“You must live in the place that is the station of your labor and your love. Down there in the swaying forests, the dark sleeping fields, the cold barren lands, and the cities of man, where the indestructible, the faithful, the true are needed.”
Several weeks ago when I began packing for Central Europe, I looked for a book. Most always, I try to read something about where I am. A visit to California means a novel set in the Golden State, a visit to Texas or Wyoming or Colorado means a novel set there, and a visit to the Mediterranean means a story situated in that place among those people. And on and on.
Of course choosing a good story matters most; just to read a book isn’t worth anyone’s time. So after searching around, I chose Michael O’Brien again, the serious Canadian novelist who writes about the modern world from his deeply Catholic vision. I have read several others by him, learning more about God, myself and the world each time. So I decided on his Island of the World, a novel set in southern Central Europe, the former Yugoslavia.
The story begins in the years of World War II, with Germany, Italy, Britain and Russia all pushing-and-shoving the peoples known as Croatians, Serbians, Bosnians, Slovenians, and Herzegovians (and depending who is counting, perhaps a few other tribes as well). There was nothing noble or good or honorable about what happened in those years, and the decades of Communist dictatorship that followed only deepened the evil. Horror and suffering and heartache, a thousand times a thousand, with death and blood marking memories that went on seemingly forever— even into our own time, with told and untold grief that we know about, but mostly don’t.
I won’t say more about that here.
But the story is about one boy, born into a happy life in the Bosnian mountains, but too soon, too soon, he is forced to face the terror of his times— and for the next years of his life he cries into what seems a silent heaven. Along the way he spends his adolescence in Sarajevo, and begins to grow up and away from his terrible suffering. Never forgetting, but slowly, slowly he finds a new life.
The boy, Josip, enters the university, absolutely brilliant at math, but because of the social and political indoctrination rampant through his society, he purposely rejects every subject that touches on history and politics, even literature. He appears the fool to his teachers when they try to draw him into areas of learning that he knows have been twisted by lies; but at math, he is the best student in Sarajevo, and is given a scholarship to study further.
The book is a long one, and I am only noting one paragraph here. Josip’s dreams are vivid, sometimes violent and awful, given his history, but sometimes, sometimes, they are wonderfully beautiful and good. Here he has been invited by a great white horse to take a ride through pastures and meadows that are beyond human imagination, and he wants to ride forever, which is impossible.
“Why now?” Josip cries in that language. “Why, when the ascent has just begun, are you taking me back?”
The horse answers… and I have written those words above.
Which one of us doesn’t want to fly, fly away… at least some days? I know that I do. But then, sighing, I am called back to my place in time, to labor and to love, the very frail man that I am. That is the meaning of true vocation, for everyone everywhere: to keep at it, laboring and loving, until we no longer can.
Most of my days I am so intensely aware of the now-but-not-yet nature of this life, groaning with creation itself as I spend the days of my life listening to the stories of people who cry out for their own reasons-of-the-heart, that riding away on the back of a great white horse appeals to me at my very deepest. With Josip, I long for a world where there is no more sorrow, a world where there is no more pain. I do, everyday I do.
(Photo flying across America, reading this book.)
For more from Steve Garber, check out his Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture.