by Howard Craig - Kucia Consulting
Last weekend, I watched the latest Tom Hanks film, “Greyhound.” A faithful re-telling of the novel The Good Shepherd, Hanks stars in the role of U.S Navy Cmdr. Ernest Krause, a destroyer captain on his first wartime mission protecting a flotilla of merchant marine cargo and transport ships as they cross the Atlantic. The movie is gripping in its portrayal of the danger and perils of a trans-Atlantic crossing at the height of World War II. As often unseen German U-boats pursue the flotilla, the fear is palpable as the much slower transport ships are easy prey. Depicting the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942, the movie portrays the longest, largest, and most complex naval battle in history. Hanks excels in his portrayal of a quiet, faithful leader who takes seriously his responsibility of protecting those in his care even when that protection means that his own life and the life of his crew is at risk.
Greyhound is fiction set in 1942, one of the darkest times of World War II. It was a time when individual identity and the sacredness of the person were easily forgotten. As vast numbers of people were destroyed by the evil, impersonal machines of war, sense and sensibility were dulled and shocked by the enormity of the destruction. In one scene, the triumphant sailors on the Greyhound rejoiced at the sinking of an anonymous U-boat. In a moment of solemn candor, Tom Hanks turns to one of them and says, “Yes, we sank it. But 40 souls died, too.”
Today we face dark times again. Civil unrest erupts nightly as scenes of violence are prominently displayed on our TV. Public health and personal security is destroyed by an unstoppable, impersonal sickness. The daily stress of living in this “new normal” is taking a spiritual, psychological, and physical toll on many. People cocoon at home, fearful to go out into a world that seems to be full of danger and disease. We wonder if the life we remember will ever return. Despair and depression abound. Is that any way to live? Is there a message of hope for our future? Yes. There is. Here are “two lessons to live by” in these difficult times.
There are no ordinary people. In the same year of Greyhound, 1942, C.S. Lewis responded to the terrible, impersonal engines of world war with a message of hope and a challenge for the faithful. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis began his Sunday evening message at St. Mary’s in Oxford with a discussion of unselfishness and love, faith, glory and Heaven. As he spoke, he spoke eloquently of heaven, glory, and God’s love. Then he pivoted the audience towards social responsibility: that the eternal destiny of another may be influenced by our friendship or indifference. He reminded his audience that each person is no anonymous creature, but a unique being made in God’s image with a destiny in Heaven or consignment to Hell. Lewis concluded his sermon with this challenge:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations [Heaven or Hell]. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
– Lewis, C.S. “The Weight of Glory.” June 8, 1942.
As we move forward in these uncertain days, we must step up to the challenge that we regard each person we encounter with the dignity they deserve. There are no “ordinary people.” All are created in the image of God.
We are called by God to serve. It is not enough to simply acknowledge each person’s dignity. As believers and Catholics, God calls us to live in a manner that reflects His love. Jesus taught, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:53). The Christian witness during times of calamity, disaster and strife is this: Christians are called to follow the example of Christ, who became a servant to all. We should be the first to respond, the first to step up, and the first to embrace those in need. Called as God’s people, we are first called to love others as Christ loved us
Considering our current health crisis, I call to mind St. Damien of Molokai. Recently, some have charged that St. Damien, a European Catholic missionary, was an example of Western colonialism and subjugator of native peoples. Those who make this charge the loudest are perhaps unaware of the great sacrifice Fr. Damien made to love and care for others.
Fr. Damien was a Belgian who lived during the mid-1800s. A Brother in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, he volunteered to go to Hawaii as a missionary when another member of the order refused that call. Br. Damien arrived in Hawaii in March 1864. Shortly after, he was ordained a priest and worked on the island as a priest, leading an undistinguished life. And then came a challenge.
In 1866, Hawaii established a leper colony on Kalaupapa Peninsula. As many believed that leprosy was highly contagious, the leprosy patients were forced into quarantine. Believing that these people still needed spiritual and medical care, Fr. Damien discerned his call to serve them. In 1873, Fr. Damien arrived in the colony. He never left. Loving the people of the colony, he worked with them closely to provide care, establish homes, and even construct a church. His decision to serve these people and work closely with them was not without danger or cost. In 1885, Fr. Damien himself contracted leprosy. Now an outcast himself and despite his illness, he continued to serve and minister to the people he loved. After sixteen years in the colony, Fr. Damien succumbed to leprosy on April 15, 1889. Regardless of their personal religious belief, the people of Hawaii still remember and honor St. Damien for his selfless love and sacrifice for the people of Molokai.
How should we then live? We come back to the central question: how should we live during these times of social unrest? Here are two signposts for the journey:
Remember the admonition of C.S. Lewis: there are no ordinary people.
Remember the life of St. Damien of Molokai: we are called by God to serve those in need.
As we begin a new school year, let us all remember in prayer those who will serve in the days ahead, with a special prayer for our teachers and all those who work with our children in the Church.