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The Small Vine: Life Over Death

Many-a year ago, I went on a sci-fi reading binge in my spare time. It was mostly a flop. Turns out I'm not really into reading sci-fi. One of the authors I tried unsuccessfully to enjoy was Fred Saberhagen. I read quite a number of short stories set in his Berserker universe. The Berserkers are demoniacally clever, life-destroying robots. They specialize in torture as a mode of forcing humans to do their will (they have no emotions) as they try to eradicate life from the galaxy. I'm a sensitive soul. This series wasn't for me. Plus, like so many sci-fi authors, Saberhagen just didn't seem to me to have the gift of making you see landscape or get really involved with characters. Everything was just plot sketches on board spaceships.

There was one short story, the title of which I don't remember. I'll just let some enterprising reader do the googling to try to find its title and perhaps correct my memory of its plot. But the plot, and the ending (spoilers coming) have always stuck with me for conceptual reasons, even though I can scarcely remember if the protagonist was male or female, let alone his name. I'm pretty sure it was a man. The Berserkers had taken over the spaceship. The main character was being left alive for a while because they had some nefarious use for him. The Berserkers would sometimes force humans to act as spies or lures for other humans. I remember that from other stories. So maybe that was it. Anyway, they were going to make some bad use of the spaceship as well. Meanwhile, they had to let the few humans they were keeping continue to grow food, so there was a garden on the ship.

The climax (and ending) of the story came when the protagonist realized that one of the melons or gourds in the garden had sent its vines (roots?) down into the side of the ship and pried apart a seam of some kind. This meant that he was going to die pretty soon. It would also destroy the ship. Normally a disaster. But now that the ship was taken over by the Berserkers, he perceived it as a triumph. The story ends with him ready to die happy when the ship is depressurized, realizing that now it can't be used by the Berserkers to destroy more life.

The symbolism has always stuck with me. Saberhagen managed to make it vivid--the picture of the vine bursting through the metal. Life growing, springing forth, and sacrificing itself blindly, in the service of life, paradoxically overcoming death by destroying the ship and itself. Despite the fact that I have no desire ever again to enter the Berserker universe, I've never forgotten that image of the vine growing irrepressibly and thus quietly triumphing over the death monsters who seem so much more powerful.

Things are pretty bad in the West and in the whole world right now. In the West, it's the fact that things are getting worse that particularly draws the attention of anyone who loves the things being destroyed. Whether it's pastors being arrested in Canada for holding "illegal gatherings" (did you ever think you'd hear of that happening in the "free world"?), Christians suggesting we should use "pronoun hospitality" for mentally confused, reality-denying men who think they are women, people losing their livelihoods for stating that homosexual acts are wrong, two-year-olds being forced to wear masks to daycare, people dying alone in nursing homes, because their families aren't allowed to see them, Christians seriously arguing that "going to church" can be entirely a matter of "meeting" on-line, wicked destroyers rioting, and Christians defending rioting because of something-something to do with racism, or...Well, really, I'd run out of room if I tried to list everything. Sometimes in the last year I've just said, "The world is coming to an end." It really does seem like that.

Death seems to be winning. And I keep wanting to say something really encouraging to the many people who I know are going through it right now (for one reason or another) and facing darkness, many facing serious hardship and pain, and I keep feeling stymied. There are dangers in so many directions. To wit: If I just start talking about the beautiful flowers and the intensely green leaves I saw today on a walk in the woods, I could easily sound like those people on Facebook who say, "Here's a random puppy for your day to cheer you up." Shallow sentimentalism isn't terribly helpful. At best it's a drug that swiftly loses its effectiveness for countering existential angst. If I talk about the pastors standing up to tyranny in Canada (and that really is encouraging, I must say), I risk sounding like the people who say, "This persecution is really good for the church, because it will separate those who really believe in something from those who are merely nominal. It will strengthen us." Well, it ain't necessarily so. This persecution confuses and disheartens at least as many as it strengthens, it separates Christians physically from one another, and it creates ideological division. All opportunities for the Enemy. If I say, "Tighten your belts, folks, and grab your sword of the Spirit and your shield of faith, because it's gonna get worse before it gets better" I could just sound grim and not really encouraging. If I write an agonized elegy for all the things being destroyed, I'm likely to make depressed people, and maybe myself, more depressed. (Pro-tip: Catharsis doesn't always work, either for writers or for readers, unless you happen to be, or be reading, a genius writer on a roll.)

So let's try it this way. What does the Devil want? Yes, I mean the real Devil, Lucifer, the fallen angel. I really believe in him. And I think he's trying to have a field day, and to some extent having a field day, with the state of the world right now. What does he want to get out of this for my soul and yours?

Well, yes, ultimately, to take us to hell, which you might or might not think is possible if you believe in eternal security of the believer. But what about right now?

C.S. Lewis has a lot to say on this, and it's very insightful. The Devil wants us to believe that evil, meaninglessness, and death are the ultimate Reality in the universe. Here is something Screwtape has to say about the matter. (The whole passage is gold, but I'll only type out part of it. Go get your copy of The Screwtape Letters and read it all.) Speaking of the human "patient" who is an air raid warden during the Blitz, Uncle Screwtape advises,

Probably the scenes he is now witnessing will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith...But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is "what the world is really like" and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the world "real." They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, "All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building";...The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are "real," while the spiritual elements are "subjective". In all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality, and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are "real," the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death "really means."...Wars and poverty are "really" horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments....Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. The Screwtape Letters, pp. 142-144 (from Letter XXX)

Precisely. Uncle Screwtape has nailed it. And so, if you see something beautiful and are in danger of being encouraged by it, your own personal Screwtape or Wormwood will be quick to remind you that all is just as wrong with the world as it was before and that you are merely experiencing a shot of dopamine occasioned by the nice weather. On the other hand, if you hear some tragic news of a friend of a friend who is dying alone, your personal Screwtape or Wormwood will tell you that that is what reality is really like and will ask you, pointedly, why God allows such things if He really exists. See how that works? It's a game the Devil delights to play.

Lewis made this devilish view of the world even more vivid in Perelandra. Ransom, the protagonist, has fought and (seemingly) defeated the demon-possessed Unman (formerly Dr. Weston) and has been cast up on the shores of an underground country where he wanders for some time. Unfortunately, the Unman is only partly dead. He follows Ransom through the underworld in a zombie-like state and has to be finally killed in one last fight and his body burned in a subterranean lake of fire before he stops pursuing Ransom. Just before the Unman emerges for the last time, he pours into Ransom's mind the demonic view of things:

Suddenly and irresistibly, like an attack by tanks, that whole view of the universe which Weston...had so lately preached to him took all but complete possession of his mind. He seemed to see that he had been living all his life in a world of illusions....The beauty of Perelandra, the innocence of the Lady, the sufferings of saints and the kindly affections of men, were all only an appearance and outward show. What he had called the worlds were but the skins of the worlds: a quarter of a mile beneath the surface, and from thence through thousands of miles of dark and silence and infernal fire, to the very heart of each, Reality lived--the meaningless, the un-made, the omnipotent idiocy to which all spirits were irrelevant and before which all efforts were vain. (Perelandra, p. 180)

That's what the Devil wants you to think. Frankly, shallow sentimentalism about a daily puppy picture would be truer. But better still the realization that the puppy, the friend, the green leaves, the sufferings of saints, and the kindly affections of men are the garment in which Reality clothes itself--that vast, meaningful, and ultimately powerful Reality that, at the last, will (for those who belong to the Lord, and hence are in touch with Reality) redeem all our losses. It will win because it must, because omnipotence and goodness are ultimately linked in some mysterious way that the Thomists claim to understand (and maybe they're right) and that I don't claim to understand. God's power and His goodness flow from his very being in two mighty streams. His creative acts flow from both, and one day He will make a new heaven and a new earth.

It may seem to us now that only goodness is eternally being lost and that only evil and meaninglessness will remain, but when we see from the side of eternity, we will see that that was only what the Enemy wanted us to think.

Christians believe that I'm right about this. Thinking Christians know that I'm right. The problem is one of holding on, isn't it?

Another thing that can sap our will to hold on is our own sense of ridiculousness. Who am I, pontificating about Meaning and Suffering when others are really suffering? We can be tempted to be harsh with ourselves in a way that is not good, ridiculing our own attempts to cling to the unchanging hand of God on the grounds that, after all, we are so privileged, so pampered, that we shouldn't need such reflections in the first place. The Devil wants you to think that, too. Better to be humble, to take your share of the Cross, however ludicrously small it might seem in comparison with others', with due seriousness but not with self-aggrandizement, to accept with gratitude the present grace, and to go on.

If there is one thing that 2020 and now 2021 have shown me, it is that the Devil is astoundingly quick to take advantage of anything and everything that he can turn to his own uses. Since these days I have an increasingly large electronic correspondence, I get a small chance to see that there are an awful lot of people out there going along quietly bearing an increasing sense of darkness and doom but not wanting to say much about it. It may be something concrete like the loss of a job or physical pain or illness, or it may be a sense of psychological or spiritual oppression, or both, but it's there, and I think it's there more and more now.

The vine in the Saberhagen story was just a symbol. It would mean nothing to say that life triumphs over death if we didn't have reason to believe that, really, life does triumph over death. Who cares if forests grow back over the ruins of human civilizations? Who cares if a gourd destroys a spaceship and messes up some wicked plans? No doubt the Berserkers will find another way to move forward. The glory of Christianity is that it tells us that the good message is true. We feel, when we see spring come after winter, that life springs up ever and anew and that death is not the final answer. Is that just a feeling? That's what we want to know. After all, when the deadly snows fall again and, in these northern latitudes, the long dark days come back, we feel the opposite--that darkness is the ultimate fate of man. Is that true? Both can seem like insights.

This is why we need the propositional content and the empirical evidence to give stability to our feelings and to help us to distinguish the true from the false. Thank God, he has not left us to puzzle out that riddle alone.


Comments (5)

The vine growing through a spaceship image reminds me of a detail in my favourite painting of St. Stephen: he’s about to be martyred, but right above him you see a tree that’s managed to grow through the lifeless city walls. A good reminder that in the long run Satan always gets screwed: instead of stamping out the Christians the Romans converted, in no small part thanks to the witness of the martyrs.

The painting is this one: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martyrdom_of_St_Stephen_(Annibale_Carracci)#/media/File%3ACarracci%2C_Annibale_-_The_Stoning_of_St_Stephen_-_1603-04.jpg

I can’t speak for everyone but I do notice that as earthly sources of happiness dry up (or are snatched away), the idea that anything other than God can make me happy loses even its emotional plausibility. It’s easier to focus on eternal life when temporal life has something like this going on in it.

By the way Lydia, did you ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz?


Thanks for posting this.

The forces of hell do seem ascendant.

Perelandra is a beautiful book. I’ve only read it once or twice but its striking passages stay with you. A favorite of mine is a chapter or so before the passage you quote. Weston, after total possession by the demon, has been given a respite and is in apparent control of himself. He outlines the philosophy that you mentioned being zapped into Ransom’s mind. Human existence is like the earth, only with time instead of distance; all life is on the outside, and after our seventy odd years, it’s nothing but a horrible, Sheol-like un-being forever. After all, Weston argues, doesn’t Christ say God is the God of the living and not the dead? Soon after, they realize that the makeshift raft they are on is approaching coastal cliffs, where they are almost sure to be drowned.

Ransom’s reply is fitting to the current darkness: “Are you there, Weston?" he shouted. "What cheer? Pull yourself together. All that stuff you've been talking is lunacy. Say a child's prayer if you can't say a man's. Repent your sins. Take my hand. There are hundreds of mere boys on Earth facing death this moment. We'll do very well.“

The devil wants us anxious and suspicious of each other and he’ll take all the despair he can get. What I love about Ransom’s reply is that he treats despair as a nasty little spook to be banished, not a serious position to argue with. It reminds me of the prayer inscribed on St. Benedict medals (also fitting to our age):

May the Holy Cross be my light.
May the Dragon never be my master.
Go away, Satan!
Never tempt me with your vanities.
What you offer me is evil.
Drink the poison yourself!

While the forces of darkness are real and powerful, they are nothing compared to Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. While we should avoid flippancy regarding our unseen enemies, neither should we live in fear of them, for perfect love drives away all fear. It is related of St. Teresa of Avila that, on retiring one night, she felt a Presence in her room. Believing God may be seeking her attention, she looked up to see a dark Figure above her bed. She replied, “Oh, it’s only you,” rolled over, and went to sleep.

On the subject of St. Teresa, she has a beautiful poem called “Nada te turbe“ that your readers may enjoy.

Let nothing disturb you
Let nothing make you afraid
All things pass
God changes not
Patience attains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing
God alone suffices

The devil is a liar and so we must fight him by telling the truth. We must not, as you mentioned, allow a false charity to mislead us into lying, about gender or the pandemic or riots. Thank, you, Lydia, for your insistence on telling the truth—especially uncomfortable truths—all these years. You’ve been an inspiration to me, even when I disagree with your take.

Let us keep the name of Jesus on our lips and do all the things our enemies hate: read good books out loud, play with our kids, hug somebody without a mask on, pray, pray, pray, get our hands dirty, and remember the demons are nasty little blighters who have already lost. If you’re Catholic, say the rosary and go to confession!

I’ll stop with a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “Preach the Truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.”

Great post. One small correction, though:

Reality clothes itself--that vast, meaningful, and ultimately powerful Reality that, at the last, will (for those who belong to the Lord, and hence are in touch with Reality) redeem all our losses. It will win because it must, because omnipotence and goodness are ultimately linked in some mysterious way that the Thomists claim to understand (and maybe they're right) and that I don't claim to understand.

Being a Thomist, though not a very good one, I would suggest that Thomists don't claim to "understand" the linkage of omnipotence and goodness, only to grasp that there is a linkage because there must be one. We are in touch with it now, but through a glass, darkly, and while aware of it, we do not yet understand it. Later, we will see Him as He is.

I was blessed last night to go to a dual birthday party of a toddler and recent graduate young adult, with about 18 people, comprising extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers & sisters, and then non-family friends (of the young adult). What struck me is that there was more joy and good-hearted laughter, in that one evening, than some might have had in a 6-month stint during the lock-downs. And it struck me that while, superficially, the enjoyment was attended by a certain degree of creature comforts - yes, we had a comfortable house, enough food, and a couple of cakes (one gluten-free, at that!), along with a handful of gifts - but by no means was the joy DEPENDENT on any sort of richness of mere things: the food was plain, the house was small by modern standards, the gifts were small and of little note in terms of price, more of note in terms of the love with which they were given. And that was, indeed the substance of the joy being shared - the love between the people present, grounded in shared family plus church, shared values, shared LIVES where they do things together, i.e. with each other. In a word, friendship. And, finally, that what I was seeing was, in a sense, MORE real than many a night over the past year just taking care of "business".

Although we Christians know that Life and Goodness will, in the end, win out with a total and utter rout of evil, it would STILL be a lie to accept that death and destruction are the "real" real, the true meaning even if all were to end finally in the heat-death of the universe in a trillion years. It would be a lie because even if I were to die tomorrow with no immortal soul to experience anything later, even so the one single good thing I do today, the one moment I pick up a crying child and comfort her, the one discussion I have with a troubled friend which gives them some small relief - those acts will be permanently "what happened" in the course of the universe, having in themselves more being than mindless acts of reflex or mere acts of nature. Hence even a Stoic's act of bravery in serving Truth and Good, though it means his death (and, to his mind, ultimate dissolution) is a better thing than to give in and participate in rape, pillage, and butchery. But because we know that Truth and Goodness will win out in such a manner as leads to a new heavens and a new earth, we can be gloriously joyful in our small little lives of small, little acts of rightness, even the mere rightness of laughing at the joy of a toddler being gently tickled, running away, and then coming right back and saying "Again?" to do it all over again. Gloriously because these little acts of rightness will become, in some small, infinitesimal way, captured in the very substance of the final rightness of Glory, where God will make all suffering to have been worth it, and to make all good things done to have been part of His plan of re-creating the whole.

Thank you, Ryan!


It would be a lie because even if I were to die tomorrow with no immortal soul to experience anything later, even so the one single good thing I do today, the one moment I pick up a crying child and comfort her, the one discussion I have with a troubled friend which gives them some small relief - those acts will be permanently "what happened" in the course of the universe, having in themselves more being than mindless acts of reflex or mere acts of nature.

I'vethought about that a lot recently, Tony, because I'm a Boethian (God is timeless) and hold to what's called a B Theory of time--the block universe. The immediate response from the Merchants of Despair (if they're philosophers) is that the torture of one child or the occurrence of one act of treachery is *also* permanently "what happened" in the course of the universe, so what's to choose? Why emphasize the permanence of the good things rather than the bad things? That's why one has to go to the last part of your sentence and also insist that evils that are fixed in time (having happened) are in a sense less an indicator of the *meaning* of the universe than goods that are eternally fixed in time. I haven't fully worked out how that works, but it seems to be central to keeping ourselves sane.

I've been thinking a lot about the same thing recently, Lydia, and am starting to believe that the answer, if there is one that can be really "known," lies in the nature of creaturely freedom vis a vis God's sovereignty and the movement towards the Eschaton. In brief, I'm thinking that Zosima's answer to Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, while perhaps incomplete, points in the right general direction. Unfortunately I've not found any theological/philosophical work(s) that expands upon that view. I've had a couple people suggest Berdyaev, but he has his own problems, as does Solovyov.

I have the question out to a Orthodox priest/philosophy prof, but haven't heard back yet. I really do believe that Dostoevsky was onto something, both in theological terms and in his critique of "liberalism" based upon his belief that it is built on an erroneous understanding of human freedom. In a sense this isn't news; I've long believed that liberalism is rooted in a bad anthropology. But Dosty ties it specifically to freedom in a way that I've not really come across elsewhere.

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