Into An Unknown Land

September 18, 2008

Blessed are the peacemakers . . . [They] are the salt of the earth. . . .  the light of the world.
                          — Matthew 5: 9, 13, 14, 16,  NRSV

Today marks the forty-seventh anniversary of the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish diplomat, second Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Christian mystic. At the time of his death in a plane crash in what is now Zambia he was on his way to try to negotiate a cease-fire between warring factions in the newly-independent nation of Congo. The cause of the crash remains unclear, and some people still hold theories that Hammarsjköld was the target of assassination. He is commemorated on this day in the Lutheran Calendar of Saints as a renewer of society.

As I explain elsewhere, the title of this journal is taken from Markings, the excerpts from Hammarskjöld’s private writings published first in Swedish in 1963. The material in Markings begins with a poem Hammarskjöld wrote in 1925, when he was twenty and studying law and economics in his native Sweden. “I am being driven forward into an unknown land,” he writes, and what follows is a record of his trying to come to terms with his faith and with his destiny. The writings never mention his career as an international diplomat, neither the people he met nor the historical events of his time, many of which he influenced directly. They record only his inner life, his private transactions with the divine, his continual efforts to examine his conscience and to say Yes to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

I was fourteen when Hammarskjöld died, just beginning ninth grade, not particularly interested in world events. Somehow, though, I knew who Hammarskjöld was, probably because my wonderful ninth-grade English teacher, Sister Margaret Loretta, knew who he was and why he was important and what a tragedy for peacemaking his death was, and told us about him at the beginning of class and led us in prayer for the repose of his soul and the continuation of his work. Markings was published in English in 1964, when I was seventeen and just becoming aware of my own inner life. I first read some of it when it was excerpted in Reader’s Digest or The Saturday Evening Post or some other magazine that came to our house.

Hammarskjöld’s work made an impression on me, although I did not own a copy of Markings until some time after August 1971. At least that’s the date in the twenty-seventh printing in the hardbound edition I bought for $5.95. I was in my twenties then, and keeping a diary from time to time, although nothing before 1980 survives. Those undocumented years were my Agnostic Period when, like Francis Thompson, “I fled Him down the nights and down the days” until I stopped, took stock of “the dust o’ the mounded years,” and said my own Yes to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I took up journal writing as a personal growth tool, and am now working in Notebook #24.

These are troubled times we are living in. I write that sentence and look at it and think it is a cliché, a facile phrase. When have we not been in troubled times? In my own adult awareness I have lived through the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, the women’s rights movement, the economic turmoil of the 1980s, the Gulf Wars, the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces. The war in Afghanistan continues, the U.S. economy is in meltdown, and we’re in the middle of a presidential election season that will get uglier and more contentious before it’s over.

When Hammarskjöld wrote of being driven forward into an unknown land he could not have known what lay before him, what part he would personally play in the world-changing events that were to come. At twenty he already knew that life is uncertain and that we need mighty internal resources to help us through both good times and bad.

I’ve let my prayer life get a little ragged in recent weeks. My morning period  of Coffee and Contemplation has become mostly Coffee and Moodling in My Novel. I’m making astonishing progress on that, but I need some balance. I’ll be enrolling in Practicing Spirituality with the Peacemakers, a course led by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, teachers of spirituality whose work I have found valuable before. It runs from September 26 (Lynn’s twenty-third birthday) to November 4, Election Day, when the noise won’t stop, but it will change tenor.

And getting out my copy of Markings again.

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