A Broken Vessel

We’re all broken in one way or another. We are all broken vessels. But despite our brutish stupidity, God’s Light still comes through our brokenness. That’s how it is, mate! There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows God looking ruefully down on the world and saying to Himself, “What the hell was I thinking?” And we think it’s kind of funny … even though we understand that the laugh is on us.

Andre Dubus II (pronounced “dub-BYOOSE”) was a short story writer of some acclaim and following. He died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 62. He’d lived a creative, hard life – a devout Roman Catholic born in Lake Charles, Louisiana – Cajun country. He joined the Marines, rose to the rank of captain, and left the military after six years, planning on making a living as writer. He and his first wife, along with their four children, moved to Iowa where he learned his writing trade at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and then, two other wives later, he spent the rest of his writing career on the faculty of Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Dubus’ life changed in 1986 – the night that he was struck by an oncoming car as he was outside his own vehicle, coming to the aid of a woman motorist and her brother. He saved the woman’s life by pushing her out of the way, but both he and her brother were hit – the brother dying instantly at the scene and Dubus suffering numerous injuries. Dubus spent months in the hospital undergoing numerous surgeries and finally lost one leg. His other injured leg never became functional again. Hence, he spent the rest of his life viewing his world from a wheelchair.
I bring up Dubus’ writing because I’m in the middle of reading a collection of autobiographical essays by him under the title Broken Vessels. In the first essay, “Out Like A Lamb,” he writes about a year he and his young family spent in New Hampshire renting a mansion at a bargain rate. The only thing the owner asked them to do in return for the cheap rent was to make sure that the sheep on the premises did not escape from their pen – which apparently they did pretty often.

At first the family thought it was funny, but then it became somewhat irritating that these dumb animals kept making their way out of the shelter of their pen. Soon is was beyond irritating. Dubus began to get angry with these stupid animals, and when the sheep were finally caught, he began to punch them in the jaw once they were pinned to the ground. One died. The punching became a habit. Sometime after that, a sheep got loose and invaded the owner’s flower bed and Dubus shot birdshot in that direction. Another one died.

The owner returned while most of the sheep were still alive. But on reflection, Dubus writes the story as a clear description of how violence can erupt – even among those who reject it on principle. The reader understands the story as a truthful portrayal of sudden anger, spiraling out of control into cruelty when confronted with “gross, incorrigible stupidity.” Dubus then links this thought with a reflection on Jesus’ parable of what’s referred to as “The Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.” Likening ourselves to those sheep breaking out of their pen, he says “we were sweet and lovable. … But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw that Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid, helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves.” As Tobias Wolff says in his introduction to Broken Vessels, Dubus’ “story of human impatience becomes a glimpse of God’s infinite patience toward us.”

As Wolff notes, for Dubus the material of our world, including our bodies, is shot through with God’s Spirit. He has an incarnational understanding of human life that comes clear in his writing. Wolff says “the quotidian and the spiritual don’t exist on different planes, but infuse each other. Dubus’ is an unapologetically sacramental vision of life in which ordinary things participate in the miraculous, the miraculous in ordinary things. He believes in God, and talks to Him, and doesn’t mince words. … He is open to mystery, and of all mysteries the one that interests him most is the human potential for transcendence.”

To paraphrase the Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen whom I quoted in last Sunday’s sermon, everything is cracked; that’s how the Light gets in. We’re all broken in one way or another. Like Dubus, we are all broken vessels. But despite our brutish stupidity, God’s Light still comes through our brokenness. That’s how it is, mate! Thank God!