Our sacrifice — the best we have to offer,

And not our worst nor second best, our best,

Our very best, our lives laid down like Jonah’s

Our lives laid down in war and peace — may not

Be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.

And that they may be is the only prayer

Worth praying. May my sacrifice

Be found acceptable in Heaven’s sight.

– Robert Frost in

“A Masque of Mercy”

 

SIXTY-FOUR years ago, on Aug. 5, 1949, a crew of 15 Smoke Jumpers, the U.S. Forest Service’s elite airborne firefighters, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. Within two hours after their jump, all but three of these men were dead or fatally burned. The record of the Mann Gulch Fire has been chronicled by master storyteller Norman Maclean in his book “Young Men and Fire.”

Guided by compassion, Maclean helps us accompany these select young men who never once realized that they could be mortal on their way to the obliterating earth. In such a journey of compassion, what any of us have finally as our guide, Maclean wrote, is whatever understanding we may have gained along the way of ourselves and others, chiefly those close to us — folk with whom we have shared both joy and suffering. Maclean ends his account with these words: “I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me.”

Why share these thoughts? For me, Maclean has somehow brought poignantly into focus our life as a “trial by existence.” We are mortals on our returning way to the nullifying grave. Maclean argues that this “trial by existence” is best shaped by a deep compassion for others — a value Jesus embodied for the sake of all. It is important, he notes, to nurture in ourselves this largesse of spirit that we might better be with those persons close to us in this strange journey toward our dying.

We enhance this largesse of spirit by remembering who we are, where we have come from, and even the follies we might have become addicted to, had not our circumstances and, possibly, our faith, put us upon the path we now walk.

It is also wisdom to know that life is not just a walk across an empty field. Possibility of ambush is real. I further acknowledge that other “faces” were out there that could have been mine for the taking. It is wisdom to know that each day’s doings is our making a play against other possible futures — other faces. Existence is trial. Shakespeare foresaw that the darkest problem of our humanity was our conception of ourselves. Who do we wish to be?

“It hath been taught us from the primal state

“That he which is was wished until he were.”

So we are rightly cautioned by our Christian writings: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time….” I am an imperfect and flawed human being; nevertheless, I do not doubt that my choices in life mattered and that when made… doors behind me slammed shut and were bolted against my return. Today my life embodies the consequences of those choices! So it shall be for you reading this!

 

NOTE: In view of my having worked three summers while in college with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon — two on fire lookouts and one on a trail crew, Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” was particularly interesting to me. Some of you might find it a worthy read.

Merle Steva is a retired minister with the United Church of Christ who lives in Saco.