John Harriott


This article by John Harriott
originally appeared in The Way, October, 1970,
as "Himself He Cannot Save."
It has been regendered by Rev. Selma Sheldon
and adapted by John Veltri, sj. and Robert Boys.

        A few weeks ago I spent some days in hospital. On my last evening, an old man lying in the next bed drew several harsh breaths, tried to sit up, and died. It was a very casual death; within an hour his remains had been tidied up and removed from the ward with all the decent circumspection of a modern hospital. The rest of us had to be considered; death must not be allowed to put ideas into our heads. It was the end of a life, the moment Christians regard as the most solemn and potent of all, but here it was reduced to something trivial, a momentary inconvenience. It might have seemed to be of no consequence at all if I had not come to know the old man's wife and the effect his death would have upon her. For her this apparently trivial event was an earthquake, uptilting and destroying all the landmarks of her life. Yet there was nothing the old man could do to keep death at bay; nothing I as a priest, nor his wife, nor the doctors and nurses with all their professional skill could do to defend him. There are no barriers against death.

        There seemed to be little connection between this death, which our society somehow put on the level of waste disposal, and the solemn event which is at the heart of every real and fictional tragedy. Public deaths of a Churchill or a Kennedy can still hold us in thrall, as Caesar's cast its spell centuries ago. Our movies are still obsessed with death. Dr. Zhivago falls with a heart attack in the street, hopelessly reaching out to the oblivious Lara. Harry Lime's fingers clutch at life through the grating of a Vienna sewer. Movie screens continue to recount such barbaric annihilations as that of Bonnie and Clyde. They dramatize the sustained human conviction that the fact and manner of our going from the world are crucial to the meaning of life. The old man's death in hospital was as humdrum as death can be, yet it sealed, interpreted and, in some sense, justified the whole of his life and his wife's. Like every death it was universal. In the suffering that followed, death somehow revealed the strength, dignity and value of the relationship between two human beings. If there had been no sorrow that would have been a judgment on the old man and whatever he had fashioned from his life.

        Even independently of religious belief, death is a measure of life. The moment of death makes us acutely conscious of what a person has made of oneself, and what that person has done to others. Even without religious ceremony, even without belief in a day of judgment, the living turn death into their judgment. The death and funeral of a human being grows out of and seals the kind of life these events conclude.

        Death has many ways of seeping into us. We live within a world of death. People, animals, plants and even inanimate things die. All about us, buildings, furniture and trees wilt, melt, and sag in the process of dying. We may raise our spirits with the thought that every moment of death is simultaneously a moment of birth, or that the declination of one pattern of matter is the growth of another. But these ways of thinking are not how we experience our own mortality. It is easier to be optimistic about the condition of the natural world, or the progress of science or the development of cities, than it is to be optimistic about our own self. An ordinary wholesome person usually does not focus attention on the fact that buildings and people are dying: mortality outside oneself is something only faintly sensed, like a mild irritation. But the awareness of one's own mortality is much different in those moments when it springs to the forefront of one's mind. In those moments the experience of mortality can shake us with fear as we recognize how death stamps us through and through. As the years flick past we can so easily feel like a climber slipping down an ice-coated surface, scrabbling desperately and hopelessly for a handhold. Life slips by and offers no handhold, no moment of permanence, no pause while time stands still.

        Death mocks every human activity. But most of all it mocks what human beings most eagerly pursue, a loving permanent relationship with another human being. When two people do finally achieve or discover that marriage of true minds, that sense of being one person (under various guises such a relationship is the holy grail of human love) a dozen enemies threaten it from outside. The most inescapable enemy is death. Death tears parents from children, lovers from each other and breaks the embrace of husband and wife at the end of a committed life. The last enemy is the worst. Even though we dodge or delay its coming, we know that there is no final evasion of death either for ourselves or for those we love.

        What can be said about death can to a lesser extent be said about all our other painful afflictions. There is, it is true, a wide range of suffering which is simply the result of human ignorance, folly, malice, ambition, and insensitivity. There is no reason why people in a modern industrialized society should be badly housed. There is no reason why hundreds of thousands of people should starve to death. There is no reason for most of the poverty, sickness, hunger and homelessness in the modern world, except for what one might loosely describe as the spiritual frailty of human beings. It may be true that the poor will always be with us, but if they are we have only ourselves to blame. The resources, technical knowledge, scientific understanding and skilled experts all exist in abundance.

        There is another range of human afflictions of which the same cannot be said. There is the experience of failure, of loneliness, of self-contempt, of being unloved or unable to give love, of being uprooted from familiar surroundings, of being at odds with the spirit of the age, of knowing that earlier hopes and ambitions will never be realized, or that certain talents will never be developed as they might have been. These afflictions may be referred to as psychic or spiritual. But these are examples of other deaths, for which doctor, welfare worker, politician and, to a great extent, the priest and the psychiatrist have no remedy. These are not manageable social problems dealing with the redistribution of property and goods or with an improved social structure. You cannot cure loneliness simply by putting a person alongside other human beings. You cannot cure self-contempt by building better houses, roads, and planting more trees. You cannot cure a sense of failure with a bottle of pills.

        Even if government and welfare agencies were perfectly enlightened and the whole human race brimful of love and goodwill, there would still be a huge area of pain and suffering which nobody could affect. This has to do with the way people experience themselves, evaluate themselves, and envisage their future. It is in this area that we experience our need of salvation. It comes when all human resources fail.

        There is no human remedy for the private grief of parents at the graveside of their dead child. There is no human remedy for the person who at last realizes that one's love has been finally rejected; none for the person who is diagnosed as paralysed for life. There is no human remedy for the nun or monk who walks away from the monastery door with a feeling of a wasted life. There is no human remedy for the doctoral student who can find no employment in one's field of research.

        When feelings are devastated, as they can be in moments of profound suffering, there is little or nothing that outsiders can do for the sufferer. There is dumb sympathy, there are a few conventional sentiments which people express to show they care; but even these have to be used with tact or the intended salve can become salt in the open wound. Those who suffer deeply can only retire into the depths of themselves. At those times we realize it is unwise for us to follow.

        There is a distinction between circumstances which can be manipulated and circumstances which cannot. Some human miseries can be controlled or cured and some cannot. This distinction is important. It contains the answer to those who trivialize the christian notion of salvation. Some accuse Christians of refusing to face up to the bleak realities of human existence. Others say christian salvation weakens our resolve to change harmful social structures. Such accusations have been reinforced by the statements and behaviour of professed Christians at various times in history. Some Christians have justified indifference to the suffering of the poor and oppressed by combining their belief in life after death with a spiritualized interpretation of the gospel message.

        But the unique character of Christianity is that it supports neither fatalism nor utopianism, but places humanity's fate firmly in its own hands. It respects the value of every effort at human betterment and yet, does not hold out hope for a perfect and permanent temporal society. Belief in life after death does not cancel the responsibility to fight remediable human misery.

        "Spiritualists", who wish to fossilize the social order in their own interest, can find little assurance from a gospel which tells the rich person to sell all and give it to the poor. "Materialists" can find little assurance in the life and message of Jesus that we do not live by bread alone. These observations suggest that we are more likely to accept or reject both halves of the equation than to accept one and reject the other. There is continuity in the christian scheme of things between what we do with this life and what we are in the next. There is continuity between the quality of our faith and the energy we display in serving the poor and oppressed.

        It is necessary to labour this point. To suggest that there is such a thing as inescapable suffering and that this has a function in the order of things is to open oneself to derision and charges of complacency. There is no complacency in saying that our vocation as Christians is to work earnestly to relieve every kind of human need and at the same time to state that there are some forms of suffering which are beyond our power to cure. There is that pain or feeling of emptiness, along with that sense of something secret, just beyond one's grasp, which could make one feel whole! Surely it is this we are talking about when we say that money isn't happiness or when we become aware of the boredom in affluent city suburbs or when we notice the hopelessness in the youngsters hanging around street corners.

        It is in those moments when we are broken and helpless that we begin to recognize the need and coming of salvation and can experience the difference it makes. The natural, spontaneous reaction to suffering is evasion - to reach for the aspirin, move the house, change our job or to ask God to wave a wand and remove the source of trouble. But faced with the kind of inescapable suffering I have tried to describe, we cannot practise evasion. A person cannot delay death indefinitely. Parents cannot bring back to life their dead child. The paralytic cannot suddenly rise from one's bed and walk.

        It is in such situations, when human impotence in the face of suffering is most keenly felt, that the power of God begins to work. Salvation comes not as an anaesthetic or a magical deliverance, but as a power which enables us to accept, take hold of and use our pain. There is a fine example of such a moment in Pierre d'Harcourt's autobiography The Real Enemy. As a member of the French Resistance during the war, he was betrayed to the Gestapo and shot down in a Paris street. While recovering in hospital he planned to escape, but his plans were discovered. One evening the police rushed in and chained him to the bed. He writes:

        The hour which followed was one of the blackest of my life...As I realised my chance had gone, despair overcame me...Beneath everything, beyond everything, I felt myself humiliated and defeated. I had been so confident and now my pride had been laid low. There was only one way of coming to terms with my fate if I was not to sink into an abyss of defeatism from which I knew I could never rise again. I must make the gesture of complete humility by offering to God all that I suffered. I must not only have the courage to accept this suffering; I must thank God for it, for the opportunity to find at last God's loving truth. I remember the relief of weeping as I realised that this was my salvation. Then the inspiration came to me to kiss the chains that held me prisoner, and with much difficulty I at last managed to do this. I am not a credulous person, but even allowing for the state of mind I was in that night, there can be no doubt in my mind that some great power from outside momentarily entered into me. Once my lips had touched the steel I was freed from the terror that had possessed me. As the handcuffs had brought the terror of death to me, now by kissing my manacles I had turned them from bonds into a key.
        Salvation is a deliverance, but not a deliverance from physical and mental anguish as such. It is a deliverance from arrogance and overweening self-confidence; it is a deliverance from the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves; it is a deliverance from fear, sometimes panic fear; it is a deliverance from thinking that our wholeness as persons depends on external circumstances; it is a deliverance from the illusion that people or property can, at least in our case, keep time and decay permanently at bay. Salvation is a deliverance from every form of self-preoccupation, self-reliance and self-righteousness which will prevent us from experiencing the mystery and call within our very being. It is the way of making us realistic, honest and ultimately whole.
        Often only when a person is forced to one's knees does one acknowledge that human autonomy has limits. Our resources are insufficient to make us absolute masters of our destiny. We shrink from intense suffering. Yet in suffering we encounter mystery and through mystery find meaning. This is not mere rhetoric for its own sake. No doubt, for some people, the conviction, that human life has resonances over and beyond what is visible and tangible, can come through the experience of intense love or startling human goodness. But for the majority of us it is through bitter suffering that we realize there is a power beyond our own. This unveils an order of things which is more extensive than the visible pattern of human affairs. It is in the moment of bitterest suffering that faith is born. This is the kind of faith involving personal conviction and commitment rather than mental adhesion to a set of beliefs not really part of our lives.

        Through suffering we acquire a sense of spaciousness. Far from being imprisoned within the confines of space and time, we suddenly realize that the whole story of our life is to stretch beyond the grave. The physical and mental limitations that anger us in our present situation are not to last forever. It is through suffering, which at first faces us as a blank wall, that we eventually discover the secret entrance into the pleasant garden of God's love, and taste for the first time a security which nothing short of God can supply. Through suffering we come to understand how human lives interlock and mysteriously influence each other. Jean Danielou's statement that suffering is the meeting point between good and evil begins to make sense. The possibility that the wicked are redeemable through the suffering of the good becomes a genuine conviction and motive of action. It is through suffering that all kinds of power and understanding which have lain dormant in us are released.

        "All sunshine", runs an Arab proverb, "makes a desert". Those who have not suffered lack a dimension. However much we shrink from it, without suffering we cannot become fully human. Salvation is the process through which we are given the power to achieve full humanity.

        It was not by coming down from the cross that Jesus redeemed the world. In theory we might argue that death and suffering were not necessary for the redemption of the world. In actuality it is hard to believe that we would grasp so well the intensity and extension of God's love for us if Jesus had turned away from the suffering which was the logical outcome of a life which was a continuous expression of his love. As human, how else could Jesus have known all that was in his heart except by experiencing physical and mental anguish? How could his message that we are to find our true selves in loving our neighbour to the very point of death ring true, if he had shown himself unwilling to accept the painful outcome of such a principle? If we are to be integral witnesses to the christian experience of salvation, we also must not flinch from the suffering that often is its key.

        It may seem morbid and even alarming, to attach such importance to the experience of futility and helplessness in our lives. It may suggest a return to the kind of pessimistic mentality which induces people to shut their doors upon the world, leave it to its own contemptible devices and spend their time in prayer and penance. This would be to miss the point! One may believe wholeheartedly in the onward progress of the human race and in our ever growing sensitivity as individuals and as a race. Despite all the disappointments and back-tracking with which we are familiar, it does seem that the world is capable of evolutionary progress. This gives ground for some optimism. One can hold such a position and at the same time observe that this evolution depends on the wisdom of knowing ourselves with the full awareness of the limitations of mortality which we experience in ourselves.

        The experience of our vulnerability and capacity for pain; the experience of our utter futility, worthlessness and despair - all these help make us face up to ourselves more fully. They give us some understanding of what is awry and needs assistance. They help develop the conviction that the power to freely accept and embrace one's condition is available to us through Jesus.

        Salvation is not comfortable. There is something terrifying about it. Even human love is terrifying in the forces that it releases and directs; and human love is a faint radiation from the fire of love which is God. Salvation is not a gentle application of vaseline to a small cut, but the breaking and resetting of ill-set bones. People who are complacent about themselves, their families, their homes, their work, who feel in short that they have got it made, will never glimpse the meaning of salvation. They will neither glimpse their own grandeur, nor all the powers that lie within their ultimate grasp. There is only one way for them to know their grandeur and that is to first know their need. We discover our need when we are faced with situations over which we have no control, and in which we have no hope. When the sick know that their "sickness is unto death" and they cannot save themselves, then they hear the voice telling them "take up your bed and walk" - for salvation is at hand.

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