In my favorite novels, it seems that the characters come to the moment of illumination only after being confronted with great violence. When Jane Eyre finds her former home and master have suffered a fire in her absence, the agony of separation inspires her to the realization that she loves Mr. Rochester. In The Lord of the Flies, it takes the death of a comrade for Ralph to understand that the boys on the island have lost their childhood innocence. And it is not until author Annie Dillard wrestles with the life-altering plane accident of a small girl (in Holy the Firm) that she sees God’s goodness in a crazy world.
It seems to be human nature to have thick heads that only extreme circumstances can penetrate. In a state of comfort, we are sometimes too relaxed, too unmindful to learn what our lives actually depend on. But if our child unexpectedly gets sick, our husband is laid off, or our friend is going through a messy divorce, suddenly our senses are awakened and sharpened in a way that lets us experience life a little clearer.
In the face of violence or tragedy, our daily concerns rearrange themselves according to an eternal reality. When something goes suddenly wrong, the urgency of the situation mercifully clears away any petty anxieties that once occupied us. And that is some small grace. Coming home from a funeral last month of a friend I’d known from elementary school, I found myself suddenly careless about the work I needed to catch up on and the wedding planning I had been stressing over. Instead I wondered whether or not I spent enough time with the people I loved, and then hurried home so I would make it in time for family dinner.
I heard Shauna Niequist, author of Cold Tangerines, say once, “You pray for honest, gritty, and tender stories, and then you pray to live through them.” The price of epiphany is often violence, and any prayer beginning with, “God, change me…” is a dangerous one. Anyone who has ever prayed to know our Father better knows. But with the violence we are ushered into grace, just as there is grace in the story of the Light of the World who had to suffer death and darkness before mankind could see.