Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat

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

The first is from Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book by Tracy Kidder that traces Dr. Paul Farmer and his extraordinary work to address public health inequities in Haiti. Farmer and Kidder are on a long hike through the mountains of Haiti to visit a sick child. Kidder is trying to decide 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 could justify 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 is at a bar in Montana. A few years ago I was visiting some buddies for a long weekend and we stopped in Carter’s Camp, the only bar in Nye, almost the only building in Nye, population 220. The bar serves locals and also workers of a nearby mine who stop in after their shift working under the nearby mountain. It was early evening and the bar was almost completely empty, except for the three of us and, tucked in the corner, a man in jeans and a camo hat, playing the guitar, singing alone and 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 it is the acknowledged fact that he will never win, not entirely. There is simply too little time and too much brokenness. He will cure this boy, help this girl, in some small way change a system, but he will never prevail, not wholly. And the singer? The poignancy grows from the likelihood that his singing will never “amount” to anything, not in the sense of money or fame or contracts. But he sings because he, like Farmer, can do one small thing, in this case make beautiful music to scant audience and likely little applause. It is a tentative, passing goodness swallowed up by the nowhere-ness of Nye and a return to the mine under the mountain the next day. 

Likewise, Holy Saturday is a day in which darkness and death seem the last word, and thus the slow realization that all of our efforts, no matter how true and good and beautiful, are fleeting unless wrapped up in the hope that looks towards 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 is no new thing, of course, this pause pregnant with anticipation and hunger and no little confusion, like the disciples scattered by unexpected death. We are twitchy for more – more celebration and less fear, more clarity and less straining to see through dark glass, more life and less death, and yes “Sunday’s a comin,” but for now, for most of our lived days, we are Paul Farmer and the singer in the bar, “kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” doing true things to the best of our ability, always within the deeper truth, whether we name it explicitly or not, that:

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.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Reinhold Niebuhr

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???

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s