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Essay Sunday

Missing God

/ 10:47 AM November 24, 2013

A friend of mine posted a poem by Dennis O’ Driscoll, entitled, “Missing God.” At once it evoked a remark a public official made after seeing for himself the destruction that an uncommonly violent typhoon left in its trail. “I think God was somewhere else when the typhoon hit,” he said.

Surely, he made this comment less out of conviction deeply held than of a sadness keenly felt upon seeing the dead bodies stretched out on the road (among them that of a policeman still in uniform). “Death on the roads, no electricity, no food and water, and people walking on the streets like zombies,” the man added.

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O’Driscoll’s poem, however, speaks of missing God, not in the face of physical evil or natural calamities, such as earthquakes and typhoons, which often result in pain from death and wounds, but in day-to-day life. O’Driscoll, who died last year, was Irish, and so an heir of the secular humanism that has engulfed Europe, including his native Ireland — a world-view that seeks to expel God from all human thought, discourse and activity.

The poem begins:

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“His grace is no longer called for

before meals: farmed fish multiply

without His intercession.

Bread production rises through

disease-resistant grains devised

scientifically to mitigate His faults.”

In Europe, as in many places elsewhere, that fixture at the family table, the saying of grace, no longer happens. The secular humanist holds that now man breeds fish and grows grains purely through science, without God’s intervention.

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Despite this, O’Driscoll writes, one still misses God at times. A civil wedding is one of these times:

“Miss Him during the civil wedding

when, at the blossomy altar

of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain

to be fed a line containing words

like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine’.”

As a judge, I solemnize weddings and I know whereof O’Driscoll speaks. If not one of these weddings lasts more than ten minutes, is there then a place for such a word as “forever?”

What’s more, O’Driscoll says, one misses God in the scientific explanations offered for the universe, which in effect picture the turning earth as merely “a wheel skidding in snow”:

“Miss Him when the TV scientist

explains the cosmos through equations,

leaving our planet to revolve on its axis

aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.”

And when somehow he hears Gregorian chants on the radio or a church choir, one’s heart loses a beat:

“Miss Him when the radio catches a snatch

of plainchant from some echoey priory;

when the gospel choir raises its collective voice

to ask Shall We Gather at the River?

or the forces of the oratorio converge

on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth

and our contracted hearts lose a beat.”

Likewise, when at a cremation service a sobbing someone recites “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” a funeral song from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline; or views a Crucifixion piece in an art museum; or notes how the gamma rays of a satellite graph call up the music of the spheres, the harmony in the motion of celestial bodies, and which O’Driscoll describes as the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab — the Ave Verum being a short medieval hymn celebrating the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, set to music by, among others, Mozart, Liszt and Saint-Saëns — on these occasions one thinks of God.

And this more especially, and an involuntary prayer escapes one’s lips, when one feels a breast lump, or learns that a shadow crosses one’s body on an x-ray screen, or receives “a transfusion of foaming blood sacrificed anonymously to save life.”

One misses God, O’Driscoll writes, and mentions His name in curse or blessing “as a woman in a birth ward calls to her long-dead mother”; or “when the linen-covered dining table holds warm bread rolls, shiny glasses of red wine”; or “when a dove swoops from the orange grove in a tourist village just as the monastery bell begins to toll”; or when on a journey one finds oneself in a Gothic church and notices how in an arch the leaves of the tracery meet like the hands in Michelangelo’s Creation; or when passing by a church one gets a whiff of “a residual blast of incense.”

Somehow one misses God when one orders Mother Ann Lee chairs for one’s new kitchen (Ann Lee being the founder of the Shakers, a religious sect, after whom a chair of humble beauty and utility was designed); and hear from astronomers of receding galaxies; and “when the sunset makes its presence felt in the stained glass window of the fake antique lounge bar.”

And how does one miss Him? In the same way “an uncoupled glider riding the evening thermals misses its tug”; or “as the lovers shrugging shoulders outside the cheap hotel ponder what their next move should be.” In other words, one misses the protecting and guiding hand of a loving Father.

And, strangely, O’Driscoll writes, one’s nostalgia extends to the end times, the Parousia or Second Coming, when it would be “like standing in the brick dome of a dovecote after the birds have flown.”

And we know that, that is when Christ will come as King.

The public official’s remark that God was somewhere else when the typhoon struck is no different from what the rulers said to Jesus who was dying on the cross — “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Practically what the official said was — “God, if you were here, why did You not save the people from the typhoon?”

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