Last night my husband and the sons and I watched a movie about The Black Death (not a cheery movie, by the way – nearly everyone dies, and those who don’t, live as though they had). I knew going into it that the dramatization of something so horrible would be horribly dramatic, but I was reminded, each time I turned my eyes away from the horrors on screen, that when the planet seems to turn on us, all eyes to turn to the planet’s Maker. Even those who never cast a reverent thought toward God on an ordinary day want an explanation when calamity falls like a divine sledge hammer.
Live long enough and you will discover there are some questions so big that the answers are surely bigger still, and likely less understandable than even the questions. I don’t think that means we need to stop asking big questions. That’s what writers like me do all day long. The thought of asking little questions that no one really cares about is a sad one. Asking implies a quest for knowledge; reveals that we know that we do not know it all.
The unfortunates who suffered the Plague didn’t know what we know now about fleas and rats and airborne bacteria. The answers they demanded of their Maker were right in front of them but they lacked the knowledge to see them. I find that highly revelatory. If there were answers to our deepest questions seven hundred years ago, obscured only by our limitations, surely there are answers to our deepest questions now, hidden from us not by a vengeful and capricious Maker but because we do not know all that He knows.
Last night’s movie reminded me of a book by Geraldine Brooks that I love and have read three times. A Year of Wonders is Ms. Brooks’ exploration of one woman’s humanity as she grappled with the calamity of plague. The main character realizes the limitations that send us scrabbling for guidance. She says this on page 62: ‘If God saw fit to send this scourge, I believe it would be His will that one face it where one is, with courage, and thus contain this evil.”
I love that. It is the asking of a Big Question. I like it that she begins the question with “If God,” because we don’t always know what He sends over what He allows. This speaks to our limitations, not God’s. And I like that somehow she wishes to extract something noble – the exercise of courage – out of adversity.
All that we didn’t know in the Middle Ages explains why the Plague could do what it did. All that we don’t know right now – and wish we did – will one day explain something, too. We just don’t know what it is yet. I doubt the survivors of the Plague comforted themselves by saying, “Someday we will understand why this happened.” But the truth is, we do understand why it happened. The knowledge we’ve attained regarding fleas, rats, and airborne bacteria tells us why. The infinitely bigger question of why God let it happen I know I haven’t the knowledge to address.
So in the meantime, courage keeps us from shaking an angry fist at God, walking away from Him and turning our backs on wisdom.
We all fall down at one point or another. It is the nature of gravity to do that to us when circumstances topple us. I am very glad we figured THAT out. It is likewise the nature of humanity to get back up when we’ve fallen and seek the answers to what made us fall. Glad we figured that out, too.
Interestingly enough, that’s how we learn what we did not know before.