I am emerging – trying to emerge – from my ‘narrow space’, my sense of constriction. Over the last few months some of you have contacted me: ‘Where’s your blog gone? We need something in these difficult times’ – so I realise I am not alone in feeling in Mitzrayim/Egypt, feeling the power of the mythic narrative of enslavement, the hard daily living of that existential condition that the etymology of Mitzrayim/Egypt evokes: narrowness, constriction, entrapment.
So the festival of Passover/Pesach arrives – and this year concurrently with the drama of Easter: stories about suffering and despair followed by the miraculous transformation of life; when all appears lost, and yet new life, new possibilities, spring from the darkness. These stories offer the seductive framework of a narrative with which we can identify: they move us from oppression and suffering to liberation, to a new sense of freedom. But is this what we experience? The undeserved arrival of the God of Surprises (as the Catholic spiritual teacher Gerard Hughes named it)? Are we that blessed? Are we that open? Is the myth still alive, and resonating?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. What I know is the narrowness – I have been trapped by my inadequacy in dealing with my dependence on technology (computer issues, internet and broadband issues, that world in which I am immersed and feels like an extension of my very self, so that my well-being depends on its smooth functioning); trapped by the body’s ageing, and the always present awareness of dependence on its own organic functioning, the taking-for-granted of physical well-being, until suddenly all is not well and although not serious, our common frail humanity is starkly revealed – and with it comes the helplessness, the powerlessness, and the question of who to turn to?
So I know the narrowness of living in Mitzrayim/Egypt. And I know too that we each have our own personal Mitzrayim/Egypt. But also that there is a sense that our personal entrapment and constriction and narrowing of horizons is mirrored in what we see around us: political and social forces that oppress people’s well-being – and the list can seem endless: the crises in the UK in the NHS and in social care and prisons and education, no area of life unaffected by the poverty of imagination, and the lack of generosity, and sometimes the systemic aggression, of the powerful and wealthy, as well as our ongoing national trauma of the narrowing of our future hopes because of Brexit.
And the concentric circles of concern, that ache in our bones, are known to us all: Europe’s increased populism and racism, and America’s; the destruction of species and natural resources and the air we breathe; Putin’s and Trump’s threatening grandiosity, and calculated (or impulsive) braggadocio, millions on the move, random terror, wars without end – our lives touched or not touched – but we can’t shut out what we know. The unthought known: Mitzrayim in us. The list is too painful to contemplate – but it all increases our sense of uneasiness, helplessness, fearfulness. It all adds up to our collective Mitzrayim/Egypt.
In the mythic narrative that underlies the Pesach story of liberation, our storytellers took a bold gamble when they wrote: “And the Israelites were groaning under their slavery and they cried out, and their cries from the midst of their oppression rose up to God and God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and God saw the Israelites and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23-4). Why was this a gamble? Because it means that every generation now wonder about their own oppression, their own inner experience of Mitzrayim/Egypt, their own “groaning” and “cries” (in whatever form they come), and they wonder: ‘What’s happened to the covenant? Does God any longer see and know what we poor struggling human beings go through?’.
Historically, Jews have often been eternal optimists that this story still contains a timeless message of hope: that somehow, in ways we don’t understand, the divine energy that animates the universe is still in operation and oppression can and will give way to renewed life and openness and well-being. But we Jews are also skilled in disillusion – skilled in asking difficult questions about salvation. For we ask: so how does liberation happen today? who takes responsibility for it? are we waiting passively for salvation from some divine force outside ourselves? or do we have to liberate from within ourselves our own powers, our own capacities to transform hardship into hope, our own compassionate ability to see and know, our own passion for justice?
Are we ready to take the mythic narrative of the Exodus seriously enough to internalise it and recognise that this divine energy that the storytellers of old projected outside themselves in the service of an inspirational narrative of how liberation from oppression happens – this divine energy is an energy within us?
Are we ready for that?
We all carry a wound, deep and scary and scarring. It’s part of our modern condition. Jews are not alone in bearing the scars of the 20th century, the wounds of modernity. This wound is a universal spiritual trauma, barely recognised. That wound is being pressed on every day. We feel a pain, undiagnosed but present. From where, from whom, will healing come?
In 1965, in his poem ‘The Cave of Making’, the poet W.H.Auden wrote some lines – filled with wisdom and hope, shadowed with ambiguity - which are accompanying me in these days that lead us into these shared festivals of pain and liberation, Pesach/Passover and Easter:
More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
but we shan’t, not since Stalin
trust ourselves ever again: we
know that, subjectively,
all is possible.
May this be a season when we resurrect the miraculous nature of being – in ourselves and for others.