’s like this, girl,” she says, “it’s a nice idea Obama had, for everybody to be taken care of for free, but it won’t never work! Who’s going to decide who gets taken care of, and how much care they get? I don’t believe for one moment it’s going to be equal for everybody. There’s always somebody trying to take advantage of somebody else in this world.”

A woman in a gypsy-skirt with a bag over her shoulder approaches me. “Ma’am, I have a question to ask you: what would you think of a family that had one child they didn’t love—one child out of ten they didn’t love?”

“That’d be awful….”

“Well,” she draws herself up, trembling, cocking her head on one side in a challenging manner, “that is what my family did to me! What do you say now? What do you think of that? Is that all right? Out of all ten children I was the only one they didn’t love!”

“I’m so sorry you feel that way….”

She sniffs haughtily and turns away. Later, her voice can be heard from the restroom where she is on the phone: “All I ever wanted was you to love me,” she yells in a voice of anguish, “that’s all I ever wanted!”

Old Mr. Meriwether has lost both legs, one above the knee and the other below. In a mechanized wheelchair he makes his way about town in all sorts of weather, driving in the street along with the cars. He likes to sit in the library, ostensibly looking at a newspaper but actually watching with sharp bright eyes everything that goes on. It’s difficult to talk with him for long, because of the overpowering smell of urine, but if you ask him how he is you’ll hear a slurred mumble from a mouth full of rotten teeth: “Can’t complain. My Lord is good to me….”

A massive, three-hundred pound walking hill of a woman, with a face like a full moon and a body-odor so foul that it would make a person gag just to get on the elevator after she’s used it, is talking loudly to the woman across from her at the public computers: “I told my niece, I said, ‘Trust in the Lord! There ain’t nobody loves you like Jesus!’” She realizes that her high, carrying voice is causing heads to turn, and cheerfully addresses her point to the public: “That’s true, ain’t it? Y’all know it! Ain’t nobody in this world loves you like Jesus!”

All these stories, all these phrases and others far too numerous to mention, seem to blend into one—the vox humana, the human voice! This is the sound that Chesterton called “the dreadful everlasting voice of man calling to his gods from the beginning to the end of the world.” Who could hear it without awe? The music steals forth, softly at first, and then, with growing power and passion it reverberates throughout the church and amidst the great stone pillars that soar up into the shadowed roof.

It begins somberly, laden with poverty and anxiety and sadness:

“Finally got a job at Kroger stocking shelves, but it’s only part-time…. I’ll never have grandchildren–my son is dead…. Anyway, thanks for listening—I just had to share that with someone…. If I get that unemployment check I’ll be able to pay my bills—otherwise…. If I seem confused it’s because I got thrown on my head again. God, I need a job, I need it now! I’m pregnant an’ I just got out of jail….”

But there are some light, humorous notes:

“Whoo-ee! I am out of breath climbin’ them steps! I’m too fat, and that’s a fac’! Mr. Williams, baby, you better not get down on your knees, you might not get up no more….  Jesus, Ma’am, I ain’t swearing!”

And running through it, returning again and again in variations, there is a theme of humble faith and hope, something even approaching joy:

“St. Thomas Aquinas—he helps me…. If I didn’t believe, I don’t know how I would face life….  After my son died I walked in the dark valley, until at last my Lord took me by the hand and led me out of shadow…. I need a picture-bible—never read it before, but I intend to read it to my kids…. I can’t complain; my Lord is good to me!”

Then there is sudden, shrieking dissonance:

“Well, f*&# you—I ain’t goin’ to pay no lib’ary fine! You stupid kid, you’ve ruined my day with your whining…. Why did I ever have you! The government should fix women like that so they can’t have kids! Hail, Satan!”

A pause.

The look, the sly, foolish, pathetically ignorant look on a young girl’s face as she zips her jacket over her bare breast…. A young man with long pink nails, whose guarded eyes hide what sorrow, what misery?

Then it becomes indignant, solemn, longing, yearningbuilding, building, to the climax:

“They didn’t tell me about no f*&#ing deductible!  Always somebody trying to take advantage of somebody else in this world—it’s human nature. But all I ever wanted was you to love me! All I ever wanted was love! All I ever wanted was love!”

A reply comes … a repetition of the earlier theme … very low, ever so softly now, but joyfully and with restrained power:

“Nobody loves you like Jesus…. Jesus Christ who was crucified…. You know it, brothers and sisters, you know itain’t nobody in this world will ever love you like Jesus.”

Silence. The cold stone floor under our knees, the smell of unwashed bodies, sweat, urine, and stale cigarette smoke…. Then, so deep and low that it is less heard than felt as a vibration:

“Amen.”

*All names changed.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “The Scream” painted by Edvard Munch in 1893.

Bernadette O'Brien

By

Bernadette O'Brien writes from Western Kentucky's farm country. She graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in 2009.

  • droolbritannia

    Wow.

  • lifeknight

    Depressing. I lasted only a year as a nurse in a huge emergency room—taking care of all those lost souls. Spitting on me, biting each other…..the list goes on. I recommend to you a NEW job! If all of that comes together in YOUR mind, you need a change!

    • grzybowskib

      I think the point of the article is that all of us are lost souls in some way or another. Even for those of us who seem to “have it together,” we need redemption too.

      • TheAbaum

        Indeed. We’re all screwed up, but some of us manage to go to work and avoid the constabulary, so we don’t reach the threshold of intervention.

  • Don

    If you have never been to your local county court on arraignment day, I reluctantly recommend you do so . . . vox humana can be heard with volume. The number of people with problems, some serious – some not , is stunning. A very thin veneer of Christianity holds society together. By living your faith, you do more good than you know.

  • poetcomic1

    “The shortest distance between any two human beings is Christ crucified.”

  • hombre111

    Poignant. Profound. You have entered the heart of the people on the margins, Bernadette. And some readers of Crisis must already be alarmed. You are developing the soul of a liberal.

    • TheAbaum

      Liberals don’t have souls. They sell them.

    • Bernadette O’Brien

      With respect, Father, you are mistaken. Liberals think they have a monopoly on compassion; they also think that it is possible to fix the world’s problems by means of government programs. On the contrary: there is no true compassion without Christ, and neither will all the government programs ever invented serve to bring redemption to one human being.

    • cestusdei

      Mother Teresa was no liberal and she served the most marginalized.

    • hombre111

      A conservative becomes a liberal when he/she begins to trace the source of human misery and begins to realize how much of it is “structural,” ie, rooted in social injustice, in systems that have to be changed and can only be changed by political action routinely opposed by conservatives. In my state, for instance, for every marginalized person rescued by charity, many more are created by a Charles Dickens level minimum wage law, brutal cuts to the education system, a poor safety net system for the mentally ill, refusal to use federal money already granted in behalf of poor mothers and malnourished children, and on and on.

      One day, Bernadette, you might begin to look at the wretches in your library and wonder how they got that way, and what can be done about them besides handouts and shelters which change nothing. You might begin to see how society is tilted against them by a whole range of laws favoring the rich and powerful, trusting in some kind of mystical trickle down to dribble its way to the least and the lowest. Then, if you are honest, you will become uneasy, and begin to regurgitate all the conservative propaganda you have swallowed.

      • Art Deco

        A conservative becomes a liberal when he/she starts to trace the source
        of human misery and begins to realize how much of it is “structural,”
        ie, rooted in social injustice, in political and economic systems that
        have to be changed and can only be changed by political action
        frantically opposed by conservatives.

        You’ve never traced a thing. You’ve opined a great deal about social processes you do not understand and ‘change’ the implications of which you do not understand.

      • msmischief

        The structure that causes it is much deeper than that. It’s called human nature.

        Your attempts to change that are why the 20th century was stacked high with corpses without the utopia you confidently predicted.

      • TheAbaum

        On the rare occasion that an intellectual “conservative” becomes an emotional “liberal” (by which we mean an individual with statist, collectivist and redistributionist tendencies, aka the authoritarian political left) that occurs when the individual’s capacity or willingness to apprehend the world is impaired in two ways:

        1.) Denies the reality of a fallen, sinful world and instead imagines that some people (the “poor”, the “disaffected”, the “disenfranchised”, demographic minorities are exempt from sin or fault, and instead makes the “rich”, the “powerful” and others culpable for all sin. In doing so, they bear false witness against both constructs.

        2.) Denies the unique nature of God as the only source of omniscience, benevolence and incorruptibility-imputing these characteristics to the state (whatever one happens to be in power, the more powerful, the better) thus engaging in idolatry, acting like the Children of Israel, but using armies of lawyers and bureaucrats to erect a new golden calf.

        Now of course let’s look at one of the stars of the political left. One Matt Y (not using his full name to avoid giving him another google hit). He celebrated the death of Andrew Breitbart and now after calling GE evil, is proud to accept their money in his latest effort to build a foundry of hate.

        http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Journalism/2014/03/09/Before-Matt-Yglesias-Says-General-Electric-Evil-Today-GE-Sponsoring-His-New-Website

    • msmischief

      That is wishful thinking on your part. Liberals earn, on average, 6% more than conservatives; conservatives give, on average, one third more to charity. That, hombre, is where compassion lies.

      • TheAbaum

        What? Charity means parting with my money and not just insisting that the government do “something” about “poverty”?

        It’s almost like the parable of the good Samaritan actually picked up the man himself and paid for his lodging, rather than calling the Count Assistance Office to pick up the poor traveler. Oh wait, that’s exactly what he did.

        • Objectivetruth

          Exactly.

  • fides

    A good read Bernadette. It is admirable writers skill to be able to describe and include the individual in the crowed … Keep up the writing.

  • samharker

    Very well written, and with the proper perspective.

  • Mariclare

    The kind of feeling that comes from reading this might be what Fr. Solanus Casey felt when he quit the world and entered the religious life.

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  • fides

    Bernadette, hombre111 comments miss the rich fabric of historical reference that is the cultural foundation of our society but raises the frame of reference dilemma that plagues our ability to communicate.

    Politically, numerous flags have flown over this land — but consistently the Catholic faith has endured — our hope springs from our faith (Gods gift) that we work toward our salvation by following his commandments of love (God and our neighbor) — those who pursue salvation often can’t afford the the wasting of resources on politics and strive to get it right in their efforts —- because of our fallen nature this effort becomes a daily focus and effort. (Fr. Kino is a great example of building, correcting and instructing—reaching a degree of success with the indians —- only to have it all destroyed when he turns his back for a few minutes —- he then rebuilds with those same people. Today, this morning at Mass, the Apache descendants of those people sang acapella hymns of praise in the continuing remnants of those early churches —- As Fr. Hardon, SJ was able to impress upon me — perhaps the New World was not about trade so much as evangelization. The beauty of Gods inspiration — from a Spain that had thrown off the shackles of Muslim domination, a Catholic Spain had embarked upon a renewed evangelization. In the very works of Fr. Cosas and Fry Vittorio — are the foundations of human rights and just war — essentially if people are not free to hear the word of God, then they are less than human and therefore can be enslaved — the compromises prior to civil war are a working effort at political deception of moral premises — in the end the politicals concluded that war was politics by another means — the syllogism of all tyrannical political efforts—

    We all fall, we all are in need of redemption, we all need to reach out to our fellow man daily — even if this means we have to brush the maggots off — we all have to strive to be just — give each his due.

    The good people you see in your daily efforts are Gods best efforts to bring us salvation. I always am reminded of the human inclination to “fight or flight” when faced with tough matters. Yet pray to be inspired to apply the Christlike response and turn the other cheek — the story of Mother Teresa, begging for bread from the baker for a starving child, was spit upon, and she replied: That was good for me, now how about a piece of bread for this child. Point: These good people deserve all our compassion, our focused attention and for the good of our communities, states and union our focused talents to bring peace and comfort to them — for without them we would have nothing. Mother Teresa’s comments at the National Prayer Breakfast are spot on about how we should approach our fellow man and our politics.

  • JoFlemings

    Absolutely brilliant!

  • Guest

    A beautiful piece. Well done.

  • Chris Bryan

    Bernadette, this was exquisitely written. My job in a bistro also brings me in contact with the whole spectrum of humanity, although I could never have described it so beautifully. I am inspired by your article.

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