Palm Sunday

I have written nothing for a long time. I have been able to write nothing. My thought processes seem to have reduced to preoccupation with the immediate here and now and any kind of intellectual exploration, any kind of sustained thinking has become an impossibility. Prayer, after a few brief moments initially, is a battle with drowsiness. There is no fervour, no longing to be fully engaged, no élan. Nothing. I wonder if I am drifting into the apathetic quietude of senility.

From time to time I am seized with a sort of anguish at this unresisting slippage into a mental twilight. Questions arise, recurring again and again, seeking and not finding answers. ‘Of what value is this human life, me?’ ‘What significance has this moment?’ ‘Do these thoughts, hopes, wishes, prayers mean anything at all, or are they simply mental fluff stirred up by the cold winds of reality?’

Against this, never has human life seemed more precious. I exult in the energy and joyfulness of young people. I am full of admiration for those whose generous commitment and willingness to go beyond the mere requirements of the job leads them to help others. And yet, never has the human biosphere been more raw and bleeding. There is the calculated and unapologetic abuse and exploitation of ordinary people by governments, financial and business institutions. There is the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians by the Israelis – the mindset which led to the ethnic cleansing and extermination of the Canaanites thousands of years ago still flourishes in Israel. There are large sections of the Old Testament I can no longer read and I wonder how formerly I was ever able to consider them the word of God and accept the horrors they describe so uncritically.

These thoughts are all the more poignant today, Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. Nothing has changed in the two thousand years since that first Palm Sunday, nor indeed in the last fifty thousand. We are as we have always been, a mixture of good and evil, and the strong continue to prey on the weak. Which makes me wonder why we continue to celebrate the passion and death of Christ and recall in such detail the suffering and cruelty of his last few days. Did his death and resurrection really signal an end and a new beginning? Have hopelessness, despair, suffering and death really been conquered? We would like to think so and perhaps this is why we continue to believe. But reality would seem to indicate otherwise. No change.

If faith is just a warm blanket to shield us from cold reality it is an illusion and worse than useless. Sooner or later, it and everything else that is personal will erode and fall away leaving leaving us exposed and naked on the verge of the abyss. We too, like Jesus in the garden a few days after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, will face the horror of extinction. Faith is not a comfort, or a shield. Faith, true faith, is standing where there is nothing on which to stand. It is seeing where there is nothing to be seen. It is hearing where there is nothing to be heard. True faith is to stand at the verge of the void without flinching, held there by hope and by an ancient memory of loving and being loved.

At Mass when it comes to the consecration I am always acutely conscious of the linkage going back two thousand years to the time when those words were first pronounced. This linkage operates in two planes, as it were, a horizontal one going back in time and a vertical one, now, with Christ. But the linkage is not really a tangible one. Simone Weil uses this analogy. There are two prisoners in adjacent cells with a common dividing wall. Over time they learn to communicate with each other by tapping and scratching on the dividing wall. The wall which separates them is at the same time the link which joins them. So too with us and God, says Weil. That which separates us is also that which links us.

This is fine as far as it goes. There is no doubt a tangible link with Christ extending back through time and through his words his presence extends down to today. But with the vertical link, the now, what separates us is not a solid barrier but a void, an empty nothingness. As R. S. Thomas puts it

Is there a far side

to an abyss, and can our wings

take us there?

And again

For me now

there is only the God-space

into which I send out

my probes. I had looked forward

to old age as a time

of quietness, a time to draw

my horizons about me,

to watch memories ripening

in the sunlight of a walled garden.

But there is the void

over my head and the distance

within that the tireless signals

come from. And astronaut

on impossible journeys

to the far side of the self

I return with messages

I cannot decipher . . .

But at least there are messages.

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