Summers in Kansas, somewhere in the large state, storms come every night. There are always watches and warnings of tornadoes. Watches we ignore. They only mean that conditions are right for a twister. Warnings we hear. One has been sighted. Forewarned, we know we can ride out the weather, unless, that is, the tornado wants it otherwise. Then there’s no appeal. The tempest will have its say. There are storms no soul can survive.
The same is true of life’s metaphorical storms, events that profoundly shake us, tragedies and trials that threaten to take us down. Men and women of faith believe that Christ walks the waves. He calls to the winds, and they know his voice. That’s why life’s dark clouds provoke our prayers.
But there are storms we don’t survive. Perhaps that’s a truth only the old can tell. Consider this small vignette, about growing up in the Third Reich. It’s from the German historian Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childrhood (2014). His family never supported the Nazi’s and actively resisted Adolf Hitler. But storms are sightless. They can’t see the rectitude of hearts. What if they sweep everything away? The war left Fest’s family homeless and impoverished, grieving their dead. His grandmother died in its last days, and Fest writes that his grandfather
followed her about a year later. The chaos of the evacuation meant that Karlshorst Hospital, which my grandfather had cofounded, had to be moved to a former hotel in the district of Friedrichshagen, which was where he was taken. Like my grandmother, he too asked every day into the emptiness what was the point of it all. He had always been surrounded by deference; now, after weeks of being moved from one place to another, he found himself in a hospital ward with sixty beds on which groaning patients awaited their end. Several times he asked my mother what else life still held in store for him and when she, at a loss, replied, “Well, no plans, no duties anymore! Just live!” He spoke of being the victim of a fraud. He had always believed that in almost eighty years he would get a couple of clues as to what one was really in this world for. But now he knew that life just made a fool of you.
When he had taken refuge in the hospital he had possessed nothing anymore. In the course of the evacuation, Russian soldiers had first taken his briefcase and his pocket watch, then his jacket and vest, so that he—always the chevalier à la mode—had appeared before the nuns in shirt and suspenders. And the few things of value left to him, including his wallet, had one day been stolen from under his pillow, and a little later, his remaining clothes had also been taken, so that he literally owned nothing anymore except the nightshirt on his back. When he was asked how he felt, he said that he was ashamed of his poverty; after that the nuns placed a screen around his bed, so that he had more privacy. “Yes, it’s better to be alone, when one’s dying!” he said. To the sisters’ admonition not to talk so blasphemously, he merely said that his words were utterly serious. For years everyone had said that his wife had followed him as submissively as a maid. Now he was following her. Without her he no longer knew why he was here. He was leaving life, “as quickly as possible.”
Then he asked what the date was. When he heard it was the fourteenth of July, he said that he had nothing more to do, nothing more to say, and nothing at all to celebrate. Cause of death should be given as: no interest anymore. He thanked everyone, extended his folded hands toward the nuns standing around his bed, and commended himself to God. It was sinfully desired death, he admitted finally. But God was show understanding; He loved the sinners who stood by their sin. The doctors established typhus as cause of death. Two days later he was taken to the cemetery in a wooden box and put in the earth in a paper bag (342-43).
I suspect the grandfather of Joachim Fest did die in grace, if only because, recognizing his inability to survive the storm, he commended his soul to God.
We weather most storms. We even grow as a result of trials. Yet we would commit the sin of presumption not to recognize that there are some storms we cannot survive, and that we must beg the Good Lord to keep them from us. That is, of course, the deep import of those words, which we say, many times a day, at the close of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”
God came to the Isaiah in “the tiny whispering sound,” which followed the storm (1 Kings 19:12). Christ walked roiling waves to reach his disciples. Pray he always does the same for us, because, without his grace, there are storms no soul can survive.
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a Romans 9: 1-5 Matthew 14: 22-33