Tales Too Uncomfortable to Be Apocryphal

An amazing phenomenon happens every time I climb a ladder. With each step, I gain […]

Josh Retterer / 5.30.19

An amazing phenomenon happens every time I climb a ladder. With each step, I gain about a thousand pounds. I probably should report it to science, or it’s simply that I’m really afraid of heights; either way, the effect is as real as gravity. I’ve climbed right up through the clouds to the very top of Haleakalā, one of Maui’s volcanoes, twice. The first time, when the switchbacked trail gave way to a short path with drop-offs on either side, I crawled across on hands and knees. My second ascent, I bravely, even heroically, faced my fears once again, and upon reaching the same spot in the trail, you guessed it — I hands and kneesed it.

I’m not proud of my fear of heights, but I’m not ashamed of it either. It’s not that I am afraid of dying should I fall; rather, I’m afraid of not dying. I mean, I’d rather be at home with the Lord than present in what’s left of me after a sudden, sharp contact with the ground. I remember when The Walking Dead was popular, I was so mystified that they made a whole series about the survivors. Survivors? Hell, my plan is to run straight at the zombie horde, should that apocalypse come — why draw out the inevitable?

I think knowing this about myself is why I was particularly struck by a story written by the early 20th-century Czech writer, Karel Čapek. A critic of fascism, communism, nationalism, totalitarianism — all the isms — his outspokenness in his Nobel Prize-nominated plays, novels, and essays did not endear him to the incoming Nazi regime. He remained in his beloved Czechoslovakia despite being named “public enemy number two” by the Gestapo, and died from complications of a life-long illness at the age of 48, shortly before the outbreak of World War II. His brother, Josef, an artist and fellow writer, tragically died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a few years later in 1945.

It’s the bravery of Karel and his brother Josef that made the story I mentioned earlier so striking. It’s found in Apocryphal Tales: With a Selection of Fables and Would-Be Tales, his posthumously published collection of stories which covers historical figures like Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, and Archimedes, as well as fictional characters like Hamlet and Don Juan, and several biblical folks like Abraham, Pontius Pilate, and the lead character of the story in question, “Lazarus” — post-resurrection.

The story starts with Martha hearing that Jesus has been arrested. Lazarus excitedly tells Martha to pack his things, he’s going to Jerusalem to lend his support. Their sister Mary isn’t going to be left behind, insisting on coming along so she can see the miracle of Jesus revealing His glory. As Martha helps the two prepare for their journey, she finds Lazarus looking a little peaked:

“You don’t have a temperature,” Martha consoled him, thinking: Good heavens, Lazarus has been so strange, ever since that time — since that time when he was raised from the dead — “It was a cold wind that got me that time, too, when — when I was so sick,” Lazarus said uneasily; the fact is, he disliked talking about his former death.

“You know, Martha dear, one way or another I haven’t been any too well since then. It wouldn’t be very good for me, this trip and all the excitement — But of course I’ll go, just as soon as this shivering stops.”

“I know you’ll go,” Martha said with a heavy heart. “Someone must hurry to His aid; after all, He — healed you,” she added hesitantly, for it struck her too as indelicate, somehow, to speak of his raising from the dead. “Look, Lazarus, once you’ve freed Him, you can at least ask Him to help you — if perhaps you’re not feeling well —”

“That’s true,” sighed Lazarus. “But what if I don’t get that far? What if we arrive too late? You have to consider all the possibilities. And what if there turns out to be some sort of free-for-all in Jerusalem? You don’t know those Roman soldiers, soldiers, girl. Oh, Lord, if only I were healthy!”

“Well, you are healthy, Lazarus,” Martha retorted. “You must be healthy, since He healed you!”

A little later, we find Martha thinking about the irony of having a once-dead, now hypochondriac, brother:

Martha sat down quietly in the courtyard, staring straight ahead with dry, fixed eyes. Her hands were clasped, but she didn’t pray. The black hens drew near to peer at her, one eye cocked; when, contrary to their expectations, she tossed no grain their way, they left to drowse in the midday shade.

Lazarus crept quietly out from the passageway, deathly pale, his teeth chattering. “I — I can’t, not now, Martha,” he stammered. “I’d like so much to go — perhaps tomorrow —”

There was a lump in Martha’s throat. “You’d better go lie down, Lazarus,” she managed to say. “You — you can’t go.” “I would go,” Lazarus faltered, “but if you think, Martha dear — Tomorrow perhaps — But don’t leave me home by myself, will you? What would I do here all alone?”

Martha got up. “Just go lie down,” she said in her customarily gruff voice. “I’ll stay with you.”

At that moment Mary stepped out into the courtyard, dressed for the journey. “Well, Lazarus, shall we leave?”

“Lazarus can’t go anywhere,” Martha answered drily. “He isn’t well.”

“Then I’ll go alone,” sighed Mary. “To see the miracle.”

Tears trickled slowly from Lazarus’s eyes. “I’d like so much to go with you, Martha — if only I weren’t so afraid . . . of dying again!”

I think the reason I love the ending of this story so much is because Čapek was quite realistic about humanity. Despite his own bravery in the face of death, he also knew we are just as prone to an equal, if not greater, measure of fear. We live during a time, particularly in the church, when we do the thing Čapek wisely avoided doing in his stories; we valorize or vilify fear and doubt. My faith, my belief becomes not something authored and finished by God but, instead, a means by which I maintain (or not), moment by terrifying moment, my salvic connection to my Savior. Stand aside Jesus, I got this. The absurdity is overwhelming. You start to wonder why Jesus had to die at all, if it’s all down to us. We do this by pretending to have an ultimate agency we know we don’t have, because, deep down, we aren’t convinced by our own apocryphal tales.

Sister Wendy Beckett, in her book Sister Wendy on Prayer, isn’t impressed with our tendency to absolutize doubt:

A priest once wrote to me referring to Saint Thomas, who doubted (as the Gospels tell us) and said that unless he put his finger into the wound in the side of Jesus, he would not believe in the Resurrection. My friend said he thought doubt was fruitful. It seems to me, rather, that doubt is irrelevant. Common enough, but not crucial to our relationship with God. It is what we do with the doubt that matters.

Anyone who says they wish they could believe but they have not been given the gift of faith misunderstands the nature of faith. It is indeed a gift, and God holds it out to everyone. Whether or not you feel it is true is irrelevant. Oh, how one needs to stress and repeat that feelings are merely subjective. If you want faith, ask for it. God gladly gives it. Then, with this newborn faith, you can begin the long and lovely process of understanding what it is to which you have committed yourself. You read, you pray, you say with the desperate man in the Gospel, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9: 24).

Lazarus didn’t raise himself from the dead; Martha knew that, sitting there in prayerless silence with those chickens clucking around her feet — she was there when it happened! Lazarus knew it, too, reminded again the moment his tremblingly honest, and very human, confession passed his lips. These are but fleeting moments in his story, our story, but they aren’t the whole story, and thank God for that. I also thank God for Karel Čapek and his Apocryphal Tales, because he reminds us that we would mess up our story, nine ways to Sunday, if we could. Fortunately we can’t, because Christ has already been raised, and we with Him.

The End.