In Suffering, Author Dubus Discovered God’s Love
Published: July 21, 2011
One of the central Christian mysteries, and one of the most difficult to understand, is the gift of suffering. The paradox of finding God’s love and mercy in the midst of grief, illness and doubt has challenged us all, regardless of the form our suffering takes.
The great contemporary American writer Andre Dubus was immersed in the mystery of suffering in a particularly brutal and absurd manner. Almost 25 years ago, on July 23, 1986, Dubus was driving home from Boston when he came upon the scene of a single-car accident. As an act of charity, he stopped to assist the two stranded motorists, one of whom was injured. While he was helping the injured man out of the car, a passing vehicle hit them. Dubus was able to push the other passenger out of the way, but the injured man was struck and killed. Dubus was also struck. He survived, but had one leg amputated and suffered the painful deterioration of his other leg. Dubus spent the last 13 years of his life in a wheelchair.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote to her friend and correspondent Betty Hester that “in a sense sickness is a place. … Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.” O’Connor was writing about her own struggles with lupus, but her words are applicable to Dubus’ suffering as well, and the truth of her insight is explored and expressed beautifully in Dubus’ volume of short essays, “Meditations From a Movable Chair.”
Dubus was a master of short fiction, and his stories are remarkable. “A Father’s Story,” in particular, will probably be read for years as a masterpiece of the genre. Like O’Connor, Dubus frequently wrote about violence as a point of entry into grace, but the essays in “Meditations” are gentle and beautifully contemplative. Many of them are very brief, some barely two or three pages, but they contain spiritual reflections on suffering, grace, community and love that in their simplicity become strikingly profound.
Consider for example Dubus’ essay “Grace,” in which he writes of the freedom that comes in trusting God’s will: “surely grace flowed between us as we flung away certainty, and said yes to the unknown, out at the edge of light, where it ends, or becomes more brilliant.” Or, his essay “Sacraments,” in which he expresses the gift of seeing the sacramental in everyday life, simply by being aware that all our acts of charity are performed in the presence of God. Or, his short meditation “Girls,” in which he writes of seeing within an altar girl the gift of Mary who “embodied for all of us the miracle and the mystery and the conflict, the flow and ebb of faith.”
Then there is the perfect truth of “Bodily Mysteries,” in which Dubus writes of his disability, “Most mornings, I wake up alone. Each day is a struggle against sorrow, with every physical action in the empty house showing me again and again what I have lost. I cannot win this struggle alone.” So, as he did for most of his life, he goes to Mass.
Of the joy of receiving the Eucharist, Dubus proclaims he is “one with all the people in pain and joy and passion, one with the physical universe, with Christ, with the timeless dimension of the spirit, which has no past or future but only now; one with God. Me: flawed and foolish me. I drove my car to church and consumed God.”
Dubus’ devotion to the Eucharist is extraordinary, and one of the most memorable pieces in the collection is “Love in the Morning,” which describes the discipline and joy associated with participation at daily Mass with a community of ordinary Catholics, in an ordinary church, celebrated by an ordinary parish priest. All of them make this simple daily Mass a fixture of their typical daily life “because the Eucharist is there. … But the Eucharist is not only there in the tabernacle. I can feel it as I roll into the church. It fills the church. If the church had no walls, the Eucharist would fill the parking lot, the rectory, the nursing home, the football stadium.”
As Dubus concludes in “Communion,” “The Eucharist is with us, and it is ordinary. To me, that is its essential beauty: we receive it with wandering minds, and distracted flesh, in the same way that we receive the sky, the moon and earth, and breathing.”
In these excerpts, one might imagine Dubus as so filled with wisdom and devotion that he is simply out of touch with the rest of us. This is not so. Dubus also writes in this collection of life’s simple pleasures—baseball, making sandwiches for children, enjoying a good dinner or drink. He writes about parenthood, from the perspective of both father and son. He writes about writing; his “A Hemingway Story” is so good I read it every semester to my sophomore English majors. And Dubus writes as well of the struggles we all must sometime confront: loss, fear, shame and anger.
In losing his legs, Dubus felt all those emotions, and he allows us to share them and empathize with him. His “Letter to Amtrak” will move anyone who has suffered public indignity because of disability. “Giving up the Gun” will challenge anyone—gun-owner or not—to reconsider their trust in God’s protection. Throughout the collection, he references his crippling, but his disability does not define the essence of who he is as a person. Rather, the accident and subsequent loss of his legs allowed him to completely revise, and deepen, his understanding of himself and his spirituality.
“I decided,” Dubus writes in “Giving up the Gun,” “to sit in a wheelchair on the frighteningly invisible palm of God.” This is beautifully honest. It is difficult to suffer. It is hard to trust. And as Dubus implies in “Song of Pity,” it is too easy to simply chirrup that suffering is a part of life.
Dubus lived the embarrassment and pain of suffering, and he endured each day for 13 years the agony of not being able to move as most of us do, not being able to stand, and remembering always that he was once able to walk. And yet, he lived it, and learned from it. Best of all, he wrote about it. “Meditations From a Movable Chair” is a small miracle, a gift for all who suffer and wish to learn again that they still are whole.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.