Virginia Woolf reflects on the experience of boarding school, callous, unfriended. Put it beside the thoughts we read recently from teenagers on life-changing events.
Now that our boxes are unpacked in the dormitories, we sit herded together under maps of the entire world. There are desks with wells for the ink. We shall write our exercises in ink here. But here I am nobody. I have no face. This great company, all dressed in brown serge, has robbed me of my identity. We are all callous, unfriended. I will seek out a face, a composed, a monumental face, and will endow it with omniscience, and wear it under my dress like a talisman and then (I promise this) I will find some dingle in a wood where I can display my assortment of curious treasures. I promise myself this. So I will not cry.
Historically it was an event within the life of Jesus and the early church and is now a feast-day for Christians, one that links Easter to Pentecost. But it is more than an historical event, it is at the same time an insight into life that we need to understand to better sort out the paradoxical interplay between life and death, presence and absence, love and loss.
The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the centre of life, namely, that we all reach a point in life where we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.
When Jesus was preparing to leave this earth he kept repeating the words: “It is better for you that I go away! You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go away you will be unable to receive my spirit. Don’t cling to me, I must ascend.”
Why is it better?
Any parent has heard similar words from their children, unspoken perhaps but there nonetheless. When young people leave home to go to college or to begin life on their own, what they are really saying to their parents is: “Mom and dad, it is better that I go away. You will be sad now, but your sadness will turn to joy. If I don’t go, I will always be your little boy or little girl but I will be unable to give you my life as an adult. So please don’t cling to the child you once had or you will never be able to receive my adulthood. I need to go away now so that our love can come to full bloom.”
To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. The pain in this kind of letting go is often excruciating, as parents know, but to refuse to do that is to truncate life.
The same is true for the mystery of death. For example: I was 22 years old when my mother, died. The pain was searing. Initially we were nearly overwhelmed with a sense of being of losing a vital life-connection (that, ironically, we had mostly taken for granted until then). And our feelings were mainly cold, there’s little that’s warm in death.
But time is a great healer. After a while, and for me this took several years, the coldness disappeared and her death was no longer externally painful. I felt again her presence, and now as a warm, nurturing spirit that was with me all time. The coldness of death turned into a warmth. She had gone away but now could give me love and blessing in new way.
The mystery of love and intimacy contains that paradox: To remain present to someone we love we have to sometimes be absent, in ways big and small. In the paradox of love, we can only fully bless each other when we go away. That is why most of us only “get” the blessing our loved ones were for us after they die.
And this is even true, perhaps particularly so, in cases where our loved ones were difficult characters who struggled for peace or to bless anyone in this life. Death washes clean and releases the spirit and, even in the case of people who struggled to love, we can after their deaths receive their blessing in ways we never could while they were alive. Like Jesus, they could only give us their real presence by going away.
“It is better for you that I go away!” These are painful words most of the time, from a young child leaving her mother for a day to go to school, to the man leaving his family for a week to go on a business trip, to the young man moving out of his family’s house to begin life on his own, to a loved one saying goodbye in death. Separation hurts, goodbyes bring painful tears, and death of every kind wrenches the heart.
But that is part of the mystery of love. Eventually we all reach a point where what is best for everyone is that we go away so that we can give our spirit. The gift that our lives are can only be fully received after we ascend.
Boswell writes: In his review of the ‘Memoirs of the Court of Augustus,’ [Samuel Johnson] has the resolution to think and speak from his own mind, regardless of the cant transmitted from age to age, in praise of the ancient Romans. Thus,
‘I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765 by James Boswell.
Even the convinced imperialist John Buchan, recognised that: ‘The existence of a subject race on whatever terms is apt to lead to the deterioration in moral and mental vigour of its masters.’1And we see today, if we look, all manner of slavery, or almost slavery, cheap and forced labour, land degradation, poor health and safety.
Today is the Feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, liberated slave and religious sister.
1Buchan A Lodge in the Wilderness Chapter XIV The Subject Races.
It’s a few years since we marked St Francistide with the Transitus Service, marking his death and entry into glory. This version was celebrated at the Franciscan Study Centre some years ago. I believe it was put together by Friar Anthony Jukes. It includes Francis’s Canticle of the Sun, which gave Pope Francis the starting point for his encyclical, Laudato Si’!
Salve, Regína, mater misericórdiæ; vita, dulcédo et spes nostra, salve. Ad te clamámus, éxsules, filii Evæ. Ad te suspirámus, geméntes et flentes in hac lacrimárum valle. Eia ergo, advocáta nostra, illos tuos misericórdes óculos ad nos convérte. Et Iesum, benedíctum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsílium osténde. O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo María.
It is a strange thing this bed, this mimic grave, where we stretch our tired limbs and sink away so quietly into the silence and rest. “O bed, O bed, delicious bed, that heaven on earth to the weary head,” as sang poor Hood, you are a kind old nurse to us fretful boys and girls. Clever and foolish, naughty and good, you take us all in your motherly lap and hush our wayward crying. The strong man full of care—the sick man full of pain—the little maiden sobbing for her faithless lover—like children we lay our aching heads on your white bosom, and you gently soothe us off to by-by. Our trouble is sore indeed when you turn away and will not comfort us.
How long the dawn seems coming when we cannot sleep! Oh! those hideous nights when we toss and turn in fever and pain, when we lie, like living men among the dead, staring out into the dark hours that drift so slowly between us and the light. And oh! those still more hideous nights when we sit by another in pain, when the low fire startles us every now and then with a falling cinder, and the tick of the clock seems a hammer beating out the life that we are watching.
From Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome.
Jerome was writing in 1886, making his way out of poverty. He had lost his parents as a teenager, and left school early to work. He would have had real sympathy for the people represented by today’s image. All too often, over the last few years, a homeless person’s pitch has been replaced by bouquets of flowers following their death in a disused shop doorway or under a tree. This winter, the corona virus led to their being swept up off the streets. Will they be still under a roof when the crisis is over?
A few more extracts from Jerome follow; have we improved our country and our world since 1886?
I realised yesterday that six months and more had gone by with these posts in the drafts box. Much as I love trees, I have to say that the sunshine is reaching the parts of my daughter’s garden where a badly treated one was removed! Here’s an indomitable rose from Mrs O’s garden,
And altogether, I may say that the earth looks the brighter to me in proportion to my own deprivations. The laburnum trees and rose trees are plucked up by the roots—but the sunshine is in their places, and the root of the sunshine is above the storms.
What we call Life is a condition of the soul, and the soul must improve in happiness and wisdom, except by its own fault. These tears in our eyes, these faintings of the flesh, will not hinder such improvement.
the Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett, Vol. 1 (of 2) 1845-1846
His own people did not accept Jesus. Peter left Joseph to bury the Lord’s body; the disciples met together afterwards, but Judas did not come back.
Scripture references: Peter’s betrayal: Matthew 26: 69-75; Waiting: Luke 23:56; 24: 9-11; Judas: John 13: 21-30; Matthew 27: 3-10.
I was in total shock. My world had crumbled into pieces. I had said that I didn’t know my Lord. And my Lord was taken away; my Lord was killed. I was helpless. At least Joseph made sure that the practical things that had to be done, were done. I blundered off to our guest house with the others. no-one could speak. No-one wanted to eat: the bridegroom had gone. Still, we waited together. But Judas never came back.
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.
Let us pray that we may have the courage to persevere from day to day when life seems difficult or unbearable.
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.