In 1967, Robert Kennedy went on a fact-finding tour of the Mississippi Delta. An eyewitness recalled that he and his party went
into one of the worst places I’ve ever seen. A dark windowless shack, smelling of mildew, sickness, and urine. There was no ceiling hardly, the floor had holes in it, and a bed that looked like the color of my arm, black as my arm — propped up with some kind of bricks to keep it from falling. The odor was so bad you could hardly keep the nausea down...this lady came out with hardly any clothes on, and we spoke to her and told her who he was. She just put her arms out and said, “Thank God” and then she just held his hand. A small child sat on the floor rubbing grains of rice round and round. His tummy was sticking way out just like he was pregnant. Bobby looked down at the child, and then he picked him up and sat down on that dirty bed. He was rubbing the child’s stomach. He said, “My God, I didn’t know this kind of thing existed. How can a country like this allow it? Maybe they just don’t know.” Tears were running down his cheek, and he just sat there and held the little child. Roaches and rats were all over the floor..Then he said, “I’m going back to Washington to do something about this.” No other white man in American would have come into that house.
When he died, by an assassin’s bullet, on June 4, 1968, many Americans felt that the most compassionate heart in America had been taken from them. Yet many of those who knew Robert Kennedy as a young man — the sort who would sign-on to become an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy — remembered an arrogant, calculating, even ruthless youth who presumed that right was always on his side. They detested the young Bobby Kennedy; he was too full of himself. How did Kennedy’s youthful arrogance give way to such compassion? Why could the older Robert see so much more than his younger self?
One doesn’t go to school to become a prophet. There is no course of training. Amos insists that his vocation came directly from the Lord (7:15), and all that we know about the formation of the Twelve, sent out by Jesus to preach, was that they went forth from the intimacy of his company (Mk 6:7). Where does one find that today? Perhaps the intimacy that produces prophets can only come from deeply private pain.
On a warm day in late November 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy took a phone call pool-side at his Virginia home, Hickory Hill. On the line was FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. No friend of the Kennedy’s, Hoover bluntly reported, “I have news for you. The President’s been shot.” For several minutes, Robert was unable to speak. His emotional paralysis continued for months.
Kennedy withdrew from public life. Like anyone mourning a terrible loss, inchoate thoughts plagued him, refusing to align themselves: anger and mistrust, both for those who had sought his brother’s life and for those who had seemingly failed to support his administration. The anger wasn’t only directed outward. He had to ask himself, to what extend had his own brash and aggressive policies contributed to, or perhaps even caused, his brother’s death?
His biographer, Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “For an agnostic the murder of John Kennedy seemed one more expression of the ultimate fortuity of things. But for those who believe in a universe infused by the Almighty with pattern and purpose – as the Kennedys did – Dallas brought on a philosophical as well as an emotional crisis. Robert Kennedy in particular had to come to terms with his brother’s death before he could truly resume his own existence.”
Kennedy read, and then memorized, these lines from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus: “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.”
Whatever patterns are at work in the world, the grace of insight often seems to accompany great sorrow, the sort we suffer alone, because no other can fully feel our pain. Aeschylus saw this as a process of fate, the 11th century Byzantine Christian monk, Symeon the New Theologian, viewed suffering in deeply personal terms: the loneliness of suffering was a form of intimacy with God. In his prayer to the Holy Spirit, he wrote, “Come Lonely One, to him who is alone.” If prophecy is born of intimacy, perhaps it only comes to those who meet the Lord in the solitude of suffering. When suffering cannot be avoided, the Christian should do more than accept it with resignation. However long and arduous the effort to do so, we should receive suffering as call to intimacy with the Man of Sorrows. “Come Lonely One, to him who is alone.”
Rev. Terrance W. Klein