Staining the Silence

by Mark Gordon

This is my second “guest post” at the Catholic group blog, Vox Nova. It appeared on July 6, 2011.

For my second “guest post” here at Vox Nova, I had originally intended to write on one of several subjects that have claimed my interest lately, such as the application of Catholic Social Teaching to the rebuilding of local economies. I also considered offering a reflection on one of my favorite devotional books. I thought maybe something on de Caussade’s “Abandonment” or da Bergamo’s “Humility of Heart” might be appropriate.

But life has a way of hammering the cruelest twists into our finely wrought plans. You see, last week a close relative of mine was in a one-car motor vehicle accident. Worse, she was over the legal limit for alcohol. Worse still, it was her second DUI in nine months and she now faces jail time, heavy fines, and many years without a driver’s license. As has happened so often before, the disease that lurks in her mind like a caged beast has broken its bars and ravaged her hopes for a different, better life.

A confession: For the past three years I have only been able to muster one prayer. It is offered for a select few people in my life and goes like this: “Guide and protect them, O Lord. Keep them healthy in mind and body. Kindle in them the fire of your love, and give them peace.” I first composed this prayer when my son went off to fight in Iraq, during the so-called “surge” of 2007. At first I prayed specifically for his safe return; but it soon occurred to me that prayers for safe returns had been offered by thousands – tens of thousands – of parents whose children had come back from Iraq or Afghanistan maimed or dead. What right did I have to ask that my son be spared? More to the point, could I even believe in a God who might answer my prayer while ignoring the pleas of all those others? And so, I stopped asking. Instead, I composed the most generic of prayers – one that has as much to do with a disposition of heart as with the circumstances of life and death.

My son did return safely, only to go back once more and return safely yet again. He served honorably in a dishonorable war, and came back whole. Was it grace or luck? Should I thank God, or thank my lucky stars? I didn’t know then and today I’m no closer to the answer. I do know that I’m still praying that prayer. But this week, in the wake of another loved one’s brush with death, I’ve had to ask the grace-luck question all over again, including its implications for the proper allocation of my very real thankfulness. In this morning’s newspaper, there’s a story about a young man who was killed last night in a one-car auto accident. Was anyone praying for him? Was anyone protecting him? Was his death just bad luck or some awful form of grace? If I give thanks to God for saving my family member’s life, does another family have the right to assign him the blame for their crushing loss?

I know that the Scripture calls us to “give thanks in all things,” and that “my ways are not your ways.” I also know that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and that “there is an appointed hour for everything.” No one gets out of here alive. But in between the sunshine and the rain, in the decades or moments before those appointed hours, there are questions. There are even doubts. Most of us don’t have the time, the capacity, or the will to dive deeply into scholarly debates about theodicy and the interplay between free will and grace. We collapse into bed after long, busy days. We think about work, food, sex, family, and the bills. We read when we can, pray when we’re able, and mouth easy answers not because we believe them, but precisely because they are easy. We take the questions that flummox philosophers and set them aside; at least until we’re confronted with the reality that life is far more complex than we would like to think. I am confronting that reality this week, and I’m sorry to say I have no real or satisfying answers.

In moments like this, I often find solace – or at least simple companionship – in poetry. This week, my companion has been a poem by Mark Jarman titled “Five Psalms,”which reads in part:

First forgive the silence
That answers prayer,
Then forgive the prayer
That stains the silence.

Excuse the absence
That feels like presence,
Then excuse the feeling
That insists on presence.

Pardon the delay
Of revelation,
Then ask pardon for revealing
Your impatience.

Forgive God
For being only a word,
Then ask God to forgive
The betrayal of language.