The expression. Shell shocked first came to mind but that’s not right. Boredom? No. Focused attention on self. Self-absorption. Narcissist. What is the emotion? Bleak. Despondent. We so often think we need to create ourselves that we forget we are already created. The existential crisis of post-modernity use to manifest itself through a need to “find yourself.” Go on a journey, start a new life, leave the old behind (it wasn’t you!) and go find yourself. The existential crisis of… what?… post-post-modernity? (so many damned modernities). The existential crisis of this present time is more severe. There isn’t a self to find. Now the existential crisis manifests itself through a need to “make yourself.” I am the painter of my self, my being, my I am and to be. Delusion and lunacy. The world crashes around you and so do you. No meaning, just stuff – and stuff isn’t enough. Tears, rending, and cries of anguish are your salvation.
The above is a meditation on the painting following it. The meditation wasn’t intended to go that way. The image is striking. The stark contrast of facial placidity and wrecking action creates an irresistible pull fixating the viewers gaze. The meditation was intended to follow the path of the immediate contradiction of the image. However, when the question of her expression and emotions came up, it’s course altered.
Holy Saturday is typically thought of as a silent day, a quiet day, inactive. At least that is how I have typically thought of it – the silence of Christ laying in the tomb and the inaction of His followers with no direction. In reality there was a great activity happening – the harrowing of hell. Heaven and hell encounter one another here on earth. It is a constant warfare, never resting until it is finished on the Last Day. More pointedly heaven and hell encounter one another on earth in us. We receive a foretaste of heaven through entering into the heavenly mysteries, the reception of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments, our immersion in Christ and His Paschal Mystery through the sacraments, our unity with divinity and in divinity with humanity. What we begin here yearns for perfection in what awaits us, a perfection which we come to through death. But if this is true for heavenly glory then it is also true of perdition and the road that leads to it. The harrowing of hell is not simply an event of the past; it is an event of the present. If heaven and hell war within us then the harrowing of hell is also the harrowing of our hell, of the demons in us. (“Harrowing” – acutely distressing, painful, ravage, despoil – in short, a deeply painful experience (painful beyond our imagining) that we wish to avoid at all costs. But that’s the thing, it’s so much worse without it.)
It’s a wondrous and amazing thing, the providence of God and sacramentality of all things. In my own life much has been happening. Like Dante, I find myself midway through life awakening in a dark wood. This awakening was soon joined by another, the desire – long asleep, if ever awake – to write. To the library I go! Checking out books on writing, being a writer, and books of writing for you should be taking other writers to model and be inspired by. Happy Providence, to put before me what I did not look for: The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking and How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. I thought the first would be about some kind of beautiful relationship between works of literature and wonderful mouthwatering drinks. Instead I found myself reading a rather depressing book about six American writers who were all alcoholics and what could be gleaned of alcoholism by looking at their lives and writings. I thought the second would simply be commentary on life’s journey and the journey of the spirit via Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had no idea how autobiographical it would be and the darkness of the one who wrote it. Both speak of the harrowing of hell, the hell of alcoholism, the hell of depression, and the hell of many other things. They all have the same thing in common: they had entered into a dark wood, just as I had. Some got out, some did not, I am making my way. Providence puts before me what will help. But if providence is real then necessarily so too must sacramentality. The books themselves are sacramental, the process of writing is sacramental, and the journey of learning to be a writer is sacramental. Providence puts before us what He does precisely because they are sacramental; and being sacramental they draw us to Him and out of ourselves. They draw us out of the dark wood and back to the way of Life.
We live in a time when we “make” ourself. As Rod Dreher in How Dante Can Save Your Life says, we think of ourselves as being the captain of our own ships. We are the creator of our own stories. The problem is that we no longer recognize we are part of the Story. It is achingly ironic that in a time of being our own creator and forming our own story, of being our independent, sufficient self that we also hear things such as “It takes a village.” But if it’s my story and I’m not part of a greater story then who cares about the village. That’s their problem, not mine. We assert that we make our own way and then hand over wads of money in exchange for self-help books, programs, and psychiatry. We assert we make our own way, but are also obligated to other people’s ways in an indeterminate village. The contemporary mind is a schizophrenic mind. It is a mind given over to the demonic and it needs a harrowing.
Stories, including our own, all tell us the same thing. There is one Story and we are all actors in it. It is the Story of innocence, fall, death, and redemption, the Story of hate and love, and evil and good. It is the Story of God creating man, man falling, God becoming man, God dying for us and our being restored in love to Him. Every religion and every myth has stories which imitate the real Story, every hero’s tale reflects this story. It is a story found in all the literature and movies (great or otherwise) that people flock to by the millions. It is in Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though I have never read or seen them, I would bet money that in some twisted way it is in Shades of Grey. It is present in every story that attracts people and this is seen in all cultures across human history. So why fight it? Why fight that you are not the maker of yourself, the creator of your story? Why fight death and pain and self-denial when every story you love says that is the way to renewal, growth, strength, and life? On this Holy Saturday let our Lord harrow you.