Sunt Lacrimae Rerum Et Mentem Mortalia Tangunt: Whitterings, February 2005

Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Virgil’s quote from the Aeneid roughly means, but does not translates as, “there are tears in things”. He does not mean that everything is depressing or that all is sadness but that the world and all life is poignant. The realisation of mortality and the finiteness of time bring out in some a sense of poetic melancholy as their primary emotional reaction to life. It is often said that the Celts are particularly known for this Celtic twighlight disposition. When I was twenty I preached my first sermon in the Church of St Vincent in Edinburgh on the bitter sweetness of life using the text about the flowers of the field from the prophet Isaiah. All that is passes away and that life is precious and beautiful only because it fades, youth is haunting because it is fleeting.

The bitter sweetness of melancholy can hold together the two great truths about Christ. That he suffered and that he Rose. These two events are opposite sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. In some mystical theology these two events show forth the eternal nature of the Logos not just singular events in time and space. To be more precise, the two are held together during the span of the created order. In this view Christ suffers with his fallen creation in time. As long as injustice, greed and hate destroy his beloved children he suffers. He suffers with all who suffer. He is eternally crucified.
Eli Wiesel’s describes it like this in his book Night about life in a concentration camp during the holocaust;

“On that day, horrible even among those days of horror, when the child watched the hanging (yes!) of another child, who, he tells us, had the face of a sad angel, he heard someone groan: ‘Where is God? Where is he? Where can He be now?’ and a voice within me answered: ‘Where? Here He is – He has been hanged here, on these gallows.’
This summer I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and spent a good deal of time with Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac. In this painting the sad and pitying eyes of the ram looking on from the side revealed to me a deep core within Christian pathos. The foreshadowing of the loving and pained eyes of Christ who loved us so much he is willing to take Isaacs place, to take the place of all who suffer, to take the place of the world. Caravaggio’s changes the entire theology of this central Old Testament story with only the expressive eyes of a sheep!

If Christ is still broken with his broken world then he is also eternally risen. He has triumphed over darkness and the chains of death. For those of us still on our pilgrimage our reaction to Christ changes depending on our circumstances. In many medieval churches there is a rood cross that hangs above the entry to the sanctuary. When one is in the nave of the church (the ship sailing onward through time) you see the corpus, often very gruesome, showing Christ in agony. If you look up at the rood again as you are leaving the sanctuary after having received the sacrament you can see an empty cross painted with lilies, the symbol of the resurrection. Gothic architecture is a grand meditation on time (chronos) and eternity (karios) and mankind’s journey from one to the other. It recognizes that while still in time we experience both Good Friday and Easter Sunday as separate aspects of God and our relationship to Him. I imagine that in God’s time, eternity, the two are merged into one seamlessly.

So is there not a sense of integrity in the poetic reaction to life? Which holds both love and loss, life and death, crucifixion and resurrection in one emotion? I have often wondered why it is that the tears of great sadness and the tears of great joy come from the same feeling. There are tears of joy in things, tears of love and relief and of happiness. I often become teary at baptisms because of the juxtaposition of images and emotions: the glory of new life; innocents; the warmth of family and friends; the hope of a life who will know love and affection and safety and the love of the community of Christ, as well as the certainty of loneliness; rejection; the death of the parents; doubt; aging; and the eventual death of the baptised. These images seem to conflict and then merge into a deep sense of completeness which is sadness and joy mixed together gently and sweetly. The tears are the result of all of it together.

I have never been comfortable with pessimism and depression but neither have I ever been comfortable with wild joy and optimism. I find comfort in the paradox, in the in between where it is not ‘either or’ but ‘both and’. The most poignant moment in the Christian year for me occurs during the Easter vigil. The Passion has finished, the harrowing of Hell is over and the Resurrection has yet to occur. After the vigil of readings, while the church is still dark with only hand candles silently flickering, there is a long pregnant pause in the liturgy. Then the organ softly begins the strains of ‘Now the Green Blade Riseth from the Fallen Grain'. This first moment of Easter, in the womb of silence, darkness and night, is not triumphant. It is not majestic or powerful. It is gentle, mysterious, and reflects on light quietly triumphing over darkness and death. In this moment of transition, this moment of the light slowly almost imperceptibly emerging out of what seems like eternal chaos is for me the central moment of the whole Christian year. It is what I variously call the poetic sense, melancholy, the Celtic twighlight and what Wordsworth calls the philosophic mind. It is this moment that I feel the fullness of truth about our lives lies.

This ability to hold both the crucifixion and the resurrection together at the same time can give a sense of glory to the sacrifice of mission and witness. From this place the world seems more real to me because it denies neither pain nor redemption, death nor life. Annie Dillard says it so much more beautifully in her glorious little book The Holy and the Firm than I ever could. Although she uses the term artist it can just as easily be Christian or lover, minister or Saint.

“How can people think that artists seek a name? A name, like a face, is something you have when you’re not alone. There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination. What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand? His face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap, from here to eternity, home.”
Sunt lacrimae rerum in mentem mortalia tangent.
Fr Edward Simonton OGS
Priest of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd