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The terrible brilliance

Brian Doyle  |  12 March 2009

The terrible brilliance

The terrible brilliance of our faith is that there isn't one Christ, there are billions.

I'll tell you a story. There was a girl named Isabel. When she was four years old she got unbelievably sick. When she was five years old she stunningly wonderfully astoundingly got well. When she was six years old she got even sicker than before and soon she died.

She is buried on a hill out here. I went to her funeral. Her coffin was small. When it was lowered into the ground at the ceremony one of the ropes slipped and her coffin tilted to starboard and her baby brother burst out laughing and then wept like I never heard a kid weep before and I am fifty years old and have heard a lot of weeping.

My wife is an art teacher for kids who are really really sick, a job filled with hilarity and pain, a job she loves, a job that makes her shiver and go for long walks in the woods. She spent much of last year doing art projects with Isabel, as Isabel got sicker and endured oceans of pain and grew more swollen and weary by the day, and just before Isabel died I came home one day to find my wife sprawled in the grass, weeping like I had never heard her weep before. I sat down on the grass and my wife said some things that haunt me still, and I think you should hear them.

She's being crucified, said my wife. Everything they do to her hurts. It's torture. Why do they torture her so? All the little crucifixions. She just accepts it. She never complains. She just stares at us with that stare from another planet. She gets crucified every day and no one can stop it. All the little children being crucified. I can't bear it anymore. They stare at me. Why does this happen? Why does this happen?

There was nothing to say, of course, so I didn't say anything, and the next day she went back up to the hospital and did art projects with Isabel, and two days later Isabel died.

You know what we never talk about when we talk about our faith? The awful genius of it, the horrific honesty. We say that Christ died for us because we need some terrible inarticulate way to hold death quivering in our hearts. We need a way to pray for Isabel and the only way that makes any sense is the nonsensical, illogical, unreasonable, insupportable, unprovable conviction that one time long time ago a thin young mysterious eloquent Jewish man was crucified and died and then he came alive again in a way that no one understood then and no one understands now. If that happened, there is a way for us to live amid the sea of death; if it didn't happen we are only compost, awake for a time and then put to work as soil. I am not talking theological babble or pontifical edict or regulatory murk.

I am talking about the haunting human genius in the marrow of Catholicism. A mother watched her son be tortured and crucified and she held him in her arms and there are no words for what she felt. A mother watched her daughter be tortured and crucified and she held her in her arms and there are no words for what she felt.

It happens all day every day everywhere. All the little crucifixions. All the tiny Christs. The terrible brilliance of our faith is that there isn't one Christ, there are billions, and each one suffers for and saves the rest, in ways that we will never understand. All we can do is tiptoe into Isabel's room, and spread out all the holy colours on her bed, and make her laugh, and sing her grace under duress. Somehow she will come alive again, and there will be a light on her mother's face for which there are no words.


Topic tags: people’sstoriesoffaith, scriptureandjesus, ourrelationshipwithgod

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