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Coldly, cruelly came the news that there had been a crash. Three young men had been killed on the highway. One father said with relief that it could not be his son because he had forbidden him to drive on the highway for another year.
But he had and it was. People assumed at first that young men driving late at night... it must have been their fault. In fact they were sober and driving responsibly. But a truck on the other side of the road jack-knifed and hit a car which flipped high over the median and landed on top of the young men’s car. How would this singularity rate in an actuarial table?
Comparisons are odious but that the death of a child must be the most devastating of human tragedies. It rips open parts of the inner world that we did not know even existed and tramples on our deepest instincts and expectations. We vainly protest against the unfairness of the cosmos and its laws. The law of karma clearly does not respect us but nor can we now believe in the higher law of grace. There are no silver linings yet to be seen. We see exposed how insensitive it is to human frailty, how totalitarian and arbitrary in its intricate machinations of law and chance. We suddenly know what helpless really means and justice seems a merely human thing.
Soon after the accident another son was kidnapped and the family endured eleven days of sleepless agony. There were negotiations over an unreasonable ransom demand, threats to murder him, the impossibility of going to the police because they might well have been part of the gang and eventually a successful raid on the kidnappers’ hideout with a private security team. Peace again. Then a devastating personal humiliation for a daughter as a private video went viral on the internet. Slow recovery from the barrage of suffering. And then, in his prime, Parkinsons.
I listened to Will, not Job, as he described this fantastic series of trials. He spoke with emotion but calmly and with his precision as an engineer. The expressiveness of his facial muscles was already being affected. But I was not wrong to notice a twinkle in his eye and his sense of humour. He asked God for one thing only, to spare his family from more.
We live so bedazzled by statistics and so controlled by systems designed to make life predictable and safe that we blithely forget how singular and unpredictable it all is. Then suddenly it feels as if God’s finger descends as in a cartoon from behind the clouds of unknowing and picks us out for punishment for a crime that, like Kafka’s, is never explained. It is the Gutanemo of justice.
What soft beat of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon makes a car of young people arrive at the exact point in space and time to receive the car flying across the median?
I was listening to a group of young meditators describe what their faith and prayer meant to them, each so unique and yet with so much in common. One young woman spoke of living with chronic pain. As she linked this to her spiritual journey and discovery of faith we saw depth. Usually we hear words or ideas about human depth. We even argue about them, as always with words. Occasionally the verbal veil is dissolved by the power of simple truth and the depth is laid open. At that moment, again, I saw in her eyes and smile a peace that seemed utterly incongruous. How could there be peace in the midst of such pain?
Maybe Advent gives the time needed to understand this. Is the real meaning of Christmas in the preparation and expectation rather than in the busy and wordy religious and secular liturgies by which we celebrate it? After all, although we sentimentalise Christmas, the story behind the carols is pretty harsh too. An excluded homeless couple expecting a child, having already endured perhaps a certain social embarrassment about paternity; a short visit from some wise men frightened for themselves; a sudden exile to a hostile land and a massacre of babies born at the same time. Happy Christmas?
Yet this familiar story of the distilling of divinity in a singular birth into the human condition, cruel today, charming tomorrow, breathes peace. Not, however, as the world gives it. Not wrapped in expensive gift packaging. So who gives it? Where does this twinkle of joy and peace in the midst of relentless misfortune come from? Life is no more predictable when this peace of Christmas is transmitted from eye to heart and even, at times, from heart to heart. But there is a silent, seismic convulsion as we feel a prophecy fulfilled.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)