By the Awful Grace of God
"The most spiritual human beings, assuming they are the most courageous, also experience by far the most painful tragedies: but it is precisely for this reason that they honor life, because it brings against them its most formidable weapons.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
I lay in my bed one night, wrought by the pangs of depression, at a near-breaking point, feeling like all the immense pressures and stresses of life were tearing me apart at every semblance of a connection between flesh and bone, threatening the very nexus of mind and body and spirit. My soul cried out in pain, and I reached my hand upward toward the texture of the ceiling, begging for help—a way out of my emotional torture. My tear-filled eyes cleared and saw Heaven open up as a bright and beautiful cloud appeared and opened above me. A hand reached out of this immaculate golden-white cloud and took hold of my hand. Instantly, I knew that this was the hand of my grandfather who had passed away nearly thirteen years earlier—less than a fortnight before my tenth birthday. His hand held mine and he comforted me even without saying a word.

The appearance of my grandfather’s hand lasted for only a few seconds, but the comfort that I gained from his touch lasts as strongly to this day as it did that evening. It would be easy for someone reading this story to believe that whatever hand I saw, and whatever comfort I received therefrom, was the fabrication of my imagination; I must ask, however, was it my grandmother’s imagination when she was visited by my grandfather’s spirit, whose face appeared and was encircled by the images of many of my immediate family members, and whose angelic force and power paralyzed my grandmother for several hours and bathed her in a most awesome and warm feeling of love? Was it my sister’s imagination when, on the day of my grandfather’s passing, while pleading with God to return him to life, she heard his voice, calling her by name, telling her not to worry? To many, it will always be believed that such experiences are not supernatural; that they are explainable in some concrete, scientific terms; that they cannot possibly occur through forces unknown and without explanation; and, that no higher force nor spiritual being nor divine power exists to generate these experiences for human beings. The world is as we see it—nothing more; truth exists in proportion to its tangibility. What I see, what I hear, what I smell, what I taste, what I hold in my hand proves the existence of something, and, in following this logic, nothing without substance can be accepted as truth.

My thirteen-year-old son questioned the existence of God one evening. “How can people believe in God,” he queried, “when there’s no proof that He even exists?” The question struck me with great concern; it hit me at a moment when I was quite preoccupied with other worries, and the process of answering this question became uplifting. We believe in God precisely because there is no proof that He exists, I answered; we believe in Him because it is ingrained in our very souls. Perhaps scientists will one day discover that spirituality is written into our genetic code, that we follow the course of the divine because it is in our very nature to do so. I am not speaking in terms of denominational religion, but in terms of anointed spirituality, the cornerstone for all the world’s religions. The power inherent in one’s spirituality comes in direct proportion to the tenacity of one’s belief because spirituality is, in many ways, a figment of one’s imagination, the creation of a mind which can no longer be satisfied by the rigid confines of social structure or of communal values or of pride. But it is precisely for this reason that the spiritual becomes powerful; it is at the suggestion of the divine that we begin to seek evidence of its existence, that we modify our rationale to accommodate its effects, that we open our eyes and our hearts and our minds to the possibility that we are starved for spiritual air, suffering a sort of divine hypoxia which deprives the body of much needed spiritual respiration; the spiritual metabolism begins to yearn to be fed, and the involvement of oneself in matters of the divine begins to temper the pangs. But success in the quest to reach God cannot be had until the heart truly reaches the depths of despair and experiences those most severe pains and stings which accompany suffering. Those who know not pain, know not growth. Those who know not growth are marked for damnation, not of God, but of themselves.

My grandfather’s passing marked a turning point in my life—a point at which I began to grow restless with the iniquities of life—a point at which I began to discover the real importance of love and of family and of the need to have someone—at least one person—with whom one has a spiritual and ethereal bond in thought and in practice. The death of my grandfather marked for me the passing of one such connection incarnate, yet it opened up a spiritual and divine connection for me which had never before been of any value. The loss of my grandfather taught me so many things about love and relationship that I, a man in my late-twenties, could miss so strongly a man who died before I was even old enough to understand and appreciate him. But there is no one I so long to talk with, no one I so need to query for advice, and no one to whom I am so spiritually bound as this man who has been dead for over a decade and a half.

As I have grown in recent times, both emotionally and spiritually, I have come to discover a sense of soul which, I believe, impresses upon me the connections in this life which are perhaps unexplainable, dwelling in the mystery, casting doubt upon everything that is known, yet concurrently abiding only in truth, bringing light to what remains unknown, and casting in the shadow all of that which seems so apparent. The life which I am coming to know exists not in some state of pure substance but in a condition of abstraction which, but for its manifestation in my soul, is intangible. I glean my understanding of the eternal truth much from the existence—though not intrinsic to this life—of my grandfather’s spirit which, to this day, guides me and affects my life through forces unexplainable. The enlightenment brought to me in the spirit of my grandfather brings together, in concurrent existence, and without contradiction, the sacred and the secular, the religious and the politic, faith and science.

The enlightenment that I receive through my grandfather’s spirit is no doubt linked substantively and ethereally to the experiences he endured in the South Pacific over fifty years ago. The pangs of suffering inflicted upon a young man, but a few years away from his Kansas boyhood life, enduring for God and country in a war generated by politics far from his control—and perhaps without his concern—most certainly act to shape his life, his personality, and his soul. His eyes ravaged by the sight of death and torture, his stomach blighted with the pain of hunger, his body consumed by disease and weakness, my grandfather’s life was shaped during those forty-two-and-a-half months of captivity; all that he really was—his talents, his intelligence and intellect, his personality, his outlook—was shaped more by that experience than perhaps all other experiences of his life. He gained wisdom from his suffering, even if, to him, it was not always that apparent. He discovered an often untold and misunderstood truth that no positive growth can be had in this life without benefit of suffering; that all truth exists only in relative comparison to fiction; that happiness is little more than the antithesis of moroseness. The battlefield is perhaps the world’s greatest classroom, pain and suffering its greatest teacher, and the sorrowful, panged heart its greatest student. Nowhere in the human experience are the teachings of history more poignant nor more insightful than those gleaned through the endurance of war. What scientists and philosophers and writers and artists fail to tell us, the history of man’s inhumanity to man articulates with extraordinary detail. Despite the evil and wrongdoing of war, despite the fear and loathing that many have at the thought of war, despite the awesome destruction which lies in its wake, war is ingratiated into our existence as a matter of great esteem; through theater, literature, television, and cinema, war has remained a pivotal topic of many human discussions. Perhaps it is because war is such an important element in our development as a universal race; because war is a manifestation of the achievement of might meeting the corruption of power; because war gives us a face-to-face look at our deepest, darkest desires—a look into the inner psychosis which plagues the human race. The evil of war suggests a contact with aspects of our personalities which are best kept as deeply tucked away in the caverns of psychology as we are able to control; yet, the suffering inherent in war is what teaches us and guides us to a higher plane of emotional thought and spiritual understanding. We learn from suffering as it teaches us vis-à-vis our proud, contented lives—a soulful kick-in-the-pants which returns us, in many ways, to a level of respect for human abilities which is often lost to arrogance and pride. The poignant lessons of war cannot be learned by those who cannot feel their stings. Aeschylus wrote in the Agamemnon: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

It is with these thoughts in mind that I set out to render the story of my grandfather’s experiences on the Bataan Death March, and as a prisoner of war in Japan, in the most poetic and descriptive way I possibly can, following the revelatory call: “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.” The story I tell herein is a narration of his experiences, as told to me by my grandmother, elevated to a level not of substantive fact, but of spiritual truth; a story which defies reality with reverence instead for what the whole experience meant to the man who lived it, as interpreted by the man who is perhaps most able to understand it. This story is true, and no tangible occurrence herein has been fictionalized. The emotional and spiritual facets of this story consist of my interpretation of how the events shaped my grandfather’s life as closely as I can feel that life, living as I do, with his spirit very much alive in me. This story is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of history, but an ethereal exposé of the spiritual substance of a life lived in what may perhaps have been the closest thing to a literal hell on earth that has been known to any man. This story is a reflection on how a man with a brother as his only living immediate family can endure starvation, torture, and the hardship of confinement in order to survive and carry on his legacy not as a war hero but simply as a father and a husband to a family which, at the time of his suffering, was barely even a hope in the back corner of his mind.

I glean much of my understanding of how these experiences can shape and mold a person from my own experiences with death and suffering, not as a prisoner of war, but as a policeman. There are certain truths that may be learned while standing next to the body of a twenty-two-year-old murder victim, or while trying to breathe life into a lifeless set of two-week-old lungs, or while walking down a narrow hallway to approach an armed maniac with no idea of his intention. I walked down that hallway, and with each step it grew narrower; the ceiling got lower; the pounding sound of my own heart became the only sound I could hear. I have breathed into an infantile set of lungs, knowing that I alone may make the difference between whether or not this precious, tiny child would get the chance to grow into a man, and then I finally came to the realization that his life was gone, and I was hit so hard that it might as well have been me who died—because part me really did. The revelation I received from these and many other experiences is not something which is necessarily intrinsic to police work any more than the truths my grandfather learned on that march of death are intrinsic to war. Many people never come to understand the spiritual and soulful teachings provided to us “by the awful grace of God.” Many people never connect the fact that death equals life every bit as much as life equals death, that reaching the deepest pits of sorrow and suffering is the only way to go to the top of the mountain and see the other side, and that spiritual truth comes not on a banner or a billboard, but in a parable spoken by a Jewish carpenter. The keys to the universe are so often overlooked because they exist not as complicated scientific dissertations, nor as exhaustive philosophical discourses, but as simple truths expressed in but a few words yet revealing infinite meaning. The Bible explains how God created the heaven and the earth in one chapter—thirty-one verses—of Genesis, yet within that chapter more information about the state of humankind is revealed to the spiritually gifted person than is contained in all six volumes of Matthew Henry’s bible commentary. It is not what is written in the first chapter of Genesis that is so thoroughly revealing, but what is not written. In fact, we could reduce that truth simply to one verse and still reveal the primary key to the universe: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The spiritually connected person understands that despite conflicts between Holy Scripture and secular science the essential truth is that God created everything we have. Walking along a beach, a man finds an old pocket watch lying in the sand. He knows instantly that the watch he has found was made by a human being, yet when he beholds the magnificent earth around him—a creation which is immeasurably more complicated than a common pocket watch—how can he question that that earth was created by a being far more advanced than any human has ever been? The honest truth is that we all question the creation of this planet at some point during our lives because we cannot comprehend how this planet could be created by any being, nor can we understand why the creator of Heaven and Earth would allow us to feel the deep stings and pangs of life. In our arrogance, we are unwilling to admit that, despite the apparent conflict between the sacred and the scientific, the earth, created by God, is over four-and-a-half billion years old; that God created the Earth as we know it in six days, and on the seventh day He rested; that human beings evolved in some way from microorganisms. We believe that science and religion are in conflict, yet we fail to consider that perhaps the conflict lies only in our own ignorance of the truth. Does Genesis contain an exhaustive discourse on the creation of the Earth? Or does it tell us, in very minimal terms, how we got here, much like a parent would tell a four-year-old child in very simplistic terms how babies are born? The revelation given us is, as prophetic as it may be, delivered to humankind only on a need-to-know basis. In universal terms, we are but young children—infants in our spiritual development. It is not until one discovers the strength which is inherent in suffering that one begins to understand the meaning of life: that growth is its purpose, and that nobody learns to walk without falling down from time to time.

Martin Luther King, Jr., taught that the best way to overcome an adversary is to have more capacity to suffer than your foe has capacity to inflict pain. King wrote: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” What we often fail to perceive is that oppression does not usually come in terms of violent racial hatred or tyrannical political control; it comes to us through our own slavery to everyday matters. Oppression comes to us in the form of materialism and of selfish ego. We are oppressed by our own lack of passion for any motivating life-long factor. We live according to social values that mean nothing to us because we neither understand nor appreciate the relativity of suffering vis-à-vis comfort. We endure very little torment and therefore enjoy very little contentment. We continue along a path which, but for a few minor aberrations, is straight and level with very few bumps. Things continue as such for generations with very little progress being made in terms of our humanity and our sense of soul, despite the evolution of many aspects of society. We change, but we never really grow. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

If the meaning of all of this eludes you, it is because your heart is not ready to receive the messages contained in this book. Each of us exists somewhere on the spiritual continuum: some of us may understand the deepest meanings; others of us have a sense of spirituality that does not mature until the latter days of one’s life; and many others of us will never be able to conceptualize—in heart or in mind—anything beyond the concrete and the literal.

This is a story which demands an understanding—or at least an appreciation—of the spiritual and of the divine. It is a story which will have some meaning for those who can believe as much in something knowing it is not true as they can in something that is indisputable. This is a story which, in many ways, finds its inspiration from the scriptural call that in the latter days people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” As you read this story, dwell on the mystery of it and live it in your imagination.

© Copyright 2000 by Michael A. Knox. All rights reserved.