Wrong Not to Listen

September 2004 Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq.

Murph pointed to the low hills around the city. Small fires had sprung up in the distance. A few city lights and the fires on the hillsides burned like a tattered quilt of fallen stars. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered. I was not sure if anyone heard me, but I saw others point their fingers off into the darkness.


We stayed like that for a while. The night grew cool and the smell of fires burning was bright and clean and cut through the air like a spring wind out of season. I started to feel a little drunk as we traded the bottle back and forth. We rested our chins on our arms and our arms on the top of the low mud-brick wall and we watched the little fires the citizens made speckle the hillsides in every direction.

“It must be the whole city out there,” Murph said, and I thought of the line of people who rode or walked or ran out of Al Tafar four days ago, how they waited patiently for us to leave, for the enemy to leave, how when the battle was over they would come back and begin to sweep the shells off of the roofs of their houses, how they would fill buckets of water and splash them over the dried, coppery blood on their doorsteps. We could hear a soft keening while we watched the low hills and desert glimmer in the darkness.

It was barely perceptible, that noise. I still hear it sometimes. Sound is a funny thing, and smell. I’ll light a fire in the back lot of my cabin after the sun goes down. Then after a while, the smoke settles down into little ruts between clumps of pine. Wind whips up through the draws nearby and courses over the creek bed. And I can hear it then. I was not sure if it really came from the women around the campfires, if they pulled their hair crying out in mourning or not, but I heard it and even now it seems wrong not to listen. I took off my helmet and placed my rifle on top of it and allowed my ears to adjust to the ambient sounds in the night. There was something out there. I glanced at Murph and he returned a sad and knowing look. The LT put the radio down and sat in his chair with his head in his hands rubbing the strange mark on his cheekbone. We all listened to it awhile, watching the fires burn against the night. My chest tightened. There was something both ordinary and miraculous about the strange wailing that we heard, and the way it carried to us on the wind that began inside the orchard. Later in the night two of the lights in the distance began to brighten, then another two, and then another. The LT walked to each of us and said, “The colonel wants to see you guys. Get ready.” (84-85)

The scene is from Kevin Powers’ first novel The Yellow Birds (2012), drawing upon his 2004 and 2005 U.S. Army service in Iraq. Powers recreates the sense of ever-present menace that hung over his Iraqi days. An alley, a rooftop, a face might seem benign at one moment, only to prove deadly the next. Your companion might crack a joke at your side and then be felled by a tracer bullet.

But in this particular scene, night falls upon the city of Al Tafar. — “A few city lights and the fires on the hillsides burned like a tattered quilt of fallen stars.” — and a soldier can’t help but to whisper, “It’s beautiful.” “The smell of fires burning was bright and clean and cut through the air like a spring wind out of season.” Foreign Iraq subtly melds into the hollows of his native Virginia, and something happens that can only hinder a soldier’s task. He hears the sound of women wailing and can’t help but to recognize, not his enemy but, a common humanity.

The Jesuit paleontologist Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) experienced something very similar in the trenches of the First World War. He was there as a non-combatant priest and stretcher bearer, and, one night, the glow of the moon over No Man’s Land convinced him that something stronger than division was drawing all of humanity — our trenches and theirs — upward and into itself. He would later come to speak of what he called “creative union,”a Christ yet to be revealed, a cosmic Christ, calling creation into himself. Just as a biosphere, a integrated domain of life, had emerged from the lithosphere, inorganic matter, so too, de Chardin thought, a noosphere, a realm of mind or spirit is emerging, summoned into unity by God’s spirit at work in the world.

The Jesuit’s great act of faith was drawn equally from the resources of his religion and his science. In The Divine Milieu  (1960) he wrote:

However vast the divine milieu may be, it is in reality a center. It therefore has the properties of a center and above all the absolute and final power to unite (and consequently to complete) all beings within its breast. In the divine milieu all the elements of the universe touch each other by that which is most inward and ultimate in them. There they concentrate, little by little, all that is purest and most attractive in them without loss and without danger of subsequent corruption. There they shed, in the meeting, the mutual externality and the incoherence which forms the basic pain of human relationships. Let those seek refuge there who are saddened by the separations, the meannesses, and the wastefulness of the world. In the external spheres of the world the human is always torn by the separations which set distance between bodies, which set the impossibility of mutual understanding between souls, which set death between lives. Morever at every minute he must lament that he cannot pursue and embrace everything within the compass of a few years. Finally, and not without reason, he is incessantly distressed by the crazy indifference and the heartbreaking dumbness of a natural environment in which the greater part of individual endeavor seems wasted or lost, where the blow and the cry seem stifled on the spot, without any awakening echo (72-73).

It’s a beautiful vision of a unity still aborning, but most of us, most of the time, are more like Joshua than de Chardin. There’s a spirit of sin within us that sunders. We see the Spirit of God moving beyond the boundaries we’ve drawn, and we can’t help but to cry out, “Moses, my lord, stop them” (Nm 11:28)

Yet at our best, through the very Spirit of God, through Christ at work in his cosmos, we also sense that the one whom we call enemy is of our flesh and shares our dreams. We hear the Holy Spirit in her cries. In the Gospel, Christ tells us that, “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9: 40), and in our hearts the Spirit whispers, “do not resist the summons of love.”

Numbers 11: 25-29 James 5: 1-6 Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Rev. Terrance W. Klein

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