My husband appeared at the door of my study, and I realized my “No, no, no” had risen from a whisper to an outraged cry. “It can’t be true,” I managed to say. “They say Christopher’s killed himself.” Christopher: my advisee, my friend, just a few weeks from graduation with highest honors, one of those few students genuinely loved by all on campus.
The beret, the bowties: eccentricities to be sure, but not, it became clear, for the purpose of garnering attention — it was just a style he enjoyed. (And still my fingers want to type “is” and “enjoys.”) Brilliant: already on his way to seminal work in ancient philosophy in both his senior theses (a double major, of course, in classical studies and philosophy).
Curious and eager: I had to order him to stop reading so that he would have time to actually write and edit his thesis on Heraclitus before term’s end. Caring: “How are you?” meant he really wanted to know. His popularity rose no more from his quirky, fun-loving ways than from his ability to listen, to encourage, to speak truth.
We Knew He Struggled
He came to our small Christian college a believer, but not fully satisfied. My course on Gerard Manley Hopkins played into his seeking, and he converted to Catholicism during that first semester of his sophomore year. He loved the Church as he loved his Lord, and he taught us much about his new-found home — which he was studying and living with typical whole-hearted enthusiasm — and reveled in filling the gaps in our Protestant-driven ignorance as we tried to understand the theology that drove Hopkins’ life and work. He had been retaking the class as an audit in this senior year, for fun as well as to deepen his understanding.
We knew he struggled with depression. He knew our hearts, and our time, were always open to him. Yet none of us had any idea how deep the darkness lay, and on Monday the campus itself felt heavy with sorrow, anger, and confusion, as we met each other in hallways and classrooms with aching hearts and weeping. My own frustration turned from Christopher (Why did you do this!) to those who seemed to demand that there be a specific, clear, easy-to-articulate answer to that very question, wanting to blame his circumstances or his pride.
“I’ve been there,” I kept telling them. “There is no answer that will satisfy you.” And I quoted Hopkins again and again: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall /Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”
And inside I was crying out, O Christopher, why couldn’t you hold to the hope that your beloved poet showed you even in his own darkest moments.
All the Pain of the World
In chapel, the Gospel was preached alongside the memories. There, thankfully, no one tried to explain, only to offer hope, for Christopher, for us all. At some now-forgotten word spoken by one of his other faculty mentors, I doubled over in near-physical pain – because in that moment, I suddenly realized the awful pain we were feeling as only the tiniest pang of all the pain of all the world.
Images flooded my mind: the horrific torture and killing of believers in the Middle East; the degrading enslavement of women and children to the lust of evil men; abortion and the genocide of those with Down’s Syndrome; murders on the streets, and in hospitals where the elderly are discarded like so much trash; the suffering and death of multitudes from disease and accidents; destroyed marriages, rebellious children, abusive or absent parents; the suffering of those like Christopher — so many, too many — trying to find peace and somehow missing it.
I could not breathe.
The moment passed, but I have held to it since, wanting always to know that the brokenness I see is the barest image of the brokenness that is. One can’t think of it too often, much less feel it — we mortal beings aren’t made to bear the whole world’s burdens — but it was good to catch that tiny glimpse of what our Lord sees and bears every moment of every day, the brokenness we have brought on ourselves in our demand to be like Him.
In some manner that I cannot explain, that moment of horrific darkness strengthened my hope in His light to illumine our way. If He died for all that, if He carries it every day, He must love us indeed.
And yet, that empty chair in my Hopkins class, that chair is so empty.
Maribeth (Beth) Impson is Professor Emerita of English at Bryan College. She writes a weblog called Inscapes and shares resources for writing and literature classes as well as a list of her best loved books at her course website. Writers and teachers of writing will appreciate her writing guide Writing to Serve Readers. She and her husband enjoy occasional wild visits from their children and grandchildren in their otherwise quiet Tennessee home.