Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Biden-Colbert: A Pauline Exchange

I think it's important to take notice of the extraordinary interview Stephen Colbert did with Vice President Joe Biden this week:

Part I


Part II



The frank exchanges about grief and faith, and Biden's and Colbert's patently genuine refusal to claim heroic status for themselves, are a demonstration of a powerfully working, well-integrated religious faith--here Christianity in its Roman Catholic form--in life.

Colbert's own life is profoundly colored by tragedy, and finding God in that tragedy:
He used to have a note taped to his computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.”

It's hard to imagine any comedian meditating every day on so sincere a message. It's even harder when you know his life story, which bears mentioning here—that he is the youngest of eleven kids and that his father and two of his brothers, Peter and Paul, the two closest to him in age, were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. His elder siblings were all off to school or on with their lives by then, and so it was just him and his mother at home together for years. They moved from James Island to downtown Charleston, and she sent him to a prep school, Porter-Gaud, where for the next several years he did next to nothing academically. “There was no way to threaten me,” he said. “It was like, ‘What? What's that? Oh, okay, I might get a bad grade? Oh no. Wouldn't want that.’ ”

***

He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died.... And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.

“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that's why. Maybe, I don't know. That might be why you don't see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It's that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien's mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn't mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”
I can't help but feel that Colbert's--and Biden's--lives each represents an incredible living out of the lesson of Romans 8:28 laid out by Suan Howatch in her novel Absolute Truths:
uggest[ing] that the sentence "All things work together for good to them that love God" was slightly mistranslated, and that the translation should have been: "All things intermingle for good to them that love God." This would mean that the good and bad were intermingling to create a synergy--or, in other words: in the process of intermingling, the good and the bad formed something else. The bad didn't become less bad, and the dark didn't become less dark--one had to acknowledge this, acknowledge the reality of the suffering. But the light emanating .from a loving God created a pattern on the darkness, and in that pattern was the meaning, and in the meaning lay the energy which would generate the will to survive.
I admire both of these men for living out their truths, but doing so in a way that did not let the dark crowd out the light.

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