All things have their compensations. Loss, suffering, sorrow, are not without benefits. Tragedies lift us out of ourselves, giving us a renewed vision, stirring our thoughts from the personal and the trivial to the unselfish and the universal.

Now that in 1913, as in memorable years past, a portion of the earth has endured a great natural calamity, we may be privileged to forget our individual welfare (while we care for that of others) and may turn from anxiety about our place in the world, to contemplate our place in the universe.

For the elements again have demonstrated their dominion over us—by a state’s-wide sweep of waters across the continent o’erturning our fragile works; and in the light (or more properly the shadow) of that vast event just passed, we are once more face to face with our futility—the realization of man’s appalling littleness in the universe.

On every side we see magnitude no end, motion immeasurable—which act and interact in those sublime manifestations of elemental fury called natural phenomena; and by these involved, hemmed in and overhung, we feel at times o’erawed.

For what friend have we in nature?—none! Rather, we seem interlopers merely, existing at sufferance of a truce between enormous enmities. The name of these enmities is legion, for they are many—if we classify and particularize; their sum, in science, is the entire terminology of chemistry and dynamics; but in simple language we may combine their multifarious terms and call them "heat" and "weight." Puny words! yet their shadows stretch into infinity, as do the forces whose prosaic names they are. Unremitting contact with these forces dulls our thought of them, for we attach no splendor of significance to that which we cannot behold, and they are "things that are not seen," in Saint Paul’s words; but, to follow out his thought, they are "eternal," and their ceaseless play underlies and animates all our world.

Impelled by heat, his flaming emissary, the sun, shines down and lifts the sea, transfusing it in air. Hence arise clouds, and the winds that waft them. But, ever hampered by an opposition force, these cannot long endure; for weight resists the sun and draws his vapors and their aerial carriers down to all-receiving earth.

The gracious equipoise of these contrary tendencies comprises what scientists call "the opposition of forces" —a balance, a turn-about, an interchange of giving and receiving, under which we have sunshine and rain, seed time and harvest—the normal "orderly" working of nature that man may take account of, base his predictions on, conform his activities to, and thrive under.

But let a "hitch" occur! a preponderance of one force apparently subdue the other—and there come those terrific cataclysms, those convulsions of the waters and the air, that man has learned to dread.

At some moment before the midnight of the twenty-third of March, at some point in the infinite abyss of space, a zone of heat assumed the vertical, took on the columnar shape—a veritable "pillar of cloud," indeed— towering toward the zenith for perhaps a hundred miles.

Afterward—like any tiny teetering house of blocks piled up by childish hands—it became "topheavy" (ah, the opposing force of weight, which had been apparently subdued, was to accomplish its revenge!), and as a mighty tree might be imagined to totter ere it fell beneath the axe, so this hundred-miles-high disproportioned and unstable shape of air "toppled over," in familiar phrase-it oscillated, convoluted, then collapsed and fell, with a terrific speed drawn down, constrained once more by the irresistible attraction of the earth.

Through the night it rushed (at a breath accumulating an intenser force through condensation of its substance into hail and rain), it burst in weaker air, to hurl itself on undefended land and sea and sweep them with the besom of destruction.

Some puny point, some pitiable doomed place, must bear the initial impact of the unimpeded hurricane developed now. Was it on Omaha, or in Indiana, or along the unprotected beautiful Miami Valley that the first full fury fell? Wherever may have been the socalled "storm center," that station straightway became stripped of all its reassuring, human and familiar aspects of regard! It now stood stark, revealed in its primeval attitude alone; abandoned to the impulse of the elements, supine as in the age when natural forces worked prodigiously before the time of man.

Since man appeared, these forces have displayed their power no less remorselessly; only in a changed degree they work than when the mountains rose or the glaciers trenched the valleys and the lakes. For nature never shall be tamed, propitiated, or in the least subdued. Still her convulsions and upheavals come, despite our utmost efforts to avert her disregardful rigors, our longing (born of fearfulness and failure) to creep close and have our lot and part in her—aliens denied our home! How often since the primitive human creature cowered before lightning and the storm, made sacrifices unto them and called them gods—how constantly in every age, since then, has man made effort to be reconciled with nature, to lay her milder ministrations to his heart as sent in love! On long delightful afternoons in June the heavens seem to bend in gracious kindness to the thankful earth—made so for man. Spring’s great annual miracle of resurrection makes us fain to see delight and hope inspire the force that brings forth grass and flowers.

But only in rare moments is such feeling possible; for there is sure to interpose the failure unforeseen— some careless movement on the part of natural might —to jostle the painstaking house of cards we rear— man’s puny structures and his fragile hopes. The truth’s revealed once more: not kind at all, nature is negligent. Our harvests fail because her rains are not attentive; or a storm’s upheaval is allowed to trace a tiny track an instant on her front (some flood-and-wind destruction like the one just passed), and cities are o’erturned, lives by hundreds are sacrificed; man is struck down again by nature’s thoughtless unregardful might, set to resume the race-long struggle of adapting himself to his environment, proved a pauper that maintains itself on crumbs from the universal store, reduced to wonderment and mourning. And yet—it is only by being thus brought to a realization that he is at war with natural forces and that these are, by his, minutely matched—this experience alone fits man to lose his awe of nature and reduce it to a proper place and focus in his thought. Alien to nature is man?—what a distinction! Unique, alone, sublime! at his feet the earth, o’er his head the heavens galaxied with stars!—but hold! This fulsome utterance might be made of all the beasts; these cower from storms and likewise live amid the glories of the natural world. Here is the difference: that man, out of the struggle with the forces that at times completely conquer him, has summoned courage and evolved a faith, has framed a conviction—"substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen"—through which alone he triumphs over nature. That conviction is, that there exists a Being from whom mankind and all creation have alike progressed. And as, through his limitations, man may never hope to conquer natural forces, so, through these very limitations, he only can conceive of God that He is love. Aught else is unthinkable. Therefore, let nature smile or frown, both shall mean mercy (which were demonstrable, were our conception adequate) — they shall show forth the justice and the lovingkindness of the Lord.

Hence is born a superhuman energy of hope which has confidence that afflictions are but for a moment. Yet hope does not console; the steadfast heart may triumph in hardship and adversity, but it cannot rise superior to sorrow for dear ones whose lives have been ruthlessly o’erborne. For this there is one resource more: in time of grief to throw oneself on God. He is the refuge and the strength, the "very present help in time of trouble"; and in Him man may find rest for his soul.

This fact was revealed of old. It is the burden of the Hebrew prophets’ song. These ancient writers, laboring to express its truth, have set it forth in matchless imagery—in language that has been reverently appropriated and adapted to grace the worship of our time. But, in all times, man—when appalled by the thought of his littleness in the universe and the doubts which this instills, or when o’erwhelmed by grief—has been reminded that God is his refuge and his strength. Through some insistent phrase this inspiration has been kept familiar to every people. Beautifully expressed by the hymnwriter, it is endeared through fond association to our own: "Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee!"



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© 2001, Lynn Waterman