Here we are again, friends, entering into the holy season of Lent.
Once again, Paul Claudel is accompanying me — nay, leading me, on our long walk toward the Cross of Christ. Many times I have cited Claudel’s book, A Poet Before the Cross, over the past four years. See Lenten Reading, Say What You Mean, The Reality of It All, No Forced Faith, Lent is Approaching, and Entering Holy Week 2010.
Yet like the Sacred Scripture Claudel so deeply reveres, or a friend or spouse whose warmth and complexity constantly reveal new delights, A Poet Before the Cross has a similar ability to point us to Christ in new ways each lenten season.
What of this, today? More than can be said! Begin with Claudel’s almost parenthetical phrase, buried in a footnote, which reminds us during Lent to attend to our “works of mercy, which will give us the right to complete our course in the exterminating presence of time” (footnote 11, pp. 15-16). “The exterminating presence of time.” How could one not hear the echoes of yesterday, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Therefore “repent, and believe the Gospel.”
Or who could scorn a writer, in love with Sacred Scripture, who plainly asserts “we should humbly admit with the Church and the Fathers that the Bible is the word of God, and the Holy Spirit is the constant inspirer who from one end to the other guided the pen and mobilized the vocation of diverse writers.” Yet Claudel moves between dogmatic assertion (welcomed, in this era of Bible-doubters) and poetic, metaphorical visions that sweep us into our Lord’s presence.
For example, Claudel’s affirmation of God’s revelation in Scripture was preceded by one of the loveliest possible meditations on the lily of the valley, the Chalice, and the Cross! The three end up so intertwined, the mind’s eye sees Christ suspended as Infinite Chalice on the Cross, arms upraised but with the incarnate weight of his Holy Body draped between them — like the slender stem of a lily, beneath the bowl formed by His arms, arms capable of containing and embracing the entire world (1 Timothy 2:3-6).
Or what of a writer who so gracefully describes Sacred Scripture as “vast synclinal areas” (p. 12)? Synclinal? Indeed! “Inclined down from opposite directions, so as to meet.” Is our Bible not a book composed by numerous authors, in diverse places over many centuries, yet one Story? Does this syncline not also picture the meeting of our sin and God’s grace? But is this syncline not also a reminder of Claudel’s meditation on the Lily, through which moment and accident are drawn-up into meaning? “On that elongated stem which it uses to reach to the bottom, to draw up life through the moment and the accident, the flower [we might say Flower] . . . opens to the planned arrangement of a concentric universe” (p. 7).
God’s providential care! Apparent moment and accident are drawn up into our sight, to examine and “come to knowledge of the truth,¹” by showing all that happens is arranged in a coherent, loving whole in the Cross of Christ. We see from both sides of the syncline now, to the point where the moments and accidents of our lives meet Christ. Do we suffer? He suffered. Do we feel alone? He was infinitely alone.² Do we feel unfairly treated? He received the unfairest treatment of all. Yet He has already won the victory over this and more, for us!
May your Lenten season begin, as mine, with this sense of wonder at God’s Love, as we walk toward the Cross of our Redeemer — the Love that reconciles all, explains all, and sustains all.³
¹ 1 Timothy 2:4 again