Ecclesiastes, the Slave Pits of Zanzibar and the Laetoli Footprints or 'He that Increaseth Knowledge Increaseth Sorrow': Whitterings, February 2009

"Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after."
Ecclesiastes 2-11

The words of the Preacher have been at the forefront of my mind recently. In the space of three months eight friends of mine from across the seas have died and I have lost one of my closest friends. My grief has not followed the straight line of: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Rather the stages have jumped around my heart all higgledy piggledy; some days one, some days another. The stark reality of finality, however, seems to be the universal note being struck.

“The pain within the millstones’ pitiless turning is real, for our love for each other – for world and all the products of extension – is real, vaulting, insofar as it is love, beyond the plane of the stones’ sickening churn and arcing to the realm of spirit bare. And you get caught holding one end of a love, when your father drops, and your mother; when a land is lost, or a time, and your friend blotted out, gone, your brother’s body spoiled, and cold, your infant dead, and you dying: you reel out love’s long line alone, stripped like a live wire loosing its sparks to a cloud, like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.”
From ‘The Holy the Firm’ by Annie Dillard

During my trip to Africa in the autumn I took some holiday time to go on safari and made a significant detour to visit Olduvai Gorge. Olduvai Gorge is a narrow gorge in the eastern Serengeti Plain that is commonly referred to as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ or ‘The Garden of Eden’. Here Mary and Louis Leaky discovered hominid remains going back 2.5 million years: Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Australopithecus Boisei. It is also here that the earliest hominid footprints, known as the Laetoli Footprints, were discovered. They date from the Pliocene age, roughly 3.6 million years ago. The cast of these prints are found in a small museum on the edge of the gorge. To look at they seem insignificant. When I slowly came to realise both their age and their huge anthropological importance I experienced a strange feeling. I was awed by the vast amount of time conveyed by these fossil remains and these small almost four million year old footprints of our ancestors. The beauty and breadth of our journey through time speaks of our strength and determination. At the same time I was troubled by the ‘unknowableness’ of almost all of those who have gone before us. Their lives and personalities are completely hidden from us by the fog of time and death. It seemed so futile. Two different feelings at once: Awe at our perseverance and melancholy at the fact that almost everybody is forgotten, no matter how strong they were or what they accomplished with their strength.
I had a similar experience at the slave pits of Zanzibar. After the British Empire outlawed the Slave Trade, Bishop Edward Steer (a fervent abolitionist who spent his own money to purchase the slaves of Zanzibar and lead them inland to found the Diocese of Masasi) bought the former slave pits in Zanzibar and in 1873 built the Anglican Cathedral on top of them. The high Altar is built directly over the spot where the ‘whipping tree’ had stood. It was to this post that slaves were tied and whipped to show, by the amount of blood they could lose and the amount of pain they could bear, how strong they were as the strong fetched a much higher price. Sloping grooves were cut into the stones at the base of the ‘tree’ to allow the blood to drain away. The remaining slave pits are now found in the basement of the cathedral hall. This profound symbol to Resurrection and Redemption that Bishop Steere built was humbling.

The vision it represents is an example of man at his very highest level of love and compassion. However the reality of the cruelty of man that made such a statement necessary and the countless unsung and forgotten lives of the slaves that passed though that market made one realise how often the darkness overcomes the light.

You would think that it would be depressing and disheartening to see how slowly the deep message of the Gospel has radiated outwards into the world. Yet I do not believe that this would be an appropriate response. First one makes the mistake of stopping in time and looking backwards in history with no reference to the path ahead and how far we have travelled. Secondly we often miss what is obvious from a wider perspective. When the Gospel was first preached the world had no need of a loving god and no desire for one. Gods were valued for their strength and power. One did not need love instead one needed an advantage over one’s neighbour. A god of weakness, a god of Compassion was unheard of as well as one to be despised. Yet in only 2000 years humanity has come to pay at least lip service that love is the greatest of all values and should underlie all of our actions. We could no more tolerate the behaviour of society 200 years ago let alone 500, 1000, or 2000. Slavery has been abolished over most of the world and is being fought in the few parts of the world where it remains (there are still an estimated 27 million slaves left in the world). All of this in only 175 years. When placed against the timeline of the Latore footprints not even a half a second has passed.

I call this column ‘Whitterings’ (A Scottish Word for Ramblings) for a reason. Every now and then what you get is simply this: Musings that do not seek a resolution partially because I do not think there is one. Life is often like this. I am in the state of mind of the preacher. I look at the people in my life leaving; I see the obliteration of the memory of those who have gone before and the senseless cruelty of man. At the same time I am thankful of the love I have known and am confident that all love is worth having even if it passes away, I know that even if the lives of our ancestors is forgotten by us it is held in the everlasting memory of God and has worth, and I see that man is capable of rising above his baser instincts to reach out to touch the hem of glory. It is like the verse from the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah that describes faith that can sing even in its defeat:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied youTo a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah

So although I am sad I am not depressed and although I am weighed down I am not looking down. The fact that the Preacher exists to give words to my heart and knowledge that I am not the first to walk this path is a comfort and a blessing. He did not have the last word on the matter, that would come later, but he gives voice to something profound and real in human existence.

"I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."
Ecclesiastes 12-18