At St. Seraphim Camp a few years ago, some old friends and I sat around talking about all the various groups and charismatic men that had tried, and failed, to hijack our church and use it for their own ends, some nefarious. As we listed name after name, I thought of the Psalm that we sometimes sing before Communion, Psalm 135 in the Septuagint and 136 in the King James Version. “Oh give thanks unto the Lord for He is good, Alleluia, for His mercy endureth forever, Alleluia.” In the Psalm, we sing of first of the wonders of God:
“5 To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.
6 To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.
7 To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:
8 The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:
9 The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
But then follows a list of everyone who ever tried to overtake God’s people, and who failed, either at once or eventually:
“10 To him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth for ever:
11 And brought out Israel from among them: for his mercy endureth for ever:
12 With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm: for his mercy endureth for ever.
13 To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endureth for ever:
14 And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever:
15 But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever.
16 To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever.
17 To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
18 And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
19 Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:
20 And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever:
21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever:
22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever.
23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:
24 And hath redeemed us from our enemies: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
All of us could make such a list, and perhaps it’s time that we did.
The writing component:
When I started writing my MFA thesis, a memoir that I’m still not ready to share with the world, my advisor, Carol Ann Davis, was only half joking when she said, “The nice thing about writing nonfiction is that you already know that you survived.
From ancient war songs to modern songs of triumph, whether you reach for the sacred or the profane, the lists are there. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Death, be not proud” rebukes death itself, while Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” addresses those who would oppress her:
“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Edwin Markhan’s “Outwitted” takes on an unnamed “he” tries to exclude the speaker:
“He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”
Victory takes many forms — some of them just look like survival.
“But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”
Fiction is full of tales of survival — in young adult fiction, see the Hunger Games trilogy. Science Fiction offers “Enders Game.” In nonfiction, there are moving books like Da Chen’s “Colors of the Mountain,” John McCain’s “Six Years at the Hanoi Hilton,” or, more Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
There are also fictionalized versions of true stories. Eugenia Kim’s “The Calligraphers’ Daughter” tells a relative’s story in the first person, while Solzhenitsyn fictionalizes his own illness in the “Cancer Ward” and time in the Gulag in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
What this means to you:
Maybe you’re not ready to write a whole book. But you can write an essay, a poem, or a scene.
In fiction you can have one character give another a pep talk listing the things they’ve already overcome. Your speaker can be reliable or unreliable. A reliable speaker who never-the-less is lying would be Wesley in “The Princess Bride” (on Hulu this month) telling Buttercup how they’ve already overcome the dangers of the Fire Swamp. But it could also be a coach giving a half-time talk or a parent trying to reassure a child about a new situation that is not what either expected.
Poetry and Nonfiction lend themselves to lists. Like the Psalmist, you could make a list of people or situations that almost killed you, and put a lyrical twist on it. It may be comical to alphabetize your tormentors, or informative, to list them chronologically.
Thanksgiving The psalm that came to mind is one of thanksgiving rather than complaint. Without giving it away, the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book in the Hunger Games trilogy has much the same feel. You might write (or have your character write) a list of the strengths that came from each assault. Because you believed the first person who lied to you, you were protected slightly against the second. You never would have taken the self defense class where you met your best friend if you hadn’t had your purse stolen as you walked down the street. Look at your own life or the adventures of your characters, and trace the Hand of God.
What did you win? We know about King Og’s bed because Moses captured it. And told us about it!
“For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold, his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man.”
Did you win a job? A boyfriend? Something intangible? Something very tangible? Take some time to reflect upon it in writing. Look, describe, appreciate. Think of your nephew describing his new Transformer and all the things it can do. Look at your own prizes with child-like appreciation.
How do you express your joy at winning? Trust me, not all of us can or should, like Maya Angelou, “dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs.” But there should be a follow-up to each revelation. The pain that you or your character overcomes should lead to a virtue (generativity, compassion, a little healthy self-doubt). Overflowing joy should spill on someone else. You might look at something kind you’ve done and ask who taught you how to do that, and what you were going through at the time.
We’ve all overcome some serious dangers and craziness in the past year. Write it down and see where it has led, and where it could lead, and what you can build with it. What did you not know that you could endure? But through the mercy of God, here you are!
Write! And enjoy!