The Revd Brutus Green
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
Be with us now and always. Amen.
Everyone will have known moments when ‘the time is out of joint’. Times when the extremes of human emotion pull you out of day to day living into a new unfamiliar world. At such times our bodies can seem strangers to us; our habits, peculiar curiosities - sleep, eating evades us; we absently walk out the bathroom half way through shaving; five minute tasks take distracted hours. The noise of life continues regardless: children play down the road; the sun blazes carelessly away and the diary does not magically empty itself in sympathy.
There is a metaphor rooted at the heart of the way we see the world that has an almost complete stranglehold. It is the idea that the world operates like a machine, a great mechanism. With such a view the laws of this world are steel; it is the world of Sherlock Holmes, Spock and socialists, where humans are automatons, conditioned by environment, at the mercy of a hundred thousand biological impulses.
To misquote the song though: “it ain’t necessarily so”; for Blake:
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
‘There are more things in heaven and earth’, or may be so,‘Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. This is not to knock science at all - one of my favourite christmas presents was a chemistry set I got aged 11. But scientism, as Sherlock demonstrates makes socio-paths of us. And besides, we all at least act as though our decisions belonged to us. And if we started admitting evidence in adult trials such as ‘a difficult childhood’, ‘biological deficiencies’, ‘a mean best friend at school’, or ‘poor diet’, our legal system would seize up and we’d end up locking up a lot of old grannies for having wilfully and maliciously passed on selfish genes.
Which means that we hold on to two inconsistent positions. Firstly, that the world and ourselves are entirely explicable by rational laws. Secondly, that we as coherent individuals may perceive truth, non-objectively, and that at times our feelings give us a greater, more acute sense of truth than the cold light of reason.
Now as I said I’m not altogether knocking the first position. It is the basic, sane way in which we organise our lives, deal with the people we meet, decide whether we need an umbrella or a hat. But is it true that through this flat lens we see most clearly?
Consider again those moments ‘out of joint’, when grief stretches our emotions with a reality that cannot immediately be borne; when we are fully and even self-consciously perceiving the world subjectively. Do we see less clearly? Perhaps it is in such times of hyper-reality we experience the world most fully; that actually when the diary has full control of us, when life is smooth and amiable, we are furthest from the truth; when we slip into the safe mechanical thrum of busy days and nights passing easily.
‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’, T.S. Eliot said. Moments of genuine consciousness, of love, of perception, last only briefly; ‘the moment in the rose-garden’ (by which he meant the elevated brief experience of exalted love, rather than the fleeting happiness of the 2010 coalition government). The human nervous system is in fact fabulous equipped to regulate extremities. The intensity of emotions in all their joy and bombardment by slings and arrows are quickly desensitised.
But in their intensity we recognise our mistaken priorities. We see immediately relationships we have neglected or taken for granted. No one regrets a day taken off work or a five minute call to a friend. The capacity for regretting not doing those things is infinite.
And what does one do hearing of a friend’s death? There is no one to see, nowhere to be, no one to console; because the person you want is gone, and the person grieving is yourself. But you must do something. You go to those bald, unlovely streets where you knew them best. You leave flowers where the wrong people will see them. The ordinary train to Cambridge becomes a pilgrimage, flowers a sacrament, the streets, the pubs become holy with memory.
And you see more clearly. Know more fully. Become hyper-sensitive to yourself, others and the world. When you meet other people who knew him, you love them easily, wantonly. The recognition of shared love and pain takes the terrific force of a ten year friendship. Your heart, being bruised, opens easily.
The technician will say “ah! But this is explainable in my psychological manual of evolved natural instincts. It will pass and I will plot your other responses in a five-stage chart”; which you deny, become very angry about, bargain with and then with some sadness finally accept that you’re not going to be friends with psychologists any more.
But no matter that you will regulate these feelings, because human kind cannot bear very much reality. These blinding moments, by memory, by realisation, as well as reviving certain relationships and throwing off peripheral quarrels, have the capacity to transform us. They can be lighthouses warding off mechanical apathy and reminding us to love better.
Of course grief can turn us inward away from ourselves and others. 'What a piece of work is a man?' that 'quintessence of dust' - without mirth we can become cold: ‘Man delights not me, nor woman neither.’ We can become neglectful, if we deaden our souls or succumb to bitterness. But in our keenest experiences, understanding our strongest emotions is more likely to lead us to truth than anything we gossip over in the office.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans we can see something of this struggle of the spirit’s knowledge of the truth. The Gospel’s message of love consumed Paul. No one writes as passionately about it - consider 1 Corinthians, or the chapter of Romans that follows, where: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul like Christ will die for this love. And yet he also knows the fight against expedience, against the easier life, against other people’s indifference and malevolence: ‘For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. The wearying pressure to step back from imitating Christ.
There is nothing in the mechanised world that will remind us to phone our parents, our friends, to be kind to the anonymous souls we meet. It is the deepest, most subjective, and so most true - experiences that command us to do these things. The materialist world is full of detached “it”s. The world in love and grief is a world of involved “you”s.
Even here we can betray ourselves. We hear people say: 'oh but I only saw him or spoke to him the other day’- as if one prepares for a car crash by avoiding people, or develops symptoms beforehand. And we lose patience. Or we’re tempted to parade our pain, to out-grief others with poetic Facebook obituaries and personal photographs - that turn the attention on to us - How I have suffered! And who will save me from this body of death? ‘Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus’. That strange interjection in the epistle - probably made by a passionate scribe as a note in the margin and later transcribed into the letter itself by mistake - but what a true mistake - for St Paul would have said no less. And it is the reminder to keep loving that will preserve us.
And so we must fight against this objective impersonal world. Is the bottom line ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw or [is] love Creation’s final law’. If you agree with the poet that ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all’, ‘This truth came borne with bier and pall, I felt it, when I sorrow’d most’. Even under allter’d skies, when the savage indifference of creation throws our equilibrium at full tilt, we will find ourselves still closer to God than at the calm centre, if we can keep our love from turning to bitterness.
My friend, who died, is a priest, a little younger than me. Without him I might not be a priest. The Eucharist is where I feel closest to him. As Robin will know, who just weeks ago had his stole changed to the position of a priest; it represents the yoke of Christ - which today’s Gospel, the comfortable words spoken as the Book of Common Prayer Eucharist begins, - tells us is easy, and his burden is light. It represents not the priest but Christ calling the weary and burdened to the outstretched arms of a friend - a friend who can help shoulder our burdens if we let him; Christ who loved and suffered for that love. And in this all who have loved and suffered can recognise and come to him as a friend to find rest for their souls.
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.