Saint Judas

Saint Judas by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began.
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten.
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

What character in all of scripture is more reviled than Judas Iscariot? (Pontius Pilate? King Herod?) I love the way this poem challenges me to consider a strange possibility-that a person who is beyond redemption can still choose to do good. I wonder about people who feel that they are lost, unredeemable. Do they choose to be kind, to be merciful, to be good? If there is no hope of eternal reward (or earthly reward for that matter), why be good? Why be kind?

So, this is my last post on Times and Seasons. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you, and for all of your comments. If I’ve learned anything about my experience here, it is that blogging is a lot harder than it looks! Some of my most brilliant ideas for blog topics sound so blah and boring when I write them out (which probably says more about my ideas and my writing skills than anything else).

Anyway, I’ve also learned that there are some really great people out there in blogland. And while I may not agree with some of the opinions expressed here, it is wonderfully edifying to read well reasoned, thoughtful responses to difficult questions; something rare in daily discourse.

May The Lord bless you and keep you.


15 comments for “Saint Judas

  1. May 13, 2005 at 2:13 pm

    Thank you for writing Elisabeth. Beyond redemption, nihilism? If so, it wouldn’t really matter what you did. Why not be kind? You have nothing to rebel against. Thus Spake Zarathustra.

  2. A. Greenwood
    May 13, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    “that a person who is beyond redemption can still choose to do good.”

    I have my doubts. Anyone who can still choose to do good, even a little, is not beyond redemption. Even if they can only be redeemed to the Celestial Kingdom. But the idea, the attitude, of doing good beyond hope and beyond promise, is very moving.

  3. Rosalynde Welch
    May 13, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Elisabeth, I’d never seen the poem; thanks so much for sharing it. It’s very powerful.

    You were a great guest blogger; good work!

  4. Kaimi
    May 13, 2005 at 2:44 pm

    Very nice, Elisabeth! I’ve enjoyed your time here as a guest blogger; your posts have been great.

    As far as the concept of doing good without hope for a heavenly or earthly reward, I think it’s a powerful one. Is there something in human nature or society (or somewhere else) that could explain such behavior? I’m not sure, but it’s a great question.

  5. Brian G
    May 13, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    Stick around, Elisabeth. I loved your guest posts.

  6. Steve Evans
    May 13, 2005 at 3:43 pm

    Way to go out with a bang, Elisabeth. Nice work — I’m envious of your gift.

  7. Bill
    May 13, 2005 at 4:01 pm

    Thanks Elizabeth for the great poem.

    Kaimi, your question reminds me of a passage I read just yesterday in Kaddish for a Child Not Born, by Imre Kertesz:

    On the other hand, I then probably said, and this is important, what is really irrational and what truly cannot be explained is not evil but, contrarily, the good. For that very reason I am no longer interested in Führers, Chancellors, or other sundry titled usurpers, regardless of how many interesting details you muster concerning their spiritual worlds; no, instead of the lives of dictators, it is, exclusively and for a long time now, the lives of the saints that interest me. This is what I find interesting and incomprehensible, this is what I cannot find a rational explanation for. And even Auschwitz – although this sounds like black humor – especially Auschwitz proved to be a most fruitful field of exploration in this respect. Let me tell you a story, even if you are sick and tired of listening: listen and then explain it to me if you can. I’ll be short – I am facing a bunch of veterans for whom a shorthand sketch of the setting will suffice: camp, winter, the transportation of the sick, ox-drawn carriages, and a one-day portion of cold food allowance, even though the road will last who knows how many days. The food portions are measured in units of ten, and as I lay on the piece of wood promoted to a stretcher, my dog eyes are glued to a man, or rather a skeleton, referred to as the Professor, I don’t know why, who holds my portion as well. The assignments, the numbers don’t match, of course, so there are shouts, confusion, a kick, and then I feel myself lifted up and placed in front of the next wagon . . . I see neither the “Professor” nor my ration; this suffices to give you an exact picture of the situation. You also know how I felt: first and foremost, I couldn’t feed my eternal torturer, hunger, that estranged, angrily demanding beast, hope, which up until now continued to drum, albeit muffled and dull, that in spite of everything there was still a chance for surviving. The problem was that without my food allotment the question of survival appeared to be purely academic, while – at the same time I explained to myself with cold detachment – that same portion doubled the “Professor’s” chances for survival. This is what I pondered, not particularly joyfully but all the more rationally. But lo and behold, what did I see in a few minutes? Shouting and his eyes restlessly searching, the “Professor” was unsteadily heading for me, carrying a single portion of the cold food allotment, and when he caught sight of me on the stretcher, he quickly put the food in my stomach; I wanted to say something, and it seems that my total surprise screamed unabashedly from my face, because as he quickly headed back – if they didn’t find him in his place they’d kill him – he replied with recognizable disgust on this moribund face: “Well, what did you expect . . .?” That’s it for the story, and even if it’s true that I followed by a series of other arbitrary chances because that would be a rather unworthy view of life, I want to view my life even less as a series of attempts to keep me alive, which, perhaps, would be an even less worthy view: yet it is a fact that, for example, the Professor did what he did in order to keep me alive, that is to say, viewing the event from my point of view, for he, probably, was motivated by something entirely different. He probably acted primarily in the interest of his own survival and only secondarily for mine. And this here is the question, this is what I’d like you to answer if you can: why did he do it? But don’t try to answer in words, for we all know that under certain circumstances at a particular temperature, metaphorically speaking, words lose their form, their context, their signification; they simply turn to naught; so that in this vaporized state only deeds, sheer deeds show any tendency to remain concrete; it is only the deeds that we can take into our hands, so to say, and examine like pieces of mute rocks, like crystal. And if we go on the assumption – and here, won’t you agree, we can’t go on any other – that, after all, in a concentration camp, but also in all circumstances, the total physical and mental deterioration and the resulting almost chronic atrophying of one’s ability to judge are governed by and large solely by one’s desire for survival, and, further, if we consider that the “Professor” was given two chances for survival and that he threw away this double chance – that is, to be precise, the chance beyond his chance, which actually would have been someone else’s chance – that would indicate that the acceptance of that second chance would have assimilated the only chance he had enabling him to live and survive and that, accordingly, there is something – and again, I beg you, don’t try to label it – there exists a pristine concept untainted by all strange material circumstances: our bodies, our sould, our hearts; an idea that exists in the minds of all of us as an identical concept, yes, and idea whose preservation, protection, constituted his, the “Professor’s” only genuine chance for survival. The chance for survival without adherence to this idea was no chance at all for him, because without the preservation, the pristine, undisturbed valuation of this concept, he did not wish to, or what’s more, probably could not live.

  8. May 13, 2005 at 6:58 pm

    Bless you as well Elizabeth

  9. Jim F
    May 13, 2005 at 9:59 pm

    Elizabeth, thanks for your very strong posts, including this one.

  10. Miranda PJ
    May 13, 2005 at 11:30 pm

    You’re such a fascinating woman, and I’ve adored so many of your posts, Elisabeth.

    This is the first time I’ve heard that poem, and I love it. This approach to Judas is what draws me to movies sympathetic to him like The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus Christ Superstar. Church leaders have warned us away from these movies, but I feel for Judas and need to understand him as something more than a uni-dimensional Benedict Arnold. Judas ranks right behind Eve as the most historically reviled figure in Christianity, and I sure am glad that he was not a woman. And Judas’ isolation from his peers and from God makes me feel sympathetic towards him.

    All of us are spiritually dead for not living in the presence of God, and this isolation is essential to our mortality. And who among us has not felt the social isolation brought on from being suddenly torn down from a pedestal of confidence because of a sudden discourteous act or misstep? We are human, and so was Judas. We do have a basis to understand what Judas was going through. How do we know that Christ’s atonement won’t cover him?

  11. annegb
    May 14, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    I, too, can relate to someone who has done something awful, the anguish when you wake up to your sin.

    I think when studying, I read that Judas did what he did because he thought that Christ would strike them dead, and war successfully against the Romans? –that he was hoping to force Jesus into the mold that the Jews expected in their Messiah– and that he felt sorrow and regret when he realized the enormity of his act.

    I can’t remember where I read this but it was something to the effect/affect that a truly terrible man had sacrificed his life to go into a burning building to save a family–and that even bad people can do good things. Or…maybe good people can do terrible things? I’m glad I am not the judge.

  12. May 14, 2005 at 11:45 pm

    Wonderful poem – beautifully crafted. Thanks for sharing that!

    I have often asked such questions myself. I believe there are those who feel past redemption, banished from heaven, with no hope of return, who may yet seek to do good with their remaining strength – but I also think they will be rare. But all such people I have known were not beyond hope. One was racked with guilt for murders he committed during World War II, and though once a man of faith seeking to be a priest, he seemed unable to care any more about others. He had abandoned hope and abandoned others in the process. But there was still hope for him, but he refused to believe it.

    I have dealt with a couple of dear friends over the years who became suicidal. Both were great people who served others often, but when they gave up hope and moved toward suicide, it was almost impossible for them to stop to reach out to others. Despair shrinks our vision to little more than the hollowness in our heart, whereas hope expands it to see many precious souls around us. In both cases I tried to help in the darkest moment, perhaps just moments (in one case) or hours before their planned attempts at suicide, by appealing to the need others had for them. In both cases this seemed to have no real impact. Despair had blinded them. What saved their lives in both cases, I believe, was my calling the police who intervened and helped see that they got the time and other help they needed to regain hope.

    Faith, hope, and charity – I think one needs a little of the first two to receive the gift of the third. Without it, the despairing natural man will have a hard time raising himself to act like a saint.

  13. May 15, 2005 at 2:22 am

    I’m somewhat reminded of Joseph Hunt’s “Judas Walked Slower”:

    Judas walked slower
    than the other apostles
    when they went on promenades.
    The billowing, brier-overgrown countryside —
    breath-taking, humbling
    in the fevered sun
    to everyone else,
    and Jesus’ winding-down commentary —
    was, to him, inferno.
    Every footstep he placed down
    sent thin streams of fire up his legs.
    Andrew had taken it upon himself
    to lag behind, and make sure he was alright —
    to be kind to him
    when everyone else’s mind
    was somewhere else entirely.
    “Are you alright?” he asked him.
    “Yes, I’m fine.”

  14. Jeanne Hardy
    May 17, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    Hey Elisabeth,

    My appologies to the frequent readers of this site for my personal post! I googled you and was surprised to find so many recent posts you on this website. It looks like you hit on a lot of hot topics. Congrats. I must not have your current email address, so drop me a line when you get a chance. We are moving to Amherst in a couple months and I want to catch up with you. Cheers!

  15. Ben H
    May 18, 2005 at 1:35 am

    I agree with Adam that someone still capable of doing good is not past redemption. One nice implication of our belief in a wide range of possible states in the hereafter is that it opens options for responding to scenarios like this that make a heaven/hell dichotomy seem very problematic.

    But your point is deeper: how far can motives to do good be separate from notions of other-worldly reward and punishment? I think, a lot. The Book of Mormon teaches that at judgment, those who are happy will be happy still, and those who are miserable will be miserable still. That doesn’t make it sound like judgment should affect our motives at all! In the famous parable, the stewards who are faithful over a few things are made stewards over many things. This suggests not a fundamental change in the kind of experience one was already having, but simply an expansion of its scope. Its support for the idea that doing good is its own reward is one of my favorite things about Mormon theology.

    Thanks for lots of great posts, Elisabeth!

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