Novelist Peter De Vries wrote The Blood of the Lamb about his eleven-year-old daughter, Carol, who died of leukaemia. At the children’s pavilion in the New York hospital the book’s main character, Wanderhope, gets to know other parents going through similar ordeals, including the jaded Stein, who announced, “The future is a thing of the past.”
The words stick with Wanderhope, even though reassuring doctors talk about new drugs, about remissions that last for years, about promising new research. “Of course!” says a doctor, “They’re working on it day and night, and they’re bound to get it soon.”
On his visits to the hospital, Wanderhope would stop by at the Church of St. Catherine to pull himself together and maybe pray. Stein despised religion and would not go in. De Vries writes of Stein:
“In this exile from peace of mind to which his reason doomed him, he was like an insomniac driven to awaken sleepers from dreams illegitimately won by going around shouting, ‘Don’t you realize it was a placebo?’ Thus it seemed to me that what you were up against in Stein was not logic rampant, but frustrated faith. He could not forgive God for not existing.”
Visiting parents in the pavilion try to keep the talk light. Aside from Stein and Wanderhope, who “meet and knock their heads together” over the big questions of fairness, theodicy, and what God might be up to, if there is a God, conversation in the children’s pavilion goes on “by a kind of conspiracy of grace.” It’s a matter of pretending that things have a meaning, when you know they don’t.
The realities encountered in this “slice of hell,” Wanderhope concludes, mock any response other than rage and despair. “Rage and despair are indeed carried about in the heart, but privately, to be let out on special occasions, like savage dogs for exercise, occasions in solitude when God is cursed, birds stoned from the trees or the pillow hammered in darkness.”
Day after day, week after week, Carol hovers on the edge of life. Wanderhope thinks of the Slaughter of Innocents, and it seems that God and Herod are one. He tries to pray. He does not presume to pray that everything will again be all right; he prays for just one more year with Carol, rehearsing in his mind all they would do together in just one more year. And at last the day comes when the news is good; the marrow report is down to six percent, practically normal. Carol is in remission, she can go home tomorrow.
The next day he buys a cake and stops by St. Catherine’s to offer a prayer of thanks. Mrs. Morano, the night nurse, is at her prayers and tells him that an infection is going through the ward like wildfire.
“I hurried into the hospital,” says Wanderhope. “One look at Carol and I knew it was time to say good-bye. The invading germ, or germs, had not only ravaged her bloodstream by now, but had broken out on her body surface in septicemic discolorations. Her foul enemy had his will of her well at last. One of the blotches covered where they were trying to insert a catheter, and spread down along a thigh. By afternoon it had travelled to the knee, and by the next, gangrened.”
The nurse whispered it was only a matter of hours now, and all her dreams would be pleasant. “I was thinking of a line of old poetry. ‘Death loves a shining mark.’” Wanderhope saw her on her bicycle, the sun in her hair, the shining spokes; at the piano practicing, and the smile of satisfaction when she got it right; and he knew that none of this would ever be again.
The nurse left and he moved to the side of the bed and whispered rapidly in their moment alone:
“The Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Then I touched the stigmata one by one: the prints of the needles, the wound in the breast that had for so many months now scarcely ever closed. I caressed the perfectly shaped head. I bent to kiss the cheeks, the breasts that would now never be fulfilled, that no youth would ever touch. “Oh, my lamb.”
Later, in the middle of the afternoon, Carol died. Wanting to secure the unfathomable pain of the particulars, Wanderhope looked around for a clock. “I had guessed what the hands would say. Three o’clock. The children were putting their schoolbooks away, and getting ready to go home.”
After some legal formalities, Wanderhope went to a bar and had a drink, and then six drinks, and then seven, and then he remembered the cake he had left in the church. On his way out of St. Catherine’s he looked up at the crucifix over the central doorway, its arms outspread among the sooted stones and strutting doves.
“I took the cake out of the box and balanced it a moment on the palm of my hand. Disturbed by something in the motion, the birds started from their covert and flapped away across the street. Then my arm drew back and let fly with all the strength within me. Before the mind snaps, or the heart breaks, it gathers itself like a clock about to strike. It might even be said one pulls himself together to disintegrate….
“It was miracle enough that the pastry should reach its target at all, at that height from the sidewalk. The more so that it should land squarely, just beneath the crown of thorns. Then through scalded eyes I seemed to see the hands free themselves of the nails and move slowly toward the soiled face. Very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience, the icing was wiped from the eyes and flung away: I could see it fall in clumps to the porch steps.
“Then the cheeks were wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual, with all the kind sobriety of one whose voice could be heard saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”
Then everything dissolved, and Wanderhope, no longer able to stand, sat down on the worn steps of the church. De Vries concludes: “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which for the diabolists of his literary youth, and for those with more modest spiritual histories too, was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of a pistol: the foot of the Cross” …
Reflecting on this story, Richard John Neuhaus writes, “In the experience of abandonment by God we are most securely embraced in the love of God. This love of God is the very life of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the love of the Father that incorporates the godforsakenness of the Son by the power of the Spirit …
“The human suffering and death of Jesus is an event in the triune life of God, and because Christ is also the Word by whom and through whom everything exists and is sustained in being, all innocent suffering and death has been enclosed in the life of God. Every heartbroken cry of ‘Oh, my lamb’ is taken up and finally overtaken in Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi [the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world], in whom is our peace.”
In a cupboard
In a cupboard in heaven
stands a big old bucket
into which God pours
our suffering and pain
and all the colours
of our helplessness
and out of which he takes
deep draughts every day
draining, drawing its terrible
into his heart
and drinking, hears
words uttered long ago
by his own cracked
lips: “I thirst!”
and the crucial echo in that
and from that ancient place
the future rushing near
finds tears and pain and death
beside the shining River
beneath the scented Tree
there shall be no more need
Sermon 496 copyright © 2003 Rod Benson. Preached at Compass Church, Sydney, Australia, on Friday 18 April 2003. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961).
Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
“In a cupboard,” poem by Rod Benson, December 2002.