Tuesday, March 16, 2010
At the turn of the 20th century, what Willa Cather experienced as a child out on the Great Plains, surrounded as she was by a weave of ethnics, recent immigrants all, was something she never forgot and always celebrated. My Antonia, a great pioneer novel, has given us one of the most powerful women characters in American literature, Antonia Shimerda, whose strength of character and purpose simply will not be defeated.
And Antonia’s was not an easy life. When she was still a girl, her father, an educated musician in his native Bohemia and someone clearly not fashioned for the hard work of opening the rugged prairie, takes his own life one cold night in his first winter as an American. Because he was a suicide, the local cemeteries wouldn’t take his remains; the most unpardonable sin at the time, it seems, was the despair he suffered, the abandonment of hope itself, which is to say, the abandonment of faith. Mr. Shimerda, who shot himself in the barn, was buried in the road.
Willa Cather frequently drew her stories from her own experiences, and if you’re ever blessed to visit Red Cloud, Nebraska, the place where she grew up, you can follow dusty roads through the bleak and unforgiving landscape she loved, roads which pass places where she dug out the roots for some of her stories. Mr. Shimerda had a prototype on the land west of Red Cloud, and on one of those roads you can actually drive over the intersection where an anguished suicide, forbidden a place in the local cemeteries, was once buried, very much alone. Driving through that intersection is an eerie feeling, even though the man’s remains have long since been moved.
Today, suicides are not refused burial in any local cemeteries that I know of, and, for that, all of us should be thankful. I can not sympathize a whit with those who kept Mr. Shimerda’s body out of proper burial, but some passages from the Bible allow me to at least understand something of their fear, for fear is what it was, I’m sure. Those who take their own lives appear to take little comfort from the eternal truth of what David says, for instance, in Psalm 37: “though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”
Even though, out here on the Plains, we have come a long way from Mr. Shimerda’s—and others’—horrific rejection, we still don’t know quite what to do with those among us who depart by taking their own lives. We don’t know what to do with them, in part, because we do know—those of us who are believers—that the act of suicide feels a lot like someone defying the eternal hope of a verse like that and so many others from the Word of God almighty.
Not so long ago, it happened, in a community not far away. I didn’t know the man, never met him, but I know his family, several of the members, and I know of their profound grief. Since it happened, no one has said much about it because, well, there’s not much to be said. By all accounts, he was a believer. And he suffered, suffered badly, inside, for the past several years. I know very little else.
What I do know—what I can believe because I know this much of the Almighty—is that he alone will judge the living and the dead.
And I trust him. I trust God and his promises. I trust that he will do what he has always done and promises he will do forever—he will love.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:19 AM