Regis Martin, S.T.D., is a professor of theology and a faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He podcasts at In Search Of The Still Point.
He was the uncle I never knew. The fabled older brother my father looked up to when alive, then scarcely spoke of when dead. First in the family to volunteer after Pearl Harbor, he flew combat missions over Europe until, as fate would have it, his plane was shot down somewhere over Yugoslavia in the last months of the war. He never returned, leaving a wife and two young sons who would spend the rest of their lives trying to get over it.
My father had much better luck, spending his war in Panama, where the only real threats were the mosquitos and the heat. These he happily survived, coming home to raise a family, make a good living, and spending great swaths of time on the golf course. He died at age 91, surrounded by children he loved and who loved him.
As for the forlorn widow, she became my godmother, moving in and out of my life in the few short years she had left, dying of cancer without ever quite growing old. A shadowy presence, she and her sons lived far enough away that visits became infrequent, awkward even. But I remember her with affection and gratitude, especially for the prayers which, owing to her piety, were often sent my way. Meanwhile, the two boys, their lives blighted by the loss of a father, soon found themselves without a mother. So that, years later, when the oldest fell into schizophrenia, none of us were surprised. Nor, come to think of it, when the youngest turned to the study of psychology, began a practice, married and had children. To this day I’ve no idea what has happened to either of my cousins.
So, where is the justice in all this? Or reason? Is there anyone who can sort this out? Or is it only blind fate?
We are told that so long as life gives you a why, you can bear with the how. If that is true, and I devoutly hope so, then in the teeth of whatever misery you’re stuck with, it becomes endurable to the extent you’ve managed to find some meaning in it. It may be borne, in other words, for as long as you need to carry it. Not resignedly, but with a kind of grace and serenity.
For others, however, there is no meaning, only randomness, futility and despair. And if there were any sort of Presiding Intelligence watching over the world, it is most likely hostile. Like the one described by Lt. Raymond Asquith, eldest son of the then Prime Minister of England, in one of his last letters written before the Battle of the Somme, which left him dead. “A blind God butts about the world with a pair of delicately malignant antennae to detect whatever is fit to live and an iron hoof to stamp it into the dust when found … One’s instinct that the world (as we know it) is governed by chance is almost shaken by the accumulating evidence that it is the best which is always picked out for destruction…”
He may be right, of course, but he would not be the first to say so, the ancient Greeks having intuited it five centuries before Christ. Their gods were neither just nor reasonable, and while they took a keen interest in the doings of men, their interventions were seldom pleasant. In a world governed by the cruelty and caprice of the gods, man’s fondest wish was that they should leave him alone. Especially Hades, chief deity of death, whose reign of misery was without end. None would escape that vast encompassing darkness which marked the kingdom of death.
Nor have conditions improved one bit since. The odds of dying remain the same: one hundred percent. So much “sound and fury,” as Macbeth would say, “signifying nothing.”
But it is not nothing, is it? Not since the Resurrection, at least. And from the harvest of that stupefying event, everything human has been gathered up into great heavenly bins. Gerard Manley Hopkins, England’s greatest religious poet since John Donne and George Herbert, caught the magic of it better than most when he wrote, “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” It is a poem that flat-out refuses any sort of facile resolution between the forces of entropy and the Feast of Easter. Yes, death will be given its due and, in fact, in all its unvarying collisions with life it appears to win. “Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind is gone! /Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark / Drowned. O pity and indignation!”
And, yes, it is both necessary and good that we feel indignant in the face of the encircling doom, even as indignation alone will not allow us to escape. Heraclitus knew that, of course, having seized upon fire as the most apt symbol of the flux and inconstancy of life. And, to be sure, he lived in a world suffused with a sadness which only the coming of Christ could assuage. Thus we mortals must give death his due. “Flesh fade, and mortal trash / Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash.”
But the last lines do not belong to the fire of Heraclitus; they belong to the Pentecostal fire of the Holy Ghost, who makes all things new. “In a flash, at a trumpet crash, / I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and / This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond.”
Such is the Christian Story, a tale no greater than which can be imagined. That is because the outcome is Resurrection, in which life not only outwits but outruns death.