But glories rested in you,
and world-shouldering braveries,
and words fell through you onto paper
as sweetly as soft rain
—Glenn Shea, The World is Nothing, a meditation on John Keats
There is another side to all this, though: Jesus’ innermost dignity cannot be taken from him. The hidden God remains present within him. Even the man subjected to violence and vilification remains the image of God. Ever since Jesus submitted to violence, it has been the wounded, the victims of violence, who have been the image of the God who chose to suffer for us. So Jesus in the throes of his passion is an image of hope: God is on the side of those who suffer.–Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part II: Holy Week
These “failures” are the face of the Living God.
I was in a coffee shop (okay, so it wasn’t a real coffee shop, it was a Starbucks. Sorry I’m destroying NYC’s authenticity one chai latte at a time), and a sweet melody floated into the air through the loudspeakers: there is grace in how you choose //Which memories to lose crooned the singer. Isn’t it funny how selective our memories are? Whatever we choose to remember defines our histories. Common wisdom tells us that history is written by the victors, which is partially true.
There is an apocryphal tale of Sir Walter Raleigh, (which I first encountered in an essay of George Orwell’s) that tells the story of when imprisoned in the Tower of London. While shut away, he took it upon himself to write down a history of the world. While he was working on it, two workmen outside the tower started a fight, and one of them was killed. Despite his earnest queries, Sir Raleigh could not find out the cause of the altercation. So he abandoned his project, and burned what he had began.
Although he had been an eyewitness to an event, Sir Raleigh still had no idea what had actually occurred, what events had transpired to make the event occur. Although he could see the outcome of whatever movements had occurred to create the event he witnessed, he had really no grasp on what had happened, because these mysterious forces at work in history eluded his knowledge. History, at least the official story that is part of the common knowledge of our culture, is usually a story of the outcomes. It is usually a story of events that happened in chronological order, of key events that are deemed important. For the most part, their importance gets to be determined by who is in the position of power, determined by whose voice has the most credence and authority.
But is the word of the world the only voice that matters?
In his mournful paean to Keats, Glenn Shea writes:
By the word of the world it seemed you never won, John, not coming or going.
He then proceeds to list the trials of John Keats, which are plentiful and bookmarked by a poor childhood and death by tuberculosis.
But glories rested in, you, John! the poet cries: you have found something and have dropped some of that something into your gilded wisteria writing. The world is nothing, the poet concludes. It must be nothing, if it thinks it must pity a man whose very soul is beauty.
Like the life of John Keats, Christianity is the story of a failure. Of a beautiful, fruitful, glorious failure. Of a man who did not win, but lost. Of a God who entered into the world not as the victor of history, but as a victim of history. A God who died a death that so many all over the world experience each day. A God who, to the eyes of the victors of his time, lost. If Sir Walter Raleigh had seen the crucifixion outside his Tower window, what would he have said?
And so, all over the world, throughout the history of the human race, all those whose stories are lost, all those whose stories are stories of failure, all those who, like the workman outside the Sr. Raleigh’s window, who leave behind no explanation for their end, have entered deeply into the mystery of the Passion. The have shared in a particular and explicit way the vocation that we all share in a mysterious and mystic manner: the call to die to ourselves, to the world, to our own will, and to the history of the world.
The martyrs have joined with Christ, and continue to unite themselves with Him, as their numbers grow each day, in becoming a silent victim of history. They unite themselves to the someones whose stories do not join those of the highlighted heroes of history books. The martyrs are those who suffer silent purgatories without fanfare. They offer their lives so that what is lacking in Christ’s sacrifice will be made complete in them
How audacious, I always think when I read Colossians, of you, Paul, to describe Christ’s, the only begotten Son of the Father’s, sacrifice in anyway as lacking.
But it is. For His history is now dependent on human history. The God who writes the story has entered into the story. He has put Himself at the mercy of the poor rag-tag band of players that we are. If the Apostles had never heeded Mary Magdalene, they would never had heard the news of the Risen Christ. How easily fear could have stopped their ears and shut her message out, the good news dying on her lips, and decaying in an empty tomb.
On such little moments, little human kindnesses: listening to our frantic neighbor, trusting someone who might be mistaken, sharing news with someone who may not believe you, telling the truth even when the truth is unlikely, impossible, feared or hated.
It is on moments like these that history rests: the impossible, intimate, private and intimate moments of daily joys and sorrows. Whose scope seems to be narrow: just between one other person and yourself, just an angel and a girl from Nazareth; yet their impact is eternal.
Like Sir Raleigh, I, too, wonder: how could all this ever be recorded? Or remembered?
Today, as we speak, millions are suffering for the name of Jesus. They suffer, believing and enduring, unknown and without fame, atoning also for our guilt of cowardly indifference, weakness of faith, pleasure-seeking mediocrity. They are the victims on whom we live; they go the way which may suddenly become for us too the only roads that leads to life; they experience the vocation which in deepest reality is also ours. —Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death
originally published Nov. 3, 2014 on the old blog. Listening to Mumford and Son’s “If I Say,” and feeling nostalgic for that space that recorded and preserved my intellectual and spiritual development so faithfully for so long.