Monday was my brother’s birthday. As the fruit of years of his own choices, he was not here to spend it with his four children, his mother, and the many others who loved him in spite of everything. But I do think he spent it with him “whose property is always to have mercy” on all of us who make wrong choices, year after year–the one who loves us in spite of everything for which he himself had to pay.
David helping me hold a chicken–I’m guessing 1982 or so.
I have lived a year, or more, persecuted by questions for which I no longer have satisfactory answers. Is God kind, after all? What on earth does he do with our prayers, our desperate pleas flung up into silence? I don’t know. But the night before my brother’s birthday, I read again the lines that have surfaced, unbidden, in my mind from time to time, when I am wondering if I have any real knowledge of this God I have followed all my life.
Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,
And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.
Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgement Day.
Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free
To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.
This is the close of W.H.Auden’s poem “Friday’s Child,” written in honor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died the subject of multitudes of unanswered prayers–killed in a concentration camp only shortly before the liberators arrived. The terrible, wasteful finality of it has always flattened me–the voice silenced, the promising years of coming work left barren, the loved ones devastated. But Auden’s poem focuses not on Bonhoeffer, but on Jesus, the child who instead of being born on Friday, died on Friday. He fulfilled the old rhyme–“Friday’s child is loving and giving”–and yet not with the simple sentimentality the rhyme expects, but with a raw, wrenching, primeval sacrifice. It was the ultimate insult for him, and perhaps also for us: “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (Isaiah 8:14).
And so it trips me, as I know it’s meant to do. I can’t say that death feels like enough, these days, to make up for all of this painful living. But it’s there, all the same. And Auden’s words have snatched my unmoored heart, many times, to a kind of anchor: I am not sure if Jesus is kind, but I believe he is big enough to handle my doubts. He does not save appearances; he has made that obvious.
My brother’s faith was small, weak and new. My faith is small, too–battered and limping although I have believed so long I don’t remember beginning. But Jesus turns neither kind away.
* “Whose property is always to have mercy” is a quote from the Prayer of Humble Access, but I think I read it first in another Auden poem, “At the Grave of Henry James”.
*Note: WordPress is giving me fits and won’t let me put proper stanza breaks in the poem. My apologies, and gnashing of teeth.