Reflection for Monday in Holy Week
Please forgive me for being literary yet again, but I do on this occasion have a perfect justification. I am going to reflect on a section of Biblical poetry.
From the book of Lamentations- Chapter 2.
As a way in, here are two opinions about the nature of poetry which shifted my own perspective.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote that a poet was a person whose mouth was so configured that when he cried out in agony beautiful music came forth.
In a book published last year Adam Nicholson wrote this about the early collaborations of Coleridge and Wordsworth. ‘ Poetry is not for drawing rooms.’
Yes, we know poetry can be delightful, yes it can be consoling, yes it can be an ornament for people inclined to culture.
But it can also be jagged and discomforting. It can express visceral feeling from within a context of terrifying and disorientating circumstances.
The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal died recently and he wrote many psalm inspired poems about the experience of living in a totalitarian state.
In a reimagining of Psalm 22 he began My God my God why hast thou forsaken me- you will recognise Christ’s lament from the cross.
Cardenal went on.
Their armoured cars encompass me,
Their machine gunners have set their sights on me,
Barbed wire sets me round.. and later we come to these lines.
I call out in the isolation wing,
In the home for the aged.’
Cardenal, who was himself a priest, automatically made the connection between being on the receiving end of political oppression, and the terrors of illness and accelerating frailty.
Many of the psalms do exactly the same. The threat of invading armies and advancing mortality dis- ease us.
The book of Lamentations was almost certainly written just after the kingdom of Judah had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC-140 years after the Northern Kingdom had been erased from the map by the Assyrians.
And it does not gloss over the suffering.
There is no room for nonsensical songs about always looking on the bright side of life.
It is a book about suffering and reversal.
In verse 8 God who has elsewhere been pictured as a cosmic architect, laying the foundations of the universe and civilization is the cosmic demolisher, pulling down what he has previously made.
Shortly afterwards the poet describes a situation that we know all too well from history and contemporary news.
Of mothers with nursing babies sitting in city squares, fainting from exhaustion looking around desperately for bread and drink.
Except that is not quite what he says. This is poetry, not reportage, or an advert for Aid.
It is the babies themselves who are asking their mothers for grain and wine.
Children who cannot speak express all the people’s sense of loss.
Normal life has, for now vanished. For all the living generations.
One quality of laments, whether they are in this too much neglected book of Lamentations or in the book of Psalms themselves, is that they do not hold back.
They do not rush to give false comfort, but insist that anger, fear, and grief must have their voice.
Just as Christ lamented his agony on Calvary.
When Christ proclaimed that the truth will set us free, he may have included the hurt that we all so often try to deny.
The book of Lamentations is not a book without hope.
For hope too is expressed but not in bypassing reality- it emerges stronger within the midst of all the gathering darkness.
In the very next chapter we read- my own paraphrase- reflections which turn, at the end, into a prayer.
I still wait patiently, having taken this to heart.
I am sure the Lord’s kindness has not come to an end
His mercy is not exhausted,
It is renewed every dawn.
Great is Your faithfulness.’