Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Shakespeare & the Apostles

Agincourt, Imagination and the Bible





 Then he took the twelve apostles aside, and warned them, Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and all that has been written by the prophets about the Son of Man is to be accomplished.  He will be given up to the Gentiles, and mocked, and beaten, and spat upon; they will scourge him, and then they will kill him; but on the third day he will rise again. They could make nothing of all this; his meaning was hidden from them, so that they could not understand what he said.
Luke 18:31-34

King of France
With pennons painted in the blood of Harfleur: 
Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow 
Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat 
The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon: 
Go down upon him, you have power enough, 
And in a captive chariot into Rouen 
Bring him our prisoner.
Constable of France.
 This becomes the great. 
Sorry am I his numbers are so few, 
His soldiers sick and famish'd in their march, 
For I am sure, when he shall see our army, 
He'll drop his heart into the sink of fear 
And for achievement offer us his ransom
Henry V, Act III, Scene 5


The Apostles do not come well out of the Gospels. They seem to have a near perfect ability to misunderstand or not comprehend Jesus. It is tempting to dismiss them as unusually dense or at least woefully ignorant. It does not help much if we remember that we know the end of the story and they didn't, that we have the benefit of the reflections on Jesus and His mission in the Epistles and two thousand years of Christian thought and they had to make do with very much less. The reason this is not helpful is because it is a purely intellectual exercise on our part. Most readers of the Gospels, Christian or not, are emotionally invested in Jesus, often to a great degree, and it hurts us when we see Him desperately trying and usually failing to make those closest to Him understand who He is and what He is doing. That emotional wound, that empathy which we feel, cannot really be touched simply by engaging in the mental exercise of adding up the things which the Apostles could have known and could have understood and comparing it with what our Lord was asking them to know and understand. Emotional wounds need to be treated with emotional medicines.

(enter Shakespeare)
One way of reading Scripture is to immerse oneself in it imaginatively. If we try to see the events unfolding before us not through the eyes and with the feelings of a 21st century person but as near as we can manage it with the feelings of the historical participants then our perspective will change. For most of us it will not be possible really to enter into the thought processes of the Apostles, the holy women or the Pharisees because their thinking was dominated by a framework of assumptions and experiences that only professional historians could really reproduce. Their feelings, however, would be akin to ones that we ourselves are familiar with because the lapse of two thousand years has effected no change in the human emotional range whatever it may have done to the world of ideas. In this context Act III, scene 5 of Henry V becomes a useful tool. Why? It is set on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, the flower of French knighthood and nobility is preparing itself for a foreseen victory. In that they are wise, they possess the greatest warriors in Christendom, they are fighting on their own soil and they heavily outnumber the English. It is not vainglorious or foolish of them to expect to be victorious, quite the reverse they have no reason to expect anything else. Yet, as it happens, on that October day in 1415 they experienced a crushing and humiliating defeat. Shakespeare, I think, captures well their attitude and does not portray it as he might have done as being hubristic. This makes the contrast with what follows all the sharper.
(exit Shakespeare pursued by angry Frenchmen)

If we read the Agincourt section of Henry V then none of its participants appear to be behaving in an excessively foolish manner, they do not irritate us by their denseness. If we read the Gospels in a similar way then we can see that the Apostles, particularly on the eve of the Passion found themselves emotionally in a place analogous to that of the French nobility. They expected a triumph and had good reason for such an expectation. In Jesus they recognised the promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Their understanding of these titles was that as a descendant of King David and Solomon our Lord would restore the kingdom of Israel to its ancient glories driving out the occupying Romans and humbling their insolent neighbours. A restored Israel would be rich and powerful and all the world would acknowledge the might of Israel's God. That Jesus had the power to be just such a Messiah they could not doubt, had He not displayed His power over sickness and death and had not His words shown a wisdom greater even than Solomon's? That Jesus did not intend to use His power in such a fashion they could not grasp. That is to say they may have intellectually grasped that His words pointed in a different direction but, rather like our attitude towards them, they could not emotionally grasp the significance of His mission because in their heart they desired something different. It would require the horror of the Passion and the joy of the Resurrection to flood into their inmost being before they could be open to understand as keenly with their hearts as with their minds what it was that Jesus stood for.

If we enter into their emotional lives then not only can we understand them better but we can also feel more deeply for ourselves the impact of the Easter events. Then, like the Apostles, it will be only natural that these events become for us the foundation of all that we are and do in the world. It should not be understood, however, that I am suggesting that we should read the Gospels only in an imaginative way. The scriptures can and should be read in a variety of different ways- as narratives, as literal truth, as metaphorical truth and so on- since only then can they yield to us all the treasures which they contain. Moreover, they should always be read with the mind of the Church, two thousand years of Catholic reflection and meditation have preceded us and we should draw upon this resource looking towards it for guidance and support particularly where we encounter passages and sayings which are difficult to understand or to integrate with scripture as a whole.

Nonetheless the imaginative reading of scripture has enormous potential to help us release our inmost energies. This does not only apply to the Gospels, the Exodus story of Israel escaping from bondage has often exercised great influence over those suffering oppression precisely because they can enter imaginatively into the sufferings of the Hebrews and see in their salvation a source of hope for their own plight. Personally too I recall that in the days after my mother died I read the Book of Job and what I saw there spoke to me and moved me and changed me in ways which had not been possible before because I could now see his loss and pain through the eyes of my own bereavement. The Bible has been called the Book of Life and it is that in this sense: your life can be found within its pages and that life by it and by prayer and the Holy Spirit can be transformed from darkness into light.

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