There is this famous and powerful trope in Western literature: the two cities. Plato had it; Augustine had it most famously–the City of God and the City of Man; it is hidden within many works of literature and history. But of course there is that marvelous Dickens novel: A Tale of Two Cities. What’s important to remember is that this trope does not primarily refer to actual physical locations or cities but the city is more or less a symbol of a state of mind and a state of heart. Truly, physical cities are very often named here; physical places like Rome, like Paris and London, have an important presence here; but still what matters is something deeper that these different locales merely point to or symbolize in many different layers of significance. So let’s take a look at a couple of these tales of modern vintage.
The words in quotes are a powerful line from a very great American novel: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was also turned into a remarkable movie by John Ford. Here we are not going to engage in literary criticism or analysis, but I think the novel has some very interesting and important religious aspects, and it is on these that I would like to reflect a bit. A personal note: years ago when we first started to show movies in my monastic community (and I will totally deny any part in such an arrangement–unless someone has some pictures showing me setting up the DVD player), we wondered what would be some good movies to show the community. One time we hit on The Grapes of Wrath, and it was really interesting to see it in the monastic context as it showed the very real struggles of people to hold on to their humanity in a very hostile world. All the little aches and pains of monastic life and all the griping of monks about this or that situation seemed a bit exaggerated.
Overview and summary of the plot: the story is set at the height of the Great Depression in 1936, the “dust bowl” of Oklahoma, and the tenant-farmer economy that was the fate of millions. It is the story of the Joad family with Ma Joad and her oldest son, Tom, being the main characters. There is also another very important but mysterious character, Jim Casy, a former preacher who accompanies the Joads on their trek to California. These are tenant farmers; that means they don’t own the land they farm; the Bank owns it all. They have to turn over a certain amount of their crop as “rent.” In the mid ‘30s, during the height of the Great Depression, a tremendous drought hit this area and the land turned to dust and the winds blew and blew creating vast dust storms and millions of acres were lost to farming. The banks took over the land driving these tenant farmers out. Many of them, like the Joads, headed for California to become farmworkers picking vegetables and fruit–remember this is way before all the Hispanics that came into the fields of California to become farmworkers and Cesar Chavez and that era.
Now Steinbeck did not write just an historical/sociological study–but in fact it does have a lot of such observations–he wrote a novel, a story of deep significance for all human beings in all situations. If we focus on the three mentioned characters we will see this narrative as a kind of “conversion story.” So the “two cities” here might seem like the Joads in Oklahoma and the Joads in California and there is the journey from one to the other. There’s a certain truth in that, but the much deeper thing is the inner state of the key characters and their journey from one state of heart to another. Consider these three characters:
Tom: At the beginning of the story Tom is basically a good guy, the oldest and favorite son of the family, good-natured and thoughtful. A bit of a hot head, he accidentally kills a man in a bar fight and does some time in prison. As the novel begins he is on his way home. He makes do with what life hands him, but things have changed at home. He has a certain down-to-earth wisdom that makes him a fierce protector of the family’s well-being. By the end of the novel that whole inner dynamism has been transformed into a vision that encompasses not only his own family but the downtrodden everywhere. At the very end he is almost a Christ-like figure, the Risen Christ, who vanishes as an individual ego and is now going to be found everywhere where there are people who are mistreated and suffering.
Ma Joad: She is the stalwart anchor of the family, much stronger interiorly than her husband. As with Tom, at the beginning her main concern is with the welfare of her family. By the end of the novel she has journeyed with Tom to another sense of belonging. It is now “we, the people” that is her perspective.
Jim Casy: This guy is the most interesting character in the novel. His is the most radical conversion that we witness. At the beginning of the story when Tom meets him on the dusty road as Tom is walking back home after his release from prison, Casy confesses to Tom, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” He had been the community preacher; a kind of Pentecostal fundamentalist preacher. There are some grotesque descriptions of this, but you have to understand that what all this represents is all religion that is simply a manipulation of people. The “preacher” is an agent of this, and you can see this in the modern televangelists among others. But actually this happens in all religious traditions, and every member of every religious tradition needs a kind of “conversion” from the “city” of religion as manipulation, as external rule following, as guilt inducing, as institutional authority, as “anxiety-bleeding” through a showcase of excessive emotionalism or a magic show, etc., etc. All this and more Casy has left behind. As he puts it, “I lost the call.” He says he no longer can “preach.” This actually refers to this whole mode of religiosity. (Personal note: After seeing this movie I used to bother some people in my community that as a young priest I was going around saying with Casy, “I ain’t no preacher no more.” Actually I felt very close to Casy then. I felt that my homilies were simply a form of manipulation. I could be very clever because I was smart, but the actual words would turn to ash when they left my mouth or so I felt. And I felt this was not just me but the whole religious enterprise. We were not speaking the “Word of God” but our own clever manipulative words that either made us look good, or induced people to feel good, to give donations, to keep the “thing” going. In actuality, or so it seemed to me, God was truly silent, maybe in a way like never before, and I should cease my words and become more silent myself so that I could enter into the meaning of that silence and learn what it had to teach me. ) So we see Casy in the beginning of the novel already having made the first step in his “conversion,” in his leave-taking of that mode of religiosity. He grows by leaps and bounds and in a certain sense he becomes a kind of spiritual guide to Tom and his own conversion. Their religiosity now no longer has any reference to “Jesus” or “God” because these were only words that people used in a way that blinded them to their responsibilities to each other. The only mark of their religiosity is what we hear in the Gospel parable of “the sheep and the goats”(Mt. 25: 31-46).
Let’s listen to some quotes from the novel:
First, to get a flavor of Steinbeck’s marvelous writing here is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel as Steinbeck is already thematizing the “two cities” trope–in this case it is the “city of the horse” vs. the “city of the tractor”–and all this foreshadowing the deeper divisions that will become apparent:
“The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the plow shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is a life and a vitality left, there is breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse. Then the corrugated iron doors are closed and the tractor man drives home to town, perhaps twenty miles away, and he need not come back for weeks of months, for the tractor is dead. And this is easy and efficient. So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation. And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation. For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all these, but he is much, much more, and land is so much more than its analysis. That man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plow point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch; that man who is more than his elements knows the land is more than its analysis. But the machine man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry, and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself. When the corrugated iron doors are shut, he goes home, and his home is not the land.”
So the Joads, as poor and miserable as they are, are not alienated from the land, from the roots of their being. But their religiosity at this point is very external, rule-oriented, magical and superstitious, and it is still another form of alienation that they contend with. Here is Casy at the beginning of the novel describing to Tom something of his new liberated heart:
“”Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing.’… I says, ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘It’s love. I love people so much I’m fit to bust, sometimes.’… I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.’ Now I sat there thinkin’ it, an’ all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it.”
Here is an amazing vignette of the “two cities” as Casy is at the Joad farm with Tom and it’s mealtime and he is asked to say “Grace”:
“Casy ran his fingers through his hair nervously. ‘I got to tell you, I ain’t a preacher no more. If me jus’ bein glad to be here an’ bein’ thankful for people that’s kind and generous, if that’s enough–why, I’ll say that kinda grace. But I ain’t a preacher no more.’
‘Say her,’ said Granma. ‘An’ get in a word about us goin’ to California.’ The preacher bowed his head, and the others bowed their heads. Ma folded her hands over her stomach and bowed her head. Granma bowed so low that her nose was nearly in her plate of biscuit and gravy. Tom, leaning against the wall, a plate in his hands, bowed stiffly, and Granpa bowed his head sidewise, so that he could keep one mean and merry eye on the preacher. And on the preacher’s face there was a look not of prayer, but of thought; and in his tone not supplication, but conjecture.
‘I been thinkin,’ he said. ‘I been in the hills, thinkin’, almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles.’ ‘Pu-raise Gawd!’ Granma said, and the preacher glanced over at her in surprise.
‘Seems like Jesus got all messed up with troubles, and He couldn’t figure nothin’ out, an’ He got to feelin’ what the hell good is it all, an’ what’s the use fightin’ an’ figurin’. Got tired, got good an’ tired, an’ His sperit all wore out. Jus about come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An’ so He went off into the wilderness.’
‘A–men,’ Granma bleated…. ‘I ain’t sayin’ I’m like Jesus,’ the preacher went on. ‘But I got tired like Him, an’ I got mixed up like Him, an’ I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin’ stuff. Nightimes I’d lay on my back an’ look up at the stars, morning I’d set an’ watch the sun come up; midday I’d look out from a hill at the rollin’ dry country; evenin’ I’d foller the sun down. Sometimes I’d pray like I always done. On’y I couldn’t figure what I was prayin’ to or for. There were the hills, an’ there was me, an’ we wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.’
‘Hallelujah,’ said Granma, and she rocked a little, back and forth, trying to catch hold of an ecstasy.
‘An’ I got thinkin’, on’y it wasn’t thinkin’, it was deeper down than thinkin’. I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ an’ draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang–that’s right, that’s holy. An’ then I got thinkin’ I don’t even know what I mean by holy.’ He paused, but the bowed heads stayed down, for they had been trained like dogs to rise at the ‘amen’ signal. ‘I can’t say no grace like I use’ ta say. I’m glad of the holiness of breakfast. I’m glad there’s love here. That’s all.’ The heads stayed down. The preacher looked around. ‘I’ve got your breakfast cold,’ he said; and then he remembered. ‘Amen,’ he said, and all the heads came up.
‘A—men,’ said Granma, and she fell to her breakfast, and broke down the soggy biscuits with her hard old toothless gums. Tom ate quickly, and Pa crammed his mouth. There was no talk until the food was gone, the coffee drunk; only the crunch of chewed food and slurp of coffee cooled in the transit to the tongue. Ma watched the preacher as he ate, and her eyes were questioning, probing and understanding. She watched him as though he were suddenly a spirit, not human anymore, a voice out of the ground.”
What an incredible scene, and I am sorry to say that it is left out of the movie version. But it is magnificent in showing the unfolding awakening in Casy while the others are still in the “old city of religion”–except that something has stirred within Ma Joad.
Ma Joad’s last words as it were. She is talking to her son Tom who is going to have to vanish as he is being pursued by security goons in a corporate camp for farmworkers:
““Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’
‘We take a beatin’ all the time.’
‘I know.’ Ma chuckled. ‘Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”
When the group is on the road to California, Granpa dies and has to be buried. Casy is asked once more to say a few words:
““Pa said, “Won’t you say a few words? Ain’t none of our folks ever been buried without a few words.”
Connie led Rose of Sharon to the graveside, she reluctant. “You got to,” Connie said. “It ain’t decent not to. It’ll jus’ be a little.
The firelight fell on the grouped people, showing their faces and their eyes, dwindling on their dark clothes. All the hats were off now. The light danced, jerking over the people.
Casy said, “It’ll be a short one.” He bowed his head, and the others followed his lead. Casy said solemnly, “This here ol’ man jus’ lived a life an’ just died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much. He was alive, an’ that’s what matters. An’ now his dead, an’ that don’t matter. Heard a fella tell a poem one time, an’ he says ‘All that lives is holy.’ Got to thinkin’, an’ purty soon it means more than the words says. An’ I woundn’ pray for a ol’ fella that’s dead. He’s awright. He got a job to do, but it’s all laid out for’im an’ there’s on’y one way to do it. But us, we got a job to do, an’ they’s a thousan’ ways, an’ we don’ know which one to take. An’ if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’ know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight. An’ now cover ‘im up and let’im get to his work.” He raised his head.”
And finally there are these amazing last words of Tom–Casy has been killed by the goons during a strike– as he is saying farewell to his mother in the dead of night as he has to take off and disappear or the whole family would be molested badly by the security goons out to break the farmworkers’ strike. He has picked up Casy’s vision; he has undergone a transformation, and he has become an enigmatic Christ-figure:
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”
Now we turn to a very different story, a biography of sorts of a person who died very recently: Charles Liteky. Very few have heard of him, but those in the peace movement and resistance movement knew him well. A most amazing person.
Born into a traditional Catholic family, the son of a career military man, he was ordained a priest in 1960. He became an Army Catholic chaplain and volunteered for Vietnam. In his own words: “Politically,” he would write later, “I was a clerical hawk, who believed that any war against communism was just. I knew little to nothing about Vietnam and its centuries-long struggle to free itself from foreign domination.” So Liteky was in this “city” of traditional religion and traditional patriotism and the two were very much intertwined. In December of 1967, as a young priest, he was assigned to an army unit that was active in engaging Vietcong forces. One day they were severely ambushed, the whole unit was paralyzed by enemy firepower. Numerous casualties happened, and Liteky, under great danger to himself, pulled 20 wounded men to safety and saved their lives. He was under constant fire as he went back again and again to get another wounded soldier. In 1968 President Johnson awarded him the country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor. As he put the medal on him LBJ whispered to him, “I’d rather have one of these babies than be president.”
Liteky stayed in the Army and returned to Vietnam. The war, the carnage and the destroyed lives, took their toll on him. As he put it, “I left the Army in 1971 with my humanity severely damaged.” He tried to be a counselor at the VA, but this only exposed him further to the wounds of war. He ended up leaving the priesthood in the mid ‘70s. So he joined with Casy in saying, “I ain’t no preacher no more.”
Eight years later he married an ex-nun, and his wife opened his eyes to what the U.S. government was doing in Central America. It was the Reagan era. He became an ardent resister and peace activist, now totally transformed in his outlook but with that same sense of courage and focus. Eighteen years after his winning of the Medal of Honor, in 1984, Charles Liteky renounced the Medal and the lifetime monthly stipend that came with it. This he did in protest of the Reagan Administration’s policies in Central America. Nobody had ever renounced the Medal of Honor before. In a paradoxical sense, he was still “saving lives,” but now with a much deeper, broader vision—wherever there are people suffering he said, “I’ll be there.” He was one with Christ.