This week I learned a new word, eucatastrophe. J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, coined it for a calamity in a story that turns out to be something good. It reminded me of a story that Sister Mary St. Jude used to tell:
One day, a farmer’s old horse that tilled his fields escaped into the hills. When neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?” A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses, and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?” Then when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Who knows?” Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck?
I can think of several events in my own life that were eucatastrophes. For one thing when I was head of the English Department at one of our high schools and all set to pursue higher studies in English at an Ohio university, I was sent to the University of Minnesota to get a Master’s degree in math–without having had undergraduate courses in math! Although I flunked out of the math program, I ended up staying in Minnesota in English and enjoyed seven summers of free concerts (Mitch Miller and Roger Williams for example), plays, and good companionship while the sisters studying at the Ohio university where I originally was to go watched the corn grow!
At a place where I once stayed there was a young man who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident and confined to a wheelchair. At first glance, this appeared to be a terrible shame. But then he and his nurse fell in love and got married. They probably never would have met if he hadn’t had the accident.
In the world of nature the life of an oyster is a eucatastrophe. When an irritant such as little parasite gets into the shell, over time the oyster produces a lustrous pearl. This is good. In fact we have a saying “The world is your oyster.”
Of course, a prime example of eucatastrophe is the story of our redemption. When the Messiah was killed, all looked bleak. But his death led to his resurrection and our future ones. The fact that eucatastrophes exist not only in stories but in the real world gives us hope. In some cases, we might have to wait until we get to heaven to see the good that came out of our seeming tragedies.
When have you experienced a eucatastrophe as the story of your life has unfolded?