The Shroud Over The Nations

by The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson

 On this mountain the Lord will make for all peoples a feast of rich food and well- matured wines, and on this mountain will destroy the shroud that is cast over  all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever and will wipe away the tears from all faces.

Isaiah 25.6-8

Those stirring words were written by a Jewish prophet some time in the 7th or 8th Century BC. They are remarkable for two reasons: Isaiah addresses the whole human race on behalf of his local Jewish God.  He acknowledges that every human life is over-shadowed  by the same universal, lurking dread, our own mortality.  He then proclaims that the promise of Divine hand of  rescue will be extended to every drowning human being and “all nations”.

The people who dwelt in darkness have seen a great light!” (Isaiah 9.2). We all live  “in the shadow of death.”

As an amateur student of  ancient history I have always been perplexed by the  amount of time and precious resources the human race has devoted to memorialising the dead. Most of what we know about the lives of past generations, ancient civilisations and alien cultures has been gleaned from the archaeology of their funerary rites and ceremonies. Preserving the memories of ancestors seems to be right at the top of the agenda of every generation, from the urn burials of neolithic England to the vast pyramids of Ancient Egypt, and the ceramic armies of Imperial China. Tribal people in Borneo keep the mummified corpses of their ancestors in the rafters of their long houses. Mexican tribes keep mementos of the dead to help them on their next world journey. In our British cities thousands of acres of prime agricultural or building land are occupied by cemeteries and churchyards  Why do we not use  the dead as compost in our allotments? Bonemeal and ashes are valuable assets! The dead exert a constant,  chilling gravitation pull on the living.   There is ample evidence from neolithic times that our remote ancestors also felt the same huge field of force around their dead, a force strong enough to move immense stones and build mountains. Why did they do it and how did they persuade their followers to cooperate willingly in such a time-consuming enterprise? What is this force tugging at the hearts of the whole human community. Surely it is the intrinsic value of human life  and the haunting yet universal myth of life after death.

There is a new  explanation of the purposes for which  monuments like Stonehenge were built. What was the coercive motivation that drove our ancestors to quarry those blue very distinctive  stones out of the  Prescelli hills in West Wales, and then to drag them all the way to Salisbury plain? It now turns out that they were originally erected as an earlier circle in Wales and then later on translocated to Salisbury plain to join  the circle of huge dolmens recently there.   What was the point of such colossal labour? One suggestion is that the blue stone circle was a tribal depository of the memorials of departed ancestors. When the considerably grander edifice of Stonehenge attracted much wider significance and authority the Welsh ancestral centre was amalgamated  with the it and the blue stones transferred with their weight of local heroic memories to share the commemorative rites and ceremonies of Stonehenge. (A similar transaction took place in  1228  at Old Sarum when the old Cathedral was relocated from the bleak Norman fortification to its present site  on a curve of the river Avon a mile to the South. The Shrine of St Osmund with his bones was re-erected in the shell of the lady chapel and much of the ashlar from the Old Sarum site used to build the new Cathedral. ) A mile north of the Stonehenge ring of immense sarsen standing stones there is an ancient  circular ditch and slope enclosing a wide arena  called Durrington Walls. The most remarkable feature of this site is a large rubbish dump of animal bones which bear the marks of knives and teeth, apparently the refuse from a regular series of tribal feasts. There is a gateway out of the Durrington encampment which opens onto a ceremonial avenue leading down to the river Avon. the a mile further down the river there is another ceremonial avenue leading up to Stonehenge. It goes uphill for several hundred yards and then takes a sharp dog leg turn to the west. This aligns it exactly with the central heel stone  and a narrow gap between two standing stones on the far side between which the setting sun will shine at the equinox.

 The most suggested explanation of this newly discovered topography of Stonehenge is that it was designed for a biannual funerary festival at the Spring and Autumn equinox.  Twice a year people from all over the surrounding countryside would come carrying in urns the remains of those who had recently died. They  assembled in the encampment of Durrington Walls for a funeral “wake”, ceremonially feasting on barbecued meats. Having  deposited all the animal bones tidily on the dump outside the wall, they would then carry the remains of their loved ones down to the river, place them on rafts or boats and float them down the river for a mile. When they came level with Stonehenge they would disembark and then process up the avenue, round the dog-leg corner just in time to catch the rays of the setting sun over the heel stone. They would then leave the remains of their deceased friends or leaders inside the henge to “waken” to the rising sun the following morning. A neolithic launching pad into the Milky Way.

I don’t know how widely this scenario is supported by archaeologists, but it makes a lot of sense. It also provides a  convincing explanation for the motivation of globally widely separated cultures who erected standing stones or their equivalents with an inexplicably immense expenditure of time, resources and labour but with no practical advantage. An archaeologist visiting Stonehenge from Madagascar remarked without surprise that within living memory there were still communities there erecting stone or wooden post circles to commemorate the departed. The most spectacular and extensively excavated archaeological arena is the Nile valley in Egypt, a witness for four thousand years to the immense architectural endeavour of many dynasties driven by the gravitational field of force generated by a universal belief in a life beyond death to which access was given by the right funerary rites performed by the priests and Pharaohs they served.

In a year when over 100,000 people in the UK have died of Covid the immediate haunting urgency of the appeal of the dead to the hearts of the living is painfully acute. There is no reassuring echo from their dying as there is from the heroism of those who died fighting for their country. Those we commemorate with medals and solemn music every year, but in this time of plague there is nothing but waste. We cannot do anything to bring our heroes back, but will honour them with public rituals to speed them on their way to a mythical Further Shore, as a public affirmation that their deaths were not just more wasted lives   If we know in our hearts that that  imagined land is no more than a fantasy of deluded wish-fulfilment the agony of bereavement is even more intense, because it means that all our dearest loves, our finest heroes and our greatest saints will finally leave no trace in the long records of planet earth, or the Milky Way.  As the Russian Contakion for the Dead puts it : “Dust you are,  unto dust you shall return, and weeping o’er the grave we make our song. Alleluiah!” We dare not allow ourselves to think that the grave is just a rubbish dump. Something endures.

A popular  TV series on the BBC is called The Repair Shop. A team of expert craftsmen and women have been assembled to repair the precious but damaged heirlooms of visitors who come from far and wide. The variety is endless. Childhood toys, teddy bears, fob watches, violins, broken vases, a leather wallet, a nursing chair, a cradle –  these heirlooms are precious not for any market value, which is never mentioned, but for the intense emotional investment of family or childhood associations.  Over and over again the returning visitors affirm with tearful gratitude that their forebears are “looking down” with fond approval from some heavenly balcony at their descendants’ thoughtfulness. Many resurrected items are greeted with tears of joy.  As one craftsman commented, “This is a very emotional job!” Yet far more heart- breaking is Homer’s vision of the wraith of  Achilles wandering  for ever among the thronging of shadows of the dead in Hades.

One way or another the vast majority of human beings has tried desperately to believe that our dying is not a full stop, but somehow a semicolon beyond which the text of humankind will extend. The minority – the enlightened humanist intelligentsia – know with resigned certainty that that is a religious delusion. Philip Larkin is their anointed spokesman. His Aubade, which many critics judge the finest poem of his time, a ruthless and searingly truthful account of the existential terror of  his impending annihilation. Alongside it we might quote his An Arundel Tomb, where he contemplates the disintegrating effigy of a mediaeval knight in armour lying beside his wife and lightly holding her hand. It ends: What will survive of us is love. But how can love survive if there is no lover nor a beloved?  Much of the most poignant and beautiful poetry in any language reflects the heartache of impending or present loss: lost beauty, lost life, lost glory, lost hope, lost future, lost home, lost memory, and with that loss all our loves are lost. Lost Paradise too: Et in Arcadia Ego. Death has the last word.The  ancient world was only too aware of the transience and fragility of human kind, accepting the forlorn truth that poems and portraits and sculptures last much longer than their artists , perhaps for many centuries.  Vita brevis, Ars longa, yes, but not for ever.  Shelley’s Ozymondias is a cautionary text for tyrants. All that remains of the King of king’s vast statue are two immense disintegrating legs in a trackless desert.

Nevertheless widespread global popular beliefs in some kind of after-life continue to outnumber the Enlightenment humanists who reckon that such credulity is just a dwindling reverberation from the  institutions of Christendom or from the superstitions of other faiths. Yet  many convinced Christians are also determined champions of the Enlightenment,  a lot of them leading figures in the scientific world, some of them my close friends. Einstein was not a religious man but he was very aware of the “spiritual” dimensions of human life, and was unwilling to banish “God” from his world view. Philosophers  continue to hold heated debates about atheism, but the arguments are no longer so bleak and one-sided as they were in the last century. This may be due to one strand of thought,  the concept of “intrinsic value”.

The traditional scheme was that things have value for a number of different reasons: they are useful, or socially desirable, agreed contractually, or culturally admired, and so forth. Metals like gold are valued because we have put price tags on them. When the treasure ships arrived in Europe from the Americas loaded with  cargoes of bullion the value of the metal dropped sharply.   Philosophers have begun to argue more intensely about the recognition that some things or people having intrinsic value, that is a value that is not dependent on market forces or dependent on their economic utility or on  contractual obligations. Unlike gold the value of human life is not diminished when the global population grows. Life is precious in some other sense, so Buddhist monks take care not to step on ants by  accident. We have suddenly become aware of  the irreplaceable ecosystems of our planet. When animals, plants or insects approach the point of extinction we devote immense amounts of scarce resources to trying saving them, not because they may turn out to be useful but because  their simple existence is somehow intrinsically important. Are pandas more precious than cockroaches? Or elephants ? Size is not everything. If they are intrinsically precious do they also have “rights”? How do we settle disputes between conflicting “rights”? People talk about human life being “sacred” but we don’t really know what that means. We have turned our back on eugenics; abortion is an ethical battle ground because the “sacred” right to life of a handicapped  unborn foetus is in conflict with the “sacred” right of its mother to choose a life not burdened by a lifetime of  caring for it. Is there a hierarchy of sacrednesses, and if so who decides the pecking order? For millennia religions have been self appointed arbiters of ethics, but the price lists in their menus of prohibitions or commands are irrational or look bizarre to outsiders. “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk” looks somehow less important than “Thou shalt not kill.” Does “God” command things because they are right, or are they right  because God commands them?  If the first, by what faculty do we judge things to be “right”? Abraham once challenged God over the proposed destruction of Sodom. “Shall not the Lord of all the earth do right?” We are drawn to The Repair Shop  because we intuitively recognise that the links of  human relationships which it highlights are intrinsically precious not because they are part of a social contract or divine commands.  Philip Larkin despairingly concludes, “What will survive of us is love”.  But his philosophy has no rational room for such a sentimental notion.

Christianity has survived because it is founded on the primal affirmation, God is love. The simplest Christian creed is this:

God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore we have hope.

St John writes in his first letter, “God is love and anyone who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them”. That is a foundation text for belief in an “abiding” relationship  with our Creator who is outside time. John is able to make that startling affirmation because he has himself been enfolded in the Christ-love,  the same self authenticating  personal certainty that Jesus of Nazareth had with his “Abba Father”. John has Jesus affirming, “I and the Father are One.” Jesus “abides” in the Father,  the Father “abides” in Jesus, and both Jesus and the Father “abide” in the Jesus people. John is writing of his own personal, authentic experience of being loved. It is as unquestionable as beauty.

By what faculty  do we judge Jesus (or the Spirit of Jesus) to be our touchstone for  spiritual authenticity, the one who said I am the Way, the Life and the Truth? It is the same intuitive faculty by which we judge a Schubert Quintet or a Rembrandt portrait or a Michaelangelo sculpture to be surpassingly beautiful. They have a unique intrinsic value which is only metaphorically reflected in their saleroom price. We know that our intuitive faculties need to be trained just as our musical or artistic talents require prolonged practice and development. We have to learn from experts – Schools of Music or Art Schools – how to hear, how to see what is already there in the work of art and how to perform and to recognise what makes a great performance. Just so we have to learn in the Christian community and from theologians how to read the Bible, and from the saints how to listen to the Spirit,  how to pray,  how to worship and how to put love into action. “What will survive of us is love” has an entirely new meaning, beyond the stone figures so touchingly holding hands in Arundel Abbey. It now means being hand in hand with Jesus the risen Christ.

Even the wisest among us has no idea how this can be true in a world which has so many vile people, so many tortured people, so many wasted lives, so much misery.

The saints tell us that their experience of this love is as unquestionable as their awareness of being conscious. But they also tell us that this “love” which they experience is only a metaphor of the indescribable otherness of the Divine in which all our local paradoxes are infinitely surpassed, rather as a colour TV surpasses the old black and white, or as quantum entanglement contradicts the possibilities of Newton’s dimensions. It is certainly frustrating to be unable to give an account to questioners for the faith that is in us, but it is reassuring to be confident that the dreams and myths underlying Homer and Stonehenge and the tears shed in the Repair Shop are vindicated in the end.

The Very Revd Hugh Dickinson was Dean of Salisbury Cathedral from 1986 until his retirement in 1996. Through his leadership and vision, governors and trustees founded Sarum College in 1995, a year after the closure of Salisbury & Wells Theological College. The photo of Hugh was taken during his address to mark Sarum College’s 20th Anniversary in September 2015 (ashmills.com).

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