Friday, August 29, 2008

On Katrina, Gustav, Markel, and Other Names

Maybe I chose Markel as my name because he, like Ignatius, experienced his conversion while lying sick in bed.  Father Zossima's elder brother in the Brothers Karamazov, he took ill with consumption while at a young age.  He was of "irritable temperament" and did not believe in God, thinking it all pure silliness.  After taking to bed with sickness, he experienced a profound transformation, one of solidarity with all of Creation in God.  I remember the first time I read the Brothers Karamazov being deeply moved by the section of the sayings of Zossima, and especially by Markel.  I will quote my favorite passage:
The windows of his room looked out into the garden, and our garden was a shady one, with old trees in it which were coming into bud.  The first birds of spring were flitting in the branches, chirruping and singing at the windows.  And looking at them and admiring them, he began suddenly begging their forgiveness too, "Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too."  None of us could understand that at the time, but he shed tears of joy.  "Yes, he said, "there was such a glory of God all about me; birds, trees, meadows, sky, only I lived in shame and dishonoured it all and did not notice the beauty and glory."  
"You take too many sins on yourself," mother used to say, weeping.
"Mother, darling, it's for joy, not for grief that I am crying.  Though I can't explain it to you, I like to humble myself before them, for I don't know how to love them enough.  If I have sinned against everyone, yet all forgive me, too, and that's heaven. Am I not in heaven now?"
I continue to be moved by this passage, and subsequent one's on the meaning of solidarity with all Creation and the need to forgive all, since our sins affect all.  

As I reflected on Markel, I also couldn't help but think of other important characters who "came to themselves," as Binx Bolling did, while sick or laid low by an injury.  Binx came to the notion of a search from just such an injury during the Korean war, as did Ignatius at Pamplona. But the character I remember most as I now search through the voluminous War and Peace trying to find the passage I want, is Prince Andrew Bolkonski.   I've found it, or rather, two passages.  In Book X chapter xxxvi of War and Peace, Prince Andrew is hit by an exploding shell.  As he watches the smoking shell in slow motion, he comes to a sudden realization: "I cannot, do not wish to die.  I love life -- I love this grass, this earth, this air."  He experiences a sudden, overwhelming love for all that is, all that exists.  

As he is carried from the field with a gaping injury in his abdomen, he sounds a lot like Markel in his meditations:  
Prince Andrew opened his eyes and for a long time could not make out what was going on around him.  He remembered the meadow, the wormwood, the field, the whirling black ball, and his sudden rush of passionate love for life.
Prince Andrew could not longer restrain himself and wept tender loving tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for his own and their errors.
Later in Book XI, chapter xxxii: 
"Yes -- love," he thought again quite clearly.  "But not love which loves for something, for some quality, for some purpose, or for some reason, but the love which I -- while dying -- first experience when I saw my enemy and yet loved him.  I experienced that feeling of love which is the very essence of the soul and does not require an object.  Now again I feel that bliss.  To love one's neighbors, to love one's enemies, to love everything, to love God in all His manifestations."
This is what Prince Andrew discovered, and I too was deeply moved by that passage.  There is something about being laid up, in discomfort, thrown off one's regular rhythm, when one begins to see life differently, and to tap into the Heart of loving solidarity around which the world revolves.  Percy always wrote that people were happier in the midst of catastrophe than when everything was working right.   In moments of disaster they saw and loved clearly.   

I pray at this time that as New Orleans remembers the third anniversary of Katrina, and experiences another need to evacuate as it anticipates the landfall of Gustav on Tuesday, that in this peril and suspense, the capacity of the human soul for a deep and sublime love will shine forth in this city.  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


Anonymous said...

Binx Bolling woke up under a chindolea bush in Korea, fifteen years previous to and several thousand miles from the Vietnam War.

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ / Mason Slidell said...

Thanks, I didn't catch that on the re-read.