By Wayne Allensworth
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you:
For everyone that asketh recieveth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened
Matthew 7: 7-8
The road ahead seems to be taking us directly into a mountainous cloud, a wonderous snowy escarpment surrounded by roiling white foothills that look like cotton ball sculptures that have somehow come alive. Around it, stretching into untold distances, are dark blue rain clouds with shifting veils that fall from them like strange gossamer material. Translucent and magical against a pale blue sky that is turning pink and red and orange at the corners.
What mystery and beauty are present in every day and every dawn and every dusk.
A plane streaks through the clouds. Inside are people like us, seeing only the misty veils around them. The passengers hear a dull whoosh of the engines, the plane’s speed made undetectable as great distances appear to slowly pass beneath. It’s a strange, dreamlike illusion. The experience of time and distance dependent on the observer.
It’s been raining down here. Much more than at home, just a few hours distant as the crow flies, where the drought and heat wave have only recently been broken by sheets of rain that brought flash floods. A cascade of water, both vital and destructive.
The billboards pass by, flashing their messages about real estate agents (Farm and Ranch specialists!) and fast food and gas stations and, ubiquitous as the live oaks and cattle that dot the pasturelands, the Message.
In despair? Jesus is your hope!
Turn here for Teaching Word Faith Center!
The True Vine Fellowship (A faded structure with a wooden steeple).
Truth Hotline (A phone number with a picture of an open Bible).
The small towns on backroads off the freeway declare themselves to be Cities Under God.
Bible Passages, especially John 3:16.
I recall a sign I once saw in West Texas, amid desolate reaches of high plains so unlike the Southeast Texas landscape that is flashing by us. In tall white letters against a black background, it boldly warned “It Will be Sudden. It May be Soon.”
And sometimes I think, “Oh, that it would be.”
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon our old house. And the foundations under our feet seem to be shifting sands.
The city is ahead. The city and the cemetery.
I called upon the Lord in distress: The Lord answered me and set me in a large place.
The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: What can man do unto me?
Pslam 118: 5-6
We checked into our hotel, and I spent a quiet evening with a book.
I’ve been reading Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a psychotherapist whose theories coalesced during his time in the camps. Man, he wrote, isn’t primarily focused on pleasure or power. His most fundamental drive, wrote Frankl, is the search for meaning. In life and living, paraphrasing Nietzsche, Frankl reminded us that given a why, we can endure the how.
Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who raised the issue of “the soul and barbed wire” in his monumental Gulag Archipelago, Frankl noted that those who aimed highest, at becoming the best that they could be, who believed that even in the camps they had a reason to live, kept their souls and their humanity. They stood no less chance of surviving than those who bartered and stole to save themselves. Those who surrendered to despair smoked their last cigarette, a sure sign of resignation, and died, unconsolably lost.
To paraphrase Frankl, at every moment, a human being decides what he will become. Every step taken leaves a footprint in time that can be either life affirming or destructive. The past is irrevocably stored, it is the reality of lives lived, and, as Frankl insisted, of suffering endured, for suffering itself is part of the meaning. If the suffering had no meaning, then neither did survival. When we cannot change a situation, we have to change ourselves. We find meaning in doing a deed, by experiencing beauty, in a relationship with another person, and in how we respond to unavoidable suffering. Responsibility, taking up one’s cross (a phrase the Jewish Frankl used many times in his book), love, all are the answers to resisting what Frankl identified as modern man’s most terrible fate, the loss of meaning, the descent into what he called the “existential vacuum.” Without tradition to guide him, a man does not know what he ought to do, or even what he wishes.
Frankl reversed man’s existential questioning. Rather than questioning what we expect of life, we should note clearly that life is questioning us, and our response is everything. Life expects something from us. And he again presaged (the first version of his book was published shortly after the war) what Solzhenitsyn would state in Gulag, writing that the rift between good and evil runs through all human beings. Frankl noted that kindness could be found even among the camp guards, and cruelty among the prisoners.
Frankl was convinced of a transcendent reality. He rejected nihilism, the ideation of the existential vacuum, and noted that the “firm ground” of religious conviction was a powerful buttress against it. Frankl wrote that there is nothing that a survivor need fear, except his God. He who examines us.
When Frankl arrived at the camp, he was stripped of his clothing and given the rags of a dead man, and among those rags he found a single page from a Hebrew prayer book reading “Listen Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and all time. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Frankl wrote of what he called “tragic optimism.” He noted that the camps had shown what humans have in them, what they are capable of, and a man who went to his death “upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisreal on his lips” showed the very same thing.
The next morning, we drove to the cemetery and passed through the gates.
Each time we visit this place, I think of all the people from my old neighborhood who are buried here.
The graveyard is not a quiet place. A freeway fronts it, and we drove down a feeder road to reach the entrance, marked by an antique horse drawn hearse from a time long past. The cars never cease, and the noise could easily be a distraction, but I’ve found that it can be tuned out by attention and apprehension, by understanding.
Towering pines and oaks cover the graves with a soft canopy of shadow, partially blocking a harsh and unforgiving sun. The air is thick with humidity.
The graves we have come to visit are near the front of the cemetery. There are a number of family plots there, including spots reserved for myself and my wife. My wife Stacy and I walked silently to the markers. Standing beneath a vast pine tree, I can scan them, taking in the names and the dates, and the faces seemed to materialize in my mind’s eye. My parents as they were when I was a boy. My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, resting on each side of my parents, as I saw them with my boy’s eyes.
I remember, I told them, I won’t forget.
Someone has put flowers on my parents’ marker. Thank you.
I saw cars gathering at the funeral home. A viewing must have been scheduled.
I can’t recall the two of us saying much to each other, except for Stacy telling me how much she missed my father, the last of them to go. Yes, I miss him, too.
Before we left that day, I stooped at the markers and touched each name, a small, personal gesture of remembrance and of gratitude.
We circled through the vast cemetery on our way out.
It’s filling up.
I noted the names on the markers as I so often have in the past, each one with its own history and triumphs and tragedies.
Watson…Wiseman…Schmidt…Higgins…Pape…Clampett…Finch…Peckinpaugh…Moore…Foyt…Bailey…And so many others, many of them known to me, some of them quite well. People with families and jobs and joy and sadness. The people who made what used to be my home the hospitable place of my past.
It’s all gone. But the footprints they made in time are not gone. And every step we take now to preserve something of that which they bequeathed us will be a small monument to them and to us and our posterity. There is meaning in that, even if we fail.
My older brother and I were talking with his two sons later that afternoon. And I recalled my boyhood and his and the little house we had lived in, built by our father so long ago. Hurricanes came and struck and dissipated, breaking up after they made landfall. Too slowly. But breaking up. When the torrential rains came northwest of Houston where we lived in those days, the ditch outside our house would be brimming with water so clear you could see everything at the bottom. And it was filled with crawdads and the little mud castles they made.
What had happened to them? And the horny toads. And the dragonflies of summer. And the lightning bugs that lit up our evenings. The monarch butterflies, their wings like delicate nets of color.
All gone, like the old house and the old neighborhood. I told them that I felt like I was visiting Mars, a stranger in a strange land. Some part of me had perished through great grief.
Yet I’m grateful.
One of my nephews will soon have a child. He and his wife are ready and joyful. We have our children and grandchildren. Be grateful, but watchful. And hope, always hope. Knock and the door will be opened.
The horsemen cometh. Come and see. A white, a red, a black horse. And a pale one. Conquest, war, and death. Famine, pestilence, earthquakes. The beginning of sorrows. Many will come to deceive us. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.
By their fruits, you shall know them. The time of our examination is upon us.
Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.