When Bad Things Happen To Good People
Since we’re only a few days into the new year, I thought it was a good time to think of renewal, resolution, and perhaps even rebirth, if we insist on sticking to the figurative and not literal meaning. In so doing, though, I was blindsided by a bigger issue – the return of the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people.
Jeff Cochran, a fellow Dew writer, recently addressed this question in his essay entitled “Supergroup: Jim Morrison, T.S. Eliot, Darryl Rhoades and God.” St Paul is even tossed in toward the end. That’s quite a grouping by anyone’s standards. The thrust of the article is a lot of pondering over the many mysteries of life and death and the concept of prayer.
In the essay, he says that Morrison, in his song The Soft Parade, alluded, as did T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday, to a journey in search of solace. As Morrison sought “sanctuary” from the rat race and materialism of the mid ‘60s, Eliot sought a spiritual sanctuary. He sought a peace ordained by God.
Jeff’s essay prompted me to pursue deeper ideas about prayer and how people fall back on it in times of great sorrow and loss. When we think of the Newtown murders, “prayers have crowded the skies” but to what avail? What happens in the minds of those parents and all the rest of us when we ask why such horrific slaughter could happen to the innocent if we are to believe in a God that we wish to think looks after the well-being of his faithful followers? Where is the solace when nothing is offered but the empty platitudes of dogma?
In The Soft Parade, Morrison sings…
“You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!”
I came into this story when Jeff introduced Rhoades’ line “I’m Sliding Off the Edge of the World and I Might Not Make It Back.” The song “is a prayer of sorts; one that questions God having ‘a plan.’ Rhoades is talking to God, if not petitioning him.” He’s attempting to grasp for some answers to the many mysteries of life and death and why some of us are taken in our prime and some even in childhood. As he says, Rhoades was not tearing down anyone’s religion, just trying to understand aspects of faith, if not all mysteries.
In this wrestling match, I have found myself reading more about Morrison, Rhoades, Eliot, and the Apostle Paul in hope of shedding more of the light of understanding that I have been seeking.
Paul plays his role by defining faith as “the evidence of things not seen.”
Just the day before I read the essay, I had taken a call from a lady nearby who many years before had worked for my late cousin’s husband in the library of a small liberal arts college in the panhandle of West Virginia. She had called to ask me if I could clarify his new address on a Christmas card she had received from him.
In our conversation, I innocently asked what excitement had occurred in her life since we had last talked. She then proceeded to tell me how her 46-year old daughter had just returned that day from Charlottesville where she had had her portal removed, since her chemotherapy treatments had come to an end. Earlier in the summer she had been diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and had undergone extensive and debilitating treatment. She had now been given a tentative bill of good health, but orders to return in 3 months for a follow-up exam. Before she hung up, she made a point of saying the experience had reaffirmed the power of prayer and her family’s faith in God.
Not being a church goer but still a man who is open to spiritual matters, I couldn’t fathom a path through or around the “faith” concept in light of what had happened to my friend’s daughter, let alone in Newtown. It just seemed that the artifice of faith was so wanting as a form of comfort, if not acceptance and ultimately resignation.
At the same time, I began to think further of the Apostle Paul’s message, especially as my friend had fallen back on her faith to sustain her in light of what has happened in her own family. When awful things happen to any of us, I guess the natural question we often ask is why they happen in the first place. In listening to her, I was hearing the same soul-searching plaint of legions before her who had also tried to live good lives but had been felled by unspeakable misfortune. I heard the eternal human plea for an answer which will probably always hover out there beyond the reach of the understanding of most of us. All we can expect is the wind from the wings of madness.
The challenge to me, though, remained how to comprehend why people can pray to some divine being when events have let their worlds crumble and turn to rubble. When you’re “sliding off the edge of the world,” I guess your natural inclination is to cling to whatever you can get your hands around. But I find this answer superficial and condescending to those who perhaps see something outside my vision. And I know the official church line is that God’s will is beyond our understanding. When human suffering becomes unbearable, though, I have always found that sentiment particularly off-putting.
In rereading Jeff’s article, I was intrigued how he wove T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, the great religious poem of “a journey in search of solace,” into his story. I stopped on these lines from the poem, however…
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice…
Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
I found these words haunting and more than a bit unsettling. As a secularist, they contain a groundwork of orthodox Christianity that many find discomfiting. Simply stated, I had trouble getting around the not too veiled threat that without faith there is no hope or meaning to life.
In so many of Eliot’s earlier poems, especially The Wasteland and Prufrock, he articulated suffering, the world’s desolation, and the mental and spiritual breakdown of our culture. The various forms of estrangement, the particularities of loneliness, and the yearning for serenity dominate his mental landscape. No wonder that he sought a religious path, if nothing more than to comprehend devotion and a form of peace rather than just to clutch to some form of institutional religion.
Although there are many lines in Eliot’s poetry that support the darkness of his world view, his ideas of time and memory appear finally as ways to understand the past and to transcend beyond their limitations. In the end, he falls back on his religious sense of redemption and the need to go outside our own time and place in order to experience God directly so long as people know that they cannot fully understand or comprehend him.
With the snow on the ground outside my window and more to come later today, I was directed this morning to James Joyce’s story The Dead, which is set at this time of year to mark The Feast of the Epiphany. As Gabriel, the anti-hero of the story, comes to his own epiphany at the end, he finally realizes his failure at love and artistic achievement. He has accepted the ineluctable that death comes for all of us eventually in one form of suffering or another and that we must treasure that which we have and those we hold close. It is only a matter of time before we are all vanished under the white-like death of snow, “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
It is in the use of this word epiphany in its Greek derivation of “to reveal” or to literally “shine upon” that I am now able to understand a bit more of how my friend can say her power of prayer has delivered her daughter from her plight. Perhaps I can now stumble my way closer to understanding the concept of the “faith” another friend has fallen back on. She had a double mastectomy in late summer and has now told us she’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
To bring this story full circle round, I think I have gained a new appreciation for people who pray and live their faith. Although I doubt I will ever have a foxhole conversion, I “pray” that when my time comes that I’ll be shown a tender mercy or two and not go out screaming and hollering. In the meantime, I might not be “petitioning the Lord,” but I’ll be there to hold a wanting hand in someone’s hour of need.
So if prayer and faith give off that special radiance and offer an Epiphany of solace to those whose lives are broken, who mourn without comfort, more power to it. As the Apostle Paul preached, faith is “the evidence of things not seen.”