Fiction: The Bright Side

Professor Martin and his wife lived in an apartment across Belden Avenue from the McCormick Theological Seminary where he had been teaching for 20 years. They led a quiet life. Occasionally they attended gatherings of professional colleagues, went to a movie, a concert or a play. But for the most part they ate dinner at home alone and in the evening listened to the radio.

Aside from relatives who resided in other states, the Martin’s had no family and, outside the realm of the seminary, no friends. When they were young, the Martin’s had wanted to have a family but were unable. Who was responsible they never sought to learn. They loved each other and that was enough.

The windows of the Martin’s apartment faced east so the morning sun illuminated the rooms and brought cheerfulness to their awakening. Only in late fall and winter, when the sun rose later, did a lingering darkness fill the apartment in the morning. The presence of clouds increased the gloom, and the Martins were eager to be out and about, he to the seminary across the street, she to the solitude of church for silent meditation and then shopping.

In winter, the neighborhood’s appearance was also depressing because the smell of burning coal was always in the air, and the snow that came to whiten the city was soon dusted by fine particles of soot that marred its purity. Smells from the foundry and tannery along the river to the west also detracted from the impression of nature beautified. World War II was on, and with America’s armed forces and those of its allies clamoring for continual reinforcements production was a priority.

But summer was a comparatively happy time for Professor Martin. With the school year over and warm air accompanying him when he sauntered across the street to the Virginia Library to continue his research on the nature of God, he only felt a fleeting loneliness but not a residual depression. Solidly built of Indiana limestone, the library projected an image of permanence that Professor Martin found comforting in a transitory world. Its massive Ionic columns and sturdy entablature provided additional symbols of longevity.

Bill Sanders was to have assisted Professor Martin in his researches after he graduated in 1943. The two had discussed the nature of God numerous times and had agreed it was a subject that needed contemporary exploration. During those many hours of discussion, Bill had become like a son to the professor. Often, when their talks were lengthy and extend into suppertime, Bill ate at the Martin’s home.

Bill was a serious young man with two brothers in the armed forces. They were older than Bill, and he looked up to them. Now it was 1944 and he too was serving his country. After graduation and ordination he had joined the navy and was currently a chaplain on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the South Pacific. Professor Martin had disagreed with Bill’s decision to enlist, but never verbalized it. He hoped Bill would be a credit to his calling and return home safely. Photos of chaplains kneeling and praying over dying men on the decks of carriers that appeared in newsreels made him wonder if he had been wise in remaining silent about Bill’s choice. They had parted the best of friends with the promise they would continue where they left off when Bill returned.

It was July, and Bill was still writing. Beneath the words describing the rush of new experiences, Professor Martin sensed the joy of fulfillment that was pouring into Bill’s soul. Beyond feeling appreciated, Bill also felt needed. Professor Martin keenly appreciated the value of this awakening.

One morning with Bill’s latest letter in his pocket, which he had read before leaving home like an anxious father, Professor Martin was on his way to the library. The sky was cloudless and bright. And even though it was early, the sun was already exerting its power, making the air uncomfortably hot.

Professor Martin paused more than once, during the short walk to the library and the climb up its long flight of stairs, to wipe his forehead. Bathed in sunlight, never before had the building appeared more like a Greek Temple. A temple, Professor Martin hoped that was more than just a repository of stored knowledge. Something in Bill’s letter had started him speculating on man’s spiritual needs, and he quickly affirmed, once again, that human beings require more than the purely physical. In times of crises the need is greatest. Bill had observed this truth, first hand, in battle, and had rekindled it in Professor Martin’s undisturbed life.

Plato, St. Anselm and St. Thomas must no longer dominate the theoretical explanations of God, he decided. Something else was needed. Something closer to the human heart must be written on the subject. But what?

Light poured through the large library windows. Brilliant rays streaked across the tables and chairs of the reading room. Bathed in the effects of those powerful beams, Professor Martin found it impossible to read or work. But in an armchair, out of the light, one could close one’s eyes and think. Professor Martin glanced around the room, and seeing he was alone, leaned back and closed his eyes. The stillness in the room was absolute. Even the clatter of passing streetcars on Halsted failed to pierce the silence.

After awhile, with furrows on his brow, Professor Martin opened his eyes. No answer on how to proceed had come to him, not even a clue. Every lead had met a dead end. Even the well-developed ideas of the past seemed inadequate to the raging present. Professor Martin was convinced the world wanted something more than it had been given so far. But he wondered if he was the person to provide it…or if the knowledge was intended to be given to humans at all.

Glancing out the window, Professor Martin saw children in their bathing suits playing under one of the tall sprinklers on the expansive lawn in front of the library. They laughed. They yelled. They ran. And they sat down within the circle of the spray to let the water pour over their faces and limbs. Living to the fullest in the present moment was the only thing in their minds.

Professor Martin couldn’t stop watching…and he couldn’t help smiling. These children knew both pleasure and pain, but because they lacked the power to reject them, they accepted whatever was given. As he watched, marveled and wondered, he suspected that the answer which he and others had sought from the very beginning might be bound to the idea of unquestioned acceptance. It was only the advent of the first question that insinuated doubt and then, endless questioning.