Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Lear and the Psalms

Today I ran into a powerful section of poetry in the play King Lear. The play shows the plague of evil beating down the nation, beating down love, and especially beating down the king. When he enters the last scene of the play, his first words are:

KING LEAR Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'ld use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives

Even though the faint whispers of possible redemption waft through the final lines of this selection, for Cordelia is certainly dead and the madness is creeping through the King. Even when you find that one of the villains has perished and Albany notes

All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings. O, see, see!

quickly followed by

KING LEAR And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

Even though he's traversed this sod 'fore, his madness continues to see redemption beyond the next moment. Notice Ps 88 (I've removed the verse numbers).

O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah) You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Selah) Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.

This Psalm of lament isn't resolved simply or easily. We aren't left with a warm, fuzzy answer that puts us to sleep. This passage, just as King Lear's lines above aren't answers to our questions, but simply explorations of it. And that exploration is an answer in itself. Just as Lear is still looking for redemption at the end, the Psalmist is still praying, still crying out day by day. Albany's attempt to make it look a little more just fails. When we read the Psalms, we live in the same tension between now and not-yet, but now we're part of the not-yet. It makes us yearn for home all the more, but suffering cannot be ignored or justified or set aside. It is meant to be lived, knowing all along that 'her breath will mist or stain the stone'. How do we know this? Because He lives.

Note: See this great post on handling tragedy in the church.

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