The faces of grief flash before our eyes, television images reflecting catastrophe. They trigger instant empathy: we hold collective breaths with the distraught parents as we watch heroic efforts to extricate their toddler from the well; we identify with shocked, dazed families pacing airport terminals waiting to learn if relatives actually boarded the doomed flight with no survivors. We are, finally, jubilant as blond Jessica is pulled from the well, the nightmare over. Or we commiserate with bereaved families at televised memorial services, the first step in their long process of recovery. In each publicized calamity a beginning, a middle, an end. There are those among us, however, whose tribulations do not make headlines, for whom there is no resolution.
Not referred to here are the fatally diseased confronting imminent death but those who, without surcease, face disordered, distressed lives. A nation of problem solvers, we tolerate stasis badly. Surely there is a way out? An 800 number to call? After all, there is significant progress among the physically handicapped, breakthroughs in limitations, extending even to athletics. We know about wheelchair games, and the ingenious electronic wizardry that enables the blind to play baseball. We’ve seen pictures of the resolute one-legged skier, snaking his way down a snowy slalom in the Special Olympics. We rejoice in these liberations but the haunting question remains: what about those who cannot, in any real sense, overcome? What about the legions who must, to survive, resign themselves to ongoing adversity?
Resignation has a negative connotation; it is a noun of defeat. It suggests throwing in the towel. Contemporary society holds in disdain the docility of acceptance. Defiance is the favored posture, affirming the potential to alter circumstance. Confronting an unpleasant, tenacious reality, the impulse is to refuse submission. For the Christian, the most memorable and graceful phrase uttered by Jesus becomes man’s nemesis: Thy will be done.
Whether or not Christ is acknowledged as the paradigm, everywhere around us individuals are living testimonials to patient resignation. Unwitting beacons of light, they sharply illuminate by contrast the relatively smooth contours of our own particular landscape. Like the sudden view of a church spire, they interrupt our focus on less challenging concerns and commend us to a higher reference.
On my daily walk I pass a yard meticulously tended by a balding, gray-haired man who smiles as I go by. In the garage near the sidewalk is his car whose bumper shows no chrome, covered as it is by stickers petitioning that we not forget the POWs/MIAs. Garage walls are papered with aircraft posters, shelves are full of worn athletic gear: footballs, basketballs, a catcher’s mitt. All are mute witness to what his neighbor confirmed.
The son, a flier, never came home from Vietnam. It is not known if he is alive or dead. So his father goes about the garden, and his life, genially nodding at strangers passing by, all the while showing a face intimately acquainted with sorrow.
One of classmates in an evening course is a woman in her late thirties, an only child living with alcoholic parents. They were not addicted when she was younger and even now drink only at night. Not enough to kill themselves, but enough to deteriorate sequentially into foolish, paranoid, hostile, repetitious drunks. In the morning they remember nothing of the torment inflicted the night before. Financial complications prevent her from striking out on her own, moreover she speaks of their goodness and how very much she loves them. Since they deny any problem, AA is useless; she attends an Al Anon support group for herself. Men who date her quickly size up the situation and bail out. Her parents are still in their sixties, so she recognizes her own bleak prognosis. Gamely, she goes on.
Finally on this abbreviated list is my Catholic friend whose marriage crumbled after a meager two years. Her daughter is now in college. No annulment could be granted, the marriage was and is valid. A bright, attractive woman, she has little difficulty appealing to men. Because of fidelity to the Church, which cannot rewrite Scripture, she must turn them away. At 45 she is probably living the way she will at 75. Good natured, not bitter, she leans on sacramental grace, aware herself that her present is also her future.
By secular standards, these are people who might justifiably contemplate hemlock. Their perseverance under duress, in a quick fix society, is in the biblical sense a sign of contradiction. Prescriptions to banish their problems, whether from Donahue panelists or the wisdom of Dr. Ruth, cannot avail. It is precisely the futility of release from their scenarios which so inspires the lives of those they touch, exceeding by far publicized people with reverses who somehow beat the odds. It is not too much to say the unrelieved personify what is noble and resilient about the human spirit. It is the man who runs the race and stays the course, knowing he can never win the prize.
Prize, one adds as a Christian, in the temporal sense. Except for my divorced friend, I do not know if the flier’s father, or my classmate, have the consolation of Christian belief. Those who understand the cross and Resurrection know that lives blighted by misfortune are not, in the ringing words of Cardinal Newman, wasted:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next…. He has not created me for naught … therefore I will trust Him…. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain … He knows what He is about.
We, of course, do not. This is where Christ and the Church come in. Christianity reconciles the afflicted to temporal pain, promising as it does eternal joy. Christ, born in a stable, crucified on a cross, but risen gloriously from the dead, does what the greatest intellect cannot do: He makes sense of human suffering. With sense, there is resignation, with resignation, peace.
It is a peace about which St. Paul spoke, and what makes his message convincing is that he wrote from the perspective of relentless burdens: physical infirmity (Galatians 4:12-14), imprisonment (Colossians 4:3), abandonment by his friends (2 Timothy 4:16-18). In these personal revelations of the private man behind the remarkable public life, readers long after his death can identify and take strength. Admitting his tribulations, St. Paul yet resonates with inner serenity, alluding to the peace of God which passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). It is impossible to miss a correlation between acceptance in Gethsemane and acceptance by St. Paul. While it can’t be polished, paraded, or hung on a wall, the imperishable peace of Christ is the greatest prize of all.