Sending Me a Message

It seems that everywhere I turn, I’m finding messages about humility. In today’s Magnificat meditation by Father Gerald Vann, O.P.:

Jacques Maritain has some wise words on the parables of the man counting his resources before building a tower and the king counting his army before meeting his enemy in the field: “Which means to say,” he writes, “before setting to work for God and to fight against the devil, first calculate your forces; and if you consider yourself well enough equipped to begin, you are fool, because the tower to be built costs an outrageous price and the enemy coming out to meet you is an angel, before whom you are of no account. Get to know yourself so well that you cannot contemplate yourself without flinching. Then there will be room for hope. In the sure knowledge that you are obliged to do the impossible, and that you can do the impossible in him who strengthens you, then you are ready for a task which can be performed only through the cross.”

So at times, God takes away all props, all help, from his children; leaves them apparently to failure and desolation, so that sometimes they seem to have no faith left in him, in themselves, or in anything at all. But it is all done with a purpose: for when, at last, there is nothing left but dry bones, if they turn to him in humility, he can make the dry bones live, and bring success out of failure, and hope and achievement out of despair. …

When failure comes upon us, when we are tempted to depression or despair, it is of these dry bones that we should think, and see whether, in fact, there is some work waiting to be done for God. We should turn to him and beg him to work in us in spite of our frailties and failures. And so in us, as they do in their greater ways in the saints, failures and frustrations become creative.

I don’t like to plan, because it tends to make me worry and to raise my expectations too high, so I want to read the passage in such a way that it vindicates my tendency to fly by the seat of my pants, but I probably shouldn’t. What really speaks to me in the passage, though, are Father Vann’s comments about the dry bones. I don’t know that I’ve ever given the phrase much thought, but I do know that I never really understood it. The other night, I finished reading Mark Helprin’s magnificent novel, A Soldier of the Great War, and I didn’t realize it until now, but Alessandro Giuliani, the main character, was—at least at one point in the story, but likely at many—nothing but dry bones.

On the verandah itself, everyone could see Alessandro sitting still in the rain, his head visible just above the beach chair, his hair blowing wildly in the wind.

Lightning the color of white gold danced awkwardly on the broken surface of the sea and flashed against the dark skeins of cloud from which it had come, cascading over itself in shallow angles and bent limbs. Thundercracks colliding in midair flattened the water into spoon-like silver depressions and rattled the glass windows of the hotel.

“He’ll be killed,” said a woman on the part of the porch farthest away from the windows. “What’s he doing?”

“He’s doing what we’re doing,” and old man answered, “but more so. He seems to have lost the habit of safety.”

“Or maybe he never had it!” the woman exclaimed with joyful exuberance as she turned to go inside.

No, the old man thought. It’s something that, eventually, you learn to do without.

Lightning struck so close to Alessandro that it pushed him against the beach chair and bent its wooden legs like bows. Blinded, he waited for the next bolt to release him from the reeling darkness, for the logic of the lightning and its approach over the sea was like the logic of a swelling crescendo in music. He was sure it would rush him with perfect accuracy, sure of the greater and greater light and geometrically increasing shock, sure that the walking barrage would end with him, and content that it would.

But it didn’t. It lacked volition after all, and did not descend with a kind and quick stroke that would take him where the heart could not be broken. It left him on a beach that the rain had made the color of municipal concrete, staring at the ten minutes of robin’s-egg blue hanging in the air over Istria. A cold and tranquil rain came after the lightning, and lasted until dark. Only then did Alessandro rise and turn to the hotel, which sat on the dunes and glowed with artificial light like a ship gliding across the horizon on a warm summer night.


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