FROM MY DREAM TO TRAGIC BEAUTY: CROSS AND COMMUNITY
Paul Henry Carr, Ph.D.
"At the heart of the nature of things, there is always the dream of youth and the harvest of tragedy.
The Adventure of the Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic beauty." A. N. Whitehead
"The cross is a minus transformed into a plus" Robert Schuller
"Paul enjoys feminine company" said my mother to my new girlfriend Karin, whom I had just brought home to dinner. Was this a premonition that we would have 5 daughters someday or was my mother trying to make good impression on Karin? Mother did like Karin. Karin had a domestic streak. The amount my mother had never met my expectations. Mother had said earlier: "Paul, you need a European Ďhousefrau.í"
Karin Hansen was born in Berlin, Germany in 1940 and had come to this country with her family when she was a teenager. In addition Karin had a beautiful soprano voice and was preparing for an operatic career. Yes, Karin was full of life and had a beautiful figure. She had a warm human quality. She could tell you the story of a personís life after she had met them for the first time. She was my DREAM of a wife.
When mother said "Paul enjoys feminine company," I am sure mother wanted to make a good impression on Karin and have a good relationship. Subconsciously she must have sensed that Karin would make a wonderful mother for her grandchildren. Could mother have sensed that Karin would someday have five beautiful daughters? I doubt it, because mother hoped and prayed for grandsons.
MY TRAGIC BEAUTY:
The Harvard philosopher and founder of Process Theology, Alfred N. Whitehead, wrote that "The Adventure of the Universe starts with a dream and reaps tragic beauty". (Last paragraph of "Adventures of Ideas") He also wrote "Youth is life untouched by tragedy." This was truer for me than for Karin. When I was 3 and living in Cabot, VT, the 1938 hurricane blew down a huge pine tree and our front yard. My little neighbor girlfriends and I used to play "house" in the branches of this fallen tree. We were disappointed when it was taken away. When Karin was the same age in Berlin, Germany, a bomb destroyed the crib she slept in. Fortunately, when this happened, she, her mother and 4 siblings were in a bomb shelter. Her father, a physicist like myself, was away working on radar in a German Defense Laboratory. Earlier, he had studied in Berlin where he had meet Einstein. I had to wait till the Second World War ended before I could get my new bicycle. Karin never learned to ride a bicycle, because there are no bicycles in postwar Germany. Getting enough to eat was higher priority.
Karin expressed her sense of tragic beauty by introducing me to Robert Schumannís "Frauenliebe and Leben," ("Womenís Love and Life," text by Chamisso.) She sang this a few months after performing as a soprano soloist for the Salem Symphony. This song-poem or "lieder" starts with "his ring is on my finger," a joyful celebration of her engagement. Then came the fulfillment of a happy home with beautiful children. For Karin, she had the satisfaction of being able to give her daughters a more wonderful childhood than she had had herself. She was also writing a book "Dragons from the Sky," which described how the bombs of World War II looked to her as a child. In contrast to "A Diary of Anne Frank," she wanted to document how German children suffered during WWII. The song-poem ends with the cruel fate of her husbandís dearth. For Karin and me, after 25 years of a fruitful and fulfilling marriage, it was the other way around.
Why on the morning I was to attend my mother-in-lawís funeral did I wake up singing the Bach Cantata, "One sings with joy from the victory?" ("Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg" No. 149.) My wife, Karin, could not come with me to her Motherís funeral, as she was in Mass General Hospital suffering from leukemia. I wished that she could have sung my favorite solo "I Know that my Redeemer Liveth." At the funeral, I did speak for my wife and added my own personal tribute. My mother-in-law, Liselotte Lachmann Hansen, was such a wonderful influence on my life that I never could relate to those mother-in-law jokes. She had been one of the first women Medical doctors in Germany.
When Karin was admitted to Mass General Hospital, we were convinced that our prayers for her healing would be answered. When she became unconscious, we still sang hymns while standing around her bed. We were convinced she could still hear us, and that this would help her heal. When the doctors placed her in intensive care, her condition still worsened to the point were I told our pastor:
" I do not know what to pray for."
She replied: "Pray for a miracle and for strength for what lies ahead."
When the doctors ran out of veins on her arm to put more needles in, they had me sign a release enabling them to tap into the blood vessels next to her heart. After signing this at the hospital on May 13, 1986, I stopped by my laboratory to share the bleak news with my friends. On my way home, I walked through green meadows, abundantly covered with yellow dandelions like the ones in my boyhood I had given my mother as a Motherís Day present. I then rested on Karinís empty side-of-our-bed and contemplated the breeze-blown, newly-budded leaves of the white birch I had planted with our youngest daughter when she was four-years-old. Suddenly, a strong inner voice told me there were two options for my wife: (1) she would be miraculously healed or (2) she would die and go to heaven.
This revelation prepared me to accept her impending death. I had previously been convinced that my fervent prayers for her life would be answered. Two days later, as her vital signs were waning, our five daughters, family, and friends gathered in the hospital chapel to sing hymns and pray. She died at 3:45 PM, age 46 years, on May 15th, the "Ides of May," a beautiful spring day with booming flowers and trees.
I then drove home from the hospital with my five daughters, ages 12 to 24. Devastated and numb from this tragic loss, I rested on my bed. I then had a vision of Karinís beautiful presence ascending upward. She entered heaven through an opening in the clouds and was greeted by her father and mother standing on the edge. Her father had died eight years ago and her mother only three weeks earlier. They were in the prime of life, as when I first met them. Later, my father, a Methodist-Episcopal minister, who had died two years earlier, also greeted her. He also was in his prime, wearing his RED suspenders. I can only ascribe the tragic beauty of this healing vision to the Divine Spirit, in which both Karin and I believed. I had yet to experience the stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. I was nevertheless thankful that this vision gave me the blessed assurance that Karin was at peace. She had not been cured but healed in heaven.
I still wonder about "singing with joy from the victory." I really needed a victory the summer after her death. When I was in the depths of despair, I did find solace in listening to a tape of this Bach Cantata that I had recorded from WGBH (89.7 MHz.) I listened to it all that long, difficult summer. I found ontological (not existential) hope and consolation in St. Paulís Letter to the Romans 8:2: "For the law the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death." Jesus gives us ultimate victory over the power of death even though the death of a loved one is not easy, to say the least. I found strength in the sermon "Spiritual Presence," that Karin and I heard German theologian Paul Tillich preach at Harvard Memorial Church a few months after we were married. Tillich had said: "Spiritual presence is the POWER that enables us to reach our truest and greatest potential in spite of our fate." I learned how God answers prayers from Rabbi Harold Kushnerís book "WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE."
In November of the year she died, I traveled to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, the home of the Wright brothers, to present the annual R&D progress briefing required for the Component Technology Branch that I led. After a stressful day in the executive briefing room, I wandered into a church and saw a large lighted cross gracefully decorated by flowering plants. Its light lifted the depressing thoughts I was having on that dark November evening. The next night after my flight home to Boston, I had a three-part dream:
When I woke up, I was amazed that I had remembered this stanza of the hymn, "Lead on, Oh King Eternal," which I had not sung for 40 years. I couldnít remember when or if I had learned about Constantineís celestial cross. I researched this and found that he had won the battle in 312 A. D. and adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. This dream was perhaps symbolic of the cross of Karinís untimely death, yet it was a source of courage in spite of it.
The cross as a symbol of Christís victory over death was very real to me when I later visited the ruins of the coliseum in Rome, where so many Christians were killed. In the place where the Roman Emperor may have sat, now stands a large, black metal cross. As Rev. Dr. Robert Schuller has said, "The cross is a minus transformed into a plus."
A humorous expression of the transforming power of the cross is expressed in the following story. A ten-year-old boy was failing math. His parents tried everything from tutors to hypnosis, but to no avail. Finally, at the insistence of a family friend, they decided to enroll their son in private Catholic school.
After the first day, the boy's parents were surprised when he walked in after
For nearly two hours, he toiled away in his room with math books strewn about his desk and the surrounding floor. He emerged long enough to eat, and after quickly cleaning his plate, went straight back to his room, closed the door, and worked feverishly at his studies until bedtime. This pattern continued ceaselessly until it was time for the first quarter report card.
The boy walked in with his report card unopened, put it on the dinner table, and went straight to his room. Cautiously, his mother opened it, and to her amazement, she saw a bright red 'A' under the subject of MATH. Overjoyed, she and her husband rushed into their son's room, thrilled at his remarkable progress.
"Was it the nuns that did it?" the father asked. The boy only shook his head and said, 'No.'
"Was it the One-on-one tutoring? the Peer-mentoring?,"
"The textbooks? The teachers? The curriculum?"-
"Nope,said the son. On that first day, when I walked in the front door and
SAWthat guy they nailed to the 'PLUS SIGN,' I knew they meant business!"
The cross of my family life was that my five daughters lost their lovely mother with whom they had such a wonderful relation. I had the challenge of raising three teen-age girls for which I was unprepared. My biggest disadvantage was that I never was a girl. Fortunately, I did have a younger sister. I also discovered that I did not know how to do family celebrations, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays. I had hoped unsuccessfully that I would be like Baron von Trapp in the "Sound of Music." When his wife died leaving him with a large family, Maria left her monastery and married him, continued their family life in Stowe, VT, and wrote a book. In my boyhood, I had heard Maria and her children sing in the Methodist Church of Richford, VT, where my father was the minister.
My daily salvation was my community of family, college, work, and church friends. Our dear neighbors, Ralph and Nancy, had a fourteen-year-old daughter, Liz, the same age as my Liselotte. They made family birthdays and Christmas for us as well as socially Ďadoptingí my 12-year old Sylvia and 16-year-old Emily. We would visit my elderly mother in Hyde Park to celebrate Thanksgiving as well as her Valentineís Birthday. When she died at age 84, I ended my "Reminiscences of her Son" with Henri Nouwenís description of community from "Making All Things New:"
"We have to keep in mind that community, like solitude is primarily a quality of the heart. While it remains true that we will never know what community is if we never come together in one place, community does not necessarily mean being physically together. We can well live in community while being physically alone. In such a situation, we can act freely, speak honestly, and suffer patiently because of the intimate bond of love that unites us with the other even when time and place separate us from them. The community of love stretches out not beyond the boundaries of countries and continents but also beyond the boundaries of decades and centuries. Not only the awareness of those who are far away, but also those who have lives long ago can lead us into a healing, sustaining, and guiding community. The space for God in community transcends all limits of time and place."
I hope I have shown you how my dream of a wife and family led to fulfillment and the tragic beauty of Karinís life and of her death. I believe that the Holy Spirit spoke to me through my "inner voice," my vision of her ascending to heaven, and my dream of lighted crosses. Our marriage adventure started with a dream and is still reaping tragic beauty. Whitehead also said:
"PEACE is the understanding of tragedy, and at the same time its preservation."
Hopefully my sharing with you today has brought us a deeper understanding and appreciation of tragic beauty. May we all experience the PEACE of GOD which "passeth understanding."
The cross transforms the minus of death into the plus of eternal life inhabited by the community of saints.