Virgil, Beatrice, and a Good Friday Reflection

“words are cold, muddy toads trying to understand sprites dancing in a field…but they’re all we have…” (from Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel) 

Language often fails us in moments of immediacy or truth. We’ve probably all had that experience of beauty that defies description. We are sitting on a beach and suddenly all seems right with the world. We see our child dancing with abandon when she thinks no one is watching. We eat, say, a pear, and drown in the wondrous depths of texture and taste. But these moments pass. We try to hold onto them. We tell our friends and loved ones about the experience in order to keep it contemporary, in order to fix and relive this gift of right-ness. Our description almost always secures the elusive nature of the event, the fact that it comes from outside us and moves on. We can never muster enough adjectives or metaphors to make it live again. Words fail us.

This is also true in moments of profound suffering. When our world shatters, what can we say? What is there to say? Death, oppression, injury sometimes sneak up on us and wrap themselves around us. Like beauty, it comes to us uninvited and it leaves us without breath or language. Like the experience of beauty, suffering comes to us from beyond, from outside. Words fail us.

This morning I read Mark’s account of the crucifixion. I was struck by the role silence plays in the narrative. Jesus cries out in the garden to his Father: “if it is your will, remove this cup…” The Father is silent. Jesus asks his disciples to keep watch for one hour. They remain silent in sleep. Unresolved, Jesus is greeted by Judas and carried off to his trial, where he faces multiple accusations. Jesus remains silent. He does not give an answer to the charges laid against him, but rather makes a claims that God stands with him. Everything that follows seems to secure the exact opposite of Jesus’ claim. Before Pilate, nobody comes to defend him. Peter only speaks to actively distance himself from Jesus. Before the Roman guards, Jesus remains silent as they spit on him and continue to mock, and beat him. Simon of Cyrene, a bystander in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, is forced into service, shoved under the cross by the coercive exercise of Roman power. The only speaking after this comes in the form of insults and accusations. Jesus’ followers fled. Only the women who “followed and cared for his needs” remain at the scene. And they, too, are silent.

In Mark’s account, Jesus’ only words from the cross are the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He dies with a loud cry. The silence of God in the garden carries throughout Jesus’ ordeal. Where are you, God? Why won’t you rise up to defend your servant who lives for the health and well-being of others, who announced and lived like the Kingdom of God was a present and available reality? The irony of God’s silence is not lost on the crowd. “He saved others…but he can’t save himself…” they murmur among themselves with a sardonic chuckle.

We use the word “tragedy” to describe senseless and cruel suffering, oppression, and humiliation on this level. But tragedy strikes me as insufficient. This story is not a mishap or something to which we shake our heads and say “too bad…too bad.” It is a story of God’s absence, God’s silence, in the face of inhuman violence and oppression. It is a story about a community’s inability to stand with the oppressed and against the oppressor. Words fail us. Silence, or rather aphasia, thrusts itself upon us in the cross.

But two characters do speak. A Roman guard carrying out the death-sentence proclaims “surely this man was the Son of God!” And Joseph of Arimathea asks Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ body. In a story of absence we suddenly experience presence – a confession of faith and the honoring of the dead. Beautiful might be too strong a word for the confession of the guard and the intentional care given by Joseph. But in a story of betrayal, silence, and the sludge of untruthful speech one catches a glimpse of truth even in the shadows. Human experience is too diffuse to ever get a handle on it. Words fail us.

I’ve been reflecting on Good Friday in light of Yann Martel’s novel Beatrice and Virgil. It is a novel which contains the scattered fragments of a play about a howler monkey and a donkey. It sounds silly, but the reader soon recognizes that both the play and the entire book is about the holocaust, and the challenge of speaking and living after the failure of trust in humanity and God, the loss of innocence about our world and the experience of violence and loss.

The real story of Martel’s novel only comes in fragments. We never learn the order of the acts or the way in which Beatrice and Virgil make sense of “the horrors” they have experienced. Instead what we get are descriptions that echo the unthinkable horror of the holocaust alongside surprising visions of beauty and abundance. In some scenes, Virgil and Beatrice lament the alienation and oppression of one group (animals) by another group (people), the systematic torture and eventual extermination of this group, and the lingering question of how we (i.e. humanity, not just the victims) will speak of the horrors after they are done. The scenes of dereliction are broken up with others, like where they go on for pages describing the peculiar and particular beauty of shape, texture, scent, and taste of a pear or when they are arrested by the beauty of a sunset and the abundance of life in a field even though they themselves are living under a death sentence.

It is as though their experience of life in the midst of death, reflects the symbolic importance of their names: Beatrice is the one who guides Dante through heaven while Virgil guides Dante through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy. And the fragmentary nature of the book echoes the real-time confusion of life in this world – both arrestingly beautiful and painful, marked by God’s apparent absence and presence. This is the tension –  the dialectic maybe? – of human life east of Eden. And it defies explanation – in its beauty and suffering – words fail us.

For me, this Good Friday, I’m caught with how the cross stands in and within this aphasia. It identifies with our complicity in violence as well as our experience of victimhood. It points toward our fear: our experience of god-forsakenness and our fear of death. It is an offense. An innocent man tortured and killed who we claim is the Christ, the Lord, God the Son. A story of God-forsakenness that we place at the center of our faith. And yet, precisely because it is a place of dereliction and absence, it gives hope and opens a future. It is the freedom and self-abandonment made possible by the worst case scenario. It is an event that defies explanation, and yet it strikes us as true – true to our pain and vulnerability, while giving us a way to open ourselves to God in the midst of our uncertainty. Like Virgil and Beatrice – guiding us through hell for the sake of life. Jurgen Moltmann says at the beginning of The Crucified God, “The cross is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death.” Words sometimes fail. And so in light of the various crises, pain, hopes, and fears we face…we look to the cross as a sign of God’s presence and pain even in the unthinkable and unspeakable.