Divine Silence and Human Memory

1915208_1194107125475_2066400_nIn the film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine one person, who we were told is not ready to speak publicly about Matt’s death, stood out. He is the admiring little brother, Logan, whose voice appears behind the home movie camera as he taunts his idol, Matt. I applaud his courage to claim his own space and open his heart in his own time, or not at all. Though we didn’t meet that night, I felt a special connection to him as well since I also lost an older brother in my teens whom I adored. 

While growing up during the time we did had its challenges, I will never understand fully the torment that drove him to end the final chapter of his twenty-five year life on the damp, rocky ground beneath Cleveland’s Detroit-Superior bridge. Over time, I have found the courage to live robustly in spite of the senselessness and ambiguity of it all, and to accept my membership in the lousy club to which those who have lost loved ones to suicide belong. Those words, “lousy club,” brought a knowing smile to my face as I read the comments attached to Philip Conner’s similar story on NPR.

The August following my Memorial Day farewell to Lamont marked the death of my childhood religion and the birth of adult faith. As children, we were steeped in a soulful mix of Gospel music, folksy preaching on cosmic justice—“Be not deceived for God is not mocked: Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”—and the peculiar confidence of divine protection in the midst of unbelievable turmoil. On account of the urban turbulence of my childhood days, I still smell smoke whenever I hear the stirring line of the Gospel song, “Jesus, be a fence all around me every day.”

Now, I am certain that the adults in that church knew the ambiguities of life all too well, especially during those tumultuous days. But children receive what they are able when they are able. When I heard the Southern drawl of my father proudly reciting from memory the words of the first Psalm since “That’s the kind of learning we did in my day,” I was filled with the confidence that, apart from routine ups and downs, we were relatively safe, having found ourselves on God’s good side. For certainly we delighted in the law of the Lord and meditated on it day and night. We wouldn’t think of standing in the way of sinners or sitting in the seats of the scornful, whatever that meant. So we were virtually guaranteed to be like trees planted by the rivers of water who would bear their fruit in due season.

Besides, challenges to our full citizenship in those days notwithstanding, we were thoroughly American. So much of American Christianity seems mired in a simplistic understanding of reward for hard work, punishment for sloth and criminality, and inevitable, exemplary progress. I do wonder whether the current generation of young adults—if they ever return to organized religion en masse at all—will revive the Medieval cautionary tales of the rota fortunae, having faced an uncertain economy and a rare foreign attack on U.S. soil.

Few things shatter such a tidy religion like the violent, untimely death of a sibling. Once it became apparent, at least to me, that his death was wrought by his own hands, the known universe collapsed into empty silence. During the coldest August days I can recall in spite of a typical, oppressively humid Cleveland summer, I sat on the side of a hospital bed and announced the death of my religion to an empty room.

The rare times I have recounted this moment, where I sat in the presence of a silent God, my listeners have grown uncomfortable because there is nothing dramatic to tell. No story of triumphal rescue. No favorite Bible verse to comfort. No stirring half-remembered hymn. No helpful visit from a loved one—save the troubling distraction of a near stranger as buxom as she was eccentric sent by a dad who believed badonkadonk to be the answer to any young man’s ills, bless his heart!

No whirlwind, earthquake, or fire. Just the sound of silence. But there was life, barely a bud. The faintest desire to continue praying sparked by the intuition of being heard. A will to keep writing the story of my life with some inkling that an appreciative reader held the book gently in hand. That was enough.

Through the years it has been enough to transform a childhood religiosity into a life of faith rooted far less in preaching than in prayer; less in certainty than in wonder in the face of mystery; less in the quest for answers than in the courage to resist the absurd; less in pining for lost loves and dreams and more in the desire to create something beautiful from the remaining fragments through music and words and compassionate connection. It is a robust, how-dare-you-hide-from-me-when-I-can-see-your-hindparts faith, where fist-shaking devolves into laughter at the sight of a child’s curious look at the grumbling man who shares the lakeside path. A “choose life” kind of faith that, impatient with promises of mansions in the sweet by and by, snatches life from death whenever the occasion presents itself. It is, above all, a faith that moves me to say to others, “No, I have no idea what God is doing and no way of restoring to you what has been lost, dear friend. But I will sit with you in the silence.”

And for you once lost, dear brother, I will keep alive the memory of our robust brotherly love: the wrestling matches, the Vulcan nerve pinches, the scattered toy soldiers and failed rocket launches, the calculus problem sets, and especially the texture of that nappy hair of yours. And I will notice the emerging adults who cross my path now and then, and listen gently to them in your name.



©2015 D. Maurice Charles. All rights reserved.

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About D. Maurice Charles

Maurice is an Episcopal priest and historian of Christianity who reflects on religion and violence, having received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of his ministry has focused on higher education, having previously served as Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. In 2015 he was appointed Chaplain of the Colleges and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (by courtesy) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. Maurice contributes to this blog with his Chicago friends in the hope that personal reflection and heartfelt discussion lead to building beloved community.