Reflections for Easter
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April stole a march on May
And bent with white the cherry bough
As if to say
‘Sweeter and more lasting blossom comes,
Be patient now’.
A strange season, this.
Spring comes in disguise
With May masked in November’s mist.
The cat slumbers on in timeless trance,
Its haunches heave unhurriedly like earth’s sluggish pulse,
And agitated birds await their cue.
Once, as the sun briefly stirred,
A damp and desultory cuckoo-call rose up from Cockshoot Wood.
A transitory beam swept through the copse in search of life -
But gaunt and stiff as headstones stood the trees.
In cemetery silence still they freeze.
It is hard to keep faith;
To hold fast to a creed and believe in life eternal
And never-failing resurrection day.
It is hard, especially hard,
When May-day blows the same bleak wind
That’s hurled its hatred south since leaves were stripped;
The same bitter breath that reeks of death.
Death has been in season far too long.
Yet I have seen the violets, white and blue,
And greens of every hue break slowly through
This cold and sodden corpse we call the earth.
And now at middle-mark of May
I sit and watch the miracle at play.
The tree puts on its best for Whitsun Day,
Like an Easter-bride who oversleeps
And now is quick to dress and haste away,
Knowing that her lover will have stayed.
I am the lover, and I wait.
Early or late, I know my love will come,
And we shall be as one.
Green breaks the old and crumbled clay, made new;
And all the dreary dread of death is fled.
I believe in miracles made manifest in May
I believe in resurrection day.
Journal Entry 10 March: God with us and in us
E.P. Sanders in “Jesus and Judaism” wonders “whether the resurrection is the sole explanation of the Christian movement”.
As he says, it was certainly “the motivating force behind the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ”.
Suppose we were looking for a test of divine action. We would surely be impressed by a reversal of the natural order, which normally shows itself as an individual finite life bounded by birth and death. The resurrection of Jesus interferes with this natural order in a big way.
Only man, most would agree, is capable of reflecting on the finite nature of life. Our pet dogs and cats, though careful to avoid starvation and situations that put them in danger of death, are probably not troubled by speculations about what will happen to them when they die. On the other hand some people regard life as a preparation for death. Rationally speaking, one only prepares for a journey one expects, intends or hopes to take.
If life were merely the exercise of rational speculation we should have to accept aging, increasing entropy, death and corruption – “from dust to dust” - as all there is. But strangely and obstinately some of us are brought up with a start by sudden invasions of timelessness, attended by feelings of unutterable conviction and ecstasy that render our rational extrapolations of inevitable extinction laughable and unacceptable.
An example caught my attention this morning when reading a passage from “Lark Rise to Candleford”, which speaks of the harrow combing out piles of weeds and twitch grass after ploughing “to be fined later and fill the air with the light blue haze and the scent that can haunt for a lifetime”. This is one of the strange aspects of human life – that we can be haunted rapturously for a lifetime by something as ordinary as a scent.
Last night I had a vivid dream: I was back in the Torquay of my evacuation in 1939, ascending the hill that leads to St Marychurch. The dream was the usual composite of fabricated events coupled with traces of fact as remembered; but what was glorious about it was the all-enveloping joyful feeling I had of “coming home”, which is a sort of resurrection. I woke with a feeling of certitude that even if all else is lost, the feeling of “life lived” is now and forever. Just as a scent, taste or sound - smouldering grass, a “Madeleine” cake, a fragment of “our tune” - can serve as a trigger for ineffable feelings plucked out of eternity; and a dream can awaken joy that has lain fallow for years; so Easter brings inexpressible hope: God incarnate also passed this way, went through the processes of death, and demonstrated by a transferable miracle that we are right to set store by our secret yearnings, and know intuitively that they speak of something that endures. The rationalist preaches “death with us”, as inevitable as taxes. The Christian preaches “God with us and in us”; and that makes all the difference.
MOMENT OF THE ROSE
"And the slumber of the bodyIs but the waking of the soul" Sir Thomas Browne
Late September rose had all the gentle loveliness
Of Capriol's "Pieds-en-l'air";
But October's rose after rain is a bedraggled affair:
A solitary Peace rose which, when nuzzled, still holds faint fragrance.
Strange to feel September slip away without him;
Always a special time.
One or the other would moot “a mooch round Barbury,
Or a trek up Hackpen Hill?”
What's to be said as the year tires?
That death, the accepted finality, is unacceptable,
Does not convince,
Death exacts a silence of sorts
But cannot destroy what is evergreen.
Reality subsists not in, but through the seen.
Nor is the one that's loved, though gone, a mere has-been.
November will bequeath a bud that never opened,
A shrivelled blossom blighted by the frost.
But this is passing fancy, senses tugged at the cuff through time.
The illusion of seasons gives reasons that are counterpoised;
Something persists in cyclic change.
In the moment of the rose there is no change.
And as the half-turned page is held
An aura spreads
As the last word read
Sheds fragrance like a rose.
The ticking clock unwinds.
Times that are fled and times to come
Melt into a certainty
That "all shall be well,
And all manner of thing shall be well".
October 30, 1997 For Bob's birthday
THAT FIRST FERVOUR
Some misunderstand eternity.
Rather than feel it, they think it:
Form an abstraction in terms of time,
As though ‘time’ were a concept of certainty.
With the reductionist’ trick of reductio ad absurdum
Eternity becomes the ceaseless flow of time’s interminable tedium;
Self-evident absurdity ad nauseam!
And so, it’s thought, the idea’s scotched;
But don’t be misled by a word-play botch.
Spring comes driving blossom-flocks in droves;
Daffodil carpets unroll;
Magnolia bears magnificence in chalices of mauve;
And back and forth I go, drawn to the scene
As though I never had been there before,
Sensing that first fervour of delight!
Is warmth that never cools;
Thirst that’s never slaked;
The moment that plays truant from time’s school;
A miracle; exception to the rule;
The world we find when from deep sleep we wake.
Is to read life’s prose in rhyme;
To render each successive ‘now’ in verse;
And never to commit the crime
Of seeing what the self expects to see.
Familiarity, our hourly curse.
Journal Entry for Easter Day, 4th April
The church was full, and we sang “Alleluias” lustily.
Fred Friend’s text was: “Be not afraid”, the words of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection. They had a double reason to be scared. They had lost their leader, and were themselves suspect men in the eyes of the Authorities. Secondly, they sustained the shock of facing the “living dead” – a contradiction in terms.
How would we react to meeting someone dear to us face-to-face a few days after their burial? It would surely be a moment marked by a mixture of joy and panic, mingled with disbelief.
It is that disbelief which the secular world still expresses.
Even 2000 years on from that date which acknowledges in perpetuity the “living God”, the majority still cannot accept the resurrection of Jesus.
Death is a great unknown, since nobody has ever experienced it and articulated that experience. Unknown as an experience; yet many people would be prepared to assert that as a fact, death is the end; the positive, complete and final end of a living creature, beyond which there can be no cognizance or feeling. We are all aware of the grounds for this rational assertion, based on the fact of bodily disintegration, which must (part of the assertion) deny cognition. Based upon our rational view of the material world this position is unassailable.
Yet reason is limited and can lead us along false paths. We do not understand “life”, for a start. We have accumulated an imposing understanding of its processes, but not of life itself, nor of its origins.
God is the God of origins. God and origins are outside the rational-scientific framework. Reason and science can, therefore, only speak of process, not of ends nor of beginnings.
God in Jesus Christ made a new beginning. This is the significance of Easter. God’s creation entered a new phase when He Himself entered it. Space-time is clay in “God the potter’s” hands. Why limit the creation to that which we think we know? If God decides to write a new chapter in the book of creation let us rejoice.
Let us thank God that death is not final, but a beginning.
What can the Christian say to the world convincingly about the resurrection?
This morning Irene and I listened to a radio discussion about good and evil. The participants were both from Oxford, Galen Strawson and a Polish philosopher whose name escapes me. The Pole put “good and evil” into a religious context: without God, the terms have no meaning. Strawson lent upon a mechanistic framework, finding meaning in Marxist and Darwinian concepts such as “survival value”.
As Dorothy Sayers says in “The Mind of the Maker”: “man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick”.
If, in Strawson’s case, experience is limited to rationality without the benefit of religious intuition, of course the yardstick will be mechanistic. Darwinian or Marxist determinism is all that is on offer as a causal or probabilistic explanation of how things are.
Earlier this morning I was trying to complete a poem which starts “Today is called ‘Good’”. It is a meditation on the meaning of Good Friday. For Strawson Good Friday can hardly have any significance”. The whole basis of Christianity is, I suspect, flawed in his eyes since it is based on the repudiation of physical law. Even disregarding what some would call Myth in the bible accounts, the beginning and end of Jesus’ life are in flagrant denial of our experience of the behaviour of the material world as we experience it. The incarnation is a singularity, and the resurrection is a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics (that the entropy of a body should increase after death, i.e. that it should decay)
Again, Dorothy Sayers writes: “The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only a man, then he is entirely irrelevant to any thought of God; if he is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life.”
It is necessary, she says, that we should believe rightly in the Incarnation. By this she means that Christian dogma is relevant to the nature of life and the universe. In other words, we should reject a prescribed framework of experience limited only to the rational-scientific account. We should allow ourselves to seem fools in the world’s eyes and embrace newness.
Fossilized fame on celluloid or oxide
Provides a kind of immortality.
Though dead, we watch them still
Made lovingly or loathsomely alive;
A menacing face we learned to hate,
The smile that warms the heart,
A voice familiar as our own,
Music à la carte.
Push-buttons and micro-chips
Give silent lips
And long-lost faces
We manage resurrection
Screen and loudspeaker
Make miracles seem cheaper.
But such patterned sound and light
Mere ephemeral delight.
A dwindling fame, destined for the archives,
Goes out of mind when hidden out of sight.
Real miracles cost more than price of fame.
True resurrection bears the wounds
That mutely point to shame,
But still proclaims
Brighter than a silver screen,
Louder than loudspeakers.
We call it Easter.
Journal Entry 24 February
In Arthur Peacocke’s words
“There is no natural immortality”.
In his lecture at Oxford University on 7th February 1999, or rather, in the ensuing discussion, Arthur Peacocke said that God can take us through death with our personality preserved, since we have a relationship with Jesus Christ. God doesn’t let a relationship die.
Of the incarnation story he said – “the myth contains the truth of one who is designated by God and confirmed in the resurrection”.
C.S.Lewis, in his talk “The New Man”, had this to say:
“The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself and you’ll find your real self. Lose your life and you’ll save it. Submit to death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. …… Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”
So, combining the thoughts of Lewis and Peacocke, we get a picture of God taking us through death by means of the relationship that exists between us and Christ. The essence of a relationship is a willing submission to another’s personality. We cannot begin to establish a relationship if we impose our personality relentlessly upon another. We have to give of ourselves. This is an enigma: the paradox is stated in the principle of “gain through loss”.
But if we lose to a personality that possesses an infinite capacity for giving, the enigma begins to make sense; not in terms of logic, but as an intuitive “hope in the prospect of the radically new” (H.A.Williams in “True Resurrection”).
First there is submission, then insight, then experiential certainty: this is the process. Or, as H.A.Williams puts it: “We can experience resurrection first hand, but we have no concepts, no words, no linguistic forms in which we can set it out with anything approaching adequacy…. For resurrection is God’s creating”, and there are no limits to God’s creational capacity. He can raise us up to a state of newness impossible for us to conceive, being mere creatures.
Journal Entry 28 February
I have been pondering on the matter of natural immortality versus the Christian concept of resurrection, the latter being a unique form initiated by God through Christ.
Arthur Peacocke referred to a unity called the “person”, and saw the person as the soul, a process, whereas the body is a thing. In the resurrection Jesus has been taken through death, and we are given the resurrection of the person.
There is no natural immortality. We mustn’t use ‘soul’ in a concrete fashion, as if the soul were a thing.
The person or soul is a process or relationship, not an object. A person is who I am, not what I am. A person is the operational principle of my being, the spirit or enlivening principle. It is that which directs and integrates all my existential elements.
In the creation of a poem or piece or music or art there is a conception of form accompanied by a teleological (i.e. goal directed) process to achieve that form.
Dorothy Sayers expressed this as metaphor for the Trinity:
The IDEA of the work
The ENERGY to bring it about
The POWER exhibited by the work
Idea – energy – power are a trinity: three equal parts in one, since they exist together in intimate relationship.
My soul is a life’s process in time that is an eternal whole, generating a unique power. This is a three-part description of who I am as a person.
Unsure of herself,
Coquette of months;
Blowing one day warm to stir the coiled green flesh from earth,
Then cold, to leave a coaxed, responding life, unloved.
I marvel at the affair,
This annual flirtation,
Knowing by now that love will have its way;
She will relent.
Then will winter’s stone be unrolled,
The secret stuff of soil, resurrected,
Colour, raised from the dead.
And I, with starved eyes,
Shall feast upon miracles.
Who can say how this cold, cold clay,
Drab as winter trees,
Can spawn a petalled plenty such as this?
A daffodil-delight to feign a mirrored sun,
Crocus cups to match a rainbow’s flight,
And blossom-bursts, pink-clustered
Billowing like high-seas in a mad March wind.
I stoop and grasp the loam
Dark as the tomb,
Clammy as death,
And wonder that a canvas bright with pigments such as these
Could be conjured from a palette such as this.
Perhaps the master of parables might say
That out of such unpromising clay
Shall come forth splendour beyond belief
On that bright day,
On that great trumpet-blazing day.
Journal Entry 10 April
Dorothy Sayers offers a thought on the immortality of the soul: she makes the point that Christians do not stress this idea, though it is implicit in their beliefs.
“The characteristic belief of Christendom is in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting of the complete body-soul complex. Excessive spirituality is the mark, not of the Christian but of the Gnostic.”
Eastern religions discount the body in the context of everlastingness. It is regarded as a positive impediment in the practical discipline of spirituality, something always dragging a person down into desire and pain. The Greeks, too, considered spirituality as a pure aspect of our nature, which at death is released from the burden of the body. In the early centuries A.D., Gnosticism continued the tradition of high spirituality and its associated negation of the body; mortification of the flesh and anchoritic practices abounded.
These extremes are indicative of a miscomprehension of the completeness of the body-mind-spirit union. As someone has said – was it perhaps C.S.Lewis? – “we may be tired of the body and material phenomena, but God isn’t.” He loves his space-time creation, saw it was good, blessed it and is involved in it. So involved is he in it that he involved himself in its solidity and suffered the pains of a body in the extreme anguish of death, in order to amend the natural phenomena of death. This evidently was the one feature of his creation that required his personal intervention.
It is at least partially clear why this was necessary. Again Dorothy Sayers sheds some light: “God in heaven ……is the only unconditional reality. All other reality is derived from God, being either immediately created by Him, or engendered or evolved or manufactured by the mediation of His creatures, interacting amongst themselves.”
There is but one Spirit of creation acting either directly or indirectly in God’s creatures. It seems that man, a unique creation of God and made in His image, is incapable of attaining the finished perfection desired by God through an evolutionary mechanism, i.e. through natural change. Nothing short of a supernatural act of creation was required to put in place the New Man within a New Creation in which natural death is but a transitional phase which allows the flowering of eternal life. Resurrection becomes reality.
"Ceci, n'est pas une pipe".
As Rene Magritte reminds us, a painting is not a pipe.
And words can never be what is felt,
Neither can pigments be what we see in a tree.
So too, pictures our memory paints
Suffer from inhibiting restraints,
Exclude the "something more".
Days become a party we dressed for, but somehow missed;
Are like a play conceived yet never staged.
Life as framed falls short
Of what in secret self is felt and thought.
Promise much, but in their demise
Lack the will to materialize.
The coffin borne before our eyes
Contains a corpse that cannot rise
Unless to our amazed surprise
A Lazarus walks who once had died.
Then what we thought was lost, is found for perpetuity.
Which raises questions of eternity,
Of a Lazarus-raiser,
A life saver.
WORK IN PROGRESS
The world's an untidy place;
Things all out of joint.
So many cast off dreams scattered,
Vows that mattered, littered higgledy-piggledy,
Wriggly worms of guilt seek out young flesh,
Freshly opened leaves fall prey to jaws.
Flaws there are in every living thing,
Though spring, in her exuberance blinds us to the fact.
What unpardonable lack of tact has caused this wrong?
Ah, an enemy has done this;
The world's deceiver.
And whilst the whole creation groans
Benighted man moans,
And presses in his prayers for some release,
Trusting in the good news long reported
That all this present mess is being sorted.
There is a new creation in the making,
The time for tears is coming to an end.
Poetry we make each day will rhyme.
The music that we play will harmonize.
And we shall rise, surprised,
To marvel at the tidiness of things.
Journal Entry 22 March
What remains of a person when they are gone?
On first impulse one is tempted to answer: memories. But on deeper reflection memory is not of the essence. That which we hold as being the essential person is an aura we feel. It is as though the person’s spirit invades our own and becomes part of it. We describe this blending of spirit by the single word love. This has been termed the I – thou relationship, whether it be with God or with a fellow human being.
So that although the body of a loved one dies and dissolves into matter, the essential spirit, person, soul (whatever word we choose), still IS. Spirit is eternal since it is a sharing of God’s eternal being. God is spirit, and spirit is the origin of all creation. Spirit finds a tangible expression in the creation, in us. The creation finally runs down, we finally die, but the meaning that was expressed lives on. Spirit, manifested as meaning (logos), is not of the brain, nor of the mind, since these are its means of expression.
Music is built, produced by, expressed through, instruments. When Freya Stark writes: “Love, too, and even more so friendship, is built by memory.” I take it she is saying the same thing: that love is expressed through memory, which is a composite of body-mind.
She goes on to say: “The persons we care for become composite beings, altered by every meeting as it comes, so that they really exist less in the present than in the past, and are embodiments not only of their own but also of our departed days; the ingredients of them, as far as we are concerned, are all the gathered occasions, mostly forgotten, in which our lives have joined.”
This lovely passage expresses better than I can the mystery of love, this wonderful amalgam of spirit that has eternal life.
Tennyson, in “In Memoriam”, attempts to give expression to this conviction:
“My own dim life should teach me this,
That life shall live for evermore.”
And Larkin, the professed unbeliever, looks upon the Arundel tomb and writes:
“What will survive of us is love”.
MEETING WITH NO PARTING
Bob was a great one for nicknames.
"Bose" he used to call me, though I never knew quite why.
I can imagine their meeting:
"Hello Bun", he'll say, as she feels his warm embrace,
"So good you're here to stay."
Meeting with no parting,
Tears of joy, never of grief.
Stretch belief beyond this little life:
To die is to find a peace days seem to deny;
To consummate the love we feel, but tried to show in vain.
Death is the end of pain,
Truth made plain,
Broken pieces repossessed and mended,
Amazement that the life we thought had ended,
Has only just begun.
written on the death of Dorothy, Bob’s wife
ON READING AN OLD DIARY
Time, inveterate sentimentalist,
Plucks life’s blossoms in full bloom
And presses petals between infinite leaves.
There is no flower that ever charmed the air
That is not held in memory’s copious tome.
Yet are its pages rarely turned,
Our garden’s tillage stoops us to the soil.
But now this scant catalogue
Of distant moments spent
Guides my hand,
Disturbs the pages,
Sending that faint, lingering fragrance
Which these posies once possessed,
Wafting from their dried and faded forms,
Assailing me with longing
For their lost perfume.
But why tarry with things embalmed,
Lingering over withered joy, obsessed?
There is a garden where every flower
Tended by our loving hands,
Grows for ever, ever fair,
Sweetly scents the summer air,
And knows not death.
Poised upon the moving finger of time,
We hasten, and yet haste not,
Age, and yet age not,
Come and go as seasons shift,
Yet cast a constant shadow.
But when the moving finger halts,
And we are in that garden
Where is no blossom plucked
Nor petal pressed.
Journal Entry 20 April
We have just come back from a walk across the fields and past Brands House. Blue sky and sunshine at last! This, combined with a wonderful improvement in my mouth’s soreness, causes me to rejoice greatly. It has been months since I really felt fit. The garden is blossoming and a joy to behold.
It is significant that God and Christ are associated with light in contrast to the “powers of darkness”. The heavenly state must surely combine light, flowers and music. But in heaven, one presumes, the flowers are unblemished and everlasting, untouched by blight or frost; the light brighter than April sun bursting through gaps in golden cloud. For me the music will embody and excel the passion of Mahler, the joviality of Poulenc, the energy of Janacek, the exhilaration of Gershwin, the vivacity of jazz, the sublime invention of Mozart, the resolved yearning of Delius, the exuberance of Grainger, the nobility of Elgar, the “spring” of Grieg, the “winter” of Sibelius, the “summer” of Frank Bridge and the “autumn” of Brahms.
If this particular idea of heaven does not draw you to it with irresistible yearning, remember Jesus’ words:
“In my father’s house there are many mansions; I go to prepare a place for you.”
As one mouse to the other mouse said:
These sycamore seeds drift down and are fled
Like `togetherness years'.
Slowly and lovely they flutter from sight
Like butterflies in summer light.
But what seems present, past, and gone,
Is really the seed
Of what shall be:
A stripling tree;
Death is God's last gracious gift,
Birth, a magical thing;
And between these poles
Spans a little world
On which I continually spin.
My world is observed by many
Though inhabited only by me;
A solitary landlord
Of unsure pretensions,
This incredible thing.
I know neither world I frequent,
Nor much of the Crusoe marooned.
I address the looking-glass daily;
Ask: "Who am I?"
But get no reply.
Serve quotidian duties
With more head than heart,
Falter at every fork in my path,
Grow weary of playing the parts that I play
Except when God in his kindness
Draws eyes to the wonder of things.
Then between these two poles
Spanning my little world,
Between birthday and last-day
That round my days ring,
I sense what's beyond,
What is felt but not seen.
And the felt things ring true
And creation sings
As I find myself sharing
The brashness and daring
This cosmical conjuror brings.