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Wisdom by the Grace of God

There is no jolly message for you in this article. We have just witnessed the greatest tragedy in the living memory of many of us, and I believe we must not forget it unless and until we have learned something from it. We’re back with Chaos versus Harmony.

In 1940, Bertolt Brecht wrote a play: The Life of Galileo. In the play, Galileo, in exile after having recanted his assertion that the earth moves round the sun, is talking to his pupil Andrea and his daughter Virginia, both of whom are eager to continue scientific research on Galileo’s behalf, although he himself has lost his enthusiasm. Galileo urges caution, and in 1945 Brecht, at this point in the play, inserted the following lines spoken by Galileo to his pupils:

You may in due course discover all that there is to discover, and your progress will nonetheless be nothing but a progress away from mankind. The gap between you and it may one day become so wide that your cry of jubilation at
some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror …

… a reference to the first atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. This leads me to the thought that, throughout human history, one man’s inspiration has often been another’s damnation. In the case above, a ground-breaking scientific discovery led to destruction and horror on an unprecendented scale. But a brilliant theological revelation can also become dogma and repression. A person of deep learning who is full of insight may be a bore to his family. The same music can be full of beauty for me, sadness and desolation for another. An awe-inspiring starburst of great glory and beauty, can be likened to an explosion causing terror and pain. And the glorious majesty of the mighty ocean wave turns into a tsunami, wreaking unimaginable horror, devastation and death.

This is where cosmic beauty, majesty, harmony and one-ness may be answered by equally cosmic chaos, pain, destruction and death. In all these cases, the one side, good, creative and sustaining, is but the obverse of the other, evil, debilitating, destructive. Out of greatness may come tragedy.

But not all tragedy is of the same nature. Goethe speaks of tragedy, first that which is visited on one human being by the malevolence of another. Secondly, that tragedy which we bring down on ourselves by our own misdeeds, greed or lack of care. But there is a third, he says, namely that which befalls ordinary people going about their daily lives, doing ordinary things, intending nothing in particular, who yet are the victims of an apparently malevolent fate. The recent event is clearly of the third category.

In the aftermath of the tsunami many asked themselves questions about God – how He can cause or allow this to happen to His own children? To put questions like this is to fundamentally misunderstand the relation between the creature and the creator. We cannot – we must not – make God responsible for disaster. ‘God-in-us’ is the strength to which we can turn in time of bereavement, pain or disaster. Divinity is, or can be, our ultimate refuge which we seek when in pain or despair.

Are there tools to help us on our way to healing? Certainly dispensing charity in such an awful situation concentrates our minds on the creative, away from the destructive. We could also speak here of the four cardinal virtues enshrined in the Emulation lecture, especially that of Fortitude, the ‘noble and steady purport of the soul’ enabling us to undergo ‘any pain, labour, danger or difficulty’. But Fortitude itself may not be within our grasp.

If the two sides we spoke of – cosmic harmony and cosmic chaos – are in fact two sides of the same nature, then we are dealing with the ying and yang, the within and the without, the route to birth and the route to death.

But when all is said and done, and despite the struggle to find expression, words are not enough. We have to go deep inside ourselves to seek solace from tragedy and even then it may elude us if we lack the strength. At the limits, we may find no comfort at all. If there are words that may be spoken or listened to with the heart, they may be those from Aeschylus, who wrote in the fifth century BC:


He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes Wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.


I don’t need to tell you that ‘awful’ here bears the archaic meaning of ‘immense’, ‘awe-inspiring’, perhaps ‘infinite’.

‘Against our will’. There is a greater power at work here. Through the pain and suffering, against our will, we gather Wisdom to ourselves. When surrounded by outer chaos, the only place to look is inwards, towards the light and grace within; to that Divinity that can bring order out of chaos, and make us whole again.

They clirnb’d the steep ascent of Heav’n Through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given To follow in their train.
Bishop Reginald Heber 1783-1826
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