On September 18, countless Christians and others of good will around the world will mark the commemoration day of Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. Secretary-General who was killed in a plane crash in 1961 while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire in a civil war in what was then called Rhodesia.
After Hammarskjold’s death, his remarkable spiritual journal was published in Sweden in 1963, then in English the following year under the title Markings. The English poet W.H. Auden assisted in the translation and provided an introduction.
Markings first came to my attention in the summer of 1977, when it appeared on a list of recommended books in a recruiting brochure from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. It was not until 1994, however, when I was working at Holden Village, an ecumenical retreat center in the Cascade Mountains, that I finally read the book. The timing was right – and in a sense it saved my life.
My vocational direction at the time was unclear. I had just left my graduate program in European intellectual history at the University of Iowa, after the adviser I had gone there to study with, Allan Megill, left the U of I for the University of Virginia. Should I follow Megill to Virginia? Should I return to the legal profession, which I had left to pursue my studies at Iowa? Should I do something something completely different? I was in – to employ a Dylan phrase – a state of “mixed up confusion."
Hammarskjold’s poetic musings, combined with the experience of the Holden community, gave me the traction to transcend my trilemma. (If there can be a dilemma, why not a trilemma, as Prof. Guenter Zoeller pointed out in a German philosophy class I took at Iowa.) Night after night, after finishing my six-hour shift in the kitchen and attending Vespers, I would repair to the library and pour over every word of Markings, taking copious notes.
The phrase that kept echoing for me was this: Gratitude and Readiness. With these two words, Hammarskjold helped me completely reframe my entire internal debate. The right question was not why things hadn’t played out differently in the past. It was, rather, what I was ready to do in the present to affirm the many gifts God had given me - and act on them in the service of others.