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.