Theology, like painting the exterior of your house, is best not done under extreme conditions. Nevertheless, when something ‘extreme’ does occur, it is natural enough to ask the Big Questions and reflect on the answers.
On the night of Tuesday 21st March 2017, my twenty-four year old son, was camping by the side of Lake Pukaki in New Zealand, went for a stroll, admiring the stars. Perhaps he should have been more aware of his surroundings but he had no idea he was close to a cliff-edge and he fell. The human body cannot withstand a fall onto rock, from a height of ten metres, without sustaining injury.
When he hit the ground, he could have broken his back or his neck. He could so easily have sustained injuries which left him paralysed: a paraplegic or tetraplegic. He could have shattered his skull resulting in serious injury to the brain. As it was, he landed on the right side of his face, perhaps breaking his fall with his right hand, which was slightly grazed. His jaw took most of the impact and the bones in his face were broken but there was no damage to his skull, apart from a relatively minor basal fracture. Although he was unconscious for a brief period and, of course, was concussed, from the outset the tests revealed that there was no brain damage at all. Anyone would say that he was extremely lucky. Is that all it was? Just luck? Or had he been cushioned from the full impact of his descent?
If we believe that he was cushioned, we have to accept the notion of divine intervention. Something ‘stepped in’ and protected him. We can only speculate on answers to the next question: why? If he was to be saved from the natural effects of gravity, for what reason? Why should there be divine intervention in this instance and yet an apparent absence of this saving force in so many other desperate situations around the world and throughout history? The unfairness, from our mortal perspective, seems gross.
If we admit the possibility of supernatural forces exerted on our human frame, we are bound to consider the possibility that such forces could be malign as well as benign. Was my son’s fall the result of an accident, perhaps precipitated by carelessness or folly? Or was he the victim of some other agency? Was he pushed over the cliff by a malevolent force? Or was he nudged over the edge so that a divine benevolence in cushioning him could be demonstrated?
It is not long, once we admit questioning of this sort, before we find ourselves in awkward and rather absurd territory. Our instincts (as well as our reason) rebel against notions that we are pawns in some sort of supernatural play-off. Better, perhaps, to accept that the relatively light injuries my son sustained were unusual but not miraculous – if we define a miracle as an occurrence which defies all rational explanation. He was merely lucky. He was simply fortunate. By chance, things worked in his favour.
And yet, what followed that fall reveals so many indications of good fortune and benevolent coincidence that I find myself coming back to ask: why? Is there significance here? Are they signs?
Some Belgians camping near-by heard my son’s cries for help and alerted his girl-friend. An ambulance was summoned and he was taken to the nearest medical centre. But this was in Twizel, little more than a large village, and from there, it was another two-hour drive to Timaru where, eventually, they were able to get some clear diagnosis of what his injuries were. The CT operator was roused from her bed and the equipment engaged. The medical team rose to the occasion, establishing the extent of the young man’s injuries and deciding that he needed to be flown to New Zealand’s second city where there is a specialist maxillary-facial unit. If anyone was going to have this sort of damage inflicted on their face, there was nowhere better to be treated than the hospital with a 3D real-time CT scanner to direct the surgeons in the operation.
Looking back at the actions of the Belgians ( we never knew their names) and the New Zealand paramedics with hindsight, and recalling my son’s girlfriend’s amazing resourcefulness, everything is coloured for me by a deep sense of relief and gratitude because the outcome was good. But if my son had been killed or sustained life-changing injuries, I imagine that everyone there would have risen to this terrible situation with equal magnificence. Their behaviour did not demonstrate something extraordinary so much as something wonderfully ordinary. Human beings, under crisis, are frequently brilliant; there is a deep-seated compassion and resourcefulness which emerges in the face of others’ suffering. It has been a privilege to be reminded of this.
New Zealand’s second city suffered a violent earthquake six years ago. The centre is a patchwork of parking lots, where civic buildings once stood. Those buildings which survived the quake are mostly too unstable to inhabit and so they stand, awaiting demolition, like vacant giants, cordoned off from the bustle of urban life by kilometres of fencing. But the city throbs with reconstruction. Workers in high-visibility vests are apparent at every junction, reshaping the thoroughfares. The sounds of machines drilling and hammering can be heard incessantly during the day, echoing too through much of the night. Look up and the sky-line carries the silhouette of cranes and the skeleton framework of girders on which proud new edifices will be fashioned. This is a place which has known devastation. It is now a place remembering its recent heritage, building again where once there was nothing but swamp. Planners and engineers, demonstrating ingenuity and artistry, are busy realising the optimism and sense of hope which this phoenix-city embodies. They know it will be slow work. There will, inevitably, be times when progress seems to stall; it might, on occasion, be difficult to maintain a buoyancy of spirit. But they know too that, in due course, their city will be re-born in triumph. On her daily route between 383 Cambridge Terrace (where Holly was staying) and the hospital, there is the stump of an old municipal clock-tower which was toppled in the earthquake. Carved into the stonework on the sides of the tower which face the path are two words: FAITH and HOPE. Clearly, this is a good place to come to be ‘mended’. The city is called Christchurch.
I flew out to Christchurch as soon as I had heard of the accident. I was met with overwhelming hospitality and offers of help, from friends in Sydney and friends’ friends in Auckland. I was aware of the symbolism of this dynamic generosity because my senses were quickened. Living with the fact that my son was recovering tuned me to be more aware of all those signs which indicate re-birth. The world is a creative place. There is a natural cycle which all living things follow. To put it another way: the phenomenon of resurrection is quintessential to how things are. Perhaps it takes something ‘extreme’ every now and then to remind us of this.
For me, lurking in the shadows, there was another figure: Alfred Clarke. Had he lived, I might have known him as Great-Uncle Alfred. He had died, however, in his teens from rheumatic fever in Singapore in the early 1920s. My grandmother, Edith, used to recount the death of her younger brother as an occasion when she ‘knew’, without any doubt, that his illness would be fatal. She ‘knew’ that it would fall to her to hold her parents together in their grief. This experience shaped her outlook on life and she managed to pass on something of the same potent fatalism to me. It seemed as if I had inherited an expectation that a readiness to face catastrophe was to be my lot. Dread was always an insidious emotion I had to contend with. I was always waiting for the horror.
My son’s accident has lifted that debility. Now, I knew, there was a chance to exercise faith and hope. Now, at last, was an opportunity to surrender to trust. It took resolve and it meant actively subduing the voices predicting the worst or shades of the worst. There was a gift here waiting to be seized; it was the gift of unencumbered hope, born from my son’s recovery but to be nurtured from that point onwards and, if possible, communicated to others. This was a responsibility to be acknowledged.
To have one’s face distorted could be a metaphor for having one’s identity twisted. We can believe we are as we appear. My son’s accident was peculiar in that, apart from some incidental damage to his liver and one lung, only the bones in his face were broken. What did that token? How would he look when he was put back together? Who would he be? How affirming, therefore, to discover that, despite having to fix eleven titanium plates to realign the bones in his face, the surgeons were able to recreate the structure of his head as near-perfectly as was possible. Remarkably, they were able to do so with only four incisions. No nerves were severed and, though there was extensive bruising to soft tissue, there is every expectation that he will look the same as before this experience. Who he had been was validated but, beneath the surface, there was a new strength. The bonded bones will be stronger than if they had never broken.
The surgeons’ skill and their care of my son before, during and after his two operations, was consummate. It was a privilege to see their extraordinary ability, dedicated to another’s well-being, put into practice. It was also wonderful to witness the body’s ordinary capacity to heal itself. Extreme trauma, both as a result of the accident and during the course of a lengthy operation, was overcome – aided by carefully managed drugs – in a remarkably short time. The human body is a manifestation of something supreme. To be incarnate is a privilege.
After all that they had been through and recovered from, It seems entirely fitting that my son and his girlfriend flew home, an ascent to counteract the fall, on Easter Sunday.
If we subtract from this whole experience all those pointers which indicate a pattern of Christian significance, we are still left with an affirmation of all that is best in humankind. We have seen compassion, selflessness, ingenuity, skill and service all demonstrated unstintingly. At the very least, we ought to feel an obligation to celebrate these qualities and return them, as best we can, in our future dealings with others whom we encounter. It is, however, unlikely that my son, his girlfriend or I shall be in a position to repay, like for like in similar circumstances, those specific people who cared for us during our time of trial. That is good. It removes any sense of transaction or indebtedness. It frees us to accept, with grace, others’ generosity and to practise something similar again without any expectation of recompense. There is a dynamic here which can only be of general benefit.
Is that all it is? Or can we push further to identify a modus vivendi, some philosophy or insight into human nature which will serve as a pole-star in the future, keeping us ‘true’?
Behind this whole experience, there is a strand of selflessness, running like a vein of crystal through rock. Of course, one could argue that many people involved in his rescue and recovery were simply doing the job they were paid to do or were simply reacting naturally, automatically, to a crisis. It would have been more remarkable if the Belgian campers, for example, had merely turned away and continued frying their bacon and swigging their lager, unmoved by the cries of the injured man at the foot of a cliff. People may be essentially kind but what we saw was more than a conditioned kindness. It was more than an extension of the American salesperson’s scripted bonhomie. We saw genuine human warmth and a dynamic desire to engage and support. And this extra warmth, this projected concern was infectious. We caught it and relished it and responded to it. Of course, in New Zealand, there was little we could do practically in response, besides letting this generous warmth carry us through the day, despite the anxiety and weariness we felt. It kept us buoyant and at least this meant that we might reflect something of the love which had been shown to us.
One can walk down a dull city-street on a grey, wet morning, swollen litter clogging the gutters, and then have one’s spirits lifted, out of all proportion to the cause, because somewhere (perhaps on a scaffolding tower or swinging out of a delivery van) there is a workman whistling a high, warbling tune with all the sunshine in the world glancing from each note. That is the effect of infectious love. Each of us needs to be agents for this brightness. Smiling ought to be the default expression on our lips.
I call this love because it is selfless and only seeks another’s well-being. And once we have acknowledged that, surely it is a small step to recognising the single philosophy which sets Love, as a dynamic force, at its heart. It is a philosophy which morphs into a theology because Love, when encountered in this way, transcends the here-and-now of mortal existence. It is too big, too broad to be constrained by time and place. This is what Christ lived for.
We can ignore the Christian significance of my son’s fall and its aftermath but why would we? Probably fear, tinged with arrogance, keeps us from doing so. To acknowledge forces or systems beyond our understanding is to admit to a fundamental vulnerability. Better to close our eyes or dismiss as merely fanciful the pattern that keeps looming up in front of us. We do not know why this particular young man survived his fall when others, suffering other accidents or succumbing to illness or exposed to violence or natural catastrophe, do not. We try to apply our human notions of fairness or rightness but we cannot make the equation work. And so we reject the whole business. Yet we would ridicule anyone who, failing to master the computation of fractions, dismissed as pointless the whole of mathematics.
What we do know is that the fragility of the human being is central to what happened. My son was broken. At the same time, his recovery reveals the remarkable capacity of the broken body to heal and to be healed. Whether our heads can get around the enormity of the phenomenon or not, the death and resurrection of Jesus, is (looking at it through one end of the telescope) a metaphor for this. Turn the telescope around and my son’s experience becomes a metaphor for the Resurrection.
We now find ourselves invited to engage with the very core of Christian belief: that God became human, taking on all the attributes of this mortal creation, identifying with the most vulnerable, sharing our human fragility, experiencing the very worst of deaths so that none of these could ever again be an obstacle to prevent the union of humankind with God.
The mystery, exploding all our complacency and self-satisfaction as a species, is that we are intended for more than mortal existence. There is no compulsion to seek God and God knows how difficult it is – particularly for sophisticated creatures relishing the fruits of human ingenuity and achievement – to realign our perspectives. But the invitation is always there and sometimes things happen (a young man falls inexplicably from a cliff, for example) which thrust that invitation in our face.
It is difficult to feel anything but a profound sense of gratitude.