Spiritual Conference for the Triduum

Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.

He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not.

And doth thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee?

Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.

Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass;

Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as an hireling, his day.

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.

Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground;

Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.

But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up:

So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.

O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!

If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.

Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee: thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands.

For now thou numberest my steps: dost thou not watch over my sin?

My transgression is sealed up in a bag, and thou sewest up mine iniquity.

And surely the mountains falling cometh to nought, and the rock is removed out of his place.

The waters wear the stones: thou washest away the things which grow out of the dust of the earth; and thou destroyest the hope of man.

Thou prevailest for ever against him, and he passeth: thou changest his countenance, and sendest him away.

His sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not; and they are brought low, but he perceiveth it not of them.

But his flesh upon him shall have pain, and his soul within him shall mourn.

This pandemic reminds us of our fragility and our passing nature. Many people other than the sick and elderly have died in the same conditions. We are here today and gone tomorrow. The little time we have is filled with toil and trouble. Our lives and our bodies are compared with the most fragile creatures like flowers and butterflies.

The Book of Job is said to be one of the most ancient of the Old Testament, and is a witness to man’s age-old confrontation with the problem of evil. Many theologians and philosophers have tried to grapple with this problem as we all do when faced with death and suffering. To many of our contemporaries, the existence of pain and evil are proof that God does not exist, and all that remains is chaos and hazard. C.S. Lewis in his Problem of Pain does not claim to offer a “solution” but rather that we should accept not being able to understand this and other mysteries. Like Job, we have to accept the limits of our wisdom. Clearly, God allows evil without that making him evil.

Jakob Böhme the German cobbler and mystic set out on a life-long quest for some light on this mystery. From the beginning, and even within God, he saw a struggle between light and darkness and opposing principles. This was the dialectic of Hegel that resembled the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. God himself lives an inner struggle as we his creations experience. God is both love and wrath. Within divinity is a dark and irrational abyss that Böhme called in German the Ungrund. God and creation are not a static order or hierarchy, but is a fiery struggle bringing dynamism and progress. Böhme sought salvation in the heart of Jesus from this struggle of God the Father. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Jesus cries from the Cross. It seemed that God had withdrawn from the evil world he had created and for which he was responsible. Böhme belonged to that group of profound souls who were pained by the evil and torment of our life. His thought was to seek the other and the opposite. Light means nothing without the darkness it opposes. So it is also with life and death, good and evil, spirit and matter.

O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem – O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer. These are words from that sublime chant of the Paschal Vigil of Holy Saturday. John Milton wrote:

O goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which creation first brought forth
Light out of Darkness!

It is a way to understand the Fall as bearing the consequence of the Redemption of mankind through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. The concept, as with German dialectics, is a paradox. The mystery of Christ would never have been possible without the Fall in the first place. St Ambrose expressed such ideas as did St Augustine: “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist”. The idea spread to the early Reformation via John Wycliffe. In the Old Testament, we find the thought that had it not been for the Exile, the Israelites would not have the joy of finding their promised land. It is through suffering that they had the hope of victory and restored life. Such is the archetype of the Paschal Mystery of the Passover and the Transitus Domini.

I give you another biblical quote from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It paints the portrait of desolation:

How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.

Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits.

The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feasts: all her gates are desolate: her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness.

Her adversaries are the chief, her enemies prosper; for the Lord hath afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions: her children are gone into captivity before the enemy.

And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed: her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer.

Jerusalem remembered in the days of her affliction and of her miseries all her pleasant things that she had in the days of old, when her people fell into the hand of the enemy, and none did help her: the adversaries saw her, and did mock at her sabbaths.

Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed: all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward.

Her filthiness is in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter. O Lord, behold my affliction: for the enemy hath magnified himself.

The adversary hath spread out his hand upon all her pleasant things: for she hath seen that the heathen entered into her sanctuary, whom thou didst command that they should not enter into thy congregation.

All her people sigh, they seek bread; they have given their pleasant things for meat to relieve the soul: see, O Lord, and consider; for I am become vile.

Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.

From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.

The yoke of my transgressions is bound by his hand: they are wreathed, and come up upon my neck: he hath made my strength to fall, the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up.

The Lord hath trodden under foot all my mighty men in the midst of me: he hath called an assembly against me to crush my young men: the Lord hath trodden the virgin, the daughter of Judah, as in a winepress.

For these things I weep; mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water, because the comforter that should relieve my soul is far from me: my children are desolate, because the enemy prevailed.

Zion spreadeth forth her hands, and there is none to comfort her: the Lord hath commanded concerning Jacob, that his adversaries should be round about him: Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman among them.

The Lord is righteous; for I have rebelled against his commandment: hear, I pray you, all people, and behold my sorrow: my virgins and my young men are gone into captivity.

I called for my lovers, but they deceived me: my priests and mine elders gave up the ghost in the city, while they sought their meat to relieve their souls.

Behold, O Lord; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled: abroad the sword bereaveth, at home there is as death.

They have heard that I sigh: there is none to comfort me: all mine enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that thou hast done it: thou wilt bring the day that thou hast called, and they shall be like unto me.

Let all their wickedness come before thee; and do unto them, as thou hast done unto me for all my transgressions: for my sighs are many, and my heart is faint.

We have a situation of desolation because of Israel’s infidelity to the Covenant with God, notably through sins of idolatry. This is a land that has passed under the tyranny of enemies and oppression after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Like the Book of Job, the Lamentations paint a portrait of absolute disaster. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? This must be the cry of many souls now dying alone in hospital from the virus now afflicting our world. It must have seemed that God had indeed forsaken his people. Hope comes from remembrance of God’s past goodness, but there is no guarantee of a happy ending. This feeling of desolation reminds me of Bryon’s poem Darkness. I’ll read it to you:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, and died—
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

Like Jeremiah, Byron had a vision of the end of the world. However, rather than rejoice in a kind of Schadenfreude about apocalyptic prophecies around our current scourge, we need to prepare the way for Christ’s victory in the second creation. Holy Week is built on this suffering from human evil and natural catastrophes like famine, pestilence, earthquakes and foul weather. It is from this darkness that the brilliant light of the Resurrection will be appreciated and embraced in the depths of our souls in this renewal of our Baptism.

What is even more important, even more important than being in church and receiving the Sacraments, is to live this transformation within ourselves and our consciousness. That will give that much more meaning to the Sacraments and the liturgy when they are restored to us.

I as a priest will continue to celebrate Mass and to pray for you all at home, that you may find from this period of darkness, spiritual darkness, a world invaded by this tiny and invisible virus with no life of its own, but living on our lives. May we one day return to the world as this spring is doing, independently from us humans. Let us hope, hope beyond all hope that this scourge may pass us by and that we may find a new life.

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