The Gift Beyond History
John Ciardi flew bomber missions in WWII; later in the war he was posted to a desk and given the task of writing letters of condolences to grieving parents whose sons would never come home. And so he knew what it was to be both an instrument of pain and suffering, and a healer of pain and suffering, in ways more intense than most of us will ever know. And yet, his twin assignments recapitulated with concentrated, diamond-forming pressure the roles that each one of us enacts throughout the drama of life. Sometimes with anger and sometimes in obliviousness, we drop words whose hurtful consequences reach far beyond our intention and our vision. And as we grow in grace, as parents, friends, or simple neighbors in a world of commerce and conflict, we scrawl with words and small gestures our unofficial telegrams, seeking to restore those we know we have wounded, and those who are casualties of other battles we never witnessed. We wound and we heal.
After the war, Ciardi went on to become a justly celebrated poet. In one of his greatest pieces, “The Gift,” he imagined how one who had suffered even worse horrors than he himself had witnessed in the war might begin again to live.
In 1945, when the keepers cried kaput,
Josef Stein, poet, came out of Dachau
like half a resurrection, his other
eighty pounds still in their invisible grave.
Slowly then the mouth opened and first
a broth, and then a medication, and then
a diet, and all in time and the knitting mercies,
the showing bones were buried back in flesh,
and the miracle was finished. Josef Stein,
man and poet, rose, walked, and could even
beget, and did, and died later of other causes
only partly traceable to his first death.
He noted – with some surprise at first
that strangers could not tell he had died once.
He returned to his post in the library, drank his beer,
published three poems in a French magazine,
and was very kind to the son who at last was his.
In the spent of one night he wrote three propositions:
That Hell is the denial of the ordinary. That nothing lasts.
That clean white paper waiting under a pen
is the gift beyond history and hurt and heaven.
1. “Hell is the denial of the ordinary”
Christianity has what one scholar calls a “transmutable eschatology.” What that means is that initially Christians have emphasized the present reality of God’s kingdom. He brought heaven to earth, the day of Pentecost inaugurated a spirit-drenched church, and the new life heralded by baptismal rebirth began here, now. Church fathers taught that partaking of the Eucharist, “the bread of immortality,” launched the first stages of that person’s resurrection at that very moment. A vibrant stream of early expressions emphasized the “nowness” of heaven: “let us love the present joy in the life that now is,” wrote Ignatius. “How blessed and wonderful, beloved, are the gifts of God! Life in immortality, splendour in righteousness, truth in perfect confidence, faith in assurance, self-control in holiness!” And those are the gifts we have now, Clement marveled.
Rather quickly, however, emphasis shifted to a future kingdom of God. One can chart the pattern of the oscillation. At times of social stresses, cultural conflict, and persecution, it is a coming judgment on the wicked and a coming vindication of the righteous that moves to the foreground. The lingering theological poison is not just the substitution of a very human idea of justice in the eternal time frame, but a blindness to the paradise we are charged with building and inhabiting now. If we are not finding heaven around and in us, in an “ordinary” endowed with new meaning, we have missed the point of a triumph Christ has already achieved.
2. “That nothing lasts”
Impermanence is not a feature of a fallen world—stasis is. Creation, redemption, and eternal life are saturated in dynamic change. It is only in an unredeemed world that all moments and all things are permanent, inert, a “compound in one.” An idea, an experience, a perception, noted the philosopher Immanuel Kant, cannot even register as a thought unless it changes us, unless it causes “a modification of the mind.”1 Meaningful existence cannot persist under any other conditions than those of relentless change.
For centuries, time and eternity have been constructed as incommensurate spheres. We inhabit changeable time, God dwells in changeless eternity. We suffer vicissitudes and needs and desires; only God’s eternity offers escape from all that messiness and ceaseless movement. Judgment and assignment to the many mansions mean the end of all process, and we dwell in permanent bliss, rather like salmon that enter ever-still waters after the endless rapids downstream. Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff points out the obvious when he protests, “given that all human actions are temporal,” he reasons, “those actions of God which are ‘response’” must be “temporal as well.”2 The future doesn’t exist yet, for us or for God, and so cannot be an object of knowledge. That fact is a guarantor of meaningfulness to everything that we experience. Nothing is rote; nothing is pre-packaged; nothing is pre-determined. We participate in a universe that continually reinvents itself, nurtured by perfect Love and Wisdom.
3. “clean white paper waiting under a pen is the gift beyond history and hurt and heaven”
I re-read Ciardi’s poem often—especially at times of new beginnings. His closing line strikes me as doubly sacramental. The imagery evokes early Christian texts and practices; of “clean white garments” that clothe baptismal candidates, and mortal souls returning to be reclad in sacred robes in divine courts from which they were sent to earth (“The Hymn of the Pearl”). And that final image of a story that we can re-write with every new dawn is a reminder that the past can be changed. It can be endowed with new meaning, by how we let it shape us. That is the miracle and majesty of divine love, of at onement.
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Art by Alphonse Osbert
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. Elaborated in William Eggington, Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant and the Ultimate Nature of Reality (New York: Pantheon, 2023), 18.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God is Everlasting,” in God and the Good: Essays in Honor of Henry Stob, ed. Clifton Orlebeke and Lewis Smedes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 197.