The past few days have been filled with trauma: my very good friend Sharon Gerdes (artist, writer, and director of Players of the Stage theatre company) suffered a horrific injury to her hand on Saturday, severing five tendons, the median nerve, and the radial artery. Grieving at her side has been a journey full of pain, and it’s only beginning.
Why do I share this personal experience here? First, because it has been consuming my mind, and I haven’t worked on the CW book I planned to blog about this week. Second, because I request your coinherent prayers for Sharon’s relief from pain and for her full recovery. And third, because there have been some very Williamsian elements to this whole horror–some glimmers of providential light in the darkness of vicarious agony. I’d like to share those with you.
The first Williamsian element was Sharon herself. I have written before about the “Submitted Saint” in CW’s novels: the character who has lived through “days of pain and nights of prayer” in order to submit her will perfectly to God’s (the quote is from The Greater Trumps). No matter what happens, this person–usually a woman, often a young woman resembling Phyllis Jones–is contented, believing that divine Love has ordained all things for ultimate good. This person has suffered through the sacrifice of her individual will, until she simply waits on the Lord. In War in Heaven, the Archdeacon Julian Davenant (one of the few male Submitted Saints in CW’s oeuvre) is content to let the Holy Grail determine its own destiny, and his calm patience becomes the means by which the Grail is saved from its enemies. In Many Dimensions, a young lady named Chloe Burnett allows a magical stone (very like the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemical legend) to have its own way with her, opening herself up as a conduit for spiritual power. In this way, she allows The Mercy to re-create unity in all things. And in The Greater Trumps, Sybil Coningsby walks out into a deadly storm to save her brother (and, incidentally, a kitten). She trusts that Love will order all things according to the nature of Love.
Throughout this ordeal, Sharon has shown me that Submitted Saints live outside of fiction. I must admit that I have been skeptical of the real possibility that ordinary 21st-century American Christians could be any such thing. Yet throughout this horror, she has been living in a great serenity. This is not to say that she does not have natural human responses: she whispered her fears as she slipped off into the drug-induced sleep before surgery on Monday, and she cried out in pain as the physical therapist moved her fingers for the first time this afternoon. Yet for all I can see, her soul has a center of calm that might just be “the peace that passeth understanding.”
What’s more, she has been showing love to everyone around her. She was sitting up, conscious, without painkillers, in a waiting room for hours on end, with a severed artery, asking *me* how I was doing! She chatted with all the nurses, asking them how long they had worked there, if they had kids, and so forth. She even handed out at least one business card to someone who expressed an interest in theatre. (Makes me think these crazy action films might not be so ridiculous after all: Sharon seems like she could take a bullet or a sword wound and keep fighting). She has been sweet and gracious to each person along the way, even those who were brusque with her.
So that’s how Christ’s love works in an ordinary (extraordinary) person. Now I know. Maybe CW was fictionalizing less than I’ve given him credit for.
But then the second Williamsian aspect of Sharon’s tragedy has to do with the nature of her injury: It has to do with Hands.
Hands are wildly important in CW’s fiction and mythology. In The Greater Trumps, hands become part of the fabric of the plot and of the literal content of the atmosphere. Towards the end of the story, our heroine Nancy finds herself trapped in a room full of magical images, attacked by a madwoman and a cat. The woman stretches Nancy out across a table and begins scratching at her hand, making bloody gashes down her palm and wrist. The cat is poised to spring, and Nancy thinks, terrified, “It has no hands!” I watched my own cat this morning, pawing at a bit of paper, trying to pick it up. He couldn’t lift it, he couldn’t grasp it, and I imagined his frustration focusing on his lack of an opposable thumb. Nancy feels feels as if the cat is something unnatural, merely because it is inhuman, and its inhumanity comes from its lack of hands.
I thought, then, of the intensity of Christ’s injuries at the Crucifixion, and what a large percentage of His suffering came through His hands, His hands and His wrists. Part of the torture of crucifixion is the dehumanization, and I guess I always supposed this came from the nakedness, exposure, and total helplessness. I never thought what portion of the dehumanization came from His inability to use His hands and from the pain localized in His wrists.
Sharon posted on facebook this morning in “Today’s list of thankful things” (see, I told you she’s a saint): “that Jesus endured two wrist/hand injuries and much greater pain so that He could love me and still be just.” Indeed. He has inflicted on her nothing He did not endure Himself. I find that very difficult to think about.
Charles Williams gathers up the horror and miracle of Christ’s wounded hands into the anatomical geography of his Arthurian poetry: on his map of Europe, the hands are Rome. The hands are there, because in Rome “the heartbreaking manual acts of the Pope” are performed in commemoration of Christ’s handbreaking act on our behalf.
And at the end of The Greater Trumps, hands achieve healing. A golden fog gathers in the room where Nancy is in danger, and magical hands made of golden fog lead her father and brother to rescue her. A golden glory made of operative hands, shaping and maintaining and ordering the universe, closes around all the characters and brings about redemption. In the end, Nancy’s scratched hand is healed, and salvation and preservation are achieved by Sybil’s imperial mastery: she steps into the center of the danger and becomes the conduit for the re-ordering of the universe by the voluntary, intentional surrender of her body, desires, and willpower to the Omnipotence. Yet Sybil — or Nancy, or the Archdeacon, or my friend Sharon — is only able to contend with dark forces and lift up healed hands into the cloud of golden glory because Jesus’ hands wear His scars forever.