Very early this morning I woke from a vivid dream where I was on the side of a mountain in Cuba with Lutheran Cubans (they do exist) and my mother appeared to us in a long cranberry dress, as real and as beautiful to me as I remember her in her late middle age. She seemed somewhat annoyed that I didn’t pick her up at the airport, but softened when I introduced her to all these handsome Cuban men.
I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I took my new Christmas Kindle to read Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See which since Christmas I had been reading bit-by-bit before sleep. When I put it down at 11 p.m. I knew I was close to the end, but didn’t realize when I picked it up at 5 a.m. that I was in the last chapter. If I had any thoughts of going back to sleep, the ending of this book put that notion to rest. I even read the reading group guide at the end, which I never do, hoping that it would put me to sleep. If anything, it drove me to get up and write this.
Many people had encouraged me to read this book, so I decided to initiate my new Kindle by finally picking up this incandescent novel. I realized that I was late to the party, that Doerr’s novel from 2014 had become old news, but for me it came at just the right time. Isn’t that true of many of the books we read?
I had a misconception about what this novel was about and was hooked from the start. Although I read it in small chunks as a means of falling asleep, I found myself haunted by it during the day, looking forward every night to Doerr’s engaging and mystifying story of Werner and Marie-Laure. As someone who exegetes texts, I’m always interested in the structure of a novel, and this novel is compelling in the way it moves from character to character, from one time period to another. You care about these two young people in Nazi Germany, their struggles, their courage, their innocence in midst of an evil time. The whole novel is between 1934 and 1945 until the end when Doerr disconcertingly fast forwards you to 1974 and then even more disturbing, to 2014.
The last one standing is Marie-Laure, in Paris, with her grandson Michel, taking the walk she has taken all her life through the Jardin des Plantes, except for those years she lived in the heart of war in Saint-Malo. Her grandson is playing a video game, and it causes Marie-Laure to reflect on what has been a major theme in the book — radios, electronics, but now in 2014 internet, emails, cell phones, an overabundance of “electromagnetic waves” traveling everywhere through the air, through wires, through peoples lives. Much of this story is about how we communicate — how hearing Jules Verne stories kept Werner and his sister sane when they were orphans, how Werner found Marie-Laure by hearing her read those same stories right after D-Day, when the bombing of Saint-Malo was at its worst, how the radio formed their lives, how the internet and email and texts forms ours.
Such thoughts lead Marie-Laure to think how all the people in her life — her father, her uncle Etienne, her maid in Saint-Malo Madame Manec, Werner — might be flying about like those electromagnetic waves — flowing here and there — “the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it. Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was a memory falls out of the world. We rise again in the grass. In the flower. In songs.”
How enchanting, how lyrical, how empty. Not realizing this was the end, I couldn’t go back to sleep because of an overwhelming sadness that came over me. Maybe it was the vivid dream of my mother, or that when I thought about Doerr’s conclusion to his remarkably compelling novel, this was all there was — memories of people like radio waves swirling around us, rising up in nature and songs. What struck me as I finished this novel is that as much as I was consumed by the story, the characters, there was nothing Christian here — the only reference to church was architectural, that is, that there was a church that was bombed in Saint-Malo. Maybe I missed some Christian allusions. Maybe it was because I read this book to put myself to sleep. But maybe the lack of any Christian references was part of my sadness.
In his acknowledgments, Doerr references a Mary Oliver poem entitled “The Summer Day.” Years ago I was taken up by her poetry, its clarity, its almost Christian themes, its connection to the natural world of Cape Cod where I spent many summers during my youth. So just before writing this, I entered those electromagnetic waves and found her poem on the internet in the Library of Congress (I couldn’t find her books in my library where I thought they should be), and in reading it, saw the key to Doerr’s novel. She is a nature poet, who begins this poem with “Who made the world?” But she teases us with Christian allusions like “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” But her final three lines are what I think Doerr’s novel is about:
"Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"
As Linda and I contemplate the last decades of our life, where we will live, what we will do, it’s hard not to think of what our plan is for the final days of our wild and precious life. All my life I’ve been driven by doing whatever I can to extend the kingdom, especially through teaching. Part of that dream of Cuban Lutherans was discussing with them a retreat center in the mountains to form their pastors and deaconesses. Right now I’m engaged with folks in preparing 10-minute presentations to Farsi-speaking people to see if there may be some out there in the Iranian and Afghan diaspora who might be interested in pastoral formation.
Early this morning, thinking of Doerr’s vision of what happens to our loved ones, my immediate sadness was that he did not know the beatific vision I know, of heaven on earth in the Eucharist, of the hope of a new heaven and a new earth when Jesus comes again, of beholding Jesus as host of a marriage feast with the Father and Spirit and all our loved ones — saints — who were blessed to attend a church like the one in Saint-Malo and enter into holy communion with the flesh of Jesus and all the saints. Yes, everything does die at last and too soon — and I thank God daily for giving my family a rich life in the church, and that there was a plan laid out for me for my one wild and precious life that gives meaning to “too soon death.”
After such a rich reading experience, Doerr’s final word made me think how richer Marie-Laure’s final years would have been if her thoughts of her father, Etienne, Madame Manec, and Werner were not about their lives now flowing through the airwaves or returned to the grass and flowers, but to resting in Jesus, waiting for the resurrection of their bodies, assured of a seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end.
How do we tell this story to Cubans who have been beaten down under a totalitarian regime that tried to banish all Christian talk, or Farsi-speaking Iranians whose religion celebrates the real absence of God? How do we tell the world that the Church has “All the Light We Cannot See?”