07 February 2010

The Winter

I've been discussing with my seniors the relevance of the symbolic in human life and its encompassing presence throughout our diverse undertakings. The boys like to think of themselves as transcendent of symbolism; say what you mean, do what you say and get on with it. One doesn't need trinkets or gestures. Such things were for the illiterate and easily manipulated generations past. They find the commitment to symbol-stripped reality a heroic feat of liberation from the past.

I leaned against the board in the front of the room, wondering aloud if their position could in any way be demonstrated. Their impatience grew as I stood there, leaning. I turned to the board and wrote in large letters, F I R E. I turned back to them, panicked, and said someone ought to dial 911: this board will be ablaze at any moment! No one touch it! Well, they got it right away. We can't speak to one another except through symbol, these strange characters on the board conjuring up in the mind images of real flames, the warmth the hearth provides and the danger of an escaped ember. But the symbol remains safe, cold and manageable. It won't burn down the house, in other words.

And so we went on talking about the usefulness of symbol in rituals, games and relationships. They were struck at how the body itself, real as it is, becomes a vehicle for this-pointing-to-that through gestures and language. Perhaps they expressed embarrassment at their earlier, strongly held conviction of being quite above the need for symbolism. It's more likely that they didn't give a hoot.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the scruple-ridden poet, convert and Jesuit reached the point of despair while grading some students' tests or papers. He was aghast at their mediocrity. It seems it didn't take much to drive Hopkins to despair, however, as his brief life was dotted by existential angst of the varied kind.

My psalms professor told me a week ago that in the decades of his teaching at the university level, he has never encountered a generation quite like this one. I pressed him further. He sat there behind his desk in a well-worn three piece suit, stroking his Old Testament beard. "They simply do not care." I was strangely consoled by his assessment, if for no other reason than this great man shared a plight similar to my own. There have been times of outright hostility, he said, or genuine interest and enthusiasm from the students. But now the dense fog of indifference has rolled in and shows no signs of lifting.

He teaches a psalms course I'm taking now. Last week we jumped into the laments and cursing psalms. The break-the-teeth-of-the-wicked and smash-the-skulls-of-mine-enemies'-children-against-the-rocks variety. Christians, he said, are reluctant to bring these psalms into their prayer because we always feel the need to go before God whitewashed and polite. The psalmists, on the other hand, stared down God and said as much as Where the hell are you; why don't you answer; get back here before I lose it completely.

We've lost our ancestral appreciation for the winter season of the soul. We want everything springtime, everything fresh and invigorated. We want to be entertained at every turn. And since we've reduced God to the court jester (only he isn't funny, but at least he's not judgmental), or the old invalid in the wheelchair (he may have a smell about him but at least he doesn't remember), we find ourselves embracing apathy about spirituality. Bam, then something goes wrong: relationships collapse, work life becomes unbearable, we are cloaked in Percy's disorientating malaise. We go to church and light a candle, curtsy, and quietly ask God if he has the time and capacity to do something about it.

Only of course he says not a word.

God's winter name is Silence, the professor said. His winter name is abandoned, ice-choked streets, blanketed fields. A few birds cluck away in the limbs but the rest is utterly devoid of sound. God's winter name is Silence.

Hopkins began a poem with the opening lines of Jeremiah 12. "Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend / With thee..." He wanted to know, as do we all, why the ways of the wicked seem to prosper.

Jeremiah, like Hopkins, suffered no small amount of mood swings. Neither, apparently, did the psalmists. And neither do my boys. We've been in winter a long time now.

"Mine, O thou lord of life," Hopkins concludes with the rest of us, "send my roots rain."

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