The swollen stream rushes furiously down a dark ravine,
whirling and foaming in its wild career,
[....] the helm of the boat is gone, and he looks imploringly toward heaven,
as if heaven's aid alone could save him from the perils that surround him.
The two key words in Cole's notes for this painting are "as if". By itself, the painting provides no means of hope. The airy castles of "Youth" and the blissful garden of "Childhood" are far behind. There is no angel here. The only light, choked by dense clouds, only succeeds in putting peril into relief. Thus, "as if" is not a statement about the foolishness of the man's prayer; it is a statement on the nature of his faith, which seeks God "as if" he exists, when even light has failed.
At the St. John's College Christian Union, we are going through prayers in the Bible over the summer. This week's prayer, from Habakkuk 3, presents a similar situation to Cole's painting. How do we relate to a God whose majesty "made the nations tremble", who according to Habakkuk, torments the earth with judgement-- a God of plague and pestilence, who brings anguish and distress in his pursuit of total justice? And what good is faith when our emotion and experience fail to transcend but instead become barren or dismal?
Answers to these questions are not sufficient. Habakkuk's response is inspiring precisely because it's so ridiculous:
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
It's an extreme statement of faith to attribute both suffering and sustenance to the same person. Habakkuk continues:
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer's;
he makes me tread on my high places.
This isn't so much a prayer as it is an outburst of desperation, resolution, and desire; not unlike a mantra. It holds Habakkuk to a standard, but to acknowledge need is also to insist upon God. Here, in this dire moment, heaven and earth must meet and work together for anything good to survive.
Many people live within societal desolation like that which Habakkuk or the protagonist of "Manhood" were facing. But as Christians, we are all refugees. And wherever we are, we must hold fast to our faith. For if we do not stand firm in our faith, we will not stand at all.