Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Holy Week at Derby Cathedral: Compline on Wednesday


26 And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.
27 And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.

'Alas, poor gentleman, He look'd not like the ruins of his youth/But like the ruins of those ruins' – John Ford, The Broken Heart

Tonight, I want to offer a meditation on the ruined body and on those who, sometimes forcibly, carry it, either for themselves or for others.

When we think of ruins, perhaps our imaginaries leap readily to pictures of old castles or abbeys, now crumbling into dust and nothingness. Perhaps we think of places like Fountains Abbey or Tintagel; a dozen other places which gesture towards dispensations and ways of going on that have now been lost forever. Tintagel, that almost spectral place in Cornwall, that some have claimed was the seat of Arthur, the once and future King. O mystery of mystery, we enter legends doused in visions of King Pellam’s Land, the land of the Fisher King, the wounded one who is sustained in his agony by the Holy Grail; the one whose body, whose land, will one day be whole again. Or consider Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire; it and other places stand as reminders of a world before the stripping of the altars, a faint echo of what might have been if the English Reformation had happened differently, or hadn’t happened at all, if a King had not asserted his supremacy; we stand in its echo still.

Ruins are evocative and mythic. They are, then, both appealing and tricksy. Should we be surprised that Romantic and Gothic poets and writers have been drawn to them? In the Wye Valley, lie the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ seem to draw on the elegiac effects of the ruined:
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur…
We are in a world of evocation, of longing, of distance. The icy tentacles of sublime winter stretch forth over beautiful, fleeting summer. The ruins of beauty, perhaps even the sublime, preside over the passing moment. And how can we ever span the gap between then and now, here and there? We are in the realm of the elegiac.

Or, if we enter Gothic mode, we can find in the wreck of buildings and bodies, anxiety and fear. Terror even … Consider classic Gothic texts I suspect many of us are familiar with. Frankenstein is two hundred years old this year. The epigraph of the first edition was from Paradise Lost: ‘Did I request thee, Maker from my clay/To mould me man? Did I solicit thee/From Darkness to promote me?’ So says Adam. And just as he bemoans his fallen condition, his expulsion into tragedy, so does the Creature made by Frankenstein. We find ourselves from the outset in the ruins of Eden; in a dance of tragedy, in hope of comedy, with no obvious sight of it. And these ruins of the subject, of the body, of flesh, offer no obvious hope. Or consider, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We don’t need to be horror fans to appreciate the stunning coup that Bram Stoker pulls off when he connects Dracula – the body ruined – with Whitby Abbey – the ruined site of holiness. Dracula is shipwrecked – a journey in ruins – and comes ashore in the form of a black dog, wreaking havoc as he goes.

Ruins. They’re dangerous too. We forget that Albert Speer, the architect who sought to bring Hitler’s architectural vision to life, developed a theory called ‘ruin value’; that is, the idea that should a building eventually collapse it would do so in such a way that it would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins that would last and last. Here is a vision that sentimentalises the catastrophes of human living. Ruins are often signals of trauma, sites of them: of broken civilisation, of violent conquest, of lives and traditions snuffed. In the hands of people like Speer and Hitler, ruins, then, can be ideology too; a kind of inbuilt dream of value that is based on the wistful, on an irrecoverable past that tantalises; on a fantasy of what should be there and probably never was. A nostalgia that collapses into kitsch. It is a temptation that every society, including our own, faces. We should be wary around ruins.

Yet, how many of us know the meaning of the ruined body in our very skin? Or at least the body on its way to ruination. The body that is falling apart. I have Crohn’s Disease; it’s been an encounter with the ruinous and with resurrection. My early experience of chronic illness was very much that of discovering the suffering or forsaken God, the one who walks toward Calvary. It was a kind of death of the God of success and achievement. When I came to faith in my mid-twenties I instinctively believed that God’s grace would insulate me from travail and the tragic; a childish belief, perhaps, but not uncommon. For those he calls he blesses. Little did I realise that sometimes that blessing is found in solidarity with loss and cost and forsakenness. That resurrection might be both the ground of and grounded in a way of crucifixion. For as Belden C Lane so potently and troublingly puts it, ‘God’s grace comes sometimes like a kick in the teeth, leaving us broken, wholly unable any longer to deny our need’[1].

There have been times when as I travelled further into the corrosive reality such illnesses can present, it is as if I’ve found less and less purchase on that suffering, Calvary God. It is as if illness has broken even him. Or if that seems simply too heretical and unorthodox, try this: it is as if in illness, the suffering God reveals a new dimension in the darkness. This is the God utterly hidden in ordinary life. This is the God only found in the fragments of ourselves and our hopes and dreams. This is ‘the hidden God’.  Yes, I have been there in the ruins: in 2007/8 I went for nearly a year without ordinary food, and every single day was pain, and depression almost swallowed me whole. I have been there in the aftermath of the death of a relationship of twelve years I thought would be everlasting. I have dwelt in the ruins of the body.

It is God’s place, most especially as we draw close to Good Friday. The ruined God is alive, just, he holds on by a thread, as sometimes we hold by a thread. The realm of the dead is not far away, but we are not there yet…not yet…we are not there yet. Good Friday is still to come. What we find in this place of threads, is God at his most intimate – the one who simply is when all else seems lost. This is God beyond doctrine and without boundaries. This is God beyond reason and the uses we would make of him.

This is the God who refutes the non-religious’ claim that belief in God is just a kind of crutch. For the God who comes to us in such ruined places is anything but a crutch. For we cannot use him: he comes in his own time and meets us when we have nothing else left. And all he is, is Love. She is not comfort, but the thinnest thread holding you above despair.  This is not a God we can summon up for ourselves and for our own purposes. The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart said, ‘To use God is to kill him’. Well, in some respects we only truly discover this in the utmost point of our need when all hope seems to have faded: for in such places we cannot use God for our own ends (to make our life better or more hopeful), but simply have to wait for him to come. And this is why he is ‘hidden’: he only becomes available as gift. He cannot be willed into being; he is not present even in the ordinary run of life’s ups and downs. He is hidden from us until we are seemingly utterly broken. This is God in all his stark love – stripped of sentiment and our manipulations; the God who holds crucifixion and death in his depths.

Our God then knows the Ruins; in coming to redeem a world of limit and limitation, he participates in tragedy, the fact of a world that is not loss-less. That cannot be safely lived if it is to be lived well; that may mean giving up some ways of going on, abandoned to the ruins of memory, of living, a certain dimension of hope. And, to our shock, the ruined god needs others to hold him, to carry him, to lift him up, with all that ambiguous term implies. Eliot is over quoted, but surely his ‘In my end is my beginning’ has potent grip here. The living God in his ruined departing is held and carried, as he was in his arrival. And those who hold and sustain him are not the usual suspects. They are, like us, like anyone in this bewildering, tragic world caught up in events beyond their control and they respond, sometimes under duress. As our compline reading tonight reminds us. If the way of Divine Tragedy is to lead to Divine Comedy it lies in the company of the press-ganged, the bewildered, the bystander.

I want to finish this meditation, then, with a trio of poems from my sequence for The Stations of the Cross. These poems feature men and women, caught up in the drama; sometimes accidentally, sometimes unavoidably.

(From: The Risen Dust (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 2013)

Jesus Meets His Mother

It’s the crowd in her head which kicks her now,
words awkward as elbows, man, boy, rabbi, brother, son,
all the faces he ever wore, angry, fearsome, fearful, loving, mad,
back to his childhood, and the shock of weight
when she took him in her arms; back to that first night,
and her groan when the sac of afterbirth escaped her warmth,
back before it all began.

Watching this day from that night,
wanting to take water and bathe him,
as she did then, washing away the muck and blood,
the stuff of her that clung to his skin,
until he was as clear as a stream,
tying off that stem on which he’d flowered,
each other free at last.

She would take him back, of course,
if it would do any good; let her belly swell,
return him to sea and salt and murky dreams,
but he would not go. He is a child of earth now,
cut and bruised, holding the weight of a world
as if it were a beam.


Simon Cyrene

All I wanted was to lift you up
and walk away.

But you grew small, curled down
into my hand, nestled
like a mouse prepared for winter.

How easy it would have been
to finish it there, to crush you,
to save everyone the trouble.

Or to run, carry you off,
find somewhere dark to sleep,
to heal as we dreamed.

But no. We walked
as they commanded us,
you growing tall again,

the look on your face
as we reached the hill,
furious, as if to say,

why didn’t you take
your chance?


Veronica

Let me do for you what they do
for the dead; now, while you still breathe,
your face, simple as a lamb’s, pleading.

Let me wash you into shape,
prepare you to be seen, sew back
the seams of broken skin, touch you
with linen and balm;

Or wrap you tight in cotton and herbs,
hide you from your task, seal you
where you can’t be found.

Later, when you are dead,
we shall cut the threads,
open the cloth with the delicacy
of silk; lift off that other you,
the one you carry now,
leaving you clean, your new self.






[1] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Oxford: OUP 1998), p.32.

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