In a previous post I wrote I would reflect on saying Yes. I also wrote I would reflect on what Marilynne Robinson calls prevenient courage in helping to get to that. My intention was to do this in two posts reflecting on how Robinson wrote of such courage in her novel Gilead particularly in terms of a marriage and how Jean Vanier did so in his work and living with those who live with disability.
As I reflected on this, I came to realize these Yeses have more in common than not and it made little sense of writing of it in two separate posts, because what is really at play here is saying Yes with a courage I am convinced resides in us only because it comes from a greater place.
While reflecting on Vanier and Robinson, I also started to reread Albert Camus’ The Plague and looking at the lives of Bonhoeffer and von Wedemeyer. All of the great personalities in these examples knew to say Yes, though the conditions for the thing and the rationale behind them were different. With that I offer these observations on a courageous word.
- Yes is the answer to a basic question that invites grace and obligation: Jean Vanier speaks of a primal cry; “do you love me?” His work with those who have mental disabilities is one of the best examples of Yes I know. It is the type of Yes that requires dwelling in both a place of reciprocity and beyond it. It is reciprocal in that it requires the presence of another and beyond it in that it takes no accounting of making sure there is ever such a thing as balance in a relationship. It is the one that says you are more important to me than my portfolio, deadlines, plans, and “commitments.” It is the Yes parents give to their children and the one children return in a parent’s old age. For those of us who work in human services, it is a yes that involves being there for others who are often in great need and hearing this yes returned in ways that lack the judgment of the world. It seeks only to have someone affirm the grace of companionship, also knowing that this grace is not cheap and involves obligation. When you say Yes to another’s presence, you say Yes to that courage to love and be loved that will also make you needed.
- Yes invites us to do something with real and beautiful things: In Gilead, Reverend Ames lives in a “shabby” town with an abolitionist past in a nondescript corner of the world. He is old and his wife is simple. He has said Yes to a marriage which will very soon make for a window and a young son who will not know his father. It is a Yes that makes one question the fairness of the word and if it should be uttered at all. Still what if the word were left unsaid? In Robinson’s novel a seven year old boy owes his life to this word, just as civil rights owed much to the Yes a “shabby” town gave to its cause. In both cases, a no makes more sense, but would have done nothing to make anything come of a very real cause or a beautiful relationship.
- Yes finds meaning in an absurd world of apartness: Even as Yes invites presence, it also preserves itself in times of absence. This year I was motivated to pick up The Plague and read it yet again. I also read up on Love Letters from Cell 92, which I previously read in an exercise that seemed quite intrusive. Both books deal with absence and saying yes in the face of that. As I felt Chicago was becoming my Oran, a place of lockdown, I came to think of many people. Some have died and some have moved away. As a friend moved on for another calling, I thought of how I could be good to him and I thought I will be good to him the same way I was good to another friend when she left. I will be good to those who together we had been good for. At this thought I realized Yes was a way for the good to be present in spite of absence. Absence seems absurd on the surface, but when held in the light of a Yes, it can find a way to have meaning.
- Yes is not always obvious….more on meaning and the absurd: This is apparent in all the examples I’ve reflected on. It also speaks to my last point. In Gilead it is absurd that a town of white folk should stand up for equal rights and an aged minister say yes to a marriage proposal from a young woman he has just baptized. A similar real life Yes was had in the absurd stance Dietrich Bonhoeffer took when he gave up the comfort of affluence to challenge the Nazi state and the equally absurd Yes the very young and not very political Maria von Wedemeyer uttered to him, in spite of the danger it brought. Lest this seems like this is only about the Yes of marriage, an equally absurd Yes was had by Jean Vanier who gave up a naval career that would have brought him prestige and probably marital companionship to work with those with mental disabilities. His Yes brought him to the “chaste single life” that led him to be there potently for others in ways the married most often cannot be. This is echoed by everyone who takes up religious calling in Catholicism, who unlike Ames and Bonhoeffer, cannot know the potency of an ally, but can relate to every lonely situation had by others where they may find themselves to be the allies of these.
- Yes is always a choice, however: Mary’s Yes was the greatest Yes ever uttered. It was a freely given Yes, but one that was uttered because her blameless condition ordained by God made it possible. In Gilead, Rev. Ames realizes he also has the choice to desert his small town and to remain lonely though comfortable. He says Yes to another way in spite of this, only the Yes is not his alone as he can only say it because of what Robinson calls prevenient courage. Robinson says this is the thing that makes us brave and many a Yes requires a bravery that cannot be had on our own. Dag Hammarskjold reflected in Markings that he would say Yes to all that is to come. He followed these with the words “not I, but God in me.” I am convinced the life he led proved that he had a bravery that cannot be had on one’s own, that thing that Robinson calls prevenient courage. The same is true of Reverend Ames who bears the burdens of family life and ministry even as he prepares for his death. It is true of Bonhoeffer staring down the Nazi regime and Maria standing by him as he did. It was true of those who though unaware of the presence of God did the same in Oran’s plague and those like Vanier who deserted comfort and prestige to be there radically for those in despair. It was certainly true of Mary who uttered a Yes that would rend her heart yet save the world.
Image: Jean Vanier with John Smeltzer