I used to think that the point of religion was to have concrete answers for every abstract question. That kind of thinking only got me so far as the questions I had became more and more complicated. Eventually, I came to see that my Catholic faith’s utility comes not from making definitive statements, but in its capacity to help me order the chaos in my mind.
One such question I have been considering lately has to do with the shape of human history. I first started thinking about this last fall in professor David Beecher’s class IAS 45: ”Survey of World History.” He asked in nearly every lecture: “Is the story of human history one of integration or disintegration? Is it about the world coming together or the world falling apart?” Implicitly, he was asking if the tale we tell — and will tell — about ourselves is orderly or chaotic.
I did not come to a conclusion in that class, but the question lingered. Sometime in March, I first heard about Kurt Vonnegut’s rejected anthropology master’s thesis, an exploration of the shapes of stories in which he claimed that stories could be visually graphed with on a page to become one of several shapes. These shapes, he argued, could give us clues about the culture and values of a society. It is an appealing concept, but I did not want to know the values of a single society. I wanted to know the shape of the story of human history.
I wanted to know the shape of the story of human history.
The only “Catholic answer” I could produce comes from St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed the arc of creation is a circle that flows out from God, who created all things, and back to the Father in the fullness of time. It is a cute answer, but too convenient and uncomplicated for me. It oversimplifies the conflict and nuance of the human story. So I spent all of Lent — the 40 days of praying, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for Easter — discerning the geometry of humanity.
On Good Friday, I went to Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish, which serves as both a parish and the campus’s Catholic center. Newman is an ugly building. The walls are concrete with minimal adornments, and it is perpetually cold. The architect wanted the building to feel like the tomb of Jesus, and he succeeded. Ordinarily, the image of “the empty tomb” is a hopeful one, as it reminds us of Jesus’s Resurrection, but not today. The tabernacle, the box which holds pieces of consecrated bread which we believe to be the Body of Christ, was empty. For the only night in the liturgical year, Jesus was literally absent. It was hollow.
There is a popular Christian song that we sing around this time of year that goes, “Were you there / when they crucified my Lord?” It is something of a meme among the religious with its melancholy lyrics and lullaby-like melody, but the Good Friday service is our attempt at “being there” as Jesus carried His cross up the hill of Calvary to be crucified.
We are taught that 11 of the 12 disciples abandon Jesus. We are also taught that Jesus’s cross was heavy with the weight of humanity’s sin, that every strike of the nail in His wrists and in His ankles is worsened by every act of evil we commit, have committed and will commit. I thought of this as a large wooden cross was processed into the church. The priest called out, “Behold, behold, the wood of the cross, on which was hung our Salvation.” They erected the cross at the front, and we beheld it, and the priest began his sermon.
Good Friday is an odd day because we are secure in the knowledge that Jesus does rise, but present in the moment of His murder. For Catholics, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ is the center of our lives. But of course, the center cannot hold; I wondered if the shape of human history was indeed Yeats’s widening gyre. I wondered if it was Faulkner’s counterclockwise circle or Woolf’s two masses separated by a line down the middle. I wondered if it was shapeless altogether.
And in the middle of the sermon, a stroke of brilliance: “Jesus on the cross is where human history and human destiny converge.”
I eyed that literal and figurative crossroad. I thought perhaps if human history fit the shape of the standard plotline they teach you in high school, one might say that the original Good Friday was the climax. And in the middle of the sermon, a stroke of brilliance: “Jesus on the cross is where human history and human destiny converge.”
We all went up to venerate the cross by kissing it. I knelt before it for a long while, trying to convince myself that had I been there, I would have been like Mary or John or one of the other followers who remained loyal to Jesus until the end. When I kissed the wood, I tried to tell myself that I was somehow making amends for the pain of the hammering of the nail in His wrist. I concluded that this small gesture could not alleviate that suffering. After all, it was a kiss by Judas which sealed Jesus’s fate. But there was something about being there at the foot of the cross that convinced me the Salvation who hung on it 2,000 years ago was and is the crux of the human story, and I was there with Him.
I recalled the title of a collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” I thought that maybe the shape of human history is not a shape at all, but a direction — up and together. I thought that maybe Aquinas was right, that all of creation, no matter how depraved or fallen it becomes, is moving upward where it will all be joined in perfect communion with God.
I hope I am right. I hope that ours is an epic of ultimate integration, of the past moving forward, and the future borne ceaselessly back until we all converge.