En Route to Nairobi
With the Thomist scholar Josef Peiper, the World Youth Alliance teaches its young people that the ultimate fulfillment of the human person, the most powerful expression of being alive, happens in an instance of beholding... God.
From my airplane window, the clouds cluster here in a fantastic Saharan afternoon display- the way they do over tropical oceans- but here it is a sea of sand. These clouds... a breathtaking arrangement of shapes and shadows, from God's hands, cast over the sky for the handful of people who happened to be awake for it on the right-hand side of Swiss Air Flight 292. I saw one of the wakeful ones- he is African, just a little older than me- very young and lithe and intense, strained against his window with absolute focus to see the beauty out there. It was because of him that I took my own look out of my own window. It was because of him- he had the look of someone so very eager and alive- (God only knows why he is returning to Nairobi from Zurich- he hardly looks like a banker. A freedom fighter? A peace worker? A notorious advocate? A spy?)...
I had given up. We had already flown for two hours from Zurich over the awesome beauty of the Alps, over their cold little lakes, St. Moritz, the Badrutz Palace Hotel, over Lakes Como and Maggiore with their alfresco cafes, over the sparkling Mediterranean and a dozen Italian pleasure islands, (Capri? La Corse? It was the wrong side for Portofino) where countless yachts made white streaks in the water before the place where the water shone like clear turquoise near the shores- and then we were over Tunis and the Kufra basin and the touted desolation of Northern Africa, and then we knew that we were over war-torn Sudan, and you could see smoke in the air. I curled up tight for a nap then- my peculiar talent- because at least this present genocide, in the country thousands of miles beneath the plane, is not the fault of colonial blunders. There is nothing to be done- everyone says so. I certainly cannot jump off this plane and parachute through the atmospheres to rescue the children in Darfur (death and rape every minute)- can I? Oh, I can pray. I breathe something about "peace" and draw my cashmere wrap thing around me and I sleep deliciously for a while, and I dream something about having lunch with Larry King.
I am so glad that I woke up in time to see that young man (political asylum seeker?) straining against his window, loving the beauty of the ground and the sky so much. On this ground (it is soaked with blood) and on this sky (the sun can be merciless here and can kill young things) God writes His majesty. It will always be this way. Though the earth's crust here may be very thin, such that Hell breaks through so frequently (whether in the anguished violence of Darfur or in the trudging drudgery of daily poverty's burdens) it is uniquely here, on this continent, that God's children call to each other with shouts and stamping feet and glinting eyes and drum-beats that sound exactly like the human heart in the night. It is here too that the Lord goes forth with a shout. You should see the very clouds He casts.
This is why I come to Africa. I come to know the power of the Incarnation and the Resurrection in that thing- that resilience- of poor, powerful people. I wish to be taught by the posture of the young African man who studies this sky outside as though he need never look away- here is grace. It is as though he said to me, "this is beauty for ashes. This is the sound of a song in the night."
We are over Northern Uganda now. There is the slender Nile that Livingstone found, snaking its way through all the trees. There are the lovely green hills were Joseph Konye tortures kidnapped children, at this moment, one by one, ideally four years old, so that they too can torture others and kill in his armies. It takes this plane just a few minutes to pass another place where Hell has broken through. Another place where God goes forth with a shout. I think that whatever sort of "parachute" God may choose to give to me for jumping off, for intervening, for joining His gracious onslaught on this country against its evil, I will take it.
Dear people, come to Africa. Get on a plane or send your dollars or write to someone in Washington who can make things happen. Do something. Respond somehow to these very real screams and tears. But do it for your own soul- there is absolutely nothing so exhilerating as extending yourself to see and to be where the gates of Hell cannot finally prevail.