"Desolate, weak beyond description, terrified, utterly lost - I knew that I had let slip all my underpinnings." Those are the words of Stingo, the talented young writer/narrator in the harrowing and brilliant novel "Sophie's Choice" by William Styron, which was made into a movie in 1982.
The book contains a revealing incident that was not in the film. Stingo is riding a bus, returning home to the suicidal fate of his two best friends - Sophie, the book's namesake, and Nathan, her lover. Sophie has been unable to recover from the horrors of the concentration camp where she was forced to make the choice of which of her children would perish. Nathan has deep mental and drug problems from which he has been unable to escape.
On his ride, Stingo carries a Bible he uses as a prop when he pretends to be a minister. This was in the early '60s. Other than its usefulness as a prop, Stingo considers the Bible a "literary convenience," providing "allusions and tag lines" for overly pious characters in his novels.
Stingo has no need for organized religion with its false piety. He describes himself as an "agnostic, emancipated enough from the shackles of belief and also brave enough to resist calling on ... Deity, even in times of travail and suffering." But here he faces a problem too deep to resolve. Much to his amazement, this prop becomes "the prescription of my torment." This prescription is provided by someone completely outside his socioeconomic group.
Stingo's "angel" on the bus is a large black woman of "majestic heft and girth" who squeezes into the seat next to him "filling the ambient space with the aroma of heliotrope." She recognizes his distress, which is so deep that he can't even verbalize it. She pulls out her own copy of the Bible from a shopping bag and suggests they read together words of comfort.
Stingo remembers from his "idiot Sunday School lessons" where to find the Psalms - the middle of the Bible - and requests Psalm 88. She replies, "Dat is some fine psalm": "O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry; for my soul is full of troubles ....' "
What an odd couple they must have appeared as they read the Bible aloud together into the night. When she reached her destination, she told him "Ev'ything gone be all right." The Psalmist's message must have comforted Stingo. He was now armed with a spiritual poise that prepared him to handle the deaths of his friends. Stingo found strength beyond his own. The puerile, formal understanding he had of the Bible in Sunday School was replaced with something real.
The Bible became a book of the heart and not only of the head.
My Sunday School training also prepared me for two sudden passings. Some years ago early one morning, seconds before my alarm went off, I was fully alert and heard a voice very clearly in my consciousness saying, "Man is deathless, spiritual.... He does not cross the barriers of time into the vast forever of Life, but he coexists with God and the universe." This quotation from page 266 of "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures" by Mary Baker Eddy is one of many I learned during my Sunday School days, along with some psalms. Then almost simultaneously came the news of the rock star John Lennon's death.
Many in my generation were huge fans, and the event could have had an enormous impact on me. Instead, I was protected from the emotional blow that tried to bring me down. I literally felt it fall away, and without succumbing to grief, I could appreciate the wondrous gifts he brought to the world.
The same thing happened many years later when I received news of my dad's sudden passing. The previous healing of grief came instantly to mind, and I felt calm and supported. My mother told me later that she was amazed at my poise and calmness while many others in the family were struggling. These lessons continue to support me as I hear news of war casualties and terrorist acts.
In the face of all that's happening in the world today, inner peace can be found in a "fine psalm."
The last sentence of "Sophie's Choice" offers a glimpse of this assurance continuing for Stingo, as it will for everyone, as he was able to observe, "This was not judgment day - only morning. Morning: excellent and fair."