Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat

Two scenes come to mind on this slow, quiet Holy Saturday. 

The first appears in Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book by Tracy Kidder that traces Dr. Paul Farmer and his extraordinary work to address public health inequities in Haiti. As Farmer and Kidder embark on a long hike through the mountains of Haiti to visit a sick child, Kidder considers  how to ask a delicate question about a recent decision. Farmer’s non-profit, Partners in Health (PIH), had flown John, a very ill Haitian boy, back to Boston at considerable expense and with slim hope of healing. John wasn’t healed, and Kidder wondered aloud to Farmer how he justified  the extravagant expense, given all the other needs competing for PIH’s limited resources

Kidder writes: What about the twenty thousand dollars that PIH had spent on the Medivac flight to get him out of Haiti? Not long after John died, a PIH-er, a relatively new one, said to me that she couldn’t help thinking of all the things they could have done with the twenty thousand dollars.

Farmer’s response is long and thoughtful and in the end he says simply:

How about if I say, I have fought for my whole life a long defeat. How about that? How about if I said, that’s all it adds up to is defeat? . . . I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing.

The second scene I find myself considering occurred  at a bar in Montana just a few years ago. During a long weekend with some friends,  we stopped in Carter’s Camp, the only bar in Nye — in fact, almost the only building in Nye, which boasts a population of 220. The bar serves locals and workers of a nearby mine who stop in after their shifts under the nearby mountain.

We arrived in the  early evening and found the bar almost empty, save the three of us and, tucked in the corner, a man wearing jeans and a camo hat as he played the guitar and sang absolutely beautifully. The whole moment felt to me almost painfully poignant, and I wanted to linger, to listen and to acknowledge this act of, it seemed to me, courage.

Incompleteness thrums under the surface of each scene. For Paul Farmer, I see incompleteness in  fact that he will never win, not entirely, not in a world with so little time and so much brokenness. Farmer will cure this boy; he will help this girl; he will, in some small way, change a system. But he will never prevail over illness, not wholly. And the singer perched in the corner of the bar? I see incompleteness in the likelihood that his singing will never “amount” to anything —not in terms of money or fame or contracts. But, at least he seems to me, he sings because he, like Farmer, can do one small thing — make beautiful music for a scant audience and likely little applause. The fleeting goodness likely found itself swallowed up by a return the to the mine under the mountain the next morning, or the loneliness of Nye by afternoon. 

Likewise, Holy Saturday rings incomplete, telling a story in which  darkness and death seem the last word, forcing us to realize that all of our efforts, no matter how true and good and beautiful, fade away  without the hope of Easter. I wish I lived more often and more easily in the promise of Easter but, truth be told, I settle more comfortably into Good Friday and Holy Saturday – the reality of those days is more immediately apparent to me. And this strange season of illness and isolation can feel, at times, like a long, long Holy Saturday, the days dragging on with equal parts dread and expectation, always the desire to close the chapter and begin a new story.

This pause pregnant with anticipation, hunger and confusion is no new thing; it’s as old as the moment when the disciples found themselves scattered by unexpected death. Like them, we twitch for more celebration and less fear, more clarity and less seeing through dark glass, more life and less death. Yes, “Sunday’s a comin,” but for now we live mostly as Paul Farmer and the singer in the bar doing true things to the best of our ability, anchored by the  deeper truth, whether we name it explicitly or not, that, as Reinhold Niebuhr noted years ago:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

4 thoughts on “Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat

  1. Thank you Steve. A wonderful reflection on this Easter morning, especially for those of us who dwell a little too much on Fridays and Saturdays!

  2. Thanks, Steve. Thoughtful and well-said. I appreciate not just what you have to say…but the way that you say it! Who knew such a gifted writer could make such amazing bbq???

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