Elderly people often think that some of their recollections are unimportant in the grand scheme of things. With the recent Titanic centenary still vivid this season, there are recorded eyewitness accounts of three priests giving general absolution: Juozas Montvila of Lithuania, hoping to minister to his compatriots who had fled to America from Czarist persecution, Josef Benedikt Peruschitz of Germany on his way to the new Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minnesota, and the English convert priest Thomas Roussel Byles of Balliol College, Oxford, en route to marry his brother to a young woman in Brooklyn. Ellen Mocklane, later professed as a Religious Sister of Mercy in Massachusetts as Sister Mary Patricia, remembered the cackling of hens and chickens set loose as people prayed the rosary, and a woman using her hat to stuff a hole in their lifeboat. Octogenarian English survivor Eva Hart said the orchestra really did play “Nearer my God to Thee,” and hummed what seemed to be the English tune “Horbury” by Dykes rather than more familiar “Bethany.” Whatever the tune, she never forgot the screams and then the appalling silence after the broken hull disappeared.
As a student in Rome, I often visited and dined with Guglielmo Marconi’s widow, who mentioned that her husband had cancelled his trip at the last moment, and was pleased that his radio system on theCarpathia helped to save lives, although other ships closer by, including the California, had shut down their receivers for the evening. The best known resident of my own neighborhood of Murray Hill, J.P. Morgan had a ticket but did not use it. He died of natural causes almost exactly one year later, never neglectful of the memory of his good friends Isador and Ida Straus who went down with the ship, she refusing to board a lifeboat without her husband asking, “How would I live without him?” and giving her fur coat to her maid as protection against the chilly North Atlantic air. My own grandmother had sailed on the Carpathia some seven years earlier and heard of the Titaniccatastrophe on Sunday morning in the same church in New Jersey where years later on another Sunday morning the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced.
As goes the dictum of Mies van der Rohe, “God is in the details,” we are grateful for little asides in the Gospel, which the Holy Spirit did not think minor or incidental. There are no throw away lines of the Holy Spirit that are not meant to be caught. Luke’s attention to detail made him the patron saint of artists. John, with his soaring theology, usually brushes his picture soaring theology with strokes broader than Luke’s pointillism, but he does give poignant details in the Resurrection narrative: how he out ran Peter; the shroud and napkin neatly folded in the tomb; Christ breathing on ten of the apostles in the Upper Room; the wound in Christ’s side big enough for a hand to fit in; the cooking fire kindled and the number of fish caught when Christ appeared on the Galilean shore. Our Lord wants us to pay attention to these things: “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater” (Luke 16:10).
There is a tradition passed on by St. Jerome who was a master of things often overlooked by hasty eyes, that the youngest apostle, as an old man in Ephesus, kept saying each Sunday over and over again what he had written in his first letter (1 John 3:18) , “Little children love one another.” Some of his hearers thought he might be afflicted with the repetitiousness of a mind growing vague with age. He insisted: “I shall keep saying this, for it is what I heard from the lips of the Master.” John ended his Gospel account: “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
It is old wisdom that the stone on the Easter tomb was rolled away, not so that Jesus might come out but so that the disciples might go in. With His risen body’s character of “subtlety,” the Lord was no longer limited by His own laws of physics, but He did want us to enter in and see how empty the tomb was, so that we might “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
The Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of Our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, Cloud of Witnesses, is available from Scepter Publishing.