For three years I served St Mark’s Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Like many towns in Western Pennsylvania, Johnstown had once been a thriving community, but when Bethlehem Steel was forced to close its operations in the 70s and 80s, thousands of men and women lost their jobs. The town never recovered. Over the past 90 years it has lost 70% of its population. But Johnstown will always be a famous town, remembered not for its steel production but for the great flood of 1889. On May 31, 1889 the South Fork Dam burst, unleashing 20 million tons of water. 2,209 souls perished, including the rector of St Mark’s Church and his family. Fr Alonzo Diller was found in the rectory, with his infant son clasped in his arms, his wife and daughter at his side. “Many waters cannot quench love.” The calamity has been memorialized in an award-winning documentary, which can be viewed at the Johnstown Flood Museum.
Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony / (Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding, / Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things, / Is not in question) are likewise permanent / With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better / In the agony of others, nearly experienced, / Involving ourselves, than in our own. / For our own past is covered by the currents of action, / But the torment of others remains an experience / Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition. / People change, and smile: but the agony abides. / Time the destroyer is time the preserver, Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops, / The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple.
Recollection of the spiritual experiences that shaped his life leads Tom Eliot to recollection of his suffering, “the moments of agony.” No matter how much time has gone by, these moments do not disappear. We bear their wounds, as Jesus bears the wounds of his crucifixion. The agonies too need to remembered if they are to be redeemed, yet the poet finds this difficult to do: “For our own past is covered by the currents of action.” Memory is a tricky thing. How do we know that we remember rightly, especially when it comes to events of which we are ashamed or have hurt us deeply? How it is that I can remember my elementary school teachers but cannot remember a single teacher from Stratford Junior High?
Eliot’s solution is to apprehend the agonies as experienced by our friends or even by those whose lives have been captured in history books and stories, paintings and photographs. Time destroys but it also finds a way to preserve, “like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops”—a disturbing, powerful image. Did he actually see this while living in St Louis, or did he perhaps hear or read about it? It doesn’t matter. The poor are always the first victims of natural disasters: they are least able to protect themselves against them. In April 1892 the Tombigee River flooded Columbus, Mississippi and surrounding counties, bringing death and misery. A few days later newspapers around the country published this dispatch: “Houses, fences and bridges are all gone. Thousands of dead horses, mules, cattle, hogs, sheep, poultry and the body of an occasional negro can be seen in every direction.” I am ashamed.
Adam and Eve were ashamed. We still share the consequences of that bite of the forbidden apple.
Suffering is universal to humanity. Perhaps by attending to the suffering of others, we can come to deeper, more honest understanding of our own.
Each year on May 31st 2,209 luminaries are lit at the ruins of the old South Fork Dam. I remember Christine and I attending the ceremony once with my then Senior Warden, Pam Mayer.
Each year on June 15th Christine and I gather at the gravesite of our son, who suffered insufferable depression and despair.
Each year on Good Friday Holy Church recalls the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Believers enter into his sufferings that their own might be illuminated and redeemed.
Smiles may succeed the agonies, but the passage of time does not unmake them.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters, / Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it; / On a halcyon day it is merely a monument, / In navigable weather it is always a seamark / To lay a course by: but in the sombre season / Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
These concluding lines of the second movment are difficult to paraphrase. We immediately think of the Dry Salvages, which the young Eliot used to navigate when he was sailing along Cape Ann. But during fog or storm they can no longer serve as a seamark; they become instead a hazard to sink the careless and unfortunate. History is like the rock. We may navigate by it, but its lessons are easily forgotten when chaos overwhelms. The past is what it always was—that which needs to be redeemed.