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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinApril 18, 2008 Issue 

Living as agents of truth sets us free

Kurt Vonnegut's self-sacrifice places him along the borders of faith

April 20, 2008 -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

By Bishop Robert Morneau

photo of Bishop Robert Morneau
Robert Morneau

Questions for reflection:

1. In what way can humor and music put us near the borders of faith?

2. Where do you go to find out the truth?

3. Who are the saints you have encountered on life's journey?

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), a popular American novelist, was not known for his religious faith. Yet, two years before he died, Vonnegut wrote what might be considered his memoirs wherein he makes some statements that would take him out of the land of agnosticism (perhaps atheism) and place him along the borders of faith. One might even wonder if, deep down, he was an Easter person. Here are several passages from his "memoirs," "A Man Without a Country" (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2005).

"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED / FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD / WAS MUSIC" (66).

Well, Vonnegut did die as we all will. And back some 2,000 years ago, Jesus said that he was going to prepare a place for us in his Father's house. Whether or not Vonnegut believed this or not, a place was prepared for him as it is for us. The way that Jesus walked was one of self-sacrifice, a giving of self for others.

When Kurt Vonnegut's brother-in-law died in a tragic train accident and then, two days later, his sister Alice died of cancer, Kurt Vonnegut took in their three children who were left orphaned. In some way that sounds to me like a sacrificial act, one that Jesus calls us to in following him. The music of compassion coursed through Vonnegut's soul and he responded by offering his home to his sister's children.

"But there is a reason we recognize "Hamlet" as a masterpiece: it's that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people rarely tell us the truth . . ." (27).

Jesus said to Thomas: "I am the way and the truth and the life." Hamlet offers us insightful psychological truths as we watch the tragedy unfold; the Gospels offer us theological truths that, if appropriated and lived, will set us free. Vonnegut saw himself as an agent of truth in writing his novels, be it "Slaughterhouse-Five"(1969), "Cats Cradle"(1963), or "Breakfast of Champions"(1973). The truth told here was a darker nature, the truth that, we might say, calls us to redemption. And that is exactly what the Easter mystery is all about - our redemption from sin and death. Vonnegut's truth-telling did not venture into this land for it is only faith that opens the door to tremendous mysteries.

". . . what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere" (106).

When the early Christian community began having difficulties over the distribution of goods, individuals were chosen to come forward and assist those in need. Here was a call to become saints, to strive for the perfection of love. Every century and every generation has individuals who are self-forgetful and self-sacrificing. Apparently, Vonnegut met a number of them and this encounter confirmed, for him, that life had value.

Besides music, truth-telling, and encountering a few saints, Vonnegut knew the importance and healing power of humor. Though at times it was a rather dark humor, nevertheless it brought some lightness to this long, perilous human journey. Here is but one example: "Only clearly disturbed people ran for class president" (102).

(Bishop Morneau is the auxiliary bishop of the Green Bay Diocese and pastor of Resurrection Parish in Allouez.)

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