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FOCUS: Easter’s Sinless Sun: Life, Loss, Love

Last year I was invited to give a talk on Fiji’s new constitution by the Flinders University of South Australia. I accepted the invitation for several reasons:  among them to
05 Apr 2015 09:56
FOCUS: Easter’s Sinless Sun: Life, Loss, Love

Last year I was invited to give a talk on Fiji’s new constitution by the Flinders University of South Australia.

I accepted the invitation for several reasons:  among them to re-visit a few friends who I’ve known since 1977—the year I completed my doctoral studies at the ANU.

One of them is not quite well; another is losing his vision; another died in a car accident; one lost a young son to drug-overdose. And it was Don Dunstan’s state.

If there are seven billion ways of human living, there are seventy times seven billion ways of dying.

You can be killed by a spider, while crossing a road, or by a stroke of lightning. Death, like life, is all around us.

Easter is a good time to think about life and death and life again. I’m not a ‘religious’ person, although I’ve been to temples, synagogues, stupas, churches, mosques, gurdwaras, and other relics of people’s faith under trees and in tombs and caves.

None seemed to have touched my soul with any revelatory intensity. I’m more moved by a rivulet, a river, a lake or an ocean.

Or when I see a single tree on a bare hill, my heart leaps like a rainbow in the sky. The smile of a child gives me feelings of immortality–that stronger word for life.

And yet, one is often moved by the faith of others. It’s this otherness that appeals to me most deeply, intimately spiritually.

How else would you survive military coups or political betrayals or personal tragedies or the lethal ordinariness of daily living?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet expresses it thus in his famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin?who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death—

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns,….

Easter answers these very questions—but the young prince is no prophet, nor was meant to be.

Our own Christian colonel had no idea how deep and terrible was his betrayal on May 14, 1987.

Everything else has been of lesser significance in many lives since. Just as Judas had no idea what his kiss would do to twenty centuries of stony sleep: how profound will be the awakening.

There’s of course no resurrection without crucifixion. We know how our sinews are entwined into the heart of our souls.

How paradises are lost. But it is really the promises of paradise that endangers our world most.

As the Easter sun rises over the international dateline, over those small scattered islands in the largest ocean of the world, I wonder if we’re truly aware of the wondrous beauty and mystery of our portion of that world, especially the world in Fiji: cyclones and coups, hope and despair, life and death, our own unfinished humanity and relationships by which we’ve survived– often fatefully, sometimes fitfully, occasionally fatally.

This is the great gift of Easter. The sun never sets, life never rests. And like sleepless waves we question and quest for answers we’ll never find.

But there are moments of illuminations that do deepen the darkest moments of our lives and we emerge strengthened and enlightened, elevated and enhanced by other lives: our neighbours.

Canberra is my favourite city in this vast island continent: so ancient, so modern. Summer makes it dry, winter leaves it leafless. In autumn the leaves—claret, scarlet, golden– fall and roll down the wet, cobbled pavements like crowds going somewhere, nowhere.

I live in the shadow of two mountains— Solstice Complex is almost like a hill station, the lights twinkle in the twilight and the setting sun illuminates the trees on the mystic mountain-tops with its slanting rays.

Next to our home in the misty paddocks cows graze with their calves; in the evening they disappear leaving a swirling circle of dust. Canberra was a sheep station.

What I wonder was it before the sheep came?

A new city has a sadness of its own; but its tenderness, too, can be heart-warming. As the evening shadows lengthen, you begin to think of lost friends and grief invades your heart like gentle waves on the rocks at Denarau, towards Vuda point and the First Landing.

In the last few years I’ve lost five dear friends: one in Canberra, one in Adelaide, one in London, one in Toronto and one in New Delhi.

I do not like attending funerals: I’ve missed several. But one’s sorrow is no less; and because the rituals of death remain incomplete and unwitnessed, death becomes more poignant and its effects more lasting.

It hangs like a shadow over you, as the sun goes down and leaves fall so soundlessly. The falling leaves are windswept across the darkened path like school children running home after the bell’s rung, with a ring of freedom, I used to see on Nadi streets.

For many of us the bells keep tolling from the new church next door.

I’ve written pieces on the on the death of my friends: that is my way of remembering them—people whose presence was a joy and whose absence leaves a hollow emptiness in heart’s arteries.

A teacher of mine died in Dunedin. Many years ago he’d given me a poem to read: its title was ‘Spring and Fall: To a Young Child’:

Margaret, are you grieving

 Over Goldengrove unleaving?  

Leaves, like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

 It is Margret you mourn for.

The poem was introduced to me by F E Joyce, my English teacher and principal of Natabua High school. I was in Form 6 . For reasons unfathomed, the poem remained in my mind, indelibly imprinted.

Since then I’ve read many of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems, posthumously published. A converted Catholic, he belonged to the 19th century (1844-1889):

But there’s a profound faith-laden freshness in his work. In ‘God’s Grandeur’ he writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Generations have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent:

There is the dearest freshness deep down things:

World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

Our world is shaped by our hearts and hands and the singing of birds, and flowers in spring. They make up our soul: but the cup of death is never far away:

 ‘My soul is sorrowful unto death,

Stay here and watch with me.’ But the companions go to sleep in the garden of Gethsemane.

You see, the passage of the centuries is like a parable

And catches fire on the way. 

In the name of its terrible majesty

I shall go freely, through torment, down to the grave.

And on the third day I shall rise again.

Like rafts down a river, like a convoy of barges,

The centuries will float to me out of the darkness.

And I shall judge them.

We dream and die alone.

But as Boris Pasternak wrote in his poem in Doctor Zhivago, (1958) the one great novel to come out from Russia in my youth: I still have a copy given to me on my 20th birthday:

But at midnight beasts and men fall silent, Hearing the spring rumour

That as soon as the weather changes

Death can be vanquished

 Through the travail of the Resurrection       

So this Good Friday dawned in its bleak melancholy—no sun, the trees asleep, no birds in the grey sky. Even the drone of the planes is missing.

Surprisingly hardly any traffic on the highway to Sydney which I can see from the upstairs window of my study.

Even the cows are not seen today—the manger is full of grass, fallen leaves but no cows or calves are grazing. It’s a sad and saddening day.

Is it a sadness without a cause? Or is it some grief that is much deeper where the human soul becomes part of something much bigger, infinitely larger— and we become like raindrops falling in the ocean.

To understand that I’ll have to wait until the Easter sun rises across those golden waves.

On Good Friday, I awoke to the news that there has been an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, after what appeared as an impossible deal.

President Barack Obama’s patience, persuasion, sanctions have paid off.

The second news item was the killing of 147 students by an extremist group in Kenya.

Then came the news that two farmers were arrested in Australia for shooting 50 greyhounds in the Australian bush.

On the surface there’s no connection in these three events—the good, the bad and the ugly.

But there is. Below the religious hues are issues deeper than we can imagine. After all how long has human civilisation been shaped by religious quests—eons before the world was in the making—the minerals in the marrow of our bones, the brainwaves, the DNA and Life itself and that uranium in the stomach of Mother Earth.

I see a kangaroo, with two smaller ones, skipping on the hill slopes, a rabbit scurries across the road as it hears the footfalls of a couple, hand in hand.

The Bible would have been full of kangaroos, joeys and koalas, if it had been written by prophets who knew Australia. What an apt image that would have been—to be carried in the pouch of the saviour.

But we’re all limited by our environments and shaped by their ethical limitations.

Only rarely some miracle happens which knits together the loneliness of all hearts and brings together God’s grandeur—the dead to the living, the living to the unborn.

How we celebrate Easter or any other festival, religious or secular, must ultimately make us aware of the ever renewable possibilities in our earth and inside us.

Christ showed it by his radical suffering: the politics of crucifixion, the poetry of burial and resurrection.

I think that is the message of Easter—to see the Earthrise at a sinless sunrise. And behold the love that gives us life and light so that our breath becomes deathless.

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