Saturday, 4 April 2015

Harrowing Hell

Of the darkness in men’s minds

What can you say

That wasn’t marked by history

Or the TV news today

I fear that starting this entry with a Joni Mitchell quote is courting a spark, given her current state of health. Joni has been an inspiration to so many, including me, and I will return to her prophetic words later in this post. But for now, to engage with her spirit and philosophy seems appropriate.

It has been some years since I left the world of organised religion but, as I have indicated many times, I believe the Gospel story has immense resonance in everyone’s life, if they are willing to engage and understand the universal themes contained within this complex story. At the heart of it is a man who, for whatever reason the authorities and his society saw fit, was despised, rejected, persecuted, and eventually put to death after a cruel trial.

There are plenty of scriptural references to ‘light’ and ‘dark’ which suggest that the general human condition is to favour the latter. This, theology suggests, is why people refused to accept Christ’s raison d’être – to seek light in the darkness through love, redemption, forgiveness, and grace. But as the story has progressed through time and centuries this message has been corrupted and distorted.

The early church created a mythology which became, literally, its credo: a statement of ‘beliefs’ that Christianity was supposed to adhere to, and accept as its creed. There are only three sentences in the Nicene Creed that are indeed credible, or believable:

He Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was Crucified,

dead and buried.

We then get a strange episode whereby Christ ‘descended into hell,’ thus giving rise to an incredibly absurd depiction of ‘The Underworld’ that even Virgil couldn’t get his head around, as Dante points out in his Inferno. But The Church has the idea that Christ ‘harrowed hell’ to redeem all humankind, before rising to ‘new life’ – whatever the hell that is.

Last week, I was challenged by someone who said that she hoped the pilot, who appeared to have purposely crashed his plane, killing all passengers and crew, would ‘rot in hell.’ First, I said that I don’t believe in hell, so her hope was misguided. I next pointed out that the man who did this was already experiencing hell in his own life. I could not condone his actions, but I was not in a position to judge or assess what led him to do such a terrible thing.

Then I was offered another option: that if God exists (another pointless posit in the argument) then he would condemn this person as evil. Well, again, I must say I don’t believe that either. What I do know is that some very complicated states of mind lead people to do terrible things, whether they fly planes into buildings or mountains, or simply fly too close to the sun.


People will tell you where they’ve gone

They’ll tell you where to go

But ’til you get there yourself

you never really know

And when they crash, whether into buildings, or mountains, or beautiful foolish arms, we are all at fault for not heeding the alarms that were ringing in the darkness of our lives.

As I move further away from ecclesiology, I come to understand why The Church and its claims are flawed, and yet have so much meaning. Our secular society is missing a trick, given the deeper truths which the Gospel relates. When Christ was abandoned by his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane, it wasn’t because they didn’t love him. It was because they were human, and humans are scared, scarred, and – well, failing to find a third alliteration – wimps.

In my poetry, I have examined the feelings that Christ may have endured in Gethsemane in my sequence Walking on the Water, published here (see p 27). That Christ – and all who suffer – was harrowed by the reality of hell on earth is laid bare as the waters warp (to quote the Shakespeare poem mentioned in my last post.) Spring, at least here in Edinburgh, has been slow to arrive. And although my friends have not abandoned me, I have felt a keen wind.


Critics of all expression

Judges in black and white …

Compelled by prescribed standards

Or some ideals we fight

As Joni points out in this masterpiece, ‘Every picture has its shadow… and it has some source of light.’ So I took that line as a starting-point for my next Cautionary Tale, ‘Hannah and the Shadows’ and played with the idea that, despite our strange and corrupt attempt to dwell in the darkness of life, the light – however you perceive it – will bring you out of all darkness, into His powerful Light.

from Charlotte & The Charlatan – and other cautionary tales

Hannah & The Shadows

Hannah loved the shadows. She dwelt among the deepest, darkest places of the mind. Hiding behind her public persona, Hannah chose to disown a reality that might reveal her personality.


            Hannah loved the shadows.


            Standing at the brown brink of water it wasn’t the thought of her reflection; she had no predilection to sink or swim. It was the shadow upon the murky surface that pulled her in. And as she waded in by the weir, she didn’t imagine her fear would overwhelm or wash away the darkness: her shadow would stay whatever the time of day.


            Hannah loved the shadows.


            As the sun set in the trees she saw the elongating shadow like a chimera; ominous and treacherous ephemera hovered over her neglected intellect. And yet she never let the silhouette of setting sun illuminate the prospect of another day. Hannah loved the darkness better than the light, but try as she might she couldn’t deny the source of her shadow was stronger when either the sun or the moon lingered longer.

            She belonged to the darkness. Hannah shunned the sources of light; the darkness addressed her; the forces malignant possessed her, indignant, held her in thrall; the fall of humanity was a calamity Hannah rejoiced in and concelebrated; the designated angels, cherubim and seraphim, standing guard, hard against the garden gate were there for hate and guilt and fault and blame: the same as those who sat in judgement over all their fellow human-kind.

            For it’s in the mind the deepest shadows fall. It’s not the yoke of light enthrals you. It is the truth appals and calls you to illuminate your mental state: Hannah would not, could not, see how others’ truth can illustrate her darkened slate. It was for her to scrape clean or to smudge or trudge the darkness in. It was her truth, within, within, within.


            Hannah loved the shadows.


            She hid in darkened corridors, bidden by the doors that shut upon her, followed by another and another – but she never dared or bothered to allow herself to push against their closing – supposing she was trapped in tunnels of her choosing, in a maze of multiple emotions, in a crazy labyrinthine dream. Hannah wandered on unseen, hiding an emotional charade, chiding her façade, berating her competing with the self-defeating beating of her heart.

            A dark, foreboding fear prevented her from penetrating deeper, or of finding any exit whether self-perceived or outwardly-revealed. She conceived if any person wore a mask or sword or shield they could transport themselves in thought and word and deed into a life hereafter. But for Hannah, laughter echoed round that outer mansion in a gloomy reverie.

            Held in her own self-defining palindrome, a prophecy macabre was far darker than the shadows Hannah loved. For on that tipping fulcrum; in that swing of pendulum, within the shrinking gyre of hell-fire it was clear it was the shadows that loved Hannah. And Hannah loved the shadows not in any symbiotic mutuality, for in their grave duality lay a buried dependency; it was Hannah’s tendency to dig away at darkness.


            Hannah loved the shadows that loved Hannah.


            Hannah dug herself into the ground. And, surrounded as the sinking sand dissolved, swallowed by the earth that gave her birth; she wallowed in the peristaltic drag of soil until her turmoil was complete and whole. Whether it was rabbit hole, badger’s sett or foxes lair, it was to her a box that best prepared her for the logic she admired.

            So mired in sin and all things impropriety could pile upon her, Hannah longed for darkness. But as leaf and bark and bole dissolve and rot or turn to ash and dust; as if we must be re-composed with some resolve to prove or, deep inside, improve, that darkness is no darkness as the shadows lengthen… every picture has its shadows…

            Yet if through miracle, superstition, or imagination; or through moral, mythological, or pseudo-philosophical elaboration, clouds of darkness part and drench the fecund ground with light to end what Hannah’s plight – to slight her right to life – had led her into self-interred corporeal hibernation.

            And as the dry earth parted, and Hannah attempted to draw her final breath, it wasn’t Lazarus, Persephone or any resurrection myth, nor was it death that forced her rise from her deep sepulchre and thrive; nor even light that gave her life renewed vitality. It was the shade that shielded her eschewed reality.


No comments:

Post a Comment