In her novel Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky tells the story of Maurice and Jeanne as they struggle to survive in the face of the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Maurice Michaud is an accountant in the bank where his wife Jeanne works as a secretary. When the bank relocates to Tours the Michauds try to follow but, due to the chaos surrounding Paris, they are unable to make the journey.
Maurice and Jeanne return to the almost deserted city. Their jobs are gone. Their only son, who was fighting to defend France against the Nazis, has not been heard from for months. Food is in short supply. They have almost no savings and no means of support.
Maurice and Jeanne are utterly destitute. And yet Maurice refuses to give up. There is a quality in Maurice that will not admit defeat. His wife is bewildered by his attitude in the face of such devastation and struggles to understand the source of his resilience.
She looked at him. “You’re strange, Maurice. You’ve seen people at their most cynical, their most disillusioned, and at the same time you’re not unhappy, I mean, not really unhappy inside! Am I wrong?”
“So what makes it all right then?”
“My certainty that deep down I’m a free man,” he said, after thinking for a moment. “It’s a constant, precious possession, and whether I keep it or lose it is up to me and no one else.”
Maurice has discovered that, no matter how desperate his circumstances may be, he is always free to choose how he will respond. No one can deprive him of his power of choice. When he is wronged he is free to choose to respond with bitterness, resentment, and anger, or with grace.
This is not denial. Maurice does not refuse to acknowledge the difficulties of his situation. He is not escaping into a fantasy in which he convinces himself that everything will turn out well in the end. He has experienced enough of the horror and pain of the human condition to know that there are no guarantees that life will always go well and unfold just as we might have hoped.
It may be that the range of our possible responses in a given situation is profoundly limited. Maurice and Jeanne were powerless to do much to improve their situation. They were trapped by vast forces far beyond their ability to control. But, Maurice understood that there was no power on earth strong enough to deprive him of his ability to choose his response. In this knowledge Maurice maintained contact with his essential human dignity and in this connection he found a sense of inner well-being that transcended his circumstances.
I may have little ability to fix my situation. I may be powerless to heal most of the wounds that afflict the world. But, if I stop for a moment in the midst of the turmoil of my circumstances, I know I can always find within myself a place that is steady and strong.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28)
He did not say, “Come to me and I will make everything all better.” Jesus offered “rest” in the midst of the weariness of “carrying heavy burdens”. The Greek word translated “rest” is anapauō. It carries the sense of deep steady abiding confidence. No matter how difficult circumstances may be, no matter how devastated one may feel, there is a place of strength and steadiness within, that never lets us down and never fails.
Like the fictional Maurice Michaud, Horatio Spafford was a man who had found this deep place of abiding peace in the midst of pain. Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer in the nineteenth century who was financially ruined in the great Chicago fire of 1871, the same year his four-year-old son died. In 1873 Spafford was delayed traveling with his family on board the SS Ville du Havre which sank crossing the Atlantic. His wife Anna survived and sent a telegram with the two words, “Survived alone…”, letting him know that his four daughters had drowned.
On the ship that carried Spafford to join his wife in Europe, he wrote the words that became the great hymn, “It is well with my soul”.
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
The painful realities of Spafford’s life were not bigger than his ability to find peace and strength and an abiding sense of well-being in the midst of suffering. There is no power greater than the human ability to respond to life from this place of inner strength and peace. This is the ultimate freedom and dignity of the human condition.