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Chaos and Grace

I finally finished Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed last week.  It’s a heart-wrenching and tragic story.  One reviewer compared it to Dostoevsky’s novels and while I’m not sure I would go quite that far, it certainly does share similar pathos-inducing qualities.  In the story, a normal, reasonably happy life for a normal, reasonably happy couple is slowly and steadily reduced to a tale of pain, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, and anger. There is hope, as well, but in very measured and cautious doses.

The picture above is of Picasso’s Minotauromachia and serves as a visual representation of the pull between chaos and grace that weaves throughout and animates the 700+ pages of Lamb’s beautifully written book.  The protagonist in the novel, Caelum Quirk is a burned-out English literature teacher at a community college.  Near the end, he uses this painting as a final exam for his students.  He simply asks them to describe what they see in the picture.  How does it interpret the human condition?  The monster approaches, menacing and threatening.  There is a Christ-figure on a ladder—is he coming, descending into the chaos?  Is he escaping, leaving us to the chaos?  And in the middle of the painting stands a little girl with a bouquet and a candle.  What does it mean?

The question is an intensely personal one for Quirk; he has suffered greatly throughout the story, as have those he cares about.  For Quirk, the painting is clear: Christ is leaving the scene, “bailing out on the sufferers.”  Chaos reigns.  No providential God could possibly be in charge given what he has been through:

I don’t know.  Maybe we’re all chaos theorists.  Lovers of pattern and predictability, we’re scared shitless of explosive change.  But we’re fascinated by it, too.  Drawn to it.  Travelers tap their brakes to ogle the mutilation and mangled metal on the side of the interstate, and the traffic backs up for miles.  Hijacked planes crash into skyscrapers, breached levees drown a city, and CNN and the networks rush to the scene so that we can all sit in front of our TVs and feast on the footage.  Stare, stunned, at the pandemonium—the devils let loose from their cages.  “There but for the grace of God,” the faithful say.  “It’s not for us to know his plan.”

Which, I’ve concluded, is bullshit.  Big G, little g; doesn’t matter.  There is no Mysterious Planner, no one up there who can see the big picture—the order in the disorder.  Religion’s just a well-oiled profit-driven denial of the randomness of it all.  That’s what I’ve come to believe.

So what is the ultimate truth we all face?  The chaos produced by innumerable events and circumstances which lie beyond our immediate control and which shape who we are in ways that we are barely aware—the chaos to which our only response is simply to do our best to manage and survive as best we can?  Or something else?  Something like grace?  Could it possibly be true that around and underneath lives stretched and strained by so much that is ugly and graceless, there is a love that guides us all and pulls us toward a hopeful future?

I suppose that now, at the dawn of a new year, is as good a time to ask this question as any.  It is a question that must periodically be asked and answered by all of us, I think, whether we claim to be “religious” or not.  For we have all faced and will face our share of chaos just as we have all faced and will face the surprising taste of grace.  And in order to live well, I think, we all must decide which of the two is more real.

Quirk’s story ends in ambiguity.  He gets his taste of grace, in a small prison chapel mass, as he witnesses his wife transformed from the drug-addicted, frightened shell of a woman she had been into one who found comfort, peace, and hope behind bars.  And he does move, gradually, from the bitterness and cynicism evident in the quote above.  At the same time, the story ends with yet another tragedy, yet another profoundly painful loss.  There is no happy ending to this story, no neat and tidy conclusion, no flash of illumination to dispel a lifetime of clouds.

The title of the book is a provocative and intriguing one.  The Hour I First Believed.  Believed in what?  Chaos?  The human spirit?  God?  Grace?  We’re never completely sure where Quirk ends up.  We’re left to ponder this most beautiful of verses of a beautiful old hymn:

T’was Grace that taught
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
the hour I first believed.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    The book does sound hard to frame. It does raise an interesting question about the tension in the meaning of the last sentence in the verse of the hymn – the idea that it was precious when it first appeared, that the memory lingers even in despair.

    The paragraph that you have written here that invites me most to linger is the one in the middle, “So what is the ultimate truth…” It makes me think about the encouragement in the Bible to “wait for God.” And then, Quirk’s interpretation of Jesus on the ladder, fleeing, reminds me of one of the Psalms in which people, waiting for God I guess we can say, ask God if he is sleeping.

    And then, I remember a line in A River Runs Through It. Norman Maclean wrote about his father, a Presbyterian minister and a fly-fisherman, “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things – trout as well as eternal salvation – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” It too is a fine book about grace and chaos, about love and sadness, joy and suffering, life and death.

    January 1, 2009
  2. That’s a great quote, Ken. The idea that grace is an art, and that this art is learned (forged?) in trial certainly rings true in Lamb’s book. If part of what it means to be human is to wait for God, then one of the things that we must do, I think, is learn to wait well. Learning the art of grace may even be something like a survival skill in a world such as ours.

    January 2, 2009
  3. Fascinating image – thanks for sharing it. Reminds me strongly of Guernica (the Bull(s), the rushing woman, the light, general composition…). I wonder if the light the girl is holding has any meaning in relation to the lamp that illuminates the scene in Guernica? The lamp is colder, more detached… It doesn’t seem to donate any meaning to the scene (unlike the light held by the little girl), it simply lights the events so that we can see them. Two years of war could have contributed to the difference. If there was any hope in Minotauromachia, it is gone in Guernica.

    January 2, 2009
  4. Well, your reference to Guernica spurred me to broaden my very limited artistic horizons (i.e., to discover what Guernica actually refers to!). There are certainly some very interesting comparisons. For a novice to the art world, it is fascinating to see how art (at least good art) interprets and reflects specific historical moments yet at the same time can point to timeless truths.

    January 3, 2009
  5. Dave Chow #

    Hey Ryan,

    Another reference to Picasso’s Guernica is made in Chaim Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Lev. It’s a good read.

    January 3, 2009
  6. jc #

    Is the definition of chaos supposed to be those circumstances and events that are beyond one’s control? Under that definition one would have to regard gravity as chaotic. A person might be adversely effected directly or indirectly by breached levees and hijacked airplanes but that doesn’t make those events chaotic or random. Neither are these events the norm in advanced civilization. I would think that one who lived in constant fear of the next flood, terrorist attack, or of getting into a car accident had some psychological issues. I think the best response is to view these events as the exception rather then the rule and live life accordingly.

    January 5, 2009
  7. I don’t recall a specific definition of chaos in the book. I think chaos is mostly described and understood as a phenomenological rather than an ontological thing. It’s not just about circumstances and events being beyond our control, but about circumstances and events being experienced as threatening (to wellness, peace of mind, order, goodness, etc) from a human perspective. Something as tragically common as addiction may not have any inherently “chaotic” features – usually looking back you can draw some pretty straight lines to see how it happens – but it is certainly experienced as chaos by addicts and those who must live with them. I think that all of us will, at some point or another, face something which threatens our conception of the world as a good and safe place. As I understand it, this is at least partly what Lamb was using “chaos” to describe.

    January 6, 2009

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