Our priest gave a sermon today about the difficulty of ascribing meaning to specific events in history, whether national or personal, especially events of loss. Why does a child get cancer? Why do terrorists destroy the Twin Towers? Why does America declare war on Iraq? Why (not his example, but I doubt he would disagree with it) do four hurricanes hit Florida within a month?
The answer is in how we tell the story. My friend Barb observes that judgment is the flip side of grace, and that observation is related to the fact that in the Hero’s Journey, the archetype at the core of every story, victory lies at the other side of death. I was thinking about the sermon and stories and history in the Liturgy today, when the words popped out at me: “remembering the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven and the second and glorious coming . . . .” That action, remembering those things, is the key to finding God’s work in every instance, good or bad.
To say that the way to Resurrection is through the Cross is not to say that the parents of a dead baby deserve their pain, nor is it to say, “Cheer up and get over it. Everything’s hunky dory.” The cross is the cross, and if the suffering is not real, then it’s not suffering. The sufferer stands at his own crossroads–choosing the way of life (which passes through death to life) or the way of death (which passes through denial into bitterness and delusion and comes to a dead-end outside the wall of paradise). And the message, the route of that choice is the story.
The story, however, comes afterward, at the appropriate time. It’s a rare parent of a dead child who can see the glimmer of the resurrection in the midst of it, and it’s a heartless “comforter” who expects the grief-stricken to do so. In fact, only a person who doesn’t want to enter into the suffering–to experience “compassion”–would ask the sufferer to buck up and move on immediately. The Church gives a period of 40 days for the most intense mourning. In fact, the Church gives 40 days for all kinds of transitions–for mourning, for a mother to stay at home with a newborn, for the repentance of Lent, for the preparation of Advent–and 40 days seems to be a number written deep into our being: on a nature show about wolves, scientists observed that a wolf pack mourned about six weeks for one of its beta males who had died.
At some point, the story is written–whether literally written or the oral history of a family (“Your older brother died before you were born, and now he’s praying for you”) or the private inner story each of us tells ourself each morning on the way about our day (“I survived that trauma, and this is the strength I bring to the world because of it”). Or the opposite: “What I owned was taken from me, and now the universe owes me recompense for my loss.”
America’s slaves used to draw strength from the story of Moses and the Exodus; they appropriated that story as their own. The story put their suffering in context; it helped preserve the perception of their human dignity (not that the dignity could be lost, but its perception is important); the outcome of the Exodus gave a possible outcome for their slavery; and when a novelist took up their story and put a slave in a Christ-role, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped fire a movement that would lead to their freedom. By putting their story into that context, they were ennobled, and we all are, by the strength, dignity, culture and yet more stories that come out of it.
Hosea lived the story of God’s abiding faithfulness, but he lived it and illustrated it through humiliation and suffering. By living the story, he offers another iteration of the story for the next person who finds himself in a similar situation and wonders, “Why does God let this happen to me?” Looking to Hosea doesn’t answer the “why?,” but it can answer “how?” How can I live with this? How can I find meaning in the midst of it? In fact, that meaning may be exactly the answer to the “why,” rather than something along the lines of “because you’re such a schlemiel that you deserve it.”
We haven’t found our story for 9/11 yet. We don’t know the end of it–whether a new birth of freedom in the Middle East or the dark night of Sharia imposed throughout the West. We know a few stories–“Let’s roll!”, the NYFD heroes, private persons who either escaped or died in the attacks. But we haven’t finished the big story that will explain it all for our children. Maybe it will take 40 years instead of 40 days. But the answers, when they come, will take the form of a story.